by Paul Bowers
An interfaith group of 27 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations will call on public officials to address the issue of wage theft Monday night at an annual event called the Nehemiah Action.
The group, Charleston Area Justice Ministries (CAJM), picks a topic related to social justice each year, researches the subject, and presents a list of policy demands to government leaders, face to face, in a public venue. The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church, co-president of CAJM, isn't talking about the specifics of the group's demands just yet, but he says the issue of employers illegally withholding workers' pay is a familiar one to many area congregations.
"I've had many of my members share with me how it's done, either working off the clock or not getting paid for overtime, having titles changed so you're not eligible for full-time when you should be. It's just wrong," Rivers says. "The scriptures tell us we're supposed to treat our workers fairly. The scriptures tell us we're supposed to pay people for the work they do. In many, many cases, that's not happening."
One of the elected officials who had been invited to the action, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey, said on Thursday that he was asking CAJM to reschedule the event due to a family member having "a procedure that day that I didn't know about."
Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, co-president of CAJM, says the action is still on for Monday. (A CAJM organizer said Friday afternoon that Summey had agreed to send his answers in the form of a video to be played at the Nehemiah Action.) Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. is expected to give an update on policy changes that were enacted after last year's Nehemiah Action (a city spokesman confirmed the event is on his schedule), and CAJM organizers say other County Council members have been invited.
"We've got 2,000 people that we anticipate being there and other public officials who are part of the program as well, so it will certainly still be happening on Monday," Alexander says.
She adds, "Elliott Summey had been confirmed, so this was all new that he wouldn't be able to come — and he had been very supportive, too, which is wonderful."
The issue of wage theft in the Charleston area most recently gained the spotlight in March, when the Post and Courier reported that the U.S. Department of Labor had cited four Charleston restaurants for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. One restaurant reportedly owed more than $150,000 in back wages.
Now in its third year, the Nehemiah Action has a history of achieving public-policy changes with confrontational tactics.
In 2013, law enforcement agency heads from Charleston, North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, and Charleston County promised CAJM they would start using a Risk Assessment Instrument to reduce rates of juvenile incarceration. Nancy McGinley, then superintendent of the Charleston County School District, committed to push for more student slots in the district's early childhood development program, and the school board allotted 300 additional spots later that year.
The second Nehemiah Action in 2014 had mixed results. McGinley agreed to have district staff conduct audits of some schools with high suspension rates, but she pushed back against a request to have five schools pilot a program in Restorative Justice, an approach that emphasizes repairing the harms caused by a wrongdoing rather than punishing the perpetrator (She agreed to pilot the program in two schools, and it was later expanded to five). Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. agreed to support a targeted hiring policy for young workers on publicly funded construction projects, but he pushed back against a proposed goal of giving 25 percent of all entry-level construction jobs to 16- to 24-year-olds.
The evening followed a strict format, with a faith leader reading off a list of demands one by one and then pointing a microphone at an elected official to say whether he or she would support it. McGinley and Riley both visibly bristled during their time onstage at the 2014 Nehemiah Action, which took place in the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. There were tense moments as both Riley and McGinley attempted to wrest control of the microphone and clarify their policy positions beyond a simple "yes" or "no."
McGinley made her opinion clear in the lobby after the event: "I don't like the tactics." Another elected official, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, declined an invitation to attend the event in 2014, citing concerns over the format and what he described as unrealistic hiring demands.
According to Rivers, leaders with CAJM have already met with Elliott Summey, who is Keith Summey's son, to discuss the policy ideas they will present Monday night. Rivers says the process will be largely unchanged from previous years.
"We don't expect everyone to always agree or even be pleased by the process. We insist on mutual respect, and we're going to respect all those who have thought enough of the process to make themselves available and come," Rivers says. "The process is valuable. It's not a 'kumbaya, let's have fellowship together.' It is about the hard work of justice."
CAJM chose its topic for the Nehemiah Action at a meeting in October 2014 and has spent the intervening months investigating how other local governments have addressed the problem of wage theft. More recently, area congregations have had another topic on their minds: the April 4 shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer.
"I think it will come up. We can't ignore it," Rivers says. "When you're in a ministry that's dedicated to justice, well, Walter Scott's murder was a very blatant example of injustice — a very painful example. So I believe folks will be addressing it. It will be on the minds of those in attendance, to be sure, and we'll be making comments toward that end."
The Nehemiah Action will take place Mon. April 27 at 7 p.m. at Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church (7396 Rivers Ave., North Charleston).