Forty-three years ago this month, our nation watched the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The images were seared into our minds, along with the sense that our nation had lost a beacon of hope in the ongoing struggle for racial and economic justice. Though he had lived to see many important advances and constitutional guarantees for all Americans regardless of race or creed, Dr. King was murdered before he had made much progress toward another vitally important goal: economic justice.
King was in Memphis that April to stand with sanitation workers who were on strike demanding recognition of their union, better safety standards, and a living wage. To this day, those goals remain unmet for tens of millions of Americans, particularly on the lowest rung of our economic ladder.
With dangerously high rates of unemployment, and budget cuts eroding basic subsistence services for countless poor people in our city, we ought to reflect upon the legacy of Dr. King’s death while rededicating ourselves, yet again, to the dream of true equality for which he sacrificed his life. “Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all God’s children,” Dr. King said on that trip. “Now is the time for City Hall to take a position for that which is just and honest.”
For Jews, Dr. King’s message was especially resonant. Rabbis like Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel were among the many Jewish leaders who fought in the trenches with Dr. King and the African American civil rights movement, in large part because of our communities’ shared values of justice and freedom for all people.
The anniversary of his death comes in-between last week’s commemoration of the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (and the struggle of immigrant seamstresses for workplace justice) and the coming celebration of Passover. When we sit down at Seder tables across the nation, we will recall our sacred obligation to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt and that none of us are truly free until all people are free.
Our scripture consistently reminds us of these obligations. “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy,” King Solomon wrote in Proverbs. In the Torah, Moses echoed God’s command to the people, saying, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it.”
Our understanding of Jewish history and scripture demands that we work to put those values of freedom and justice into action.
That is why we support the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act now being considered by the New York City Council. The idea is simple. It would require businesses that seek voluntary taxpayer subsidies from the City – primarily for large real-estate development projects like stadiums and shopping malls – to pay a living wage ($10/hour with benefits, or $11.50/hour without) to all the employees who work there.
Why now? Because more than 25 percent of working New Yorkers are on food stamps. Because income inequality in NYC is staggering. In 1990, the top 1 percent of households took home 25 percent of all NYC income. By 2007, it had nearly doubled, to 44 percent. Because working people are struggling to make ends meet, while tax breaks continue to be bestowed upon large corporations.
Cities across America – from Los Angeles to Boston – have adopted similar legislation, and there is no evidence it has cost jobs. The legislation would not affect neighborhood small-businesses and not-for-profits, just beneficiaries of big economic development subsidies and tax breaks.
Our conscience demands that when we give out tax breaks in the name of “job creation,” we make sure those jobs pay at least living wage to the workers, a basic measure of human dignity.
As NYC leaders consider Living Wage legislation in the coming weeks and months, we ask you to get involved in your local communities — host and attend community events, learn more, and let your voice be heard.
Our Torah teaches that each of us was made in the Divine Image. This idea is at the center of the Jewish faith tradition’s essential commitment to guaranteeing basic human dignity to all people. One undeniable expression of that basic human dignity is a Living Wage.
May the memory and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King be an enduring blessing.
Andy Bachman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope. Brad Lander is a New York City Council member from Brooklyn.