Pioneered by IAF affiliate Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), the first living wage standard in the United States was passed in 1994, requiring that workers contracted by the City of Baltimore be paid a living wage. Learning from this success, affiliates across the West/Southwest IAF soon launched living wage campaigns of their own.
In the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Valley Interfaith leaders were appalled to learn that 30% of county and municipal workers earned minimum wage or barely higher. Congregational leaders took the radical step of listening to their neighbors as they shared stories of working at the same wage for decades, no longer able to pay for their own groceries. After hearing from economists that the labor market includes pressure ordinary people can leverage through their congregations and unions, Valley Interfaith decided to challenge the culture of low-paid work, persuading McAllen, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo and Mission Independent School Districts to peg the lowest wage to slightly above the federal poverty limit for a family of four, thus passing the highest living wage standard in Texas. The Texas Education Agency, City of McAllen and other public entities soon followed suit (Victory in the Valley, Texas Observer). By 2000, MIT economist Paul Osterman estimated that the living wage efforts of Valley Interfaith raised regional wages by $9.3 Million per year. Years later, Valley Interfaith leaders leveraged additional commitments from Cameron County, the City of Brownsville and the Texas Southernmost Community College to raise the starting wages of their employees, including contracted.
In 1998, COPS/Metro Alliance leaders persuaded the City of San Antonio to institute a tax abatement ordinance requiring companies that receive municipal tax incentives to pay a living wage with benefits. Sixteen years later, leaders found themselves defending that same ordinance, ultimately saving the City $8 Million in unnecessary subsidies to a corporation that set up shop even without the incentives. After an extensive listening campaign, COPS/Metro leaders launched a 2014 “campaign for economic security” that by 2019 raised the wages of the lowest paid San Antonio, Bexar County, San Antonio Independent School District and Alamo Community Colleges workers to $15 per hour.
The fight for living wages spread to Arizona, Louisiana, Colorado and other parts of Texas.
In Arizona, Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC) persuaded the City of Tucson to pass a living wage standard in 1998. In 2001, one hundred religious and community leaders piled into a Board of Supervisors’ hearing to pass a similar LivingWage Ordinance for businesses receiving Pima County contracts. In 2014, Austin Interfaith succeeded in persuading the Austin Independent School District to adopt federal Davis-Bacon wage standards for workers contracted for school construction. One year prior, leaders passed a municipal living wage ordinance mandating that any corporation receiving taxpayer incentives pay the City of Austin-established living wage. Since then, leaders succeeded in increasing that living wage standard from $11 per hour to $15 per hour.
Affiliates in El Paso have used creative means to combat wage theft, while most recently, organizations in Baton Rouge, Denver, Houston and Phoenix allied with local teachers and school employees to ensure that the adults who teach, feed and transport schoolchildren earn enough to sustain their own families with dignity (see further below).
Across the West/Southwest IAF, stories about working adults struggling to raise families with wages too low to live on are shared in church halls and food pantries, in after-school meetings and on work sites. Congregation and union leaders are creating spaces for people to transform their private pain into innovative solutions benefitting not only individual families, but local businesses and regional economies.
After hundreds of conversations among workers, labor allies and elected officials, City of Austin voted on a budget that raised the living wage floor for their workers to $20/hr including contracted workers and those employed by corporations benefiting from City tax subsidies. At the urging of Central Texas Interfaith, the City of Austin furthermore expanded emergency assistance for struggling renters and sustained spending on essential human development initiatives including long-term workforce development and after-school programs that the organization had pioneered.
Specifically, the Council approved:
$20/hour base pay for all City of Austin staff, contract employees and employees of corporations receiving City tax subsidies
- $8 Million in emergency rental assistance
- $3.1 Million for long term workforce development
- Increased funding for AISD programs including Parent Support Specialists and Primetime After School programs
Central Texas Interfaith commended the Mayor and the City Council for investing in these important initiatives before turning their attention to the County budget.
Austin Councilmembers Approve Budget Amendment to Include $20 Minimum Wage, KVUE
Executive Director Michelle Paul explains how Capital IDEA Houston transforms lives. Capital IDEA Houston is a long-term job training program established by TMO.
Fighting wage theft on the community and parish level can be especially effective.
A big part of building any coalition is talking directly to people about their problems and really listening to them, said Jason Lowry, an organizer with the Valley Interfaith Project based in Phoenix.
"Once you figure out what the stories are, there are all kinds of ways you can pull together people who are willing to take action on it. It needs to be truly a grassroots effort."
Such actions also help congregations rethink their role locally, he says, and allow them to "reclaim turf."
Monica Dorcey, who has been a leader with Valley Interfaith Project for 15 years, recently worked with a network of churches in Phoenix to get more low-income people vaccinated.
In general, the basic tool for reaching people, according to Dorcey, is a neighborhood walk, going door-to-door, passing out flyers, setting up house meetings. "Even the ice cream lady who goes all over the neighborhood is involved. It creates a buzz in the neighborhood" as well as generating positive publicity, she said.
"If you don't rush through it, you can have a real conversation not just about what you're interested in, but about what else is going on. You can have opportunities for people to say what's on their mind," she said.
In the case of a topic like wage theft, "it's not something people readily talk about. You have to put yourself in a position where they can open up about it," Dorcey said.
If someone has complaints about some type of wage theft, the goal would be first to help the person "share their story in a clear, concise way." Then, she suggested, a delegation of parish members might approach the individual's employer.
"Say 'We don't expect our people to be treated that way. We respectfully ask you to rectify this situation.' Make it clear that this is something we're working on and we're not going away," she said.
If that happens, she added, "Word would get around. The church might become known as a place to go" to redress injustices.
[Photo Credit: CNS / Reuters / Mike Blake]
On This Labor Day, Advocating for Just Wages Means Fighting Company Theft, National Catholic Reporter [pdf]
Rev. Paul Skeith from SoCo Episcopal Community and Central Texas Interfaith (CTI) testified at the Travis County Commissioners Court to advocate that any private company receiving public tax subsidies from the county pay living wages, benefits, a career track, and strategy to hire locally. The Court subsequently adopted these and other worker safety measures as part of a package advocated by CTI congregations and member institutions including Workers Defense Project, LIUNA, and Central Texas Building Trades.
On Tuesday the Travis County Commissioners Court held a discussion on “Project Silicon Silver,” widely speculated to be the alias for chipmaking giant Samsung’s development contract. The discussion centered around acceptance of the preliminary application, along with a corresponding $150,000 fee paid out to the county by the developer.
The county is considering providing financial benefits in exchange for Samsung’s adherence to worker protection, wage, compensation, OSHA requirements and more.
Several citizen callers also stressed the need for county stipulations, including a living wage indexed to cost of living, local employee minimums and health insurance benefits for employees.
Father Paul Skeith of SoCo Episcopal Community advocated for all of the above issues, in addition to the opportunity for employees to rise within the company.
Jessica Wolff with Workers Defense Project highlighted the strengths of the development standards, citing the local hiring requirement, construction training requirement and anti-retaliation provisions, and called for the standards set in this policy to become the county norm.
”We recognize this is a great first step and there’s still more work to be done,” Wolff said.
Project Silicon Silver Proceeds at a Gallop, Austin Monitor [pdf]
A trio of sales tax measures to train San Antonio workers for new jobs, expand public transit and renew the city’s early childhood education program were passing by an overwhelming margin with a majority of the vote counted Tuesday night.
The workforce and VIA ballot measures had little organized opposition while the forces in favor had the backing of business leaders, heads of chambers of commerce and grassroots organization COPS/Metro. The two campaigns, plus the third to renew Pre-K 4 SA, spent more than $1.7 million to convince voters to pass all three measures.
The workforce proposal was COPS/Metro’s baby. The organization — which founded the workforce development program Project Quest more than 25 years ago — pushed City Council earlier this year to pump $75 million into workforce development as part of a $191 stimulus package and later put their weight behind the ballot measure.
On Wednesday night, COPS/Metro leaders felt vindicated — though they recognized the win likely wouldn’t have happened without the suffering and heavy toll wrought by the pandemic.
Sister Jane Ann Slater and Cathy McCoy, organizers with COPS/Metro Alliance, attended the small SA Ready to Work election night watch party at Augie’s Barbed Wire Smokehouse with Nirenberg. They saw the voters’ support as validation of the work done by Project Quest, a workforce development program founded by COPS/Metro that will serve as the model for the larger program.
To gain support for the ballot measure, the grassroots organization made a concerted effort to reach voters who may not have normally voted on local propositions – or at all, McCoy said.
“It was an educational process, I think,” Slater said. “We reached voters” by phone and in person.
[Photo Credit: Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News]
San Antonio Voters Approve Ballot Measures for Workforce Development, Transit & Pre-K, San Antonio Express-News [pdf]
San Antonio Voters Give Thumbs-up to Workforce, Pre-K, and Transportation Ballot Measures, San Antonio Report [pdf]
Huge Support for Ready-to-Work Plan Will Put 40,000 Unemployed San Antonians in Jobs, News4SA [pdf]
About five years ago, COPS/Metro sought and won “living wage” minimum pay for City workers, resulting in raises for about 20 percent of the civilian workforce. They won similar measures from Bexar County, and some school districts followed suit.
Now two measures on the Nov. 3 ballot offer San Antonians the opportunity to again help lower-rung workers. Both involve a one-eighth-cent sales tax that for 20 years has provided funding to buy development rights to protect sensitive lands over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.
The first ballot measure would transfer those funds to provide about $154 million over the next four years for a job training program projected to boost the incomes of up to 40,000 workers. That’s an aggressive goal, but what gives it credibility is that its approach is based on Project Quest, a jobs training program designed by COPS/Metro 28 years ago.
Interestingly, it was COPS/Metro and their sister organizations around the state that persuaded the Legislature back in 2001 to authorize local governments to spend money on job training and early childhood education. That same law, the Texas Better Jobs Act, permitted San Antonio voters to approve Pre-K 4 SA in November 2012. The highly successful preschool program is up for renewal on the ballot.
[Photo Credit: Scott Ball, San Antonio Report]
Election Day Ballot Will Let You Celebrate Labor Day on November 3rd, San Antonio Report [pdf]
While labor rights activists support Tesla’s stated commitment to a minimum wage of $15 an hour, substantially above Austin’s $7.25, the agreement sheds no light on which workers this standard applies to. The average hourly rate for manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is $22.
“The fear is that a company like Tesla keeps its high-level creative jobs in places like the Bay Area and begins to see Austin like a low-wage, high-tech town,”
said Doug Greco, lead organizer of Central Texas Interfaith, representing a coalition of nonprofit groups in Austin.
[Photo Credit: Cyber Truck: Tesla; Map: Lasagnaforone / Getty]
How Tesla Was Lured to Austin, Texas Monthly [pdf]
According to Austin Interfaith, an alliance representing faith-based organizations, schools, nonprofits, and labor organizations, says a living wage is a wage that’s sufficient for a worker to support themselves and their family. For years, the group has pushed for establishment of a living wage in Austin. The alliance says the local living wage for a single parent who has two children and no savings is $21 an hour....
[Photo Credit: The Trail Foundation/Facebook]
Austin Clocks In as Worst US City for Minimum-Wage Earners, Says Study, Culture Map [pdf]
[Excerpts from Community Impact & Austin Monitor]
Travis County commissioners continue to consider a plan to offer electric automaker Tesla millions of dollars in economic incentives to build a factory in eastern Travis County, but with no date yet announced for a decision on the matter. If approved, Tesla could receive nearly $14.7 million in property tax rebates across 10 years with additional rebates in the 10 years following.
At the commissioners' June 30 meeting, Travis County community members again phoned in to voice support and concern regarding the proposed incentives. Several speakers encouraged the county to leverage for greater worker wage and protection commitments.
"We are skeptical. Numerous studies have shown that local governments rarely if ever receive benefits commensurate with what incentives cost, and, despite what they say, businesses rarely if ever give incentives much weight when deciding where to locate," said [Rev.] Michael
Floyd, who spoke on behalf of Central Texas Interfaith....
Floyd...pointed out that even at the average wage cited by Tesla, a family of three would still qualify for Travis County Rental Assistance. Currently, people earning 150 to 250 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines, or $31,580 to $54,300, qualify to receive rental assistance from the county due to an expansion in eligibility requirements resulting from Covid-19.
[Photo Credit: Courtesy Tesla via Community Impact]
Travis County Continues Tesla Deliberations With No Date Set for Vote on Economic Incentives, Community Impact [pdf]
County Development Incentive for Tesla Sees More Support, Austin Monitor [pdf]
In small group conversations organized through their congregations, Valley Interfaith leaders Elisa Alfaro of Holy Spirit parish and Dayra Campos of San Juan Diego kept hearing the same stories: workers in cold storage facilities earning less than the minimum wage and experiencing rampant labor abuse.
While the federal minimum wage is $7.25, parishioners shared that they are often paid less than half that by McAllen producers. When one company closed access to the bathroom for employees, they were forced to walk 10 minutes to a gas station for their bathroom break. Another parishioner shared constant threats by their boss if they were to admit working 10 hours per day for $600 per month (less than half the minimum wage).
In response, Valley Interfaith leaders are calling on the City of McAllen to ensure that no company that pays workers under the minimum wage, or is guilty of wage theft, receives incentives from the city. They are also calling on the City to investigate abusive labor practices. Leaders are now meeting with the McAllen Economic Development Corporation and McAllen City Manager about making these changes.
"Nobody should earn a slave wage," said Elisa Alfaro.
[Image Credit: KVEO footage]
Faith Leaders, Lawyer: Wage Theft Rampant at Local Cold Storage Facilities, The Monitor [pdf]
Produce Industry Wage Dispute, KVEO [pdf]
Fair Pay a Distant Dream for Produce Packers in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio Express-News