Restoring Labor's Voice

The economic boom has been a bust for people who work for wages. Behind the hoopla, families who depend on a paycheck, not a mutual fund, for their economic security have been stuck with two decades of stagnant wages. The richest 1 percent of the population now owns more than 40 percent of all private wealth, more than the bottom 95 percent of the population combined.

Economic inequality in America is at its greatest point since the 1920s. The social consequences of inequality are best symbolized by the fact that two of the nation’s biggest growth industries are prison construction (almost 2 million people behind bars) and the construction of gated residential communities (9 million households behind walls).

Two new books are fundamental tools in building a social movement to reverse these trends. They will be especially useful to people aspiring to put their faith values into action, but who stumble over the language of economics.

A fair economy movement is emerging in local living wage campaigns and in revitalized religious and labor coalitions. Robert Kuttner, editor of The American Prospect, calls living wage struggles "the most interesting (and under-reported) grassroots enterprise to emerge since the civil rights movement."

In 1994, the city of Baltimore passed the first living wage ordinance. Five years later, in more than 32 cities and counties—including San Antonio, Boston, Chicago, and Milwaukee—coalitions of labor, religious, and community activists have pushed successfully for the passage of living wage ordinances. There are currently 70 active municipal living wage campaigns organizing to institute laws that will require companies doing business with these cities to pay a living wage, usually pegged to the amount that would lift a family of three or four above the region’s poverty level.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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