Speaking to more than 300 people gathered at Sunday night’s Jews United For Justice Labor Seder, Isaiah Beamon pleaded for help to “let me take care of my family.” He has worked at Walmart for the past two years, beginning the job making $8.50 an hour and now making $9.40.
“I have co-workers who are homeless and living in their cars,” he said. “If I get a raise, I will spend it on groceries, my family, gas, transportation. More money in my paycheck means I can hold my head up.”
Beamon was one of several speakers at the 13th-annual labor seder held at Adas Israel Congregation in D.C. Its theme: “Minimum wages are too low. It’s time for the dough to rise.”
Even the Ten Plagues revolved around the theme, including, “Unscrupulous employers commit wage theft. Taxpayers subsidize corporate poverty wages. Tipped workers are left behind [and] CEOs are making higher wages than ever.” Following each plague, a drop of wine was splashed onto plates.
People swayed and clapped to “The Wages, They Need A-Raising,” sung to “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” and of course, a rendition of “Dayeinu,” which included verses like, “If in our community, we had fair wages for all employees, that would be enough for me. Dayeinu.”
The 32-page Haggadah dealt with minimum wage and wealth inequality. As Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, JUFJ program director and rabbi in residence, explained, the holiday of Passover requires the retelling of the story, which includes the fact that “many of our immigrant forefathers worked for a low wage” when they first came to America but soon joined together to obtain better wages.
“We have an obligation to continue fighting that same fight for all people,” said Richman, adding that the best way to help people get out of poverty is to help them obtain a job and become self-sufficient.
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, called increasing the minimum wage “the easiest, simplest, most direct way to get wages to grow.” He went on to counter those who believe that raising the minimum wage would reduce jobs, saying that more than 20 million people would benefit while the number of jobs lost would be in the thousands.
One third of the workers in this country have no assets or are in debt, “living paycheck to paycheck,” he told the audience, which consisted of many activists already involved in working to raise the minimum wage in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.
According to Mishel, the country’s productivity has increased by about 80 percent since 1979, while “the typical hourly wage went up 9 percent,” adding that “this is a system something like Pharaoh could have constructed.”
Joslyn Williams, director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, riled up the crowd, urging them to work hard to raise the minimum wage, and let politicians know if they don’t support an increase, “we are going to meet them in the ballot box on June 24.”
Making a play on the seder’s usual ending of “Next year in Jerusalem,” Williams said that he hoped to be at next year’s Labor seder to declare, “The war for the higher minimum wage has been won, and victory is ours.”
Jacob Feinspan, JUFJ’s executive director, wrapped up the three-hour event, by encouraging attendees to write letters to their politicians as well as the owner of Bestway grocery stories, where, he said, workers do not get vacation time, paid sick time or overtime pay and are only paid $7.25 or slightly more.
“We change the world around us,” said Feinspan.