Interfaith Worker Justice

This is what religion looks like.


The Rev. Michael Livingston

Federal Contract Workers Deserve a Union

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Over the past year, I have marched with federal contract workers who clean and serve food at iconic federal buildings like the Smithsonian Museums, the Pentagon, Union Station and the Reagan building as they have gone on strike seven times to demand living wages and the right to form a union. In response, the President announced at the State of the Union that he is raising the pay of low-wage federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour by executive order.

Our President has taken a step towards greater economic justice, but $10.10 is the minimum he could do to help the invisible army of two million low-wage federal contractors across the nation employed by private businesses that serve the American public. Even with the $10.10 minimum wage executive order, these workers remain in poverty because they don’t receive living wages, health care benefits or even paid-time off.  

Yesterday, hundreds of Good Jobs Nation leaders representing more than 50 companies that do business with the U.S. Government are submitting a letter to the President and the Secretary of Labor to allow them to collectively bargain to win better wages and benefits. They are calling on the President to use his executive powers to give them a voice at work so they don’t need to keep striking to win good jobs and a path into the middle class.

With the Stroke of a Pen

President Franklin Roosevelt used his executive powers to promote collective bargaining to end widespread strikes. By the stroke of a pen, FDR gave 10 million Americans the right to join unions and by doing so, he built the biggest middle class in the history of the world. In contrast, President Obama’s $10.10 executive order only helps 200,000 workers and it ultimately doesn’t give them a pathway into the middle class. If the President really believes that reducing income inequality is the “defining challenge our time” he must follow the example of FDR and use his executive powers to give federal contract workers a voice on the job so they don’t have resort to strikes to win a better life.

Companies do well when their workers do well. The President often points to Costco as an example of a profitable company that pays their employees good wages and benefits; Costco workers have a union. The President can not only hold up Costco as an example, he can give workers a voice like Costco does.

In the last month, thousands of workers at fast food chains and Walmart stores have walked off their jobs to demand the right to form a union. While the President can’t help those workers by executive order, he can lead by example and give low-wage fast food and retail workers on federal property the right to unionize. 

Ultimately, Presidential action to help workers form unions will create good jobs that will lift the economy by putting more money into the pockets of working people, as well as send a broader message to profitable corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart that paying poverty wages and forcing workers to go on strike to fight poverty wages is not part of the American Dream. Join the workers and sign the Good Jobs Nation petition today!

A May Day Prayer to Keep Our Families Together

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Loving God, we lift up President Obama and pray that his heart be opened to the pain and suffering caused by the flood of deportations washing away the lives of families, real people living and working in our nation because they want to live lives of dignity with justice in this land of the free.


We know how difficult are the circumstances of his leadership and the hard decisions he has to make. We know that in Congress lies the ultimate authority and responsibility to bring justice to the travesty of this system that isn’t just broken, but designed to exploit the dignity and humanity of nearly 12 million people whose labor produces the wealth of our nation.


We simply cannot wait for actions Congress will not take.

We pray that our President act with courage, with confidence, and with compassion, not political calculations. Dear God, help him to take action to halt the deportation of more than 1,000 people every day.

Help him to take action to keep families together, to expand Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Help him to take action today, so that not one more family will suffer the pain and loss of these unnecessary and unjust separations.


The Senate Failed Workers

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The Senate failed 28,000 Americans today. For want of a handful of votes, action to bring the Fair Minimum Wage Bill (S 460) to the floor for a vote to raise the Minimum Wage to $10.10 was defeated today.

As a result of a failed vote, millions of individuals and families will continue to make impossible decisions every month: pay the rent or mortgage or buy gas to get to work? Set aside a little savings for college or pay the electrical bill?  When will it end? 

"This is outrageous."

That's what Vice President Joe Biden said on a conference call with our progressive allies this afternoon. And he's right. It is outrageous.

I was at the White House earlier today, and beyond the President's words I sensed his great disappointment and I think anger at the lack of action to raise the minimum wage and help millions of American families. 

Voting over and over again, more than fifty times now, to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a chronic cough. Voting once to lift an enormous burden from people working full time and still being unable to support their families is beyond the ideological reach of an entire political party. Their reasoning is disingenuous and countered by a solid body of research spanning at least two decades. Raising the minimum wage does not harm job growth it stimulates the economy by putting money in the pockets of people who will spend it to feed and clothe and provide shelter for themselves and their families.

It’s the right thing to do. It is the high moral ground occupied by those who believe we are all created in the image of God. We are people of faith and we will not give up.  We will hold our elected representatives accountable for their folly.  We will pray and organize, organize and pray until justice is done and fair wages are paid to those whose work creates the wealth of our nation and yet is stolen by corporations and their congressional operatives whose humanity is profoundly compromised by price of a seat.

The work to raise the minimum wage continues. More than 350 faith leaders and 5000 people of faith signed the open letter to Congress calling for a moral minimum wage!

The Rev. Livingston meets with Secretary Tom Perez and faith leaders today

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This has been a good week for workers. With the signing of the Executive Order requiring companies that do business with the federal government to pay their workers a minimum of $10.10 an hour, the President has set an moral standard that congress and the larger business community would do well to meet. For faith leaders this is holy ground, we celebrate every victory that recognizes the dignity of work and the humanity and rights of workers. Secretary Perez your invitation for this conversation on the minimum wage is a welcome demonstration of your commitment to good jobs, fair compensation, the value of work and workers in God’s economy.  

So, a word about the work of Interfaith Worker Justice on the Minimum Wage. Federally, we’re active in the National Employment Law Project's convened coalition to get congress to pass the Fair Minimum Wage Bill. We’re active partners with the more than 100 coalition members participating in strategy and the Hill work to strengthen support in Congress. Co-sponsors in the House are up to 185 and 33 in the Senate. In key states around the country, we’re leading in work to organize the faith community for support of state and local measures, both legislative and where ballot initiatives are underway. 

We’re working Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Southern California. In Alaska and South Dakota, where there are ballot initiatives and little involvement of the faith community, we’re working with secular partners that are eager to expand support for passage of measures that polls show have strong community support. On March 6, in recognition of the International Day of Women, a national event will headline state and local events with leadership from women of faith in the states I’ve mentioned.

But there is more to do!

As I close, thank you for greeting workers in the White House before the signing of the Executive Order Wednesday. It was an exciting moment for them. I say this because it’s ironic that the workers who risked the most by repeatedly striking to make that day happen are least likely to benefit from it—since the order applies to new contracts and not existing contracts. There is so much more that needs to be done to protect workers, and to enforce the order. 

I also have to take this opportunity to encourage the Department of Labor to resurrect work on a Worker’s Right to Know regulation to require employers to give employees a clear paystub so they know what they’re being paid for, hours they’ve worked, and what deductions are taken from their pay. Thank you Secretary Perez.

Today IWJ's National Policy Director, the Rev. Michael Livingston, sat with Labor Secretary Tom Perez. They were joined by national faith leaders including Sr. Simone Campbell, NETWORK; the Rev. David Beckman, Bread for the World; Mr. Jim Winkler, general secretary and president of the National Council of Churches; Naim Baig, President of Islamic Circle of North America, Rabbi Michael Namath, Religious Action Center of a Reformed Judaism, former Congresswoman the Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, who founded the Skinner Leadership Institute; and the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins, of the 19th Street Baptist Church in Washington DC.

An executive order with moral authority

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The following is an Op-Ed that first appeared in the Religion News Service yesterday in response to the President's Executive Order assuring more than 2 million federally-contracted workers are paid a living wage.

By the Rev. Michael Livingston and Sr. Simone Campbell

Many of us believe skyrocketing income inequality is the most important economic, political and moral issue confronting our nation. Everyone from members of Congress to Pope Francis has called for action — and now our president is leading by example.

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaIn his State of the Union address, the president announced he would sign an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for a group of federally contracted workers. Recent research has revealed that the federal government is our nation’s leading low-wage job creator, creating more than 2 million jobs through federal contracts, loans and grants. With this stroke of the pen, the president will begin to transform the lives of many of these Americans who are struggling to survive.

Unfortunately, many conservative commentators are criticizing the president’s action. They claim he is overstepping his legal authority and even violating his constitutional powers.

What these naysayers fail to recognize is that previous presidents have invoked their executive powers to open the doors of economic opportunity for people struggling at the margins. When the country was being torn apart by racial inequality, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order to bar discrimination by federal contractors. In this moment when our national unity is being threatened by income inequality, President Obama’s executive order mandating contractors to pay a higher minimum wage follows the legal precedent established by Johnson.

But while the legal justification for presidential action against racial and economic injustice is strong, the moral justification is even stronger.

During the civil rights era, Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that there is a higher moral law of justice that people of conscience must follow. Today, Pope Francis reminds us that “money must serve, not rule” and that a moral economic system should “set about providing each inhabitant of the planet with the minimum wherewithal to live in dignity and freedom, with the possibility of supporting a family, educating children, praising God and developing one’s own human potential.”

Ultimately, our faith compels us to be in solidarity with people who suffer at the margins of our economy. The Christian Scriptures say that we will be judged for what we have done for those in poverty.

Using this moral standard, Obama’s executive order is more than justified; it is required.

We know this because we have marched with these workers as they went on strike as part of the Good Jobs Nation campaign, and we brought a group of these workers to meet with senior White House officials on several occasions. One of these workers was Robyn Law, a fast-food worker in the Pentagon, who went on strike because she struggles to support her disabled mother and young child on a salary of $8.75 an hour. Another worker was Melissa Roseboro, a grandmother who earns $8.43 an hour and relies on food stamps to put food on the table because she makes so little at her job at the McDonald’s inside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

We commend the president for his compassionate response to the needs of Robyn, Melissa and their co-workers.

By using the power of his pen to lift the minimum wage for federally contracted workers, Obama is affirming the dignity and worth of all working people. As the CEO of the federal government, he is also sending a powerful message to the CEOs of private corporations that they too must honor their workers with just wages. Let’s pray that these CEOs, as well as our Congress, follow the president’s example.

Still more need to be done. As people of faith, we must continue our efforts to make sure the government uses its contracting clout to ensure corporations pay workers living wages and benefits, follow labor laws and give workers a seat at the table so they don’t have to go on strike to have their voices heard.

Thank you, Mr. President, for taking an important first step in this direction and for leading us toward a more moral economy.

Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby and a keynote at IWJ's national conference this summer. Learn more and register here.

Obama to sign Executive Order for 'Good Jobs Nation'

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Today at Interfaith Worker Justice, we joined workers and worker advocates, including our brave friends from Good Jobs Nation, in celebrating President Obama’s plan to issue an Executive Order raising the minimum wage for millions of federally-contracted workers.

Earlier today, Demos reported on the anticipated announcement.

During tonight's State of the Union, President Obama will announce an Executive Order requiring government contractors to raise the minimum wage for their lowest-paid workers to $10.10. Federal contract workers organizing with Good Jobs Nation paved the way for this victory, and many stakeholders have supported the Americans working on behalf of the country for low pay.

Workers went on strike seven times in seven months at some of the government's most popular establishments including Union Station, the Pentagon and the Smithsonian Institute. More than 400 people of faith sent letters to President Obama supporting these workers and urging him to sign an Executive Order lifting more than two million government-contracted workers out of poverty wages and assuring the U.S. government will not condone poor working conditions or wage theft.

Raising the pay of federally-contracted workers who are currently making poverty wages is the right and moral thing to do. This decision is great for workers, their families and our economy. It sets a good standard for employers of low-wage workers around the country.

“This is a great achievement for us. What we’ve done is going somewhere. We’re moving forward and accomplishing something that means a lot to me, my family and my coworkers’ families," said Alexis Vasquez. “This campaign has really opened my eyes and given me hope to a better future.”

Alexis works at the McDonald's at the Air and Space Museum in D.C. He earns only $8.25 per hour is only scheduled to work one four-hour shift per week.

We are happy about the President’s decision, but we are mindful of the continuous struggles of federal contract workers – many of them are still vulnerable to exploitation from employers and retaliation for speaking up. While we celebrate this victory, we need to remember that this is only the beginning. We need to push Congress to raise the minimum wage for all workers and make sure corporations are held accountable for their role in the growing economic inequality that’s plaguing our nation.”

The Rev. Michael Livingston is IWJ's National Policy Director, and has worked closely with the brave federally-contracted workers in IWJ's Washington D.C. office supporting workers on strikes, joining them in walk-backs and mobilizing leaders from an interfaith community to support their brave witness to the injustice of an unfair wage, poor working conditions and rampant wage theft. 

Thank you! 2013 Award Celebration Sponsors

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Last week, IWJ digitally celebrated just a few of the transformational leaders in the movement. We are inspired and moved by Tarshea SmithJohn Sweeneymembers of OUR Walmart, Antonio Vanegas, Ed Smith and Cristina Tzintzun. You can learn more about these honorees in online blog posts, and while we would have really loved to present these awards in person at the December event, we continue to be encouraged by their work, leadership and commitment to the struggle!

As we wrap up this celebration series, we wanted to take a moment and thank our generous event sponsors. We look forward to continued work together in our movement for worker and economic justice:

Movement Builders

American Federation of Government Employees
American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations
Change to Win
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
Laborers' International Union of North America
United Mine Workers of America 


American Postal Workers Union
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
National Nurses United
Service Employees International Union
United Food and Commercial Workers 


International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union
National Association of Letter Carriers
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


Communications Workers of America
Disciples Center for Public Witness (Christian Church)
Great Lakes Advisors
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
United Church of Christ
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400
United Steelworkers 

Super Supporters

American Federation of Teachers 
Steve Brinbaum
David and Judy Bonior
A. Harold DuBois
Mike Haga and Louise Weissman
John Franklin Hay
Lawrence J. Hanley
Oscar Owens and Javier M. Perez, Jr.

We'd also like to send thank IWJ's 2013 Award Celebration Steering Committee members:

Mr. Naeem Baig, Mr. Tim Beaty, Mr. Jules Bernstein, the Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston, Ms. Kimberly Brown, Ms. Barbara Easterling, Mr. John Hill, Ms. Colleen Kilbride, Fr. Clete Kiley, the Rev. Leonard Lovett, Prof. Joseph A. McCartin, Ms. Roz Pelles, Rabbi Elisabeth Richman, Ms. Kathy Saile, Mr. Gerry Shea, Mr. John Sweeney

IWJ Recognizes Tarshea Smith for Workplace Bravery!

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Tarshea Smith, UNITE HERE

"I feel so honored to receive this award from Interfaith Worker Justice.

"I want to thank my coworkers and the organizers who worked with me to form a union at Georgetown University because I didn't do it alone. 

"In fact, I found the strength to stand up after talking with a Georgetown student. I was having a rough day when she approached me and asked what was happening. I had seen her around campus before, she was the activist type. When I told her what I was going through, she told me, "If you stand up, I'll stand with you."

"As our struggle continued, I found strength in that statement and in the idea that faith without works is dead. I believe that if you have faith in something you have to fight for it. The bible teaches that you don't have to be afraid. You can stand up. And so I organized because I wanted to help my coworkers and I wanted to help myself.

"I am so proud of the work that I am able to do. I'm proud that I get to stand by other food service workers today and tell them, 'If you stand up, I'll stand with you.'

"Thank you."

Tarshea Smith,

We want to recognize Tarshea Smith, like Antonio Vanegas, for the tremendous courage she demonstrated in her workplace at Georgetown University.

Tarshea worked for the dining services at Georgetown University for 20 years. A mother of two boys and a DC native, she was one of the first workers in the dining service to begin organizing a union with UNITEHERE local 23. Tarshea knew that through community comes strength. She talked with her co-workers. She talked with the priests at Georgetown about their faith. She talked with Georgetown students. She learned about the important teachings of Catholic Social Teaching and she persevered in organizing out of her own faith underpinnings.
I wish I could tell you tonight that all religious institutions are eager to support workers when they organize. Tarshea didn’t really know what she would face. But leaders at Georgetown – workers and students, faculty and administrators – recognized that a Catholic institution is best served when it respects its workers and their right to organize. Georgetown’s community supported Tarshea and her colleagues. They now have a good contract and Tarshea is continuing to organize, both in workplaces and her community. Tarshea, please accept this Award for Workplace Bravery.
I also want to take this opportunity to give a shout out to UNITE HERE and its fabulous support of Hyatt workers. Interfaith Worker Justice affiliates around the nation have partnered with you on the boycott and actions. We are so pleased that workers, like in Baltimore, can now have the benefit of union representation.

IWJ Recognizes John Sweeney with Award for Lifetime Achievement!

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John J. Sweeney, AFL-CIO President Emeritus

"Thank you, Rev. Livingston. I am humbled and proud to be honored by Interfaith Worker Justice alongside my distinguished colleagues.

"Brothers and sisters, in America today a new workers’ movement is growing for social and economic justice. We need this movement. We all need it. And I feel blessed to have played my own small part in helping it grow, and in our continuing struggle for working people and justice.

"As you know, I have been blessed with a long career, and I have worked with many, many wonderful people. And any contributions I have been fortunate enough to make were only possible because of our combined efforts and energies. It is with them in mind that I accept this award.

"Thank you all. God bless you."

John Sweeney
President Emeritus, AFL-CIO

Let us recognize the leadership of those who brought us this far by faith. John Sweeney is one of those historic leaders who we are so grateful to have still in our midst.

John has dedicated his life to advancing the rights of workers. He began his union career in 1956 working for the International Ladies Garment Worker Union (now UNITEHERE) but then switched over in 1960 to SEIU, thanks to Tom Donahue. For the next 20 years, John proved himself a fighter, building locals, leading workers in strikes and building the powerful New York City 32BJ. In 1980, he was elected President of SEIU. He took the organization from 650,000 members to more than a million and initiated many of the innovative organizing approaches that we now all take for granted.  

In October, 1995, John Sweeney was elected President of the AFL-CIO. His election, and the sense at the time that there was a new openness to community partnerships and rebuilding ties with labor, helped spark the formation of Interfaith Worker Justice just a few months later.

Kim has told me that when Monsignor Jack Egan asked President Sweeney to meet at a Catholic Social Ministries gathering in February, 1996 with him and Kim to talk about the formation of Interfaith Worker Justice, John offered his immediate support. John assigned Gerry Shea, one of his trusted allies, to help guide the novice Kim and figure out how the labor movement could be a strong partner with faith communities.

Building ties between labor and community organizations, faith groups, civil rights groups and workers centers was a hallmark of John Sweeney’s leadership. It made sense to him personally. Raised in a devout Catholic family and continuing active in his faith, he understood how important it was and is to have faith leaders and labor leaders working together for justice and the common good.

Interfaith Worker Justice thanks you John for all the support you have given to IWJ over the years. But we thank you for all you done for workers in this nation. Your life and legacy offers broad shoulders upon which we all stand. 

We thank you.  

We respect you.  

We love you.  

Please join me in giving the Lifetime Achievement Award to John Sweeney.

IWJ Recognizes the Members of OUR Walmart with Our Award for Innovative Leadership!

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Tiffany Beroid, Leader with OUR Walmart

“It is with great honor and appreciation that I accept this Award for Innovative Leadership from Interfaith Worker Justice on behalf of the thousands of OUR Walmart members standing up and speaking out against Walmart’s low-wages and illegal retaliation.
"Like the majority of Walmart workers I make less than $25,000 a year. And like countless Walmart workers I have had to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. The work OUR Walmart is doing with the support of Interfaith Worker Justice and numerous others is not only empowering Walmart workers but is enabling Americans of all stripes to stand-up and speak out.
"You don’t have to work at Walmart to know and understand that Walmart is a barrier to opportunity for its workers and the communities it inhabits. Walmart, a company that made $17 billion last year is not helping workers like me achieve the American dream, they aren’t doing for the “least of these” – their own workers.  Walmart is promoting an ideal that above all else profit comes first. Profit comes before workers, customers, federal laws, values, morals, and the idea that we as Americans have a responsibility to do the right thing even when it’s difficult.
"But, that is the beauty and strength of what IWJ is about. IWJ is standing with us not because it is easy, in fact it’s hard, they are standing with us because it is the right thing to do. We all have a role to play if we want a better world for our children. We all have a role to play if we want higher wages and an end to illegal retaliation against workers who are standing up for their rights. IWJ has been a strong and dedicated partner with OUR Walmart members. And we are proud, honored and humbled that IWJ stands with us in our fight for a better America."

Tiffany Beroid,
OUR Walmart

Our next honoree  for this year's award celebration goes to the members of the OUR Walmart Campaign. Representing the campaign and Walmart workers is Tiffany Beroid.  

For the last decade, people of faith would ask IWJ staff and board members, “What can we do about Walmart?” Thanks to the courageous and innovative work of the OUR Walmart leaders and the talented organizing work of the UFCW Walmart team, Making Change at Walmart appears possible.

We’ve long known that Walmart could afford to make a change. It can afford to pay its workers living wages and still have low prices. It must simply share some of its prosperity with its workers.

We’ve long known that Walmart expects the public to subsidize its employees. Many of its workers rely on food stamps, medicaid and other public services to make ends meet because Walmart is so stingy with its workers. Did you see the Walmart store that was collecting food for its own employees? Shameful.

We’ve long known that Walmart has really tight ties with political figures. All the way up to the White House. Oh yes.  

What we didn’t know was whether workers and allies together could bring about a change. And I don’t know about you, but I think we can. OUR Walmart has got them on the run. Black Friday is no longer a day where Walmart promotes its cheap deals, but one where families protest Walmart’s behavior. We have Thanksgiving on Thursday and visit Walmart stores on Friday. Oh yes, I like this tradition. This year, the Our Walmart generated actions at 1500 stores. IWJ helped organize 150 of them and it was such a privilege.  

But its not only Black Friday. Its workers walking off the job and the NLRB upholding their rights to do so. Its workers organizing in the stores to improve conditions. Its workers challenging Walton family members. Its workers networking with their colleagues. OUR Walmart knows you can’t organize Walmart in traditional ways. But workers can still organize for change and they are.   

And Walmart is clearly responding. The company has an all-out PR offensive claiming what a great employer it is. At this last year’s shareholder meeting, the mantra was “if you have talent and work hard, we provide opportunity.” How about just providing good paying jobs?

Today, I ask you to join me in giving the OUR Walmart Campaign the Award for Innovative Leadership.