Paul Sherry: 'Flunking retirement'
Written by W. Evan Golder
October - November 2006
November 1, 2006
Former UCC president leading national effort to raise minimum wage
In 1999, at age 65, Paul Sherry retired after 10 years as president of the United Church of Christ. So how has he been enjoying retirement, after the pressure-cooker life of a denominational executive? Sunning on a beach?
Hiking in the mountains? Sitting on his apartment balcony reading long overlooked books?
"Actually, I keep flunking retirement," he says with a chuckle.
First, he was a consultant for the Center for Community Change, then coordinator of the National Council of Churches' Anti-Poverty Program. Now he serves as coordinator of the national Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign.
All this is to accomplish one goal: to raise the minimum wage.
"I've been concerned about the poverty that affects so many people for my whole life," he says. "It became increasingly clear to me that one of the most viable ways to address poverty was to work toward raising the minimum wage, both at the state level and the federal level."
In 2004, just before the last electoral national campaign, he and others put together a series of events around the country to raise the public consciousness about poverty. Again, this month, for two weekends, Oct. 7-8 and 14-15, they will encourage congregations around the country to hold Living Wage Days services and community events.
"We hope to raise the specter of poverty," he says, "particularly as it is rooted in an inadequate minimum wage. We hope people will commit themselves to address the issue so that we can attain a minimum wage that is more in accord with what decency suggests."
Last January, over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, Let Justice Roll sponsored hundreds of Living Wage Days services and events. These led to increases in minimum wages in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In Ohio, more than 65 Living Wage Days events built support for the ballot initiative this November.
Good for workers, business
Today's federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is lower in value than the minimum wage of 1950, according to the book "A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future" by Sherry and Holly Sklar. "The minimum wage buys less today than it did when Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton opened his first Walton's 5 and 10 in Bentonville, Ark., in 1951," the book reports.
"Remember the 1963 March on Washington, and Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a dream' speech?" Sherry asks. "One demand of that march, that many people forget, was for 'a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.'"
For Sherry, raising the minimum wage is not just an economic issue or a political issue; more than anything else, it's a moral imperative.
"It is a moral outrage," he says, "that we have people in this country working for a minimum wage that is thousands of dollars below even the officially designated poverty level. It's a moral outrage, and unless those of us who are people of faith commit ourselves, not only to speak what we see as the truth about people, but indeed to act that truth, we are less than responsible faith-based people, I believe.
"Our bottom line is this," he says, "a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it."
Rooted in early childhood
Sherry's strong feelings about economic justice are rooted in his childhood in Tamaqua, Pa., situated within the Pennsylvania Coal Region section of the Appalachian Mountains, and in his reading of the Bible.
"As I saw people struggling to make ends meet as I grew up, those images have stayed with me through the years and have helped fuel my commitment to doing whatever I can to help people raise that minimum wage and to ease their pain," he says.
"That theme of economic justice and easing poverty runs all through the Bible," he says. "The theme of our campaign, Let Justice Roll, comes from Amos 5:24."
Then he adds, "Through the years people of faith have sought ways in which we can translate our commitments into effective action on behalf of people who are hurting. Today that action should be to raise the minimum wage."
Next month the minimum wage will be on the ballots in six states: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. In addition, Congress has minimal wage legislation before it, although it has been tied to estate tax roll-backs and undoing labor protection provisions. Both Let Justice Roll and Interfaith Worker Justice are urging citizens to tell Congress to pass a "clean" minimum wage bill.
Congress passed the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour (amounting to $10,712 per year) nine years ago. However, in June, Congress voted to raise its own members' pay to $165,200 annually, the eighth increase since 1997.
Will it hurt small business?
What about the argument that raising the minimum wage will hurt small businesses?
"Not true," says Sherry. "Study after study after study has shown that raising the minimum wage enhances the business climate. In those states that have raised the minimum wage, for example, their business climate is far better than in states that have not.
"Raising the minimum wage also helps poor communities,' he says, "because if people living there are going to get additional income into their pockets, they're not going to save that money because they will need to spend it for their families to survive. So they will pump that money more quickly back into the local economy, thereby helping business and the community as well."
What about those who say that only teenagers will benefit if this happens?
"Studies have shown just the opposite," he says. "Yes, teenagers will benefit, but the largest number of people who will be helped are women working at a minimum wage. That being the case, if we help those women we help their families that the women are trying to support."
For Sherry, working to raise the minimum wage is somewhat similar to being UCC president.
"As president," he says, "I committed myself to help the church reach those people who hurt and to find ways by which we could ease that pain in light of biblical mandates. I think working to raise the minimum wage requires a very similar mandate."
Would it be tougher now to be UCC president than when he was?
"I know it's very difficult now," he says, "given some of the financial issues. But I must say, I am so gratified by the leadership that our current president John Thomas is providing. I believe that he, along with other leaders of the church, is doing a remarkably fine job."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.