COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. – Workers in transparent rain ponchos hand out pale yellow fliers to people preparing to enter Lee Kan’s Asian Grill in the Collierville Shopping Center. The flyers inform the potential diners that Lee Kan’s Asian Grill stole more than $8,200 from Mauricio Alfaro who had worked there for over nine months as a dishwasher and a fryer.
Others hold signs declaring the restaurant violates federal laws, while Mr. Alfaro spreads wide his rain poncho on which he’s written in in brightly colored marker “Lee Kan’s Owes Me Wages.” In the background Alfredo Peña, the Worker Rights Director at Workers Interfaith Network leans into his cell phone, listens, says a few words, and hangs up.
It is good news. Lee Kan’s Asian Grill has offered to pay Alfaro $5,000! He can pick up a check for $2,500 in five days and will receive a payment of $416 at the end of every month until Lee Kan’s pays off its debt, Everyone cheers and a clearly happy Alfaro is patted on the back.
Recently, Workers Interfaith Network’s Executive Director Rev. Rebekah Gienapp sat at her desk and spoke about the mission and the ten-year history of the group in Memphis. Gienapp, a Methodist minister, said, “The idea that people should be paid fairly for the hard work they do is what draws people together the most.”
Before WIN, people in the faith community here only had a few charitable and volunteer options to express their values, many of which involved working in outreach programs run by their churches. WIN provides these people with an opportunity for people of many different faiths and denominations to “come together for a common purpose: supporting the rights of low wage workers.”
Workers Interfaith Network has had a huge impact on the Memphis community in the ten years it has been here, in part due to the success of its annual Faith and Labor Picnic.
Ten years ago, Fred Ashwill the then-president of the Central Labor Council, suggested, “We should do something on Labor Day because there is no union event” on the one day on the calendar devoted to workers.
That first humble picnic was attended by “about 70 people,” Gienapp recalls “and raised about $2,500.” To this day, Fred Ashwill “is still the one who cooks for us.”
Since that first picnic, WIN’s support has grown steadily. In 2006, they led a winning coalition in passing a living wage ordinance in Memphis. Gienapp explains that “the idea was to get the city to pay their workers a living wage.” The law takes in every employer who gets a tax break from the City of Memphis. “The city should be a leader,” said Gienapp. “If Mmphis doesn’t pay a living wage, why would anyone else?”
WIN’s tenth anniversary was celebrated this Labor Day at their Faith and Labor picnic. The picnic which was attended by 450 people from the mid-south was a huge success. Many labor unions and faith communities contributed to make it the success it was. According to Gienapp, the picnic was able to raise $23,000.
While Workers Interfaith Network continues to fight the good fight on behalf of and in cooperation with low wage workers, millions of workers it does not reach are victims of wage theft. It is a reality, activists note, that forces workers to choose between putting food on the table and paying their rent.
On Sept. 29 the group will hold a rally at 2 p.m. at the First Congregational Church to stand against wage theft, and stand up for the low-wage workers of the Mid-South.
Photo: Rebehak Gienapp, by James Raines/PW