Economic Justice April 07, 2013

Economic Justice.   A sermon by Rev. David M Bryce

Today’s service is our annual Justice Sunday, encouraged by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  The UUSC partners with organizations around the world to work for justice and human rights.  One of those organizations is the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organizing group for restaurant workers.

One of the congregational themes for this year is economic justice, and this sermon is also connected to that theme.

        This sermon also connects to three of the Principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

We may disagree on the particulars of what inherent worth and dignity means, we may disagree on what justice means or requires, or on what equity is and on what compassion is.  But a decent standard of living must be part of that.

I begin with some statements of history and attitude in the interest of full disclosure:

I grew up in a staunchly union household.  My parents were members of actors unions and my paternal grandfather and my uncles were a members of the United Mine Workers and after moving to Detroit joined other unions up there.

In the past I worked in a number of low paying jobs, receiving minimum wage or less, including in the restaurant business. 

One of my first jobs was as a bus boy at Tony’s Italian Restaurant on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.  My pay was rather low: I got ten percent of whatever the waiters said they had made in tips.

Some time later I worked for over a year at a fast food restaurant in Seattle, one of a chain called Skipper’s Fish, Chips and Chowder House.  The pay was better, but the uniform was silly and demeaning and I felt humiliated any time someone I knew came into the restaurant.

In economics I am a liberal.  That is, I recognize that capitalism creates great wealth, but I also see that capitalism has its own problems. 

        First, unregulated capitalism results in a boom and bust cycle that is not good for human beings. 

Second, an unregulated, unpoliced society allows the immoral, the amoral and the bullies to reign supreme.  That is true in an economic system as much as it is in any human society.

The only agency with enough power to regulate capitalism–to override the boom and bust cycle on the one hand and to enforce minimum standards of decent behavior on the other–is government.  

Government is how we act together.

Employees should be able to exercise their right—as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—to unionize, as unions are the only way that employees can counter the inherent disparity in power between employer and employee.

 Capitalism does not provide human services.  The unemployed will not receive food, clothing, shelter, medical care or an education through a purely capitalist system.  And even many people with jobs will not receive these through their employer and will not receive enough money to purchase these things for themselves. 

 Since human services are not provided the capitalist system and certainly are not provided at all to the unemployed, these must be provided through the efforts either of non-profits efforts or—my preference—of government or government regulations must require that employers make them part of the pay package they offer to employees.

Justice always has a cost, often an economic cost, but that cost is always justified by justice.

I believe that if someone works full time, they ought to receive an income high enough to support themselves and their family. 

One of the myths of America is that the recipients of minimum wage are all high school students who live at home and so do not need higher pay.  While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does report that people under age 25 make up the largest percentage of those who make minimum wage, there are plenty of adults working across America who make only that income.  And that means that there are people attempting to raise families on very little money.

Current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr.  For tipped workers the minimum wage is the same, but it is composed of two parts.  It is $2.13 per hour paid for by the employer plus tips.  If the tips do not bring the employee up to $7.25 then the employer is supposed to make up the difference.  $7.25 per hour amounts to an annual income of less than $15,000 per year.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the 2013 federal poverty level is:

1 person, 11,490

2 people  15,510

3 people  19,530

 That is to say, minimum wage pays less than the poverty level for a family of two.  It would be very difficult to raise a family on the current minimum wage. 

In the late 1960’s the minimum wage was high enough that it lifted a family of three above the poverty level; still very low, but better than today. 

 My own belief is that minimum wage ought to be set at the standard of a living wage.  That can be tied to the Consumer Price Index, as Social Security is currently.  Both liberals and conservatives ought to agree that people who are willing to work and who take a full time job should be able to support themselves with the income from that job.  But our current minimum wage does not provide that level of income support.

A 2005 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors stated:

“The connection between impoverished workers and homelessness can be seen in homeless shelters, many of which house significant numbers of full-time wage earners. A survey of 24 U.S.cities found that 13% of persons in homeless situations are employed.”

I do not find worth and dignity in the treatment of people who work full time but must stay in a shelter.  I do not find justice, equity or compassion in our social treatment of people who work full time but are unable to support themselves and their families.

Among the lowest paid workers in America are restaurant workers.  And among the sad ironies in America is that large numbers of health care workers (especially health aides) do not have health care coverage and that large numbers of food workers need food stamps. 

There are racial and gender components to the economics of restaurant business.  White males are more likely to make a living wage than women or nonwhites.  That is partly because white males are more likely to be in the jobs that pay more: waitstaff or management.  People we might describe as black or brown are more likely to work in the kitchen or bussing tables, and that is true even when one accounts for English language skills.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee recommends that we all read the book “Behind The Kitchen Door” by Saru Jayaraman, which details some of the difficulties that restaurant workers face and also provides specific actions that we as consumers can take to reward ethical restaurant owners and to push the restaurant industry to provide justice, equity and decent wages and benefits to restaurant workers.

Jayaraman, who is codirector of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, points out that the industry is rife with racism, sexism and unfair treatment of workers. 

Not all restaurateurs are guilty of these things, but good people who are well intentioned must compete in an industry where bad behavior too often increases profits.  

There are a variety of ways in which restaurant workers can be exploited, one of them tied to immigration issues.  The book estimates that 40% of restaurant workers in New York City are in the United States without documentation.  Aside from not knowing their rights as workers, when they do complain about the withholding of tips or the failure to pay proper wages they are often threatened with being handed over to federal authorities who would deport them. 

Part of the problem with the restaurant industry in America is that the government does not fully enforce minimum wage laws; part of our task is to urge government to fulfill its regulatory responsibilities.

Typically, restaurant workers do not have paid sick days as part of their benefit package.  If you do not work, you do not get paid.  That means that workers are required to make a tough decision if they are sick.

People should have paid sick days because that is the right thing.   I say that before I go on as that is the proper reason for pushing for paid sick leave for restaurant workers and I do not want to be diverted from that to the wrong reasons. 

Personal interest is usually the wrong reason to set social policy, and is always a lesser reason for setting social policy.  The right reason for setting social policy is that the policy is right.

However, there are also public health and personal interest reasons for insisting on both paid sick leave and health care coverage for restaurant workers.

I hesitate to share this as I am mindful of the lament of Upton Sinclair, who in the early 1900’s wrote the book The Jungle.   In that book he detailed the terrible working conditions in the slaughterhouses of Chicago and hoped that in doing so he would help to change the circumstances under which people had to labor.  Instead, the public reacted to the unhealthy conditions under which their meat was processed.  Food purity laws were passed but labor rights were ignored.  Upton Sinclair famously said, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach.”

I am aiming for your heart.

Most restaurant workers who are sick must choose between taking time off without pay or reporting to work sick.  And they know that if they take too much time off, their jobs will be forfeit. And so as many as two thirds of restaurant workers report cooking meals or serving them while sick. 

Forgive me, you may wish to tune out for the remainder of this sentence, but twelve percent of food workers report working when they were suffering from illness including flu, vomiting and diarrhea.  As Jayaraman points out in her book, recognize that it is quite possible that at times someone serving you in a restaurant or preparing your food in the kitchen—maybe your salad—has worked on or brought you your food right after they have rushed to the rest room to be sick.

And, of course, some illnesses are airborne and do not require actual contact with your food or your plate to spread to you.

That is a personal interest reason for supporting paid sick leave and health care coverage; but that is the lesser reason. 

It is a public health reason for supporting paid sick leave and health care coverage; which is a very good reason.  There is evidence reported in the book that paid sick leave for restaurant workers does decrease the number of food borne disease outbreaks.

But it is also a compassionate reason for supporting paid sick leave and health care coverage, and that is the right reason.  It is the just reason. 

Our religious values call upon us to act for justice.

They call upon us to recognize the worth of every person and to support those conditions which enhance human dignity.  Fair pay, including a minimum wage that provides a living wage, along with full benefits and decent working conditions help to do that.

Our values call upon us to support conditions of justice and equity for every person. That should include equal pay and equal opportunity for people regardless of their gender or the color of their skin.

There is a table set up in the Upper Gathering Hall and following the service you can pick up materials including “A Consumer Guide on the Working Conditions of American Restaurants” produced by ROC – Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.  Also, there are materials on ethical eating.

Let us build a world of hope and promise for all.