All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement

All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement

All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement

All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement


“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”Mathew 11:28 (AKJV)

In the early 1990s, a grassroots coalition of churches in Baltimore, Maryland helped launch what would become a national movement. Joining forces with labor and low-wage worker organizations, they passed the first municipal living wage ordinance. Since then, over 144 municipalities and counties as well as numerous universities and local businesses in the United States have enacted such ordinances.

Although religious persons and organizations have been important both in the origins of the living wage movement and in its continuing success, they are often ignored or under analyzed. Drawing on participant observation in multiple cities, All You That Labor analyzes and evaluates the contributions of religious activists to the movement. The book explores the ways religious organizations do this work in concert with low-wage workers, the challenges religious activists face, and how people of faith might better nurture moral agency in relation to the political economy. Ultimately, C. Melissa Snarr provides clarity on how to continue to cultivate, renew, and expand religious resources dedicated to the moral agency of low-wage workers and their allies.


At a southern university rally for living wages in 2005, a middleaged African American woman rose to introduce herself and speak to the crowd. Standing there in her uniform, she stated her name and job title (custodian), then paused before saying slowly and deliberately, “Everyone keeps telling me not to speak today. They say I’ll lose my job or not get my raises. But I’m telling you today that I’m not afraid. There’s nothing they can do to me, with God on my side.” In front of a hundred students, faculty, and other staff, she relayed her story of working two jobs, one of them full time, to feed her daughter and take care of an aging mother. She expressed her frustration at not having enough time with her family, with her seemingly ceaseless work. With strength and clarity in her voice, she ended by stating her hope for “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

Later that year, the local African American ministerial fellowship and an influential Unitarian Universalist church, joined by many university faculty and staff members, wrote to the university’s chancellor, strongly pressing the wealthy institution to understand living wages as a moral issue with significant related concerns for racial justice. As the campaign grew, faith leaders led rallies, supported workers who risked speaking publicly, and provided organizing space for meetings. By the end of the union contract negotiations, the workers had secured a guaranteed starting rate of $10 an hour by 2009.

While religious persons and organizations were not the whole story in this campaign, every major actor in the coalition acknowledged religious activists’ role in its success. In fact, to ignore religious activists’ multiple contributions to the campaign would be to miss a major dimension of the campaign and its later influence on the rise of a faith-labor coalition for living wages, for city workers, those contracted through the metropolitan government, and other low-wage workers who sought their help.

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