On January 31, 2012, PCG joined with a coalition of religious leaders, community activists, and low-wage workers to seek an increase in the state minimum wage. We traveled to Springfield to make the case for SB 1565, which would raise the current level of $8.25 per hour to slightly above $10 over the next three or four years. This higher figure would approximate a living wage.
The bill would also index the minimum wage to inflation so that those at the bottom do not fall behind by default every year.
The coalition rented an Amtrak train car so that we could make the trip down from Chicago and back together. Riding together were individuals across race and class, from suburbs and inner city. Going down and back, we talked, prayed, learned to do advocacy together, and shared our experiences of the day. All these things were fun, and at times, deeply moving.
Every part of our program worked according to plan, including delivering scrolls with 220 signatures of faith leaders to legislators; holding a press conference and rally, ably led by Rev. Dr. Norval Brown of Grace United Protestant Church of Park Forest and addressed by the bill’s sponsor, Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-4th); and visiting individually with representatives and senators in their offices.
Even with all this, what stood out most was the affirmation from many senators and representatives that they had heard a moral voice.
In his speech at the National Day of Prayer breakfast last week, President Barack Obama stated: “We can’t leave our values at the door … the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis … but because their faith and their values dictated it.”
Economic policies should be subject to moral judgment. Claims to morality must stand the test of intellect. In the world we seek, morality and policy will be synonymous. If they are not, we will lose our souls as individuals and our stature as a nation.
It is unfair, unjust, immoral, to require individuals to work 40 hours a week for something less than a livable wage: “Who serves as soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of the grapes? … when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing the harvest.”
(1 Corinthians 9:7-11).
Some legislators argued that a minimum wage constrains the number of new jobs, especially for small business. But isn’t this what was heard years ago when reformers called for safe working conditions, the elimination of child labor, and a five-day work week? Yes, costs may go up. But so do fairness and decency in the workplace.
What about jobs for part-time youth? Nearly 85% of those affected by minimum wage legislation are at least 20 years old. Most are adults struggling in full-time jobs to support their families. (Community Population Survey 2010).
The economy is driven by consumer demand. Putting more money in the hands of those who must spend it to provide food, shelter, and clothing is sound economic policy. In the face of greater demand, business will create the jobs we so desperately need.
On the way home, as the train was approaching Union Station, I was asked to offer a prayer, which as best I can recall, included these words: “Gracious God, we come from all parts of this city, rich and poor, and, indeed, from across the state. Our hands are joined in common purpose. We seek support for those who most need of your help. We come home tonight in your name. Amen. ”
Passing SB 1565 will be an uphill battle, but it could happen this year. We need your support. There is nothing more exhilarating than being in the right fight.