Brattleboro social justice, spiritual leaders join in Vermont effort to 'Raise the Wage'

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MONTPELIER >> Most religious communities aim to lift the spirit. The nearly 50 Green Mountain congregations that make up Vermont Interfaith Action are adding another intention: "Raise the Wage."

The grass-roots group hopes to combat income inequity through a new campaign to convince state lawmakers to boost workers' pay from the current minimum of $9.60 an hour to $15 by 2020.

"The Vermont way is not seeing your neighbors go hungry or without heat," Fairfield resident Dustin Tanner, who grew up in a working family without enough money, said Wednesday at a kickoff event in Montpelier. "The day-to-day struggle is real in this state. Raising the wage is one of the easiest and most effective ways to fight poverty."

The campaign, which is also spearheaded by Rights & Democracy and supported by a dozen Vermont unions and social service organizations, is about to launch a website, raisethewagevt.wordpress.com, to introduce itself and its ideas.

State lawmakers approved legislation in 2014 to raise the minimum wage from $8.73 to $9.15 in 2015, $9.60 in 2016, $10 in 2017 and $10.50 in 2018, with subsequent years indexed to inflation.

"Vermont was one of the first to answer President Obama's call for states to bypass Congress and raise the minimum wage," Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration said in a statement at the time. "Vermont has one of the highest minimum wages in America."

But more than 70,000 Vermonters — some 12 percent of the state's population — are living below the federal poverty level, campaign organizers note.

"We can do something about this," they wrote in a public invitation to their event at Montpelier's Christ Episcopal Church. "While there have been modest improvements in the minimum wage in recent years, it's time we took bold action to address the poverty and income disparity in our state."

A new Vermont Raise the Wage Coalition Facebook page reports "the goal of this effort is to pass legislation in 2017" for implementation by 2020. But organizers have yet to outline specifics other than to say: "This legislation will pass by creating the political mandate for the incoming Vermont governor and Legislature through grassroots organizing, public education and events, earned media and communications, as well as voter and candidate engagement."

"This is more the first step in raising awareness," VIA community organizer Melissa Battah said of Wednesday's announcement.

"But this is a serious way we can move forward on alleviating poverty in Vermont," Rights & Democracy organizer Isaac Grimm added.

Founded by Burlington clergy and lay leaders in 2004, the statewide religious group boasts 48 member and affiliate congregations representing 10,000 Vermonters as far south as Brattleboro, where participants include the town's Centre Congregational and St. Michael's Episcopal Church.

"Our mission is to create solutions to systemic issues that prevent our most vulnerable citizens from enjoying the quality of life God intends for us all," the group states on its website, www.viavt.org.

VIA made a name for itself over the past year by launching a "Building a Moral Economy" campaign that spurred the state Legislature to call for more specific budget projections on the real cost of delivering public services in hopes of stimulating discussion on spending priorities.

The group views the minimum-wage campaign as "the next logical step," says the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, pastor of Barre's Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd and president of the VIA board of directors.

The Vermont Raise the Wage Coalition consists of VIA, Rights and Democracy and, in alphabetical order, Burlington "Fight for $15," Community of Vermont Elders, Green Mountain Self-Advocates, Hunger Free Vermont, National Association of Social Workers Vermont Chapter, Peace & Justice Center, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Service Employees International Union Local 200 United, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Voices for Vermont's Children and Working Vermont Labor Coalition.

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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