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Archive for the ‘Arise Chicago’ Category

By Lizzy Brady

Earlier this month on Thursday, September 5th, Rev. CJ Hawking, Fr. Larry Dowling, and Rev. Tim Yaeger linked arms in an act of civil disobedience, and raised their voices in solidarity with Walmart workers at a demonstration outside the Walmart in the River North neighborhood. The Arise Chicago team stood alongside Walmart workers as part of a larger demonstration across the United States. On the heels of the fast-food workers’ staged walkouts to raise minimum wage to $15 an hour, Walmart workers’ nationwide demanded better pay, improved working conditions, and reinforcement of the right for workers to organize without retaliation.

walmart action

With 1.3 million employers, Walmart is the largest employer in 25 states, and has raked in more than $30 billion just in the second quarter of this year. 2.2 million people worldwide are employed by Walmart, totaling 11,000 stores in 27 countries. The demonstrations are pushing for a commitment to a $25,000 salary, as well as demanding a reinstatement of Walmart employees recently fired after filing a complaint — a clear violation of US labor law protecting workers from retaliation.

I went to the Walmart Worker strike on my second day of interning with Arise, which turned out to be a beautifully accurate introduction to the work that we do. Although it’s been a few weeks since the Walmart Workers strike, the picture of Rev. CJ Hawking, Fr. Larry Dowling, and Tim Yaeger standing in solidarity with the Walmart workers is still so clear in my mind. These days, I’m often reminded of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” What a challenging reminder not to treat the suffering of the exploited as an independent entity detached from ourselves, nor ignore the cries of the oppressed with ignorant explanations for the cause of poverty. May faith communities continue to shake the dust off our dry bones, and “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). I’m inspired by the men and women I have met that are pursuing justice for the oppressed in this city, and I pray that our God will continue to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Lizzy Brady is an intern at Arise Chicago and a student at Wheaton College.

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by Linda Bloom

Reposted from the UMConnections blog

umns13 198 1 Connections United Methodists take heart in labor agreement

(From left) the Revs. Marti Scott, Chuck Dauhm, Michael Shanahan and C.J. Hawking line up (risking arrest) in support of Hyatt workers in Chicago. A web-only photo by Luis Juarez

They prayed at the picket line, listened to workers’ stories, sent delegations to meet with management and supported a boycott.

So when UNITE HERE, the union of hospitality workers in the United States and Canada, recently reached a tentative labor agreement with the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, United Methodists were pleased.

The Rev. Israel Alvaran, who helped organize denominational support in northern California, said he was inspired by workers willing to take risks and make sacrifices so a global corporation would hear their concerns. “This was a David and Goliath fight,” he declared.

The Rev. C.J. Hawking, a United Methodist pastor and executive director of Arise, Chicago, agreed the workers, “really put up a valiant fight.” Two other hotel chains, Starwood and Hilton,already had signed agreements with workers that “provide safe working conditions and limit outsourcing,” she said.

The agreement reached July 1 will go into effect upon the settlement and ratification of union contracts by Hyatt associates in San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Chicago, according to UNITE HERE. Key provisions include retroactive wage increases and a fair process mechanism for a union vote.

UNITE HERE will end its global boycott of Hyatt when the contracts are ratified. Hyatt agreed to a fair process for workers in some hotels immediately, but not in other hotels, said Ross Hyman, who was assigned by the AFL-CIO to work with religious supporters in Chicago. “In those hotels, the boycott will continue, even though the global boycott has ended,” he clarified.

Both the California-Nevada and Northern Illinois annual (regional) conferences of The United Methodist Church officially have supported the hotel workers. That’s in keeping with the denomination’s Social Principles and resolutions said John Hill, who oversees work on economic and environmental justice for the denomination’s Board of Church and Society.

Those principles are clear about rights of workers, including the need for a living wage and the right to bargain collectively, he pointed out. Whether they provide housekeeping services in hotels or harvest crops on farms, “we take our lead from the workers who are struggling to improve their own lives and conditions,” Hill said.

Chicago picket lines

In the Chicago area, about 7,000 Hyatt workers had been without a contract since Aug. 31, 2009. The economic boycott there targeted the Park Hyatt on the Magnificent Mile, Hyatt Regency on Wacker Drive and the Hyatt O’Hare.

The Rev. Teran Loeppke, a deacon in the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference, wrote the legislation adopted in 2011 that created the conference’s Hyatt Boycott Monitoring and Organizing Committee and supported the worker-led boycott of 16 Hyatt properties in the United States.

“I think we were one of the pieces of the comprehensive effort that has led to this whole tentative agreement,” Loeppke said. “Anytime dedicated clergy and lay people get together to really focus in a concerted way…good things have the opportunity to happen.”

Because the Hyatt headquarters are in Chicago, having the conference representing United Methodists in the city honor the boycott made it “that much more significant,” Hyman noted.

“Methodists also played a role in trying to reach out to other organizations for them to honor the boycott,” he added. When religious scholars meeting in Chicago last fall moved the headquarters hotel further from the convention center, United Methodists helped organize a Sabbath walk to accompany Orthodox Jews “so that everyone would be walking together.”

Other actions included picketing and prayer, including a “flash prayer” event in the Hyatt Regency lobby. “We just really prayed and prayed, with complete earnestness, really valuing the collective prayer in the public square,” Hawking said. “Stating that God’s presence was there was very powerful for management to hear and the workers to hear as well.”

When religious delegations went to see Hyatt management, the workers often sent “thank you” messages as they waited, noted the Rev. Betty Jo (B.J.) Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, pastor of Incarnation United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, Ill.

“Seeing that actually the church would be a presence for justice for them and come into their struggle meant so much to the people that I talked with,” she said.

Hawking and Birkhahn-Rommelfanger were among those able to get passes “to go to back of house” at the Hyatt hotel to interview workers during their lunch hour. Jewish groups led the effort to publish a clergy report, “Open the Gates of Justice,” on working conditions at Hyatt hotels.

Hawking remembers talking with one of the employees, a pastry chef and single mom. “She literally stood for 8 to 10 hours every day over her work table,” she said. “It was very powerful to be in the back of the house like that and to see a glimpse of what their lives were like.”

Support and solidarity in California

As in Chicago, United Methodists in the denomination’s California-Nevada Conference have focused on support and solidarity for Hyatt workers, Alvaran explained. A member of the Philippines Central Conference, he has helped organize interfaith support for workers in northern California since 2007.

In San Francisco, the union allowed them to bring clergy to organizing meetings “to provide that ministry of presence and assurance that all will be well, you don’t have to fear,” he said.

Alvaran believes the new tentative contract is a “huge” accomplishment, particularly in terms of a neutrality agreement that provides a “hands off” approach as workers decide how they want to organize. But, it doesn’t apply to every hotel in the area, such as the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, which is no longer owned by the Hyatt corporation. The California-Nevada Conference approved a resolution in endorsing a worker-led boycott of the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf in 2009.

Before the 2013 annual conference meeting in June at the Sacramento Hyatt, Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., discussed the denomination’s position on labor issues with both with union leaders and management.

“We took seriously our responsibility to respect our relationships with our neighbors,” Brown told United Methodist News Service. “We met with representatives of the labor movement that have concerns about working conditions for hotel workers and we met with the general manager and the human resources manager of the Hyatt property.”

Several factors influenced the conference’s decision to have its 2014 annual session at a unionized hotel, the Hyatt Burlingame. Brown — whose parents, now retired, were both union members — was particularly pleased the contract with that hotel includes protective language that allows cancellation without penalty in the event of a labor dispute and he urged other annual conferences to do the same.

Including what is known as a force majeure clause in their hotel contracts, allowing them to move to another hotel if a boycott or worker action occurs, is the best way for church groups to help hotel workers, Hyman said, “because of the enormous consumer power that they wield.”

Alvaran said that conferences could check the union’s website to see if hotels in a particular city are under a worker boycott.

*Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe. Contact her at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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After spontaneous strike to protest wage issues, textile workers’ partnership with community organization and union leads to victory

As national union rates hit all-time low, victory shows promise of community partnerships, immigrant organizing for reversing labor’s decline

The mostly Latino immigrant packers and machine operators of Artistic Stitches, Inc., an embroidery company with contracts with some of Chicago’s largest businesses like Chase Bank, declared victory Thursday after a job walkout in protest of wage issues and an innovative community organization/union partnership led to a successful union drive.

At a time when American union rates have reached their lowest in nearly a century, the campaign shows the potential for the labor movement’s revitalization with innovative new organizing strategies.

“Union membership is at an all-time low, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Jorge Mujica, organizer for Arise Chicago.

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Concerns about job security and possible violations of Illinois minimum wage law led the workforce to walk off the job the day after Thanksgiving. Workers were laid off near the end of every year, then rehired as apprentices, at apprenticeship wages–despite the fact that many had worked at the factory for years. They did not receive any holiday pay despite working through major holidays like Thanksgiving, which proved to be the last straw for workers who walked off the job the day after Thanksgiving this year.

“We decided to walk off the job because management said they weren’t going to pay us holiday pay for working on Thanksgiving,” said Juana Cortez, a worker at the factory.

The mostly immigrant work force stood together to demand they be treated with dignity and respect on the job.

“Now, we can defend ourselves from the mistreatment, have paid vacations and holidays. Now, there can be equality,” said Juana Cortez.

Workers approached the interfaith workers’ rights organization Arise Chicago, who assisted in organizing co-workers to know their rights on the job. Selecting Workers United as their union with which to affiliate, the workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election. Last week, the workers won by a decisive majority and now have union representation.

“The relationship between the workers center and our union has been perfect,” said Margarita Klein, staff director of Workers United.  “And this is only the beginning.”

Cortez had the following message for other workers in a situation like hers: “If something unjust is happening to you at work, there are organizations like Arise and Workers United that can help protect you.”

The campaign’s success shows the potential for labor’s revitalization at a time when it is in deep distress. Recently released figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that union membership is at its lowest percentage in nearly a century, leading many commentators to declare that labor is continuing to die a slow, agonizing death. The Stitches workers’ victory demonstrates this is not the case.

“If you are only thinking of traditional campaigns and old forms of worker organization, you may be disappointed. But when you adopt a broader view, like our point of view on the ground, you see signs of hope and progress. Workers organizing in nontraditional sectors, who are self-organizing, who are striking first–successful campaigns like these show that there are actually very promising signs of life to be found in the movement. Labor can turn the corner with nontraditional organizing strategies like the ones these workers used,” said Adam Kader, Arise Chicago Worker Center program director.

The rise of alternative organizing strategies nationally shows that many workers want to organize.

“It isn’t that workers don’t want representation,” said Kader. “Workers are clearly hungry for a voice on the job. Dozens of low-wage sector workers contact Arise Chicago’s Worker Center office daily, detailing incredible amounts of abuse. But many times, these workers don’t have access to unions.  Workers, like those at Stitches did, reach out to different organizations–often churches–for help, who are connected to Arise Chicago. When community groups like Arise work together with unions like Workers United, we can help bridge that gap so workers’ rights can be respected on the job.”

In addition, promising gains have been made for labor nationally in states like California, where, over the last year, union membership has actually increased by 110,000 members, largely because unions have taken the organizing of immigrant workers seriously.

For a full revitalization of the labor movement, new member organizing must be paired with political activity and advocacy for stronger public policies to protect workers.  The Stitches workers’ win comes on the heels of a major victory for workers in Chicago’s city council: the passage of anti-wage theft legislation that makes it possible for the city of Chicago to revoke business licenses of businesses found guilty of wage theft. Arise worked with Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th ward), the bill’s sponsor, to draft the bill.

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by Adam Kader

As a result of months of collaboration between Arise Chicago and Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th ward), last Thursday the City of Chicago passed an ordinance stating that, should an employer be found guilty of wage theft, the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection could revoke the owner’s business license.

The victory garnered significant media attention in the English and Spanish-speaking media.

Ald. Pawar“When I attended Arise Chicago’s launch event for the car wash campaign, where I learned that the average car wash worker has $4,413 stolen each year, nearly a third of their income, I felt an urgency to begin work on this ordinance,” Pawar stated.

Arise Chicago worked with Pawar to develop the concept, and with the mayor’s office to craft the language of the ordinance, which was then given a two-day hearing in the city’s Licensing Committee and moved to the entire City Council for a vote. The ordinance passed unanimously.

When Alderman Pawar spoke at the City Council meeting, he commented, “This will be a good ordinance for workers and the ethical business owners of Chicago…I commend the great work and leadership of Arise Chicago in leading the fight for this ordinance.”

The legislation is significant because it makes Chicago the second and largest city in the nation to enact such a policy. The National Employment Law Project’s publication on wage theft legislation identifies license revocation policies as a “top pick” for best practices.

This ordinance has a wide-ranging impact, effectively covering all workers who are employed by a business that needs a license to operate. But those who stand to gain the most are those workers who are the most marginalized: immigrant workers and workers of color, working in non-union and low-wage industries. Indeed, in its landmark report, the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development estimates that $7.3 million is stolen in workers’ wages in a single week in Cook County. The report also finds that immigrants are 1.5 times more likely than native-born workers to have their wages stolen, and African Americans are 27 times more likely to have their wages stolen than their white counterparts.

LilianaArise Chicago Worker Center member Liliana Baca’s story dramatizes how egregious wage theft can be: “I worked for over 60 hours a week for five years at a grocery store. And I never received overtime pay. This is my wage theft story. But I’m not the only one who has a story. So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.” Arise Chicago’s Worker Center has worked for years with over 3,000 workers like Liliana (above)  recover more than $5 million in stolen wages and owed compensation.

When workers’ wages are stolen, it affects their family and community life. As Alderman Pawar reflects in his ward newsletter, “These stolen wages are not going to pay down consumer debt, not going to purchase consumer goods nor are put to work in our economy through sales and income taxes. When employers steal from their employees, everybody loses.”

Wage theft hurts ethical businesses, too, by creating unfair competition for employers who want to follow the law but find themselves in a market flooded with competitors able to undercut them by stealing workers’ wages. In the Chicago car wash industry, for example, extreme wage theft is the norm, making it nearly impossible for ethical businesses to compete.

Ethical businessman David Launius, owner of We’ll Clean Car Wash, says “the human element of business is the most important.” Writing in support of the ordinance in a letter submitted to the Licensing Committee, Launius stated, “We care about the well-being of our staff. We are proud to partner with Arise Chicago to ensure that our workers are the best treated in the industry.”

Fellow Chicago worker centers, including Centro de Trabajadores Unidos/Immigrant Workers’ Project, Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, Latino Union, and Restaurant Opportunities Center brought organizers and worker members to testify in the Committee hearing in support of the ordinance.

The ordinance’s passage is a historic victory for workers because it signals that the City of Chicago will not tolerate wage theft. Perhaps Arise Chicago Worker Center member Maria Garcia best sums this up when she states, “Now the bosses are going to know that the workers have rights, too.”

–Adam is the Worker Center Program Director at Arise Chicago

Media HighlightsSalonThe Guardian

In These Times

Telemundo

click photo at right for video clip

Think Progress

Chicago Reporter

La Raza 

Portside

Clasp                               

DNAinfo.com

Progress IL                       

Lincoln Square Patch

47th Ward Newsletter

Arise Chicago YouTube video of press conference

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As a result of the months of collaboration between Arise Chicago and Alderman Pawar (47th ward), on Thursday, January 17th, the City of Chicago passed an ordinance stating that, should a business owner be found guilty of wage theft, the owner’s business license could be revoked. This makes Chicago the largest city in the country with anti-wage theft legislation. The ordinance, endorsed by the National Employment Law Project as one of the strongest actions a municipality can take to combat wage theft, will impact hundreds of thousands low-wage workers and their families in Chicago.

Ald. Pawar

“This ordinance helps change the conversation about good business. To be pro-business also includes caring about how employees are treated,” reflected Alderman Pawar (right).   “I think this marks an important step in leveling the playing field for the many ethical business owners in our city.”

Arise Chicago Worker Center member Liliana Baca (below) said, “I worked for over 55 hours a week for five years at a grocery store.  And I never received overtime pay. This is my wage theft story.  But I’m not the only one who has a story.  So many people have had their wages stolen, and this ordinance will help them recover their wages and prevent wage theft from happening to other people.”

Liliana

The ordinance gives desperately-needed tools to the city of Chicago to ensure employers obey the law.

Follow the latest on the new anti-wage theft ordinance by joining Arise Chicago on Facebook and Twitter.

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THURSDAY 9/13/12

TIFs are for Kids

Penny Pritzker sits on the Board of both Hyatt Hotels and Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As a Hyatt Board Member, she agreed to the construction of a Hyatt Hotel using $5.2 million dollars of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). This money otherwise could have helped provide for students’ basic needs like libraries and text books.

As a CPS Board Member, she failed to prioritize students and has allowed hundreds of millions of CPS dollars to be siphoned off to be given to wealthy developers and corporate headquarters via the TIF system.

The 3:30 action will call on leaders like Ms. Pritzker and the CPS Board to put children first and to use TIF funds for schools, libraries and parks rather than tax breaks to the 1%.  The wider community will join striking teachers who are fighting to protect our children and provide the education they deserve.

Thursday, September 12

3:30pm – Picket at Hyatt Regency

4:45pm – Rally and Press Conference at Park at the corner of Congress Parkway & Michigan Ave

RSVP to the Facebook Event

FRIDAY 9/14/12Religious Support for Teachers

Religious leaders organized by Arise Chicago will join other community leaders at a press conference at City Hall outside the mayor’s office showing the steadfast support for the Chicago Teachers Union who is calling for:

-public education to remain public

-quality schools for all students

-more resources for neighborhood school

-a recall system that will support African American and Latinos  .  teachers in our schools

Religious leaders are invited to attend and to wear prayer shawls, stoles, collars, or other items of your tradition.

Friday September 14, 10:00am

City Hall, 5th floor

 

SATURDAY 9/15/12What Teacher Solidarity Looks Like

This Saturday, the Chicago Teachers Union is asking for all allies to join in a mass rally to keep public education public.

The 30,000 teachers, school social workers, clerks, vision and hearing testers, school nurses, teaching assistants, counselors, and other school professionals of the Chicago Teachers Union are standing strong to defend public education from test pushers, privatizers, and a national onset of big money interest groups trying to push education back to the days before teachers had unions. Around the country and even the world, this struggle is being recognized as the front line of resistance to the corporate education agenda.

Educators and supporters from across the country have pledged to travel to Chicago in solidarity to rally.

Will you join us?  Help us show the world what solidarity looks like! Wear red or your Arise Chicago t-shirt.Let the CTU know you will be there by registering here.

Saturday, September 15

12:00pm noon

Union Park at Ashland and Lake

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Arisers with Rep. Luis Gutierrez

On June 18, Arise Chicago joined fellow member organizations of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to celebrate President Obama’s recent announcement to suspend the deportation of and offer work permits to “Dreamers,” the youth who came to the U.S. as children, have led honest lives, and who dream of going to school and contributing to American society.

Arise Chicago’s summer interns–one an immigrant herself, the other two the children of immigrants–are college students who are exploring their own dreams.  They attended the press conference at ICIRR to celebrate the activism of their peers like those who are a part of the Immigrant Youth Justice League that contributed to the President’s decision.  Below are their reflections.

Honoring Struggle: Evelyn Nuñez

A group of DREAMers stood on the stage, showing the world the faces of those who would be affected by Obama’s recent executive decision. I have been to the undocumented and unafraid rallies. I’ve watched these students on TV as they’ve banded together to show America that they are here and will not stop rallying and protesting until they are recognized.

In yesterday’s press conference, Congressman Luis Gutierrez stood by these individuals as they celebrated the recognition that finally came. Obama’s executive decision is not complete, but it is a step in the right direction.

I am not an undocumented student, but I nonetheless understand the importance of this moment. My parents came here without papers searching for the American dream that would lift their families in Mexico from poverty and give them the opportunity to provide a better future for their children. I can understand the stories of the DREAMers as I, like them, simply want to take advantage of all the opportunities our parents fought so hard to give us. One of the few things that distinguished our experiences is a nine-digit number I was given because I happened to be born here. Apart from this small technicality, many of the undocumented students have, like me, grown up learning the traditions of their parent’s culture but also adopting the customs of America into their origin because undeniably, America is part of their origin now too. That nine-digit number has prevented many from pursuing the education or job they always intended to find.

In the last few years of high school, I watched with frustration as a few of my close friends struggled with the college process. I knew the potential that was brewing inside, but their dream to attend a top-notch college to pursue a career in medicine, political science, or biology became nothing more than that, a beautiful dream.

That is, until now.

When I heard the announcement, I immediately thought of one of my best friends who can now actually fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. I’ve listened to her speak passionately about wanting to become a special education teacher and help autistic children. Now she can actually do those things, and I think that this announcement has come a light of hope for both of us. For her it has restored hope in her future, and for me it has restored hope in this country.

- Evelyn is a student at Yale University and an intern at Arise Chicago

Political Dreams: Michelle Villegas

My family came to this country, in search of the American dream, when I was 2 years old. For 17 years I have spoken English, adopted American history as my own, and grew up living in community with American children. My whole life, I’ve felt distinctly American and yet I am a DREAMer, an undocumented student. I am a young woman, whose aspirations of a Law degree and a political career currently fall short by nine numbers, which would officially decree me American.

For a long time, I lived in fear; fear of being permanently sent back to a country I felt little attachment to and fear of what my peers and friends would think of me if they knew the truth.  These fears are still very real and prevalent in my life, but now I know that this great country that I call home is on my side. I am one huge step closer to living completely unafraid. On Monday, I found strength and hope in the great words of support and solidarity spoken by Congressman Luis Gutierrez who has been fighting on our behalf since 2001 and the group of undocumented students from immigrant youth justice league, who came to the press conference in t-shirts that read, “Undocumented. Unafraid.”

Congressman Gutierrez’s message was clear: “This is a great victory, but we will not rest until there is justice for all immigrants in this country.”  His passion and dedication to this cause are not only admirable but also inspiring. His support for the leadership of the brave DREAMers who spoke at the press conference have moved me to step out of my fear. As I looked around the press conference on Monday, there was a buzz of excitement coming from DREAMers and non-DREAMers alike and I realized that together, we could win this battle.

When the press conference was over, I had a brief moment to speak with Congressman Gutierrez. I shared with him my aspirations of following in his political footsteps and he smiled, wrapped me in a tight side hug and replied, “Don’t give up. Soon you’ll be an American Citizen and I’ll be voting for you”.  I know he will be voting for me someday, in the mean time I hope to be able to vote for him in his next election.

- Michelle is a student at Creighton University and an intern at Arise Chicago

Faces of Joy: Hamid Bendaas

Both of my parents are immigrants. My mother came here from Iran, my father from Algeria. But I’ve never felt that I was part of the struggle for immigrant rights. I was born here and have lived here my entire life; I feel comfortable in this country and public society, and if I ever leave it will be entirely by my own choosing.

But on Monday, I got to see the faces of those who do not share in those privileges. Young men and women, who speak English as well as I do, work much harder than I do, and embrace and defend democratic values as much as any American public figure, but who were for their whole lives never embraced nor defended by those same public figures.

On Monday, I got to see their faces.  While some were splashed with tears and others flushed red and smiling, nothing could hide the emotion that was underlying all their expressions: joy.

Congressman Gutierrez said it best: the past years had been marred by struggle and injustice, the next 60 days would be about process and oversight, soon enough it would be about politics, and the upcoming years would be about continuing to fight until the mission was complete.  But that day, Monday, was about happiness and the young people here and across the nation that day who had finally heard good news. And they shouldn’t be rejoicing alone.  I was not part of their struggle, but even so, at that press conference, I was happy, too: happy that they were happy, happy that I lived in a place where sometimes the right thing does happen and it’s celebrated, happy that they’d received some of the rights that they shouldn’t have had to struggle for, but did anyway. And I was happy, weird as it sounds, to be part of this species—to be able to look onto an undocumented young man from Mexico or an undocumented young woman from Afghanistan and be able to know, by looking at their faces, what they were feeling at that moment. I hope for these young people and their families that the future brings more smiles and tears, whichever way joy spells itself on their faces.

- Hamid is a student at the University of Chicago and an intern at Arise Chicago

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By: Shelly Ruzicka

On Saturday, June 2nd, Noemi Hernández led a group of over 30 community supporters to confront her former employer at Gislex Bridal, located in the Little Village Discount Mall.  Noemi is a member of the Arise Chicago Worker Center who first came to the center with concerns about working conditions at the bridal shop.  After talking with Worker Center organizers, they discovered she was owed over $9,700 in wages from her 10 months working at Gislex.  Because the store’s owner pays its workers $55-60 per day for a ten hour shift, 5 days a week, Noemi was earning about $6 per hour, far below the Illinois $8.25 minimum wage, and no overtime.  After Noemi presented a letter from Arise expressing concern about the wages and working conditions at Gislex, the employer fired her.  The owner, Maribel Flores, has refused to meet and has not returned phone calls from Arise, prompting Noemi and the Worker Center to hold a more creative action to get the employer’s attention.

Leading a mock bridal party decked out in veils, dresses, ties, corsages, buttoners, and flower bouquets, Noemi carried a hand-made sign that asked customers not to support a business that abuses its workers. One supporter carried an over-sized price tag for the $9,700 owed to Noemi.  Another had a giant receipt for Gislex with line items for the unpaid minimum wage, overtime, and last week of wages.

         

The group entered the Discount Mall to present a letter, the price tag, and receipt to the shop owner.  A Gislex worker told the crowd that the owner knew they were there and was leaving.  This marked the second time owner Maribel Flores had run away from Noemi and Arise when they tried to meet with her.  The group then paraded through the Discount Mall handing out flyers to curious customers and chanting, “Queremos justicia en La Villita!” or “we want justice in Little Village!”  Then Noemi and the  “bridal party” led a picket outside chanting “Follow your vow, pay Noemi now!” and “What do we want? The minimum wage!  When do we want it? Now!” all the while also engaging mall customers.

When the group processed back across the street to where they started, Arise organizers and Noemi debriefed with supporters.  Noemi said that while she first felt nervous approaching her former workplace, the large group of supporters energized her.  One of her friends who attended the action was extremely passionate, saying, “It’s so important we did this to show all the other workers, especially Latinos, that they can stand up.  It’s wrong that this is happening, but even worse that it’s in our own Latino community, right on 26th Street.”

While the owner was not present to accept the demand letter or to speak with her former worker, Noemi said she felt good about the action.   When asked if they thought the owner still heard the group’s message demanding justice, everyone unanimously replied with a resounding “yes!”  Each person also expressed commitment to support Noemi at additional actions if needed.

To stay up to date on Noemi’s campaign for justice at Gislex, subscribe to Dignity at Work and to Arise Chicago’s e-news/action alert list at www.arisechicago.org.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

-Shelly is the Director of Operations at Arise Chicago

-Photos by Shelly Ruzicka.  More photos on Arise Chicago’s Facebook album.

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By Mimi Harris

Mimi Harris, fighter for working people (Photo: Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times)

Most of you who know me know that I’ve been raising hell in the streets, one way or another, for most of my life. But last Wednesday, May 23, was the crème de la crème for me, and I’m so exhilarated by it, I want to share it with you.

Dressed to the nines, and after two days of intensive, exhausting preparations, I attended (with about 30 others) the annual meeting of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as a shareholder. Late last year the “Merc” received a huge tax break from the supposedly bankrupt state of Illinois. The tax break — a form of corporate welfare — officially goes into effect in July and will cost the state an estimated $77 million per year, though this number will depend on the CME’s profits (which have grown at an average rate of 19% annually for the last 30 years!). Over the next decade, that will cost us – you and me, folks – a billion dollars, easily.

Meanwhile the rest of us are expected to suffer through huge cuts to childcare, Medicaid (I, myself, will no longer get the help I need for medication), mental health facilities, state parks, as well as job and pension cuts. Sadly this long list goes on. And on.

At the CME shareholder meeting, the Board of Directors, including financial columnist Terry Savage, and the executives were there to vote themselves raises. After all, they made nearly $2 billion in profits just last year. (So why do they need a tax break?) Their last CEO retired at 50 with a golden parachute of millions. I’m still working, at age 80, because I have to, and paying my fair share of taxes.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The Merc was also awarded $15 million in TIF funds to redo their bathrooms and conference rooms. The Stand Up! Chicago coalition, bless their hearts, delivered a golden toilet to them. That evidently helped them to do the right thing: they relinquished their rights to the TIF funds.

It was so gratifying last week to be in the room with them and speak truth to power and see them cringe. For the landsmen (kinsmen) I saw among them, I had a special private message that I was able to deliver to some — that their behavior is a shanda (a scandal, shameful, humiliation for our people)!

Most of you, maybe all of you, even if you are very comfortable, are part of the 99%. I encourage you to act like it. After all, if Stand Up! Chicago got them to return $15 million in TIF funds with a golden toilet, think what else we can do! In my view, our country is at stake.

For me, this action was a blessing and I am thrilled to have been a part of it!

-Mimi is a veteran organizer, a Board Member of Arise Chicago, a Board Member of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and an active participant in Jane Addams Senior Caucus, Organization of the NorthEast, and the Social Action Committee of Emanuel Congregation.

For more photos from the action, check out the Arise Chicago photo album on Facebook.

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By Shelly Ruzicka

On the sunny morning of May 17th, over 100 community supporters including Chicago and suburban residents, workers, clergy, and lay leaders traveled to Springfield to educate their legislators on the need to increase the state minimum wage.  The group consisted of individuals from member organizations of Raise Illinois, a coalition made up of non-profit organizations, labor groups, businesses, and religious leaders who understand that increasing the minimum wage will directly benefit working families struggling to pay the bills as well as the Illinois economy.

The day consisted of a rally outside the Capitol building and visits to legislators’ offices.  While not everyone was able to speak to his or her own Representative or Senator, those who did found it productive and empowering.  “I feel I’m coming back from this trip a different person. I learned so much,” said Rev. Myiam Renaud. Knowing each legislator has thousands of constituents, she found it surprising so many coalition members were able to see their representatives without appointments, and valued having the opportunity to share critical information with them.  “When we come with the facts, we have a real opportunity to impact our legislators.  Even one person can make a difference.”

At a time when democracy seems to have been hijacked by corporate and wealthy individual donor spending, many found it refreshing that at the state level, so many legislators were not only open to meet with constituents, but to hold productive discussions that may help influence their votes.  This is why the coalition has worked so hard to mobilize all stakeholders.  It’s a lot harder for legislators to turn a blind eye to the benefits of a minimum wage increase when a diverse community of low-wage workers, small business owners, and religious leaders all have the same rallying cry.

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According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), minimum wage increases can provide an economic boost to our state’s economy by putting more money into the pockets of low-wage earners who will return their earnings directly to the economy by spending in their communities—at grocery stores, gas stations, etc.  The EPI released a study called “The Benefits of Raising Illinois’ Minimum Wage.”  In it, the researchers state, “Economists generally recognize that low-wage workers are more likely than any other income group to spend any extra earnings immediately on basic needs or services that they could not previously afford.  Increasing Illinois’ minimum wage to $10.65 across four years would give an additional $3.8 billion to directly affected families who will, in turn, spend those extra earnings.”  This  $3.8 billion does not include additional spending from those who make just above the minimum wage who would also likely see a wage increase to maintain wage ladders (the “spillover” effect).

In a struggling economy, and in a state with seemingly never-ending budget problems, who can argue with a measure that would boost the Illinois economy and not cost the state a dime?  Especially after the state found a way to give tax breaks to giant corporations like CME Group and Sears.

The most common argument against a minimum wage increase is that it will result in job loss because employers will decrease hours or cut jobs. However, recent research demonstrates that minimum wage increases actually help create jobs. In his testimony to state legislatures, University of Illinois at Chicago research assistant professor Marc Doussard cites multiple sources that conclude that minimum wage increases do not lead to job losses, including a 2010 study in the prestigious Review of Economics and Statistics, and a 2006 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute. The latter provides findings that small businesses in states like Illinois with higher minimum wages than other states have not been hurt. In fact, the study shows that both the number of small businesses and the number of jobs at small businesses actually grew faster in states with higher minimum wages.

The proposed increase (via Senate Bill 1565) would gradually move the Illinois minimum wage from the current $8.25 per hour to $10.65 per hour in 2014.  The brilliance of the proposal is to tie the minimum wage thereafter to inflation, avoiding the need to pass laws for wage increases every few years.  Ten other states currently have similar policies indexing the minimum wage to inflation.

“It may never be equal, but it can be fair,” said Sr. Marlene Schemmel, Arise Chicago Advisory Board member, on the trip back to Chicago.  This was her second trip to Springfield with the Raise Illinois coalition, and likely will not be her last. Like hundreds of faith leaders across the state, she recognizes the need to take action to benefit her state and its lowest paid workers.

If you want to join Rev. Renaud, Sr. Marlene and the hundreds of other clergy and community supporters, but can’t make it to Springfield, sign the voter or faith leader petitions on the Raise Illinois coalition website.  And call your legislators.  While one phone call may not determine how a legislator will vote, not calling guarantees your voice will not be heard.

-Shelly is the Director of Operations at Arise Chicago

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