Since President Obama’s election, the Department of Labor has been strengthening efforts to protect workers’ rights and enforce labor laws after eight years of neglect by the previous administration.
As part of this renewed commitment, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has introduced a new campaign entitled “We Can Help” to fight wage theft– a shameful but not uncommon practice in which employers pay workers less then they’re owed, force them to work overtime without appropriate compensation, or falsely classify them as independent contractors to avoid payroll taxes.
Along with the injustice faced by individual workers, wage theft creates systemic problems in the labor market that hurt all workers. This fosters a “race to the bottom” that punishes employers who follow the law.
In addition to the DOL’s outreach program to help workers prevent and report wage theft, our friends at Interfaith Worker Justice have launched an online resource center at www.wagetheft.org.
IWJ president Kim Bobo was on The Ed Show this week and did a great job explaining the problem and what workers can do:
Yet again last night the Senate rejected efforts to extend emergency unemployment benefits and help states facing massive layoffs of teachers, firefighters, and other vital public employees. Emergency jobless benefits expired nearly a month ago, and more than 1 million people have had their checks cut off, according to estimates by the Labor Department. This number is expected to rise to more than 2 million people by the time Congress returns from its week-long break.
Don’t mistake this as a wonky, inside-the-Beltway sideshow starring penny-pinching deficit hawks battling tax-and-spend liberals. Helping those most devastated by an economic crisis – in large part caused by the greed and incompetence of Wall Street – is not an abstract ideological debate. This issue is central to the daily struggles of families living on the edge and, ultimately, to ensuring a just economy that serves the common good. Churches and faith-based organizations like NETWORK, a National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, have been at the forefront of this fight because it cuts to the heart of values shared by diverse religious traditions.
Balancing concern about our rising deficit and the urgent need to maintain critical social safety nets should not drive us to make false choices. Politicos and pundits are very good at setting up simplistic caricatures – think “big government” v. the “free market” – that distort nuanced reality. Perhaps Congress can take a page from the Catholic intellectual tradition, which emphasizes both/and rather than either/or thinking. We should not have to sacrifice emergency help to states and struggling families on the altar of fiscal discipline. There is room to be prudent about fixing our nation’s disordered financial house without abandoning core values that make a society more than a disparate collection of individual interests. The common good is not a fluffy, philosophical abstraction. It’s about recognizing that our destinies are interwoven – what happens to our neighbors down the street or even across continents is never alien to us.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that without federal help state cuts could result in the loss of 900,000 jobs. Low-income families are already facing unemployment numbers worse than the Great Depression, as Bob Herbert pointed out in a New York Times op-ed back in February. The stakes are high. If our government can bail out corporations that gambled away the savings of hard-working Americans, surely public officials who tout their commitment to family values can find a way to throw a lifeline to those families caught in the roiling currents of this unfolding crisis.
As oil gushing from the Gulf of Mexico sea bed drifts toward the shores of Louisiana, communities are scrambling not only to prepare for cleanup of the massive spill, but also to ensure that people who will bear the brunt of the devastation have the resources to hold BP and other oil and gas companies accountable for their apparent negligence.
Toward this end, the Micah Project — a grassroots faith coalition in New Orleans affiliated with the PICO Network – made their presence felt at a Louisiana state legislature hearing last week about SB 549 — a bill that would have limited legal assistance for poor communities who will likely face the disaster’s effects. From Micah Project’s action alert email today:
While the BP oil spill continues to wreak both environmental and human disaster all along the Gulf coast, oil and gas companies in the region – including BP – were quietly trying to pass a bill through the Louisiana state legislature that would have limited legal assistance for poor residents who are the victims of precisely the sort of environmental disaster currently facing the region.
At the Senate hearing on the legislation, over 65 members of Mary Queen of Viet Nam and others from New Orleans East presented Senator Ann Duplessis – the Senate Commerce Committee Chair – a letter expressing the community’s strong opposition to the legislation, SB549.
After more than two hours of presentations and discussions, the committee unanimously passed a motion to defer the legislation.
This victory will allow organizations like the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC) to continue helping residents protect themselves from environmental assaults from corporations. While we celebrate this win, New Orleans residents continue to suffer from health hazards and increased toxic exposures from landfills, illegal dumpsites and the recent BP oil drilling disaster.
Faith-based community organizing groups across the country like the Micah Project take on crucial state and local issues like this all the time, empowering people to improve their communities and deflating rhetoric that would divide us into “secular socialist” and conservative Christian camps. Their leadership might not make headlines, but it’s part of the backbone of the faith community’s work for justice and the common good.
As the Senate begins debate on financial reform legislation (well, eventually — a filibuster will likely delay the start of the debate), many of our allies in the faith community are working to curb the predatory and reckless practices of our nation’s largest financial institutions, which have devastated families and communities across the country.
PICO National Network and Faithful America have launched Our Money, Our Values – a campaign to organize congregations and individuals to divest millions of dollars from the big banks if they don’t agree to end unjust practices like funding predatory lending and kicking people out of their homes unnecessarily. And faith groups will take part in massive demonstrations this week on Wall Street, as well as at the annual shareholder meetings of Bank of America and Wells Fargo, calling on them to take responsibility for their role in the financial crisis, keep families in their homes, and invest in communities affected by the recession.
Undergirding much of this activism are rich theological arguments for financial reform. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good released a statement today pointing out that reining in the abuses of powerful financial institutions is consistent with centuries of Catholic social teaching, as well as Pope Benedict’s encyclical addressing the financial crisis as a moral issue. And over at Associated Baptist Press, David Gushee grounds support for financial reform in the tradition of Christian social ethics that inspired the fight to end child labor in the 19th century.
I’d add simply that many opponents of reform are using demonstrablyfalse talking points to make their case. Hopefully these mendacious efforts won’t lead lawmakers astray or convince the American people that financial reform will lead to institutionalized bailouts.
The February 25 bipartisan health care summit with President Obama and Members of Congress will put reform back on the agenda after its relegation to the back burner several weeks ago. A couple of recent stories are poignant reminders of the urgent need for these leaders to act in good faith to pass reform legislation as soon as possible. A study released yesterday found that the nation’s 5 largest insurers saw their profits surge by a combined 56 percent in 2009 as they shed 2.7 million policy holders, and Anthem Blue Cross announced last week that it was increasing premiums by up to 39 percent in California.
These eye-popping numbers underscore a reality that faith leaders have been bringing to Congress’s attention throughout the lengthy reform debate: a health care system that leaves millions of Americans uninsured and costs too much for millions more is inconsistent with our values and must be reformed. Simply put, our current system encourages powerful corporations to harm vulnerable people — insured and uninsured alike. It’s just not right.
The Feb. 25 Health Care Summit needs to explore how to address these injustices and deliver quality, affordable choice for millions of American families. Faith leaders and advocates in congregations across the country will keep a close eye on the event, evaluate it in terms of how much closer it brings us to the goal of passing reform, and tell their elected representatives to keep moving forward.