In the Testifier's Chair

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Whenever C-SPAN came up as I flipped through channels as a child, it looked so…boring!  Old white men in gray suits talking into microphones.  But last week, in person, in Senate Office Building Room 5, with its rows of observer chairs flanking the central circle where the legislators presided, I felt like I was watching a spectator sport.  A blow from the pro side, a parry from the anti, a left jab, then a right. 

Up in the nosebleed section along with Maria Kirsch, a participant in the Tzedek Institue (JCA’s leadership development and organizing training), we whispered and cheered silently as strong testifiers from the Raise the Wage MN Coalition came to the stand, one after another., They endorsed an increase in minimum wage and told personal stories of their struggles to provide for their families or relayed compelling evidence on how an increase would boost school achievement or help the local economy.  When lobbyists opposing an increase spoke, we poked holes in their logic.  Adding to the sense of joviality, the legislators on the committee asked insightful clarifying questions and even made a few jokes.  All I was missing was a big bucket of buttery popcorn and I would be ready to settle in for the rest of the night.

…And then my name was called.  It was Wednesday night, February 26th, when the joint Minnesota Senate & House conference committee considering a minimum wage increase announced they would hold a public hearing … on Thursday afternoon, February 27th.  Yikes!  With less than 24 hours to prepare, we hadn’t been able to find any of our leaders  to testify, and not wanting to let our one chance to participate in a minimum wage hearing pass  without a Jewish voice, I had volunteered to speak on behalf of JCA. 

The walk down to the podium seemed impossibly long.  The lights, glaringly bright.  The 16-pt. font on my prepared notes shifted and merged into a confusing series of curvy black lines and dots.  I perched on the chair, leaned toward the microphone, and realized, somewhat belatedly, that all eyes were on me.  Why had I agreed to do this again?  The six legislators looked at me expectantly.  I had to speak.

Although the torah portion I read for my Bat Mitzvah also addressed labor rights, it was Parshah Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 24:14 that spoke to me Thursday night. “Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land.” It’s so powerful! Do not oppress the hired laborer. Unfortunately, minimum wage--originally established to provide a fair wage floor for workers--has been neglected for so long (it’s still technically just $6.15 in Minnesota although most employers pay the federal $7.25)--that working on that wage has become a form of oppression in and of itself. I continued:

In Minnesota, we have at least 360,000 low wage workers whose lives depend on those wages. As we all know, minimum wage right now amounts to little more than $15,000 a year. For a single person, that’s barely above the poverty line.  For a family, that’s well below it….$9.50 an hour indexed to inflation, which amounts to a little bit less than $20,000 a year, is not yet a living wage. But for those 360,000 Minnesotans whose lives depend on low-wage work, those 360,000 people that the Torah tells us clear as day not to oppress; the difference between $7.25 on one hand and $9.50 indexed to inflation with a 40-hour workweek and family leave on the other, is the difference between oppression on the one hand and dignity and respect on the other. 

2 minutes later, it was over and I could take a deep breath and settle back into my chair with a sigh of relief. But although the hearing is done, the fight for a higher minimum wage is ongoing.  At a meeting earlier this week, the same conference committee I spoke to seemed to agree to a raise to $9.50 , but the Senate side balked on indexing it to inflation.  Without a cost of living increase (capped at a maximum of 2.5% and currently estimated at 17 cents/hour in the first few years if inflation continues at its current rate), minimum wage will continue to lose purchasing power, eventually erasing all of the gains low-income families will make with the increase.  Do not oppress the hired laborer. Anyone? 

With that in mind, the timing is critical. I urge you in joining me in: signing this petition to our state senators which will be delivered next week along with hundreds of other petition signatures from groups around the state, making phone calls to for a higher Minimum Wage on the next three Wednesdays in March from 5-8pm (no experience necessary--training provided!), and coming to the capitol to meet directly with Senators. Contact Rachel@jewishcommunityaction.org with questions.  

Rachel English

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