Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Kim Bobo on Alan Wolfe

The October 21st New York Times Book Review carried an essay by Alan Wolfe titled "Mobilizing the Religious Left." It's a review of Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church, a new volume celebrating and reflecting on Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), a book that inspired the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo wrote the following response to Wolfe's essay and sent it as a letter to the editor of the New York Times, which hasn't published it (but now we have).

In his essay "Mobilizing the Religious Left," Alan Wolfe ignores the breadth of religious activism fighting poverty and economic disparity by offering unsubstantiated claims of what issues people care about and broad critiques of the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. Wolfe boldly and wrongly claims, "In a democracy, the people choose the questions they want to discuss, and in our time more of them want the religious spirit to concern itself with abortion and homosexuality rather than race relations or a just wage." He's flat out wrong.

An October 2005 Pew Research Center survey found that almost half (48 percent) of Americans believe that American society is divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots." In another Pew survey in July 2006, asking about what social issues churchgoers hear about from the pulpit, by far the top issue was hunger and poverty. A whopping 92 percent of churchgoers have heard their pastors speak out against hunger and poverty from the pulpit. Over 80 percent of Americans, including all major Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations, supported an increase in the minimum wage. These same religious bodies at the local level have led the 100 plus local living wage campaigns and are leading local efforts to challenge janitorial firms, laundry firms, poultry plants, waste companies and dozens of other industry leaders to pay living wages and family benefits.

As important as Rauschenbusch is to social thought, I daresay that few religious leaders are engaged in just wage issues either because of what he said or didn't say. People of faith are engaged in challenging economic injustice because all our faith traditions' sacred texts condemn greed and advocate just treatment of workers. The teachings, combined with their own faith journeys of seeing poverty in their congregations, propel their actions.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A new movement for the 8-hour day?

The Nation had an interesting article today about Americans’ steadily increasing workday and workweek. Since health care and other benefits are costing more and more per worker, companies would rather force workers to work overtime than hire more workers. Union members often have protections against mandatory overtime, but those without the protection of a union contract can be forced to work 12 or more hours a day. This is a problem not just for workers and their families but also for patients in hospitals in which nurses are working 12+ hours a day, and for drivers on the road when truckers have been driving for more than 10 hours.

I wonder what kind of effects increased hours have on participation in religious congregations. I've certainly seen people drop out of my church after they were forced to work longer hours. After 50- or 60-hour weeks on top of family responsibilities, not many people have time to get involved in their church, synagogue, mosque, or other community institutions. It's time to re-build the movement for the 8-hour day.

Climate of Fear in Virginia

I want to alert readers to the growing climate of fear being perpetrated in Virginia as local officials have gone on an offensive against immigrants. With several counties approving policies to root out and drive out illegal immigrants, there is even an exodus from certain areas. People--documented and undocumented alike--are leaving behind homes, jobs, and lives, to escape the persecution they see coming. The Washington Post has been covering these events in detail.

Prince William County council has approved a measure requiring county police to routinely check the immigration status of criminal suspects, including those stopped for speeding or other violations. As a result, many Latinos are fleeing the area and its climate of fear. Prince William, Fairfax, Loudon, and other counties are also interested in finding ways to deny services to illegal immigrants. Herndon closed a worker center popular among workers, neighbors, and business, rather than allow undocumented workers to utilize the service. This open hostility to an entire set of people, simply as a result of their immigration status (and of course not-so-covert racism) is extremely troubling.

Meanwhile, throughout the state, as a new poll suggests, a strong majority of Virginia state residents believe illegal immigration is a problem in the state, although transportation and the state economy rank as the biggest issues facing the state. Republicans (and a few Democrats) in races for local and state positions have not hesitated to pick up on this pervasive sentiment and are wielding tough anti-immigrant policies as a primary campaign plank. This has been seen, for example, in the Fairfax county race for Board of Supervisors Chairman.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Interfaith Worker Justice & the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal isn't high on the list of publications where one would expect to see Interfaith Worker Justice featured prominently. But, sure enough, the October 16 issue carried an article titled "The Rise of the Religious Left" by Steve Malanga, a Senior Fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. (The article is no longer available on the Wall Street Journal's website but can be found on the Manhattan Institute's website here.) The article was in fact adapted from a longer essay that appears in the Autumn issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal under the title "The Religious Left, Reborn."

IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo sent the following letter to the Wall Street Journal, which has thus far not published it.

Steven Malanga’s “The Rise of the Religious Left” (October 16, 2007) ignores the depth of religious concern for and teaching about hunger and poverty. Ending poverty is a faith question — witness the thousands of congregations that provide food and shelter for poor people. The new emergence of a faith-led effort around raising wages, benefits and working conditions reflects the maturity and sophistication of the religious community’s fight against poverty. This is not a left-wing matter. This is a faith matter.

Although I greatly respect the philosophers mentioned in the article, Minister Rauschenbusch and Monsignor Ryan, most religious leaders are not involved because of them, but rather because of the reading and understanding of their own sacred texts and teachings and their concrete experiences with low-income families in their congregations.

The religious leaders I know do not “blindly refuse to acknowledge” academic research on rising wages, but rather understand that those who oppose raising wages and benefits for low-wage workers have historically trotted out studies to “prove” that we would all be better off accepting poverty-wage jobs. Over 80 percent of the American public, including most people of faith, supported raising the minimum wage.

Kim Bobo
Executive Director
Interfaith Worker Justice

If you'd like to write your own response to Malanga's essay, go here and click RESPOND TO ARTICLE. Feel free to cross-post your response here (copying and pasting the same text) by clicking "comments" just below.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

No Match Negatively Affects ALL workers

SSA No Match, heightened immigration enforcement and lax labor law enforcement has created a perfect storm for unscrupulous employers. Ballco is the perfect example of what employers are getting away with under this administration.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Event Highlights Problematic Anti-Immigrant Rule

On October 11, Interfaith Worker Justice co-hosted an exciting event in Baltimore. Faith and labor leaders, as well as local community groups, gathered at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in the Baltimore area to speak out against a potentially devastating government rule that threatens the jobs of millions of workers. One hundred people participated in the event. Our co-hosts included CASA of Maryland and Change to Win.

The government rule in question concerns so-called “no-match” letters and would require employers to take action that could result in mass firings. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proposed that Social Security Administration (SSA) no-match letters, which notify employers of a discrepancy in a worker’s Social Security record, also include a notice from DHS.

The notice concerns a proposed rule, that, if enacted, would require employers to resolve a mismatch with SSA records within 90 days. If they do not do so, they must fire the employee or face stiff penalties. This is a blatant abuse of the Social Security system and a threat to the jobs of millions of workers.

Furthermore, unscrupulous employers could use the letters as a pretense to fire workers who are involved in a union organizing campaign or who are otherwise unwanted. Some may simply fire those who “appear” foreign, assuming they are undocumented. Interfaith Worker Justice strongly opposes the proposed DHS rule.

The DHS rule aims to crack down on undocumented workers, but would affect millions of documented workers and U.S. citizens as well. In fact, 70% of discrepancies in the SSA database belong to U.S. citizens. The SSA has said it is ready to mail 140,000 letters, which will affect 8 million employees.

On October 10, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction against the proposed rule. Read about the ruling here and here.

The event
Following a short talk by IWJ policy analyst Liz Weiss explaining no-match letters and the importance of the injunction, we heard from Rep. Tom Hucker of the Maryland House of Delegates and Maria Welch, President of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. They pointed out the flawed, slow no-match system—in which 70% of errors are related to U.S. citizens and resolution can take 6 months. Witold Skwierczynski, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (the union that represents SSA workers), stressed the lack of resources on the part of SSA employees to deal with an influx of people responding to letters. He decried the use of civil service agents as immigration police.

We also heard from labor representatives, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, which played a moving video concerning the deplorable immigration enforcement raids at Swift company plants nationwide in December.

Sekou Siby, an organizer at Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) (a member of IWJ’s Workers’ Center Network), spoke about the potential harm SSA no-match letters would have on the restaurant industry.

Other prominent speakers included Corey Saylor, Government Relations Director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who pointed out the need to have a national immigration policy that starts with treating everyone as a human being.

Panravee Vongjaroenrat of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) talked about the important work her organization is doing to provide legal counseling to immigrants and their families.

Finally, Rev. Jarvis Johnson, who sits on IWJ’s board of directors, put forth a call to action. He gave an impassioned speech about the importance of bridging what is referred to as the “brown-black” divide between the Hispanic and African-American communities, and invited everyone in attendance to sign a letter to Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue.

Following the event, 14 religious leaders visited the Social Security Administration headquarters just a few blocks away from the church. We successfully delivered a letter to a member of the Commissioner’s staff. Other delegations also visited SSA regional offices across the country to deliver similar letters.

Many religious leaders who attended the community hearing met to discuss how we can work together in defense of immigrant workers’ rights. While the lack of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress has left the U.S. without national immigration policy, this presents an opportunity to overcome what is perhaps our greatest challenge: to change the hearts and minds of Americans concerning immigration, to end the vitriolic nature of the national policy debate, and to humanize the issue. Interfaith Worker Justice and the other groups in attendance will continue to work so that people of faith come together in defense of immigrant workers’ rights.

If you want to learn more about this issue, please see our report For You Were Once a Stranger.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rabbi Marx Documentary Online

On September 24th, IWJ celebrated the 80th birthday of its friend and past Board President Rabbi Robert J. Marx. The celebration dinner was a wonderful occasion. More than a hundred people came together to honor and celebrate Rabbi Marx and his legacy. The event helped raise over $25,000 for the Rabbi Marx Future Leaders Fund.

Among the highlights of the evening was the screening of a short documentary, A Practical Faith: Rabbi Robert Marx. Directed by Dorothee Royal-Hedinger, the film is a marvelous homage to Rabbi Marx's life-long dedication to justice. You can watch the whole thing by going here.

Our thanks go out to Dorothee Royal-Hedinger and Hassan Ali of Fresh Cut Media for their hard and swift work on this film, as they do to Rabbi Marx himself and everyone who helped put the celebration dinner together.

Contributions to the Rabbi Marx Future Leaders Fund are still very much welcome.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Powerful New Documentary on Immigrant Workers

Some of you may have seen the documentary Made in L.A., a poignant, moving chronicle of the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center’s campaign against the clothing retailer Forever 21, when it aired on PBS in early September.

But in case you missed it, you can now order the DVD. And it’s well worth doing: Made in L.A. is as powerful a documentary on immigration, labor and social change as I've ever seen.

Proceeds from sales of the DVD go to supporting a year-long outreach campaign to bring the documentary to audiences across the country.

Monday, October 8, 2007

We Need a Moral Crusade

We need a moral crusade. That’s how noted journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich approached ending the poverty of low-wage workers in the U.S. At a recent event at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, experts explained how our national policy is failing low-wage workers, leaving them in poverty and unable to afford basic necessities such as housing, food, child care, health insurance, and more. There are federal programs to help the working poor afford these and certain other essentials (dubbed “work supports”), but the system is antiquated and grossly inadequate. The speakers outlined a plan to improve and strengthen the system as part of a broad anti-poverty agenda.

Ehrenreich then asked the room, “How do we get this enacted?” Her answer was “a moral crusade”—much, she said, as the living wage movement has done by framing the issue of low wages as a moral issue. That is, it is immoral that a worker can work full time in this country and still live in poverty. Interfaith Worker Justice wholeheartedly agrees. We have been a leader in the living wage movement nationwide, through the coalition Let Justice Roll, and we will continue to use the voices and moral authority of our allies in the faith and labor communities to improve the wages, conditions, and lives of low-wage workers.

(Special thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich for her permission to use her comments on this blog.)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Sanctuary struggle in a California town

Anti-immigrant sentiment is running high in Simi Valley, California, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles County. On Wednesday, October 3, 2007, Mayor Paul Miller sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, requesting that DHS intervene in the current dispute between the Simi Valley City Council and a local parish, the United Church of Christ (UCC Simi).

The UCC Simi is providing sanctuary to Liliana, a 29-year-old woman who has three children who are U.S. citizens, and husband who is also a U.S. citizen. Anti-immigrant organizations such as Save Our State, No More Revolution, and White Revolution led protests on September 16, 2007, outside the Simi church, threatening to have Liliana arrested and deported.

In order to maintain the peace, the city (not the church) called in police protection. Mayor Miller then ordered the Simi Church to pay the $40,000 bill for city protection, despite the fact that the church led no counter-demonstration nor engaged in any type of protest in response.

Mayor Miller has approached DHS before and will continue to seek federal action to deport Liliana and break apart her family.

Please call Mayor Paul Miller at 805-583-6700 to let him know that White Supremacist groups are at fault for the disturbance, not the church. Rev. June Goudey, minister at UCC Simi, pointed out that six days a week are very peaceful in the congregation/sanctuary. Only on the days that Save Our State, No More Revolution and White Revolution are there (outside Sunday services) is there any noise.

YouTube video of Liliana’s story

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Immigration Raids Out of Control

Today’s New York Times editorial, “Stop the Raids,” brings attention to an immigrant enforcement system that terrorizes communities and families while doing nothing to increase public safety. Increasingly, agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) are undertaking mass search and seize operations at workplaces, community malls, and private homes, supposedly looking for individual gang members or people suspected of crimes. In Nassau County, Long Island, the agents came in the middle of the night, some actually wearing cowboy hats, invading homes of citizens, legal residents and immigrants with no criminal record, while pointing automatic weapons and spreading terror. ICE agents even pointed their weapons at Nassau County law enforcement officers, and public officials in Nassau vowed to stop cooperating with ICE.

Last December, ICE raided six Swift meat packing plants and arrested hundreds of workers on the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a religious holiday of enormous significance for most Latin American immigrants. Everyone was rounded up and hundreds were detained and separated from their families in the days before Christmas. The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents these workers, held a rally against ICE raids in Chicago in September and announced a lawsuit against ICE for trampling on individual rights in these raids. Around a dozen Swift workers testified, including several African American citizens held on suspicion of not having proper papers. All shared stories of violations and terror, including women who were body searched by male agents. One woman testified that as she came off the killing floor, she went into a room with dozens of agents pointing weapons at her, and thought the plant had been taken over by terrorists.