Interfaith Worker Justice

This is what religion looks like.


Kim Bobo

Greed before Safety in Mining Disaster

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Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the former director of Massey Energy, Donald Blankenship, was indicted on four criminal counts by a federal grand jury for violating mine safety rules and deceiving federal inspectors. The indictment claims that his willful disregard for safety laws in order to make more money resulted in 29 men dying in West Virginia at the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. 

Finally, a move to seek justice for the 29 mineworkers died because of greed.

The report is amazingly clear about the role played by greed. It indicates that Mr. Blankenship ignored safety violations “in order to produce more coal, avoid the costs of following safety laws, and make more money.” Unfortunately, Mr. Blakenship is not alone when it comes to putting profits before people and greed before safety. Poultry workers have serious hand and wrist injuries because the line speeds are too fast and there aren’t enough workers on the line. Fast food workers are burned because they aren’t taught how to handle grease and hot pans or are not given adequate protective gear. Roof workers fall off roofs, injuring or killing themselves, because contractors don’t invest in protective harnesses. 

The response from Blankenship’s lawyer is truly breathtaking. His lawyer claims, “Don Blankenship has been a tireless advocate for mine safety.” There are many things one could say that might have been close to the truth. For example, perhaps one might have said Blakenship has been a leader in the mine industry or an active public citizen (he’s a large contributor to conservative causes) or something else, but a safety advocate? Really?

I don’t know what will happen to Mr. Blankenship. The company that now owns the mine has paid criminal penalties to the Department of Justice. Subordinates have pleaded guilty in criminal cases. Surely, something will come of this case. Perhaps Mr. Blankenship will go to jail. He should. He put profits before people and greed before safety. Unfortunately for workers, he’s not alone.

Good Works Chicago: I Have A Bean

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Pete Leonard of Second Chance Coffee, marketed under the I Have a Bean brand, shared his unique business story on this past week’s Good Works Chicago show on CANTV.  Pete’s story began when a family member who had strong business and technical skills couldn’t find a job because he had been convicted of a felony. Initially, Pete hired him for a software job, which worked out well.

Pete has always loved coffee, but experienced the most amazing cup of coffee ever while visiting a rural area on a church mission trip. He couldn’t believe someone could roast such good coffee in a big steel drum over a wood fire. Upon returning home, Pete began roasting his own coffee using his Weber grill. Friends and neighbors loved the taste.

Pete began to learn more about the struggles of ex-offenders. The biggest problem is often landing a job. Many employers don’t want to hire people with criminal records. Without access to jobs, too many people return to a life of crime. According to a 2011 study published by the Pew Center on the States, “Illinois prisoners commit new crimes or violate parole at an alarming rate: 51.7 percent of Illinois inmates return to prison within three years.” Pete believed his relative and others deserve a second change.

Pete decided to put his love of coffee together with his software skills as well as his desire to help ex-offenders get a second chance. At first he thought perhaps he could show ex-offenders in halfway houses how to roast in their grills, but that didn’t seem like the best long-term plan. Eventually, he designed a coffee roasting machine that allows him to make coffee that is roasted at the perfect temperatures every time. 

Second Chance Coffee Company was launched in 2007 with a two-fold mission: to roast and distribute truly exceptional coffee, and to help transform the lives of post-prison people in the process. Part of Second Chance’s motto is to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

The company has grown to six full-time and one part-time worker. All the workers are paid living wages. Ex-offenders are employed in roasting, administration, marketing and accounting. Pete is the only one on staff who has not spent time in prison. Because coffee drinkers and ex-offenders looking for jobs are everywhere, Pete hopes to eventually open 72 roasting plants across the nation, working in collaboration with halfway houses.

For delicious and amazingly fresh coffee beans that serves a social mission, order online.

If you believe you are a not being treated fairly by your employer or are a victim of wage theft and are being paid unfairly, please call IWJ's Wage Theft Legal Clinic at (773) 998-1320. The hotline is open on Mondays from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. The Wage Theft Clinic is located at 19 W. Jackson Blvd. at the John Marshall Law School. All messages will be answered within 24 hours.

Good Works Chicago: Dimo's Pizza

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I’ve started a weekly television show on CAN-TV called Good Works Chicago. If you are in Chicago, watch it on Channel 21 on Tuesdays at 4:30 to 4:55 p.m. This past Tuesday, I interviewed Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau, founder and owner of Dimo’s pizza. What a great company!

Dimo’s is a locally owned pizzeria with a little under 50 employees and two serving locations; in the Wrigleyville neighborhood at 3463 N. Clark St. and another in Six Corners at 1615 N. Damen Ave. Dimo’s began in its Wrigleyville location in 2008, then known as Ian’s Pizza. In 2012, it evolved into Dimo’s and began heavily focusing on the impact it could make on workers, customers and the community.

Dimo’s sees pizza as its platform to reach out and help improve the lives of those around them. Besides creating hot and delicious pizza, Dimo’s is passionate about contributing to Chicago public schools, advocating for bike safety, and supporting local artists.

Fair treatment of workers is a primary value. All workers are paid significantly above the minimum wage because workers start above the regular minimum wage (not the tipped minimum wage) and also earn tips that range from $2-$6 per hour. Employees receive employer provided health insurance and paid time off. There is a clear path to increase one’s wages by learning more skills. Dimitri’s emphasized that “you can’t self-actualize and grow when you are worried about yourself. You want to pay [employees] enough that they don’t have to worry.” He also noted that “human capital is the most valuable asset.”
Dimo’s is currently hiring and looking for employees that value uncompromising quality, hard work, opportunity, innovation, laughter, and the planet. Career opportunities for Dimo’s can be found at online.

To learn more, visit Dimo’s online, or follow the company on Instagram @dimospizza.

Do you know someone that I should be talking to on my show?  The Good Works Chicago program interviews employers who:

  • Pay workers above the norm, because they believe that workers’ pay should lift them out of poverty and they want to retain valuable employees.   The actual amount workers are paid varies greatly by sector and the length of the time the company has been in business.
  • Provide some benefits and are seeking to add more.
  • Encourage workers to have a voice in the workplace.  
  • Offer training and opportunities for advancement to workers.
  • Hire and promote a diverse workforce.

If you would like to recommend someone for us to interview on air, or would like more information email Sarah Avery.

Photo Courtesy: Dimo's Pizza

Retreat to plan ahead

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I love staff retreats. Getting away from the office with colleagues allows you to build and strengthen relationships, think about the “big picture” directions of the work and plan for the future.

This year’s retreat was especially fun, very encouraging and slightly poignant for me. The highlight of the fun was the high ropes course. Even though you are technically “harnessed in," so that no harm can actually come to you, it feels super scary as you step out onto tiny ropes or wires about 30 feet above the ground. I have bruises all over my body from ramming into the platform or gripping the ropes too tightly. But, I made it around the course with some coaching and encouragement from colleagues. The young and fit staffer zipped around the course and I moved slowly and cautiously, but most of us pushed ourselves outside our comfort zones in ways that were scary and totally fun. I was quite proud of myself!

The retreat was quite encouraging about the future of the work because IWJ has such a talented group of staff with great passion for the work and overall clarity of purpose. We disagree sometimes on approach and language, but we are committed to working together and growing in our experience and effectiveness. I have such respect for my colleagues and think one couldn’t find a better team of folks with which to work.

staff retreatA good part of the retreat focused on my upcoming transition, how we best prepare IWJ for a new director and how the entire staff can support a new director. Even though I am helping drive the transition because I think it is the best thing for the organization, there was some sadness for me around realizing that this past retreat was likely my last retreat with the staff. Next year’s retreat will be with the new director.

Overall, the retreat was fabulous – fun, renewing, and encouraging. Just what a retreat should be.

Kim Bobo on Harris v Quinn and Home Care Workers

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The Supreme Court ruling in Harris v Quinn, disallowing mandatory fair share union fees for some government workers, is a set back for home care workers, home daycare works and others whose wages and standards will only be raised by organizing and collective action. Although Interfaith Worker Justice is grateful that the Court continued to recognize the importance of teachers, police officers and firefighters having the protection of unions and requiring those who benefit from unions to pay fair share fees, this decision continues to devalue the important work provided by home care workers and home daycare workers, mostly women and people of color. By not requiring fair share fees to fund their union when the majority of the workers vote to be represented by a union, the policy institutionalizes freeloading and undermines the institutions' collective power to affect change. Home care and home daycare workers do important work in society, caring for our sick, elderly, children and disabled. They deserve the protection afforded by strong unions — ones in which all share in the costs of representing workers.

Arrested for Standing up for Better Wages at McDonald's Corporate HQ

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“I’m striking McDonald's because I want to feed my kids,” said Agnes, one of the hundreds of McDonald's workers who went on strike for better wages and one of the courageous workers who got arrested today outside the McDonald’s shareholders meeting.

I was blessed to have the opportunity to get arrested with close to 150 McDonald’s workers from all over the country. I had the opportunity to talk with about 20 young men and women who had all faced arrest for the first time to stand up for themselves and their families. The folks I talked with were from Charleston, S.C., Detroit, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Mo., Houston, Rockford, Peoria and of course Chicago.

The stories shared the same themes. People were working hard and not making ends meet. Most of the folks had children they were trying to raise. Two women were pregnant with their first children. In states where the minimum wage was $7.25 per hour, that’s what workers were paid. In Illinois, workers were paid $8.25 (the Illinois minimum wage). I talked with one woman who had worked for McDonald's for 17 years and was finally making $9 per hour.

The contrast between the workers struggling to make ends me and the fancy “McDonald’s campus” with its sculptured lawns, fancy bridges, and Hyatt hotel was striking. Clearly, the “campus” was paid for on the backs of low-wage workers. The staff leadership and large shareholders met behind closed doors, locking out workers and the media this year.

McDonald's can clearly do better. The entire fast food industry can do better. Restaurant chains have one of the highest income disparities between top managers and line workers, and McDonald's leads the way in disparity. This company could—and should—do better.

Workers yesterday demanded $15 per hour, plus the ability to join a union. These are reasonable demands, and ones the company could meet. But instead of taking initiative to develop a plan or even agreeing to meet with workers and their faith allies, McDonald's ordered us all arrested as trespassers on its fancy "campus" grounds.  

The McDonald's workers I met are impressive. They are hardworking young people trying to care for their families. They are smart, and they understand that something has to change. And, they are courageous—they walked off the job and got themselves arrested. This is the kind of leadership we need to turn this nation around. Agnes, Thelma, Alexia, Michael, Justin and all other workers at McDonald's deserve to be paid a living wage so they can feed their kids.

If you believe that it's immoral to pay worker so low that they cannot even afford the basics to care for themselves and their kids, tell McDonald's to provide better pay to workers and let them join a union!

IWJ applauds the DOL's new home care rule

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Today, the U.S. Department of Labor announced it would extend some basic worker protections to 2 million caregivers through the country. Interfaith Worker Justice applauds the DOL for issuing the final home care rule, and is praying in thanksgiving to all the workers, advocates and organizations supporting the rule. This rule is good public policy, good for workers and good for the economy.

The home care rule is good public policy. The DOL deliberately sought out feedback on the rule and received 26,000 comments, of which 80 percent supported the proposed rule. The department thoughtfully addressed the concerns raised, including the need to provide adequate implementation time for the new rule.

The home care rule is good for workers. Two million workers who provide home care services will be protected by minimum wage and overtime rules. Given the increasing numbers of homebound elderly in the nation, home care services are big businesses. Workers deserve to be paid fairly and protected by the nation’s labor laws.

The home care rule is good for the economy. Home care workers are providers for their own families. The extra income generated will be spent on their own families in their own communities in ways that are good for a consumer-based economy.

“People of faith know that paying workers fairly is the right and moral thing to do,” said the Rev. Paul Sherry, President of Interfaith Worker Justice's Board of Directors. “This rule puts our values in the public arena."

Learn more about the new home care worker rule from the Department of Labor.

IWJ supports AFL-CIO's community partnership initiatives

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Kim at AFLCIOAll religions believe in justice. Interfaith Worker Justice strongly supports the community partnership initiatives of the AFL-CIO. 

Faith and labor share core values. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Shared values.

Faith and labor want deep relationships. We don’t want “dial-a-priest,” “rent-a-collar” or perfunctory opening-prayer relationships. We want long-term, deep and honest connections. We want to jointly create strategies, outreach to workers, and challenge unethical employers. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we want to go into the fire together as true friends and colleagues.

Faith and Labor must tell the truth. We need shared prosperity. The economy is not working. “Thou shalt not steal, wages.” Walmart: “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Oh yes, we must be the prophets of this nation.

Workers need faith and labor partnerships. Workers don’t organize just for money. Workers feel God’s spirit and presence, which supports their courage, resolve and leadership. Workers need us to work together.

Like a tree that’s planted by the water, faith and labor together:

  • Sharing core values
  • Building deep relationships
  • Speaking the truth
  • Supporting and standing with workers

 Amen. Together doing God’s Work. 

IWJ's Kim Bobo joined labor leaders this week at the AFL-CIO's national convention. The AFL-CIO proposed an initiative to strengthen relationships with community allies like Interfaith Worker Justice. At the convention, Kim spoke to support the proposal which was resolved on Tuesday.   

Choosing Your Seat on Labor Day

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Kim at Holy FamilyThe Luke text tells us that Jesus was invited to a prominent Pharisee’s home, like being invited to the home of Rahm Emmanuel’s (the Mayor of Chicago) or Bill Gates, or perhaps even the Cardinal’s mansion. He watched people jockeying for position, trying to get near the places of honor. He urged them to take the lowest place. “Humble yourself,” Jesus said.

He then turned to the host and urged him not to invite the powerful, but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind–those who can’t repay you. “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Or as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a person (man) is not where one (he) stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one (he) stands at times of challenge and controversy.”  

Clearly, there’s a message for us here this Labor Day. And, we’ve got some choices about where we choose to sit or stand. With the rich and mighty, or at the far end of the table with the poor, the vulnerable.   

This Labor Day weekend, let me suggest three seats to choose:

  • Choose a seat listening to workers. One of my mentors was Monsignor George Higgins, the long-time Catholic Conference labor priest, originally from Chicago. In his latter years, I had the privilege of pushing him in his wheelchair around at various labor meetings. He would ask the maid on the hotel floor how she liked her job, how was she paid. He asked the waiter about his job. Did he earn enough to support his family? Service workers, secretaries, those in the low-wage economy were people he wanted to meet and talk with. I’m sure he talked with some in the rich and powerful camp, but he didn’t seek them out. If you want to know what’s really going on – choose a seat with workers. Talk with Walmart workers.   Talk with the secretaries at your firms. Talk with cashiers. Talk with landscapers. Decide how you believe the economy and society is doing based on talking with workers. I suspect you’ll want some changes in society.
  • Choose a seat supporting workers who organize. When workers are unhappy about working conditions, sometimes they will organize. Not always.  It’s tough, scary and people risk their jobs. In my experience, no one organizes, either a union or another form of organization, just for money.  They organize for respect and dignity. They want to be safe on the job. They want a fair process. They want a voice. Given how tough it is to organize in this country, it is surprising that people organize at all. And when they do, we must stand with them. Choose a seat with them. Sit with the Hyatt workers, who finally got a contract. Sit with Walmart associates who’ve organized into OUR Walmart – plan to be with them and IWJ on Black Friday, Nov. 29. 
  • Choose a seat helping workers get paid. We have a crisis of wage theft in our nation. Workers are not getting paid for all their wages. Wage theft is happening all around us and all of us participate in it if we are not diligent in choosing our seats. If you are hiring a repair person at your home, a landscape service, a janitorial service or any other contractor, you must ask how workers are paid. Taking a seat means asking questions. 

Where we sit and with whom we sit influence (perhaps determine) what we understand and what we do. So be thoughtful about your seats. Choose a seat listening to workers. Choose a seat supporting workers who organize. And Choose a seat helping workers get paid.

Happy Labor Day!

Kim Bobo is the Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, and on Sunday Sept. 1, she spoke about worker and economic justice at Holy Family Parish in Chicago, joining hundreds of congregations and faith communities celebrating Labor Day weekend for Worker Justice as part of IWJ's Labor in the Pulpits program. Learn more here.

Worker Centers support is imperative for Worker Justice

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Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) wrote Labor Secretary Thomas Perez this week, as reported in the Wall Street Journal on July 24, asking for an “official determination” on the question of whether workers centers should be subject to the same filing requirements as labor unions.

Their letter should be rejected as a baldly partisan attempt to restrict the valuable work performed by these non-profit organizations. Indeed, treating worker centers like labor unions would constrain the rights of both vulnerable workers and community members to assemble and demand accountability from corporations that violate labor laws, mistreat workers or pay poverty wages.

Reps. Kline and Roe, citing an argument in an article published in the Federalist Society’s Engage, argue worker centers should be subject to increased scrutiny because they “deal with” employers in a manner covered by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). Namely, since at least part of their work involves advocating for improved wages and benefits in their interactions with employers, they must be acting, or intending to act, as labor unions according to the LMRDA.

This interpretation of the LMRDA, along with the interpretation found in original article on which they base their case, would make the definition of a “labor organization” so broad as to be absurd.

The United Methodist Church, for instance, calls upon its members to “bring about the creation of conditions that encompass fundamental workers’ rights, fair wages, a safe and healthy workplace, reasonable hours of work, [and] decent living standards.” And indeed, our organization, Interfaith Worker Justice, regularly engages Methodist clergy in doing just that – often by speaking to employers on behalf of their congregants and other community members. 

Would Reps. Kline and Roe suggest that the United Methodist Church (of which they are both members) be classified as a labor union because it intends, and indeed appears to exist in part, to improve the wages and conditions of working people?

I would urge Reps. Kline and Roe to reconsider their partisan attack on workers centers.  These centers, like the United Methodist Church, seek to empower and protect vulnerable workers in low-wage jobs. And they remind all of us that we have a moral responsibility to respect the dignity of working people, who after all, are created in the image of God.

IWJ's Jacob Swenson contributed to this article.