Both organizations have long been advocates of an increased minimum wage. On July 18, UUSC President and CEO Bill Schulz and UUA President Peter Morales signed a letter inviting UUs and congregations to join in a growing campaign to raise the minimum wage.
Noting that corporate CEOs of the 500 largest U.S. companies make an average salary of $10.5 million at the same time that workers who earn a minimum wage are unable to meet basic needs, the letter declares: “We stand in solidarity with people throughout the country struggling to survive on minimum wage. We call upon all people of faith to join us. And we come together to urge this: stop making workers pay the price for corporate greed—raise the minimum wage!”
The letter was emailed to social justice activists of both groups as well as others who have previously worked on minimum wage campaigns.
The campaign calls on Unitarian Universalists and members of other faith traditions to get behind the move to raise the minimum wage by initially signing the UUSC/UUA letter, and then participating in public awareness events and contacting members of Congress.
The UUSC and UUA will be working in cooperation with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Chicago, which works on behalf of restaurant workers, and Let Justice Roll, a coalition of dozens of religious and secular groups focused on raising the minimum wage.
The statement from Schulz and Morales notes, “Millions of low-wage workers in our country work hard day in and day out and still can’t afford life’s basic necessities. They are the restaurant servers feeding us, the people caring for our elderly or sick loved ones, and the workers keeping our buildings clean. They are our brothers, mothers, friends, congregants, and community members—and they are suffering silently, choosing among buying food, getting to work, and paying the rent. This is an outrage that our moral values insist be remedied.”
The campaign is in line with the UUSC’s Choose Compassionate Consumption program and the UUA’s Ethical Eating movement. The former program helps people learn to shop with UU values in mind, support restaurant workers, and speak out for small farmers and other food-chain workers. The latter invites people to choose food that minimizes harm to the earth, growers, and others involved in production and distribution.
Below poverty line
The joint statement notes the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour amounts to $15,080 for a fulltime worker, which is below the poverty line for a family of three. The minimum wage was enacted in 1938 at the height of the Depression. It was last increased July 24, 2009 to $7.25 from $6.55. Eighteen states have adopted higher minimum wages than the federal minimum.
Ariel Jacobson, the UUSC’s senior associate for Economic Justice, said the campaign is being engaged at this particular time because “we think that within the next 12 to 18 months it may be possible to get a $10 an hour minimum wage bill passed in Congress. The prospects are pretty good.” She noted that Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Representative George Miller (D-California) have agreed to support such legislation in the Senate and House.
“The minimum wage is very important to the economy,” said Jacobson. “Seventy percent of our economy is made up of consumer spending. A $10 minimum wage helps give us a strong base of buying power.” She also noted that raising the minimum wage is an issue that is closely tied to racial justice and to women’s and children’s issues.
"Our goal at the moment is to get this issue back on the radar of congregations and individual UUs,” she said. “In the past they’ve been very supportive on this issue. We want them to think about how an increase might apply in their own communities and in their own businesses. We hope they will sign on to our statement, write letters to the editor, and talk to their neighbors.”
She said a list of members of Congress who may support such legislation will be developed and people will be asked to contact them. “We think a moment of opportunity is building. Now is the time for us to build support and educate ourselves so that in 12 to 18 months we will be ready. We’re asking congregations, are you with us on this?”
A day of action is planned for July 24, the day the last minimum wage increase went into effect in 2009. Events will be planned giving congregations the opportunity to stand in solidarity with a minimum wage increase, she said.As the campaign proceeds, information will be available on the UUSC and UUA websites.
State networks involved
Many UUs are already engaged with minimum wage issues. Randy Block, director of the Michigan UU Social Justice Network, said the network has been working for some time with a Michigan movement to increase the benefits of restaurant workers who earn less than minimum wage. It is also working with the group “Mothering Justice,” which focuses on wage theft, paid sick days, raising the minimum wage, and other issues. “We’ll definitely get involved nationally,” he said.
In New Jersey congregations advocated last year for an increase in the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.25 an hour plus cost of living increases, until it was blocked by the governor. Now it’s on the state ballot in November as a referendum and congregations are working on registering voters.
“We will be supportive of a national minimum wage effort in whatever ways we can,” said the Rev. Craig Hirshberg, director of the UU Legislative Ministry of New Jersey. “In New Jersey it takes more than $15 an hour to be able to afford housing. We’re working with many other organizations. There’s a lot of support for this.”
Susan Leslie, the UUA’s Congregational Advocacy and Witness director, added, “This is a long-term campaign. The recession stopped us last time but we’re excited now that that the time is right to do this. And surveys show that 70 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage. This will be traditional advocacy work. Talk to your restaurant manager when you eat out. Leave a note on your bill encouraging paying responsible wages. This is such a basic thing to be paid a living wage, to be able to live on what you earn. It’s a bedrock justice issue.”