Work, Worth and Value

The following is a cross-posted reflection from the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, former IWJ board member and Director for Public Witness at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness

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.

Work

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 familiesrely 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.

Worth

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.

Value

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 alertsblogFacebook 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.