Diocesan parishes play role in passage of minimum wage law

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — Twenty-one Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Fall River, working with the United Interfaith Action, played a key role in the passing of the minimum wage bill on June 26, allowing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to raise the minimum wage to the highest in the country. By collecting signatures, the parishes gave voice to the Fall River Diocese’s support in raising the minimum wage; the partnership between UIA and the parishes also played a role in adding the proposed “Earned Sick Days” benefit to be on the fall ballot.

Margaret LaFleur, parishioner of St. Michael’s Parish in Fall River and a UIA leader during the campaign, said: “Low wage earners deserve to be treated with respect and love. The least we could do was to collect all those signatures so the legislature knew we were serious. When so many voters signed at the churches, we knew they supported us.”

LaFleur added, “The vehicle of using petitions gave the workers a concrete task to bring to the people how they can help minimum wage earners. It also reminded the voters the power they have in democracy. The success of the petitions gave a signal that pushed the state elected officials to realize that it would be in their favor to pass their own bill.”

The bill will raise the minimum wage from eight dollars an hour to $11 an hour over the next two-and-a-half years, beginning with an increase to nine dollars an hour on Jan. 1, 2015. This will help more than 600,000 low-wage earners over time, and will also put $1.1 billion back into the economy as the low-wage earners spend their wage increases.

According to the UIA press release, the campaign was led by Raise UP Massachusetts, and was co-chaired by the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a faith-based community improvement organization, and an affiliate of UIA in Fall River and New Bedford. UIA and its participating congregations collected more than 20,000 signatures on the petitions. 

For Father John Sullivan, pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham, getting his parish involved in the campaign was more than just trying to increase the minimum wage, it was about bringing to action the good works the Catholic Church has been doing for decades.

“The Catholic Church’s more than 100 years of social justice work makes issues like an increase in the minimum wage and improved working conditions a natural issue for all Catholics,” he said. “We are all very much aware of the unevenness of the recovery from the Great Recession and the fact that wages of working people have not increased anywhere near the same rate as upper income people. Here in Wareham there are a very large percentage of people who are employed in minimum-wage or low-wage jobs.

“It is very necessary for the voice of the people to be heard. The poor do not have the same level of access to the political process as those who can afford to employ full-time lobbyists such as the Chamber of Commerce. UIA and other community action agencies provide that for the common people. A successful petition drive, especially one that had a very large proportion of signatures gathered by people of faith, gave a great deal of credence to the importance of the issue. 

“A pastor is always a little nervous about getting involved with social justice issues because of a fear of a backlash from some people who incorrectly believe that should not be something the Church should get involved in. I didn’t hear one comment of opposition. I believe that is indicative of the importance of the issue. I was very happy to hear of the success of the petition drive, and of course believe that it was key to the positive response the legislation received in the Massachusetts legislature.”

Jack Livramento, parishioner of Our Lady of Assumption Parish in New Bedford and UIA leader, said he was excited to take up the task of acquiring signatures, and felt the parishioners at Our Lady of Assumption rose to the challenge.

“Almost all of our parishioners felt it was a just cause to raise the minimum wage,” said Livramento. “Many of our parishioners are working at minimum wage jobs and this has a direct impact on their lives. They recognize how difficult it is to live on eight dollars an hour. For many of our parishes in New Bedford, pastors were more than willing to assist their parishioners in the collection of signatures by allowing members to speak at the end of Mass and allowing members to collect signatures outside of church at the end of Mass. Passage of the minimum wage bill by the legislature brought excitement, joy and relief to our community. Finally, the legislature has acted; finally, we can look forward to a pay raise; and finally, we can celebrate the accomplishment of raising the minimum wage.”

Father Gastão Oliveira, pastor of Santo Christo Parish in Fall River, acknowledged that the passing of the bill could not have happened if Catholics and other organizations hadn’t gotten involved in the campaign: “The Holy Father, St. John Paul II, at the close of the celebration of the Jubilee Year, requested that all Christian communities of the world begin the 21st century and the third millennium with a renewed energy to transform the world by the values specified by Evangelical Justice. This request will never be accomplished without the active involvement of all Christians in the building of the society in which we live.

“In other words: this will only happen if the Catholics actively involve themselves in the political process — and exercise their right to vote. The bishops of the United States, in their pastoral letter ‘Faithful Citizenship’ of September 1999, instructed all parish priests to impress upon their faithful the necessity for each of them to register in the electoral process, and to become active in the political life of the community. It is in this spirit of non-partisanship and integration in the United Interfaith Action that we as a parish have been working.

“This is the spirit of our success here at Santo Christo Parish — the parishioners understand their faith commitment with the Social Gospel of the Church throughout the years and also help the Church to transform the world in the spirit of the Gospel by actively participating in the events of justice.”

Carol Cioe, UIA president, said that the pastors in the Fall River Diocese were incredibly supportive and welcoming of the campaign initiative, including Father John Ozug, rector of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River and that “signatures were obtained at many locations by volunteers of all ages,” said Cioe, adding that the passing of the bill was “received with joy and a sense of relief that people will get a much-deserved raise, and a sense of pride because we helped make it happen.”

Now the UIA and the parishes are turning their attention to the “Earned Sick Days” benefit that made it to the ballot for this fall; “We still have work to do regarding the earned sick time petition,” said Cioe. “People should not have to choose between staying home with their children when they are sick, losing a day’s pay, or worse — getting fired.”

This is a list of the 21 parishes that participated: Our Lady of Assumption, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James, St. Lawrence, and St. Anthony’s of New Bedford; St. Michael’s, St. Joseph’s, Santo Christo, St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, Holy Name, Holy Trinity, and St. Anthony’s of Fall River; St. Bernard’s Parish of Assonet; St. George’s Parish in Westport; St. Dominic’s Parish in Swansea; St. Vincent de Paul and St. John the Evangelist in Attleboro; St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham; St. John Neumann Parish in Freetown; St. Anthony’s Parish in Mattapoisett; and St. Joseph’s Parish Fairhaven.

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