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.”
All across the country, fast food strikers were joined by workers across countless industries and their supporters as they mobilized the largest worker action to date. Their prophetic witness for a living wage and work that uplifts human dignity, was echoed from New York to Chicago from Los Angeles to Miami. Staff from Interfaith Worker Justice were pround stand with local groups here in Chicago. Our affiliates joined groups in their local communities. It was a powerful day.
We filled the streets with love, and it was powerful and beautiful -- and we're just getting started.
As our siblings heard us chanting on Wednesday, "I believe that we can win!"
Jesus made seven final statements as he hung on the cross and breathed his last breath. One of them was "I thirst". This particular one sticks out to me because it speaks to Jesus' physical state on the cross. We see his vulnerability as he expresses a very real and physical need: water to rehydrate his body.
Your body sends a signal to your brain when it is getting dehydrated and it makes you conscious of the fact that you need to find some fluids for your body. You know the feeling, right? Your mouth gets all dry, your lips are perched and sometimes if you keep ignoring the signs, you end up with a headache. Our bodies are designed to send messages to our brains to take care of itself.
Jesus’ body was telling him he needed to rehydrate. One can only imagine what it was like hanging there on the cross and literally dying of thirst. The pain must have been excruciating. When I think about Jesus’ physical state of being and what he has endured, I remember that he was walked the journey of life here on earth and can empathize with us when we thirst for something. Not only a physical thirst but also thirst for justice.
Fast food workers across the country are thirsting for justice. They are responding to their own need for dignity and livable wages. They are saying that the conditions in which they work and are paid are not conducive for taking care of themselves and their families. When we see a call for justice, a thirst for justice, we must walk with them. We walk with them because their thirst for justice is ours as well.
Jesus is with those who thirst. Jesus is with fast food workers and Walmart workers who thirst for better wages and respect on the job. Jesus is with farm workers who thirst for breaks with access to clean drinkable water. Jesus is with migrant workers who thirst for water as they cross our southern boarders through the desert in search of any job that will help support their families.
On this Good Friday, I encourage us to remember those around us who thirst.
Workers across the country are thirsting for justice and calling for a living wage. Will you join them for a National Day of Action on April 15? Click here and commit to go out on April 15.
For more than two years, fast-food workers have been calling on corporations like McDonald's to pay $15 an hour and stop retaliating against workers who stand up collectively. Yesterday McDonald's announced an inadequate raise for SOME (about 10 percent of) workers at its company-owned stores. The move comes just one day after workers announced they'd strike on April 15. The corporation's tiny raise really was a joke. We're not lovin' it. Workers need what they've been calling for since the beginning: $15 an hour.
But because everything old is new, many people weren’t surprised to see McDonald’s toss a few coins around to try and appease enough of their employees to slow the momentum they’ve built leading up to April 15. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book to offer chump change, allegedly from the kindness of your heart, as workers are getting together and taking themselves seriously. I actually hesitated to share the announcement seeing as it was so expected, and it came out, of all days, on April Fools Day. o_O
It actually gives me hope that McDonald’s is following the choreography for a “typical boss fight”, because it means that we will win. Many workers and organizers have seen the dance before: we talk to each other, they talk to us individually, to scare us and pick us apart. We act together, they try to isolate our leaders. Just before we win, they make a last ditch effort to buy some of us off. The steps stay the same, no matter who is doing the dance, be it McDonald’s, Walmart, Target, etc. I’m excited to join fast wood workers who are taking the lead all across the country on April 15
You can get connected in your community. Click here to join a April 15 action!
Honestly, I love fast food. I specifically love Wendy’s. As a teenager, I discovered their spicy chicken sandwich (add cheese for 30 cents), and that was it for me. It’s still a fixture in my diet, and I really appreciate the fast-food workers who make that happen for me on a regular basis.
During Lent, I joined nearly 1,500 people of all faiths and embarked on the Fast from Fast Food. Throughout the fast, we honored the great sacrifices workers are making in the struggle to end injustice and inequality in the fast-food industry. In the spirit of the Lenten season — when Catholics (and others who worship in the Christian tradition) intentionally incorporate fasting, prayer and almsgiving into their daily lives — we dedicated ourselves to lifting up the concerns of some of the most undervalued and underpaid of God’s children.
Speaking of children, fast-food workers are not just high school teenagers and college students looking to score extra cash; the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that 40% are 25 or older. More than a quarter are providing for their children. And among fast-food workers over the age of 20, nearly 80% earn less than $10.10 an hour. That’s hardly a living wage. Working moms shouldn’t have to juggle multiple jobs just to keep food on the table. Working dads shouldn’t be forced to choose between rent and heat. Children shouldn’t have to grow up in poverty, yet that’s exactly what’s happening. According to a report from the University of California at Berkley, 52% of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs. The report estimates that public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry costs nearly $7 billion per year.
Supporters who pledged to join the Fast from Fast Food chose to focus on the workers they encounter at fast-food chains by refraining from eating there during this period. We prayed daily for the workers and an end to income inequality.
It’s not that there isn’t enough to pay working families a living wage. In 2012, McDonald’s corporation made $5.5 billion in profits. According to a report by the public policy organization, Demos, CEOs of fast-food companies take home nearly 1,200 times what an average fast-food worker earns. Fast-food CEOs are some of the highest paid industry executives in the world.
Supporters who pledged to join the Fast from Fast Food chose to focus on the workers they encounter at fast-food chains by refraining from eating there during this period. We prayed daily for the workers and an end to income inequality. We reflected on the harmful impact of the low wages and unsafe working conditions in the industry.
Hopefully, through our prayerful solidarity, we’ve helped the faith community connect a little more to the ”Fight for 15″ movement, which advocates a minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers and other undervalued and underpaid workers, such as retail workers, adjunct college professors and home health care workers.
Fasting in the spirit of Lent
My committing to this Fast from Fast Food was a real challenge, as noted by my coworkers and friends. For Lent, we fast from or “give up” something important to us. For me, going without a Wendy’s chicken sandwich with cheese was really a sacrifice. I highlighted the sacrifice as an important reminder to others: that I am doing this fast, and that it’s not easy.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” — Micah 6:8
Folks in the faith-rooted justice world love this verse. In Chapter 6, Micah rebukes the Israelites. He tells them they’re doing it wrong. As followers of Christ, we’re often doing it wrong too. In fact, the above paragraph is an excellent example of me doing it wrong. It’s actually not the “giving up” that demonstrates my commitment to God. The Israelites thought all sorts of sacrifices would be pleasing to God: cows, rams, oil, their children. Micah says, “No guys, in all things, build a more just world and be merciful and loving to others … all others. Oh, and be humble when you’re doing it, because it’s not about you, it’s about God.”
So, while participating in the Fast from Fast Food was a gesture that I found deeply challenging, it is not the sacrifice of tasty chicken sandwiches that God asks of me. The Fast from Fast Food isn’t actually about me individually; it is about God and building God’s Kingdom the way we’ve been instructed. It’s about bringing justice to a morally corrupt fast-food industry. It’s about loving workers and echoing their voices so they’re heard. It’s about humbly calling for an economic system that values the contributions of all those who participate.
“The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love,” Pope Francis says to us, echoing Micah’s rebukes to the Israelites.
If we could keep that at the heart of our fasts and throughout our journey supporting fast-food workers, other underpaid workers and people whose human dignity the economy refuses to acknowledge, we can confront these new idols head on.
April 15, many fasters plan to do just that. Nourished in spirit by community, solidarity and prophetic witness we’ve encountered during the Fast from Fast Food, we plan to join workers, community groups and faith institutions at rallies supporting a moral economy, and wages and working conditions that reflect the human dignity inherent in all of God’s children. I invite you to join us in your own community.
On March 24, 1980, one day after delivering a homily in which he beseeched his nation’s military to cease their violent repression of the nation’s poor, Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador was slain by an assassin’s bullet on the altar of a small hospital chapel. Like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Romero foresaw his own death. “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my death be for the freedom of my people,” he said in an interview weeks before his assassination, adding:
“I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.”
Thirty-five years later, Romero’s faith in resurrection is being borne out. Not only among the people of El Salvador, where he is revered as a national hero, and not only among Catholics who have come to see him as a holy martyr and a prophet who prefigured Pope Francis and his embrace of the poor. In many ways, Romero’s spirit lives on among all people of faith everywhere who have taken up the cause of the poor. His life thus holds special meaning for all us in the Interfaith Worker Justice family, and his example summons us to recommit ourselves to the struggle for justice. [Honor Romero's legacy by standing with workers in low-wage industries. Pledge to Fast from Fast Food.]
As we continue our work, we can draw three encouraging lessons from Archbishop Romero’s life:
First, if we believe in justice, we must not be discouraged or afraid. Inevitably we will experience the opposition of those who wield power. We must not let that opposition deter us. “Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine?” Romero asked in a 1977 homily. “Here is the touchstone: Whom do you get along with? Who are those who criticize you? Who are those who do not accept you?” Those who defend the poor in the United States today do not face death squads, as Romero and his followers did. But they do face endless criticism of those with the largest media megaphones and wrestle a system that stacked against them, seemingly calculated to cause them to despair and give up.
Second, if we keep the cause of the poor at the heart of our work, we can renovate both our conflict-ridden society and our all-too-often somnolent religious communities. “The hope we preach to the poor is in order that dignity be restored to them, and to give them the courage to be themselves, the authors of their destiny,” Romero said. To recognize the dignity of the poor requires that we grant their demands for justice. And this requires a broad-based renewal.
Finally, Romero’s life reminds us that the fruit of justice will in the end be peace. “Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression,” Romero said. “Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.” We should not forget that our work on behalf of justice for working people is ultimately work on behalf of the generous peace about which Romero wrote.
As we mark the 35th anniversary of the death of this good man, let all of us in the IWJ family rededicate ourselves to our work in his memory.
"No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. ...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression."
- Archbishop Óscar Romero
Honor Archbishop Romero's legacy by standing with workers in low-wage industries. Pledge to Fast from Fast Food.
Joseph A. McCartin is a member of the Interfaith Worker Justice board. He is associate professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.
This blog post was adapted from a Lenten reflection by IWJ's Deputy Director Aina Gutierrez:
It was easy to sign up for the Fast from Fast Food, because I don’t really eat fast food. Sometimes when I travel or when the kids get a smoothie treat, but otherwise it’s not high on my menu options.
So the fast was a symbol of my support of fast food workers, but didn’t mean much for me personally. I haven’t sacrificed anything, and while I’ve been mindful to think of workers and their families, the fast didn’t have much to do with God and his call for why the fast—this fast—is so important.
That all changed when I realized I had to sacrifice one of my favorite treats of the year – the Shamrock Shake. Once a year, my family hits the drive-through at McDonald’s and each of us gets a shake. I love this tradition. I also love the minty cold goodness of the shake.
This year I had to explain to my kids and husband (who was almost more bummed than the kids) that we couldn’t get our traditional shamrock shakes. This year, we talked about why I had signed up for the fast, how companies can do better to their workers, and how this all ties back to God and how we fast as a part of our worship. The passage from Isaiah reminds us that a proper fast requires mindfulness, yes, but also sacrifice and good works to fight injustice and care for others.
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" —Isaiah 58:6-7
God is calling my family to worship him. The Fast from Fast Food is a call to action, an action that requires sacrifice of things that we love, and that we have to work to make our world a better place. Fast food workers, and millions of other workers, are suffering. Right now. But I, and my family, are with them and will support them in every way we can.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. —Isaiah 58:6-7
So, sorry Shamrock Shake. Not this year. Our substitute is to crush Thin Mints into vanilla ice cream, but no one is convinced it will be the same. Our hearts are light knowing that we are fasting for something that is right, and that God will answer our call. What have you sacrificed in the Fast from Fast Food? What else can you do during the fast to help fast food workers?
This year, we're passing on the shakes. Instead of spending $10 on four Shamrock Shakes (those tasty little concoctions cost about $2.50 plus tax!) for me and my family, we've decided to donate that money to IWJ in support of the Fast Food Fast. I invite you to join me in this small contribution of solidarity and support.
On Wednesday, #FastFoodFast, we gathered around the Twitter "Table" to share experiences & thoughts on bringing justice to the fast food industry. On Wednesdays at 6 p.m. CST during the fast, we come together in an online community for #TableTalk. Join us next week!
I was born and raised in Wisconsin and had a lovely childhood. I attended Madison’s Robert M. La Follette high school but am embarrassed to admit that at the time, I had nary a clue as to who he was. I knew his nickname was “Fighting Bob” and maybe I could have told you he was a Senator, maybe, but that was it. Here's a refresher for those who need it.
In his fascinating article about Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, John Nichols paints a vivid picture of this man who he calls “the most courageous political leader this nation has ever produced.” He describes one of the most pivotal speeches in his bid for reelection in the 1921 U.S. Senate race:
The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918…
The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.
La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day... Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern…. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."
LaFollette won his reelection bid by an overwhelming margin. Nichols attributes it to his “militant faith in the people” – the same people who admired and respected this “man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position.”
So now it pains me to think that, almost 100 years after this great legacy La Follette left behind, we are today seeing the current Governor of Wisconsin sign into law one of the most destructive and divisive means to limit workers’ voices. I am confident La Follette would be loudly rolling over in his grave (and clenching his fist) to hear of this dismantling of the already-emaciated worker rights in his state.
This deceptively-named “right-to-work” law makes the payment of union dues optional for union-represented workers. It also means that if a non-paying union member is illegally fired, the union must use its time and money to defend that worker. It has been shown that workers in states with “right-to-work” laws have lower wages on average and are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance or pensions. These laws are not meant to grant workers any rights; on the contrary, they are written with the purpose of keeping workers divided and powerless, to weaken unions and thereby stifle the voice of working families.
Yes, it’s a sad day in Wisconsin when with the stroke of a pen, one governor instantly undoes the lifetime work of another governor, when corporate power trumps the voice of the people, and when one Wisconsin-born woman is now ashamed to call Wisconsin “home.”
Today we honor the Jewish Fast of Esther, commemorating the three-day fast observed by the Jewish people in the story of Purim. Along our own Fast from Fast Food, we remember the power we wield through this mindful sacrifice. We're honored to share a reflection by Rabbi Renee Bauer, Director of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin:
Today is a Jewish Fast Day called the Fast of Esther. It immediately proceeds the festive Jewish holiday of Purim. The Fast of Esther mirrors the fast that the Jews conduct to support the brave actions of Queen Esther in the Book of Esther. In this book of the Hebrew Bible, there is a royal decree that all the Jews of the Kingdom of Shushan be killed. Queen Esther, a Jew married to the King, has access to power but is fearful to speak up for the Jews, lest she loose her life. She knows that if any person enters the king's presence without having first been summoned, that person will be put to death.
When Esther refuses to take action her cousin Mordechai encourages her saying, "Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king's palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's houses will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained the royal position for just such a crisis" (Esther 4:13-14). Queen Esther considers these words carefully and tells Mordecai to have all the Jews in the land of Shushan fast on her behalf. With the courage of knowing her people are fasting in solidarity with her, she approaches the king and saves the Jews.
In our day and in our land fast food, retail and home care workers like Queen Esther are taking the risk to speak out even when they fear losing their livelihood. They are speaking out in order to stop the injustice of low wages that has spread throughout our land. Today let us, just as the Jews of Shushan did, fast in solidarity with those courageous workers, so they know they are not alone as they walk the path towards fairness and justice.