On Sept. 30, eight professors at General Theological Seminary were fired for exercising their basic (and legal!) rights as faculty members and as workers: the right to form a union. They demanded to meet to address issues that created a “hostile work environment."
Their firing doesn’t just impact the professors, but the students and future leaders of the Church. As custodians and overseers of an institution charged with nurturing the next generation of Episcopalian leaders, it is the Board of Trustees’ responsibility to lead by example and practice worker relations that align with the values of the Church and honor workers’ legal and moral rights.
At the 2102 General Convention, the Episcopal Church resolved to build networks in the labor movement and work with those in the labor movement to strengthen for a more just society, pledged to oppose legislative attempts that eliminate or reduce collective bargaining rights and consider union rights when making purchasing and contracting decisions. Given the Episcopal Church’s explicate opposition to retaliation and support of workers’ right to organize.
By refusing to fully reinstate the GTS8 (all the updates are here), GTS has failed to live out its religious values. Worker advocates are turning to the Presiding Bishop and Episcopal Church for leadership and accountability. What the Board of Trustees has done wrong, the Church can make right. We say to Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori: It's time to step in; push for full reinstatement of the GTS8!
As the Deputy Director of IWJ, I’ve encountered my fair share of unscrupulous corporate bosses who strip workers of their rights and dignity on the job. As a faithful Episcopalian and divinity school graduate, whose experience of church and seminary led me to my vocation, I never imagined the day when I’d find myself rallying against leaders of the Church’s oldest seminary.
On Oct. 17, the GTS Board of Trustees ruled against pleas — from students, clergy, worker advocates and concerned people of faith — to fully reinstate the GTS8.
What the board of trustees has done is wrong. The Presiding Bishop can make this right. Episcopalians, seminarians, clergy, people of faith and worker rights advocates all over the country are waiting for her to act. The GTS8 deserve nothing less than full reinstatement.
I’ve started a weekly television show on CAN-TV called Good Works Chicago. If you are in Chicago, watch it on Channel 21 on Tuesdays at 4:30 to 4:55 p.m. This past Tuesday, I interviewed Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau, founder and owner of Dimo’s pizza. What a great company!
Dimo’s is a locally owned pizzeria with a little under 50 employees and two serving locations; in the Wrigleyville neighborhood at 3463 N. Clark St. and another in Six Corners at 1615 N. Damen Ave. Dimo’s began in its Wrigleyville location in 2008, then known as Ian’s Pizza. In 2012, it evolved into Dimo’s and began heavily focusing on the impact it could make on workers, customers and the community.
Dimo’s sees pizza as its platform to reach out and help improve the lives of those around them. Besides creating hot and delicious pizza, Dimo’s is passionate about contributing to Chicago public schools, advocating for bike safety, and supporting local artists.
Fair treatment of workers is a primary value. All workers are paid significantly above the minimum wage because workers start above the regular minimum wage (not the tipped minimum wage) and also earn tips that range from $2-$6 per hour. Employees receive employer provided health insurance and paid time off. There is a clear path to increase one’s wages by learning more skills. Dimitri’s emphasized that “you can’t self-actualize and grow when you are worried about yourself. You want to pay [employees] enough that they don’t have to worry.” He also noted that “human capital is the most valuable asset.”
Dimo’s is currently hiring and looking for employees that value uncompromising quality, hard work, opportunity, innovation, laughter, and the planet. Career opportunities for Dimo’s can be found at online.
Do you know someone that I should be talking to on my show? The Good Works Chicago program interviews employers who:
- Pay workers above the norm, because they believe that workers’ pay should lift them out of poverty and they want to retain valuable employees. The actual amount workers are paid varies greatly by sector and the length of the time the company has been in business.
- Provide some benefits and are seeking to add more.
- Encourage workers to have a voice in the workplace.
- Offer training and opportunities for advancement to workers.
- Hire and promote a diverse workforce.
If you would like to recommend someone for us to interview on air, or would like more information email Sarah Avery.
Photo Courtesy: Dimo's Pizza
Last week, affiliates from IWJ's worker center network came from all across the country and met in D.C. (we actually stayed up in Bethesda, M.D. at a beautiful retreat facility) for an organizing and capacity-building training and worker advocacy day on the Hill.
Overall, we had a great time. We gathered about 20 worker-leaders and organizers from the network to discuss big ideas like "leadership development" and fundraising. Together we shared more specific and personal experiences about the work we do back home. We talked about our history, the lies our teachers told us and about our movement history that wasn't even in the curriculum.
One of the best things about being a part of a large national network is—of course—being connected across the country! During the training, everyone bonded quickly. Between old friends and new ones, we all made connections (even across language barriers with the help of some fabulous interpreters)! Connections outside the training room reminded us how small the world truly is (we ran into Tim Beaty at the Teamsters, who's helping with Kim's big event in December).
Up on the Hill, we got what one Congressman's staffer jokingly referred to as the "real D.C. experience," which is running around the Hill, rushing to meet with members of Congress wherever we could...even in the hallway!
I felt very fortunate to spend those few days in the company of such fearless, talented leaders and organizers. At the end of our final training session, we each shared some things we'd learned, felt and committed to do once we went home. I'm excited to mobilize as many allies as possible to support the awesome worker centers in the network as they shape their national fight against wage theft, protecting payroll choices and securing Paystubs for All!
My Staples reward card isn’t getting used lately.
Recently the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) protested a trial postal (USPS) program at Staples. The program benefits Staples, a large office supply chain store that has shown sales losses of more than 5 percent during the last year. However, it also means that work done by union postal workers is being done by non-union workers at Staples. The APWU has called a boycott of Staples to send a message of solidarity with the union workers.
The American Federation of Teachers, with 1.6 million members, approved a resolution to boycott Staples, according to the Wall Street Journal. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), representing another 1.6 million public-sector workers, also adopted the boycott.
Back in July, both the USPS and Staples confirmed for WSJ that the Staples trial program would be discontinued! This clearly shows the power of 3 million union consumers in solidarity with APWU members. But since then, the APWU has indicated that none of the fundamental concerns of the union have been addressed, and the program has been replaced by an almost identical one with a new name.
Money talks. When it comes to the teacher’s union, it’s a lot of money talking. A year ago, the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA) disclosed that during the previous year, public school teachers had spent $3.2 billion for class materials and $1.6 billion of that money came out of the teachers’ own pockets!
I am reminded that an author identified as “the Teacher” wrote about solidarity in the Hebrew Scriptures:
Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastics 4:12)
In the boycott led by these three unions we continue to see this teaching proven true once again.
The APWU will boycott until they see evidence that the outsourcing of their members’ work to non-union employers, like Staples, has stopped. The U.S. Mail Is Not for Sale. That’s why I’m headed to the nearest Post Office to do my mailing.
Pam is a seminarian who joined Interfaith Worker Justice this summer for clinical pastoral education and reflecting each week on her experiences.
As the tragic events continue to unfold in Ferguson, Mo, we have struggled in anger and frustration and lamented with a family and community broken by a system of oppression, economic injustice and racism.
Today the Guardian reminded those of us who work to bring about economic justice for all workers that our struggle is deeply connected to the nation's legacy of racism. Ferguson, like many Black communities, has existed for years through a system of economic inequality. The economic marginalization of entire communities is directly related to the continued creation of economic policies that uphold white privilege and benefit white communities.
Ferguson is no Gothamesque slum of crumbling tenements and crack dens. It is a working class suburb of single-family homes and low-rise apartment blocks which used to be a gateway to the middle class. Manufacturing jobs offered decent wages and there was a decent public school system.
Something went wrong. You see it in the physical landscape of potholes and pawn brokers. And in the desperation. Some of it quiet: a mother counting out pennies, dimes and quarters to buy ice cream for her two children in McDonald’s. Some of it more dramatic: the owner of a burger bar bolting out onto the street after a skinny, grubby young man with shattered teeth. “You took from the tip jar! I saw you! Give it back.”
A major culprit is de-industrialisation. Missouri is part of the rustbelt of shuttered factories which arcs across the midwest.
Every community deserves access to good jobs, but, as our Black brothers and sisters know, we have failed to create policies that provide economic conditions for everyone to thrive. As we reflect on the shooting and the larger connections between race and class struggle, we are reminded that our fight uplift the dignity of all work is important now as ever.
Some 47% of African American men aged 16-24 in St Louis county are unemployed. Even that understates the economic crisis since many of those who do have jobs, men and women, earn a pittance in service jobs. “It used to be McDonnell Douglas was considered a good job. Now it’s McDonald’s,” said Teresa Mithen Danieley, rector of an episcopal church.
What is happening in Ferguson, Mo is tragic, and the system of economic and racial injustice will remain if we don't work tirelessly with our brothers and sisters to build an economy and society rooted in love. Our faith traditions share a vision where workers have access to good jobs that provides the means for a strong family life and full participation in society; where our families are entitled to vibrant and thriving communities; and where our streets and neighborhoods are safe from violence and from oppression by the state.
Together we pray with words but also with actions that we can build that society. We're called to advocate for an economy that invests in our communities, and those in roles of authority respect the humanity of the people they serve.
Photo courtsey: Sipa USA/Rex
By Anne Burkhardt
At Interfaith Worker Justice we’ve been searching for ethical employers to profile on an upcoming television show. It amazes me how difficult it’s been to find employers in low-wage sectors that treat their workers well. In many of these industries, wage theft is the norm. It is far more common to find restaurants and construction companies and other companies in low-wage sectors that do steal from their workers than those that do not.
So when we do find these employers, it’s so encouraging to talk them. These folks genuinely care about their employees and genuinely want them to have better lives through their work!
Kim and I met with two really marvelous employers in Chicago area. Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique owner, Teresa, left a career in finance to attend Le Cordon Bleu and then started a catering business, which turned into a storefront in downtown Chicago.
Part of the way that Teresa developed her business model was based on her experiences as an employee in finance. She said she was barely aware of the common treatment in the food service industry, like the $2 tipped wage. All of her employees started in 2009 at the minimum wage, but as the business grew, Teresa paid her employees more. Now, all of them make far above the minimum wage. Most employees have access to benefits, too, including health insurance, dental, vision, paid sick days, paid maternity leave.
And more than that: she treats her employees like family, making sure that there’s flexible scheduling, semiannual reviews with raises, and staff outings for paintballing, kayaking and friendship. It’s truly incredible when you realize how different Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique’s workplace standards are from the rest of the industry.
Like Teresa, Pete of I Have A Bean coffee company left a career in another field – Pete left the tech industry. After a mission trip to South America and a newly developed love for coffee—followed by his brother-in-law’s arrest (and subsequent difficulty in finding or keeping a job)—Pete was inspired to start his own coffee company. I Have a Bean exclusively hires post-prison people. Pete has some inspiring stories about successes: stories of people who were hired at Second Chance Coffee (as it’s also known) and went on to become leaders of nonprofit prison missionary organizations, or find other types of work suited to their skills.
Both Pete and Teresa started their own businesses, which is no small feat. And when the time came to choose how to treat their people, they looked at the bottom line and chose respect and justice, not wage theft and dehumanization. This is a business model that works, and works well!
Anne's reflection is part of our summer series of reflections from IWJ Interns. Anne is interning with Interfaith Worker Justice this summer working to get to know Ethical Employers like Theresa and Pete.
By Kara Komprathoum
I left my home in Massachusetts this summer to work for IWJ’s national office in Chicago. I never thought I would be missing out on a front row seat to the incredible worker organizing at the DeMoulas Family-owned supermarket chain Market Basket. I am proud that workers in New England are rising up and that a number of my friends have taken part (check out the video explaining the complicated story).
Workers are organizing to protect their good pay and benefits by urging the company’s board to reinstate the former CEO, Arthur T. DeMoulas. Workers are rallying for Arthur T. DeMoulas and reminding the region about what a responsible CEO looks like. The power they’re building is what happens when dedicated workers organize to make sure their pay and their benefits are respected and protected.
The majority of organizing and support has been online and though social media. There are a number Facebook pages dedicated to the movement and many people have all shared their stories about how Market Basket has positively impacted their lives through the benefits of being an employee, medical insurance and low-cost groceries. Market Basket workers and customers really want to see the store maintained in a values-based business that cares more about people then it does its profits.
I came to intern with IWJ this because I had an incredible amount of fondness for community organizing and the power it has for making change. To watch not only the employers of Market Basket but customers stand in solidarity for what is right is something that is inspiring.
IWJ is currently working to develop relationships with ethical employers who value employees, treat them with dignity and respect, and reflect those values in employee pay, benefits and working conditions. When I started my time at IWJ, I had thought good labor ethics probably only occurred with smaller businesses where it could be well maintained and managed. I was shocked to find that the good labor practices were happening right at home at the Market Basket chain. I was even more surprised to find that employers were so satisfied with their pay and benefits that the moment they saw a threat to this, they fought back and are still fighting the good fight.
IWJ and our allies in the region will be keeping an eye on the work of the Market Basket workers and pray for a resolution that maintains their positive working conditions, good pay and good benefits.
Kara's reflection is part of our summer series of reflections from IWJ Interns. Kara is interned with Interfaith Worker Justice at our national office in Chicago. Photo courtesy: Market Basket and Boston Herald.
By Amelia Decker
After six weeks of research, planning, one-on-one conversations, re-planning, meetings, phone calls and emails, a round table conversation was held in Sioux Falls, S.D. to discuss the upcoming ballot measure that could raise the statewide minimum wage. Throughout the summer I had many conversations and listened to all of the perspectives in favor and against the change. I have become accustomed to the question, “Do you think it will pass?”
“Yes,” I respond. I do think it will pass. I think it will pass because people here care for one another, especially for the poorest in their community. They care, and that leads them to advocacy and action. With advocacy and action from the faith community, I believe South Dakota will see a win for minimum-wage workers.
The round table gathering late last month confirmed what I suspected to be true. In a one-party-controlled state, conversations appearing (or outrightly are) political can have daunting and serious implications, especially in communities of faith. Yet, despite these dynamics, the gathering was filled with leaders who wanted to talk about raising the minimum wage. Representing more than a half dozen denominations, and as diverse in age as one could hope for, they talked of their connection to the community as clergy, laity, city council, unions, Democrat, Republican, and perhaps most importantly, workers.
Faith leaders voiced their hopes for action within their congregations. They recognized and named challenges, but more importantly, recognized and named the power faith communities build by working together. As such, it was clear the conversation needed to be continued, and another meeting was set to do so again in this month.
So, yes. I do think Initiated Measure 18 will pass. Leaders in this community not only care, but know that they must take action. They have long been serving the poorest members of the community, and why they will continue to meet this fall in order to lift up workers and families who can be brought out of poverty by an increase in minimum wage.
As my work as an IWJ intern winds down, it is clear that the work for the faith community of Sioux Falls is only just beginning! This community will certainly be one to continue watching.
Amelia was an intern with IWJ's Summer Internship Program, and spend her summer working with faith communities in South Dakota to support the passage of Initiated Measure 18 to raise the state's minimum wage.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. —James 5:4
The Moral Challenge
Excitement filled the air when President Obama announced in January 2014, that he would sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour. The President signed an Executive Order raising the wage and challenged corporations and business owners to follow his lead. As the largest creator of low-wage jobs in the country, the federal government is in a position to lead by example.
Several corporations, states, and local municipalities have voluntarily raised their minimum wages, both before and in response to the President’s challenge. According to the United States Department of Labor, twenty-two states have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. In contrast, five states have no statewide minimum wage law, leaving many workers in those states unprotected by a wage floor of any kind. These five states are all located in the Southeast U.S. where historic low wage jobs and poverty remain pervasive.
It is a moral challenge to our nation where inequality is growing and wages are stagnating, to affirm the work, worth, and value of each human being who desires to be and/or is engaged in the workforce. The bible reminds us that the Lord God cares about the treatment of workers. The writer of James challenges the communal values of the rich, declaring that they are consumed with holding on to the remnants of their wealth while their workers are defrauded of their wages.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. -- James 5:1-6
This ancient text speaks to our modern context, where many persons in our nation, including the wealthy, are guilty of stealing from the poorest workers and denying them the basic dignity of a living wage. A living wage is more than a minimum wage. It is a wage that sustains workers and families in a safe, decent standard of living. While multinational corporations are paying millions of dollars in “severance packages” to CEOs who have failed their companies, the majority of the workers in the same company can work their entire lives and never earn the same amount of money. The power of the passage written by James is that he ties our human attitudes about worker justice, then and now, to the Lord’s judgment.
Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. -- James 5:4-5
The privileged position of employers and their excessive power over workers is the struggle. Our culture permits the belief that cheap goods and corporate profit are more important than livelihoods and that workers deserve far less than what is adequate to live. But greed is a sin. The significant message of hope to those who are poor and working for poverty wages is that God hears their lament.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness (OPW) is partnering with Interfaith for Worker Justice, Good Jobs Nation, and other groups concerned about worker justice to demand better jobs. We challenge the notion that $10.10 per hour is enough to provide persons, especially those supporting families, with a decent living. Indeed, $10.10 per hour only just raises a family of four above the poverty line.
I know that the President’s authority only extends so far and that Congress must act to improve jobs and wages for all workers, but I was disappointed that President Obama did not exercise his power over the federal labor force to its fullest extent. His $10.10 executive order covers service workers, such as those in concessions, health care and construction, but it leaves out federal contract workers who serve our airports and the Pentagon, as well as those who work to provide goods, such as uniforms, food, and other supplies. Many of these workers are making far less than the new minimum and have no ability to enter into collective bargaining with companies that refuse to raise their wages. These companies profit immensely and taxpayer dollars go to subsidize excessive CEO compensation rather than ensuring fair wages for the workers. The President can fix this injustice with the stroke of a pen.
Such executive action is not without precedent. During World War II, an “army” of “Rosie the Riveter” workers demanded fair pay and decent working conditions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his executive authority over federal contracts to support these workers and the U.S. emerged from the war with the only standing economy and a strong middle class. Likewise, decades later President Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 established racial non-discrimination practices in hiring federal contract workers, a precursor to the landmark Civil Rights Act. Today, the federal government spends $1.3 trillion in taxpayers’ funds through contracts with private companies. It is only right that jobs created by taxpayers should be good jobs that provide workers with a living, not trap them in poverty.
Our advocacy on behalf of federal contract workers has become more intense in these difficult economic times. In addition to the minimum wage struggle at the federal level, the 220th General Assembly (2012) tasked the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Office of Public Witness with connecting Presbyterians to the work of the United Workers Association (UW) of Baltimore. This workers’ movement is organizing to hold developers that have benefited from public funds, subsidies, and tax incentives accountable to the community for providing living wage jobs and other human rights in communities and workplaces. United Workers is a low-wage workers organization, founded by day laborers in 2002 and a leading voice for human rights in Maryland. Our advocacy was implemented through the Hunger Program’s Fair Development Program.
Scripture admonishes, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8-9). Fair Development means not showing partiality just to the developer, but ensuring wellbeing for everyone in the community. When the government pays for goods and services or subsidizes private business with public funds, it is incumbent on us to ensure those funds ensure fair wages and good livelihoods for the workers, not windfalls for developers and CEOs.
Our self worth ought to be directly tied, through Jesus’ love, to the affirmation of the worth of others. No one should work hard everyday, but still not make enough money to feed her family because she is paid a poverty wage. And through Jesus, my own self-worth is tied up in hers. At least 21 million people—8 million workers and their families—rely on low-wage jobs in the federally supported economy, that is, jobs with firms that receive a significant portion of their revenue from federal funds. Over 70 percent of these workers are women and nearly 45 percent are people of color—which makes the federal government the largest creator of low-wage employment for working women and people of color.
The President must seize the moral courage to lead by example and set a new precedent of good jobs, fair wages, decent benefits, and the right to organize for workers in the U.S. In this way, President Obama could expand the use of his executive authority from the 200,000 workers affected by the $10.10 order, to 8 million workers and their families – an estimated 21 million people in all.But today’s culture teaches us that our self worth is tied to our ability to provide for our family. Health and wellness are associated with owning a decent home, paying for our children’s education, affording a vacation to rest, and maintaining an automobile. When working persons do not earn enough to provide basic needs for themselves and their families, self worth is compromised. Failing to pay just wages is a failure to see God in each other. Allowing our public funds to pay low wages is nothing short of sin. But President Obama has the power to change the marketplace and ensure that no worker whose paycheck comes from the taxpayer lives in poverty.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the twin-headed creature who would on one hand declare that persons who are out of work are shiftless, lazy, and damaged goods while on the other hand use epithets such as “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented worker.” Such hateful rhetoric is both dehumanizing and degrading – no person on earth is “illegal” in God’s eyes, after all – especially when our economy fails to provide enough good jobs for everyone who wants one. At an AFL-CIO meeting in 1961, he said:
“Negroes are almost entirely a working people… Our needs are identical with labor's needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor's demands and fight laws, which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
Congress needs to get serious about improving existing jobs and creating new ones. I spoke with a Presbyterian Campus Minister at a prestigious university who shared with me that many students graduate and are unable to find work in their field of study. This dearth of employment forces them into positions for which they are overqualified, thereby perpetuating a chain reaction of underpay and scarcity of jobs throughout the labor market. Many of these young adults are ashamed to return home to their old bedrooms or parents’ basements because of embarrassment around not meeting family, church, and community expectations. She said,
Oftentimes these young people find themselves having to resort to working on low-wage jobs, while barely able to afford the basic necessities of life. Some who have come from affluent homes are ashamed to return home, because of their deep feeling that they have disappointed those whom they love.
We need to create jobs that provide a living for the workers we have, while also making sure education is available to train workers for the jobs we need.
Likewise, we live in a nation where women are still paid less for doing the same job as a man. I would suggest that we in the Church must be vigilant in our advocacy for equal pay for equal work. However, it is important that we, in the Church, not be guilty of the same injustice with respect to women’s compensation that we are witnessing in the employment sector outside of the Church. There is a significant devaluing of women and the valuable work that God has put in all of our hands – male and female – when the Church legitimizes these same unjust compensation practices in our Pastoral calls and other vocational work.
I realize that there are those in the PC(USA) who are critical of organized labor. But I have worked with the labor movement as a local Pastor to demonstrate for the rights of workers to organize, raise the minimum wage, struggle against violations of workers’ rights, and a host of other worker justice issues and I have seen the power and efficacy of shared struggle. Despite the flaws that are often raised regarding labor unions, it cannot be denied that workers need greater protection and advocates who are willing to sacrifice their comfortable and privileged positions to engage the struggle for jobs and justice in the United States.
Earlier this year, I was in North Carolina marching in a Moral Monday gathering of 80,000 people protesting in front of the North Carolina State Capitol. I was elated to see so many Presbyterians (lay people and clergy, teaching and ruling elders) participating, and even placing their bodies on the line through nonviolent civil disobedience, to declare that teacher pay should not be cut; voting rights should be expanded for people and not diminished for the sake of expanding corporate power; and a host of other people-based rights that restore the integrity of God’s plan for people-kind. This is the struggle to which God is calling us today.Presbyterians have a history of engagement in worker justice. Former Stated Clerk of the now Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Eugene Carson Blake was a stalwart leader in the 1960’s with regards to jobs and justice. While representing the National Council of Churches and the Presbyterian denomination he is often seen pictured at the March for Jobs and Justice, now known as the 1963 March on Washington. Often walking arm in arm with Dr. King, Blake represented Presbyterians and the ecumenical movement, saying that the Christian tradition values labor, believes in the dignity of work, and in just compensation for the worker.
In our capitalist society, payday is always a good day. There is a sense of pride in earning a living and having the means to build a better life. For those of us who take a paycheck for granted, let us be reminded and in solidarity with those persons who, after receiving their paychecks, still cannot meet their basic needs, including food, housing, health and child care, much less a family outing for dinner or a Friday-night movie. Let us not forget the father or mother in despair, because there is never enough to make ends meet, even after working multiple jobs or overtime.
I was taught a work ethic as a child. I grew up in a household of two educated parents who valued work. Both my father and mother over-functioned in their work life. Daddy was a Presbyterian Pastor and civil rights leader. My Mother is a retired middle school teacher. We lived in South Carolina where all of the symbols of racial supremacy, jim crow segregation, and the denial of human freedoms existed for African Americans. I am blessed that neither one of my parents internalized the messages emanating from the bigotry and hatred of that period. Instead, they instilled in me the values of living in a community, supporting one’s family, obtaining a solid education, and building a bridge for other generations to follow. They insisted that I recite a poem periodically as a reminder to value myself through the work that was before me:
If a task is once begun never leave it til it’s done. Be your labor great or small, do it well or not at all.
As I grew up, work was considered to be the task at hand. It entailed labor and required perseverance, vision, and a willingness to take responsibility. Later, my faith experiences taught me that Jesus interpreted and proclaimed meaningful labor for the transformation of human society – a cross. He describes this in the Gospel of Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself; take up his cross and follow me.” The cross represents a fundamental way of life that requires sacrifice on behalf of the Almighty. Renewing one’s mind and a willingness to present one’s body as a living sacrifice, acceptable to God – this is our spiritual worship. Therefore, the call to ministry is a labor for love for humanity on behalf of the Almighty. The sacrifice is a calling to stand for and with others when others cannot stand for themselves.
I joined a group of demonstrators, striking workers, and fellow faith leaders at Union Station in Washington, DC, a federally owned rail station with a host of businesses and restaurants, where many federal contract workers are paid below the DC minimum wage. I chose to sacrifice my body and spend time being arrested to declare to the President, in the words of the labor chant, “no justice, no peace.” I expect that God will move in President Obama’s heart to give him the courage to sign an Executive Order that will ensure that the federal government only does business with companies that bargain collectively with workers, pay living wages and benefits, stop wage theft, and limit excessive CEO pay. And know that I am in this fight for the long haul. I will continue to struggle with this Administration and the Congress to create good jobs, improve the ones we have, raise the minimum wage higher, and make sure workers have their rights and dignity.
We know working families cannot live on the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour, or even on $10.10 per hour, the President’s new wage floor for contract workers. As we chanted with the workers yesterday, “$10.10 is not enough!” It is only a good start. As noted by Senator Elizabeth Warren in a recent speech, had wages kept up with worker productivity over the years, the minimum wage today would be around $22 per hour. I urge you stand with workers and with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in support of better jobs for all workers, for as we improve jobs at the wage floor, so will all other jobs rise on a tide of justice.
The Office of Public Witness will continue to engage on this issue and I invite you to follow our email action alerts, blog, Facebook page, and Twitter account to be part of the movement. Further, I want to encourage you to pray for all of us – for striking workers, for desperate parents, for protesters, for those of us who engage in civil disobedience. Our calling to stand when others cannot stand for themselves is consistent with our Savior’s calling to stand for all of us in our weakness. Vulnerable workers need partnership and solidarity with those who can afford to risk for justice. And I invite you to let the Office of Public Witness know where similar wage issues and actions are taking place across the country. May God’s Peace be with you.
Over the last year, I have marched with federal contract workers who clean and serve food at federal buildings like the Smithsonian Museums and Zoo, the Pentagon, Union Station and the Reagan building. These courageous workers have gone on strike NINE TIMES to demand living wages and the right to form a union. In response, the President announced at the State of the Union that he is raising the pay of low-wage federal contract workers to $10.10 by Executive Order.
Brothers and sisters, our President has taken a step towards greater economic justice, but $10.10 is the least he could do for the least among us. Workers need more than a Minimum Wage Executive Order, they need a Good Jobs Executive Order!
At the State of the Union, when the President announced the $10.10 Executive Order, he held up Costco as an example of a good American company. The president said "profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too."
We agree, Mr. President!
Costco also allows its workers to bargain collectively without interference. It provides living wages and benefits, and doesn't steal wages from workers. Costco's does not pay its top executives immorally excessive salaries. If Costco can create good jobs and good profits, so can companies that do business with the U.S. Government.
A Good Jobs Executive Order that makes sure the U.S. Government only did business with companies that follow Costco's business model would be TRANSFORMATIONAL! A Demos report estimates that a Good Jobs Executive Order would put more than 20 million Americans on the path to middle class.