Even though Latino workers in California have won substantial wage increases over the past 25 years, the gap between their average annual income and those of all other workers in the state has widened, according to a September report from the California Budget Project.

In 2003, Latino workers typically received 61 cents for every dollar that other ethnic groups earned, the report said. The gap would be even more severe except for the fact that Latinos’ wages have risen by 20 percent since 1995, a rate of increase twice that of non-Latino workers.

The wage disparity manifests itself among workers of all educational backgrounds, although more highly educated Latinos typically earn between 43 percent and 50 percent more than those with less education, and Latinos born in the U.S. tend to make more than their counterparts who emigrated from other countries. The lowest paid workers are first-generation immigrants, who make up almost 64 percent of the Latino workforce in the state.

Low wages are responsible for pushing Latino families into poverty in numbers far out of proportion to their population. The report states that Latinos headed three out of five poor households in California in 2002. During the same year, more than half of households with a child less than 18 years old earned wages that were 200 percent below the federal poverty level.

Unionized Latino workers are in a significantly better situation. Latino union workers make 156 percent more in wages than nonunion Latinos, although this figure has dropped since 1995, when those in unions earned 172 percent more than their nonunion counterparts.

The economic state of Latinos is even more precarious in view of the crisis in health care. Most Latino workers in low-paying jobs — the great majority — have no job-related medical benefits. To make matters worse, on Sept. 18 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have increased the minimum wage.

Latinos constitute nearly one-third of California’s workforce, the report said. Twenty-five years ago, they comprised only 15 percent. It is expected that by the year 2020, Latinos will constitute a majority of the state’s workers.

Trade unionists and community activists point out that getting a better education, by itself, is no guarantee of a higher income. Union representation is decisive. Many observers also stress the importance of engaging in political struggle to replace elected officials who oppose union representation, universal health care and a living wage.

The full text of the California Budget Project report is available at www.cbp.org.

The author can be reached at j.a.cruz@comcast.net.