Balancing the scales for low-wage workers

FRANCISCO GARCIA IS a janitor with a story to tell – a sobering story common among his fellow workers. He works only part time, receives no benefits, and is unable to support his two daughters in the Dominican Republic.

Most days, no one wants to hear his lament. But on a cloudy Sunday earlier this month, Mr. Garcia faced an audience of several hundred attentive listeners. Standing before a microphone at the close of the Spanish-language service at Sacred Heart Church in Boston, he talked about his family, his hard work, and his meager pay.

"I need a full-time job and medical benefits," he said. "And I want to get better wages for my family."

It was a scene repeated in nearly 20 Boston-area churches that day – Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, Catholic. As 10,000 janitors prepared for a possible strike, workers like Garcia spoke to congregations, either as part of the service or at a social hour afterward. They want better wages, health insurance, and full-time jobs. Three-quarters of Boston's office cleaners work part time, earning $9.95 an hour, or $39 a day.

The occasion was Labor in the Pulpit 2002, a project of the labor movement and the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice in Chicago. Participating clergy want to connect religious teachings to people's lives.

"The essence of the Gospel was about feeding and freeing people who are hungry and bound by all kinds of constraints that society places on them," says the Rev. Pamela Werntz, assistant rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brookline, Mass. "Here's one way we can take what the Gospel preached and go into the world."

Although critics charge that these events risk politicizing churches, defenders say they call needed attention to the effect of work on families. The janitors' stories also give well-heeled churchgoers a window on the world of low-income jobs and the need for a "living wage."

"It's a challenge for people of privilege to recognize the inequities, the skewed fruitfulness of our economy," says the Rev. Edward Boyle, a Catholic priest who chairs the Massachusetts Interfaith Committee for Workplace Justice. "A lot of people in the privileged community don't want to acknowledge how many people are impoverished and heavily burdened by low wages."

Noting that low-income people must often hold two jobs, he adds: "If you're working 60 hours a week, that fractures the family" and threatens workers' well-being.

The Sunday events came at a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about the precariousness of many jobs. Scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and other companies have stripped hard-working employees, both white-collar and blue-collar, of paychecks and pensions.

That concern for the "little guy" also permeates Barbara Ehrenreich's bestselling "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America." Posing as a low-wage worker, she waitressed in Florida, clerked at a Wal-Mart in Minnesota, and cleaned houses in Maine – the domestic equivalent of the work Garcia does in offices. Ms. Ehrenreich calls these the hardest jobs she's ever done.

As a living-wage campaign gains momentum in some cities, the Rev. Paul Peterson, a retired pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, sums up the challenge. "Somehow," he says, "we have to work at equalizing the power and the resources of this nation for all of the people."

But how? Whether in sermons, bestsellers, or newspapers, the workplace story for the 21st century needs to be told. Legions of invisible workers like Garcia, struggling to make ends meet, deserve decent wages and more respect. They're the ones, after all, who tirelessly keep the country humming, doing all the menial, thankless tasks the rest of us refuse to do, getting their hands dirty so we can keep ours clean.

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