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by Seth Sandronsky
TALK ABOUT HOT: The minimum wage went up in twenty-six states and the nation’s capital between January 1, 2014, and July 24, 2015, reports the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC. Support in part is coming from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the Service Employees International Union, and some Democratic lawmakers. Recent victories arrived in two blue states: New York and California.
“Reform Jewish Voice of New York State submitted testimony supporting a minimum-wage increase,” Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told Jewish Currents via email, “and the wage board announced a New York statewide minimum wage increase to $15 per hour for fast food workers.” The Reform Movement, she added, "has long advocated for a fair and livable wage for all workers. Our Jewish tradition teaches that to withhold a worker’s wages, or to pay a worker less than he or she deserves, is immoral.”
Still, 35 million Americans, one in four members of the U.S. labor force, earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. That’s where it’s been since July 24, 2009. In the shadow of the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street movement, a united front to increase the minimum wage is growing with the involvement of American Jews.
CONSIDER EMERYVILLE, a California city of 11,000 people across the bay from San Francisco. Emeryville’s city council, including Mayor Ruth Atkin, approved on a 5-0 vote an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $14.44 per hour for workers employed at firms there with over fifty-five employees, e.g., Home Depot and Ikea, beginning July 1, 2015. That same day, workers with Emeryville’s smaller firms began to earn $12.25 an hour. California’s minimum wage is now $9 per hour, rising to $10 in 2016.
Mayor Atkin is a member of the Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland. “I am passionate about social justice and ending all oppressions,” she said via email to Jewish Currents. “My commitment stems from my Jewish values and knowing what it is like to be marginalized as the only out lesbian mayor in the San Francisco East Bay.”
A former industrial municipality, Emeryville now has a service economy of fast food, hotels, janitorial services and retail outlets. This deindustrialized and economically restructured city’s minimum-wage ordinance benefits an estimated 5,000 workers and paves a path for them to earn near $16 an hour and receive from six to nine paid sick days annually by 2019. (California has yet to enact a paid-sick leave law for all workers statewide.)
Working with Mayor Atkin on getting Emeryville’s minimum-wage ordinance enacted was Rabbi David J. Cooper, head of Oakland’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, with 400 member households, about 1,200 people. He and synagogue members coalesced with other activists to push Emeryville politicians to raise the pay for the city’s minimum-wage workers. The rabbi and synagogue members also helped get out the vote in Oakland last November, when residents approved by 81 percent Measure FF, which hiked the hourly minimum wage of up to 48,000 workers to $12.25 an hour, indexed to the annual rate of inflation, effective March 2, 2015.
“Our community and I are motivated by issues of justice and fairness,” said the rabbi, a member of the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, via phone to Jewish Currents. “People need to have the wherewithal to survive well, beyond the day-to-day struggle to sustain their bodies.” He cited the Talmud. “Without bread, there is no Torah. Without Torah, there is no bread.”
Demands for better living and working conditions require the exploited to actively overturn their exploitation, Rabbi Cooper said. “You can’t just demand peace without being involved in issues of justice, too. Otherwise, we are asking the oppressed to acquiesce in their oppression, and to shut up.”
JUST ASK HIS SON, Lev Hirschhorn, 25. He follows his father’s socially-conscious efforts as a workplace justice organizer at Restaurant Opportunities Center-United of Philadelphia. ROC-United is a national organization agitating online and at workplaces for improved labor standards for restaurant workers.
For the past year, Hirschhorn has been busy with the Dignity at Darden campaign to raise employees’ wages, and to ensure employers schedule adequate hours for workers to make ends meet. The Darden Restaurant Group, he notes, is no mom and pop shop. The firm owns more than 1,900 restaurants, employing over 150,000 workers across the U.S. and Canada, with brand names such as Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse, and Olive Garden.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” said Hirschhorn via phone. “Increasing the minimum wage is important for all of us to ensuring a secure financial future.” A 2011 graduate of Brandeis University in Boston, he grew up in Oakland and Berkeley, where progressive groups such as the Black Panther Party and Free Speech Movement rose and fell two generations ago.
Some employees with the Darden Restaurant Group work for the federal tipped-minimum wage of $2.13 an hour or a little above that, thanks in no small measure to lobbying of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA!). ROC-United is organizing employees and advocates to require employers to pay workers the full state minimum wage before tips. Seven states and Guam have done just that.
BACK IN CALIFORNIA, Rabbi Jonathan D. Klein is the executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice: Creating a Just and Sacred Society in Los Angeles. He was part of the broad coalition that pushed for an increase of the city’s minimum wage, which the City Council voted 14-1 on March 19 to hike from $9 per hour to $15 by 2020. The hourly rate of pay of close to one million workers is going up by over half.
“The growth of economic inequality in our society is a direct affront to the spirit of Judaism, and most religious traditions,” Rabbi Klein said by phone.
Such inequality is the new status quo. According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, DC, which has surveyed data from reliable sources such as the Census Bureau, Congressional Budget Office, and Internal Revenue Service,
Beginning in the 1970s, economic growth slowed and the income gap widened. Income growth for households in the middle and lower parts of the distribution slowed sharply, while incomes at the top continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top of the distribution rose to levels last seen more than 80 years ago (during the 'Roaring Twenties').
U.S. society is morphing into an oligarchy. The economy is unable to provide basic sustenance to working families. This is a central motive for progressive Jews seeking to raise the minimum wage. “At the very center of my identity as a rabbi is my commitment to ensuring that people must have enough to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their families,” Rabbi Klein said. “Fighting for a minimum-wage increase comes out of that spirit.”
In the city of Los Angeles, the effort to increase the minimum wage began on Labor Day 2014, according to him. This past July 14, the County of Los Angeles passed a minimum wage increase that mirrors the city’s. “My organization was part of that,” Rabbi Klein noted, "and is also lobbying Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek (also Jewish), who is launching his city’s minimum wage policy as well. We have our eyes on several other cities within the county to extend this effort further.”
JOINING HIM in this movement is a millennial American, reared in a Reform Jewish family in Connecticut. But Sarah Giskin, 21 (shown in photo at left), a recent graduate from Temple University in Philadelphia, doesn’t stop there. She calls for systemic change.
“I am involved in the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour because I don't believe that poverty is necessary,” Giskin said via email to Jewish Currents. “It is a man-made byproduct of the unjust economic system of capitalism.” Within that system, unemployment and underemployment holds down wages. When there are more job-seekers than jobs, employers can exploit jobless workers to pay them lower versus higher wages.
Giskin is a volunteer organizer with 15 Now, a group that is pushing for Philadelphia residents to vote on establishing a minimum wage of $15 per hour. She speaks in the language of the Occupy Wall St. movement, which millennials such as herself animated in part due to issues such as student debt, job cuts and home losses, as taxpayers bailed out Wall St. banks.
“I believing that the working class beginning to win our human rights back from the one percent is a step in dismantling that system,” Giskin said. “Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would transfer millions of dollars from the one percent back to working people and their families, allowing them to live healthier, safer, and more fulfilling lives while also inspiring them to continue the struggle for economic justice.”
THE MAIN CAUSE of such injustice is straightforward, according to economist Jared Bernstein, former Obama White House economist and CNBC and MSNBC contributor. In essence, while the U.S. economy grows, the working majority has not shared in that growth, according to Bernstein. That critical trend is driving the growing income and wealth gap in the U.S. between a well-heeled minority and precarious majority.
Minimum-wage earners occupy the bottom rungs of that economic ladder, and are largely labor union-free. “Roughly 95 percent or more of the workers that would benefit from a minimum wage increase to $12 are not members of a labor union,” David Cooper, an EPI economist, said via email to Jewish Currents. In 2013, 11.3 percent of U.S. wage and salary workers were union members versus 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the U.S. Labor Department. That’s roughly a decline of about half in union membership, which has, in effect, expanded the ranks of minimum-wage workers.
Hadar Susskind is director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action and the Bend the Arc Jewish Action Political Action Committee, based in Washington, DC. “We are involved in the Fight for 15 movement,” he said — funded primarily by the SEIU — “so that the bounty of our country is shared in more equitable ways than we currently have.”
Bend the Arc is part of national, local, and state movements to raise the minimum wage. A key target of those movements is passage of the federal Raise the Wage Act of 2015, which would up the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour to $12 per hour by 2020 and end the subminimum wage for tipped employees.
“We have continued to push for a federal increase,” explains Laser of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, “and have shifted some focus to state and local efforts. During the past election cycle, we worked with our congregations and local leaders in Nebraska on an initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage by supporting Initiative 425. Additionally, the Reform Movement worked with other Jewish and secular social justice groups on a campaign that resulted in Maryland's Montgomery County passing a bill to increase the minimum wage gradually to $11.50.”
In New York, the Jewish Coalition on the Fight for $15, which includes leaders of the Jewish Labor Committee, Local 1199/SEIU, the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, Habonim Dror, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Workmen's Circle, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has helped prompt Albany to increase the New York state minimum wage for fast-food workers from $8.75 to $15. This will only occur, however, in increments that will take until 2018 to reach $15 within New York City, and until 2021 outside the city.
“Our agenda is a living wage,” insists Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen's Circle. “Fifteen dollars is just a starting point.”
Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. He can be reached via e-mail.