Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Wages, Justice and Labor
distributed 9/2/16 - ©2016

In the United States, we're headed into the Labor Day weekend. This holiday is widely observed as the last hurrah of the summer season, the launch of intensive political campaigns (as if we haven't seen enough of that!), and -- lest we forget -- an occasion to celebrate the labor movement.

My Labor Day ruminations bring together Pope Francis, a local restaurant that has gone big and perhaps bad, and a specific issue that will be on several state ballots this fall. And that's before my mind even starts to wander!

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The world's first Chipotle Mexican Grill opened in 1993, just four blocks from our home. They set up shop in what used to be a Dolly Madison ice cream store, and I'm guessing that the tiny building is still one of the smallest locations in the chain.

Today, Chipotle has more than 2,000 locations in the US and several other countries, and in 2015 they had more than 45,000 employees. (Connecting to the topic of Eco-Justice Notes from two weeks ago, Chipotle is reported to use 97,000 pounds of avocados every day for their guacamole -- 35 million pounds per year.) The little neighborhood store that made big burritos has made it big.

But the restaurant chain has some big problems, too. In addition to a string of food safety issues last year, a class action lawsuit has been filed against the company, claiming widespread wage theft. 10,000 current and former employees are parties to the suit, alleging they were made to work extra hours "off the clock" without pay.

According to the stories told by some of the people who filed the lawsuit, the under-payment of workers was not an isolated problem, caused by a few bad managers. Lead plaintiff Leah Turner (Turner v. Chipotle) claims she worked hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of hours at Chipotle without getting paid. As CNN reports, "Her manager would tell her to 'clock out' but continue working until all of her tasks were done, Turner says. So she would keep going, knowing that the extra hour -- or two or even three -- was free labor."

Other allegations tell of computer systems that would clock out workers automatically, hours before they stopped working. Workers knew that putting up with the wage theft was necessary if they wanted to keep their jobs, and especially if they wanted to be promoted within the company. Stiffing the employees can help make a store profitable, but it is clearly an unethical business practice.

Wage theft is a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and Chipotle certainly isn't the only company that has bent, broken or ignored those labor standards. A class action lawsuit provides a viable way for workers to challenge the company, and be compensated for lost wages.

An individual worker might have lost a couple thousand dollars in stolen wages, but it would cost far more than that to fight the problem in court, especially if the company chose to stretch out the case and provide a vigorous defense. When 10,000 workers can join in a single lawsuit, though, they have the economic and legal power to challenge a huge corporation.

The Fair Labor Standards Act -- which also addressed problems of child labor and long working hours -- was supported by some branches of labor unions. Federal legislation and the legal power of class action lawsuits are some of the accomplishments of organized labor that should be remembered every Labor Day.

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Another element of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act was a minimum wage for certain industries of 25 cents an hour. Just before signing the bill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation, "Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, ...tell you...that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry."

Update the figures to deal with inflation, and FDR's comment sounds quite timely. The appropriate size of a minimum wage is a hot political topic this year. The platform of the national Democratic Party calls for a $15 wage. Ballot initiatives in Arizona and Colorado seek to implement an increase to $12 an hour. Several cities (including Minneapolis and Cleveland) will be voting on local wage increases. California's legislature passed legislation last spring that will build to a $15 wage over a period of years.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That is generally not considered a living wage. A person working full time at those wages would earn about $14,500 a year, which is just over the federal poverty guidelines for a one-person household, and substantially below the guidelines for a two-person household. Remember that many government programs (Head Start, Home Energy Assistance, and health insurance programs) look at some multiple of the guidelines, such as 125% or 185%, in setting eligibility levels, so the poverty guidelines don't represent what is really needed to live. $7.25 per hour just isn't enough to support anybody.

The labor movement played a strong role in the development of minimum wage standards. The lagging of current minimum wage laws may be a reflection of the weakening of organized labor in recent decades. The fresh surge of political debate and action to increase wage levels is an indicator that this justice issue should not be ignored.

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Last year's encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si', has a substantial section on "the need to protect employment" (paragraphs 124-129). The Pope's perspective of integral ecology (or eco-justice) sees employment as far more than an economic issue.

Francis names work as an essential part an individual's moral and spiritual growth, and a component of human dignity. Access to steady employment for everyone is good for individuals, families and communities. He speaks out about the dangers of extensive automation, which displaces workers: "To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad for business and society." He says that an economy that is appropriately scaled -- with small businesses and local production -- is more likely to provide greater opportunities to workers, and to be more respectful of environmental needs.

Good labor relations are essential to social justice and the common good. Wage theft is a violation, not only of law, but of core principles of justice. (The prophet Malachi speaks for God, saying, "I will be swift to bear witness ... against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages". Malachi 3:5) A reasonable minimum wage ensures the dignity of those who work, and protects the interests of the entire community by reducing poverty.

This weekend, amid the picnics, do take some time to remember the important accomplishments of the labor movement. And beyond this weekend, in political conversations and current headlines, be aware of the need to keep fighting for those principles of justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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