More than 1,000 low-wage workers from around the city joined hands today with interfaith clergy members and labor officials for a historic “Faith and Justice” walk to Harlem’s Riverside Church, urging Albany to let cities around the state to set their own minimum wages.
“Throughout history, clergy of all faiths and denominations have been deeply involved in the fight for civil rights and for fair treatment for all people, and this is another front in that battle,” said the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church.
“New York ranks No. 1 in income inequality in the U.S. No one who works 40 hours a week at minimum wage can afford basic living costs,” he added. “In a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘…it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis … getting part-time income.’ It was criminal then and it is still criminal today!”
Faith leaders from across the city and community groups, such as UnitedNY, New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, joined the chanting, sign-carrying workers for a three-block “Faith and Justice Walk” from the northwest end of Sakura Park at 123d St. to the front of the historic Riverside Church, on Riverside Drive and 120th St.
“It’s very important to me and my fellow ‘carwasheros’ that we raise the minimum wage in New York City,” said Ernesto Salazaar, 39, who works at Webster Car Wash in The Bronx. “It is very difficult for us to pay all of our bills on such a small salary. It’s important we have the power to change the minimum wage, and end the inequalities and hunger that many New Yorkers face. As immigrants we contribute to this economy, and we deserve to be able to support our families and give our children better opportunities.”
Following the march, workers filed into the mammoth churchfor a two-hour service featuring prayer, music, testimonials from workers and calls from priests, ministers, rabbis and imams for passage of legislation that would let cities and counties around the state set their own local minimum wage and for a higher federal minimum wage.
“Raising wages for working people in New York City is an economic and moral issue,” said Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “As a just society, we cannot continue to allow New York City’s workers to be undervalued, while the wealthiest in society continue to get rich on the backs of everyday working men and women. Today and every day, we must stand up for the rights of the workers whose dedication, skill, and professionalism keep our city going.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said: “Working together with faith leaders in our communities, we’re sending a clear message that it’s time for New York City to set an appropriate local minimum wage. We can no longer allow so many of our workers to struggle on an unfairly low wage that does not reflect the cost of living in this city.”
New York has the worst income inequality in the nation, largely because the state’s $8 minimum wage is too low. Pending legislation in Albany would let cities and counties across New York supplement the state minimum wage by raising their local minimum wage. Recent polls show 73% of New Yorkers support the measure.
“We’ve fought long and hard for dignity and respect in the workplace,” said Michael Carey, a security officer at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “Some of the progress we are now seeing can be attributed to the help we’ve received from the civil rights and faith communities.”
Elizabeth Davis, a worker at a McDonald’s in The Bronx, agreed: “We are here today to stand up not just for fast food workers like me, but for all low-wage workers across New York who are struggling to support our families. The support we’re getting here today is remarkable. Albany better start paying attention, because our movement to RaiseUpNY will not be stopped.”
Amador Rivas, a member of Make the Road New York, said: “I came to this country hoping for a better future, but I have experienced the exact opposite. I started working for a bodega owner in Washington Heights for $5 an hour. Ten years later, I was only earning $7.25 an hour, which is not nearly enough to survive in this city. New York City must be able to raise its own minimum wage.”
Clergy members said the service was the start of a new, long-term coalition with low-wage workers. Historically, religious leaders played key roles in the civil rights movement and other struggles against economic and racial injustice.
“It is a sad commentary of our country when people who work full-time and beyond still live in poverty and are unable to provide for their families. This moment calls for political will and the courage to pursue equality and justice for all,” said Rev. Michael Walrond Jr., senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.
“It is not right that 3 million New Yorkers, most of them women and of color, work full-time for what is nothing more than a part-time wage,” said Rev. Que English, senior pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Church. “It would be a tragic moral and political mistake for our elected officials to turn their backs on these hard-working men and women.”
In recent months, faith leaders have provided critical support for fast food, car wash and airport workers, and helped lead the successful fight for paid sick leave.
“This service demonstrates the commitment of all faith traditions to stand alongside low-wage workers in this city and beyond in their struggle for simple justice,” said Rev. Paul Sherry, transitional operations minister at Riverside Church. “It will inspire us all as together we build a powerful coalition for constructive change. We firmly believe that, as we walk together, ‘justice will roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’”
For more information go to www.theriversidechurchny.org.
Photos by Dave Cross.