Low-Wage Workers Seek Moral, Livable Wages
Interfaith Worker Justice staff joined several thousand immigrant and worker rights advocates in May to call for real immigration reform.
By Mistead T. Sai
Throughout the United States, there is a growing movement of fast-food workers and retail employees demanding higher pay at their job. While fast-food corporations are making record profits at all-time highs, there are tremendous wealth disparities growing where some folks are unable to provide basic necessities such as shelter or food for themselves and their families.
Over the summer, fast-food workers held one-day strikes as part of a series of recent strikes across America in the past few months, walking off their jobs in peak hours to draw attention to the immediate need for living wages. A driving force known as Fight for 15 in Chicago and its similar counterpart, Fast Food Forward in New York, are calling corporations and employers to provide livable wages to their workers.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25, and state minimum wage varies from state to state, but these actions by low-wage workers demanding livable wages sets precedent and builds a momentum to the potential increase in the federal minimum wage hopefully to occur in 2014.
The Haves and Have-nots
It’s hard to imagine that some folks giving us our meals at the drive-thru, or serving us in fine dining restaurants are unable to feed themselves. These are the stories you often hear: “Should I pay my rent or eat dinner tonight?” It is a stark but bleak reality to hard-working individuals who live paycheck to paycheck.
These are what the workers in the one-day strikes and actions are seeking and fighting for. It’s about not having to decide between paying your rent to have a place to live or eating to sustain one’s life. It’s about not having to decide between buying one’s child new clothes he or she desperately needs, or forfeit getting them school supplies.
Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), my US-2 placement site, strives to lessen the human suffering of workers by mobilizing faith communities into action through grassroots organizing to shaping policy at all government levels. Organizationally, we collaborate with affiliates to support worker and economic justice.
Often times, the workers who struggle to survive are women, people of color and immigrant workers, as they are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs.
In a presentation to the IWJ staff, Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door and Co-Founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, discussed the need to raise the federal minimum wage of tipped workers. She also discussed that most tipped workers are women, offering more complexities to the effects of the glass ceiling.
The current federal minimum wage for tipped employees is only $2.13. It has been frozen for years at $2.13, and though employers are expected to make up the difference for what the employee does make in tips to meet the federal minimum hourly wage, it simply does not happen. With wage theft (an employer illegally withholding wages from their employee) by unscrupulous employers, or an employer being ill-informed about the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers are left making less than minimum wage to almost nothing for a hard day’s work.
And as the sustainable food movement has taken off across the world, we mustn’t forget the face behind the food: the worker.
From Saru Jayarman’s book, Behind the Kitchen Door, she writes: “It’s definitely not sustainable to eat food served by workers who cannot afford to feed their families and face the added burden of having their wages and tips stolen. Sustainable food, by definition, must include sustainable labor practices.”
Two of the many connections I have made during my time at Interfaith Worker Justice are about the dignity of work and caring about the least of these, the most vulnerable in our society.
As my friend frankly put it, “Work is dignified because humans are dignified.” We should ensure the dignity of work is enacted for every individual who works because they are of sacred worth and rightly deserve the dignity that comes from their hard work labor. The struggle for higher wages by fast-food workers is about dignity, and a demand for moral wages to support their families and themselves. Moral wages that allow them to enjoy the fruitfulness of their work and God’s divine plan for humans to share in the abundance of what life has to offer.
Echoing the scripture, “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me,” Zechariah 7:9-10 says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Time and time again, scripture forces us to examine the vulnerable and outcast in our society and to show mercy and kindness; doing so pushes us into the Christ-like livelihood that we strive each and every day of our lives. But most importantly, like Matthew 25 tells us, we did for God. Therefore, our mercy and justice for low-wage workers who uphold the most vulnerable status in our society reflects what we do for God.
Let’s seek after God’s own heart in treating low-wage workers with the dignity, respect and livable wages they deserve.
Labor in the Pulpits
How can you participate in changing worker justice issues?
On Labor Day weekend, IWJ’s annual Labor in the Pulpits celebrates and honors workers in faith communities by offering workers and workers advocates an opportunity to speak in their pulpits and practical solutions to improve the workplace problems for all workers.
You can start the conversation in your local parish to raise the consciousness about workers by talking about worker’s rights issues, nationally and worldwide, then devising tangible solutions into making changes.
For more information and resources for Labor in the Pulpits, check out IWJ’s resources on Labor Day weekend for Worker Justice.
Mistead T. Sai is a US-2 missionary serving with Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago. The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries has partnered with Interfaith Worker Justice since it was founded in 1996, including through US-2 and Global Justice Volunteer service. Methodists have been fighting for a living wage more than 100 years, since the first Social Creed in 1908 called for a living wage.