"This is what religion looks like"
It's a slogan that dons every page of IWJ's website (right up there on the top right corner), and it's the first thing I thought of when I heard the news.Yesterday, I learned that Duquesne University, a Catholic university in Pittsburg, approved a university-wide minimum wage raise to $16 an hour for employees including maintenance workers, office staffers and groundskeepers.
The university is making the morally courageous decision to pay all workers a wage off which one can live with dignity and afford the basic needs for oneself and family. At a time when more and more businesses and institutions are making cuts when it comes to payroll and benefits, it's news that makes me feel proud as a Catholic, a union staffer at IWJ and an unapologetic worker advocate. It's that kind of leadership I wish more religious institutions would embrace; I have faith that they will with the right kind of organizing rooted in our faith traditions.
The Duquesne wage raises will go into effect on July 1, and impact 168 employees, according to the university. I'd be remiss to mention that the scheduled raised will lift the wage floor to $16 an hour from $15, already double the Pennsylvania and federal minimum wage of $7.25. While underpaid workers at some of America's most profitable companies continue to push their employers to do right by them, Duquesne University administration is taking the lead.
Now more than ever religious institutions must be advocates for workers and speak up for living wages, dignity at work and ensure that life is honored when it comes to health and safety standards in the workplace. Religious institutions need to do this in practice (like Duquesne), but also through justice programming and in the pulpit. Churches and religious institutions need to echo and amplify the calls of America's working families: it's time for a living wage, now.
There is no greater issue facing our families and communities today than the rampant economic inequality and the lack of access to good jobs. Today Duquesne University deserves some recognition, tomorrow maybe the entire Catholic Church, someday maybe even giant corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s.
My mother taught me about self-care from a young age. She explained that I would likely spend a lot of my time as a woman caring for others, and that it really was no one else’s job to take of me. She always looked sharp, especially for work- where it was of the utmost importance to be well put together. I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling and talking to people for a living, and they’ve spent a lot of time looking at my hands, and by extension, my nails!
I love to get my nails done, not only for the self-care aspect, but because I love art, and I love supporting skilled, women workers. I’ve found a shop near my home in Chicago with women who are technicians and really talented artists. They know their craft well: the chemicals they work with, how to sculpt, and how to paint. When I leave town, I’m proud to represent Chicago and I’m honored to wear these nails as canvasses for their art.
I’m admittedly partial to some nail technicians over the others. It’s hard not to develop a significant relationship with a woman who holds your hand and talks to you for an hour or so regularly. I talk to my nail tech about everything: city politics, her daughter, our love lives, my job, and of course, her job. I asked her once about adding some yellow paint to a design she was doing, and spoken like a true artist, she told me she couldn’t use yellow, because she “couldn’t see the beauty in it.”
One day she talked about her breathing, and told me about how she’d gone to the doctor, and he told her that she had little cuts in her nose from inhaling all of the dust from filing nails all the time. She elaborated on the effects of the fumes of her body as well. I asked her one day why neither she, nor any of her co-workers wore masks at work. She shrugged and admitted that it seemed like a good idea, but didn’t seem realistic for them.
While I worry about the health of my nail tech, I know from observing her conditions and having been in other nail shops around the country, that her conditions are relatively good. The recent New York Times articles have really highlighted the need for safer working conditions and humane pay for the workers, who are mostly women, at nail shops.
So likely consumed with capitalist guilt after reading that article, what are we to do? I wish I knew fix-it-all answer, but I don’t, and no one else has come forth with that answer either. A few things are clear though:
- If you do already, continue to go get your nails done! Every time you spend a dollar, you're helping to create jobs. We want to improve industries that employ low wage workers/overwhelmingly women of color, not put them out of business. We need these jobs to stay, and we need them to be good jobs with decent wages and safe conditions.
- When you do treat yourself to a manicure, start a conversation with your nail tech. I see so many people in the nail shop letting another person wash their feet while they don’t speak to them at all. If they are open to it, learn about why they do or don't take safety precautions at work, and see if/how you can support.
- Tip like you’ve got some sense. If it’s evident that the skilled worker sitting across from you isn’t fairly compensated for a job well done, you have some hand in that. If 20% of your manicure is only $2, maybe you need to tip a bit more.
I’ve always admired the women pastors and choir directors with the fancy nails. They certainly give a finished look, especially when you use your hands while you talk. At my church, many women, even those on modest incomes, visit a nail salon regularly. I was never one of them. I’ve always had the cracking cuticles and used the “teeth method” for addressing nail tears.
Party, I didn’t have time to sit around and have someone do my nails. Partly, I was too cheap. But mostly, there was something about the nail salon scene that worried me – both the noxious smells and my gut-instinct that workers weren’t paid fairly.
I was right to be worried. Sarah Maslin Nir just published two articles in the New York Times on nail salon workers (The Price of Nice Nails – May 7, 2015 and Behind Perfect Nails, Poisoned Salon Workers – May 11, 2015) that should be a wake-up call to all of us desiring lovely nails.
The first article focused on wages and living conditions in New York City. In one of the most expensive cities in the nation, most nail salon workers are paid below minimum wage. Many have to pay a “fee” to the employer to get started, only receive tips for the first few months of work, and are routinely cheated of overtime wages or illegally fined for minor infractions. Large numbers of women bunk together in small apartments jammed with bunk beds and mattresses. The situations described sound much like human trafficking.
Although the article suspects that conditions are worse for nail salon workers in New York City, because prices for a manicure are so low compared to other cities, given my experience with wage theft in many other sectors, I bet there are similar situations in cities and towns across the nation.
The second article focuses on health risks. Nail polish and related nail products contain lots of dangerous chemicals. The fumes not only smell awful, but the chemicals are clearly harming workers. Nail salon workers interviewed for the story told about miscarriages and birth defects in their children. Advocates who’ve worked with nail salon workers in multiple cities say the products cause breathing problems and cancers. There are very few health and safety guidelines or protections for these vulnerable workers.
In large tribute to the excellent research in the articles, New York Governor Cuomo issued emergency orders to protect nail salon workers.
Before these articles came out, I was heading to Dhaka on a delegation to be there for the second anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, the disaster in which the building owner knowingly pushed workers to continue working in an unsafe building that on April 24, 2013 collapsed killing 1138 workers and injuring another 2500. Given Dhaka’s hot temperatures I packed sandals. The day before I left, I decided to have a pedicure, my first ever, since my toes would peek out of my sandals. While at the salon I had my nails done too – perhaps the third manicure of my life.
Although my toes looked lovely and my nails did too until they started chipping and I had no polish remover, I regret having supported the nail salon industry. Like the Rana Plaza owner, nail salon owners know they are cheating workers and endangering their health. I’d had a bad feeling about nail salons, but gone there anyway. Beauty before justice.
No more. Until nail salon workers are protected, women of faith and good will ought to forego the fancy nails. I certainly will.
Workers in Emmeryville, Calif., a small city in the San Francisco Bay Area, might soon be collecting the nation's highest minimum wage by 2019, with gradual increases leading up to that level.
Lawmakers in Emmeryville okayed a proposal Tuesday to raise the wage to $16 an hour gradually by 2019. The issue is set for a final vote on May 19. If passed, it would take effect on July 1, when the minimum wage would rise to $14.44 an hour for businesses with at least 55 workers and $12.25 for smaller companies, according to Rueters:
It would increase gradually every year until it reaches $16 for all businesses in 2019.
"Just as our workers are creative enough to make a living off of minimum wage and support their families, I think our businesses will be creative enough to make it work and we'll all lift up together," Emmeryville City Councilwoman Dianne Martinez said at the meeting on Tuesday.
At Interfaith Worker Justice, we applaud the city council for hearing the cries across the nation that workers need a wage off which they can live. The Emmeryville ordinance is a win for workers, but we won't stop till ALL workers receive the just wages they're entitled do as human beings.
On Workers' Memorial Day, we're praying for all workers—that their workplaces be healthy and safe. We remember those who have died at work and pledge to fight so no more people die on the job. No more tragedies... like what happened to Jose Melena, a repairman who tragically died in a California Bumble Bee Foods factory after he was trapped in an oven with 12,000 lbs of tuna fish (read about the lawsuit against the company). It's unthinkable that workers' lives can be so carelessly endangered at work. Interfaith Worker Justice and affiliated worker centers and interfaith groups honored workers who have died on the job today and last weekend all across the country.
Today, on Workers' Memorial Day, we remember in a special way all of the workers whose deaths could have been prevented. We renew our commitment to pushing lawmakers and employers to strengthen workplace safety trainings and protections. Affiliates such as Mass COSH, Center for Workers Justice of Eastern Iowa, Northwest Arkansas Workers Justice Center, Fe y Justicia and South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice, IWJ of East Tennessee and New York Labor Religion Coalition hosted or joined events today. New Labor in New Jersey led a rally and march (below).
Check out more photos from New Labor's Facebook account. Our friends at the Workers Justice Project in Brooklyn also hosted a march.
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.