Living Wages

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 ValleyTexas 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.    


The Latest


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 HISDKHOU

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 HoustonUnivision  

Houston ISD Trustees Approve $1.9 Billion BudgetHouston 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 $15San Antonio Express-News [pdf]

2014 Report on COPS/Metro Launch of Living Wage Campaign 


One month before a potential strike vote for Denver educators, who have been negotiating with the district for over a year to improve compensation and address teacher turnover, nearly 400 educators, students, parents, and community members gathered at the Montbello High School Auditorium to share stories regarding the state of schools in Northeast Denver and discuss the need for increased teacher compensation.  Organized by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and the Colorado Industrial Areas Foundation (CO IAF), the assembly represented a broad-based network of schools, congregations, unions, and non-profits.

Colorado IAF and DCTA leaders secured commitments from DPS board members Jennifer Bacon and Dr. Carrie Olson to participate in the upcoming bargaining sessions and to support teachers’ demands for fair compensation. This will be the first time in recent memory that DPS board members will take an active role in bargaining to support teachers.

When Ms. Bacon and Dr. Olson were asked if they would support the union’s demands for fair compensation, they both answered with a resounding “yes!”  Ms. Bacon, whose district includes Montbello, assured the assembly that she has instructed the senior staff to “get to work and find the money” to support the teachers.  Dr. Olson made the commitment “not just to listen, but to act.” 

DPS interim superintendent Ron Cabrera and the next superintendent, Susana Cordova, were present. Sen. Angela Williams, Rep. James Coleman, and City Councilmember Stacie Gilmore also committed to working with DCTA and Colorado IAF to address the issues raised.

As the assembly unfolded, DPS board members Angela Cobian and Barbara O’Brien reached out to the organizations, committing to meet with them and answer those same questions before bargaining resumes in early January.

Teachers in Colorado make on average 37.1% less than other professionals with similar education, and compensation for Denver teachers lags that of nearby districts.  Furthermore, Denver’s salary system for teachers, ProComp, puts substantial money in one-time incentives that are unreliable and unpredictable – meaning educators cannot plan for their future.  This contributes to a high teacher turnover rate, resulting in over 3 of 10 Denver teachers being in their first three years of teaching.

Educator Leaders Meet with DPS Board Members to Discuss Teachers Compensation, Denver Channel [pdf]


On the eve of Labor Day weekend, Austin Interfaith leaders celebrated the protection of living wages for all jobs subsidized by City of Austin taxpayers and applauded the Austin City Council for adopting a $15 an hour living wage floor requirement as a key feature of its expanded Economic Development Incentive Program.

Says David Guarino of All Saints Episcopal Church, “Austin Interfaith recognizes Mayor Steve Adler, City Manager Spencer Cronk and the members of the City Council for hearing and acting on our concerns.”

“Tonight, the Austin City Council has set a national standard for urban economic incentive programs by recognizing that people deserve the dignity of a living wage from employers who receive economic incentives,” Guarino.

Austin Interfaith has worked years to encourage the city to implement living wage standards for city-subsidized companies.

Support Your Local and Small Businesses, Austin Chronicle

Council Set to Approve Incentive Plan to Help Local, Small Business, CBS Austin [pdf]

Council Considers Which Strings to Attach to Corporate Incentives, Austin Monitor [pdf]

Video of Austin Interfaith Testimony


[Excerpt below]

For the first time in city history, the lowest-paid municipal workers are set to begin earning $15 an hour — a major victory for COPS/Metro Alliance, which has been advocating for a living wage for several years.

Scully to Present $2.8 Billion Budget with Flat Tax Rate, San Antonio Express-News [pdf]


After a hard fight, Together Baton Rouge and allies won a salary increase for every teacher, para-professional, bus operator or other East Baton Rouge school district employee with two or more years at the district.

According to The Advocate:

"As they have at several previous meetings, employee groups — Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union and the East Baton Rouge Bus Driver’s Association — pressed once again for raises for all the district employees. The groups have joined forces with the faith-based group Together Baton Rouge to press the issue as well as to push the school system to reject all future requests from manufacturers for property tax breaks via the state’s 80-year-old Industrial Tax Exemption Program. They want the school system to use any ITEP savings to increase employees pay."

Leaders commended the school board and Superintendent Drake for this action, while acknowledging that more work remains to be done to secure salaries. In their words: "this was a big, big step."

[Photo Credit: The Advocate]

EBR School Board OK's $473M Budget, The Advocate [pdf]


One week before the San Antonio City Council votes on the municipal budget, COPS / Metro leaders descended on City Hall to call for increased funding for long-term workforce development program Project Quest. Increasing the city's investment in Quest from $2.2 Million to $ 2.5 Million would enable the program to train an additional 100 residents for new jobs.


With Louisiana as the state with the third highest number of poor people, many of them working full-time, Northern & Central Louisiana Interfaith leaders are devising new ways to tackle poverty. Says Pastor Clayton Moore, "If you work, how is it that you're poor?"

NCLI leaders have launched Another Chance to Succeed (ACTS), modeling itself on Project QUEST in San Antonio and NOVA in Monroe, Louisiana. The goal is to train adults into higher wage jobs of at least $15 / hour. ACTS is targeting January 2017 as its start-up date.


One year after raising the minimum wage for employees of the City of San Antonio (from $11.47 to $13 per hour), COPS / Metro Alliance leaders are celebrating again after the City Council passed a budget that includes a second wage raise to $13.75 per hour. This follows an intense two-year campaign with over 1,000 leaders recently assembling with the Mayor and council representatives to remind them of their commitment to a living wage. When the Mayor made some noise about living wages being an 'outsider's' agenda, leader Maria Tijerina fired back with an editorial reminding her that COPS / Metro is a local organization with a robust constituency.

City Council additionally approved shifting funding for workforce development program Project QUEST out from human services into economic development with its own line in the budget. Funding increased to $2.2 million including $200 thousand to cover tuition for the Open Cloud Academy training developed in collaboration with Rackspace.


A 'crazy' idea from 70-year-old Betsy Smith amidst the lack of an automated federal response sparked the effort: "Rather than just donate money....donate $120 to pay an unemployed person $15 an hour for an 8-hour day's work helping with the cleanup effort."


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