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Congregations focus on living wages as part of Labor Day initiative

An immigrant Ivory Coast worker told a West Baltimore church congregation Sunday what it's like to make $11.50 an hour washing dishes at a food concession at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport — and struggle to make ends meet.

"I try to do the best to raise my son," said Dezi Kodiane, a Cherry Hill resident who was a guest speaker at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Lafayette Square. He appeared as part of an effort by Interfaith Worker Justice of Maryland to connect low wage workers with religious congregations.

Kodiane said he immigrated from the Ivory Coast "because life was not easy there." He left behind a wife and a 2-year-old son, and said he works as much as he can to send home $200 a month.

"I left my home country to find a better life for myself and my children," he said at the church, one of several congregations throughout Baltimore and Maryland who, as part of a focus on Labor Day, welcomed food service workers to speak about the local labor market.

"What I want is to make $15 an hour," he said.

Kodiane makes more than Maryland's minimum wage of $7.25, but the Rev. Michelle Holmes Chaney, pastor of Metropolitan United Methodist Church, said many food service employees serve as examples of the challenges of the working poor.

Across the country, food-service workers have been recently protesting the pay practices of many large companies with some demanding a 'living wage' of $15 an hour. In Maryland, some state lawmakers have begun to lobby to increase the state's minimum wage to at least $12 an hour.

She said after attending a breakfast where she learned of wage issues in Maryland, she decided to open her pulpit to an outside speaker.

"People are so confused about what Labor Day is all about," said Holmes Chaney. "I thought, 'Why not take today and hear these people? They get up early and go work but they still do not bring enough resources into their homes. For them, Labor Day is not really a day off.'"

Kodiane spoke from the church's chancel and answered questions after the regular Sunday service. Arlene Scott, a retired Baltimore City public schools teacher and member of the Baltimore Teachers Union, greeted him and said she supported his cause.

"I understand economics and job security," Scott said. "I was there in Washington with Dr. King [Martin Luther King Jr.] in 1963 and I was there again this week. I was 23 then and am 73 now. You have to speak up."

Appearing with Kodiane was Roxie Herbekian, a union organizer and official of Unite Here Local 7, which represents hotel, gambling casino and hospital industry workers. She said her union wants to represent more workers at BWI.

"We came to the churches to make our point," Herbekian said. "The wage issues are very real. These are things that people feel and understand. They are not just academic issues."

Herbekian noted that bartenders and wait staff at busy terminal piers at BWI make better wages, because of tipping, than those who labor behind the scenes and have jobs in the kitchens.

"There are workers at the airport who do not get tips, people like Kodiane," she said. "Any traveler to the airport can see how hard these people work. And food prices at the airport tend to be higher and these people should be paid accordingly."

Companies such as McDonald's have recently stood behind their pay practices. And the National Retail Federation have called the recent protests a "publicity stunt" in a statement, saying that they're "just further proof that the labor movement is not only facing depleted membership rolls, they have abdicated their role in an honest and rational discussion about the American workforce."

The church's pastor said that the Sunday of Labor Day weekend was an appropriate time to focus on the reality of the working poor.

"There are systems in place that make it impossible for these people to earn a decent wage," said Holmes Chaney."There is much more we need to do to have these workers make a decent wage."


The Los Angeles Times contributed this article.

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