During last week’s City budget discussion on raising the entry-level wages for City employees, we were disturbed to hear Mayor Ivy Taylor claim that raising wages is an “outsider’s” agenda.
“I have great hesitance to us adopting solutions from other communities for San Antonio," Taylor said. "I think we really need to be focused on what our challenges are here and not get caught up in national debates. We have to focus on what our circumstances are here.”
It made me wonder, how much Mayor Taylor knows about San Antonians and their circumstances? Who does she include in her community, and who does she consider an outsider? Four months ago, I had the privilege of co-chairing COPS/Metro Alliance’s 40th Anniversary Assembly, which brought out 1,000 San Antonians from congregations, unions, schools, and other nonprofits – real “insiders,” if you will – in support of a local living wage campaign, starting with our public sector employees.
At the assembly, Chris Almandarez, a 19-year-old leader from Sacred Heart Catholic Church told a story all too familiar to those of us who live in the “other” San Antonio. Chris’ mother works two jobs in SAISD and a third taking care of an elderly woman on the weekends. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. every morning and ends at 9:30 p.m. each night. His father works so hard that when he takes a day off, he gets ill, because his body is not used to resting. Chris has grown up seeing his mother only 15 minutes per day, between her jobs.
“What gets me angry is to think of other children who are growing up without their mom or dad, who don't have support in doing homework, studying, and even making a meal," said Chris, who recently dropped out of college to help his family make ends meet.
Are people like Chris and his parents an outside lobby? I think not. They are just one family of thousands who have joined this homegrown campaign, because, sadly, the problem of low wages in San Antonio is also homegrown. Almost one third of children in San Antonio live below the federal poverty line, not because their parents are unemployed, but because their parents don’t earn enough in wages to meet their needs. Thousands of families go to bed hungry every night. Even some City workers still earn wages so low that they qualify for food stamps.
As Fr. Brian Christopher reminded us when we gathered that day, living wages are not an entitlement, or an earned privilege. They are a moral right. Everyone who works deserves to earn enough from their labor to feed their children and to spend time with them.
Because we are in touch with this San Antonio, COPS/Metro leaders launched a successful campaign to raise wages in the public sector two years ago. We did this because we don’t want our tax dollars being used to create jobs that hold people in poverty. We want our City employees to be able to go home to their families after a long day’s work, and not have to get ready for their second job. We want the City, the County, the hospitals, the colleges and school districts to be role models that other employers in San Antonio can follow.
Last year, our efforts won us an increase in wages for City, County, and hospital district employees from $11.47 to $13 an hour, and in SAISD from $10 to $12 an hour. At our assembly in April, City Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Shirley Gonzales (D5), Roberto Treviño (D1), and Ron Nirenberg (D8), and County Commissioners Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2) and Tommy Calvert Jr. (Pct. 4) agreed to take another step, and move their lowest paid employees to $14 an hour for fiscal year 2017. Council members Ray Lopez (D6), Rey Saldaña (D4), and Alan Warrick (D2) have also publicly committed their support to reaching $14 an hour this year. We take them at their word, and encourage them to follow through on their pledges during this week’s budget discussion.
Finally, we argue for higher wages because as people of faith, our traditions teach us that all are entitled to the abundance of God’s creation, not just a few of us.
In his work The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that God made the world to be abundant in all things. Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity. “It is good, it is very good.” Human beings were to multiply and enjoy the fruits of nature in their abundance. God created enough for all. Pharaoh introduced the notion of scarcity in Genesis 47, not God. Brueggemann writes, “The Book of Exodus records the contest between a liturgy of generosity and the myth of scarcity – a contest that still tears us apart today.”
Among the many lessons to be learned in the books of Genesis and Exodus is that human beings create scarcity, and we also have the choice to share the abundant fruits of the world with one another. We create scarcity through the way we order our economy and our institutions, and by determining and prioritizing, like Pharaoh, how much or little to give in exchange for a person’s labor.
Likewise, when the City manager and mayor claim that $13 an hour is “enough” for their lowest-paid workers to make a living, or that there just isn’t “enough” in the budget for this raise, they are saying that the lowest-paid City employees are a low priority compared to, say, new stadiums and “smart parks” that tell joggers how to find the nearest water fountain.
Even Adam Smith, who many see as the father of free-market capitalism, would disagree with our mayor. He stated in his book, The Wealth of Nations, that “a man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even be somewhat more; otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family.” Those who claim $13 an hour is enough to raise a family ought to try it for a year and see if they are able to make ends meet.
We believe that workers should earn enough to enjoy abundantly the only thing which is truly limited, truly scarce in our lives – time. Everyone should have time to spend with their families. They should have time to study and to improve their condition or to simply enjoy a Sabbath, or a day of rest, which has unfortunately become a radical notion as of recently.
If there is enough money in the budget to compensate the highest paid employees in the city, there should be enough to compensate the lowest ones as well. As a “city on the rise” we should aspire to set a new standard among American cities to value the contributions of all public servants, instead of merely trying to be competitive. We urge our mayor and City council to do the right thing: to recognize the dignity of all workers by affording them a living wage of $15 an hour by 2018.
“And the one who had much did not have too much. And the one who had little did not have too little” (Exodus 16).
Top image: Virginia Carrillo of St. Leo the Great cheers as the assembly begins. Photo by Sean Encino.