William Bole
With the numbers of 'working poor' on the rise, some communities are dusting off an old Catholic teaching.

A few years ago, the Rev. Sam Lupico started offering free meals on Wednesday evenings at Blessed Sacrament Church in Baltimore. He knew enough to expect the usual soup-kitchen crowd: homeless people, drug and alcohol abusers, the mentally ill.

What surprised him, though, was the large weekly showing of entire families in search of supper. He learned that most of these families had at least one wage earner, but they couldn't live on what they made.

"You can't support a family with the minimum wage. It's impossible. The numbers just don't add up," the priest said, referring to the federally mandated minimum of $4.25 an hour.

Many of those dining in the church hall earned the bottom wage as service workers in downtown office buildings.

Father Lupico responded to the problem in an unusual way. He didn't just order more meals from the Blessed Sacrament kitchen, which now cooks for as many as 150 people every Wednesday night. He went a step further and got involved in an ecumenical religious campaign to promote a "living wage" in Baltimore.

The most striking result of this effort is a new law that went into effect during the summer. It requires private companies that have city contracts to pay their workers a livable wage.

For now, that means $6.10 an hour—just enough to put a family of three above the official poverty line ($12,590 a year for three-member households).

The movement is spreading to other parts of the country.

Catholic Origins

In cities from Baltimore to San Jose, religious and community leaders—along with low-paid workers—are running with the concept of a living wage.

The idea is that people who work for a living should be able to support themselves and their families.

"As Catholics, we have a long tradition of advocating for a living wage, a family wage," said Father Lupico, most of whose parishioners are black. "A family needs resources. For a father to be a father and a mother to be a mother, they need the resources to provide for basic needs. We have seen that the best way to destroy a family is to take away its ability to maintain itself."

The campaign for a living wage has some distinctly Catholic origins and connections.

It was a Catholic priest, Father John A. Ryan, who articulated the concept for an American audience in his book "A Living Wage," first published in 1906.

Ryan was inspired by the teachings of Pope Leo XIII, who set out the doctrine of a just wage in his 1891 encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (On capital and labor).

Pope John Paul II and other popes since Leo XIII have frequently returned to this theme, underscoring the roles of both organized labor and social legislation in bringing about the living wage.

With the blessing of Church leaders, Catholics entered the ranks of the American labor movement in the early decades of this century. They bargained for wages that paved the way into the middle class for millions of workers and their families.

Father Lupico believes this made it possible for his own immigrant family to climb out of poverty in the coal-mining region of eastern Pennsylvania.

Now, with growing numbers of Americans working for poverty pay, the notion of a living wage is beginning to stir new interest—and action.

In New York, a religious coalition has mustered broad support for a living wage bill that targets companies with city contracts. Those firms will have to pay their workers at least $12 an hour, if the Church-based Industrial Areas Foundation has its way. Each year, the city awards contracts for an estimated $6 billion in goods and services.

In St. Paul, Minn., community activists have rounded up twice as many signatures as needed to place a "livable wage" initiative on the November ballot. Voters will decide whether firms subsidized by the city should pay workers at least $7.21 an hour.

In Milwaukee, $7.70 an hour would become the living wage required of companies that want to do business with the city, under proposed legislation crafted by the community coalition Sustainable Milwaukee.

In some places, local organizations are capitalizing on the fact that many firms get direct subsidies and special tax breaks from city governments—with no stipulation to offer living wage jobs in return.

To counter what they call "subsidy abuse," neighborhood activists have spearheaded the ballot campaign in St. Paul, aimed at companies receiving $25,000 or more each year in city subsidies. Similar drives are underway in San Jose and Denver.

So far, advocates of a living wage have set their sights only on companies with city contracts or subsidies. And so, the minimum wage would remain the same for workers in most of the private sector.

This limited strategy is one reason why the movement has met with so little resistance from business, which typically opposes minimum-wage hikes.

In New York, the spokesman for one key industry group has actually given a boost to the wage campaign.

"Living-wage legislation makes work attractive in New York City. It says that people working on work for the city, of any kind, will be treated as human beings," said Francis X. McArdle, director of the General Contractors Association of New York, Inc., testifying before the city council in June.

Businesses Buying

As it happens, McArdle is a Catholic who learned about the Church's social teachings while growing up in a Boston parish, and later as a philosophy student at St. Michael's College in Toronto. He said in a telephone interview that he has also been influenced by the example of Dorothy Day, late founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

McArdle's association represents unionized construction companies that usually pay better than $12 an hour, the proposed living wage. The heavy-construction industry, in New York and a number of other cities, is covered by older "prevailing wage" laws that demand more than the standard minimum wage.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has appointed a special commission to study the merits of a mandatory living wage for all other workers whose companies have contracts with the city.

In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was initially cool to the idea, fearing companies would pass on the costs to the city in the form of higher bids for contracts.

But the mayor bowed eventually to popular sentiment. And although it's too early to tell, officials now think city contractors will absorb at least some of the costs of paying higher wages.

The call for a living wage came from a Church-based organization called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).

The group laid out its agenda in a 1993 "social compact" that asked employers in the heavily subsidized downtown district to pay better wages. The employers refused, for the most part.

Meanwhile, BUILD organizers took to the streets, talking to low-paid workers at bus stops, serving them hot coffee outside office buildings where they swept floors and emptied out wastebaskets.

Together with the workers, BUILD formed an alliance with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. With funding from the U.S. bishops' Campaign for Human Development, the organization of low-wage workers, the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee.

Baltimore is now considered the first municipality in the country to adopt a living wage for service workers.

The $6.10 hourly wage that took effect in July will rise to $7.70 an hour in 1999. According to city estimates, approximately 4,000 service workers will benefit from the new law. Most of these workers had received the federal minimum wage, which made some of them eligible for government assistance, such as food stamps. The Church-labor alliance has now launched a new campaign for a similar measure at the Maryland state level.

As Father Lupico sees it, the revival of the living-wage gospel is good news for poor families like the ones who share a meal at Blessed Sacrament Church on Wednesday evenings.

"I met a guy who is going to be able to buy a fixer-upper house with his brother because of the increase," said Father Lupico, referring to the pay raise for service workers. "Now that they're both making six bucks an hour, they can get a loan. It's two families in one house, but it's better than living in the projects."

Taken from the September 3, 1995 issue of "Our Sunday Visitor". Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750. 1-219-356-8400.

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