On Interfaith Voices this week, with the struggle to raise the minimum wage back in the news, we reviewed the history of that labor struggle -- a history in which American Catholics played a pivotal role.
Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, recalled the Catholic “labor schools” in parishes and schools in the 1930s and 1940s. In the early days, these schools (as well as Jewish lyceums) taught workers about their rights, and about how to form unions
On Tuesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its second report in three months on worker centers. In it, the prominent pro-business lobbying group doubles down on its claim that the centers are “fronts” for established labor unions.
Worker centers often provide services to low-wage, immigrant and minority workers, and historically are involved in employment sectors or parts of the country with little union presence, according to Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University who has studied worker centers. The number of such centers nationally has climbed from a just a few two decades ago to upwards of 200 today, according to a Wall Street Journal July story.
The Chamber’s report charges that worker centers “create the appearance of a grassroots movement” with consumer boycotts and worker walkouts against employers like Walmart and Target, when they are really “formed and incubated by well-established and well-funded labor unions and foundations” (the previous Chamber study on worker centers focused on charitable foundation financing).
But Kim Bobo, Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice, says that is no secret. “Of course, we are partners with unions and foundations,” Bobo says. “We are also partners and allies with churches, mosques, and synagogues—and law firms.” Bobo says that unions and charitable foundations have both helped finance her organization’s work and collaborated on campaigns.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, the average worker clocked in 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. That's if they had a job. Children toiled in factories, and employers could pay workers anything they wanted. Feisty priests, rabbis, and other people of faith led the fight to create a federal minimum wage, in 1938. This week, we return to that moment in history, as President Obama decides whether or not to raise the federal minimum wage to just over $10. Interfaith Voices talks with Kim Bobo, founder and director of Interfaith Worker Justice.
The groundswell of support for increasing the federal minimum wage is formidable.
Workers support it because they need a raise. Forward-looking businesses support it because they know it’s part of a sound business model. And the faith community is also a part of this diverse and growing coalition, lending its considerable influence to the debate.
This afternoon, I met with a group of religious leaders who are coming together to raise up the moral imperative of rewarding hard work with a fair wage. This is simply the right thing to do, and no one can make that case better than men and women who have made faith their life’s work.
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama announced his intention to move forward using his own authority and raise the minimum wage for workers on new and replacement Federal service contracts to $10.10 an hour. As the President said, “If you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.” Today, the President will sign an Executive Order making this vision a reality.
This step is a smart business decision for the government because it will make Federal procurement more economical and efficient. An extensive body of research suggests that giving a raise to lower-income workers reduces turnover and raises morale, and can thus lower costs and improve productivity. In addition, firms that already pay a decent wage and realize these kinds of efficiencies should not have to radically alter their bids to comply with the Executive Order. This means the new rule can allow Federal agencies to select from a higher-quality group of bidders without a marked increase in costs—a fact that is borne out by empirical studies of municipal government contracts.
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.
In 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.
(The Rev. Michael Livingston is national policy director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a former president of the National Council of Churches.)
One of the nation's largest employers faces a work stoppage by employees seeking higher pay: The Pentagon.
Roughly 50 food court and janitorial workers at the U.S. Department Department went on strike Wednesday to demand a hike in their hourly wage. Strikes targeting federal facilities in Washington were also planned at Washington's Union Station, Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, the Old Post Office Building and the Ronald Reagan Building.
The protests, led by labor advocacy group Good Jobs Nation and backed by a coalition of union, social welfare and religious organizations -- including the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, NAACP and Interfaith Worker Justice -- seek to draw attention to what the groups say is unfairly low pay for employees of federal contractors that provide food and cleaning services.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) resolved at its 2013 biennial convention last month to throw its denominational support and advocacy efforts behind paid sick leave legislation. The resolution also calls upon URJ congregations to support local paid sick leave campaigns and re-evaluate employment and contracting policies, making sure URJ congregations are an example of just employers in communities across the country.
Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their jobs and staying home to recover from illness or take care of a sick child. Working families shouldn’t have to lose pay when illness strikes. Sick leave is a practical workplace standard unavailable to 80% of low-wage workers. What seems like a commonsense practice that also promotes the common good in society is a luxury not afforded to more than 40 million workers.
Kim Bobo’s work at the Interfaith Worker Justice organization focuses on alleviating poverty as well as educating and protecting low-wage workers. Kim Bobo founded Interfaith Worker Justice in 1996 to organize community leaders to advocate for labor rights.
The old church that houses the offices of Interfaith Worker Justice on Chicago’s far north side is the manifestation of Kim Bobo’s purpose: the fusion of religion and social justice.
Last fall, I spent two days in central New York with dairy farm workers. I was surprised at the living and working conditions of the largely Central American population living and working on remote dairy farms without documents.
Many of them live in trailers with gaps on the floor so big that I could see the ground underneath the trailer. The trailers have no proper heating system (It gets really cold in Central New York in the winter!), and many trailers are insect infested. Many of them rely on the graciousness of the farm owners to drive them to a grocery store to get groceries because they can neither afford a car nor get a drivers’ license because of their immigration status. Many farm workers we talked to experience injuries on the job and wage theft—when they are not paid for the work they have done—and again, there isn’t much they can do about it because of their immigration status.
They want immigration reform because they want to come out of the shadows. But the current Senate bill—Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744)—does not include them. You see, Title II of S.744 requires every person seeking lawful permanent resident (LPR, or “green card”) status to make 125 percent above the poverty wage. That means that for a family of four, their income must be about $30,000 a year. The problem is that in the United States, the national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If a person works full time at 40 hours a week, every week of the year, he will take home $15,080.