One particularly cold December day in 2014 as I tried to warm up my hands after chanting outside a local McDonald’s restaurant with workers striking for $15 an hour and the right to join a union, I wondered what effect this bone-chilling activity would really have. How would protesting with a few dozen people convince the massive corporation to raise its wages? As the director of The Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin I was used to speaking out without expectation of a clear, tangible win, and as a rabbi I know from Jewish tradition that it is essential to speak out when we see injustice. But I was cold and tired.
Once my hands warmed up I thought about the faces of the workers who I stood with that morning. Derek stood up and told us that this was the first strike he had ever participated in. “I am doing it for my son,” he shared. “I want him to know when he grows up that his dad was out here. That we are worth more.” I thought about Kyra, a middle-aged woman, who told me why she joined the movement. She said, “They think we are robots. They don’t care about our lives. They think they can pay us late because we are poor and that we can just tell the landlord that the rent is coming.”
By standing with these workers, some of whom are among the 52 percent of fast food workers in the United States who must depend on public assistance to meet their basic needs, my colleagues and I let them know that we care and that their lives and their work matters.
This was enough to make us keep standing with the workers. Our coalition has been an active member of the Fight for $15 since the first strike day in Madison in August of 2013, only nine months after the movement began when 200 workers went on strike in New York City. We bring the religious community out to show solidarity with low wage retail and fast food workers in their struggle to increase the minimum wage by attending rallies, walking workers back to work after they go on strike to avoid retaliation, and bringing workers into congregations to tell their stories.
At that first strike in 2013, we all hoped that this movement would help increase the minimum wage, but $15 an hour seemed like an idealistic fantasy. Now we stand in awe that our demands are becoming a reality. By the end of 2015, policymakers in 14 cities, counties and states had approved $15 minimum wage laws. Earlier this year both California and New York State, where nearly one in five Americans live, passed laws to phase in a $15 minimum wage.
Our voices rising up in the depths of the Wisconsin winter and in the sweltering heat matter. They matter because they speak in chorus with voices from over 150 cities across the country and across the globe.
This Yom Kippur we will read Isaiah’s call:
“Cry from the throat, do not relent, raise up your voices like a shofar, tell my people of their transgressions.” (Isaiah 58:1, 8).
When we hear these words we will know that we can make the prophetic message a reality. And we will know that we must keep raising our voices because here in Wisconsin the minimum wage remains static at $7.25 an hour with a state Legislature that has banned localities from raising minimum wages locally. Wisconsin is now in the minority as 29 states and the District of Columbia have raised their state minimum wages over the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Research shows that $7.25 an hour is not a living wage and that raising the minimum wage does not reduce the number of jobs for low-wage workers. It is incumbent upon us to tell legislators of their transgressions, of the moral disgrace of paying people poverty wages. We must keep speaking out in favor of raising the minimum wage until all workers in Wisconsin and throughout the country can support themselves and their families.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we listen to the blowing of the shofar. The shofar says to us “Awake from your slumber and rouse yourselves from yourselves from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and turn in repentance.” (Moses Maimonides). Its piercing sound calls us to take an accounting of our lives and to do teshuvah, to make amends and to set a direction for ourselves for the coming year. This year when we hear the shofar let us hear in it the cry of the workers, like Derek and Kyra, who work hard every day but still live in poverty. And then let us turn their cries into a cry for justice. Let us each raise our voices like a shofar to add to a chorus that is calling for justice here in Wisconsin and throughout the country.
Rabbi Renée Bauer is director of The Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin in Madison.