Morality of the Minimum

Morality of the Minimum

Let Justice Roll deserves credit for mobilizing values voters around minimum wage initiatives.


Aside from the Democratic triumphs in the House and Senate, the unmistakable “Sweet Victory” of the year was the resounding six-state sweep of minimum-wage hikes from ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. Despite the media’s conclusion in 2004 that “moral values” appealed only to people who oppose abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research, the minimum wage emerged as the clear values issue of 2006. No group was more fundamental to the effort of linking the minimum wage to morality–and mobilizing these “values voters”–than Let Justice Roll.

A coalition of more than eighty faith-based, labor and community associations, Let Justice Roll initially grew out of a collaboration between the Center for Community Change and the National Council of Churches. In 2004 the Center for Community Change held an event in Columbia, South Carolina, in which it invited Democratic and Republican candidates to address poverty. According to the Rev. Paul Sherry, national coordinator of Let Justice Roll, the rally was a great success, and as a result the planners threw fifteen similar events across the country to get “poverty on the radar screen.”

From these events it became clear to the organizers that a campaign to raise the minimum wage was the best strategy for addressing the crisis of poverty in a specific and immediate way. They also found that it was immensely popular with people of varying ideological stripes–making it, as Sherry put it, “a viable option in a rather conservative period.” In spring 2004 Let Justice Roll officially launched its operations, building membership with organizations like ACORN, the AFL-CIO, the Interfaith Alliance and Bush’s and Cheney’s own United Methodist Church.

From day one, Let Justice Roll stressed that increasing the minimum wage was an economic and a moral issue. “We believe it’s an issue of morality, because it’s about where we draw a line as a society and say, ‘This is the lowest we’ll go and no lower,'” said Holly Sklar, the author, with Sherry, of A Just Minimum Wage. “Our bottom line is this: A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.” In its first major campaign to link wages with morality, Let Justice Roll organized Living Wage Days across the country during Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2005, holding rallies and worship services at churches and community centers across the country.

Thanks to the visibility of the Living Wage Days and other public events, Let Justice Roll was instrumental in helping secure minimum-wage increases in Arkansas and North Carolina. “With the momentum of these victories, we knew we were on to something and felt we had a good chance–so long as we maintained our coalition–to help see initiatives pass in several other states in 2006,” said Sherry.

In the targeted states, Let Justice Roll affiliates mobilized petition drives to get initiatives on the ballots and began organizing local coalitions and creative meet-ups. In Montana, organizer Kat Wright brought together a diverse group from Missoula’s faith-based community for Sacred Text Study Nights, in which Methodists, Lutherans, Quakers, Jews and Buddhists discussed how their religions deal with issues of poverty. The Missoula coalition, which called itself “Many Faiths, One Voice,” held a large rally in Caras Park and engaged in door-to-door discussions about the moral imperative of raising the minimum wage.

Katy Heins, an Ohio organizer, said the issue was particularly resonant in Ohio, which has been ravaged by job losses in recent years. “People were working hard and still lining up at food pantries–and this showed that there was something not right economically, but also wrong morally,” said Heins. “It led to a strong surge of people of faith who are saying, ‘I’m concerned with poverty and the war and other things that are going on in our country, rather than just the gay marriage issue and the abortion issue.'”

Come election day, increasing the minimum wage proved overwhelmingly popular, transcending partisan lines in states like Missouri, where the initiative passed by 1.5 million votes, and Montana, where it passed with 71 percent support. In the wake of the victories, Sherry says he’s received inquiries from Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia about starting similar campaigns. As Let Justice Roll continues its work in the states, it is also fighting to boost the federal minimum wage, stagnant at $5.15 for a record-breaking nine years and four months. Democrats have promised to increase it within their first 100 hours in office, but with the threat of a Bush veto, Let Justice Roll will continue to press hard. “He’s indicated that he’s not opposed to an increase, but of course you can never be too sure about Bush,” said Sklar.

“We think we succeeded, along with others, in making the minimum wage issue the values issue of the 2006 campaign by appealing to people’s better instincts,” says Sherry. “We helped people of faith see that if their faith was to be genuine, the minimum-wage issue was a significant vehicle to translate their convictions into a functioning reality. While other issues might divide people of faith, this one united them.”

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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