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.
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]
Voters will be asked to approve a 1/8-cent sales tax to fund job training and college degrees for San Antonians who lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The money also would help participants pay rent and other living expenses while they complete those programs.
The sales tax revenue would be dedicated to those purposes for four years....
“Today, San Antonians need this investment more than ever,” Virginia Mata, a leader of the grassroots coalition COPS/Metro told council members Thursday. “It is not only the right thing to do but also the right investment. The seeds that you plant today will have a lasting effect and will help San Antonians rise from the shadows to the light.”
[Photo Credit: Billy Calzada, San Antonio Express-News]
'We Need Action Now': Sales Tax Proposal for San Antonio Economic Recovery Now in Voters' Hands, San Antonio Express-News [pdf]
With Workforce Measure on Ballot, Project Quest Ready to Help Mend Economic Wounds, Rivard Report [pdf]
Since the onset of the pandemic, COPS/Metro with our allies, Project QUEST and the Alamo Colleges, have led the way to ensure San Antonians whose lives have been shattered by the economic free fall can re-enter the workforce equipped with new skills and good salaries. This month, the workforce development program supported by CARES and the city of San Antonio began accepting applicants whose jobs went on hiatus or completely disappeared. These applicants are supported with critical wraparound services that include a stipend, child care, transportation, tutoring and counseling, like the highly successful services provided by Project QUEST, which is recognized nationally for its high graduation and job placement rates. The Alamo Colleges will play a vital role in this program, using Project QUEST’s model along with partnerships that will strengthen and expand its capacity to serve displaced workers.
To be successful, the new Education and Workforce Program will need to adhere to a set of standards like the CARES recovery program, whose primary focus is meeting the needs of the participants. Addressing those needs must be the focal point of decision-making, not business as usual. This means providing quality wraparound services, including a 1-to-100 ratio of counselors to participants, ensuring job placement upon program completion and connecting graduates with jobs that pay a living wage with benefits. And the overall policy direction and management of the program must reside within city government, along with participants, educators and community members who can offer insight into program implementation.
Approximately 160,000 workers have been displaced due to the pandemic. The lion’s share of the funding should be directed toward them. While the majority of tax dollars will be dedicated to workforce development, funds could also go to participants with some college credits who want to complete their degrees. If the higher education institutions adequately address their needs, it is possible a fair number of college graduates could result from a small investment into this pathway. However, using public dollars to offer the same programs and services that previously failed these same students will not do. This is not a scholarship program; it is a jobs program.
[Photo Credit: Billy Calzada/San Antonio Express-News]
Improving Economy of City, Lives Of its Residents in Grasp, San Antonio Express-News [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
In a budget process that the Houston Chronicle says "devolved into a clash of wills," TMO clergy and leaders leveraged a major wage win for workers: $14 per hour for 3,000+ of the lowest paid employees in the Houston Independent School District, employees who keep children safe, nourished, and schools clean.
In testimony to the HISD Board, Deacon Sam Dunning, Director of the Office of Peace and Justice in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston argued: "A budget is a moral document...it is time to treat all workers with dignity."
Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis of Northside Episcopal Church argued, "There is a price to be paid for allocating funds that is not equitable to all classes and that price will be paid by your hourly workers and their family members... in the form of hunger, inadequate housing, anxiety, fear and stress." Rev. Jimmy Grace of St. Andrew’s Episcopal, Rev. Darrel Lewis of New Pleasant Grove Baptist, Rev. Jacqueline Hailey of New Hope Baptist, Rev. Rhenel Johnson of St. Andrew's UMC and Chava Gal-Orr from Temple Sinai spoke at Board meetings and press conferences as well.
This spring, TMO was part of a delegation of 300 Texas IAF leaders that called on state legislators to increase spending in public education in order to retain the talent upon which public schools rely. After passage of HB3, which put millions of dollars into public schools across the state, TMO leaders worked locally to make sure Houston Independent School District used its funds for the lowest paid workers.
[Photo Credit: Top photos from footage by Univision]
Push for Pay Raises for HISD, KHOU
HISD Board Lays Out Compensation Package for 2019-2020 School Year, FOX News
Activistas Exigen Aumento del Salario Mínimo Para Trabajadores del Distrito Escolar Independiente de Houston, Univision
Houston ISD Trustees Approve $1.9 Billion Budget, Houston Chronicle
Video of clergy statements [first skip to 14:33 and then to 19:05]
Five years after COPS/Metro's first wage win, the San Antonio Express-News is crediting the organization with the most recent wage floor hike at Alamo Colleges to $15 per hour.
"The COPS/Metro Alliance, a community organizing coalition, has for years pushed local public entities to adopt a minimum 'living wage' of $15 hourly as part of a national movement. The Alamo Colleges had already raised its minimum wage, along with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and some public school districts, with the stated intent of moving gradually toward the $15 goal. The city and county reached $15 last fall."
In photo top left, taken in 2014, over 300 COPS/Metro leaders publicly launched a "living wage and economic security" campaign to raise the living standards of public employees. In 2014, in top photo at right, a St. Alphonsus Catholic parishioners tells a reporter that her daughter, a full-time Alamo Colleges employee, earned only $8.50 / hour without benefits or vacation. In bottom photos, Alamo Colleges workers Jose Rodriguez and Jennifer Wilgen describe the impact of the wage raise.
The $15/hour minimum represents a 30% increase over the previous wage floor. Alamo College representatives argue that raising the wage floor “supports the economic and social mobility of the families of the lowest paid members of the Alamo Colleges District workforce and the persistence of a growing body of students” employed part-time at the colleges.
This position is consistent with what COPS/Metro leaders have argued for years.
[Photo Credits: Top left and bottom photos by Bob Owen, San Antonio Express-News; top right photo by Rafael Paz Parra]
Alamo Colleges, Other San Antonio Employers, Embrace 'Living Wage', San Antonio Express-News [pdf]
Alamo College Trustees Raise Hourly Minimum Wage to $15, San Antonio Express-News [pdf]
2014 Report on COPS/Metro Launch of Living Wage Campaign