The New York Times Magazine carried an extensive article last weekend on the history of living wage campaigns. From its origins in the 1995 Baltimore campaign that raised that city's base pay for city contract workers from $4.25 to $6.10 an hour to current battlegrounds in New Mexico, the piece highlighted the way religious leaders (among others) took an economic issue and turned it into a discussion of morality. In particular, the grass-roots living wage campaign has promoted two moral propositions that resonate with voters throughout the country: "first, that work should be rewarded, and second, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty."
The article outlines the victories of a movement that circumvents federal inaction on the minimum wage and takes the issue to voters and local governments. It also tackles thorny economic issues, such as the plights of small businesses that do pay well above the minimum wage but who may be hurt by increased living wage requirements, and economists who contradict the conventional wisdom that raising wages leads to fewer jobs. But ultimately, economic issues are secondary in this debate; the real force of the living wage campaign is the moral imperative:
Should the minimum wage be raised, and if so, by how much? The moral argument soon trumped all others. The possibility that a rise in the minimum wage, even a very substantial one, would create unemployment or compromise the health of the city's small businesses was not necessarily irrelevant. Yet for many in Santa Fe, that came to be seen as an ancillary issue, one that inevitably led to fruitless discussions in which opposing sides cited conflicting studies or anecdotal evidence. Maybe all of that was beside the point, anyway. Does it - or should it - even matter what a wage increase does to a local economy, barring some kind of catastrophic change? Should an employer be allowed to pay a full-time employee $5.15 an hour, this argument went, if that's no longer enough to live on? Is it just under our system of government? Or in the eyes of God?
The Rev. Jerome Martinez, the city's influential monsignor, began to throw his support behind the living-wage ordinance....I asked if it had been a difficult decision to support the wage law. He smiled slightly. "It was a no-brainer," he said. "You know, I am not by nature a political person. I have gotten a lot of grief from some people, business owners, who say, 'Father, why don't you stick to religion?' Well, pardon me - this is religion. The Scripture is full of matters of justice. How can you worship a God that you do not see and then oppress the workers that you do see?"