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Faith Groups Are Central to the Fight for Economic Justice in the Fast-Food Industry

McDonald's strike

SOURCE: AP/John Minchillo

Demonstrators in support of fast-food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation, Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square.

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The American fast-food industry fosters remarkable inequality: One fast-food CEO is paid around $11 million per year, while the average cook earns about $9 per hour for an annual salary of $18,720—that is, if an employee can even secure full-time work. Employee hours are cut, sometimes without notice, so that employers can avoid paying workers during periods when sales are low. These hard-working employees are often forced to work off the clock or are paid via debit cards that charge a fee for transactions. In these instances, employers’ profits are shamelessly put far and above the rights of workers.

Profits are so important to these companies that employees are prevented from accessing basic human needs. Papa John’s millionaire Founder, Chairman, and CEO John Schnatter openly vowed to cut all workers’ hours to avoid having to provide insurance to full-time workers, as required under the Affordable Care Act. McDonald’s also demonstrated a total disregard for employees’ basic needs when it published a sample budget that ostensibly illustrated how workers can get by on their abysmally low wages. The original sample budgeted $20 per month for health care and $0 for heat bills. The budget also included wages from a second job, actually highlighting the fact that one low-wage salary is not enough to support a family.

June 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the legislation that originally introduced the minimum wage. But since the minimum wage has not been indexed to inflation, its buying power has actually decreased over time, while costs for families have increased. This means that an employee today who makes the minimum wage can afford less than the previous generation of low-paid workers could afford. Labor policies have thus far failed to stop the dehumanizing exploitation and inadequate pay of these service workers. With the wages they actually receive, workers can barely afford the food they serve, let alone provide for their families.

When dealing with an industry concerned with the bottom line—and a policy debate centered on monetary value—faith-based groups are now trying to shift the narrative to focus on human dignity and connect family values to economic justice. As fast-food workers in cities across the country prepare to strike again, asking for a living wage of $15 per hour and the right to organize, faith leaders are using their theological and material resources to fight for worker justice.

Faith communities stand in solidarity with fast-food workers

When fast-food and retail workers in Chicago walked off their jobs on April 24, 2013, it was no coincidence that they staged their 300-person rally at St. James Cathedral, an Episcopal church located on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Faith communities in Chicago are at the epicenter of fast-food protests against the unfair, unethical treatment of workers. Arise Chicago, for example, is an organization that “builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing, and advocating for public policy changes.” Since 2002 Arise has collaborated with “nearly 2,500 workers to recover over $5 million in owed wages and compensation,” all the while citing scripture and Christian principle as its guiding force.

There are countless other organizations across the country committed to engaging faith groups on issues surrounding labor justice. Interfaith Worker Justice, or IWJ, for instance, advocates for “the rights of workers by engaging diverse faith communities into action, from grassroots organizing to shaping policy at the local, state and national levels.” In 2010 IWJ, along with 35 other faith-based groups, organized Wage Theft Day of Action, where they put forth a four-pronged political strategy to combat wage theft. Regulations such as the Miami Dade County Wage Theft Ordinance have been put into place as a result of IWJ’s activism, ensuring that low-wage workers are paid for the work they do.

Economic justice is the heart of faith traditions

Faith communities are involved in the plight of fast-food workers because justice is a perennial tenet of religious ideology. In his book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American.” It has long been the role of faith communities—Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Quaker, Buddhist, Sikh, and others—to lend this comprehensive vision to labor policy. After participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, the great activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said he felt as if his “legs were praying.”

Yet even before the deep physical and spiritual social justice that permeated the civil rights movement, there was in the early 20th century a liberal Christian movement aimed at abating the ills of modern industrial—and immigrant—society called the Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel professed that “the consciousness of solidarity is of the essence of religion.” As a result, its adherents saw their social-justice work as faith itself rather than a mere requirement in the quest for personal salvation. Through its reinterpretation of Christianity as a system of social ethics, the Social Gospel pushed Christians into the world as activists.

There is also an equally rich tradition of social-justice theology in American Catholicism. Activist Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933; she fought in solidarity with and out of love for the working poor to “change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.” The U.S Catholic Bishops wrote in 1986 that all workers had the right to organize and that, “The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions.” Pope Francis, drawing from past papal teaching on economic justice, recently asserted in a letter to world leaders that, “Every economic and political theory or action must set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom.” Social justice is not a fringe movement or a select interpretation of Catholic theology; rather, it forms the core of the Catholic interpretation of scripture. Catholic social teaching propels the Church forward in the fight for justice and equality and, like  the Social Gospel, affirms “the priority of the human being over capital and land.”

Faith and progressivism

While the mainstream media has recently picked up on the historical importance of liberal Christianity and the possible rise of religious progressivism, the tangible value of faith in the labor movement has gone largely unnoticed. The assertion of faith-based economic teaching, that human beings hold more value than their contribution to corporate profit, should form the core of any labor policy.

It is time to recognize the powerful and progressive role that faith plays in securing rights for working Americans. It is also time for the American iterations of religious traditions to embrace these legacies of social activism. Faith in society must move from rigid codification to the promotion of human dignity in all arenas, including the workplace. The fast-food industry, along with other low-wage industries, constitutes 58 percent of postrecession job growth. Faith-based groups are acting as real allies and activists to this fast-growing cohort of workers through strikes, education, and empowerment. The intersection of faith and fast food today highlights the human stakes of labor policy and has the power to shape the debate going forward.

Sarah Miller is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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