The Menzies Jacket: Why I Joined the Fight for a Living Wage

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April 15 Fightfor15


In anticipation of the national action day Fight for $15 this Wednesday, April 15, I offer this reflection from my recent work in SeaTac, Washington. I encourage us all to keep in mind that although the $15 living wage campaign is a good start for worker health and stability there are other actions that must go alongside this wage increase including shared power and influence by workers with management, sick leave, work place safety, medical/retirements benefits, etc. Let’s be sure we don’t think the fight is over when we get a living wage for all workers.
I saw the jacket several times on a man standing in the Food Pantry line in my church basement. A youngish man with a friendly face and an accented greeting, lined up waiting for a food basket. After several weeks of seeing him there, I finally learned his story. It was not a jacket that he got at a thrift shop, as I had first imagined, but the official jacket he wore to work every day as a ramp worker at SeaTac Airport, just two miles down the road. He worked the night shift and got off work just before our food pantry opened. Twice a month, he would come and stand in line to get supplemental food for his family. I learned that the full time wage he earned wasn’t enough to pay the utilities and rent for the two bedroom apartment he shared with his wife, three children, and mother-in-law.
Over time I noticed just how tired and stressed he seemed, until one day, in place of his Menzies jacket, he wore a tattered sweatshirt that wasn’t warm enough for the weather we were having. Through another Food Pantry worker that I learned my “Menzies” friend’s fate. He had lost his job. You see, there was no sick leave for these workers, and his son had had a seizure and needed to be taken for appointments to Children’s Hospital in Seattle (a thirty-minute drive away). Since he was the only driver in the family, he chose his son over his job. It wasn’t a hard decision on his part, I was told, but one that would leave his family in an even more desperate situation.
Over the next few months, I heard more and more of these stories from the people of my parish. I am the United Methodist Pastor serving the area that surrounds SeaTac airport, south of Seattle, Washington. It is an area of high poverty, crime, drug abuse, prostitution, and all the other things most people would rather not live among. And yet, it is also an area of dense family populations, mostly recent immigrants and refugees. These folks came to the United States looking to improve themselves and their family situations and yet end up working several jobs without enough income to make ends meet. They are eager to work hard and get settled, to learn their new culture, and to establish roots.
It broke my heart to see the struggle these families were facing, and so I started not only listening to stories and handing out food but also doing some research and making community connections. That is how I got connected with Working Washington, Puget Sound Sage, and eventually the SeaTac Proposition 1 Campaign. As a leader of the faith community, I found my place side by side with other ministers, rabbis, and imams, as well as labor workers and other community organizers, all of whom were seeking to empower the workers and give voice to their concerns. The need for a livable wage, safe working conditions, sick leave and such were the cries of the workers. They became my cries, too.
My faith tradition teaches me that when one suffers we all suffer. I know that in my own community we are only as whole as the most broken among us. The situation of hard working people not earning enough to sustain themselves and their families was not tenable with my faith, so I felt lucky to have been able to align with so many other concerned community members and through Proposition 1 to have made a difference.
For more details on the action taken in SeaTac, Washington and the opportunity to replicate this in other communities, you can read the article by Jonathan Rosenblum entitled “Working Class Power and Spirituality: Reflections on SeaTac’s Minimum Wage Campaign” in the current Spring 2015 issue of Tikkun magazine (if you’re not yet a subscriber you can order a single copy of the magazine containing Rosenblum’s article or subscribe to read the full article immediately online). By working together we can make the lives of those around us reflect the values we all share.

Rev. Jan Bolerjack serves as pastor at the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Washington.