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.
Memorial contributions may be made to Food Gatherers or to Garrett Evangelical Seminary for the DeWitt Scholarship Fund which supports students working in social justice and labor ministries like Interfaith Worker Justice (*please note "DeWitt Scholarship" in the "RESTRICTED TO" field).
Today, April 24, is the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the horrific building collapse at a huge garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people, mostly young women.
I’m on a delegation organized by the International Labor Rights Forum (I serve on the board) that is looking into problems injured workers and surviving family members are experiencing in getting the money raised for them.
Yesterday, we met with thirty injured workers and surviving family members. The stories workers told were horrific. On April 23, a crack was discovered in one of the main columns of a nine story building. (We heard that factories are only supposed to be five stories, so not sure how this one got to be nine.) Workers were sent home and inspections were done. The crack was considered very dangerous.
The next morning, workers showed up at 7:30 a.m. for work, but were worried about going inside. They were fearful about the safety of the building. The building held multiple garment companies inside the building. Lots of managers and supervisors were outside telling the workers to go inside. The workers said some were told they would lose their overtime wages if they didn’t work that day. Others were told they’d lose the entire month’s pay if they didn’t work. And then, the managers pushed them inside the building.
Around 8:40 a.m., the electricity went off. Then when the generators started up a few minutes later—vibrating and shaking the building—it collapsed. More than 1,100 workers were killed and more than 2,500 were injured.
When I saw the coverage two years ago, I personally focused on the 1,100 killed. I really didn’t think much about the more than double that number who were injured. And these were not small injuries. A concrete building collapsed on workers. People lost limbs. Most everyone I talked to seemed to have had a head injury. Many had serious back injuries.And everyone seemed to show symptoms of post traumatic stress. Understandable.
Approximately $24 million dollars has been raised for a fund for injured workers and family members of victims, but it is terribly unclear what has happened to all that money. Workers are clueless as to what the process is, why some folks are getting some amounts of money and others getting different amounts. There appears to be little transparency in the process and the amounts of money given to workers who lost an arm or a leg or a family members was often $1,000 or less, at least according to the papers we were shown. For a garment worker who survived on sewing or perhaps an entire family that depended on that income, getting $1,000 is pitiful when the worker has lost his or her ability to earn a living. Even though the government claims there is rehabilitation and training, none of the workers we met with had gotten any.
Up until now, the International Labor Rights Forum had been advocating for more money for the victims’ fund. Although the fund clearly still needs more money, we also are going to see what we can do to argue for more transparency, communication with workers and more assistance for injured workers and deceased workers’ dependents.
Bangladesh has no workers compensation program. There is beginning to be some conversation about the need for such a program, but it likely will be a while before it could be implemented. I’m very aware that at the same time Bangladesh is talking about setting up a program, there are efforts to dismantle workers compensation programs across the country – limiting dollars given to injured workers, not letting them see their own doctors and not letting juries handle awards. We must preserve the U.S. programs, while we support efforts to strengthen worker supports in Bangladesh.
We also must hold employers in Bangladesh and the U.S. responsible for blatant disregard for workers’ health and safety. As one person said in describing what happened at Rana Plaza, “This wasn’t a tragedy, it was a killing.”
Listen to an audio recording of the call here:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 18, 2011
Kristin Ford, Faith in Public Life, email@example.com, 202-459-8625
Kim Bobo, Interfaith Worker Justice, firstname.lastname@example.org, 773-391-8844
Religious Leaders Offer Sanctuary to WI Legislators Fighting for Public Employees' Rights
Protestant, Catholic, Jewish clergy: Protecting workers' rights is a moral priority
As over tens of thousands of people protest Wisconsin Governor Walker's attempt to take away collective bargaining rights from nurses, teachers, and other public employees, faith leaders are speaking out and offering sanctuary to Wisconsin legislators who fled Madison in an effort to prevent a vote to strip workers of the right to negotiate for fair wages, benefits and working conditions.
Speaking on press teleconference call Friday afternoon, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergy from Illinois and Wisconsin stressed the faith community's commitment to workers' rights as a moral issue, offered their support to protecting Wisconsin public employees' collective bargaining rights, and extended invitations of sanctuary and hospitality to lawmakers.
"For these brave Senators who are seeking shelter from the storm, I say we welcome you and we offer you sanctuary and hospitality in the Christian tradition," said Rev. Jason Coulter, Pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago. "My state of Illinois is facing a budget crisis much more severe than our neighbors to the north, yet we understand that punitive, family destroying measures are not the solution. We are coming together to solve problems without scapegoating public workers and their unions."
"I want to affirm that it is a moral issue to support workers, they have a right to negotiate issues which directly affect their lives. My wife, 2 sons, and 1 daughter-in-law and 5 grandchildren will all be affected. No one else has been asked to sacrifice in Wisconsin except public employees," said Rev. Curt Anderson, pastor of First Congregational Church in Madison, WI and a board member of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin. "I implore Governor Walker to talk to people who are affected and not impose such an unfair solution. If our church can further that discussion by being a sanctuary we are happy to do that."
Faith leaders in Wisconsin have taken leading roles in rallies at the state capitol.
"In the past four days, we've had clergy speaking at all of the rallies at the capitol," said Rabbi Renee Bauer of Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, from Madison. Bauer also stated that clergy in Madison had helped citizens prepare for lobbying visits and opened their doors to weary protestors, and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin sent Governor Walker a letter from over 50 religious leaders voicing opposition to his plan. Read the letter here.
"Our church is 1 mile from the capital and for 100 years, has considered its calling to provide hospitality," said Rev. Amanda Stein, Pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison. "We offer this building as a safe and holy sanctuary for legislators of any persuasion, where true dialogue can happen. The state capitol right now is not a place where true public dialog is happening."
Clergy on the call also explained that the debate about workers' rights is rooted deeply in faith traditions.
"Like Christianity, Judaism has a long history of calling for two things: dignity for workers, and the right of workers to have a voice and for their voice to be heard," said Rabbi Bruce Elder, Congregation Hafaka in Glencoe, IL. "I have a great hope that Wisconsin will consider the ramifications across the border and across the country. We will support legislators who were brave enough to take a stand."
"The first right we have is the right to truth, so let's tell the truth," said Father G. Simon Harak, S.J., Director of the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "Our state is broke because we have pushed through funding for special interest groups rather than hard-working Wisconsinites. Catholic Social Teaching is consistent in that workers have the right to organize, right to bargain, right to insurance in old age, and health care."
The struggle in Wisconsin is only one of many attacks on workers' rights under way throughout the country.
"Religious leaders across the country are standing up to attacks on public workers under the guise of fiscal responsibility," said Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago. "Similar laws are being considered in 30 states and religious leaders are stepping up to the plate."
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 16, 2011
Kim Bobo, Executive Director, Interfaith Worker Justice, 773-391-8844 (mobile),email@example.com
Religious Leaders Condemn Attacks on Public Employees
Interfaith Worker Justice Defends Beleaguered State Workers amidst “Moral Crisis”
“February is shaping up as the cruelest month workers have known in decades,” columnist Harold Meyerson wrote in Wednesday’s Washington Post, referring to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights and cut pay and benefits without any negotiation – and his threat to call out the National Guard if the state’s public employees go on strike.
But the assault on public workers is under way in multiple states. Bills that would in one form or another roll back labor rights and wage standards have recently been (or will soon be) introduced in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.
Amidst this onslaught, the Board of Directors of Interfaith Worker Justice today issued a statement that brings religious teachings to bear on the current national standoff. The statement,Stop Attacking Workers, reads:
Our religious traditions insist that workers, as human beings with inherent dignity, have the right to form associations to improve their conditions at work. Statements issued by a wide array of … faith bodies support the right of workers to organize and bargain with their employers over wages, benefits, and a voice on the job.
“Governor Walker’s bill is an affront to the human dignity of public sector workers,” said Rabbi Renée Bauer, Director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin. “As a religious leader I recognize this as a moral crisis. Jewish tradition makes protecting the weak from exploitation by the mighty, treating laborers fairly and recognizing their rights to organize a religious obligation.”
“My tradition is not alone in this call,” Rabbi Bauer said. “All religions believe in justice. Now is the time for all of us to live out our faith by raising our voices to protect the rights of workers in Wisconsin and throughout the country.”
Tennessee’s Legislature will soon consider bills that would curtail the rights of teachers and prohibit them from collective bargaining.
“Tennessee State Senators are trying to ram through legislation this week attacking school teachers,” said Rev. Jim Sessions of Interfaith Worker Justice of East Tennessee and a member of IWJ’s national board of directors. “They want to turn the clock back 50 years, when teachers had no right to organize and salaries were so low because the mainly female workforce wasn’t supposed to need much money, as they were provided for by their husbands. Those times are gone, teachers have won dignity on the job, and we need to move forward, not backward,” said Sessions, a United Methodist minister.
“Rather than pushing down standards for public workers, all workers should be valued and achieve respect at the workplace,” reads the Interfaith Worker Justice board statement, which concludes:
Using the state budget crisis as a pretext for ramming through anti-worker “Right to Work” laws and prohibitions on state worker representation is an affront to workers and to the faith principles of justice and fairness. The people who take care of our children and our elderly, build our roads and schools, teach our children, serve our food, attend our houses of worship, and work in our hospitals and industries deserve better.
The full text of the statement is available at http://iwj2017.gethifi.com/index.cfm/stop-attacking-workers. Also see IWJ’s resource “What Faith Groups Say About the Right to Organize” (PDF).