By Tom Cordaro
On March 6, in advance of International Women’s Day, seven women religious leaders from Chicago and the Western Suburbs gathered in Naperville, Ill. to call for an increase in the minimum wage. The event was held in conjunction with press events around the country organized by Interfaith Worker Justice.
Sr. Karen Nykiel, OSB, moderated the event. Sr. Karen is a member of Pax Christi Illinois, the national Catholic peace movement. Sr. Karen set the context of the event saying, “We are focusing on women at this event because more than 64 percent—almost two-thirds—minimum wage workers are women.”
She added that it was no coincidence the event was held in a wealthy suburban city like Naperville, “Raising the minimum wage is not only an issue of importance in poor urban or rural communities in our nation. It is an important issue in communities like Naperville. Census figures show that poverty is growing at a faster rate in the suburbs then it is in urban areas. “
The Rev. Elizabeth Bowes from the Glen Ellyn First United Methodist Church, began with a short history of the struggle to create the minimum wage in 1938 and how religious leaders from all faiths were united in that struggle. What these faith leaders had in common was that “they valued human dignity and thus desired to create a labor system that valued workers and treated them with fairness and respect.”
To illustrate how much value the minimum wage has lost over the years the Rev. Bowes said, “In 1968 when the minimum wages was $1.60 an hour you and your family of four could purchase an entire fast-food meal for one hour of work. Today at $7.25 an hour, one hour of work can only buy one person a burrito at Chipotle or three cups of coffee from Starbuck’s.”
Sr. Kathleen Desautels, SP, from the 8th Day Center for Justice said St. Mother Theodore Guerin, who founded Sr. Kathleen's community, had a strong commitment to raising the status of women in America. As Mother Guerin once stated, “Women in this country are only one fourth of the family. I hope, through the influence of religion and education that she will eventually become one half—better half.”
Kathleen pointed out that “nearly 175 years latter women still only earn 77 percent of what men earn for same work.”
Working towards a Living Wage
As important as it is to raise the minimum wage, Sr. Kathleen reminded everyone, “The minimum wage is only a start, what we need is living wage. That is why the 8th Day Center for Justice has been involved in the campaign to raise the minimum wage in Chicago to $15 per hour. Do we need an increase in the minimum wage? Absolutely! But let’s not stop there. Let’s continue the struggle for a living wage for every worker. ”
The Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, pastor of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church spoke about her own experience with helping those who work minimum wage jobs. “The church tries to help, but the needs far outweigh the resources available. We should not treat human beings this way. This is not in line with America’s concept of fairness.”
Drawing from her own personal story Rev. Belcher stated, “After World War II my family survived on benefits from the GI Bill my father received. These benefits allowed my family to enter the middle class and gave us the opportunity to get a college education. Everyone deserves the same kind of opportunity to succeed.”
"Do we need an increase in the minimum wage? Absolutely! But let’s not stop there. Let’s continue the struggle for a living wage for every worker. ”
Sr. Mary Kay Flanagan, OSF, also of 8th Day Center, made the connection between raising the minimum wage and the works of mercy, “To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, to care for the sick and to bury the dead; all of these needs are the consequence of the lack of economic security in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Providing people with a living wage is a way to fulfill the works of mercy.”
The Rev. Lisa Telomen, from Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville also made the link between the struggle for raising the minimum wage and her Christian faith, “Looking at the life and teachings of Jesus it is clear that insuring that every person has enough to eat, that they have adequate shelter and clothing and that they have access to affordable health care is part of what it means to be a disciple.”
Sr. Dorothy Pagosa, SSJ-TOSF from 8th Day Center spoke about volunteering at a homeless shelter for women, “I was shocked to learn that part of my responsibilities was to wake some women up earlier so they could get ready for work. Their minimum wage jobs did not enable them to afford rent at any level. For most apartments you need first and last month’s rent as well as the regular rent payment. Let’s not forget utilities, food and clothes.”
Income Inequality is Real
Sister Dorothy also spoke about the grotesque salaries paid to many CEOs, “There seems to be no outcry from Congress when CEOs get increases in their salaries. There seems to be no concern that the cost of these huge salaries will get passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices or that these huge payouts will make it harder for companies to create more jobs.”
Dorothy took aim at Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) approach to welfare, “He says his ideas are in line with Catholic Social Teaching; but he is reading a very different version than I read. As Pope Francis stated, ‘While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.’”
The last speaker was 8th Day Center's Sr. Gwen Farry, BVM, who shared the different ways members of her community were working to increase the minimum wage in Springfield, Ill. and in Washington. Speaking to the value of raising the minimum wage Gwen told the crowd, “If the Gap can pay $10/hour to its employees why can’t others do the same? Even the Gap understands that raising the minimum wage is good for business. The fabulously wealthy do not create jobs; customers create jobs. The minimum wage puts more money in the pockets of consumers and that spending creates jobs.”
“No one working 40 hours a week should have to live in poverty,” Sr Gwen Farry said. If you agree, tell Congress it's time to raise the minimum wage!
Tom Cordaro is the Director of DuPage Interfaith Worker Justice and helped organize a press event in Naperville, Ill. on March 6 in coordination with interfaith groups all across the country supporting working women and raising the minimum wage for ALL workers.