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The IWJ Voices blog is a place for members of the Interfaith Worker Justice network to share stories and perspectives on issues at the intersection of faith and worker justice issues. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please email Ian at ipajer-rogers[at]IWJ[dot]org.

Uniting the new working class

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From The Christian Century:

by Lillian Daniel

In a political campaign marked by extremes, the issue of class seems to have turned itself inside out. Union members who supported Bernie Sanders are not necessarily Hillary Clinton supporters—some may turn to Donald Trump in their suspicion of a Democratic Party that has done little for unions lately. “Brexit” and anti-immigrant rhetoric across the globe pit underpaid workers against each other. Can we even talk about a single working class anymore?

Tamara Draut, an executive at Demos, a public policy organization, be­lieves that we can and must. But it’s not your grandfather’s working class: working men in physically challenging and dangerous manufacturing jobs whose unions ensured that they were compensated fairly across the board.

Today’s working class is more female, more diverse, and less likely to work en masse in a factory. They are paid by the hour with little chance for advancement: checkout clerks, salespeople at the mall, hamburger flippers, and janitors. Many of them earn a living taking care of society’s oldest and youngest members as home health aides or child-care pro­viders. They’re seldom protected by labor laws or unions. They may have to ask permission to take a bathroom break. Draut defines the working class as “individuals in the labor force who do not have bachelor’s degrees.” Say what you will about the cost and value of a college education—it’s still the best predictor of occupation and income.

According to Draut, this new working class is a sleeping giant just waiting to wake up, unite, and become a force that could change the nation. “Its sheer scale in size and diverse demographics will shape the future of American politics.” But currently this giant seems to be asleep at the wheel. How might it be awakened?

The answer depends, in part, on the subjects of Draut’s prior book, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead. Draut appears regularly on late-night talk shows and news programs, where she taps into the frustration of young college graduates who are disgusted about the state of our nation. Many of these young people were San­ders supporters. They’re orga­nizing unions and fighting for a living wage for themselves and others. Will this group come together with the new ethnically diverse working class?

And even if young labor leaders are on board, what about the Trump supporters who their unions represent? Our presidential campaign has revealed the widespread ethno-nationalism of white workers who think they’ve been screwed. They see people of color not as colleagues and collaborators but as the cause of their problems. Working-class Americans hold vastly diverse views on race and police violence, from Black Lives Matter to the reactionary All Lives Matter. Given this volatile diversity, does anything bind the working class together?

Draut sees possibilities for working-class activism epitomized by the Fight for $15 movement, which went from “laughable to doable.” Supported by the Service Employees International Union, that movement has pushed cities, states, and even Walmart to raise wages for the working poor. But they still don’t have a union, and the reasons for this are complex.

At its peak, labor represented a third of the nonfarm workforce. It was the Democratic Party’s largest voting bloc, capable of determining elections and setting the course of the nation. Today, labor is weak and antilabor laws are strong. Many workers’ advocates hoped that the Employee Free Choice Act would facilitate more union organizing in the groups Draut writes about by shielding nascent movements from the campaigns of anti­union employers, which are expensive to fight. But Demo­cratic senators from Walmart-dominated landscapes (and a president who prioritized the health-care fight) allowed the bill to languish without a vote.

Draut admits there is a problem in perception when it comes to the labor movement. Jobs in the United States aren’t as dangerous for the average person as they once were. Technology has made jobs like coal mining safer and the need for unions less obvious.

Still, as a pastor I hear more and more stories about wage theft, something that’s rampant in businesses too small to unionize but large enough to let workers quit rather than pay them the money they are owed. These employees can easily be replaced by other workers, some of whom are undocumented. Draut tells the story of LaShawn, a commercial sanitation driver in Atlanta whose managers routinely clock him out while he is still working in order to avoid paying overtime. Reli­gious leaders and worker centers have played a key role in calling local business owners to account regarding wage theft. Interfaith Worker Justice, a nonprofit organization I’ve worked with, has drawn national attention to the issue.

But unions still matter. Occasional news stories highlight organizers from unions like UNITE HERE, which fights against international hotel chains and casinos. Such organizing can unite the working class with clergy organizations and even scholars of religion. For example, members of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature respected a hotel boycott at their 2012 annual conference and subsequently formed a task force on labor policy. (I wrote about this boycott in “Incon­venient solidarity” in the November 1, 2012, issue of the Century.)

When I was a pastor in Chicagoland, I observed citywide protests that resembled the general strikes of the past. Originally led by the Chicago Teachers Union, this vast group now includes transit workers, Fight for $15 campaigners, anti–death penalty protesters, pro-Palestinian activists, and several distinct branches of the Black Lives Matter movement. These protesters have united across party lines to fight two local friends of the elite: Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel and Republican governor Bruce Rauner.

I suspect Draut would find hope in a story like that. It hints at the future to which she points: a new working class in America, racially and ethnically diverse, but awakening and uniting to change the course of history.

Read more from The Christian Century

Letter of celebration from Bishop Ann Svennungsen to CTUL

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Minneapolis Area Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America 

October 12, 2016

Congratulations to the workers and leaders of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) for faithfully working with and on behalf of retail janitorial workers in the Twin Cities as they seek fairness and safety. After six years of determined work, this union vote and the pending contract negotiations mean a new day for retail cleaning workers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a social statement titled Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All affirms the dignity of work and the responsibility of employers to treat workers with dignity and resect. It also affirms the critical role of organizing in the quest for human dignity and justice. 

The work you do is consistent with the commitment of the ELCA to justice in the workplace. Many of the pastors, deacons, and lay leaders of this church have stood with you in you in work stoppages, a hunger strike, marches, and demonstrations. You have inspired us to become more engaged in our neighborhoods and with our neighbors. Your victory is a victory not only of CTUL and retail janitorial work; it is also a victory of all our communities. 

You have set a benchmark of community expectation for the Twin Cities, as well as for local Worker Centers and labor organizations nationally. Thank you for leading with such passion, grace, and strength. 

In the spirit of justice,

Rev. Ann Svennungsen, Bishop

The Dangers of Wealth

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Originally published by Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Wisconsin.

This is the text of Rev. Jerry Folk’s sermon at Holy Wisdom in Madison on Sunday, September 25, 2016.

Today’s readings reflect on the dangers of wealth and the destructive effects wealth often has on persons, relationships and communities. In the first reading the prophet Amos addresses some very harsh words to the wealthy elite of Israel. The culture they have created is dissolute and self-indulgent. But what angers the Prophet more than this self-indulgence is that the elite do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph, i.e. Israel. They are indifferent to the suffering they have inflicted on the poor, whose labor they suppress or withhold to maintain their luxurious life. This injustice will not go on forever the prophet warns. There will be a day of reckoning.

The reading from I Timothy addresses the subject from the perspective of the wealthy or rather those who desire to be wealthy. He warns that those who want to be rich will be trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that lead to ruin and destruction. The author offers suggestions to those who are already rich about how they can protect themselves from the corrupting and destructive power of their wealth. “Do not be haughty,” he says. “Do not put your hope in your wealth but in God. Above all, be generous and share your wealth with others.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus illustrates the spiritual dangers and socially destructive effects of wealth by telling one of his brilliant stories, the story of the poor man, Lazarus and a rich man. Like all Jesus’ parables, this one turns the world upside down, beginning with the first verse. Notice! The poor man has a name. His name is Lazarus, which is a form of Eleazar, meaning One whom God helps. God helps the poor man. The rich man has no name. He’s just a rich man. It’s ironic that tradition has given him the name Dives. Dives is not a personal name. It is the Latin word for rich man. That is his identity. He’s a rich man. Jesus or perhaps the author of the Gospel adds to its poignancy of this parable with phrases like, “Even the dogs would come and lick his sores,” The dogs, Luke suggests, noticed Lazarus and had more compassion for him than the rich man. And that’s precisely the problem with the rich man. He was trapped by the many senseless and harmful desires that wealth or the desire for wealth stir up and that lead to ruin and destruction. He was so caught up in the pleasures and perhaps the power his wealth provided that he did not notice Lazarus. Or if he did, he was indifferent to his suffering and passed him by.

Toward the end of this parable, after both Lazarus and the rich man have died, Jesus introduces a new image into the story —the image of a chasm. When the rich man begs father Abraham to send Lazarus with a drop of water to cool his burning tongue, Abraham replies somewhat tenderly and regretfully, “Child, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.” This chasm did not suddenly appear when the two men died. There was always a great chasm between the rich man and Lazarus. During their lifetimes, the rich man had the power to bridge that chasm, but he didn’t lift finger or spend a dime to do so. Now it’s too late. Now the chasm cannot be bridged.

I don’t think it’s necessary to say a word about how the picture these readings convey and the challenge they present apply to us and our culture today. It is all too obvious. Ours is certainly in many ways a dissolute, self-indulgent culture that promotes in its people an obsession with wealth and the status and pleasures it can buy. And as Pope Francis pointed out recently in his remarks on the eve of Mother Teresa’s canonization, it is also a culture that is indifferent to the suffering and destruction this obsession causes. And the chasm between the rich and poor is certainly still with us and is growing larger by the day. The question this reality poses for us is, “What we can do about it?”

I can’t answer the question, of course. Indeed there is no definitive answer to it. But I will offer a few thoughts to prime the pump. We can with ourselves, acknowledging that we are not immune to the seductive power of wealth and the pleasures it provides. Through prayer and meditation, we can become we can become more aware of that power in our lives and seek deliverance from it. And with gentleness and sensitivity we can try to help others see how wealth or the pursuit of wealth can undermine or even destroy their humanity, their relationships, and their communities. Christian churches as communities also have a responsibility to warn Believers and Unbelievers alike of the dangers to which the pursuit of wealth exposes them, just as the prophet, the apostle and Jesus do in today’s readings. Thirdly, we can practice generosity. We already do this, of course, and our community, Holy Wisdom, does it. I see evidence of that nearly every Sunday in the bulletin. But we can always go a little further, be a little more generous. And we can advocate on behalf of policies that will improve the lives of less affluent people like an increase in the minimum wage or the reform of the criminal justice system. Finally, we can join low paid workers, minority groups and other less powerful people in their struggle for economic or racial justice.

To end this homily I’d like to share a poem by Caroline Norton titled “Little They Think.” This poem is a meditation on the social reality which today’s readings address.

Little they think, the giddy and the vain

Wandering at pleasure ‘neath the shady trees

While the light, glossy silk of rustling train

Shines in the sun or flutters in the breeze

How the sick weaver plies the incessant loom,

Pent in the confines of one narrow room,

Where droops complainingly his cheerless head.

Little they think with what dull, anxious eyes

Nor by what nerveless, thin and trembling hands

The devious mingling of those various dyes

Were wrought to answer Luxury’s commands:

But the day cometh when the tired shall rest,

Where weary Lazarus leans his head on Abraham’s breast.

Working and praying to bring that day nearer is part of our calling as Christians and our mission as church.

Rosh Hashanah Reflection

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by Anna Rubin
National Field Organizer
Interfaith Worker Justice 

 

I realized recently that I draw a great deal of meaning from the fact that in Judaism, our new year is marked by completing a cycle of sharing, analyzing, and discussing our community’s history, and then immediately picking right back up to begin again. During the High Holidays, we celebrate a return to the beginning of our communal storytelling by gathering together en masse to go through the prayers, practices, and meals that formally and ritually mark a fresh start for all of us.

Give tzedakah and start the year with a commitment to worker justice.

As I begin my time here at Interfaith Worker Justice, we are thinking and talking en masse, in staff meetings and calls with partners, about what our story has been as an organization, and what our story means to us now as we move into another year. I’ve heard from our partners fighting for sufficient bathroom breaks in poultry facilities, wage theft ordinances at the state and county level, and numerous other labor battles that IWJ has supported since the beginning or taken up over time as our network’s focus, goals, and capacity have shifted and grown. It feels like in many ways all of us in the IWJ network, whether new or seasoned veterans, are drawing energy from this story. We are venturing out with fresh perspective and revived motivation and energy to do the work and tell the ever evolving story that has defined IWJ year after year since its founding.

These collective discussions have given me an opportunity to dissect what IWJ’s mission and values mean to me. When I tell people I’m working at Interfaith Worker Justice, people who know me well will often respond, “Wow, those are three great words for you.” Very true!

I was a religion major in college, and have been involved in faith-based organizing over the past year with the Chicagoland Jewish community. I love the ways faith moves people to action, gives people with a context for their sense of self, and provides a community in which people feel inspired to build their own power and the power of their community. I am moved by the unwavering stance IWJ takes on bringing faith communities and faith voices into the fight for worker justice, even when, for some, the role of the faith community may seem less clear.

And justice. This organization does not stop at advocacy, service, or politicking, but goes straight to the heart of the matter: we are pursuing justice in the truest sense of that phrase, and the IWJ network will not stop until working people everywhere are paid a living wage in safe, healthy, and respectful conditions, and where everyone understands their own ability to build and use their power to keep conditions that way.This past year I had the opportunity to work with the Illinois Domestic Workers Coalition when their five-year campaign came to a victorious climax, as the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was signed into law. What an incredible feeling. For months I was listening to the stories of these women who endured terrible working conditions and employer treatment, and who then joined this grassroots fight for justice for all working people in Illinois. The fight for worker justice has a long and storied history in the U.S. Jewish community, especially among Jewish women, and I am proud to play whatever role I can in furthering worker’s rights today. L’dor v’dor – from generation, to generation.

Each word in our name speaks to a different piece of why I’m inspired to organize. I am so grateful to be able to reflect and take stock of these motivating factors by starting off the year with IWJ.

By beginning our story again in Judaism, we remind ourselves that there is always more to learn from the same text, always more to glean from the same lessons told year after year. There is always room for growth, always room for new inspiration within a story that has long grown comfortable and well-worn. I’m excited to begin at an organization that has an auspicious history of work over the time of its existence, and I’m excited to be a part of the innovations that are happening every day in our office and with our partners across the country.

I hope we all use this Rosh Hashanah and High Holiday season generally to take stock of what pieces of our own stories drive us to fight for justice, and what pieces of our communal stories can sustain us when the going gets tough. May this year be one of power and peace for us all.

Give tzedakah and start the year with a commitment to worker justice >>

Only A Few Predicted It

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cate_89/Shutterstock

by Paul Sherry

In early June, dozens of low-wage workers confronted members of the Democratic Platform Committee as they entered the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC for a meeting. The protesters were there to demand that the committee add explicit support for a $15 minimum wage into the party’s official platform.

What happened next, as reported by Isaiah J. Poole in a discussion with Joseph  Geevarghese, Executive Director of Good Jobs Nation, provides a clue as to the rapidly changing national political landscape. These are Pooles’ words:

As a few of the protesting workers wearing blue shirts with the word ‘strike’ emblazoned on the front managed to commandeer a row of seats inside the platform committee hearing, Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser was speaking. When she mentioned that she had just unanimously agreed to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2020, the workers erupted in cheers.

What a great day for the city’s struggling working people and families! And a great day for all of us committed to stand alongside working people as they seek justice for themselves and their families!

Just a few years ago, nobody could have predicted that day. Nor could we have predicted similar days in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and beyond. Indeed, what was considered wishful dreaming just two years ago is now, thanks to the committed work of our country’s new working class, an achievable reality. Victories have been won, and these victories give promise of far more in the days that lie ahead. The national political landscape is changing. A better future for so many is possible.

But not without struggle.

The change we need will not come easily. Opposition remains strong and unyielding. There is much more work to do.

In her important new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will  Transform America, Tamara Draut speaks to this issue and places the recent  “Fight for $15” in its larger context. This new working class is comprised of far more women and people of color than ever before. And while the new working class has over the years been marginalized, if not ignored, it is now flexing its muscle. Using a variety of examples, Draut argues persuasively that despite the fact that these new members of the working class continue to be severely discriminated against because of their race or gender, they are the harbingers of dramatic and positive change. And they are not going away. They are in for the long haul. They are committed to take their rightful place at work and society and they will not be deterred.  

This new working class is far more female and racially diverse and it is no longer confined to the assembly line. Rather, “today’s working class watches our children and cares for our parents. They park our cars, screen our luggage, clean our offices, and cook and serve our meals. They are us.” This huge, sleeping giant of fast food, retail, health care, and other service industries is awakening, and in its awakening, writes Draut, the future of this nation will change in ways not imagined but a few years ago. She is convinced that not only will it change America, it will change America for the better.

Draut tells us that she, by nature, is not an optimist. Rather, she says that she tends to vacillate between cynicism, pessimism, and downright despair about the state of this country.

But, she continues, “In the past several years I’ve become steadily more optimistic. I’ve seen the steady emergence of a new generation of activism and leadership focused squarely on revitalizing working-class power, weaving together issues of economic, social, and racial justice … the examples of a newly organized working class defeating attempts to scale back workers’ rights or restrictive voting laws are too numerous for a cynically inclined person to ignore … the victories bubbling up in towns and states across the country on minimum wage and paid sick days  are big enough to chip away the pessimism that has gripped so many progressive activists for decades. The sleeping giant is awakening and our nation will be all the better for it.”

The phrase, “a newly organized working class,” is key to understanding the path to renewal that is at the core of Draut’s argument for constructive change. She is rightly convinced that organizing is energized both by the vision of a more just future and by the pain and anger of those who hurt. It is the fuel needed for renewal.

The new working class is changing the national political landscape. They are leading the way. What can people of faith, people of good will, do to be of help?

There is much we can do. We can help get out the truth about the conditions which so many working people, particularly women and people of color, face every day of their lives and what they are doing to change those conditions. If professional journalists can’t or won’t do it, it is up to us. We need to make the invisible visible. And in doing so, we will be speaking truth to power.

We can support workers and families when workers strike to demand a decent salary and better working conditions. We are all aware that there is great risk involved for workers who choose to strike in protest of unjust working conditions.  It takes courage to do so. Firings are not uncommon. Strikes can go on for long periods of time and families are often in danger of going hungry for lack of sufficient financial resources. We can join picket lines. We can provide financial and moral support. We can let the strikers and families know they are not alone; we will be there for them.

We can participate in mass mobilizations like The Movement for Black Lives and immigrant rights movements and national and regional and local organizations like Interfaith Worker Justice, Jobs With Justice, NETWORK and many others that are galvanizing significant portions of the new working class and challenging historic inequities. Through such participation not only do we strengthen the movements and organizations that we join but we also begin to recognize things in our own lives that we personally need to change if we are to become the change agents these days require.

We can support legislation designed to bring about a greater measure of justice for working people and oppose legislation that stands in the way of positive change.

The sleeping giant is awakening. It is time for all of us to awaken also. The prophet Isaiah, centuries ago, gave us our marching orders; “Let justice roll down like living waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” That is the vision we need if we are to overcome.

I do believe it. An awakened giant supported by a committed people will transform that which is into that which our God surely would have it be. So let’s do it!


The Rev. Dr. Paul H. Sherry is the former President of the United Church of Christ. Currently, he serves as President of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national faith based body committed to stand alongside of and to work in support of the working poor.

In addition to serving as President of the United Church of Christ, additional positions previously held by Dr. Sherry include:  Head of the National Council of Church’s Mobilization to Overcome Poverty, Consultant for the Center for Community Change, Executive Director of Chicago’s Community Renewal Society, Publisher of the Pilgrim Press, Executive Associate for Planning and Strategy of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries,  Executive Secretary of the Council for Higher Education of the United Church of Christ, and Editor of the Journal of Current Social Issues.

For a number of years Sherry hosted religion and public affairs talk shows on television and radio in New York City, Chicago, and Cleveland. He is the co-author of A JUST MINIMUM WAGE, Editor of THE RIVERSIDE PREACHERS, a contributor to several additional books, and author of numerous published articles.

Through the years he has led or participated in campaigns on behalf of people of color, the working poor, welfare mothers, the physically and mentally challenged, and gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. While serving as the President of the United Church of Christ, a primary theme of his presidency was that of Building a World fit for Children.     

Sherry was a parish pastor for seven years – at the Community United Church of Christ, Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, and at St. Matthew’s (now St. Luke’s) United Church of Christ, Kenhorst, Pa. 

He earned a B.A. degree (1955) from Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa. and an M.Div. (1958) and a Ph.D. in theology (1969) from Union Theological Seminary, New York City. He is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, and elsewhere.

Sherry holds honorary degrees from the United Theological Seminary; Eden Theological Seminary; Ursinus college; Elmhurst College; Defiance College; Lakeland College; the Reformed Theological Academy, Debracan, Hungary; and Chicago Theological Seminary. In 2005, he received a “Distinguished Alumnus” award from Union Theological Seminary.

Sherry is married to Mary Louise Thornburg. They are members of the South Euclid United Church of Christ in South Euclid, Ohio, and have two grown children, four grandsons, and two great granddaughters.