OPINION: A living wage is necessary for all

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By REV. JEFFREY LINDGREN
Pastor, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

Facebook announced recently that it is raising wages for contract workers in four “pricey cities” to $20/hour.

My question is this: Why are they contract workers instead of employees?

We know the answer, don’t we? The corporation wants to benefit from their labor without having to pay them health and pension benefits, in spite of the fact that they are “employees” of the corporation in any meaningful sense of the word.

Anyone who has ever been to New York City or San Francisco knows that on $20/hour you won’t be able to live there. You’ll have to commute from New Jersey or Oakland, and even then you’ll barely keep your head above water. And pray you don’t get sick or grow old.

HERE IN ST. LOUIS
We had a similar situation here in St. Louis.

Express Scripts, a highly profitable corporation that we are mostly proud to have located here, has chosen to outsource its janitorial services, rather than treat its janitors as employees.

The corporation that won the contract paid the janitors only slightly above minimum wage, made sure that their hours were kept low enough that they would not qualify for benefits, used illegal and unethical methods to keep them from organizing, and generally treated them with no respect. Fortunately, the workers bravely stood up for themselves, SEIU (the Service Employees International Union) took up their cause, and many citizens and religious organizations stood with them.

‘SIGNIFICANT ETHICAL ISSUE’
The religious community saw this as a significant ethical issue.

Sister Barbara Jennings brought a group of shareholders committed to responsible investing to speak to an annual meeting of the corporation. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Lutheran and Episcopal clergy (both denominations have large national contracts with Express Scripts) took up their cause.

CLERGY SPEAK OUT

  • A letter from ELCA clergy stated the following:“Our teaching holds that corporately responsible employers will compensate their employees at an amount sufficient for them to live in dignity and provide adequate pension and health benefits as well as safe and healthy work conditions.”
  • A letter from Episcopal clergy included the following:
    “General Conventions of the Episcopal Church, as well as numerous Diocesan Conventions, have repeatedly affirmed the dignity of all workers, the right of all workers to earn living wages, and the right to organize into unions, if workers so desire.”

Eventually the corporation hired a contractor that the union considers a responsible employer.

We don’t know how much influence any specific actions had on changing company policy, but we do know this: worker organizations and religious communities share the same concern for the well-being of all people, and we need to support and encourage one another towards that end.

At first glance, $20/hour sounds very good. But I am not impressed.

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