Poor People's Campaign

February 16, 2021

Low-wage workers and moral leaders called on West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to support a minimum wage of $15/hour in COVID relief legislation during the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Monday program. 

The online event was held the same day that the campaign announced that Manchin has asked to meet with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival to discuss the minimum wage issue and the 14 Policy Priorities to Heal the Nation. The Poor People’s Campaign agreed to the meeting, provided it includes a diverse group of poor and low-income people, said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

Sen. Manchin is one of two Democratic U.S. senators who has indicated that he doesn’t support an increase to $15/hour as part of COVID relief. 

“I’m speaking to you, Senator Manchin,” said Jean Evansmore of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. “You know that in West Virginia the minimum wage needs to be $23 in order for people to live, not wonder where their next meal is coming from.” 

Evansmore said Fayette County, where she lives “is loaded with homeless people. Now, you’re going to tell anybody that people want to be in that position? No, that is not so.  And that also means you really aren’t listening to people, because if you were, I wouldn’t be here doing this….  None of us would be. You are not listening to people.”

During the most dangerous parts of the pandemic, low-wage workers kept the economy going as best they could, said Pam Garrison of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. 

“Every time there’s anything to uplift the people, we hear the same old scare tactics and threats… We reject these, we reject it straight out,” Garrison said. “West Virginians are trying to stay warm through winter getting our heat cut off because it takes half a month’s wages to pay for it. We’re demanding a fair day’s wages.” 

The Moral Monday program on Feb. 15 was the third of 14 that the Poor People’s Campaign has planned to address its 14 policy priorities for the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration and the new Congress. All three have focused on the urgent need for including $15/hour in the COVID relief package that Congress is negotiating. 

Sixty-two million Americans, including 40% of Black workers, make less than a living wage. While $15/hour is not a living wage everywhere, it will lift millions of people out of poverty. In West Virginia, 710,000 people are poor or low-income and more than 350,000 make under $15/hour. That was 50% of the state’s workforce as of 2018 and the ninth-highest of all states. 

The Poor People’s Campaign has planned to hold an in-person event Monday at Sen. Manchin’s office in Charleston but postponed it because of an ice storm. Rev. Barber said the event will be held soon. 

Sen. Manchin has two clear choices about how history will remember him, Rev. Barber said. 

“And Senator Manchin, what they’re trying to say is you have an opportunity to be either the greatest hero for economic justice since the minimum wage was first installed during the Great Depression and in the New Deal or the greatest foe to oppose $15 right now. It’s not where you want to be. It’s not the side of history. It’s not the side of the people,”  said Rev. Barber, who describes the $15/hour minimum wage as being as big as the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. 

Rev. Liz Theoharis, the campaign’s co-chair, said a return to the pre-COVID days, when 700 people died a day from poverty, is not an option. 

“Americans cannot in this moment be fooled into thinking that the very policies and measures that left this world in ours in a wreckage of inequality, poverty, and low wages can get us out of this mess,” she said. “We cannot be fooled that raising the minimum wage will do anything except to lift people from the bottom so that all of our society can rise. What will work is to build back better and build the power of 140 million poor and low-income Americans, hundreds of thousands of West Virginians who are not making a living wage, but who desperately need one…  Poverty, inequality, low wages are shortening people’s lives and hurting our communities.” 

Other quotes from the Feb. 15 Moral Monday: 

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: 

“We cannot heal this nation without full COVID relief of the minimum wage of $15.  There is no way we can go through the pain and poverty prior and since COVID and not make this a major part of our economic recovery and economic future.”

“If you want to be serious about poor and low-wealth people, and 50 percent of West Virginians, then don’t talk about money when you talk to everybody else, but then when you get to the poor folk, you say pray.  No, we need you to stop preying on poor and low-wealth folks and start paying poor and low-wealth folk so that they can live and have the fruit of their labor.”   

Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign 

“Now is a time to raise wages to protect workers to help people organize together. … And we insist that we need to raise the minimum wage immediately and we need to include all workers. 

“Congress is being driven to respond to this crisis that has this country, this whole world in fact in its grip, but what we know is that plagues and pandemics unveil foundations of injustice, and such crises are not simply storms to be weathered before a return to what passes as normal. The message of history and in this moment is that such measures when they align with the basic demands of justice cannot be piecemeal or temporary. “

Rev. Darick J. Biondi, United Methodist Church minister 

“A hundred years ago this very year, 13,000 miners met at Lens Creek — the creek that flows between the two communities I serve — and they marched to Logan. It was just outside Logan at Blair Mountain that the largest labor uprising in U.S. history took place. While the issue at hand was unionizing, one of the most important issues was a right to earn a fair wage. 

“Today, again, we are discussing the right to a fair wage — in this case, $15 an hour. This is a wage that West Virginians can live on without sinking further and further into life-crippling debt (that’s) similar to the company’s store date that crippled economically enslaved West Virginia miners and families for generations. The miners that marched to Blair Mountain cried out for justice and we cry out for justice again today.”

S. Alexander Berg, in recovery for 15 years

“We need this $15-an-hour minimum wage. It would change my life. My wife works at customer service at home, and especially through this COVID, it’s been really difficult for us. It would change our lives and the lives of so many thousands here in our state. A bill like this has absolutely got to pass. Our community does not want a handout.  We’re looking for a hand-up. And we’re suffering, especially with addiction, we’re suffering shame and rejection of the stigma and hypocrisy of our government not helping out.” 

Brianna Griffith of Huntington, a tipped service worker 

“I, along with other service workers right now, have been really suffering from the pandemic. Not only have tips and tables drastically reduced, we are expected to show up, put our lives on the front line for people, all while receiving 50 to 75 percent less of our tips, especially in West Virginia, working at a sub-minimum wage. We’re overwhelmed with stress, and we can’t make ends meet, worrying whether we’re going to catch COVID-19 and take it home to our loved ones. I myself care for my grandmother who lives in a holler in Fayette County. And if she gets sick, that’s an hour drive to a hospital.”

Audra Landis of Helena, Montana, a stay-at-home mother who has suffered with health issues since giving birth. She, her husband, and newborn lived in an abandoned trailer until they could find stable housing. 

“My experience, my family’s experience of homelessness, lasted a year and we encountered countless obstacles while trying to get back on our feet. My family and families just like mine wouldn’t have to struggle so long if our system was set up to support a living wage, health care for all, affordable housing.” 

“Everyone deserves to have access to have that care they need to survive and live a healthy life and on behalf of my family and all struggling low-income families, we demand a fully funded just COVID relief package that includes health care for all, housing for all, and especially that guaranteed living wage for all.”

BACKGROUND: Nationally, more than 140 million poor and low-income people live in the United States, or 43% of the country’s population, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, with organizing committees in 45 states, is building a moral fusion movement to address the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism and a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. Our demands are reflected in our Jubilee Platform.

Martha Waggoner:
[email protected] | 919-295-0802