Last week, I was asked by a friend and colleague who works at Restaurant Opportunities Center-Boston to participate in a legislative briefing at the State House. After hearing her impassioned pitch, Laura Ruth and I agreed that this was a function of our mission to repair the world, and I accepted my friend’s invitation. So last Tuesday, I was one of several people to speak about One Fair Wage, a campaign to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, whose sub-minimum wage in Massachusetts is $3 (plus tips, of course, which vary by restaurant, by location, and even by station within a given restaurant). Those who spoke on this panel included Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, as well as restauranteurs who pay just wages and a tip worker who beautifully articulated the realities of those whose livelihoods rely on tips. We heard about the high incidence of poverty among tip workers, the high incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace (by customers and supervisors alike), and how it actually can improve the restaurant economy to pay just wages to every food service worker. I was asked to speak to the spiritual/moral imperative at stake when we legislate sub-minimum wages.
It was an amazing opportunity to see the intersection of race, class, gender, and justice in this struggle for fair wages for restaurant workers. My remarks are included below.
(Also of note, the lunch portion of the briefing was catered by The Just Crust, a pizza company in Harvard Square that bought out the Upper Crust franchise in the wake of a wage theft lawsuit. The Just Crust is celebrating its second birthday tonight, June 30, so if you’re looking for delicious food that also supports just wages for those who serve it, head over and join the party!)
Here is my speech from the panel:
I am one of the pastors of Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain, a Christian congregation affiliated with the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Our congregation’s mission is to seek ultimate meaning, to move toward the heart of God, and to repair the world. So I want to say that my remarks are contextualized by my work as Christian clergy in a congregation that is diverse in many ways, including economically. I am here today because I believe that One Fair Wage is part of the work of repairing the world.
In faith communities, we look to our holy writings for guidance on questions of morality, and as I have been meditating on what One Fair Wage could mean for our communities, cities, and state, I remembered the words of the prophet Amos: let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. In Hebrew scriptures, when we see the words justice and righteousness used together, that was translated in Hebrew communities to mean “care for the poor.” I was appalled to learn that not only is there is sub-minimum wage, but that wage is so minimal that it effectively requires workers to live on tips–workers actually receive a paycheck that says, “This is not a check,” because their base pay goes immediately to taxes.
Martin Luther King Jr. said injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and it follows that indignity to any person or community threatens the dignity of all of us. As a pastor, I follow in the way of Jesus. Food was an integral part of his life and ministry. We tell a story about how he took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed 5,000 people. We tell a story of how one of his last acts was sharing the Passover meal with his disciples, his friends. And yet, in 2015, we legislate a sub-minimum wage such that those whose work is to feed others cannot feed themselves or their families.
What this is ultimately about is human worth and dignity. Jesus was man who befriended tax collectors and prostitutes, those regarded as the lowest and most loathed members of society. When society dehumanized them, he ate with them and talked with them and reflected their worth to them. So I am here today because I believe that One Fair Wage is a justice issue, an opportunity to restore some dignity to the lives of those on the margins of society. We want to believe that in the United States in 2015, we are a bastion of equality, liberty, justice. But we know that gender and race and class and a hundred other factors still leave the playing field uneven. One Fair Wage is an opportunity to even the playing field for single mothers and their children, for immigrants, for people of all races and genders. We who believe in justice, in righteousness, in a better future for our children—we cannot build that future while tipped workers are two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the workforce.
I live on the Roxbury/Dorchester line, and I recently asked some of my neighbors of Latin-American and African descent what they would do if they could do anything to create racial justice. They said, they would change the education system, because in our schools they were educated for the purpose of joining the minimum-wage workforce. It is hard for some of us to imagine the expectation that minimum-wage is all we should expect; but it is harder for me to imagine that minimum wage is something to which some people aspire. You who can inspire and create a future in which no one serves food while going hungry, I encourage you to Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.