ALL WORK MUST BE VALUED WITH A LIVABLE WAGE
J. Herbert Nelson, II
During my high school years, I worked in my hometown shoe store one day a week. At the end of each workday, I accepted the below minimum wage cash payment handed to me in a small brown envelop. It was enough for some spending money and a very small amount of savings each week. The air-conditioned store and slow business during the day made the work simple and relatively easy. It was a fun job with little responsibility. One day my father told me to tell the owner of the store that “today is your last day at work.” On Monday morning I began what my daddy called a “real job.” He wanted me to know what “real work was like”. I entered a plant I only knew as “the bakery”. It was a place where the bread seen on grocery store shelves was made. The huge ovens made the plant extremely hot, and the work was intense with machine breakdowns, trucks to load, and schedules to meet. Working ten or more hours a day became the norm for me. I was the only teenager working there. Daddy later shared with me that he wanted me to experience the working conditions and hear the stories of the people who found themselves working in labor-intensive jobs with inadequate pay. The pay was more than adequate for me. I was college bound in August. My clothes and other items were purchased for college. I even had some spending money. But for the men who worked in that plant while raising families and trying to build a life, the compensation was often not enough in a time of family or financial crisis. I became aware of the powerful head start on life that was given to me by God. Two parents with college and graduate degrees were then – and are now – significant role models and support for lifting up another generation. However, many citizens in the United States who work everyday do not have the opportunities afforded by education and family support.
Millions of workers in the United States are inadequately compensated for their work. Corporate profits are at their highest level in at least 85 years. Employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years.1
The Presbyterian Church has a long history of supporting the rights of workers to earn fair wages and good benefits and have safe working conditions. Indeed, in recognizing the value and dignity of work, the 2008 Social Creed for the 21st Century, adopted by the PC(USA) and our ecumenical partners, says:
“In faith, responding to our Creator, we celebrate the full humanity of each woman, man, and child, all created in the divine image as individuals of infinite worth, by working for…
• Employment for all, at a family-sustaining living wage, with equal pay for comparable work.
• The rights of workers to organize, and to share in workplace decisions and productivity growth.
• Protection from dangerous working conditions, with time and benefits to enable full family life.”
Indeed, our biblical tradition reminds us that the livelihood of workers is a responsibility of the community. The prophet
Malachi, echoing earlier laws and prophets, prophesies, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against… those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:5)
The system of low-wage work in the U.S. ensures that those who are vulnerable and poor will stay vulnerable and poor. Low-wage work cannot support a family, nor provide workers with the necessary supports to climb out of poverty. A job should keep workers out of poverty, not in it!
Jesus said, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” In the tradition of the Savior who came to bring good news to the disheartened, dispirited, and disenfranchised, we must support social justice for all God’s children.