The fast food workers who walked off the job today to call for fair wages have very few cards in their hand. They don’t have strong, established unions in place to represent them. They don’t have scarce job skills that make it difficult to replace them. They don’t occupy strategically critical points in the economy to force powerful interests to accommodate them.
If they had any of those things, they probably wouldn’t be working for poverty wages. But they don’t have those things. For the moment, at least, the only support they have is our conscience.
Today’s minimum wage, $7.25/hour, is the equivalent of about $15,000 per year – hardly a living wage in any of our nation’s communities. As Americans we’ve become accustomed to getting many of our goods and services at bargain prices courtesy of the working poor. Food, both harvested from farms and served in restaurants; child care; housekeeping and landscaping; and home health care, to name some of the largest sectors, are thick with men and women drawing less than $20,000 per year even when working 40 hours or more each week. The market has made its judgment on these people, and it has placed a low value on them.
But that doesn’t mean WE must. And as Christians, we can’t. As Pope Francis has observed,
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, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one's own human potential. This is the main thing; in the absence of such a vision, all economic activity is meaningless.
Justice does not permit us to accept the verdict of the labor market on the working poor. The fast food workers who walked out today are calling us to live out our faith this Labor Day. How will we respond?