Labor

Where's Your Cross Made?

“Jesus, take pity on me! I’m going to die of exhaustion,” exclaimed a Chinese factory worker after a 19-hour shift, according to a recent report by the National Labor Com­mittee. In the report titled “To­day Workers Bear the Cross,” U.S.-based churches and Christian retailers are accused of selling crucifixes made by slave labor in China. The report focuses on the Junxingye sweatshop factory in southern China, which employs mostly young women paid 26.5 cents per hour—less than half of China’s legal minimum wage.

The Association for Christian Retail, which represents 2,055 member stores and suppliers, stated that claims of sweatshop labor used to make their products are “unfounded and irresponsible.” How­ever, NLC executive director Charles Kernaghan said in an interview on Democracy Now! that the NLC traced serial numbers on the crucifixes by using production orders smuggled from the factory by Chinese workers. “The decisions we make in our congregations about goods we purchase and services we hire too often make ‘cheap’ the ultimate value,” Kim Bobo, director of Inter­faith Worker Justice, told Sojourners.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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Being a Church with Day Laborers

In June, a predominantly African-American Christian church took the innovative step of hosting a day laborers’ hiring site in one of its worship rooms. The Strait Gate Church in Mamaroneck, New York, opened the worker center on the heels of a local government decision that prohibits police from questioning people about their immigration status or harassing workers who gather looking for jobs. The Hispanic Resource Center, a local advocacy group, will run the hiring site, which offers English and citizenship classes and other educational programs for workers not hired during the day. “It’s an unusual gesture, and it’s a beautiful one,” Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told The New York Times. “Particularly because we know there have been tensions between African Americans and Latinos in places where they compete against one another for these types of jobs.”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Religion and Organized Labor

"Making Work Work," by Tamara Draut, Paul Sherry, Gordon Bonnyman, Joan Fitzgerald, and Jill Suzanne Shook (February 2007) was a laudable endeavor to draw attention to the plight of working people in this country and the need for churches to participate in building a broad coalition between the working poor and the middle class. But there was a glaring omission: None of the articles highlighting this theme addressed the role of organized labor in this challenge.

Your articles rightly celebrate the gains of the living wage movement across the country, and their importance, but it is not well-known that labor unions are among the most active participants in this movement. In Los Angeles 11 years ago, clergy and lay activists who participated in the successful passage of the landmark living wage ordinance here decided to build upon their newfound ties with progressive elements of the labor movement. They founded Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and today CLUE plays a key strategic role with such unions as UNITE HERE!, SEIU, and the grocery workers union (UFCW) in campaigns to organize hotel workers, grocery workers, security guards, Wal-Mart workers, and others. Last fall this movement was formally launched statewide as CLUE-California, with four key centers in the state now embarked upon a coordinated agenda.

Also, the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice has a broad array of programs and projects related to work and organized labor, with more than 65 affiliated groups nationwide. This upsurge of national activity in the religious community on behalf of working people and the right to organize corresponds to the upsurge in union organizing in the service sector of work, which now comprises about 80 percent of all workers. Unions have long been recognized as instruments of justice that bring low-wage workers into the middle class.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2007
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Mr. Peabody's Coal Train

Beginning with churches near the coalfields, more than 750 local and national religious leaders have put forth “A Call for Justice at Peabody Energy” that backs miners seeking to organize with the United Mine Workers of America. The campaign includes miners employed in Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Kentucky by the St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company.

“Our religious teachings say that we are to treat others as we wish to be treated, and that laborers deserve their just reward,” leaders said in the statement. Concern over recent mining accidents has rekindled religious leaders’ support for the miners’ struggle to choose a union without harassment or fear of losing their jobs, June Rostan, an AFL-CIO community organizer working with the UMWA campaign, told Sojourners. “We hope that the company will open their hearts and be moved,” Rostan said.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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Modeling Values

I was disturbed by the article “Taking Back Our Kids.” The authors seem to think the best way to combat the consumer culture in which we live, and the problems it causes our children, is for one parent to stay at home. I disagree.

They assume that parents work only to keep up with the mounting bills created by a capitalist society. They neglect to acknowledge that many people, especially women, work for self-fulfillment. This is not being selfish. This is being healthy.

I stayed at home with my firstborn and went into a deep depression. Ironically, he spent more time in front of the television to make up for my inability to parent him properly. With my daughter, I was a full-time graduate student. I was happier and so was she. I had more energy available for one-on-one time despite my busier schedule.

We are living in a culture that worships consumerism. Limiting television and computer time certainly helps, but I have found that the best way to raise healthy kids in the current environment is to confront the culture, not avoid it. We discuss the television programs they watch and values the shows portray. I try to model a life and values that differ from what they see on the screen. I’ve also insisted they attend church, involve themselves in the youth group, and participate in outreach and mission activities, with the hope that they experience a way of being that differs from that portrayed by society.

I am blessed with two thriving and healthy children. I raised them as a single parent who worked full time. It is difficult creating a home at odds with the values of our culture, but then no one said it would be easy.

Angela M. Skinner
Yorktown Heights, New York

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Working Women

“Taking Back Our Kids” flagrantly overlooks the fact that African-American women have always worked outside the home—before, during, and after the 1950s. Further, it has only been in the last couple hundred years that some women—specifically white upper-class American and British women—did not work outside the home. Immigrants, slaves, and women of lower socioeconomic standing have always worked outside the home.

Sue Brooks
Dickinson, Texas

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Laboring for Justice

Monsignor George Higgins, the great "labor priest," died May 1 in his hometown of LaGrange, Illinois. How appropriate that he died on St. Joseph the Worker Day, or May Day, as it is known around the world.

Higgins was the best known and probably one of the most loved of the labor priests. He directed the social action department of the U.S. Catholic bishops for many years, and routinely preached and taught about economic justice and unions. He wrote articles prodigiously articulating Catholic social teaching on labor. He gave the opening prayer at AFL-CIO conventions for almost 50 years. He stood with workers in hundreds of struggles for justice in the workplace. And he mentored many younger men and women, including me.

The passing of Higgins, as well as that of Monsignor Jack Egan a year previously, marks the turning of an era. Although there are a few solid cohorts of these fine men who are still fighting for worker justice, by and large the generation of religious leaders that grew up during the great labor organizing expansion is dying. In leaders like Higgins and Egan, we lost a wealth of experience, relationships with labor, and wisdom.

In several of the memorial services, friends mourned his death and wondered who would take his place. The good news is that there are hundreds of new leaders emerging who understand the importance of engaging the religious community in economic justice issues and in building partnerships between religion and labor.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2002
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How much does "free" trade REALLY cost?

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) turns 8 in January 2002. Congress is now considering a hemispheric expansion in the form of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. A look back at life since NAFTA.

8,000,000: Number of Mexican families that dropped from the middle class into poverty since NAFTA.

44: Number of tons of hazardous waste dumped in Mexico daily since NAFTA.

400,000: Number of U.S. jobs lost due to plant relocations.

77%: The average pay of a displaced U.S. worker’s next job, compared to prior salary.

19,000,000: Number of children in Latin America working (and receiving no education) since NAFTA.

$203,000,000: Amount the U.S. agricultural trade surplus with Mexico and Canada increased before NAFTA (between 1991 and 1994).

$1.498 billion: Amount the U.S. agricultural trade surplus fell since NAFTA.

From the Fellowship of Reconciliation (www.forusa.org) and Public Citizen (www.citizen.org).

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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Aftershocks of the Attacks

"It’s heartbreaking to see how quickly this happened and how much people are already hurting," says Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, who leads a group assisting low-wage and undocumented workers that have been laid off in the post-Sept. 11 service industry slump. Churches around the country are opening "worker relief centers" to aid the growing number of workers suffering the economic aftershocks of the terrorist attacks.

The Hotel and Restaurant International Employees Union estimates that nearly 100,000 of its members, most of whom are low-wage immigrant workers, have either lost their jobs or had their hours cut as tourism plummets. Washington, D.C. officials say nearly 40 percent of the jobs in the hospitality industry have been eliminated or cut back. Rev. Salvatierra’s church in Santa Monica, California, is working with local unions to provide food, job counseling, and pastoral care to those in need.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2002
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Temporary Measures

September 2000, 2100 Lakeside, Cleveland's massive, one-size-doesn't-quite-fit-all men's homeless shelter: It's 10 p.m. and 400 men are sleeping in space meant for 200. When the bunks were full they took to the cots, and when the cots ran out they laid blankets on the floor. A young man who doesn't quite fit the scene walks through, tapping sleeping men with his foot.

"Psst, want to work?" he asks.

He's a recruiter from a temp agency. Specifically it's AmeriTemps, but across the country recruiters from many of the nation's 1,400 exploitative labor halls are doing the same thing.

The homeless here compare the shelters to company towns of days gone by. In their eyes it's no coincidence that temp agencies spring up in parts of town populated by the homeless.

"You've heard of company towns, company stores, and company pay? Well this is company housing," says one old man. "How can you afford to get out of here making $5.15 an hour? You end up with $30 after a shift. How can you afford $300 for an apartment? And then you've got utilities and you still have to eat."

Another, younger man named Carlos echoes this thought.

"Basically it's a warehouse for the temp agencies," he says. "They'll come in here in the middle of the night, wake you up because they need some workers. Then they lie to you. They'll tell you you'll make $7.50 an hour and then when you get paid you find out it's really $5.15."

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2001
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