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Public Theology: A New Social Mission for the Church: Labor Organizing
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A New Social Mission for the Church: Labor Organizing
Might the nation’s churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples again have a role in rescuing a wayward economy? About Francis Perkins, Hilda Solis, and Kim Bono.

By Nancy MacLean

“I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen,” recalled Frances Perkins. And so she did. From 1933 to 1945, Perkins helped create the core features of the New Deal state: minimum wage and maximum hours laws, legal guarantees for workers’ rights to organize and join unions, prohibition of child labor, Social Security, unemployment compensation, and fair labor standards. For all of the New Deal’s limitations, its laws and programs tamed Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle,” encouraged broad economic security and prosperity, and created, in economic terms, the most equitable America in history. And it was promoted and protected not only by strong unions but also by religious leaders, thanks to the prominence of a social gospel in the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish traditions at mid-century. During her twelve years as secretary of labor, Perkins herself spent one day a month in contemplative retreat at a convent. For her, the reference to God was not simply a rhetorical flourish.

Since the 1970s economic inequality has surged to levels not seen since the 1920s, Dickensian abuses of workers have returned, and deregulation has enabled the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, faces challenges not unlike Perkins’s. Yet today, as in the 1930s, crisis also creates the opportunity for a bold new direction—a New New Deal, potentially more inclusive of the nation’s diverse labor force than Perkins could have imagined. Might the nation’s churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples again have a role in rescuing a wayward economy?

In addressing this question, Solis can learn much from Kim Bobo, founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). Bobo’s goal is to revive America’s justice-seeking prophetic tradition, with a particular focus on economic justice. In her new book, Wage Theft in America, Bobo argues powerfully for the importance of community allies in improving struggling workers’ lives. She aims to rouse believers from all faith traditions to a new sense of social mission. Her starting point, and the focus of her book, is to address a more specific challenge: “why millions of working Americans are not getting paid and what we can do about it.” The charge is not an exaggeration. Using Department of Labor settlements (which her organization has done much to win), Bobo documents how companies steal literally billions of dollars from millions of workers each year.

The cruelest cases involve undocumented and vulnerable immigrants, among them construction day laborers who are sometimes paid literally nothing for their back-breaking work. But the problem is not confined to small businesses using undocumented workers. Cintas, the huge industrial laundry with more than $3 billion in sales in 2007, subcontracted to a sweatshop in Bobo’s own northside Chicago neighborhood that was shortchanging workers $1 an hour by paying less than minimum wage—even requiring them to supply their own toilet paper in the company restroom. Through its outsourcing system, Cintas “had essentially stolen over $100,000 from poverty wage workers.” The Department of Labor agreed and mandated back pay and penalties.

Conditions in the service industry are especially bad: wage theft extends to 60 percent of nursing home assistants, and, according to one report, more than three in four restaurant workers in New Orleans. One Atlanta worker helping to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina was robbed by four different employers. “I’ve worked hard all my life and I pay taxes,” Jeffrey Steele told Congress in later hearings. “I’ve never been to jail and I’ve never asked the government for nothing. . . . If this is how this country allows employers to get away with treating hard working citizens while companies make a profit–then shame on us.”


Reliable estimates of wages illegally withheld from workers put the total at $19 billion a year, and the biggest wage-theft victims are native-born citizens, particularly employees denied earned overtime pay by large corporations. Wal-Mart is the most egregious offender. Forcing employees to work off the clock to meet otherwise impossible store-performance targets cost the company $6.5 million in one settlement alone. Liability in another case might be as large as $2 billion. And there are many other huge corporate cheats, including McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, Perdue, and Target. Some large corporations, such as Fed-Ex, classify employees as independent contractors in order to deny them benefits and also sidestep overtime laws and civil rights protections.

More than three million Americans work under these kinds of illegal conditions. And while readers of this article may not themselves have been victims of employer cheating, they likely have children, relatives, neighbors, or students who have. As Bobo notes, “wage and hour laws are violated more often than any other employment law.”

Wage theft is one stark symptom of a deeper problem: a low-road model of business management that has spread since the late 1970s. Low-road companies compete less by improving production processes or product quality, and more on the basis of cost—in particular, by squeezing employee compensation. Firms have not been driven to the low-road simply by global competition (most service employers have no foreign competition), but, as Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman and others have argued, by investor-driven corporate strategy and the political choices of anti–New Deal conservatives who have used their power in Washington to promote deregulation and deunionization. Ethics have declined along with oversight.

Bobo proposes a simple maxim to guide us back to a higher road “Help all of us treat our neighbors in the workplace as we want to be treated.” But Bobo is not just a good-hearted reformer drawing attention to the injustice of wage theft with a moral message of broad appeal. Rather, she understands that wage theft is a strategic issue that could jumpstart an overhaul of the Department of Labor, help to shut down the low road, and importantly, reanimate progressive politics with the social-gospel spirit.

Concentrated efforts to end wage theft could bring quick results whereas other problems the new administration faces will prove more difficult to overcome. With political will and adequate resources, wage theft could be largely eradicated within a few years. Such an early and comparatively easy victory, Bobo hopes, would in turn invigorate labor and community activists, policy-makers, and voters for the more formidable challenges of getting the whole system back on a better track. Not least, success would restore the floor under ethical employers pressured to match the labor policies of unscrupulous competitors or go out of business.

In lifting the floor under wages, victory here might also reduce employers’ incentives to fight unions just as the Employee Free Choice Act, if passed, will invigorate organizing efforts. The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for workers who want union representation to choose it without suffering intimidation and retaliation by their employers. U.S. labor law currently enables widespread corporate abuses that flout internationally recognized standards of workplace fair play, as Human Rights Watch documents in its recent report “The Employee Free Choice Act: A Human Rights Imperative.”

A veteran organizer, Bobo is well-known among activists as co-author of Organizing for Social Change, a leading manual used by community organizers. Like Frances Perkins, Bobo is also deeply religious, and her spiritual values guide her organizing efforts. Raised in a devout evangelical family in Cincinnati, Bobo majored in religion at Barnard College and after graduation directed organizing at Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger initiative. In 1986 she published her first book, Lives Matter: A Handbook for Christian Organizing and began training community organizers at the Midwest Academy in Chicago, where she worked regularly with unions.

During the protracted Pittston Coal strike in 1989, Bobo tried to recruit religious leaders to support the miners, only to discover that practically no religious body at the time had a labor liaison. So she began to build a network of religious leaders to ally, at first informally, with workers. With a $5,000 inheritance from her grandmother, Bobo founded the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice in 1996 out of her Chicago home. The organization, now called Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), has since become a national advocate for low-wage workers, with a network of over 70 local affiliates, worker centers, and related student groups.

IWJ got going just after the 1995 election of a reform leadership in the AFL-CIO. The central mission of the new leadership was to organize unorganized workers, an objective that unions had more or less dropped. The primary focus of that effort has been low-wage immigrant workers—exactly those with whom IWJ works most closely. Frustration over the rate of new organizing has since split the AFL-CIO into two federations (the AFL-CIO and Change to Win), but Bobo’s organization has managed to maintain good working relations with both sides. That is no doubt because IWJ brings essential resources to both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions: moral authority, the capacity to inspire community support, and a dense network of diverse congregations able to build value-based bridges across the ethnic and linguistic differences that characterize the low-wage work force.

The IWJ has had some success in shifting the conversation on economic issues in congregations across America. Building relationships among workers, unions, and religious leaders, it has summoned clergy to stand with exploited workers and pressure employers to pay up and abide by the law. IWJ also proved a pivotal ally in two historic campaigns to improve conditions for low-wage service workers: the Justice for Janitors struggle and Hotel Workers Rising. In both, pressure from numerous local religious leaders in multiple cities (700 in Chicago alone) helped union workers win precedent-setting contracts with better wages, health coverage, pensions, better working conditions, and career ladders.

IWJ has perhaps been most effective through its sponsorship of workers’ centers across the country. Filling the vacuum left by deregulation and deunionization, they are today’s version of the settlement houses that aided immigrants a century ago, as Janice Fine shows in Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. The centers educate workers about their rights, teach them organizing skills, and intercede on their behalf with recalcitrant employers and impervious government agencies. Bobo first learned about wage theft through the workers’ centers, and it remains the most common problem among workers who come to the centers for assistance.

In Wage Theft Bobo draws from the experiences of workers’-center participants, experiences that also inform her discussion of the broader issues beyond wage theft that the new secretary of labor now faces.

Labor laws today are such a mess that they bewilder and deter those who need them most. As Bobo notes, they are “woefully inadequate,” “incredibly confusing,” and barely enforced. She tells the story of Anka Karewicz, a twenty-year-old Polish immigrant to Chicago who, in order to stop a single employer from cheating and demeaning her and her fellow workers, would have had to contact three different federal agencies (the Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and two state agencies. Karewicz gave up. Bobo outlines the changes that are needed in the all-important Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, the most crucial potential ally of victims of wage theft. One key goal is providing a staff adequate to enforcement. In 1941 the Division had 1,769 investigators checking workplaces for fair labor standards, approximately one investigator for every 9,000 workers. Today each investigator covers 170,000.


As Bobo knows, fixing the Department of Labor will require larger and more complicated changes than ending wage theft. The Department not only needs a clean break from its recent history of unfailing corporate loyalty under the leadership of Elaine Chao, but also ground-up change to come to terms with an economy no longer led by manufacturing. Bobo did not know who the new secretary of labor would be when she was writing Wage Theft (indeed, as it went to press, it took faith to believe that Barack Obama would win), but she has since applauded the appointment of Solis as a “great choice for labor” and noted the uncanny similarity between Solis’s pre-cabinet experiences and Perkins’s.


Solis is well-positioned to accomplish major changes in the Department. Like Perkins, Solis is taking office after an election in which voters delivered the mandate for change, at a time when working men and women desperately need help, and in an era in which recent immigrants have led a resurgence of labor organizing, backed by a growing network of religious activists. And, like Perkins, Solis has first-hand knowledge of the plight of low-wage workers: she is the child of two immigrant unionists, her Mexican father a Teamsters shop-floor activist and her Nicaraguan mother an assembly line worker and United Rubber Workers member. Solis calls herself “a big believer that government, if done right, can do a lot to improve the quality of peoples lives.” Her record makes her the most pro-worker cabinet appointee since Perkins.

In fact, Solis has a chance to do much better than Perkins at creating labor policies that are, for the first time, fully universal and equitable. Bobo resurrects Perkins as a model, but neglects the racial and gender inequities built into the New Deal. As political scientist Ira Katznelson explains in When Affirmative Action Was White, the inequities were the result above all of efforts by powerful Southern, white, conservative Democrats to preserve their region’s low-wage labor pool and racial hierarchy. They excluded workers in agricultural and domestic sectors—then the leading employers of African Americans and Mexican Americans—from coverage under all the major pieces of New Deal legislation. As a result, these policies exacerbated racial inequality and created problems that snowballed over ensuing decades—the disproportionate impact of the current mortgage crisis on black communities is one contemporary effect.


Gender equity fared even worse, as Alice Kessler-Harris hauntingly reveals in In Pursuit of Equity. Perkins was a feminist in many ways, but like most contemporary reformers, she assumed a world of male breadwinners. Mid-century liberalism built gender discrimination into all of the nation’s major social policies in a way that helps explain the dire poverty of so many female-headed households in America today.

The country has changed radically since Perkins’s time. Massive African-American and Latino civil rights efforts have ended formal segregation and opened opportunities to all as never before. Women make up almost half of today’s labor force and union membership. And a new wave of immigration since 1965 has made the nation more diverse than ever. Solis has the motivation, and the historical opportunity, to help remodel U.S. labor policy, to make it equitable, inclusive, and up-to-date.

Not that she has an easy job. Already, business lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce and right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute are rallying to defeat the Employee Free Choice Act, the principal legislative goal of labor and allies like Bobo. The Republican bloc in Congress is likely to hold solid against labor and peel off centrist and vulnerable Democrats. Moreover, the new administration’s economic appointments have arguably been its most conservative. No one should underestimate the power of the right in shaping the terms of debate in this vital arena—or how hard its member groups will work to prevent change.

Still, President Obama pledged that “labor will always have a seat at the table” in his administration. He told the nation unequivocally that “we cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement” and proposed a $1.5 billion increase in discretionary funding for the Department of Labor by 2010. But it remains to be seen how hard he will fight for the Employee Free Choice Act. Just as Roosevelt depended on popular demand for the original right to organize, so Obama will likely need determined counter-pressure to make him do what he knows is the right thing--something his economic and corporate advisors may otherwise resist.


In such a tough contest, people of faith may well play an essential role in pressuring Congress to support the Obama administration and the Solis Department of Labor in their efforts to improve conditions for low-wage workers. Bobo understands that the ranks of those who might embrace a social-gospel message have grown dramatically and could be mobilized for economic justice. Untold numbers of Catholics and mainstream Protestants and Jews never gave up the social gospel; they were just eclipsed in public debate by the religious right. The Rabbi Robert J. Marx, for example, who marched with Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama, founded and led the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Council for Metropolitan Open Communities before helping Bobo launch IWJ. Today, in the name of the Torah’s justice teaching, he speaks out in support of the Employee Free Choice Act.


Even evangelicals, more than a quarter of the U.S. population, are soul-searching today. The Southern Baptist Convention, widely recognized as the nation’s most conservative major denomination, now has a president, Frank Page, who described his 2006 election as “a clear sign” that rank-and-file church members felt the “conservative ascendancy has gone far enough” and it was time to say “what we are for.” The Reverend Bill Hybels, head of the vast Willow Creek Association, says that “progressive evangelicals . . . are one stirring away from a real awakening.” In 2007 he told The New York Times Magazine: 

The Indians are saying to the chiefs, ‘We are interested in more than your two or three issues. We are interested in the poor, in racial reconciliation, in global poverty and AIDS, in the plight of women in the developing world.’

Supporting union organizing, let alone striking workers, would be more of a stretch for evangelicals, whose economics can be as individualistic as their relationships with Jesus. Still, progressive prophetic evangelism has a powerful history in America: think of the abolitionists, Knights of Labor, Peoples’s Party, and the Southern mass strikes of the Depression era. King was himself a Baptist, and the most faithful African Americans remain among the likeliest Democratic voters. Evangelicals study the Bible, and as the distinguished religious scholar Randall Balmer points out, the Bible features about two thousand mentions of the poor and of believers’ obligation to them. (No mentions of abortion.) In his delightful survey of the nation’s religious history, Hellfire Nation, James Morone notes a pattern in which American politics change “when rich sinners replace poor ones” as the scourge demanding attention from believers.


Such a shift is not so far-fetched in the current climate of resurgent populism, especially if Bobo succeeds in mobilizing the faithful to end wage theft. After all, pro-labor religious activists helped usher in and protect the New Deal. John A. Ryan, a Catholic activist intellectual who was a powerful force in the Roosevelt presidency observed at that time: “Never before in our history have Government policies been so deliberately and consciously based on the conception of moral right and social justice.” (For more on Ryan, see Lew Daly’s The Catholic Roots of American Liberalism, in the May/June 2007 issue of Boston Review.) Perkins quoted this remark approvingly. Bobo points out that Catholic parishes and orders operated almost 200 labor schools to teach workers how to organize and run unions in the two decades after the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act, which protected employees’ right to organize.


The civil rights movement similarly depended on the religious, justice-seeking tradition among whites. For all the brilliant grassroots activism of African Americans and the determined lobbying of the NAACP, the Civil Rights Act would never have passed had white Christians and Jews not lobbied otherwise unyielding Midwestern Republican Senators, as historian James Findlay shows in Church People in the Struggle.


Their devoted activism emerged from deep wells of commitment to social justice in the Catholic and Jewish traditions and the Protestant social gospel that drove so much Progressive Era and New Deal reform. Might those wells bubble up again as the economy melts down? “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” FDR noted in 1937, “we now know that it is bad economics.” We have relearned the truth that it is bad economics, but we still await the moral awakening.

Nancy MacLean is Professor of History and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Her most recent publications are Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace and, with Donald Critchlow, Debating the American Conservative Movement, 1945 to the Present. This article appeared in the Boston Review.

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Date Added: 4/28/2009 Date Revised: 4/28/2009

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