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United Methodists help raise Arkansas minimum wage

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The Rev. Steve Copley
May 31, 2006

By Clayton Childers*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) — Arkansas workers laboring at the nation’s minimum wage level will get a raise in October thanks to United Methodists in the state who helped lead the way in advocating for an increase.

Most states have not had an increase in the $5.15 an hour minimum wage since 1997. In Arkansas, workers will start earning $6.25.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society hosted a luncheon May 15 at the United Methodist Building in Washington celebrating the minimum wage victory in Arkansas. The Rev. Steve Copley, a leading figure in the “Give Arkansas a Rai$e” campaign and pastor of First United Methodist Church, North Little Rock, Ark., was the guest speaker.

“The religious community was key,” Copley said. “When leaders from local churches, both lay and clergy, as well as bishops and other leaders from a wide spectrum of the state’s faith community united behind the effort, it created a powerful voice for change.”

A broad coalition of partner organizations, including the Arkansas Interfaith Council, denominational leaders, labor unions and community organizations, came together to form the heart of the “Give Arkansas a Rai$e” campaign.

Hours were spent over several meetings, hammering out language for a ballot initiative to be presented at the polls. A similar approach proved successful last year in Florida, where citizens voted to raise their state’s minimum wage by $1.00 an hour, indexed each year to inflation. “Members of our committee thought: If they can do it in Florida, why not Arkansas?” Copley said.

The next step was to raise awareness and build support for the initiative.

“We needed to develop some momentum,” he said. “A huge break came when we were able to get money to conduct a statewide poll of citizen’s views. I really have to give credit to the Darraugh Foundation for providing the resources to conduct the poll.”

Poll results showed overwhelming support for an increase in the minimum wage: 87 percent of Arkansans expressed support for the minimum wage increase, and 88 percent agreed with the statement, “It is wrong for people to work hard, full time, and live in poverty.”

A second important break in the Arkansas campaign came when the state business community called the “Give Arkansas a Rai$e” coalition leadership and indicated its support.

The committee welcomed this development and began to work with state lawmakers on possible language that they could support. The increase passed overwhelmingly, with only three lawmakers in the 135-member Arkansas Legislature opposing it.

Minimum wage battle

The U.S. Congress continues to debate proposals to increase the national minimum wage but has not been able to agree on a bill. States have begun to take matters into their own hands. Arkansas joins 20 other states and the District of Columbia that have passed higher minimum wage laws. In some states, such as Florida, the wage is indexed to inflation, so that each year the state’s poorest workers see an automatic increase.

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Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor

This map shows the different minimum wage laws by state. Green: Wage is higher than the federal (includes Alaska and Hawaii). Blue: Same as the federal. Red: Lower than the federal. Yellow: No minimum wage law.
A person working full time, 40 hours a week, every week of the year, at $5.15 an hour will make about $10,700 a year. That’s significantly below the national poverty line of $13,020 for a family of one child and one adult.

The United Methodist Church calls on all employers to “pay their employees a wage that does not require them to depend upon government subsidies such as food stamps or welfare for their livelihood,” according to Paragraph 163.IV.E of the denomination’s Social Principles, found in the Book of Discipline.

“We believe the current minimum wage is grossly inadequate,” said John Hill, director of economic and environmental justice for the Board of Church and Society, the denomination’s social advocacy agency. “A job should keep people out of poverty, not in it. This tears at our social fabric; it undermines our social contract; it is an affront to our understanding of the United States as a land of opportunity. People who work should be paid enough to live a life of dignity.”

?Important victory’

Copley said many “heroes helped bring this victory to fruition.”

“Bishop Charles Crutchfield, Arkansas Area, and retired Bishop Felton May, now serving at Philander Smith College, were there right from the beginning. The Arkansas Conference United Methodist Women met with our coalition and helped educate women about the need for this change. Doni Martin and the Arkansas Conference Board of Church and Society were very supportive. Rev. Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches of Christ and Paul Sherry of the Let Justice Roll campaign were also influential.”

Others proved less supportive.

“Though most of the business community supported the effort, there were some in the restaurant industry that were opposed,” Copley said. “We were also disappointed that Wal-Mart, in the end, did not support the measure, even though we tried to make the case that more money in hands of the working poor would be a benefit to them.”

“ This is an important victory. It’s huge,” said Jim Winkler, top staff executive of the Board of Church and Society. “This shows that the church can again make a significant contribution to the lives of the least of these among us that Jesus talked about.

“People are hurting,” Winkler continued, “and it is an embarrassment that every year for last nine years, the working poor are earning, in real terms, less and less each and every year. It is not only an embarrassment, it is an injustice. It is exciting to see the Arkansas’ faith community step up and say enough is enough and do something about it.”

*Childers is the director of annual conference relations for the Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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