Monday, July 18, 2011

He's Just a Boss: Ministry With Low-wage Workers

It was a chilly day in Chicago—nothing that would compare to true Windy City winter, but still. The group of 30-40 people was a mixed bunch. We were union members, clergy, community organizers, journalists, and most importantly, low wage workers. We made a picket line outside the carwash on Broadway and made our presence felt. Luckily, the owner got word pretty quickly, and he invited us—all of us—into the waiting room, out of the November chill.

We stayed there for about an hour and a half, waiting for the owner to negotiate some sort of settlement with a Methodist minister, the Arise Chicago workers’ center director, and, most importantly, the carwash worker who was owed several thousand dollars in back wages. Finally, the trio came out of the office, announced that they had reached an agreement, and we filed out of the waiting room.

The carwash worker left with a $1,000 check in his hand. And a warning to never come back. The worker stood with us outside the carwash and thanked the group for accompanying him. He told us proudly that as long as we stay together, there is no reason to be afraid of unethical employers. “Es solamente un patrón.” He’s just a boss.

We work in a culture these days where we have good reason to be afraid of our bosses. 10% unemployment is reality all across the United States. Wages aren’t even worth what they were back in the 1970’s. And for folks who work for the lowest wages, missing work for a week means not eating. Or not making rent. Or not buying medication for your children. But workers’ centers are fighting the fear.

Workers’ centers make up a movement of low wage-earning, mostly immigrant, often undocumented workers who stand up out of the shadows imposed by irrational laws and unscrupulous bosses and demand respect. They often work in industries that are intentionally excluded from labor laws—domestic workers, farmworkers, restaurant workers, day laborers—and far too often ignored by labor unions. They endure abuses that make your stomach turn, your eyes water, your fists clench.

But members of workers’ centers are far from powerless. They have made national networks that wield growing influence (NDLON, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, ROC United, and Interfaith Worker Justice) in local, state and even federal policy. Workers’ centers are on the front lines in the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform, fighting against the scourge of wage theft, and supporting their sisters and brothers in formal labor unions. These often invisible workers leave the margins that dominant culture has left for them and then take center stage.

I am very blessed to work with the workers centers in the national network of Interfaith Worker Justice. The organizers and the worker-members of the workers’ centers continually inspire me with their creativity, courage, and perseverance.

 One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible comes from the first epistle of John, "There is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out all fear..." (1 John 4:18). Surely it is love - love of their families, love of their friends, love of their neighbors - that drives low-wage workers to support one another in their struggles for a life of respect and dignity. After all, I saw no fear in the "carwashero" on that chilly November day.

I pray that we all minister with no fear as we minister with our all of our neighbors.

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