Vermont Interfaith Action: Clergy's income inequity fight seeks second wind

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RANDOLPH — When the Vermont Interfaith Action coalition of religious congregations held its first statewide convention a year ago, members celebrated the successful launch of its "Building a Moral Economy" campaign by revealing their next step: a "Raise the Wage" plea to boost minimum pay.

Then came last fall's election of a governor with different priorities.

"We realize when we go after big change, it takes a little longer," says the Rev. Debbie Ingram, VIA's executive director.

That's why the coalition will devote its second annual convention — set for Wednesday in Randolph — to reviving its call to increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Founded by Burlington clergy and lay leaders in 2004, the nonpartisan alliance boasts more than 40 spiritual communities representing 10,000 Vermonters as far south as Brattleboro.

The group made a name for itself last year by spurring the Legislature to seek more specific budget projections on the real cost of delivering public services in hopes of stimulating discussion on spending priorities.

Marking that win during its first statewide meeting last August, members decided to try to boost working-class pay through a "Raise the Wage" campaign.

"It's not something that's going to happen next week," the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, VIA president and pastor of Barre's Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, said at the time. "But in terms of our work on a moral economy, everybody sees it's the next logical step."

The effort launched a website and Vermont Raise the Wage Coalition Facebook page last fall with the help of the nonprofit grassroots group Rights & Democracy and more than a dozen Vermont unions and social service organizations.

Then Phil Scott won election as governor. While spiritual and social justice leaders want state lawmakers to boost workers' pay from the current minimum of $9.60 an hour to $15 by 2020, the former state senator has voted in the past to link wage increases to the cost of living.

"We need to be hesitant when it comes to imposing yet another top-down mandate from Montpelier," Scott says of the VIA proposal, "the costs of which are ultimately passed onto consumers in the form of price increases, or onto workers in the form of layoffs or decreased hours."

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 campaign organizers note that more than 70,000 Vermonters — some 12 percent of the state's population — are living below the federal poverty level. Hoping to spur legislators to approve a higher wage, they have invited David Zuckerman — who they call "the nation's most progressive lieutenant governor" — to serve as their coming convention's keynote speaker.

"His sensibility and stance on the issues is very similar to ours," says Ingram, who, independent of her role as VIA's executive director, is one of Chittenden County's six state senators.

The public meeting Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Randolph's Bethany United Church of Christ will include reports on such local efforts as focusing on education, homelessness and affordable housing, corrections reform and social justice, as well as statewide calls for paid family and medical leave.

"There's a lot of different things going on, but we'll stay focused on wages," Ingram says. "It's definitely good for the economy to put money in the hands of working Vermonters who are going to spend it at local businesses."

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

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