Ministry provides comforting symbols of caring - Catholic Courier
Vera Smyth (right), a parishioner of Avon’s St. Agnes Church, shares a laugh with Barbara Irving, a parishioner of Caledonia’s St. Columba-St. Patrick Church, during a meeting of The Handiwork Ministry Aug. 27. Vera Smyth (right), a parishioner of Avon’s St. Agnes Church, shares a laugh with Barbara Irving, a parishioner of Caledonia’s St. Columba-St. Patrick Church, during a meeting of The Handiwork Ministry Aug. 27.

Ministry provides comforting symbols of caring

Last year a restaurant worker appealed to Pete Meyers because she wasn’t receiving overtime pay or her full share of tips. On her own, she may or may not have had a case.

 

She eventually got a dozen coworkers to come forward with similar complaints. At that point, she most definitely had a case.

“We try to sell people on the fact that when you band together with others, that’s when you stand up and have a voice,” said Meyers, who serves as coordinator of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center. To drive that point home, the center’s Web site (www.tclivingwage.org) implores communal support among disadvantaged workers, stating, “If enough of us are there, we’ll all start winning.”

The workers’ center is a coalition of hundreds of individuals and more than 50 unions, religious organizations and community groups. It seeks to support, empower and advocate for fair treatment of low-income employees in the Ithaca area on such matters as pay, racial issues, housing and health care.

A top project is the Tompkins County Religious Task Force for a Living Wage, which the center operates in conjunction with Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga. The group emphasizes that the New York state minimum wage is actually well below what would be considered a living wage for Tompkins County residents. Notable efforts by the task force in recent years have included petitioning for a minimum-wage increase; successfully imploring the Ithaca City School District to raise its pay for school paraprofessionals; meeting with local hotel officials to discuss the need for workers to earn a living wage; and sending a letter to management of a new Wal-Mart store — signed by 29 religious leaders — demanding just pay and fair labor practices for its employees.

Meyers said that employers are generally willing to talk with the workers’ center. Yet when staunch opposition arises, he said the center may opt to go to the courts or National Labor Relations Board. He views this persistence as “developing the power where (management) can’t afford to say, ‘Who are you?'” This, he acknowledged, falls closely in line with a labor-union mentality.

“We’re not negotiating contracts, but we have a collaborative relation with unions,” Meyers said, adding that “community union is an idea I’m really pushing.”

A recent example of community bonding was the gathering of more than 100 people for a late-September rally on Ithaca Commons. Participants urged the United States government’s bailout plan to look beyond “Wall Street banks, private equity firms, investment houses and the wealthy that control their shares,” according to the workers’ center Web site. “We demand new programs to create jobs that pay a living wage, a secure social security system, national health care, and investments in education and renewable energy.”

These days, the workers’ center is able to expand its influence even further. Last year it received a $30,000 national grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ program that addresses root causes of poverty and powerlessness and helps break those cycles. Diocesan parishes held their annual collections for local and national CCHD funding at weekend Masses on Sept. 20-21.Local Catholic Charities officials played key roles in securing the national grant for the workers’ center. Meyers said the money has been put toward hiring staff members to carry out the center’s mission, particularly in the retail and hotel industries.

Local Catholic Charities officials played key roles in securing the national grant for the workers’ center. Meyers said the money has been put toward hiring staff members to carry out the center’s mission, particularly in the retail and hotel industries. “So, that’s pretty much gone one step further than just having (volunteer) people on the board,” he remarked.The workers’ center is one of three groups in the Rochester Diocese to received a recent $30,000 grant from CCHD. The others are Interfaith Action, a Rochester activist organization that strives to reduce crime and strengthen city neighborhoods; and the 2,500-member Progressive Neighborhood Federal Credit Union, which serves low-income Rochester city residents. Marvin Mich, diocesan CCHD director, said the national grants are awarded to strengthen grassroots organizations that stand to make a considerable difference in the lives of the underprivileged people they serve.”We want this kind of work to continue,” Mich said.

“So, that’s pretty much gone one step further than just having (volunteer) people on the board,” he remarked.

The workers’ center is one of three groups in the Rochester Diocese to received a recent $30,000 grant from CCHD. The others are Interfaith Action, a Rochester activist organization that strives to reduce crime and strengthen city neighborhoods; and the 2,500-member Progressive Neighborhood Federal Credit Union, which serves low-income Rochester city residents.

Marvin Mich, diocesan CCHD director, said the national grants are awarded to strengthen grassroots organizations that stand to make a considerable difference in the lives of the underprivileged people they serve.

“We want this kind of work to continue,” Mich said.

This story was updated on Oct. 9, 2008.

 

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