"What's outrageous? Poverty wages!" This chant, echoed by thousands of striking fast food workers as they marched in the streets in New York, Chicago, and dozens of other cities on August 29, has begun to arouse the American conscience this Labor Day. The fast food industry produces billions in profits for corporations like McDonald's and Burger King. But, according to the organizers of the recent walkouts, fast food workers in New York City make only 25% of what they need to survive from their jobs. Fast food workers in other cities aren't much better off. In many ways, their struggle symbolizes the immorality of an economy that is producing jobs that keep workers poor. Who can argue with picket signs that say, "We can't survive on $7.25"?
It is not surprising that religious leaders have been conspicuously present on many of the fast food workers' picket lines. The recent protests have seen priests and ministers, rabbi and imams joining hands with fast food workers. The nation's largest labor-religious coalition, Interfaith Worker Justice, which is sponsoring Labor Day prayer services in cities across the country honoring the dignity of labor, has taken up their cause. So has Rev. Cheri Kroon, of the Flatbush Reform Church in Brooklyn. In April Rev. Kroon told the New York Times that her community was "filled with fast-food workers who have been suffering due to low wages, no sick days and unsafe working conditions."
The faith leaders now rallying to support fast food workers' demands for a living wage are reviving one of America's oldest and most powerful arguments for social justice, one deeply rooted in religious ideals. Many of those marching today for a fifteen-dollar wage for fast food workers might not realize that the very term "living wage" was first popularized by an American Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor John A. Ryan. In 1906 Fr. Ryan published a book called A Living Wage, which argued that workers deserved to earn enough to support themselves and their families in dignity. Over the next three decades, Ryan emerged as the nation's most forceful moral advocate for minimum wage. Many saw the passage of the federal minimum wage law in 1938 as a fulfillment of Ryan's long crusade.
But it was not just Ryan and Catholic co-religionists who helped elevate the ideal of a living wage in the United States. Two years after Ryan's book, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted a "Social Creed" that endorsed the idea of "a living wage in every industry," and the nation's most prominent Jewish rabbi, Stephen Wise also took up this call.
Not only have religious leaders from across the spectrum consistently defended the living wage demand over the last century, activists from many faiths have spent much of the last decade laying the moral groundwork for the fight for justice that is now being waged by fast food workers.
The nation's first living wage ordinance passed in Baltimore in 1994. Soon fights for the living wage spread to many cities. It did not take long for religious communities to get involved. A decade ago many faiths began to go on record again in support of living wage demands. The Disciples of Christ adopted a resolution in 2005. In 2006, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, President of the Fiqh Council of North America, issued a fatwa indicating that living wage demands were consistent with Islamic Shari'ah law.
In 2008 Rabbi Jill Jacobs authored a teshuvah (legal position) on the obligation to pay a living wage was passed by the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and that same year the Presbyterian Church's "Social Creed for the 21st Century" endorsed the living wage demand. Many other denominations followed suit.
Today, the living wage ideal has been broadly embraced by the nation's religions, and the Catholic Church, which helped introduce living wage demand in the early 20th century, seems poised to provide leadership on the issue again. "Not paying a just wage, not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit. That goes against God!" says Pope Francis, the world's most visible religious leader.
As workers take to the streets to fight for a living wage in fast food and other low paying industries, they can take comfort from knowing the nation's religions are increasingly aligned with their cause. That is one reason for hope this Labor Day that we might finally reverse the trend toward inequality that has so long afflicted us.
Joseph A. McCartin directs the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and serves on the board of Interfaith Worker Justice. He is the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.