Monday, September 16, 2013

Justice Arising

Current Volunteer Luke Sullivan returns for a second year ministering with ARISE Chicago.

A worker came recently to Arise Chicago because she was being paid sub-minimum wages and not being paid overtime. When she confronted her boss, who was a rich businessman, about this, he told her that he understood that he was paying her under what she was legally owed, he just didn't think she deserved anything more.

This story stays with me because I see it as a symbol of just how screwed up our world has become. He didn't believe that she deserved a below poverty-level wage, and through his actions, he stole from her the inherent dignity within all of us. In the race for profits, we have lost a fundamental reality; that all of us are connected, that all of our fates are tied together. Mother Theresa said it so well when she said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." We must never forget that we belong to each other.

Arise Chicago is an interfaith worker center that builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing and advocating for public policy changes. For the past two years I have been the religious organizer, so my ministry specifically is to connect religious congregations, and bring in their support, with our campaigns. It has been an incredibly enlightening experience for me to learn about the realities that are happening in Chicago, in Illinois, and around the world. We all remember the horrific fire in the Bangladesh factory, which killed more than 1,000 people, but the abuse of the rights of all workers is rampant throughout our world, and within our own society.

In a recent study done by the University of Illinois at Chicago, in Cook County alone, which encompasses the vast majority of Chicago, more than one million dollars is stolen from low-wage workers EVERY day. In the car-wash industry in Chicago, the average wage of a worker is $6.59/hour; well below the minimum wage, and more than 63% of carwash workers do not have access to free drinking water. We at Arise are attempting to organize car-wash workers in Chicago to change the culture into one where everyone is paid a fair, living wage with safe working conditions. Arise partners with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to bring justice to domestic workers. Because though domestic workers are professionals who do real work, they are excluded from many of the basic protections guaranteed by the Fair Labor Standards Act – things like minimum wage, overtime, sick and vacation days. We are also proud supporters of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, to stop the worker abuse and low-wages that have become a part of the Walmart model. They and many other corporations use temp-labor agencies to cripple workers attempts at organizing, which have helped create sweatshop-like conditions for workers within our own communities. To aid in the protection of workers rights in Chicago, we worked with local Aldermen to pass an anti-wage theft ordinance, where businesses can have their licenses revoked if they are caught committing wage theft.
Luke standing for justice in a recent protest against Walmart

Recently, Arise has supported and marched with workers who are part of a nationwide campaign for fast-food and retail workers to be paid $15/hour with the right to join a union without retaliation. This may sound absurd, but the average age of a fast-food worker in the country is 28 years old. And to see how unbelievably low the federal minimum wage is: in 1963, the minimum wage was $1.25/hour, which would equate to approximately $9.25 in 2013 dollars. The original idea of the minimum wage was to make sure that if someone worked full time, they would not live in poverty. However, there are currently over 10 million "working poor" in this country, and approximately half of all jobs pay under $27,000. No working person should be forced to live in poverty, but that is what is currently happening.

Though  what we do at Arise and what we stand for might be considered controversial, there are values that must guide every decision we make. Our rights do not end when we enter the workplace, nor should they end for anyone. Money is not inherently evil by any means, but we must always ask ourselves how we are making this money. Perhaps we need to think of, “How much would I want to receive if I did that job?” For though people may work for a business, we all belong to God. A basic tenant of Catholic Social Teaching is that, “The economy must serve people, not the other way around. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected.” (these and other tenants of Catholic Social Teaching can be found on the Website for USCCB) We must together break down the barriers of injustice that still exist in our society. As the Pope John Paul II states in his encyclical Laborem Exercens, “Yet the workers' rights cannot be doomed to be the mere result of economic systems aimed at maximum profits. The thing that must shape the whole economy is respect for the workers’ rights. These must be our guiding principles.” In every decision we make, we must remember that no life matters less than any other, because we are one.

Our role in this world is to create a community where all people are able to become the person they were born to be. I believe that is what Arise Chicago is all about, and why I have fallen in love with the mission. God did not create humanity so that we could subjugate each other, but so that we could live with each other, as one human family. Our society has created an "us" vs. "them" mentality, but that is not Jesus' message. Instead of worrying about the bottom line, we must first concern ourselves, and stand with those, who line the bottom. We must stand firm in our resolve that we all belong to each other. Our work must continue to be directed toward others, because that is the only way we can bring about peace. And though we know that the wheels of justice turn slowly, we also know they do indeed turn. True justice can only be fully realized when we commit our lives to create a world that looks wholly different than it currently does: a world that would be fully recognizable to God: a world where the love of God reigns. We know that peace and righteousness will prevail over hatred and greed; we do not know when, but we know that they will. And when this happens, as St. Catherine of Sienna said, "We will set the world on fire."

You can see more of Luke and the Fight for Fifteen protests here.
To continue your study you can read more snippets what the Catholic Church says about work and continue conversation among your community members!