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Fighting for A Living Wage for All God’s Children
The Vision
Rev. Jessica L. Anschutz and Mary Ellen Kris

February 18, 2011
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“Pass the bill . . . right now” reverberated throughout the great sanctuary of Convent Avenue Baptist Church where as many as 1,400 people of faith, community leaders, labor leaders and large numbers of elected officials assembled on January 13 for an interfaith service and mass meeting for living wages.

“The bill”—the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act (Intro 251/Living Wage Bill) authored by Bronx City Council Member Oliver Koppel—is still pending before the New York City Council. It would require developers and major employers on city subsidized or financed projects to pay at least a “living wage,” defined as $10/hr plus benefits, or $11.50 per hour. The legislation also provides for an annual cost of living adjustment for the living wage.

The upper Manhattan event in support of the Fair Wages Act was organized by the Interfaith Coalition for the NYC Living Wage Campaign, and the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary. The gathering included representatives from several United Methodist Churches in the New York Annual Conference, along with clergy and laity from dozens of other Christian, Jewish and Muslim houses of worship; the choir of the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Manhattan; soloists; personal testimonies, prayers, preaching, and speeches from several elected officials.

Held just days before Martin Luther King Day, the call to action for this event, and for the overall NYC Living Wage Campaign, comes from the prophetic words of the Rev. Dr. King spoken in support of a living wage for striking Memphis Sanitation Workers, shortly before his death in 1968,
“Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all God’s Children. Now is the time for city hall to take a position for that which is just and honest.” King was assassinated while he was in Memphis supporting the sanitation strike, and on the eve of launching a nationwide economic justice campaign known as, the “Poor People’s Campaign.” In the words of the Living Wage NYC organizers, “In 1968, Dr. King gave his life supporting a living wage for Sanitation Workers in Memphis, Tenn. This MLK Day, join the fi ght for fair wages in NYC!”

Those who filled the Convent Avenue Baptist sanctuary—to standing room capacity—know that an adequate income is still not a reality for all of God’s children in New York City. In the city alone, 317,000 are low-wage workers and more than 63,000 of them are paid less than the legally required minimum wage. Many are also denied the overtime pay they rightly deserve.

The NYC Living Wage Campaign began as a grass roots movement of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in response to the city’s plan to develop the historic Kingsbridge Armory into a retail mall. The city’s proposal promised only poverty wages—minimum wage jobs without benefi ts—for a community that urgently needs living wage jobs.

“Bloomberg (NYC Mayor Michael) says the economics of the living wage act don’t work for businesses and developers,” said Rev. Jeff Wells, senior pastor at Massapequa UMC and chair of the NYAC Board of Church and Society. “That’s what the rich always say to the poor and working people: Justice is not cost effective.”

When the mayor’s office refused to negotiate on the wage issue, the City Council, in response to the community, blocked the Kingsbridge Armory project. What emerged is the broader based interfaith coalition for a living wage, and the Fair Wages for New Yorkers bill. City Council members who support the bill have said that increasing the spending power of the working poor will serve as a positive economic driver, as has been the case in other large cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles. (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20110112/FREE/110119940). Members and leaders of New Day UMC in the Bronx were among those who organized to try to persuade the city to require developers to pay a living wage to those employed at this massive Kingsbridge Armory project. New Day is one of the newest churches in the conference.

“A lot of folks in our congregation in the Bronx can’t pay the rent on the low salaries they receive,” said Rev. Doug Cunningham, pastor of New Day who also serves on the steering committee of the Interfaith Coalition for a NYC Living Wage. “Many charity programs provide relief, but the people stay poor. A living wage helps people move out of poverty. We must insist that the city provide that path for working people in New York.”

The massive crowd at the January 13 meeting was moved to hear that Bishop Jeremiah Park had already spoken on this important economic justice issue. Bishop Park sent a strong letter to NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn, “to express [his] personal support and the support of hundreds of churches and tens of thousands of United Methodists in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church for the proposed ‘Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act.’” (See the the full text of the bishop’s letter: Bishop Urges Council to Pass Bill)

When Rev. Jessica L. Anschutz, associate pastor of Park Avenue UMC in Manhattan, was called upon to lead the “the challenge” portion of the interfaith service, she lifted up the Bishop’s letter of support and quoted his exhortation: “I urge you to support the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act and bring it to quick passage for a more just, fair, and vibrant New York City. Now is the time!”

The bishop’s letter was prompted by a resolution passed at Annual Conference last June. Introduced by the NYAC Board of Church and Society, the resolution endorsed the efforts of the “Living Wage NYC” Campaign and urged the NYC Council to pass the legislation; urged all UM leaders, pastors and laypersons in NYC to contact their council members to support the living wage law; called upon the NYAC Board of Church and Society to assist the Living Wage Campaign “in whatever ways possible and . . . help publicize this effort throughout our Conference.”

As stated in the resolution, the Annual Conference passed this resolution because the “promotion of the living wage movement aligns with one of the four areas of ministry focus of the UMC this quadrennium: ‘Engaging in ministry with the poor’.”

“Ministry with the poor aspires to empower all persons, families, and communities to be economically self-sufficient, and remove structural impediments to achieving that goal,” said Rev. K Karpen, who is the ministry with the poor coordinator for the NYAC, as well as senior pastor at St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC.

As of this writing, 29 of the 51 NYC council members have signed on to co-sponsor the bill. The goal is to bring the bill to a vote by April 4, the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The hope is to enlist the support of five more city council members before then, so as to be able to override a possible veto by Mayor Bloomberg.

City Council members who have not yet signed onto the bill include:

  • Ruben Wills, Queens: 718-528-5712
  • Leroy Comrie, Queens: 718-776-3700
  • Erik Martin Dilan, Brooklyn: 718-963-3141
  • Diana Reyna, Brooklyn: 718-931-1721
  • James Vacca, Bronx: 718-931-1721
  • Jessica Lappin, Manhattan: 212-980-1808

To learn more about the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, or to become involved with NYC’s growing movement, visit www.livingwagenyc.com, or contact Ava Farkas at 212-684-5300, or via email livingwagenyc@gmail.com.

Anschutz is associate pastor at Park Avenue UMC, where Kris is lay leader; Kris also works for the General Board of Global Ministries.