Promoting a Living Wage in Music City

When Pope Leo XIII issued his Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum in 1891, he contended that according to the natural law, every worker was entitled to a living wage. In a growing number of communities around the United States, activists have launched living wage certification programs for employers – programs that inform consumers which firms have committed to pay a living wage to their employees. The Catholic Labor Network has helped launch such a program in Nashville TN.

Nashville Living Wage (NLW) is a regional, membership-based organization in Nashville, TN, whose mission is to educate the community on the importance and urgency of a more just minimum wage and raise the wages of workers in Davidson County to a living wage ($17.40/hour, roughly $35,000 per year for a full-time worker) by organizing workers and certifying qualified businesses through a voluntary certification program.  The living wage rate is the “survival wage” for a single adult without dependents, according to the 2020 United Way ALICE Report, which is updated every two years. NLW envisions Nashville as a livable community where all workers can not only survive, but prosper.

Nashville Living Wage grew out of a coalition-based “Nashville Rising Forum” in April 2019, focused on “Work, Wages, and the Future of Nashville”.  The NLW Board and Advisory Committee includes employers, activists, restaurant workers, immigrants, refugees, non-profit leaders, the union/labor community, and those with legal and production/design expertise. Aimee Shelide Mayer, a Nashville Representative of the Catholic Labor Network, chairs the Board and handles much of the day-to-day work until funding is secured for a paid coordinator who will handle outreach to workers, employers, and community partners and process applications for certification.

To date, NLW has certified nearly a dozen employers from both corporate and non-profit sectors, with a goal of certifying 40 employers by Labor Day 2022. Once an employer is certified, they become part of a living wage directory and receive related resources, including a “living wage employer” seal and education materials for their business patrons & employees.  A vibrant social media campaign will bring the voice of workers to the forefront on discussions about living wages, and introduce the community to an online directory of certified businesses who are upholding a “more just minimum wage” by being certified.  NLW benefits the community by strengthening the local economy, challenging employers to increase wages, educating workers on living wage standards, producing a directory of living wage employers, and engaging consumers in their ethical purchasing decisions.

NLW addresses the inadequate minimum wage rate (currently $7.25 in Tennessee, less than $15,000 per year for a full-time worker) and provides an alternative approach to raising wages than local legislation, which has been preempted at the state level in the past.  By creating a living wage certification program, NLW brings the conversation about wages and economic equity into a more prominent place in the public arena.

The Nashville community is known for its philanthropy and friendly hospitality.  Building on the strengths of what makes Nashville “great,” NLW partners with groups centered on social, economic, and worker justice to elevate business standards by raising the wage floor.  NLW mobilizes and advocates for a just economy in which workers are paid equitably, employers are innovative and successful, and the entire community thrives as a result.