Clergy’s fight for income equity seeks second wind

minimum wage
More than a dozen spiritual and social justice groups in the Vermont Raise the Wage Coalition, pictured at a Montpelier rally last fall, want the state to boost minimum pay to $15 an hour. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
When the Vermont Interfaith Action coalition of religious congregations held its first statewide convention a year ago, members celebrated the successful launch of its “Building a Moral Economy” campaign by revealing their next step: a “Raise the Wage” plea to boost minimum pay.

Then came last fall’s election of a governor with different priorities.

“We realize when we go after big change, it takes a little longer,” said the Rev. Debbie Ingram, VIA’s executive director.

That’s why the coalition will devote its second annual convention — set for Wednesday in Randolph — to reviving its call to increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Founded by Burlington clergy and lay leaders in 2004, the nonpartisan alliance includes more than 40 spiritual communities representing 10,000 Vermonters as far south as Brattleboro.

The group made a name for itself last year by spurring the Legislature to seek more specific budget projections on the real cost of delivering public services, in hopes of stimulating discussion on spending priorities.

Marking that win during its first statewide meeting a year ago, members decided to try to boost working-class pay through a “Raise the Wage” campaign.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen next week,” the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, VIA president and pastor of Barre’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, said at the time. “But in terms of our work on a moral economy, everybody sees it’s the next logical step.”

The effort launched a website and Vermont Raise the Wage Coalition Facebook page last fall with the help of the nonprofit group Rights & Democracy and more than a dozen Vermont unions and social service organizations.

Then Phil Scott won election as governor. While spiritual and social justice leaders want state lawmakers to boost workers’ pay from the current minimum of $9.60 an hour to $15 by 2020, Scott — a former state senator — has voted in the past to link wage increases to the cost of living.

“We need to be hesitant when it comes to imposing yet another top-down mandate from Montpelier,” Scott said of the VIA proposal, “the costs of which are ultimately passed on to consumers in the form of price increases, or on to workers in the form of layoffs or decreased hours.”

State lawmakers approved legislation in 2014 to raise the minimum wage from $8.73 to $9.15 in 2015, $9.60 in 2016, $10 in 2017 and $10.50 in 2018, with subsequent years indexed to inflation.

“Vermont was one of the first to answer President Obama’s call for states to bypass Congress and raise the minimum wage,” Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration said in a statement at the time. “Vermont has one of the highest minimum wages in America.”

But campaign organizers note that more than 70,000 Vermonters — some 12 percent of the state’s population — are living below the federal poverty level. Hoping to spur legislators to approve a higher wage, they have invited Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman — whom they call “the nation’s most progressive lieutenant governor” — to serve as their coming convention’s keynote speaker.

“His sensibility and stance on the issues is very similar to ours,” said Ingram, who, independent of her role as VIA’s executive director, is one of Chittenden County’s six state senators.

The public meeting Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Randolph’s Bethany United Church of Christ will include reports on such local efforts as focusing on education, homelessness, affordable housing, corrections reform and social justice, as well as statewide calls for paid family and medical leave.

“There’s a lot of different things going on, but we’ll stay focused on wages,” Ingram said. “It’s definitely good for the economy to put money in the hands of working Vermonters who are going to spend it at local businesses.”

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  • Steve Baker

    I often wonder how much these spiritual and social justice leaders make? So many of these groups pay ZERO in taxes while paying many extremely high salaries. Maybe it’s time for Churches, Colleges, Universities and many Non-Profits to pay taxes.

    • Tory Rhodin

      If you are wondering about this, don’t hesitate to ask. Religious leaders I’ve known make around the same as other people with equivalent training and experience who work in human services, education or other nonprofit organizations. The pastor I know best at the moment is living on $12,000/year (30+ years experience, working part-time while caring for an elderly family member.) This is not a field you want to go into if your goal is “extremely high salaries.”

  • Doug Hoffer

    “The median wage in Vermont today is $28,840/yr, or $14.42/hr.”

    That is not accurate. You assume everyone works full-time (they don’t). According to the BLS and the VT Dept. of Labor, the median hourly wage for VT was $18.23 in 2016.

    • jan van eck

      Quibbling about pennies does not alter the raw truth that there are huge numbers of ordinary folks who earn a lot less than you do. It is all very nice for you to preach the punditry that all is fine with the employment picture, but that does not comport with the reality on the ground. Lots of folks make very little money. The fastest way to improve their economic prospects is (1) stop the insanity of taxing away their meager earnings, (2) install a strategy to craft high-value-added products for export manufacture, which in turn generates the ability to pay better wages, and (3) install a strategy for import replacement, to move work back into Vermont. You choose not to focus on that.

  • Christopher Daniels

    And that’s a good thing.

  • Christopher Daniels

    That was the fear mongering of those against minimum wage. The reality, i.e. facts, is none of the horrific prophecies became true. But don’t let that stop you.

    • jan van eck

      I have no objection to a much higher minimum wage. I would like to see a much more prosperous society in which the true median wage hits $24/hr and, more importantly, the bulk of that remains in the pockets of Mr. Vermonter. The question thus is: what is the optimal policy choice to get there? Your pundits want to push that through by legislative fiat, without changing any of the facts on the ground. That will create dislocations, and I suggest is the wrong way to go about this.

      Society is better off to focus on a policy of supporting high-value-added enterprises, particularly in manufacturing, The Democratic Party does not do that; it seeks to run a “command economy,” with the commands coming from the Party. I remain dubious that this is going to work.

      There is a big railcar mfg. plant in Barre; it no longer manufactures railcars. There is a nice long 5,500′ airport runway in Springfield, but nobody is assembling aircraft there, or even sub-assemblies; why not? You have these capital assets that remain unused, and the people have no decent work. Try supportng that instead.