This blog explores and examines the intersections of rhetoric, race, and religion.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
"What's Outrageous? Poverty Wages!" The Role of Religious Leaders in Worker Justice
"What's outrageous? Poverty wages!" This chant, echoed by thousands of striking fast food workers as they marched in the streets in New York, Chicago, and dozens of other cities on August 29, has begun to arouse the American conscience this Labor Day. The fast food industry produces billions in profits for corporations like McDonald's and Burger King. But, according to the organizers of the recent walkouts, fast food workers in New York City make only 25% of what they need to survive from their jobs. Fast food workers in other cities aren't much better off. In many ways, their struggle symbolizes the immorality of an economy that is producing jobs that keep workers poor. Who can argue with picket signs that say, "We can't survive on $7.25"?
It is not surprising that religious leaders have been conspicuously present on many of the fast food workers' picket lines. The recent protests have seen priests and ministers, rabbi and imams joining hands with fast food workers. The nation's largest labor-religious coalition, Interfaith Worker Justice, which is sponsoring Labor Day prayer services in cities across the country honoring the dignity of labor, has taken up their cause. So has Rev. Cheri Kroon, of the Flatbush Reform Church in Brooklyn. In April Rev. Kroon told the New York Times that her community was "filled with fast-food workers who have been suffering due to low wages, no sick days and unsafe working conditions."
The faith leaders now rallying to support fast food workers' demands for a living wage are reviving one of America's oldest and most powerful arguments for social justice, one deeply rooted in religious ideals. Many of those marching today for a fifteen-dollar wage for fast food workers might not realize that the very term "living wage" was first popularized by an American Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor John A. Ryan. In 1906 Fr. Ryan published a book called A Living Wage, which argued that workers deserved to earn enough to support themselves and their families in dignity. Over the next three decades, Ryan emerged as the nation's most forceful moral advocate for minimum wage. Many saw the passage of the federal minimum wage law in 1938 as a fulfillment of Ryan's long crusade.
But it was not just Ryan and Catholic co-religionists who helped elevate the ideal of a living wage in the United States. Two years after Ryan's book, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted a "Social Creed" that endorsed the idea of "a living wage in every industry," and the nation's most prominent Jewish rabbi, Stephen Wise also took up this call.