Bishop Jesse DeWitt, the first Board President of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), died on Thanksgiving evening, November 26, 2015, just nine days short of his 97th birthday. As Rev. Jim Sessions, a fellow United Methodist pastor and IWJ Board member, said, “It is the passing of an era.”
Bishop DeWitt was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. After high school, he worked on the assembly floor of the Packard auto factory, learning first-hand the importance of unions to workers. Eventually, he put himself through college at Wayne State University.
He attended seminary at Garrett Theological Seminary and was ordained a United Methodist pastor. He served congregations in Detroit and Illinois. He was elected to the episcopacy in 1972 and served both the Wisconsin and Northern Illinois conferences. His ministry always involved caring for both the spiritual and the physical components of people’s lives. Bishop DeWitt was part of the generation of clergy who grew up with the labor movement. He saw his ministry as intertwined with labor and justice. Throughout his life, he maintained and built strong personal ties with labor leaders and unions.
When the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues (later renamed to Arise Chicago) was first organized in 1991, Bishop DeWitt, who had recently retired, became one of its active leaders. As an active Bishop, he downplayed pomp and ceremony, but he acquiesced to purchasing and wearing a purple Bishop’s collar for labor support rallies throughout Chicago.
In 1994 and 1995, Bishop DeWitt helped organize interfaith groups to support labor in Milwaukee and his home city of Detroit.
When Interfaith Worker Justice was organized in 1996, Bishop Jesse DeWitt agreed to be its first board president and devoted the following six years to building the organization. He represented the organization at press and public events. He communicated regularly with owners who were engaged in long-term struggles with employers. He travelled with organizers and helped build new chapters.
As the new Executive Director of a start-up organization, I was guided and supported by Bishop DeWitt. He was wise, strategic and kind. He taught me how to lead prayer vigils outside factories and how to approach and diffuse anxious police officers. He showed me how to plan and lead a good board meeting. He talked through with me critical staffing and budget matters. And he modeled in his own life and then encouraged me in mine how to devote time and attention to my dear husband and twin sons.
Although I have hundreds of memories of my time with Bishop DeWitt, the most poignant memory is of September 11, 2001, when we were together at a board meeting in Washington, DC. Together with the rest of the Board members, we watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center and we knew our world was changing. Bishop DeWitt immediately led the board in prayers for our nation and its leaders. The next day, with all the airports and railways closed, a group of staff and board members headed west from DC in a large passenger van. I sat wedged between Bishop DeWitt and Rabbi Robert Marx, the second President of the Board, who insisted that I stop making phone calls and kept up lively banter the entire way home.
When Bishop DeWitt retired to Ann Arbor to be near his daughters, he focused on rebuilding the Detroit Metro Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice and participated actively until his late eighties.
Within the last year, when he knew he was dying, Bishop DeWitt asked his long-time friend, and recently retired United Methodist colleague, Rev. Ed Rowe to devote time and attention to the Detroit Interfaith chapter, which he has been doing faithfully and effectively.
The last time I saw Bishop Dewitt was in late May. He was bedridden and being served by his daughters and HOSPICE nurses, but he was as sharp as ever and still focused on others. He wanted to know how I and my kids were doing. He asked if he could pray for me. I was there visiting him, and he was praying for me.
Bishop DeWitt was grateful for his beloved wife Annamary (who died in 2010), his daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He was thankful for the opportunities he was given in life. He particularly appreciated his time in the factory and the opportunity to attend seminary. How fitting that he died on Thanksgiving Day. He was a man of God who regularly gave thanks.
Bishop DeWitt was ready to die. His family and loved ones will miss him, but, like the Apostle Paul, Bishop DeWitt can say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
Thank you Bishop DeWitt for all you gave to me and the movement for worker justice.
A celebration of his life will be held on December 12 at 2 p.m. EST at the First United Methodist Church of An Arbor, MI.
For several years, battles have raged in religious schools about whether or not their adjunct faculty had the right to organize unions. Mostly Catholic universities had argued that their adjunct faculty should not be able to organize into unions because they were religious schools – despite incredibly strong Catholic Social Teaching in support of unions.
On Dec. 16, the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision about Pacific Lutheran University, a Lutheran school claiming a religious exemption for its adjunct and non-tenured faculty. The decision laid out a new test for schools to meet in terms of being able to exempt their faculty from National Labor Relations Act coverage. The first test is whether the schools provides a religious educational environment. This is a relatively easy test to meet for most religious schools.
The second one is more significant. To be exempt from coverage, “the petitioned for faculty members are performing a religious function.” The universities promote themselves as welcoming diverse students from other faith traditions and hire faculty with little regard for faith backgrounds.
The decision said that Pacific Lutheran University’s adjunct and non-tenured track faculty, 176 of them altogether, did indeed have the right to be in a union if they wanted. Then last week (February 12, 2015), the National Labor Board told the regional boards to review the cases filed by Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit, Saint Xavier University, Seattle University and Manhattan College using the new test as outlined in the Pacific Lutheran University decision. Good news for adjuncts at all these schools.
On Feb. 3, David Weil, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Administrator, sent an email out explaining that the President’s budget proposal requests money for 300 additional new investigators. This is great news!
In 2009, the President's budget added 300 new investigators to restore the agency to previous levels. Adding three hundred more investigators, while still not enough given that the Division is supposed to protect the wages of 135 million workers, is a significant – 30 percent – increase. Weil also said that the budget includes a call to increase civil monetary penalties – that’s government talk for fines. The department is trying to create meaningful penalties for those who routinely and willfully violate wage and hour laws. This is absolutely the right direction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
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.
“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.
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."