Disciples News Service

Watkins signs on to letter regarding low-wage workers

September 1, 2013

Dear Mr. President,

With a stroke of your pen you could sign an executive order guaranteeing a living wage for millions of low-wage workers who serve the public in federal buildings in Washington DC and at federal sites around the nation.  As leaders of faith communities we value the inherent dignity of work and believe that just and living wages are a moral imperative.

Every year thousands upon thousands of people travel to the nation’s capital to visit the historic places where our common history was forged and our character as a nation was shaped.  Many of them pass through Union Station on their way to the iconic buildings that make up the Smithsonian, the Ronald Reagan building and other treasured sites throughout Washington DC.  The workers who serve them and clean the buildings they visit are paid so poorly they can barely afford basic needs; they work without benefits and are too often not compensated for overtime in violation of federal law.  Wal-Mart does not employ the largest number of low-wage workers in the United States, Uncle Sam does.

We have visited with some of these workers who have begun organizing against the “poverty pay” they receive.  They work for businesses under federal contracts that distance the federal government from the workers and leave them vulnerable to immoral, exploitative, and often illegal practices.  Taxpayers assume the costs of health insurance, food stamps and other benefits that would be unnecessary if companies on federal contracts were held accountable for ethical business practices.  The federal government washes it hands of responsibility for the plight of these workers.  It could set the standard for the just and equitable treatment of working people who want to share in God’s vision of abundant life for all. 

Tourists have great experiences, and premium space in federal buildings is fully occupied by vendors making enormous profits, their executives especially.  Only low-wage workers suffer serving the public on government property.  The writer of Ecclesiastes asks, “What gain have the workers from their toil?”  From the Quran, “Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things they are due.” In the New Testament, Jesus asks that we see him when we encounter the “least of these who are my family.”  These concerns are fundamentally moral and human rights issues that our faith compels us to address.  All religions believe in justice. 

Ana Julia Fuentes has worked as a janitor at Union Station for 23 years and makes $8.75 an hour.  Wilfredo Reyes Lopez is a recent widower with three children living together in a single bedroom.  He’s a cook in the Reagan building making $6.50 an hour.  Ana Salvador has worked at McDonald’s at the Air and Space Museum for 11 years.  She’s a single mother with four kids getting SNAP benefits and Medicaid.  Jonathan Ross is a single father making $9.71 an hour at a restaurant in the Smithsonian Institute’s American History Museum.  He’s had three raises in four years, none more than $.15. 

Mr. President, we’ll bring them to meet you and to ask that you sign an executive order insuring that federal contractors pay a living wage and respect the rights of workers.  It will help these workers and the millions of others like them throughout our nation and you will set a standard that all employers can follow.   Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, “All labor has dignity.”  President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order in 1965 banning discrimination by the government and government contractors against their work force.  President Johnson’s bold action set a new standard of racial non-discrimination in the workforce. Today, you have the same authority to ensure that government contracts set the living wage as a standard of justice for employment across the country.  We welcome the opportunity to meet with you in person as soon as possible to talk and pray together that our government might do the right thing.  

Rev. Gradye Parsons

Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church in the USA

Rev. Geoffrey Black

General Minister & President, United Church of Christ

Mr. Naeem Baig

President, Islamic Circle of North America

Mr. Nihad Awad

Ex. Dir. Council on American Islamic Relations

Dr. Sayyid Syeed

National Director Islamic Society of North America

Sr. Simone Campbell


Rabbi David Saperstein

Reformed Action Center

Ms. Kim Bobo

Executive Director, Interfaith Worker Justice

Rev. Michael Livingston

National Policy Director, IWJ; Former President, National Council of Churches

Lynn Magid Lazar

President, Women of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman

Executive Director, Women of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Rick Block

President, Central Conference of American Rabbis

Bishop Thomas J. Hoyt

Senior Bishop, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Rev. Gabriel Salguero

National Latino Evangelical Coalition

Rev. Carlos Malave

Executive Director, Christian Churches Together

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner

President, The Council of Bishops, United Methodist Church

Dr. Iva Carruthers

Samuel Proctor Conference

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian

Armenian Orthodox Church

Bishop W. Darin Moore

Presiding Bishop, Western Episcopal District & NC Conference, AMEZ Church

Rev. Dr. Stephen J. Thurston

President, National Baptist Convention of America, Inc, International

Rev. Dr.  Sharon Watkins                             General Minister and President, Christian Church Disciples of Christ