Fifteen Dollars an Hour: A Small Meditation on Testifying Before the City Council

Fifteen Dollars an Hour: A Small Meditation on Testifying Before the City Council January 20, 2016

James at Long Beach City Council

Last night Jan & I went to the Long Beach City Council where they were among other things going to vote on whether to raise the minimum wage in steps up to fifteen dollars an hour.

Jan put on her Standing on the Side of Love t-shirt and I put on the clerical version. While as far as the clerical shirt goes I admit I’m not the biggest fan of the color. On the other hand I only wear it for events like this and it does “brand” us, showing the Unitarian Universalists are here. And that I believe is more important than the fact I feel a bit like a large pumpkin when wearing it.

As happens in these situations there was a lot on the agenda and things began to run long. So long in fact my colleague who was scheduled to be one of the speakers on behalf of the local church and a progressive clergy group had to leave. She thrust her notes in my hand and left me to do the speaking. As is only right. Then as things dragged on some in the galleries began to get restless and one person did some shouting. The energy levels were pretty high.

Finally, finally, they called for the public comments on the subject. I managed to be one of the first of what turned out to be two and a half hours of people making their comments. They ranged from a polished presentation from a representative of chamber of commerce (they accept the need for a raise but oppose fifteen dollars) to heart breaking stories of decades of working at minimum wage, to small business owners, particularly restauranters who were adamantly opposed, to union and human rights activists. The most moving were the stories from the minimum wage workers themselves. Heartbreaking.

When I got to the podium I found myself overcome with emotion. Frankly, I was taken aback, after all my trade is largely about speaking in public. and the couple of hundred people present were barely more than the regular Sunday crowd at my last settled ministry. But, I felt the blood rushing to my head, and instead of my normal adrenaline infused clarity, I felt my vision field close in, making me feel like I was witnessing everything through a red ringed periscope.

I made my points with a quavering voice but I did get them out. The employers are not, for the most part, monsters. In fact most are to be admired for their entrepreneurship and their humanity. But the tales of wage theft that run a current through the anecdotes related by the minimum wage workers are in part an expression of how the wages they are paid legally right now should be seen as wage theft. It is disgraceful. I noted I was not repeating the statistics, they’d already gotten a belly full of that. But, the conditions for minimum wage workers, most of whom are working full time and supporting families are horrendous. And, that, bottom line, this is a moral issue. And that they, the council, are the people at hand who can address this mess and do something to help. Right here. Right now.

Jan said I wasn’t as much of a mess in my delivery of this message as I felt, but I know I wasn’t at my professional best, or anywhere near. I was and am embarrassed.

Then this morning while going through Facebook I found a pointer to an article published a couple of years ago at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website by Nathan Thompson, titled “The Failure of Now: How Eckhart Tolle Coddles the Status Quo and Why it Matters.”

The article is essentially a criticism of spiritualities that are completely inward turned, in this specific case the problem with seeing the solution to all problems as being inner. For the most part I agreed with Mr Thompson’s thesis, criticizing being too inward turned to see what’s happening in the world, or thinking that just thinking differently is enough, without falling into the other trap of being all about action and embracing your rage.

In this moment, for me, the article was more a reminder as to why I feel a need to participate in the public forum. As a Zen Buddhist teacher as well as a Unitarian Universalist minister most of my life is concerned with the inner life, with watching what I think and feel. And frankly, getting out in the world and attempting to manifest what I have found within can be a harsh teacher. (As an aside I just learned the other day that the expression “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” was actually coined by a translator of Don Quixote adapting an entirely different image to that point…)

For me going out into the world, particularly last night, was definitely an experience of that old Zen saying “one continuous mistake.” I blush at my ineptitude. And fear my eloquence failing me was also failing the people who are in such desperate need and are relying on their allies to be there.

And it was the best I could do. At the time.

So back to the pillow, as it were, back to watching.

And, of course, from there, back to engagement.

Inward looking. Learning. And reaching out. Learning.

One continuous mistake.

It really is a dance…

Oh, and if you want to know how it all turned out, here you go. And here’s another story. I expect in November there will be a ballot measure for a statewide vote here in California on raising the minimum wage. And so it continues…

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