Last fall I had the honor of praying in front of the White House with federal contract workers affiliated with Good Jobs Nation who were striking for a living wage. After a strong campaign of similar demonstrations, President Obama confirmed last night that he got the message.
In his State of the Union address, the president said he would require that all government contract workers be paid at least $10.10, and he reiterated the need for all American workers to paid at least that much.
The economic case for raising the minimum wage is strong, and the moral case is even stronger. Scripture is replete with condemnations of oppressing workers, and make no mistake, paying someone who works full time a wage that can’t cover a family’s basic necessities is oppressive.
The core values question here is whether we accept the notion that some workers must be destined for poverty in order for our economy to function well. The clear answer is no. As Pope Francis said, “Money must serve, not rule!”
Increasing the minimum wage faces fierce opposition among Tea Party extremists in Congress — even though the vast majority of Americans favor raising it.
So it’s inspiring to see faith leaders from in states across the country calling for a minimum wage that’s a family wage. Faith in Public Life is humbled to be working side by side with clergy leaders and groups like Interfaith Worker Justice and PICO National Network to help raise a clear moral voice for just wages that strengthen family bonds.
In 1968, the federal minimum wage was worth the equivalent of more than $10 today. Getting it back to that level isn’t asking for a miracle, and it’s a crucial step toward building an economy that is truly pro-family.
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Many faith leaders of my generation were inspired to dedicate ourselves to seeking social justice because of Nelson Mandela. The struggle he led for equality in South Africa not only ended a brutally oppressive and racist regime, but also empowered people around the globe to spark movements for justice and reconciliation in their own nations. We owe Mandela a great debt.
Mandela wasn’t just a global icon, he was a community organizer. The anti-apartheid movement succeeded not only because of his personal leadership, but also because he was part of a mass movement for equality.
This lesson holds true today. A day after President Obama quoted Pope Francis in a landmark speech declaring our nation’s staggering economic inequality the central challenge of our time, fast-food workers in more than 100 U.S. cities mounted a strike for living wages.
I’m humbled by the courage of these workers – modern-day Davids — risking their jobs by standing up to wealthy corporations that dole out millions to CEOs but pay their employees so poorly that many must turn to public assistance to feed their families. This is a sinful system that not only forces millions of families into hardship, but also cost taxpayers $3.8 billion every year.
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Church bells rang out across the country yesterday as thousands of Americans gathered in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Speakers at the Lincoln Memorial pointed out both the tremendous progress made and the steep road ahead on our journey to fulfilling the ideals that were so resoundingly expressed half a century ago.
At the March and in congregations hosting commemorative services, leaders addressed issues such as jobs, living wages, economic inequality, education, mass incarceration, healthcare, immigration reform, and discrimination against minority voters. That sounds like quite a laundry list of issues, but they are systemically linked and woven together by a thread of common values – dignity, equality and justice.
As the marchers return to their home communities, the fight for these values carries on. Today fast food workers in 60 cities mounted the largest strike ever for living wages in their industry. Included were places where key events of the civil rights movement took place, such as Raleigh, Chicago and Memphis.
Led by the faith community, people across the country are marching, holding vigils and pressing lawmakers every single day to pass immigration reform that protects immigrant workers and families, builds a roadmap to citizenship and ends the gross miscarriages of justice caused by our broken system. The list of struggles for justice animated by Dr. King’s dream is long.
When President Obama said yesterday that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own,” I nodded along in agreement, but I also felt a flutter of fear in my chest because none of us alone is equal to this great task. Our success, which is far from guaranteed, depends on our ability to inspire, organize and mobilize. Only then can we make the cost of perpetuating injustice unbearable.
When, God willing, my son goes to the Lincoln Memorial 50 years from now to mark the century anniversary of the March on Washington, I want him to be standing shoulder to shoulder with people of all races in a nation where full justice and equality are no longer such a distant dream. Whether that happens is far outside my control. But I do have a small say over whether he knows that his parents’ generation did all they could.
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Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., founded with major financial backing from pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, has long been a destination for conservative faculty and students. But now it appears that even the Church’s long support for unions as central to protecting the dignity of work – a core pillar of Catholic social teaching – is taking a back seat to Ave Maria’s promotion of right-wing ideology.
According to a press release on Christian News Wire, the university has partnered with the virulently anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation to establish a professorship of labor law. This is a bit like defense contractor Lockheed Martin partnering with the Quakers to announce a peace studies fellowship.
While the National Right to Work Defense Foundation and the National Right to Work Committee side with corporations that are increasingly making it harder on employees to join unions, the Catholic Church has stood boldly with unions since 1891 when Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum – an encyclical that puts labor rights at the center of Catholic social teaching. In their 1986 pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, Catholic bishops wrote:
“The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working condition…No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.”
This is not some dusty, long-forgotten teaching. When Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers were busy hamstringing unions in Wisconsin, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki released a public statement saying that “hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” The archbishop noted that it’s a “mistake to marginalize or dismiss unions as impediments to economic growth.” And he went on to quote Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in 2009 that “the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend (workers’) rights must … be honored today even more than in the past.” Other Catholic leaders like Rev. Bryan Massingale of Marquette University, a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, also challenged the governor.
Catholic bishops and conservative Catholic watchdog groups like the Cardinal Newman Society have not been shy about publicly challenging Catholic universities that invite pro-choice speakers to campus. The Catholic hierarchy has been far less vigilant when it comes to universities giving platforms to those who break from Church teaching on issues like the death penalty or economic justice.
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, whose diocese includes the Naples area, should now be asking law school officials some tough questions and reminding them that respect for unions is a fundamental Catholic teaching. Will he speak up and warn the school that they could be causing confusion among the Catholic faithful?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post conflated Ave Maria School of Law with Ave Maria University. The two are distinct institutions with separate governing boards. We regret the error
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Beginning in 2001, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (comprised mostly of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants in low-wage jobs) launched the Campaign for Fair Food, an initiative to encourage food retailers to pay farmworkers a penny more for each pound of tomatoes they pick.
Publix, a Florida-based retail food chain, is staunchly refusing to join the Campaign for Fair Food and end its exploitative business practices.
In an effort to alert Publix’s customers to this alarming decision and pressure the food retailer to join the campaign, the CIW, National Council of Churches Poverty Initiative, Florida Presbyterians and numerous other groups joined together at Publix’s Corporate Headquarters to begin a 6-day fast, “…insisting that Publix – Florida’s largest corporation – finally recognize the humanity of the workers who pick its tomatoes…”
Michael Livingston, a participant in the fast and Director of the NCC Poverty Initiative reflects on the solidarity between farmworkers and people of faith:
It’s day one of six days of fasting with farmworkers and their supporters at the corporate headquarters of Publix in Lakeland, FL. I’m already impressed with the quiet dignity of workers with whom I cannot communicate using the English I speak or the Spanish they speak. Yet we stand together under the same bright sun and our very presence alongside a busy thoroughfare, announces a firm commitment to seek justice for a workforce whose humanity has been ignored by a system of labor that is fundamentally unjust.
While retailers such as Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and McDonald’s have joined the Fair Food Campaign, Publix’s refusal to join the campaign amounts to nothing short of a full endorsement of the inhumane wages workers are paid for their labor.
Bill Maxwell of the Tampa Bay Times criticizes Publix’s blatant exploitation of farm workers:
…each time I buy tomatoes at a Publix, I am mindful of the back-breaking toil of the laborers who picked them and lugged them to a truck. I also am aware that for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked, a worker gets on average 50 cents, a rate unchanged since 1980. Most workers earn roughly $10,000 a year. Besides low wages, they have no right to overtime pay, no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid vacation and no right to organize to change these conditions.
With CIW’s successful history of pressuring retailers to pay farmworkers a penny more per pound, it only remains to be seen how long Publix will choose to embarrass itself and denigrate its public image by abetting the exploitation of working people.
To stand with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the “Fast for Fair Food”, check out these resources.
Photo Credit: Fast for Fair Food
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