The June 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

From Prison to Priesthood

Interview with Father James Tramel

Protest Demands Housing for Poor Families

Oakland Judge Blocks Evictions

Fresno Police Demolish Tent Encampment

Extremists Call for Attacks on Immigrants

Unjust Senate Bill on Immigration

World Bank and IMF Face Crisis

Corporate Media Fail to Address Global Hunger

Raise Minimum Wage for All

The Journey of Charlotte Tall Mountain

Dying for Nixon, Dying for Bush

In Santa Cruz Dreams Come True

Tourists Ignore Kenya's Poverty

June Poetry of the Streets


ARCHIVES

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005


Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Moral Minimum

"There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American whether he is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer." -- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Holly Sklar and Rev. Paul Sherry



"6th Street." Art by Jonathan Burstein

A values movement is on the rise across the nation in red states and blue, from Arizona to Ohio, Arkansas to Pennsylvania. It is pulling Americans together to raise the minimum wage - instead of pushing us apart. The minimum wage is a bedrock moral value. The minimum wage is where society draws the line: This low and no lower. Our bottom line is this: A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.

That's the winning message of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, a fast-growing nonpartisan program of 70 faith, labor and community organizations working to raise the minimum wage at the federal and state level.

Last month, Arkansas became the first state in the South whose legislature has voted to increase the state minimum wage above the federal level of $5.15 -- an unconscionable $10,712 a year for full-time work. The increase came just four months after the Let Justice Roll affiliate, Give Arkansas A Raise Now, began a campaign to raise the minimum wage through an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution.

As Rev. Steve Copley said at a Let Justice Roll national meeting, the campaign brought home this point: "Every day, thousands of Arkansans get up, go to work -- and still can't provide a decent livelihood for themselves and their families."

Arkansans think that is wrong, as do most Americans. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reports, "Raising the minimum wage has broad public backing that crosses all social, regional and political categories."

Let Justice Roll's success is rooted in its appeal to people to see a decent minimum wage as a moral value, as well as an economic value. We argue it is immoral that workers who care for children, the ill and the elderly struggle to care for their own families. It is immoral that the minimum wage keeps people in poverty, instead of out of poverty.

The Golden Rule -- the ethic of reciprocity -- is the most universal moral value: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Violating the Golden Rule, CEO pay has risen astronomically, while a growing number of workers can't make ends meet on salaries above the minimum wage, much less at $10,712 a year. Violating the Golden Rule, Congress has taken eight pay raises since 1997, bringing their pay to $165,200, while giving none to minimum wage workers who make just $10,712 a year.

Clearly, the minimum wage has become a poverty wage rather than an anti-poverty wage. The federal minimum wage buys less today than it did when Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton opened his first Walton's 5-and-10 in Bentonville, Arkansas, in 1951. Adjusted for inflation, today's minimum wage is $4 an hour less than it was in 1968. It takes nearly two workers earning the federal minimum wage to make what one worker made four decades ago.

When the minimum wage is stuck in quicksand, it drags down wages for workers up the pay scale as well. Between 1968 and 2005, worker productivity rose 111 percent, but the average hourly wage fell 5 percent, adjusted for inflation -- and the minimum wage fell 43 percent. Workers are not getting their fair share of rising productivity. This discrepancy underscores how our economy is not working for working people.

As the federal minimum wage falls further and further behind the cost of living, more states are raising their state minimums above $5.15. Counting Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia, 21 states and the District of Columbia now have or will soon have higher minimum wages. Six states and the District of Columbia currently have a minimum wage at or above $7, led by Washington at $7.63, Oregon at $7.50 and Connecticut at $7.40.

Contrary to myth, raising the minimum wage helps business and boosts the economy. As Dan Gardner, commissioner of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries, puts it: "Overall most low-wage workers pump every dollar of their paychecks directly into the local economy by spending their money in their neighborhood stores, local pharmacies, and corner markets. When the minimum wage increases, local economies benefit from the increased purchasing power."

Studies by the Fiscal Policy Institute show that states with minimum wages above the federal level have had better employment trends, including faster small business and retail job growth. A new report by the Center for American Progress and Policy Matters Ohio shows that the number of small businesses grew more in states with higher minimum wages; and jobs in small retail businesses grew three times faster in higher-wage states.

State minimum wage raises are putting thousands of dollars more into the hands of those for whom every extra dollar counts in the struggle to pay rent, health care and other necessities. Let's build on these victories in the states, raise the federal minimum wage, and make 2006 the turning point to a living wage for all workers -- whatever their state, whatever their job.

Building on successes in Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia, where efforts continue to expand minimum wage coverage, Let Justice Roll is organizing in a growing number of states. These include ballot initiative states such as Arizona, Missouri, Montana and Ohio, as well as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and other states with minimum wage legislation.

In Ohio, Let Justice Roll sponsored more than 60 Living Wage Days worship services and events over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend -- as well as hundreds more around the nation.

In Dr. King's words, "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American whether he is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer."

Raising the minimum wage is a vital step in repairing our shredded social contract and strengthening our shaky economy from the bottom up. Raising the minimum wage is an economic imperative for the enduring strength of our workforce, businesses and communities. Raising the minimum wage is a moral imperative for the very soul of our nation.

Rev. Paul Sherry is the coordinator of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign and Holly Sklar is on the steering committee. They are co-authors of A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future. Sherry is also the coordinator of the Anti-Poverty Program of the National Council of Churches. Sklar's books include Raise The Floor: Wages and Policies That Work For All Of Us. Contact: hsklar@aol.com and psher973@aol.com.


Let Justice Roll: Raise the Minimum Wage for All

by Rick Wilson

Around the nation, a movement to make the minimum wage a living wage is growing fast. The Let Justice Roll Campaign is playing a key role in efforts to raise the minimum wage at both the state and federal levels.

The federal minimum wage has declined in value dramatically since it was raised to $5.15 in 1997. In terms of real purchasing power, the minimum wage is lower than it has been in nearly 50 years. It would have to be raised to $9 an hour to reach the value it had in 1968.

Full-time minimum wage workers earn $10,712 per year -- $5000 less than the official poverty line for a family of three. The cost of family health insurance now exceeds the annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker.

Let Justice Roll supports legislation in Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $7.25 per hour by 2008. Given the hostility of the current leadership in Congress to working people, state campaigns have become a key strategy both to help workers immediately and to add pressure for change at the national level.

In West Virginia, activists worked to pass a bill to raise the state minimum in three stages to $7.25 by June 2008. The WV Economic Justice Project of the AFSC was a key player in the statewide campaign. New Empowerment for Women Plus helped keep the bill alive in the state senate, where it faced significant challenges. Other supporters were the AFL-CIO, the WV Council of Churches, WV Citizen Action Group, the National Association of Social Workers, SEIU and Prevent Child Abuse WV.

Last year, this coalition convinced a legislative committee to study the issue, and the committee recommended a minimum wage increase. We announced the campaign on Martin Luther King Day in 2006. The Children's Policy Forum held a children's lobby day focusing on this issue, and mobilized an e-mail alert system. Our bill passed the House pretty easily. The Senate referred the bill to three committees, which often means a proposal will die. There was quite a groundswell from churches, labor groups, and children's advocates, and the Charleston Gazette covered the issue pretty well.

I was able to publish an op-ed in the Gazette on the day the bill went to the Senate. The National Council of Churches endorsed it, and Ernest Lyght, a Methodist Bishop, wrote an op-ed. In the last days of the session, some legislators tried to amend the bill to kill it, but phone calls and talk radio discussions kept the heat on, and it passed on the last day of the session.

While hard-won, the victory was incomplete. Due to quirks in state law, many workers will not immediately benefit from the bill. According to some estimates, only about 2000 of the approximately 20,000 West Virginians now earning $5.15 will be covered initially. However, plans are in place to try to amend state law to cover all workers in the next session. Because we passed the bill this year by a wide margin, prospects look good.

At the bill signing on April 4, 2006, WV Governor Joe Manchin said, "I am so proud of this piece of legislation. Some people said it's symbolic. Well if it's symbolic, it's a good symbol for the State of West Virginia to treat people right and fair. There are more and more people that are living on the minimum wage, or trying to live and exist on the minimum wage. It sends a strong signal to the federal government that we're serious. I think you're seeing some other states take the initiative also."

Manchin, a pro-business Democrat whose motto for the state is "open for business," stressed that a higher minimum wage "is not affecting the business community. It will not affect business whatsoever, or the productivity of our businesses, or the amount that I believe we're able to be competitive."

Rick Wilson is director of the AFSC Economic Justice Project in West Virginia and publishes a blog on economic justice issues at www.goatrope.blogspot.com.


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