Unitarian Universalists lobbied for city and county minimum wage increases.
Diane Duesterhoeft, one of the UU leaders in the San Antonio living wage campaign, testifies before the Bexar County Commissioners Court at the kickoff of the COPS/Metro Alliance Living Wage Campaign on June 24, 2014. (© Jorge Montiel)
Unitarian Universalists in San Antonio, Texas, working as part of an interfaith alliance, have scored a major victory in a living wage campaign for the city’s lowest-paid workers.
The city manager has agreed to propose a minimum wage increase for city workers to $13 an hour, beginning January 2016. Mike Phillips, chair of the Texas UU Justice Ministry and a spokesperson for COPS/Metro—an advocacy group that launched the living wage campaign in San Antonio about 18 months ago—said that a majority of the city council now supports the change. The city council will vote on the proposed raise in mid-September.
First UU Church of San Antonio, of which Phillips is a member, is closely allied with COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service)/Metro, a broad-based citizens’ organization comprised of religious and other non-profit institutions that is part of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).
Right now, about one-fifth of the city’s civilian employees earn between $11.47 and $12.99 an hour. If approved, the wage increase will affect about 7,700 city employees and cost the city $2.9 million a year, according to Texas Public Radio. The city minimum wage will increase to $14 an hour in 2017 and $15 an hour in 2018, under the proposal. A $15-an-hour wage equates to $30,000 a year, Phillips said.
Meanwhile, through a separate process in which UUs were also involved, county workers in Bexar County, which surrounds San Antonio, also are getting a minimum wage hike to $13 an hour, starting next month. About 1,700 city and county workers will benefit from the wage increases, Phillips said.
Members of COPS/Metro, including about 20 UUs, met with city council members, the mayor and city manager of San Antonio, and county commissioners to solicit their support for the wage increases, Phillips said.
“COPS and IAF—with lots of UUs involved—were instrumental in making this happen,” said Phillips, who said clergy from many denominations joined in meeting with the mayor and other officials to demand a living wage for workers.
“When we met with the mayor, we said, ‘Thirteen hundred of your city workers are eligible for food stamps. We find that morally reprehensible. We want you to raise their wages enough so that they make enough to have dignified work, and so that you are respecting their inherent worth and dignity,” Phillips recalled. “We used a very moral argument and we brought clergy of many faiths along with us to reinforce that.”
COPS/Metro is now taking its living wage campaign to other public entities including local school districts and hospitals. It also hopes to serve as a model and resource for similar living wage campaigns across Texas. Texas UU Justice Ministry—whose motto is “Bending Texas Toward Justice”—is also involved.
COPS/Metro ran a similar living wage campaign in the 1990s in San Antonio, which resulted in wage increases for about 40,000 city, county, school district, and hospital employees, Phillips said.
“People’s wages haven’t been keeping up with the cost of living, and that’s the reason we’re doing this,” he said. “We realize families are struggling with the higher cost of living, and we’ve been hearing stories for years about people not being able to keep up.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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