Photo credit: AFL-CIO
by Mark Gruenberg
That means uniting around a common agenda of raising incomes and equality for all, regardless of race, color or sexual orientation, he said. But that unity should not obscure the fact that a difficult and honest discussion on race must continue, Trumka added. Trumka's comments about the need for unity came during a question-and-answer session at the opening of the AFL-CIO's annual Martin Luther King Conference, a 3-day event from Jan. 15-17 in D.C. Other speakers repeated his themes, with variations.
The conference, titled "Change The Rules, Be The Power" revolved around organizing, politics, issues and activism -- including in-the-neighborhoods activism by its 1,000 delegates and openly discussing race.
It did not come to any conclusions on that issue, though at least one speaker urged the federation to openly endorse and back the Black Lives Matter movement, which has pushed the discussion to the forefront of U.S. consciousness. A special AFL-CIO race and justice commission is holding a series of hearings nationwide to get the painful discussion going.
On both race and economics, “No real change ever comes without a crisis,” added federation Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre. “And we are in crisis in this country. Which road we take – the danger or the opportunity – is up to us.”
The MLK conference also covered issues ranging from ending mass incarceration of minorities and immigrants to the looming U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would make every state and local government a right-to-work fiefdom. One speaker noted that ruling would disproportionately harm minorities and women.
Trumka stressed that solidarity reveals there is a lot more that unites workers across racial, gender and class lines than divides them, despite the constant years-long efforts of the political and economic elite to do so.
But the conference's big secondary theme was a need to greatly increase organizing, both by the labor movement and its allies -- faith groups, community groups, women's groups, civil rights groups, environmentalists and others -- to add to ranks and to marshal resources and people to call out and challenge right wingers, both in the 2016 election and beyond.
"The challenge to the labor movement is that we should have 100 times and a thousand times more organizing campaigns than we do now," said Maria Elena Durazo, former L.A.
County Federation of Labor executive director, now a vice president of Unite Here.
"Unless and until we identify and train leaders on how to take on the boss in a lot more workplaces, we'll be over there," Durazo added, gesturing to a far corner of the room during the small-group session at which she spoke.
But while participants agreed on the overall goals, they differed on how to achieve them. Some advocated just tweaking present organizing efforts.
"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Rosa Rodriguez, Secretary-Treasurer of Steelworkers Local 1010 in Indiana. "But we have to sit down and see what it is that benefits the workers the best -- and then go into that issue as one."
Others called for specific campaigns to organize African-American, Latino and immigrant workers, citing successful pilot projects in Los Angeles and elsewhere to do so. Still others said the organizing must stress broad economic themes and lay out the case against the rich and their so-far successful manipulation of politics and the economy.
Many speakers, discussing recent events, said there must be more and more open discussion about race and particularly the racism of the entire criminal justice system, including the police, local district attorneys and the courts.
That issue came to the fore after Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown more than a year ago. It has remained on the national agenda due to similar confrontations since then in Chicago, Baltimore, the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
As Trumka said then, and repeated at the conference, "a (union) brother shot a union sister's son." Brown's mother is a United Food and Commercial Workers member.
The depth of the problem goes beyond just police-minority confrontations. One activist described taking 150 union, progressive and philanthropic leaders to interview prisoners at San Quentin, to let them hear and feel the real impact of mass incarceration – often for non-violent offenses – on prisoners, their families and their communities.
And when those prisoners are freed after serving their terms, that speaker added, they can’t get mainstream jobs, including union jobs, because they have to “check the box” that said they were formerly in prison.
Another pointed out unions endorsed the Cleveland District Attorney whose grand jury did not find fault with a police officer's fatal shooting of a 12-year-old African-American boy, "armed" with a plastic toy gun. She said there have been six such shootings in Cleveland, and no indictments. She demanded unions should ask themselves why they're backing that DA.
Politics came in for its share of analysis, too. Rudy Lopez, the new executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, pointed out in the small-group session that "a lot of the oxygen is going to be sucked up by this year's presidential campaign."
Read the full story from Workday Minnesota.
Workers’ rights activists and religious leaders from Metro Detroit gathered in the rain on a grassy hill outside a Wal-Mart on Friday morning to protest worker wages on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Chanting “What do we want? $15! When do we want it? Now!” outside the Wal-Mart on Mercury Drive, nearly 50 protesters stood in the rain, holding signs and demanding Wal-Mart workers be paid at least $15 an hour.
Organizer Greg Sullivan of Our Walmart Alliance of Southeast Michigan said more than 60 million workers in the United States make less than $15 an hour, while corporate pay rates continue to skyrocket.
“We’re trying to send the message that working people have taken a hit for way too many years,” said Sullivan. “Their wages have stagnated. ... We need to better than that — and we can do better.”
Activists came from a number of coalitions and groups, including Detroit Metro Interfaith Worker Justice, retired Ford UAW activists and the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan. Drivers on Ford Road honked their horns as they drove by to show their support.
The Dearborn Police Department wouldn’t let the protesters stand or park in the Wal-Mart parking lot because it’s private property.
A tow truck was on standby for most of the protest.
The Rev. Edwin Rowe, a retired United Methodist minister and member of Detroit Metro Interfaith Worker Justice, said Wal-Mart has hired agencies to monitor its employees and any movement toward organizing.
Read the full story from The Detroit News
The dignity of work and workers’ rights are recurring motifs throughout Scripture. “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy workers, whether other Israelites or aliens,” says the Book of Deuteronomy. Pope Francis, in his address to Congress, stressed worker concerns, saying he spoke for “the thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread...to build a better life for their families.”
Even in the modern age of labor regulation, many American workers still don’t receive a full day’s pay for a full day’s work. These employees usually occupy the lowest rungs of the pay ladder, working in fast food, retail, garment assembly, poultry processing, the service industry and building trades.
Some companies cited are part of familiar national chains we might patronize on a regular basis. Take, for example, Papa John’s Pizza. Four of its franchises in New York recently agreed to pay close to $500,000 in back pay owed to workers. Before closing all its restaurants in 2014, Chicago-based HomeMade Pizza, once a favorite of TV personality Oprah Winfrey, was forced to pay back wages to six workers who said they were paid less than the minimum wage and were denied their final paycheck.
Helping workers at those two companies—and many others—is a small advocacy group working out of a fourth-floor office belonging to the Edgewater Presbyterian Church on Chicago’s north side. For 20 years, Interfaith Worker Justice has been a consistent, sometimes solitary voice investigating wage theft and other worker abuses.
Wage theft occurs when employers fail to pay the legal minimum wage or overtime, force workers to work off the clock, withhold tips or final paychecks and misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying payroll taxes, workers’ compensation and other benefits. Interfaith Worker Justice estimates that about $50 billion in wage theft occurs each year. Executive Director Rudy Lopez calls it “a national disgrace.”
Workers, UC Santa Cruz students and researchers will share their stories about wage theft at a community event 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Watsonville Civic Plaza, 275 Main St. Admission is free and translation will be available.
Staff from California Rural Legal Assistance and the Day Worker Center will be on hand to discuss new monthly wage and hour clinics to help those experiencing wage theft. There will be a dialogue about workplace violations and what can be done.
Wage theft includes stealing tips, not paying for overtime, not paying the minimum wage, not paying for all hours worked and not allowing workers to take meal or rest breaks.
The clinics come in response to a yearlong research project, “Working for Dignity,” by the UCSC Center for Labor Studies in which 1,300 workers making less than $15 an hour were surveyed. The surveys found:
- 38 percent who worked overtime did not get paid for that work.
- 71 percent did not get a break despite earning a 10- or 30-minute rest.
- 11.5 percent did not receive a pay stub.
“California Rural Legal Assistance, the Day Worker Center and the Center for Labor Studies wanted to focus on wage theft as it was an important finding from our report,” said Steve McKay, associate professor of sociology and director of the UCSC Center for Labor Studies.
The issue had not been studied before in Santa Cruz County, according to McKay.
A website that details the findings includes a link to wagetheft.org, a project of Interfaith Worker Justice, which reports wage theft is a national problem and grass-roots organizations are working on solutions.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties will soon be joining several South Florida counties in passing local ordinances aimed at protecting workers from wage theft. Wage theft is when employees are withheld rightly owed wages or benefits, sometimes through forcing workers to work off the clock, denying paychecks, or garnishing employee tips. It especially affects service workers within the restaurant and hotel industry.
Here to talk about the new ordinances within the counties are: Tom DiFiore, Housing and Consumer Attorney for Bay Area Legal Services; Jeanette Smith, Executive Director of the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice; Cheryl Shroeder Executive Director of West Central Florida Central Labor Council; and Aaron Carmella, Field Director of West Central Florida Federation of Labor.
A coalition of 14 human rights groups on Thursday called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Florida state prisons, contending that "immediate intervention" is necessary to stop the widespread abuse, neglect, torture and deaths of inmates in the Florida Department of Corrections.
In a letter to Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the group cited a list of suspected criminal and civil rights violations against prisoners, including: torture and death by starvation, excessive use of force, medical neglect, misuse of solitary confinement, suicide, sexual assault and death and torture by scalding.
As examples, the letter cites 17 inmates who allegedly died under one or more of those conditions, as well as three others who continue to suffer as a result of violence and neglect suffered in the state prison system.
"Given the Florida Department of Corrections' pattern and practice of consistently failing to remedy these pervasive and egregious problems, only the Department of Justice can properly address these violations," the coalition wrote.
The group, headed by Florida's ACLU, expressed particular concern about the abuse and deaths of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses, citing several who have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances. One of those inmates, Darren Rainey, died in 2012 after he was left for more than two hours in a shower with temperatures in excess of 180 degrees.
Rainey's death is already the subject of a federal civil rights inquiry, as well as a state criminal investigation. Rainey, who suffered from schizophrenia, was allegedly forced into the shower by corrections officers at Dade Correctional Institution near Homestead and left there, as punishment, for bad behavior.
The Miami-Dade medical examiner has yet to release his cause of death, and the criminal investigation into his death is still pending.
Several other deaths at Dade Correctional Institution were cited, including Richard Mair, another inmate who suffered from mental illness who hanged himself at the prison in 2014. He had previously complained that he and other mentally ill inmates were being sexually violated, beaten and mentally abused at the prison. After his death, a suicide note was found sewn into his boxers that listed a number of abuses, and it contained the names of officers whom he claimed were regularly beating inmates or forcing them to fight each other for sport.
His death and the allegations he made has never been investigated by police or by the corrections department.
Other examples included Ricky Martin, a 24-year-old convicted burglar, who was killed at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. He was beaten, stabbed and stomped on by a fellow inmate despite numerous pleas by him and other inmates to stop the killer, who had vowed earlier in the day to kill Martin because he was white. Corrections officers were warned, but ignored the pleas, according to more than a dozen inmates interviewed by the agency after the death. No corrections officers were disciplined.
Nearly all the cases cited in the letter were part of an ongoing series about corruption and violence in Florida prisons by the Miami Herald. For more than a year, the newspaper has reviewed thousands of documents, conducted hundreds of interviews and visited prisons where prisoners have alleged they've seen or they themselves have been mentally, physically and sexually abused. In most cases, few, if any, corrections officers or wardens were held accountable. And the circumstances surrounding the deaths were often covered up, according to witnesses.
In recent months, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) has made several reforms to try to improve prison conditions. More than a dozen corrections officers have been fired and arrested, wardens have been forced out and regional directors have been ordered to reapply for their jobs. Gov. Rick Scott and new prisons Secretary Julie Jones have ordered an overhaul of the agency, and some changes have already been implemented.
McKinley Lewis, FDC's communications director, said the agency is committed to ensuring the safety of Florida's 100,000 inmates.
"Many of the issues raised by the ACLU are the subject of past or present criminal and administrative investigations which involve multiple local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. FDC is confident that our ongoing reforms, and current leadership, will continue to move our agency in a positive direction that focuses on our vision of inspiring success by transforming one life at a time," Lewis said in a statement.
Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said those reforms are not enough to change the culture of the Florida's prison system, which is the third largest in the nation. Cover-ups are so ingrained in the prisons that far too many corrections officers are still able to harm inmates without impunity, he said.
"An appalling 346 people died in Florida prisons last year.it is the responsibility of the Governor's office to ensure the safety of the state's prisons. But under the leadership of Gov. Scott, conditions have deteriorated," Simon said in a statement.
He also pointed out that the agency has failed to investigate potential wrongdoing, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is handling some of the death cases, is taking far too long to give closure - and justice - to families of inmates who have died.
"Many of the FDC and FDLE investigations into instances of death and/or abuse of prisoners are languishing. The investigations have been ongoing for more than three years without any conclusion in sight," he said.
Gupta is in charge of the Justice Department's civil rights division and is the nation's top civil rights prosecutor.
The coalition's letter was also signed by Robin Cole, president, National Alliance on Mental Illness; Steve Wetstein, Stop Prison Abuse Now; Randall Berg Jr., executive director, Florida Justice Institute; Christopher Jones, director, Florida Legal Services Inc.; Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, executive director, Florida Council of Churches; Adora Obi Nweze, president, Florida Conference of NAACP Branches; Jeanette Smith, executive director, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice...
Confronting escalating economic inequality in Massachusetts will be the topic during a free forum scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 24, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at All Souls Church on 196 Elm St. in Braintree. All are invited.
Among the issues to be discussed are campaigns for paid family and medical leave, a $15 per hour minimum wage, a statewide progressive tax to fund education and transportation needs, and equal treatment for women in the workplace.
Speakers will include Chuck Collins from the Institute for Public Studies, Lew Finfer from the Massachusetts Community Action Network, and Paul Drake from Massachusetts Interfaith Worker Justice.
Those motivated by their faith to address issues in society like economic injustice, environmental concerns or human rights can learn how to get started and tackle challenges by attending a one-day training event Nov. 7 in Fargo.
“Putting Your Faith Into Action,” a crash course on faith-based organizing, will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 7 at Faith United Methodist Church, 906 19th Ave. N, Fargo.
The training is sponsored by Faith Forward Network North Dakota, a grassroots interfaith group focused on social justice policy changes to make communities safer and fairer.
“Putting Your Faith Into Action” is an ecumenical and interfaith training. Faith leaders as well as non-clergy individuals and students representing all faiths are welcome to attend, said Rev. Cody Schuler, co-founder of Faith Forward.
The trainer is Kristin Krumpf, who has spent the last 15 years working as an ecumenical and interfaith community organizer and trainer at the local, state, national and international levels. She has trained thousands of leaders and planned strategy for social change with organizations such as AARP, American Heart Association, Interfaith Worker Justice and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
IWJ Executive Director Rudy López accepts the Bradford O'Neil award for Social Justice from Dominican University.
Below are Rudy's full remarks:
Good afternoon everyone. It is a real honor to be here with you today. I know it's a Tuesday but I want to take us to church for a minute.
From Malachi 3:5 -- "I will be a swift witness against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages," says the Lord.
From Leviticus 19:34 -- You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself; for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt. I, the LORD, am your God.
And from James 5:4 -- Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord...and he is not pleased!
I added that last piece to it. I can go on and on with verse after verse that speaks to the just and fair treatment of the worker and our immigrant brothers and sisters. The bible is very clear about what the Lord demands, but unfortunately we don't always live up to how we should be treating one another. These are just a couple examples of how a bible speaks to us and in truth; all major faith traditions have similar messages in their own books of faith that show us how faith and values are intimately linked. It is powerful when scripture is transformed into action and where the spirit is strong, transformation happens. I can feel that the spirit is strong here at Dominican and the fruits are all around us.
I am deeply humbled to receive the Bradford O'Neil award for Social Justice on behalf of Interfaith Worker Justice. We are a national organization dedicated to worker justice through a worker lead movement that engages diverse faith communities into action through grassroots organizing to shaping policy at the local, state and national levels. We organize, educate and advocate for a just and fair economy where an honest days work, deserves and honest days pay.
I accept this award on behalf of our network as a whole and the tremendous work they have done over the past 19 years and as a down payment for the work to come. There is so much yet to do and our network of faith and labor groups and worker centers look forward to working with those who share our common values.
I've been in the social justice movement for nearly 20 years but have been the head of IWJ for less than a year. How did I get into this type of work? When I first started I didn't know that organizing existed let alone that there was an entire movement connected to it. I did what today's symposium "Caritas et Veritas in a Life's Work" is asking you to do. I followed my heat and values in order to seek love and truth in my life. It's been an ongoing journey that hasn't been easy but I have to say it's certainly been worth it. One of the key pieces to all this is taking the time to listen to what God is saying. When we take time to listen to what God is calling us to do, each one of us can do incredible things when we are aligned with our purpose of our life's work.
Why do I believe in this? I believe this because I have seen time and time again that when we are connected to our passion and purpose; we are in sync with our own vocation no matter what it may be and it leads to good things. It's important to remember that a vocation is not just about what kind of job we have but how are we living our life according to a set of values and sharing them with those around us. You can be successful and have lots of things, but if not aligned with your vocation does it really make you whole? What's missing? We long for meaning and we long for purpose. It's in our nature.
Now let me be clear, alignment with your vocation doesn't mean you wont have hard times and struggle. In fact, if you don't have to struggle you should be asking why not.
My own journey toward my vocation began where I grew up in a small scrappy little steel town called East Chicago, Indiana where my dad worked for nearly 40 years in the mill. Everyday I saw him work hard and I saw how proud he was to be able to provide for his family. I also grew up seeing family members in low wage jobs that would work just as hard, but sometimes not get paid what was owed to them. This is what we now know as "Wage Theft:" the deliberate and illegal underpayment or non-payment of wages which affect millions of workers across the country.
I also have felt the pain due to our broken immigration system. My cousin Martin crossed the border through Eagle Pass, TX in August of 2005 in search of a better life for his family. He and a group of 20 crossed, like so many others do, with the paid assistance of a "Coyote," a human smuggler. My cousin became sick along the way and was abandoned by the Coyote and left with two things: a gallon of water and a promise to return for him. That promise was never kept.
Several days later I received a call from the local sheriff at 2:30 in the morning informing me that they had found the decomposing remains of my cousin. He was left to die cold, hungry, and alone.
These aren't the values that we have as people of faith. These aren't the values that we have as Americans. Allowing senseless oppression and death like this is not who we are as a nation. Pope Francis reminds us that we are "the land of the free and home of the brave" and a place of dreams and high ideals. For those of us who are people of faith those values and ideals are rooted in our faith. It is through our life experience we find ways to give shape and life to it in the real world. Pope Francis gave us an example of this in the opening of his speech before Congress:
I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day's work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and -one step at a time - to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their ta xes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society.
He reminds us of the need to look beyond the mechanics of our economy and remember its essence . . . the people who create it. The workers who are giving of themselves everyday deserve an economy that serves them and their families.
During his amazing trip, the pope also reminded us several times of the need reflect on our own history as a nation of immigrants and to see the humanity in each other.
We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants . . . We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.
He challenges us to look at the face of each person and see his or her humanity. He also asks us to go deeper and see the divinity in each one of us. This is important because only seeing the human side of a person can lead us to charity -- but does it lead us to equity? The kind of equity that is essential for the dignity of each person? As children of God, respect and dignity are the right of ever person no matter who they are.
The pope's values laden statements give us a clear idea of how deeply held feelings can be beautifully amplified in a way that others can connect their own values. For the students present here today, I am very excited for what's in store for you and honestly a little envious as well. You are at an incredible time in your lives and in our nation's history. A time in which your journey towards your own vocation allows you to fulfill the promise of who you are, a beautiful child of God called to do good in the world.
Brothers and sisters, let me tell you, we have much good to do together. Each in our own way according to the vocation we are called. It is indeed our Life's work to share God's love, which can be seen in many forms: justice, compassion, charity, empowerment, healing and much more. Whatever way you choose, we have a responsibility to share it with others. We all have tremendous gifts and if we work together to move a set of common values, rooted in faith or in our life's experience, we can do incredible things and make incredible changes.
Thank you again for this honor and may God bless you all.
The institutions had drifted apart in recent years, but Francis' new direction has brought them back together.
On Tuesday morning, as they have been doing on occasion for years now, low-wage workers from federal facilities in Washington — and scores of blue-shirted supporters — gathered with loud, stenciled signs to protest how little they’re paid to toil in the gilded halls of government.
This time, however, they protested in new surroundings: a church. One after another, religious leaders of all faiths sermonized next to a home-made altar with Pope Francis’s image on the front, along with people carrying beatified images of Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
“Remind all low-wage workers who are janitors and cooks at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings that they are not suffering alone as they seek to attain dignity and living wages!” prayed one robed speaker, from his pulpit a block from the Capitol. “Bless their struggle for justice and work so that they may provide for their families.”
In recent years, however, the relationship has faded. As U.S. Catholics grew wealthier, they felt less of a need to make common cause with the labor movement. Through the 1990s and 2000s, many dioceses became distracted by sexual abuse scandals, and unions had their own problems with corruption and loss of membership. Meanwhile, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II deemphasized the Church’s economic message in favor of social issues like abortion and gay marriage, where common ground with the labor movement is harder to find.
“One of the challenges, frankly, is labor has to decide who its allies are,” says John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “If the labor movement is simply another faction in a movement that begins with culture issues and eventually gets to gets to workers, that’s going to be a hard bridge to build. If the labor movement looks to the Catholic community as an ally in standing up for workers, that’s a bridge you can build.”
From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis started sending a clear message to labor groups that the church would be an ally. His speeches often dwell on the rise of income inequality and the dignity of work, and he’s spoken of the need for safe workplaces where people are paid fair wages — not just alms for the poor, as predecessors often emphasized.
“It’s not anything new in terms of what he’s saying,” says Rudy Lopez, director of Interfaith Worker Justice, which helped organize the protest and march on Tuesday morning. “What’s new is the position he’s giving it. The church for the first time is really looking at it in a different way.”