The Torah instructs us to treat workers with justice. As it is written: "You shall not oppress a hired laborer that is poor and needy, whether he be of your people or of the strangers that are in the land within your gates" (Deuteronomy 24:14). Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of wages to a worker's sustenance. We are taught that "one who withholds an employee's wages is as though he deprived him of his life" (Baba Metzia 112a). Based on these teachings, the UAHC has long advocated measures that would insure every worker willing and able to work "a wage that makes possible a decent standard of living" ("The Eradication and Amelioration of Poverty," 1968).
Over the last several decades, wages for low-income workers have stagnated. In the United States, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen 30% since 1968. Contrary to popular perception, the average minimum wage worker is not a teenager working at a fast-food restaurant but an adult responsible for more than half of his or her family's weekly earnings. These workers are not paid enough money to support themselves and their families.
In recent years, some cities and counties have enacted living wage ordinances. These laws, generally the result of local grassroots campaigns, require that to qualify for government contracts or assistance, service providers must pay their employees living wages, often defined as no less than the poverty line for a family of four. The reasoning behind these ordinances is that the government should set a community standard for wages; that people working for the government, directly or indirectly, should not be paid sub-poverty wages; and that while contracting out to companies that pay low wages may appear to lower government costs, it forces more people to be dependent on welfare and social services at increased government costs for those programs. In addition, employing only those who will work for substandard wages decreases the quality and motivation of the workforce. Living-wage campaigns provide a unique opportunity for people to work to raise wages in their own communities.
Living-wage ordinances vary from community to community, based on particular circumstances. At a minimum, all living wage ordinances cover the contracting out of services that were previously performed by local government. More difficult are questions of inclusion or exemption for work performed by businesses that have benefited from government community development funding or other forms of government economic assistance, work performed under grants made by governments to community organizations, and work performed by nonprofit organizations under government contract. In each case, the goal of providing a living wage needs to be considered in relation to the impact on the missions of the assisted organizations and the community.
THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:
- Support living wage ordinances and bills to bring wages to at least the poverty line, preferably higher;
- Encourage our congregations across North America to become involved in living wage campaigns in their local communities;
- Urge the members of the community, including the supporters of a living wage, to commit themselves to advocate for and help raise the necessary funds to enable nonprofits to pay living wages without curtailing their services; and
- Call upon our congregations and all arms of the Reform Movement to examine their employment and contracting practices to ensure that they reflect the spirit of this resolution.