MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Food prices are up. Clothing prices are up. Fuel prices are up. But it has been over three years since the support staff at the University of Memphis has received a raise. It's been especially tough on workers who are paid poverty wages. Custodial worker Emma Davis says she's had to rely on help from family members to make ends meet. Thelma Rimmer, also a custodial worker, wiped tears from her face as she said that she cannot even afford to live without a roommate at the age of 57, because she's only paid $8 per hour. Ms. Rimmer described co-workers who've worked at the university for more than a decade, but still have to ride the bus to work because they can't afford to buy a car.
These women spoke at a crowd of about 60 university staff, students and local residents who had gathered for a living wage vigil, sponsored by the Workers Interfaith Network, on the university's campus last month.
WIN is a coalition of members of the faith and labor communities who seek justice in the workplace for metropolitan Memphis workers. Recently, Delmar, a dishwasher who was being paid nearly $3 an hour below minimum wage, confided to a friend that he did not know what to do about being cheated out of a wage that was legally his. The dishwasher's friend told him about WIN and advised him to contact them. Soon, fifteen WIN members were picketing the restaurant during the busy lunch hour. After several customers had asked the wait staff what was going on, an angry manager came out and yelled at the WIN volunteers. But they stood their ground and fifteen minutes later a different manager came out and paid the dishwasher all of the back wages he was owed.
WIN's Executive Director, Rev. Rebekah Gienapp, wrote recently of a similar WIN victory. Luis, a young Hispanic man, was hired by a janitorial company to clean Memphis area car dealerships. But after a month of work, this young man had not received a dime in pay. When he complained, his boss fired him.
Suddenly he had no way to buy food or pay his rent. Then he found the WIN, who trained him in his rights. The result? The company that had previously refused to pay sent him a check for $1,437, the full amount he had earned for his month of work.
In addition to advocating for individuals like those just mentioned, WIN champions the cause for just wages for all workers in Tennessee. Next month, on March 15, WIN will sponsor "Lobby Day," when WIN members and friends will join workers and worker advocacy groups from other Tennessee cities at noon for a big rally at the Capitol Building. Organizers say that it is crucial that all who support workers' rights in Tennessee attend this rally. The new Republican majority in the state legislature is sponsoring a bill that would effectively repeal local fair wage laws enacted by city and county governments throughout the state.
Rev. Gienapp's most recent email to those who support workers' rights closed with these words: "Don't just shake your head in disgust... channel your disgust into something positive: action that brings real results for workers." Many now say that if more people had heeded that advice, the gains of the 2008 election would not have been widely erased in the 2010 election results.
For more information about the Lobby Day rally and transportation to and from the event, contact the Workers Interfaith Network at (901) 332-3570 or via their website. Caravans are scheduled to leave for Nashville from Cooksville, Chattannooga and Martin. To reserve a spot on the bus leaving for the event from Knoxville, contact Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp at the number above or registering on the WIN website.
Update: On February 18, the Tennessee Senate's Education Committee voted to take away the right to collective bargaining from public school teachers. As in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states where workers' rights are under attach, WIN is hoping for a huge turnout in Tennessee on March 15 to show support for those who contribute the most to the economy of the state.
Image: Emma Davis and Thelma Rimmer; Paul White/PW