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.

by Spencer Woodman

This article originally appeared in In These Times

Meet Julie A. Su, bane of the deadbeat employer

Employment law investigators handcuffing and hauling exploitative bosses into jail is hardly a common occurrence. Yet California may be changing this.

At around 7 p.m. on April 4, along a drab commercial stretch outside San Diego, a team of four U.S. Marshals and a state labor department investigator named Craig Eastep intercepted and arrested local restaurateur David Dadon as he left his hotel room. Two days earlier, federal agents had arrested Dadon’s son Barry. The pair had formerly co-owned the State Street Grill, which was the subject of a lengthy wage theft investigation by California’s labor department.

A member of California’s new unit of gun-toting officers charged with investigating criminal violations of labor code, Eastep had been examining the Dadon family restaurant for the past year, his investigation revealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged unpaid wages. The father and son were charged with a number of crimes, including grand theft of labor.

(When contacted by In These Times, Barry Dadon’s attorney said that his client maintains that “he never cheated or stole from any employees,” and that his father made the business decisions at the restaurant. David Dadon could not be reached for comment.)

Employment law investigators handcuffing and hauling exploitative bosses into jail is hardly a common occurrence. Yet California may be changing this, thanks largely to the efforts of Julie A. Su, the state’s new labor commissioner. Since Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointed her in 2011, Su has quietly reworked the California Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) into what could be the most aggressive and effective state labor law enforcement division in the country.

“Employers who break the law have learned that the chances of getting caught are slim and the costs, if they are caught, are marginal—the cost of doing business,” Su tells In These Times. “It’s my job to change that calculus and we are finding every efficiency possible to maximize the effectiveness of our division.”

Under Su’s management, DLSE has streamlined its administration, cut waste and trained investigators. These efforts multiplied its enforcement capabilities, Su says, allowing it to launch a proactive campaign to tame the state’s widespread violations of employment law. The Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) now stands in sharp contrast to other state labor departments across the country, many of which have seen their bud gets shrink while the workforces they police have ballooned, leaving many departments with swelling caseloads and weakened morale.

A top priority for Su’s administration is to stamp out wage theft—the deliberate non-payment of money owed to employees. Last year, Su announced the formation of the Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU), a team of six armed investigators tasked with pursuing exploitative employers. Since then, the division has filed 10 felony wage-theft cases against employers in the state, including the State Street Grill.

In 2012, the DLSE’s Bureau of Field Enforcement (BOFE) assessed more than five times the amount of owed minimum wages and more than seven times the amount of owed overtime pay than in 2010—the year before Su took office—despite the fact that field enforcement staffing levels increased by less than 5 percent from 2010 to 2012. Both of those totals made 2012 by far the highest volume year ever for DLSE’s investigators.

Su made headlines in January when her investigators fined Quetico, a warehouse operator, $1.3 million for systematically underpaying workers. (The company rejects the charges and has filed an appeal; a hearing is scheduled for September.) Each month since, Su has rolled out high-profile fines against major California companies.

In recent years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has opposed stronger employee protections. Yet Su has won broad support from the state’s major business associations, including the California Chamber—allies that Su identifies as essential to her success. “I believe very strongly that there’s a lot of common ground between what’s good for employers and what’s good for workers,” says Su. “Good employers know that their profitability, stability and long-term success are all tied to the continual well-being of their workers. ”

Su has emphasized to the business community that in the absence of strong enforcement, unscrupulous employers gain an unfair advantage by mistreating workers. This, she says, undercuts upright businesses and creates a structural tendency toward illegal and exploitative business practices.

“We are very supportive of her efforts to create a more level playing field for all of our employers who are trying to comply with the law,” says Jennifer Barrera, a policy advocate at the California Chamber, which is the state’s largest business association. “She does a great job of communicating exactly what she is doing and has created a level of transparency that removes the suspicion that the labor commissioner is coming after anyone and everyone.”

Partially because of the business community’s input, the Bureau of Field Enforcement is taking extra care not to impose inspections on law-abiding businesses. To that end, the division has improved its targeting strategies and is spending extra energy in the initial phase of investigations to make sure a company is worth examining.

“It’s an example of emphasizing quality over quantity,” says Su. That means more pre-inspection work, such as cooperating with labor, community and business groups to identify targets, surveilling businesses and conducting employee interviews off-site (where they can freely speak without fear of retaliation), and using information from wage-theft claims to target employers for broader investigation. The result, says Su, has been an increase in the percentage of employer inspections that lead to citations. In 2012, the department’s ratio of citations to inspections was 80 percent, compared to an average of 48 percent between 2002 and 2010.

Employers often punish employees who share information with authorities during a workplace investigation, which can discourage employees from cooperating and prolong, or even thwart, investigations. To address this, in addition to conducting off-site interviews, Su’s administration cut out several intermediary steps for workers seeking to file retaliation complaints.

In the past, employees who believed they had been retaliated against for cooperating with a BOFE investigation had to bring their complaint to a separate department, rather than the BOFE deputy conducting the investigation. Now, when a worker approaches a BOFE investigator to report retaliation, the investigator works with other DLSE deputies to ensure that the complaint is assigned to a retaliation investigator and dealt with immediately. Su also reworked the department’s complaint forms to include sections where witnesses to retaliation could confidentially describe their workplace experiences without any fear of the information making it back to management.

Su’s effort to rein in management retaliation is one of the numerous steps she’s taken to streamline the division. When asked to describe one example of a key reform that she’d implemented, Su listed nine categories—and various subcategories—of changes she’s made. The point seems clear: There’s nothing simple about reforming a government agency. “It’s been an arduous two years for us,” says Su.

Although Su isn’t an expert on the problems facing other labor departments around the country, she does think her administration’s general approach can be replicated. Her main guiding principle seems to be a relentless critical examination of how things are done. “It’s about never thinking you should continue doing something just because that’s the way it’s been done before,” says Su. “That is one thing I never want to hear.”


Spencer Woodman is a journalist based in New York. He has written on labor for The Nation and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @spencerwoodman and reach him via email at Contactspencerwoodman@gmail.com.

More information about Spencer Woodman

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.

Re-posted from the Employment Justice Center’s blog

DC workers scored some major victories yesterday when the DC Council passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act as part of this year’s District budget. The Act contained unprecedented protections against wage theft, including allowing for damages up to triple the unpaid wages when businesses steal from their employees.

“This is a huge leap forward for DC workers,” said EJC Deputy Director Ari Weisbard. “Without sufficient damages for wage theft violations, there is nothing to deter unscrupulous employers from stealing their workers’ wages and workers receive no compensation for all of the difficulties they experience when they have to wait for months to be paid what they’re owed.”

The new protections include:

  • Increasing the maximum liquidated damages a worker can collect from equal to the wages they’re owed to triple that amount;
  • Allowing workers on DC or federal contracts to rely on Service Contract Act or Davis-Bacon Act wage rates when filing local Wage Payment Act claims;
  • Requiring the Office of Wage-Hour to investigate and apply DC’s Living Wage or federal prevailing rates to covered workers, instead of assuming only the minimum wage will apply;
  • Requiring the Office of Wage- Hour to seek liquidated damages on behalf of workers and not just help recover the wages themselves;
  • Requiring the Office of Wage-Hour to communicate and consult with workers more fully throughout the process of investigating claims and enforcing the law; and
  • Full funding to implement the Workplace Fraud Amendment Act, which was passed last year and protects construction workers from misclassification as independent contractors.

“I’m caught up with overdraft fees from my bank, due to the fact that I was not paid on time and my bills are on auto pay. I have fees from not being able to pay my rent on time,” said Yvonne Johnson, a victim of wage theft, in her testimony at the DOES budget hearing on May 1. The victory was especially welcome to Johnson, who was told by the Office of Wage-Hour that the office was unable to help her collect liquidated damages on her unpaid wages. ”I’m so excited that we finally got heard and we’re finally getting some action. I feel a big relief, that we went and we fought for what we deserve!”

The path for the legislation was paved by big mobilizations and organizing by the DC Wage Theft Coalition, which includes workers, unions, and nonprofit organizations like the Employment Justice Center, DC Jobs with Justice, Our DC, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center-DC.

“We are all victims of wage theft,” said Howard Mayo, a lifelong DC resident and EJC activist. “First the victimized worker, and then the D.C. taxpayers who support those workers that later must rely on the overburdened rolls of human services agencies.”

Though Mayo is pleased with the progress made with the Budget Support Act, he acknowledges that DC still has a long way to go. “Fines, suspensions and the revocation of licenses must eventually be tools available to the Office of Wage Hour,” said Mayo. “Thank you Councilmember Barry for your unwavering support and leadership, and the City Council for taking this important first step.”

Weisbard agrees that despite these extraordinary advances for DC workers, there is still more work to do to protect DC workers from wage theft. “Ultimately, broader reforms of wage and hour laws will be necessary,” said Weisbard. “DC can still do better to deter employers from committing wage theft. We still need stronger administrative processes to ensure that workers have access to fair adjudications of their claims. But today is a day to celebrate what we’ve won and commit to keep fighting for more justice for workers.”

Visit the Employment Justice Center here.

By Mark Engler

This article was first published in the New Internationalist magazine (www.newint.org) and appears with permission of the author.

Should our societies have a “maximum wage”? Would the world be better off if the United States had one?
Currently, Americans are debating raising the national minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10 per hour over the next two years. While conservatives will oppose it, such a boost shouldn’t be contentious. 
Back in 1967, the U.S. minimum wage was $1.40 per hour. That’s not as measly as it sounds. Your grandparents’ tales about when ten pennies could actually buy something are not mere nostalgia. In fact, the 1967 wage had twenty percent more purchasing power than the current minimum.
Economic productivity is an even bigger part of the story. Our labor is producing more value today, but working people aren’t seeing any of the gains. Had the U.S. minimum wage kept pace with productivity increases since 1960, it would now be $22 per hour. 
Who has walked away with the proceeds from all that productivity? It’s a fair question, but it leads back to discussion of a maximum wage. And that’s where things get controversial.
A January report from Oxfam noted, “The richest one percent has increased its income by 60 percent in the last 20 years.” It further argued that the 2012 net income of the world’s top 100 billionaires—a haul of $240 billion–would be four times the amount needed to eliminate extreme poverty internationally.
While regions such as Latin America have made strides in reducing the gap between the rich and poor in the past decade, the United States has led the way in manufacturing excess at the expense of equity.
To remedy this, U.S. transit workers union leader Larry Hanley recently proposed a “maximum wage” law that would limit an employer’s income to being no more than 100 times the salary of his or her lowest-paid employee. If an entry-level worker gets $30,000 per year, the CEO would make no more than $3 million. 
Other countries provide precedents for such a policy. In Spain, the manufacturing and retail enterprises that belong to the Mondragon cooperative network limit top pay to three to nine times worker compensation,” explains author and policy analyst Sam Pizzigati, perhaps the most outspoken U.S. proponent of a maximum wage. Since 2011, Egypt and France have each pursued fixed pay ratios for leaders of state-owned enterprises. Even Switzerland, a country not known for being inhospitable to bankers, has passed restrictions on pay for bank executives and banned “golden parachute” severance packages. 
Some advocates contend that a maximum wage should apply only to businesses receiving taxpayer support—in the form of bailouts, government contracts, tax abatements, or other public subsidies. Since American industry has been notoriously hungry for corporate welfare, this would cover a very large portion of the U.S. economy.
Free marketeers will no doubt blast the idea of a maximum wage as the type of insane socialistic tyranny that chains everyone into the same, lowly state of mediocrity. Yet a ceiling based on a ratio between the executives at the top of a business and the grunts at the bottom doesn’t set a hard cap on earnings. It merely puts to the test one of their most cherished claims: that the profits of a successful enterprise trickle down to benefit everyone.
Economists love to talk about incentives. In this case, such limits would motivate CEOs to augment the pay of their janitors, secretaries, and cashiers for a simple reason: Their own raises would depend on it. 
Besides, a 100-to-1 discrepancy is hardly government-enforced equality. 
It would be a considerable departure from the status quo, however. A typical American CEO now makes 380 times what the average worker in the country earns (never mind the lowest-paid). 
That’s not an example the world needs. And it’s something that will take more than just a small boost in the minimum to fix.
–Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website http://www.DemocracyUprising.com.  

Article originally posted by Center for American Progress.

Rev. Liz Muñoz is an Arise Chicago Board Member


By: By Jack Jenkins | June 14, 2013

Listen to the interview here (mp3)

Fast Food Workers Job Action

Jack Jenkins: Hello. My name is Jack Jenkins, Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative here at the Center for American Progress. With me today is Rev. Liz Muñoz, an Episcopal priest at St. James Cathedral in Chicago, Illinois, who also sits on the board of directors for Arise Chicago, an organization that builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing, and advocating for public policy changes.

We brought in Rev. Muñoz this afternoon because she is involved with the Chicago iteration of what are being called the “fast-food strikes.” Since January, fast-food and retail workers in seven cities—New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and most recently Seattle—have all gone on strike, walking out of their workplaces en masse demanding higher wages and the right to unionize. And the movement looks to be growing.

But since these workers don’t usually have a union to organize them, they rely on partnerships with local community groups—including faith groups and faith leaders such as Muñoz—to help coordinate their efforts.

So Rev. Muñoz, we’re excited to have you here today!

Rev. Liz Muñoz: My pleasure, thank you.

JJ: Let’s start with a little explanation about the fast-food strikes. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s happening with this campaign? Why are fast-food workers and retail workers striking in the first place?

LM: Sure. Here in Chicago, inspired by the work that was being done in New York and other places, fast-food and retail workers came together last fall to form a movement asking for both just wages—here in Chicago we’re talking about the fight for 15, or for $15 an hour—and the right to organize.

These are folks who are actually working in and around St. James Cathedral on Michigan Mile, also known as the Magnificent Mile, which makes a tremendous amount of money. I think $4 billion a year goes through cash registers there on Magnificent Mile. So the folks who work there—mostly at places such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Macy’s, and Sears—are rightfully saying that they’re the people on the economic front lines. By greeting and serving the customers, they’re at the front line of the $4 billion industry. But fast-food workers only make about $9.36 an hour on average and retail workers maybe a little bit more: $9.80 an hour. And they work an average of 24 hours a week—certainly not enough to provide for their families or to invest in the neighborhood.

So they came together last November and had their founding conventionhere at St. James Cathedral, and have since been organizing various actions. This included a one-day strike in April where they demanded a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the right to organize, and better working conditions—e.g., more hours, a fair assessment of their work, among other things.

JJ: Could you say a little bit more about the context of the workers? What their lives are like, what their experience is, what their day to day is?

LM: Well, most of the workers come from the south side and the west side of Chicago, which are the poor sides of town. These are parts of the city that don’t have as many resources in terms of public spaces, schools, parks, among other things. These workers average about 20 hours a week, earning about $11,300 or so a year; that’s not enough to support their families. They’ve done studies on the cost of living here, and they found that for one adult and one child to be able to live in Chicago without having to rely on government assistance—we’re talking no extras, no going out, no eating out, or similar things—a worker would have to make $17 an hour.

So basically, I think workers are being generous. They’re asking for $15 an hour in order to support their families and not have to rely on public assistance. They’re asking for more hours to work, and they’re asking for better working conditions so they can contribute to the economy here in Chicago and in their neighborhoods.

We’re talking about a worker making $11,000 a year, for example, at McDonald’s. By contrast, the total annual compensation for a fast-food CEO is $8.8 million.

JJ: Wow.

LM: Yeah. And McDonald’s makes about $34.2 billion a year. Making a profit of about $5.5 billion. So there’s obviously the possibility of providing for workers without taking a significant cut in profits, while also allowing for workers to provide for their families and invest in the very system that McDonald’s and other large companies are invested in. Henry Ford, one of the leaders of industry, once said that you’ve gotta pay workers enough so they can buy the product.

Oh, and the other thing I want to say: It used to be that these jobs were summer jobs for high school and college students to make a little extra cash for tuition and for spending money. Nowadays the median age of a fast-food worker is 29. Also the majority of the people working in these jobs are women. This is a family issue. Talk about your family values; how are people going to support their families?

This is also a growing area. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 7 out of 10 growth occupations over the next decade will be low-wage jobs such as serving customers at big-box retailers or fast-food chains. These are the jobs that are available. Retail and fast-food the areas that are growing by about 60 percent in terms of jobs.

This is the new economy. And in this new economy, we need to be able to provide workers with a livable minimum wage.

JJ: Would you say that the strikes are working? Have we seen an impact from these strikes?

LM: Well, I think there’s been impacts in all kinds of different ways. For example, workers who had been working the same job for seven years without a raise or opportunity for advancement are now being recognized. And small—and I say small—concessions are also being made. There’s a worker in McDonald’s here in Chicago who had been working seven years and never received a raise. He now has been offered the opportunity for training as a crew chief.

But even more important than that is the fact that companies are recognizing that this is not going away. Meanwhile, the workers are recognizing that they have power and the right to organize and to speak out for just wages, not just for themselves but for workers around the country. For example, two or three weeks ago, workers came together and took petitions to shareholders’ meetings at McDonald’s here in Chicago, and I accompanied them. The workers were not allowed in, but a representative from Chicago did come and take the petition. So the workers felt that they had made something happen.

This would not have happened had they not organized. If they had simply gone and taken petitions individually—which they have tried to do in the past—it wouldn’t have happened. But as a movement, as a group gathering together, there’s a greater possibility for response. Also important is the recognition that when they stand together there is more power, more possibility for change.

JJ: Now, you’re a faith leader. What is your involvement with the fast-food strikes in Chicago, and what are other faith leaders doing to help?

LM: At St. James we have opened our doors and offered workers a place to meet for convention and weekly meetings. We’ve gone out with workers at different actions to support their right not only to ask for just wages but also to go on strike. So the day of the strike back in April, we opened the doors of the church to about 300 to 600 workers and organizers who were at the church that day. The following day, faith leaders such as myself, as well as elected officials and community leaders, walked the workers back to their workplaces to let the managers know that we were supporting their right to organize, their right to strike. We wanted them to know that this was a community effort that was being supported by people in and around the neighborhood and the city of Chicago. We also wanted to assure that there would be no retaliation against these workers.

JJ: Why do you think faith communities and faith leaders are involved with these strikes? What basic principles and values are at stake here?

LM: Well, first of all I would say that it’s biblical. The prophets often warned people about landowners and those who controlled jobs and wages. “Woe to those who did not pay the workers just wages or who withheld wages.” Ezekiel, Isaiah, Micah, all these prophets spoke to this issue. Jesus told many parables of workers being paid just wages and right wages.

In fact, throughout history one of the core Christian justice issues has been economics. The World Council of Churches and various denominations have also passed resolutions on this issue. My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, has passed resolutions at several conventions upholding the right of workers to organize.

JJ: So it sounds like there is a larger movement at work here—a sort of collaboration between faith groups and the greater labor movement. What connection do you see between these two groups especially moving forward?

LM: In this country we are in an age of crisis—of economic crisis. I don’t think anybody would deny that. As faith leaders we are called to respond to that kind of crisis. This is true throughout the Bible. The prophets have called leaders and people of faith to stand up.

To quote the prophet Ezekiel, “God said, I look for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land.”

I think we as faith leaders are called to stand in between that gap, to point out where injustice is happening, where there are wolves, so to speak, tearing at the net. We’ve seen this all over. We’re seeing this in cuts in the budget and in education. We’re seeing record profits in corporations. We’re seeing a rise in income inequality, as well as less and less opportunities for the laborers and for the majority of people in this country. So, from a biblical perspective, that’s where many faith leaders come from. But this cuts across different faith traditions as well: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian.

JJ: Just one more question. You’ve talked a lot about collaborations between faith groups and other community groups in Chicago during these fast-food strikes. Could you say a little bit more about the role of collaborations and coalition building in this work?

LM: Right. I think a lot of different organizations are coming together—churches, community-based groups such as Action Now here in Chicago, churches similar to my own—because there’s a crisis in this country, and we recognize that all these different issues are actually related. The issue of worker’s rights is related to the issue of immigrant rights. It’s related to the issue of women’s rights. It’s an economic issue too, because in this country, more and more of the wealth is at the top, and very, very little of the wealth is being dispersed among the people who need it most.

As the consequence 49 elementary schools just got closed down here in Chicago. There are less mental health and health care services available. There are less opportunities for people to come together and actually plan a future for themselves and for their children. So we come together as faith leaders to support those workers and those community leaders who are looking to improve not just the status of individual workers but also the condition of all people, so that the wealth that is being concentrated at the top can be distributed and shared and used to promote the well-being of all.

JJ: Awesome. Well that’s about all the time we have for today. Rev. Muñoz, thank you so much for joining us. It was great speaking with you, and we look forward to hearing more about your work with the fast-food strikers as they continue to fight for their right to organize and for a living wage.

LM: Thank you, you’ve been most kind. I appreciate it.

Article posted by the Center for American Progress: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jack Jenkins is a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. 

Original article posted on the Center for American Progress website.

by Rev. John H Thomasjohn_thomas CTU photo

Two articles in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune provided a revealing, if unintended reminder of the injustices lying at the heart of America’s public schools.  At New Trier High School in one of the wealthier suburbs of Chicago, all students will have iPads for their course work by the Fall of 2014.  The district will pay about 40% of the costs, leaving families to come up with the remaining $350 in purchase or leasing options.  School officials justify this by touting the educational benefits and by pointing out that this will allow the school to phase out some of its 1200 laptops.  One page away is an article about the school board of the City of Chicago which voted yesterday afternoon to close 50 public elementary schools.  In thousands of districts like New Trier, students are getting iPads; in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and many other places, students are getting moving orders and teachers are losing jobs.

Later on in the same paper The Tribune revealed its editorial bias, offering Mayor Rahm Emmanuel space to justify the closings, while devoting its editorial to a cynical and shameful attack on Chicago teachers.  Praising the “heroic” teachers who saved lives in Moore, Oklahoma, The Tribune called on teachers in Chicago to abandon their protest against the massive school closings and become “heroes” by obediently implementing the policies of the Chicago Public School Board and its leader, the Mayor.  Excuse me!  Chicago Public School teachers are already heroes.  They don’t need the condescension of The Tribune.  And they don’t need to be unjustly demeaned as less worthy than teachers in Moore.  Today they need our gratitude for speaking the truth about the nature and impact of these school closings.

Unlike the teachers in Moore, Chicago teachers’ schools are not gone because of some capricious act of nature.  They are gone because of decades of very deliberate decisions by public officials, corporate interests and ordinary citizens that have eviscerated the neighborhoods of Chicago, displacing people with the demolition of public housing, gutting communities with foreclosures and the elimination of jobs.  The schools are gone because they have been replaced by charter schools, the darlings of politically well-connected school reformers making a profit on tax money while public officials eliminate the inconvenience of teachers unions.  The schools are gone because poor African Americans and Hispanics in Chicago are disenfranchised by school governance that is appointed by the mayor with limited accountability to the communities.  The schools are gone because public funding in this country remains tied to real estate taxes that benefit wealthy suburbs at the expense of the urban core.  The schools are gone because years of school reforms imposed from the latest outside savior have left front line teachers abused and demoralized and their students underachieving.  And the schools are gone because white flight that began decades ago has left the cities brown and black and poor.

Who makes decisions about public schools today?  The President who attended the prestigious Punahou private school in Hawaii and who sends his daughters to the University of Chicago Laboratory School and the Sidwell Friends School in Washington.  The Secretary of Education who attended the same Lab School in Chicago.  An appointed school board whose membership until recently included billionaire Penny Pritzker, now the appointee to be Secretary of Commerce.  She attended the Castilleja School in Palo Alto where 415 girls in grades six to twelve enjoy the attention of 70 full and part time faculty members.  In Chicago that school would be deemed “underutilized.”  And where do the Mayor’s kids go to school?  No threats from school closings for them.  They, too, are at the University of Chicago Lab School.  These powerful gurus of public school reform didn’t go to public schools and don’t send their children to public schools.  They benefited from the growing educational apartheid in this country and they participate in it today.

I don’t suggest that these policy makers sat down and said, “Let’s close the schools of poor Black and Hispanic kids in Chicago and make sure that New Trier kids have iPads.”  But here are the facts:  The schools closed today in Chicago are 88% black, 10 % Hispanic, and 94% low income.  And next year the kids in New Trier will all have new iPads.  Almost 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education our schools are more and more separate, and more and more unequal.

Please don’t tell me that this is a complex issue, that there are no good solutions, that anguished appointed school board members merely did what they had to do given the economic circumstances.  I’ve read the reports.  I’ve seen the studies.  I’ve talked to experts.  I can tell you what the real story is about charter school performance.  I think I have made a pretty good effort to understand what’s going on.  Whatever the specifics, this is about race and poverty and antipathy to unions and political influence and public indifference (how telling that for a time yesterday morning while the Board was deliberating on its closure vote, the lead online story for The Tribune was Bear’s football hero Brian Urlacher’s retirement announcement).

I have no doubt that the Chicago school teachers will do as much to protect their children this September navigating new routes to schools across dangerous gang lines as the teachers in Moore did for their students when the tornado came earlier this week. They don’t need editorial writers to tell them to do that.  But when their students ask them why their school is gone, just as students in Moore are no doubt asking right now, Chicago teachers won’t have a changing and dangerous climate or the proverbial “act of God” to point to.  Their answers will be equally sad, but far more sinister.

John Thomas is a Board member of Arise Chicago

Originally posted on the John Thomas blog on the Chicago Theological Seminary website.

Re-posted with permission.