Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A New Day at New Era

Last week, IWJ joined workers at the New Era Cap Company in Mobile, Alabama in a prayer vigil. Workers at the facility voted for union representation with the Teamsters Local 991 earlier this year. During the organizing campaign, 25 of the 111 workers lost their jobs. The workers were notified Thanksgiving week that 35 additional workers would be laid off. New Era workers in Mobile were joined by local clergy, representatives from the NAACP, and the Teamsters.

As the Working Families Network (WFN) puts it on their website:

In retaliation for workers' desire to choose a union in order to end racial discrimination and improve poverty-level wages at New Era's Mobile, Alabama, plant, New Era is terminating scores of workers. On Monday, November 19, New Era Cap Company Inc. will announce their decision to lay off 35 permanent employees at their Mobile Distribution Center. Out of the 35 to be laid off, only 15 will be called back to work. This kind of layoff is unprecedented at the Mobile facility, and comes in the midst of a critical labor dispute between New Era Cap and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Tell New Era to play fair with their employees. No holiday firings. Chris Koch - Global Vice President of Human Resources 716-604-9000.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Worker rights and Islamic law

IWJ is partnering with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) on a trailblazing effort involving workers’ rights, Islamic investment law, transnational social justice organizing, and the morally unacceptable labor practices of a multi-billion-dollar real-estate company.

The Indianapolis-based HDG Mansur, which also has offices in London, Dubai and New York, is making international financial headlines by declaring itself Shari’ah-compliant. But the shabby treatment of the janitors who work in Mansur’s Indianapolis headquarters raises serious and troubling questions — for worker justice as well as the integrity of Shari’ah compliance.

IWJ sponsored a delegation to London November 6-8 to call attention to these ethical issues. The delegation included a Muslim scholar representing ISNA, an African-American janitor currently on strike from her job cleaning at Mansur’s Indianapolis headquarters, and a staff person from IWJ. They teamed up with members of the UK Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU-Unite) and British trade union and community leaders to raise awareness about Mansur’s business practices.

The widely-read London-based newspaper The Guardian ran an article about the issue in its November 13 edition. Alas, it's not on the newspaper's website, but a truncated version can be found on the Irish Times.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Sanctuary Cities Under Fire

As the Iowa primaries near closer, Republican presidential candidates are engaging in heated debates over immigration. Of particular note, the candidates are attacking sanctuary city policies arguing that federal funding should be denied to any cities with sanctuary policies in place.

In addition, state and federal lawmakers are proposing crackdowns on sanctuary cities. Measures to adopt anti-sanctuary laws are pending in Michigan, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. The Florida legislature has introduced an anti-sanctuary measure last month, and Colorado passed an anti-sanctuary law last year. These policies would require local police to enforce federal immigration law, and encite fear in many immigrants to not seek police protection.

These anti-sanctuary policies would make enforcing immigration law a local and state priority, which is and remains a federal responsibility. Having immigrants fear local police would undermine local enforcement and community safety.

As Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. said, "I want Detroit police officers out there catching people who are stealing cars and mugging old ladies, not asking people for their passports."

Friday, November 2, 2007

Department of Labor Worsens Plight of Farmworkers

Interfaith Worker Justice just became aware of new rules that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Labor (DOL) want to propagate in order to help agribusiness hire more guest workers to harvest crops. The rules, which were crafted with input from farm operators but none from farmworker unions or advocates, would eliminate existing rights under the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers and worsen already deplorable labor conditions.

IWJ has drafted a letter to DOL Secretary Elaine Chao and is gathering signatures for the letter from religious leaders. Here is the text of the letter:

November 8, 2007

Dear Secretary Chao,

We write to you with concern for the rights of farmworkers in the U.S. The Departments of Labor and Homeland Security have plans to propose new rules to relax regulations concerning pay, housing, and other issues under the H-2A temporary foreign worker program, according to recent stories in the New York Times (“U.S. Seeks Rules to Allow Increase in Guest Workers,” Oct. 10, 2007) and the Los Angeles Times (“U.S. lets in more immigrants for farms,” Oct. 7, 2007). These rules are intended to address the reports of a labor shortage caused by increased border security measures and worksite immigration and enforcement, as well as the allegedly cumbersome H-2A visa process.

As people of faith concerned about maintaining adequate standards for all workers, we question this rush to relax regulations and government oversight in the interests of profitable agribusiness associations and farms. Moreover, these rules would go against the express mission of the Department of Labor to promote workers’ welfare and improve work conditions.

The H-2A program as it exists contains some labor protections, which, while inadequate, must not be compromised. For instance, the requirement that employers must advertise for jobs and keep them open to U.S. citizens until 50% of the season has elapsed provides an opportunity for citizens and legal residents to work in this industry, without a mere assertion by growers that no non-immigrant workers are available. The H-2A program also contains wage protections, which not only protect guest workers from exploitation but also help prevent U.S. wages from being undermined and U.S. workers deterred from taking jobs in agriculture. The Administration should not consider lowering the wages and benefits required of employers who claim they cannot find enough workers.

Rather than administrative rule-making that worsens labor conditions, the administration should support the AgJOBS legislation, a bipartisan bill that was the result of difficult but productive negotiations between the agricultural industry and farm workers unions. The bill is a package that includes a reasonable path to legalization for agricultural guest workers, while helping to ensure an adequate supply of labor to farms and balanced changes to the H-2A program.

As people of faith, we are called to uphold the dignity of every worker and every human being. We urge you to work with us in asking Congress to pass the AgJOBS bill and in ceasing to consider rules that would lead to greater exploitation of farm workers in the United States.

We thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

For a list of signatories, and more information about this issue, please visit the IWJ web site.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Fed Up with FedEx: A Report by American Rights at Work

The groups American Rights at Work and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights recently reported on FedEx Ground's misclassification of its drivers as "independent contractors," which denies their civil rights and workplace protections. Here is their summary and a link to the report.

When is a FedEx worker not a FedEx employee? When it benefits FedEx Corporation. In a new report, American Rights at Work and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights document the widespread use of employee misclassification at FedEx Ground, which denies workers’ fundamental civil rights and workplace protections.

Fed Up with FedEx: How FedEx Ground Tramples Workers' Rights and Civil Rights takes on FedEx Ground’s claim that its nearly 15,000 drivers are independent contractors and not employees. These drivers often face long hours, no benefits, and no control over their work, yet lack basic protections from labor and employment laws to address their working conditions. FedEx Ground is a striking example of corporate America’s use of troubling labor practices to deny workers their rights and dignity. When FedEx Ground drivers attempt to form unions, they are subject to intimidation, interrogation, and firings, according to federal charges. Court cases filed by drivers allege workplace discrimination and harassment, including racial and ethnic slurs.

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.