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Hope and Change for Low-Wage Workers

On March 18, 1968, two weeks before his murder, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis getting part-time income.” He said, “A living wage should be the right of all working Americans.”

What would Dr. King have thought of a $6.55 federal minimum wage in 2009, when the 1968 minimum wage was worth about $10 in today’s dollars?

What would he have made of a minimum wage that is less adequate for the basic necessities of life than it was 40 years ago?

This is a moment exultant with hope. Watching the inauguration of the first African American president, we ask each other, “Have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers sighed?” But our hope is tempered with anxiety about our current economic crisis and concern about the millions of people in our country who are still working for poverty wages.

Paychecks have stagnated for many years, and more and more jobs come with no benefits, not even sick days.

Today the minimum wage is set so low that millions of men and women working full time are constantly choosing which necessities to go without. Health workers go without healthcare; childcare workers struggle to care for their own children; food service workers seek help at food banks.

Low-wage workers waited ten long years for the minimum wage increase that finally arrived in 2007, from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour—the longest wait in the history of the minimum wage. All of us are now paying for that delay, as falling worker buying power helped fuel the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The minimum wage is the floor of the economy, and when it sinks, we all sink.

With the election of Barack Obama we are seeing a new coalition preparing to govern.  We are hopeful that we have an opportunity now to bring the voice of low-wage workers and their families to the White House and to Congress.

Let Justice Roll, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 90 faith, community, labor and business organizations, which played a leading role in winning the last increase, is calling instead for $10 an hour in 2010. We are asking people to join with more than 15 leaders of denominations and national faith organizations and Americans from all 50 states, and endorse our call for $10 in 2010 at Let Justice Roll.

A federal minimum wage of $10 in 2010 will move us closer to the day when all workers earn a living wage.

President Obama’s choice of Representative Hilda Solis for Secretary of Labor evoked the accomplishments of Frances Perkins, the architect of the minimum wage, who served as the first female Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. The time has come to reclaim Perkins’ legacy and build on it. The daughter of two immigrant workers and union members, Rep. Solis has promised to "improve the opportunities for hardworking families.” To keep this promise, we encourage her to advocate for $10 in 2010.

In June 1966, I heard Dr. King speak to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. He decried poverty and militarism as well as racism, and he reminded us, “When the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.” He called on each of us to create our own “stone of hope.”

I call upon all of us to honor Dr. King’s memory by renewing our commitment to a just economy. I hew my stone of hope with these words: “The arc of the universe is long,” said Dr. King, quoting 19th century Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker, “but it bends toward justice.”

Reverend William G. Sinkford is the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. This article is based on his sermon, ”Living Faithfully—Working for a Living Wage,” given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, NH  for Let Justice Roll’s “Living Wage Sunday” campaign.

Economic Justice

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Last updated on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

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