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Labor Day, Glide-style

On this Labor Day, here are some clear thoughts on why, whatever beliefs system we subscribe to, we all need to speak up re: a Living Wage for the millions of workers that have made our impossibly rich nation as successful as it is -- and how we can get together effectively, for the Good of everyone. The words, given to us by the ever-inspiring Rev. Angela Brown at yesterday's celebration, are a perfect example of so much that I love about Glide (along with the incredible music, and consistent commitment to serving the underserved, and the unflagging focus on unconditional Love): Clear, simple, data/history-based rhetoric, sharp contemporary translation of scripture, focus on Jesus as radically anti-establishment and pro-poor, minimal magical thinking, maximum focus on the beautiful humanism that at the core of Judeo-Christian theology... it all just makes sense, challenges me in the best way, and invites me into community in a way that works perfectly for skeptical, scared me. Love to all that have made that place what it is after 50+ years of showing up for the forgotten, the feared and the frail.

LABOR DAY - By Rev. Angela Brown JD., Associate Pastor

As a child, Labor Day was not my favorite holiday, because it meant that summer vacation was over and the next day would be the first day of school. As an adult commuting to San Francisco from the East Bay, Labor Day meant the end of the light summer commute traffic. But the reasons for Labor Day are more significant than my personal well-being.

Tomorrow, most of us will celebrate the day off from work as a time of relaxation with family and friends, but the holiday was started with the purpose of reflecting on both the benefits and injustices that working people experience on a daily basis.

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was a creation of the labor movement and dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well being of our country. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year the legal holiday. 

The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day has taken over the years is a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. So it was felt that it was appropriate, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.

This all sounds very beautiful and patriotic, but if we truly believe that the nation’s strength freedom and leadership is because of the American worker, then why hasn’t Congress passed legislation for the increase of the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour? The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009. At $7.25/ hour, this puts a family of three, earning $15,000/year, which is $3,000 below the poverty level.  This is compounded by the fact that the average household today is carrying $15,000 in credit card debt, and some of those households also have $32,000 or more in student loans. 

There are only twenty-nine states — California being one of them — that have a minimum wage above the national wage $7.25/ hour. It should be apparent that living below the poverty level has a ripple down effect to the children of those families, which is reflected in 1 out of 30 children in America being homeless and under-educated.

The founder of the United Farm Workers Union, Cesar Chavez, once said, “It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” Though decades have passed since Cesar Chavez made this statement, the reality of poverty wages in the fields, for the most part, has not changed. All of us depend on the labor of workers in the food industry, whether it is the farm worker who picks our tomatoes or the waiter who serves our Sunday brunch. For most of these workers, low wages, combined with few or no benefits, are the only compensation they receive for their hard physical labor.

It is not only the farm worker who is working below poverty level. Currently the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is just $2.13 an hour, although employers are supposed to make sure that tips added to the $2.13 equal at least $7.25 an hour. If tips don’t reach $7.25, restaurants must pay workers the difference. Restaurants don’t always carry out that responsibility, however. A deliveryman for a national Pizza restaurant chain in Manhattan reported he was paid just $5.46 an hour, with the restaurant expecting customer tips to bring him up to $7.25. However, he was required to spend many hours a day doing work that did not allow him to earn tips, such as putting pizza boxes together or cleaning the store. In addition, he did not receive tips that customers left for him on credit cards.

Some of us have the image of the fast food minimum wage worker as a teenager on his or her first summer job that is no longer the case. Ninety percent of these workers are over the age of 20; 56% are women; 25% are raising children in poverty.  Many are also working without any sick benefits, so if you or your child is sick and you take off from work that is a day without pay. So should we be surprised that although a person is working 40 or more hours per week, they are still in need of public assistance to cover their basic living expenses, either with housing subsidies or food stamps?

Cesar Chavez warned us that “history will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and the helpless.”

Those that oppose raising the federal minimum wage want us to only view this as an economic issue which sets us against each other, the haves and the have nots. But I invite you to look through a spiritual lens which calls upon us to look at all aspects of God’s people in light of our faith and love, to see this as a moral issue that requires that our voices be a part of the conversation. Our view has to be more than ‘how much is this going to cost me in taxes.’ But know this it is going to cost all of us when people are misused and abused for financial gain. It causes the breakdown of our moral fiber as a country. Former president Jimmy Carter says it best when he said,” If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying that you want a country based on Christian Values, because you don’t.” Parker Palmer also points out “that when we act on our fears that resources are scarce, this does in fact become true.” Surely we who believe in justice for all can act out of a spirit of abundance and not fear and scarcity as we address this issue. 

My position on this topic is very simple: morally, anyone who works full-time deserves a “living wage.” Not just a minimum wage, but a living wage. A living wage is simply defined as the amount needed to meet basic necessities, which minimum wages frequently do not cover. If minimum wages covered the basic necessities, there would be no reason that a person working full-time would need food stamps and/or housing subsidies. 

The United Methodist Church has long fought for a living wage in 1908 the first Social Creed stated, “the church stands for a living wage in every industry, and for the highest wage each industry can afford.” The Social Creed also admonished us that “persons come before profits.” The Hebrew text in Jeremiah 24:14 tells us in the Message translation, “don’t abuse a laborer who is destitute and needy. Pay him at the end of each workday; he’s living from hand to mouth and needs it now”. Jeremiah also warns us, in Chapter 22, “doom to him who builds palaces but bullies people, who cheats his workers and won’t pay them for their work.  All you think about is yourself, taking advantage of the weak.”

So you are saying ‘Pastor, what can I do?’ — I’m glad you asked. We all can blow up the phone lines and flood the fax machines of Congress. In 2013, there was a bill introduced that would have raised the federal minimum wage to $10.10/ hour over a three-year period at .95/year. Congress did not pass the legislation. 
The wage increase would have then been attached to the rate of inflation, where automatic increase will occur as the cost of living increases. An ABC News poll in 2013 when the bill was initially proposed found that 66% of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage despite this fact the bill was not passed by that session of Congress. A similar wage bill was introduced in 2015 it is HR 122. It is currently in committee where it has been since April. We need to contact our relatives in other states to ask them to also contact their Congressperson to get this bill passed. I’m not saying that this bill is the answer to the American worker’s wage issue — in fact the new bill is not as comprehensive as the 2013 bill — but it is a start and an acknowledgment that we have a problem that needs to be addressed. 

Do not believe the myths about the effect this bill would have on the economy and employment.  The wage increase will not cause people to lose their jobs. Over 600 economists signed a letter to the President and the leaders of Congress stating that the weight of evidence now showing that increases in the minimum wage have little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labor market. 

The 2013 bill in fact would have benefited 88% of adults over 20 yrs. of age; 56 % of women would have benefited; 50% workers of color; 43% of workers with some college education would have seen benefits from the 2013 bill. The increase in the 2013 bill would have given a family $21,000 per year (versus the current $15,000), lifting them above the poverty level. Can you imagine the decrease in the stress, and the heightened self-esteem, of a family being lifted out of poverty?  

The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 has lost 30% of it value, because 40% of Americans now make less than the 1968 minimum wage due to inflation, and it will continue to lose its value the longer Congress delays. 

You can also let your money and purchase power do your talking. Do not patronize stores or manufacturers that have moved to foreign countries to avoid US corporate taxes, thereby creating under paid laborers working in unsafe conditions many of which are children. Look at the labels of your clothing to see where your clothing is being manufactured.   

I know I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you trying to make my case, but what we all know in our heart without the numbers, charts or stats is that anyone who works full-time should earn a living wage, and if a person works overtime, they should be paid for that overtime work. Our dignity as a child of God should be allowed to be expressed through our work and labor that then gives us a wage that can cover our basic necessities. 

At this year’s California Nevada Annual Conference we were asked to “engage faith in the public square.” — which really means get your butts out of the pews and help people, and change the systems that oppress people. The keynote speaker Rev. Alexia Salvatiera asked us to ask ourselves, ‘where is our passion to serve others?’ She said your passion can be found by noticing when your heart breaks when you see or hear of an injustice or systematic abuse, where you feel compelled to act, to make a change.  So I ask you this morning to ask yourself, ‘what makes my heart break?’ Is it seeing people being taken advantage of and being paid a sub-standard wage? Children being undereducated? Homelessness? Sex trafficking of children? The mass incarceration system? What breaks your heart?

So often, people will ask ‘why does God allow this to happen to people’ — my response is ‘why do we allow this to happen to people.’ People are waiting for us to put our love into action. When we come up against an obstacle we will often plead to God to move the mountain and often the response from God is to give us a shovel an idea and other people who are willing to work your idea and use that shovel to move the mountain.  
Rev. Alexia Salvatierra tells us that, “in a democracy, we all have the power— and the corresponding responsibility to effect change. Democracy does not function effectively unless the people participate as active citizens—which is why we call our legislators “representatives.” They are to represent the needs and the wishes of the people not just the greed of the 1%.

Again I will remind you of Cesar Chavez’s statement: “history will judge societies and governments — and their institutions — not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and the powerful, but by how effectively they responded to the needs of the poor and the helpless.” 
What side of history do you want to be on?

Thanks be to God. AMEN.


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