Last week, I joined Kim Bobo at the National Employment Lawyers Association’s (NELA) Conference. Every year that I attend the conference, I always end up teary-eyed and inspired by the stories of the workers and worker advocates honored at the opening plenary.
This year was extra special. NELA wanted to include a community leader in the mix of honorees, and according to one of the conference committee members, the choice was obvious: Kim Bobo.
NELA President Patricia Barasch presented Kim with the award, acknowledging her and IWJ’s contributions to the worker justice movement and particularly the fight against wage theft.
Patricia described Kim as a “warrior in the battlefield of justice for workers.”
“People like you help make our work possible,” Kim said. “You all are doing really great work representing workers, and we need to find ways to work more closely together.”
Other honorees included former Tyson employee, John Hithon, and former Federal Aviation Administration employee, Mary Rose Diefenderfer.
One of the workers, John and his attorney were recognized for winning a 16-year discrimination case against Tyson Foods. “John never gave up,” his lawyer Alicia Haynes said. “Even when things were going against our favor, he stayed committed to fighting for what was right.”
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“What keeps me from falling into the abyss of hatred and chaos, is love and peace,” John said. “It has been my belief that God’s love and peace has pulled me through and enabled me to stand.”
At the start of day two of IWJ’s bi-annual board meeting the Rev. Michael Livingston, National Council of Church’s Poverty Initiative Director, asked fellow board members one simple question: “Why are you here?”
We always knew they were drawn to IWJ by their own faith and commitment to worker and justice issues. What was inspiring and interesting to hear was how doing this work energizes them as individuals. Here’s what some of them shared:
- “This here is a team of amazing organizers working for real change. IWJ is fighting to keep the soul of the church alive, and I want to be where the action is.” —David Wildman, United Methodist Church General Board of Global Ministries.
- “IWJ brings an actual understanding of real people and the issues they face — it has a serious sense of solidarity with the ‘victims’.” —Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali, Luther Seminary.
- “This space gives hope for the Labor movement. We cannot do it alone, but together, we have the opportunity to move the course of history.” —Ros Pelles, AFL-CIO.
- “This is my vocational family” —The Rev. Jim Sessions, Retired United Methodist minister.
- "Faith cannot be 'lived' if you're not involved in issues that impact communities the most." —Elena Segura, Archdiocese of Chicago.
- "This is my place of safety, where I know people share the same values and are brought together by their commitment to justice." —Steve Birnbaum, Workers Injury Attorney.
- "What a blessing to work with a wonderful group of people who share a commitment to liberty and justice." — The Rev. Bennie Whiten, retired United Church of Christ pastor.
What about you? What brings you to IWJ?
This week, I traveled to Michigan with Kim Bobo, and I was able to see and be a part of social change. This week, I learned from both young and older leaders in the movement.
“I was shot,” Richard Morrisroe, a long time supporter of IWJ, told me. Kim and I had the honor of meeting him this week. The former priest, Morrisroe and his friend and seminarian Jonathan Daniels answered the call of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that white clergy to support those fighting for civil rights in Alabama in the 1960s.
“In August 1965, Daniels and 22 others were arrested for participating in a voter rights demonstration in Fort Deposit, Alabama, and transferred to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. Shortly after being released on August 20, Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest, and Daniels accompanied two black teenagers, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales, to a Hayneville store to buy a soda,” according to the Virginia Military Institute, Daniels’ alma mater.
“They were met on the steps by Tom Coleman, a construction worker and part-time deputy sheriff, who was carrying a shotgun. Coleman aimed his gun at sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales; Daniels pushed her to the ground in order to protect her, saving her life. The shotgun blast killed Daniels instantly; Morrisroe was seriously wounded. When he heard of the tragedy, King said, ‘One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.’"
Daniels’ journey is featured in the documentary, “Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels.”
IWJ mission is to mobilize people of faith around injustices in the workplace. Those who are disenfranchised in our society are the most vulnerable and are taken advantage of the most—especially by employers. It’s not by accident that women, immigrants and people from low-income communities are working the most dangerous and sometimes abusive jobs, and often command little respect from their employers.
Before meeting Morrisroe, Kim and I were able to take part in an action and commission hearing in Grand Rapids, Mich. addressing wage theft in the city. At the action, Kim explained facets of wage theft including some dismal statistics about wage theft:
- The average loss for a low-wage worker is $2,600 a year
- A total of $106 billion stolen from low-wage workers
The first step to address Wage Theft is to change policy. Lead by the Micah Center, the Wage Theft Task Force held a commission hearing on policy recommendations this week to address wage theft. Similar policy changes have been won recently in Miami-Dade County, Fla. and Seattle. IWJ affiliates have worked closely local government officials on these issues.
At 80 years old, Micah Center director and founder Vern Hoffman is working with 28 year-old organizer Jordan Bruxvoort on the campaign. Together they are building leaders for the next generation of social change. I met Hoffman, and he explained how race effects wages and how at the end of the day it is how we treat one another that will make this world function much better.
The work in Grand Rapids was inspiring and reminded me how blessed we are in working the movement to learn and grow from the hard work of both young and old.
"Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step." —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As if answering Dr. King’s call to action, a group of 23 courageous and passionate undergraduate and seminary students began their immersion in the worker justice movement yesterday through IWJ’s Summer Internship Program.
“Labor and organizing are all very new to me, but I do know that there’s important and sacred work that has to be, and can be done,” said North Park Theological Seminary student J.R. Green. “I’m both very frightened and excited to get started.”
Now in its 12th year, IWJ’s summer internship program, IWJ Summer, has produced some of the most inspiring and hardworking players in the worker justice movement today.
IWJ Summer is a 10-week program for graduate and undergraduate students who want to be active in the worker justice movement. Interns are placed at local unions, interfaith committees or worker centers across the country, where their responsibilities include outreach to the religious community on labor issues to involve them in local and national campaigns, and organizing workers.
J.R. and two other interns, Jeniffer Williams and Ryan Wallace, both McCormick Theological Seminary students, will work on organizing and mobilizing Chicago clergy in support of Hyatt workers.
“I’ve always had a distinct interest in organizing and have done some of that work before,” Ryan said. “This internship is an opportunity to once again to bring together the two things I am passionate about: faith and organizing.”
IWJ Summer participants come to the program with a sense of openness to new experiences and challenges, and a commitment to putting faith in action.
“We always talk about justice and now have this amazing opportunity to act on what I believe in and what I feel I’m called to do,” said Howard School of Divinity student Kyra Williams. “This will be one amazing summer.”
Kyra will spend her summer working on the Baltimore Airport Workers campaign. She first heard of interfaith organizing from “this amazing speaker who talked about the intersection of faith, social justice and organizing” at a conference she attended a few years ago. That speaker happens to be Keron Blair, an IWJ Summer alumn himself.
IWJ Summer interns will be blogging about their experiences around the country. Visit IWJ's blog regularly for their stories and reflections.
IWJ and our affiliates have long known legal protection for workers against wage theft is weak in communities across the country. But a recent report from the Progressive States Network shows us just how poor states are at protecting private sector workers.
The report graded states based on their legal protections for workers, and paints a dim picture for low-wage workers in nearly every state.
By the numbers:
- 64 percent of low-wage workers experience wage theft each week
- 26 percent of low-wage workers are paid under the legal minimum wage
- 76 percent of workers owed overtime go unpaid or underpaid
"Our research shows that states’ wage theft laws are grossly inadequate, contributing to a rising trend in workplace violations that affects millions of people throughout the country,” the PSN said of the report.
Affiliates in the IWJ’s worker center network are working across county, state and industry lines to stop wage theft by developing local campaigns targeting unethical employers with state laws, local ordinances and city task forces or committees.
“Wage Theft is a problem that effects all kinds of workers in many different industries and hurts families and communities,” said IWJ Worker Center Coordinator Dianne Enriquez. “Communities are building and passing wage theft enforcement ordinances in areas that are typically very conservative and it is clear that this is because people are tired of unethical employers stealing from them.”
The following is a reflection by IWJ's executive director, Kim Bobo, on the Wisconsin recall election and IWJ's annual staff retreat.
I woke up this morning to the news about Governor Scott Walker “surviving” the recall vote in Wisconsin. Although IWJ could not legally (and did not) work on the recall, the organization stands firmly against his policy attacks against workers and thus I was troubled by the outcome and horrified by the amount of money spent in the race.
Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that the American people fundamentally believe in fairness and that we can work together to raise standards for workers and restore workers' rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining.
This morning was not only the day after the Wisconsin election, it was also the day after the IWJ annual staff retreat where we review our priority directions—analyzing what’s working and what isn’t—and collectively think about how we might be more effective. Despite the challenges IWJ faces in fulfilling our mission, I’m basking in the glow of the retreat, reflecting on all the talented and deeply committed IWJ staff who are drawn to the work.
Like many nonprofits in this economy, we are grappling with how to get the resources to do the job, how to use more technology more efficiently, and how to handle workloads that are bigger than most of us can do. And as an organization with a founding director (me), we are trying to make sure that the relationships with and identity of IWJ is broader and deeper than just me. But the IWJ staff has solid plans, great vision and a spirit of camaraderie about the work. I am blessed to work with such a great group of folks.
So the day after the Wisconsin election, I think I’ll focus on the IWJ staff retreat!