Moral Mondays fight for higher wages, other issues
The activists who gathered on the steps of the Indiana Statehouse to announce their new coalition last month wanted their voices to be heard: A low minimum wage is bad for people and the economy.
Touting arguments common in the minimum wage debate — that inflation has outpaced wage growth and that public welfare programs drain taxpayer dollars — they criticize state legislators for inaction and challenge them to better understand the difficulties of living on $7.25 an hour.
“For those who don’t support increasing the minimum wage, I challenge you to live my life for a week,” said McDonald’s employee Destiny Martin, surrounded by about 40 other activists. “Then tell me if I deserve a substantial wage.”
It’s one of the focal issues for Indiana Moral Mondays, one of a dozen groups cropping up nationwide with the goal of rolling back what they call “extremist” state laws.
Higher wages, a fast food labor union, voting reforms, environmental sustainability, higher public school funding, fairer treatment for minorities in the criminal justice system. Indiana Moral Mondays wants it all.
The goal is to bring together allies in the fight for progressive policies, said Nancy Holle, a leader in the coalition. Among the groups involved are the NAACP, Holle’s Family Faith and Labor Coalition and Raise the Wage Indiana.
“It’s the biggest tent you can imagine,” said Holle. “We’re bringing everybody together who have always been kicked to the curb by extremists in our state legislature, and we’re going to stand together.”
The broad range of issues is what makes Indiana Moral Mondays strong, Holle said. It makes them harder to ignore.
But it also poses some risk, said Sheila Suess Kennedy, director of the Center for Civic Literacy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Kennedy said broad coalitions like Moral Mondays can be successful only if the groups involved are willing to be flexible.
“The more issues you have on your plate, the better the chance of annoying or pissing somebody off,” she said. “That said, if you’re careful, and the issues you identify and the organizations involved are pretty much aligned politically, then it’s strength in numbers.”
That’s the difference between Moral Mondays and Occupy Wall Street, which also was a broad coalition but much less organized, Kennedy said. Occupy protesters represented varying, sometimes contrasting causes, but Moral Mondays can unite members under an abstract central goal.
“It all comes down to how you do it and how you do it without breaking into a million quarreling little pieces,” Kennedy said. “They’re saying, let’s look at these areas most people realize are a problem, and let’s bend our energies to fix them.”
So far, the groups involved have found common ground in the coalition’s long list of policy priorities, including labor issues. At the Statehouse rally, supporters pointed to the historic role the labor movement has played in American history as part of the fights for collective bargaining, workplace safety and higher pay.
“These are issues that impact the whole scenario of whether or not you can support your family,” Holle said. “These are issues that are too important not to provide a moral dissent.”
Arguments on both sides of the minimum wage debate focus on workers. Workers themselves often side with higher-wage activists, whose rhetoric tends to highlight the difficulties of supporting a family on just $7.25 an hour, the federal and state minimum.
“I can’t survive on my own,” said Martin, who makes $150 a week at McDonald’s. “My paycheck is so small that I can’t afford my own apartment.”
But opponents say a higher wage could end up hurting the very people it’s supposed to help.
The problem with wages set higher than what the free market dictates, said Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar, is that businesses could be forced to hire fewer workers.
“The state Chamber believes government should not be involved in wage setting,” he said. “Relative to what’s existing, our position is that the state minimum wage should not be higher than the federal minimum wage.”
During the legislative session, Indiana Moral Mondays could find itself facing off against groups like the Chamber, which lobbies on behalf of businesses interests, often supporting conservative causes and endorsing Republican candidates.
Although Holle said the movement is nonpartisan, Moral Mondays was founded after a new Republican majority in North Carolina’s state government started enacting policies that an NAACP leader felt were unjust.
Since January 2013, the Rev. William Barber, president of the NAACP in North Carolina, has rallied crowds numbering in the thousands in Raleigh.
His message is spreading nationwide, not just to Indiana. From New York to Alabama, groups in a dozen states have been inspired by Barber, who is scheduled to speak in Indianapolis later this month. He will also work with local leaders to develop a plan for the coalition’s growth here.
“We’re in such an early place in this movement,” Holle said. “But we’re hurting the same way folks in North Carolina and other Southern states are, and if it’s working for them, we’ve got to try it here because nothing is working for us.”
Just what form their activism will take in Indiana remains to be seen. Holle said she doesn’t know if the group will plan weekly rallies like their North Carolina counterparts did or if they’ll use different tactics.
The challenge now is figuring out how to balance building the movement strategically and allowing core issues to define how the coalition grows. Ultimately, Holle said, it’s going to take both strategic and policy plans for Moral Mondays to work.
And, as Kennedy said, the groups will need to find a way to stay together, despite having so many goals.
Call Star reporter Michael Auslen at (317) 444-6077. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelAuslen.
If you go
Rev. William Barber, who started Moral Mondays in North Carolina will speak later this month in Indianapolis.
Interfaith service: 7 p.m. Sept. 19, location will be announced at indianamoralmondays.org.
Teach-in: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sept. 20 at Crispus Attucks High School, 1140 W. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St.
March and rally: 2:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Statehouse, 200 W. Washington St.