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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, IWJ digitally celebrated just a few of the transformational leaders in the movement. We are inspired and moved by Tarshea Smith, John Sweeney, members 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:
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
American Federation of Teachers
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
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.
"Thank you, Rev. Livingston. I am humbled and proud to be honored by Interfaith Worker Justice alongside my distinguished colleagues.
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.
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.
Antonio Vanegas was a victim of wage theft while working in the Ronal Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. For two years, his employer paid him $6.50 an hour – significantly less than minimum wage – and denied him overtime pay, despite working him over 70 hours per week. On May 21 of 2013, Antonio testified before the Congressional Progressive Caucus about his working conditions along with other workers from the Good Jobs Nation campaign. He also told the Caucus that because his food service employer was contracted by the Federal Government, President Obama could change the situation almost overnight by issuing an Executive Order requiring all government contractors to pay a living wage and respect their workers.
Just days after he testified, Antonio was stopped by the Federal Protective Service and detained for four days by ICE (immigration) officials. He was slated for deportation, despite the fact that federal guidelines clearly prohibit interference in labor disputes. Yet, Antonio refused to be intimidated and spoke out publicly against his mistreatment.
Today, Antonio is still here in Washington, D.C. Due to the bravery of Antonio and his colleagues, the Department of Labor has opened an investigation into abuses alleged by workers at the Ronald Reagan Building. And, as a result of this investigation, Antonio has received work authorization and is currently in the process of receiving legal status. The Good Jobs Nation campaign has also won union representation for workers at the Smithsonian museums and continues to ask President Obama to take executive action on this issue. Antonio continues to be involved in the campaign and shares his story with other workers.
Immigrant workers like Antonio are changing the face of the labor movement and showing us what real courage looks like. In the nation’s capitol, native born and immigrant workers are joining together in Good Jobs Nation to insist that federal contractors pay their workers livable wages and obey the law.
Antonio, it is our honor to present you with this Award for Workplace Bravery.
I am deeply honored by Interfaith Worker Justice and this award and would like to thank them and the other honorees for the fantastic work they do. Historically, there has been a deep connection between interfaith and social justice organizations and IWJ is a fantastic example of what can be accomplished when working together to achieve a common goal.
Ed Smith is the kind of business leader we need more of. Ed grew up in the labor movement, joining LIUNA Local 773 at age 13. He was elected as business agent by 21. He quickly moved into other international leadership roles and became an international vice president in 1996. He served as the Midwest Regional Manager from 1994 to 2008.
In 2011, Ed became the CEO of ULLICO, the only labor-owned insurance and investment company. The company was formed in 1927 at a time when life insurance was not available to union members. It now offers a variety of insurance products to unions, pension funds and union members.
While on the one hand, Ed’s background is not the typical background of most business leaders these days. Very few top business leaders developed their skills through the labor movement. And yet, Ed represents the kind of business leader we need more of. Ed brings his strategic analytical skills and strong team building skills to bear in moving forward an insurance business. He demonstrates that you can offer a good product, treat your employees well and build an economically healthy company.
Over the last few years, as Interfaith Worker Justice and its affiliates have advocated wage theft ordinances and minimum wage increases, we’ve learned the value of having ethical employers standing side by side in the campaigns. Over the next few years, we want to find more of these employers and build relationships with them.
But it will be hard to find one as good, honorable and committed to social justice as Edward Smith.
Ed, we are honored to give you the Award for Ethical Business Leadership.
"It is an honor to be recognized for my work, but the credit is due to our members who are the brave men and women who stand up for their rights when they are told they have none, who work 10-12 hour days six days a week, and still find time to come to organizing meetings to make the life of working people better. It is ordinary people like our members who have demonstrated extraordinary courage and risk firing, deportation, and separation from their families to stand up for the rights of all workers.
Cristina is the Executive Director of Workers Defense Project (WDP), a statewide, membership-based worker rights organization that is winning better working conditions for Texans. Cristina has been the driving force at Workers Defense Projecting, spearheading efforts to ensure safe and dignified jobs for construction workers.
A few things they've done:
—Won a federal investigation into Texas' deadly construction industry by OSHA resulting in close to 1,500 citations and fines totaling almost $2 million.
—Won paid rest breaks for Austin's 50,000 construction workers.
—Won a 500 percent increase in tax fraud investigations of the construction industry by the Texas workforce commission.
—Passed a statewide Wage Theft law.
—Trained 13,000 low-wage workers about their employment rights and how to best defend them.
—Educated 95 contractors about their rights and responsibilities.
—Recovered $1,000,000 in back wages for nearly 1,100 low-wage workers.
—Graduated 200 immigrant workers from English as Second Language courses.
—Won changes in city contracts to require basic safety trainings for all construction workers on city-funded sites.
—Defeated Anti-Day Labor bills at the city and state level.
—Won Creation of Nationwide Safety Program: In response to the Workers Defense Projectís campaign to rectify unsafe working conditions on construction sites in Texas, OSHA recently launched a pilot program in 11 different cities, including Austin.
History suggests that young people lead the most significant social change. Dr. King at 26. Cesar Chavez in his twenties. Those of us older can help, but often the most daring, the most visionary, the most courageous, are young people. Who would have thought one could try to clean up the construction industry in Texas?
I'll tell you who. Cristina.
Interfaith Worker Justice is proud to have Workers Defense Project in the worker center network. In fact, Cristina and Workers Defense Project is setting the bar and routinely raising the bar for others. Cristina is a star, but a rising star who will take all of us to new heights.
Please join me in giving Cristina the Rising Star Award.