This weekend, you might see someone at the grocery store or BART station asking you if you to sign something. This time, it really matters. The Lift Up Oakland coalition is bringing hope back to Oakland by proposing we raise the minimum wage to $12.25 with paid sick days. (This is good news for all of us who eat at restaurants, by the way—–I’m a big fan of restaurant workers in particular taking time off when they’re sick). I’ve been thinking about why I care about a fair minimum wage as a human being, as an Oaklander, and as a person of faith.
Here’s why I’m excited about Oakland leading the nation in creating a culture of fair pay for fair work.
Minimum Wage Isn’t Enough to Make Ends Meet
Early one morning this fall, a few faith and community leaders piled into vans to accompany fast food workers back to their jobs after the big fast food workers’ strike. We were there to make sure they didn’t get fired when they returned to their jobs. I sat next to an exceptionally charming and bubbly young woman. As we drove into the sunrise, I asked her why she risked getting fired to be a part of this movement. She said, “The organizer asked me if I wanted more money than I was getting, and I said, Sounds good to me!” and giggled.
She didn’t quote Das Kapital or evoke Cesar Chavez. She wasn’t theatrical about the fact that her family relied on the income she made and that she needed to work the long hours instead of going to college. She said yes to the strike because her family needed what she earned and she worked hard and it still didn’t cover the bills.
And when I asked if she was worried about retribution (some workers had their hours cut back or were let go even though it was their legal right to join an organized day-long strike), she said, “Naw! I’m the best worker they got, and they know that,” and giggled again.
I don’t know about you, but there were days when I worked for minimum wage. I worked in a luggage store in Akron, Ohio while I was in college.
You may remember Fox News host Neil Cavuto complaining that the fast food workers last fall should shut up; he had worked in fast food and done just fine. (He was 16, living at home, and actually earning more than fast food workers today, adjusting for inflation.) Like Neil Cavuto, I was doing alright at my minimum wage job in the mid-1990s; my parents paid for college and I lived at home in the summers and worked mostly so I would have grocery money and money for bills.
But I worked with people who relied on that minimum wage check each week for housing and food and clothes and to support their children. They weren’t any better than me, but they sure weren’t any worse. They were regular people who did the work required of them and then went home to live with their parents or their wife’s parents because although they worked full time, they couldn’t afford to live on their own (even in Akron, Ohio), with the exception of one of my co-workers who worked three minimum wage jobs so she and her sister would have a place to live.
So I’m glad that a minimum wage job was a stepping stone for Neil Cavuto, and I’m glad it was a stepping stone for me. But I bet Neil Cavuto worked alongside people he left out of his story; the average fast-food worker is 28 and seeking to make a life on too little money when we all rely on their work on a daily basis. Most of the thousands of minimum wage workers in Oakland are over 21 and struggling to support themselves. I want families to be able to thrive, to be able to live in some comfort without having to work three jobs. In the earliest days of this nation, John Smith established the rule in Jamestown “No food without work.” I think it’s time to banish the practice of “no food even when you work.” That’s a basic human decency issue.
Oakland Will Do Better When Its Workers Do Better
I’m also excited about this initiative because I care about Oakland. I care about an Oakland where the people who work here can afford to live here and where their homes and communities are safe and thriving. That’s pretty much impossible to do on the current minimum wage. I have a particular passion for the youth of Oakland, and many of them have given up on the possibility of having a good future in this city where they stand little chance of landing a good job that will allow them to stay here and stay safe and raise a family. A fair minimum wage creates the hope they need that they can be a part of this city’s future.
I care about the residents of Oakland having enough income to make ends meet, and I care about Oakland thriving, which will happen when its poorest residents have enough money to spend here. This is one of the tangible benefits of a fair minimum wage: people who can afford to both live and work here will also spend here, and everyone wins. That’s what’s happened in places that have increased the minimum wage.
I also care deeply about small businesses, many of which are placed at an economic disadvantage when they pay a fair wage while major corporations (earning major profits) maintain an unfairly low bottom line by paying workers far less than they are worth or than they need to survive. Our current minimum wage actually punishes small businesses that try to take care of their workers by paying them fairly, at the expense of large retailers. (And the fear that those large retailers will leave has been disproven in other cities that have increased the minimum wage to match cost of living, such as San Francisco and San Jose.)
Oakland will actually do better, and its businesses will do better, when workers are guaranteed a fair wage. For those of us who care about safety, the economy, and preserving the rich diversity of Oakland, an increased minimum wage fosters all three of those issues at once.
It’s an issue of moral conscience
But the main reason I have become passionate about the issue of increasing the minimum wage in Oakland is that I’m a person of faith. Almost every faith tradition speaks in some fashion about the way we treat workers.
- In the Jewish texts, we read “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty,” Proverbs 22:16.
- In my favorite book of the Christian bible, written by the brother of Jesus, we are warned in no uncertain terms the spiritual threat of mistreating workers. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts,” James 5:4.
- And Islam reminds us, in gender inclusive terms, that “Men shall have the benefit of what they earn, and women shall have the benefit of what they earn. Holy Qur’an 4:32
I have a dream for Oakland that it will become a model city to the rest of this nation, and part of that model will be “here is what a city looks like when all of our work is treated with dignity: look at how we thrive. Look at how diverse we are, and how we are able to share our cultures with one another because fear of one another has been stripped away. Look at a city where everyone can grow up knowing that they are valued and have contributions to make to this community.”
I don’t think a higher minimum wage will make all of that happen, but I don’t think any of it can happen until our lowest paid workers are getting paid what they are worth. And truthfully, as a person of faith, I really like the idea of our city standing up to corporations both on behalf of workers and on behalf of small businesses and telling those corporations to pay fairly because the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
And while I care deeply about a fair wage as a human being, as an Oaklander, and as a person of faith, ultimately this campaign to me is about that young woman last fall who risked losing her job just because she deserved more money. And in the face of losing a job for standing up for her rights, she giggled.
Note of disclosure: I serve as chair of Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, which supports this campaign, and while I did not write this on behalf of them or the Lift Up Oakland campaign, I plan to be involved in it as a volunteer. If you would like more information, the website is liftupoakland.org, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org