About the Author
Susan Leslie

Faith Based Community Organizations Prepare to Govern

Last month I had the opportunity to go to Washington, DC to a gathering organized by the Center for Community Change and the Gamaliel Foundation called ‘Fulfilling the Promise.” The event brought about 2,500 people from interfaith and community organizations together to meet with key members of President-Elect Obama’s Transition Team, leaders of Congress, and others. UUA and UUSC staff and UUs from across the country were part of the gathering, in attendance with their congregation-based community organizations and advocacy groups.

It was pretty amazing to be with elected and newly appointed leaders who were promising to bring the voice of the people into the White House and Congress. The new administration is promising to host town hall forums across the country and use e-mail lists and cell phone texting in the same way that the campaign did to invite people’s input. [In fact, since the gathering, Tom Daschle, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services, held a phone conference on his blueprint for health care that included randomly chosen people from the campaign’s cell phone list!]

The agenda focused on three major concerns: health care, economic recovery, and immigration reform. Clearly, the intent was to bring the power of the coalition that elected the new President and Congress to the table of a new governing coalition.

The tone was very reminiscent to me of our 2008 General Assembly Ware Lecture Van Jones’ talk on ‘Preparing to Govern.’ Speaker after speaker talked about, and modeled, how to move from the politics of protest, to the politics of power. They described a new challenge of being at the table, being part of making change happen, developing creative proposals and delivering the grassroots to make it happen!

That’s a tall order, but isn’t it great to be putting our energies into making things happen and achieving justice? We’re excited here in our UUA Advocacy & Witness Offices that there will be real opportunities to move forward on our UU social justice values and bring our legislative objectives into being in the coming year! Of course we know that the current economic crisis will limit some of our opportunities, but nevertheless there is much that can be accomplished.

You can read my report on the Fulfilling the Promise gathering — Faith Based Community Organizations Prepare to Govern.

And you can read about and view Van Jones’ Ware Lecture on Preparing to Govern.

See the UUA’s 2009-2010 Legislative Objectives and our plan for achieving them through UU Action of the Month Campaigns at our website.

Victory for Republic Window Workers!

On Dec. 10th, the workers at Republic Windows & Doors voted to accept a $1.75 million settlement that will cover eight weeks of pay owed under the WARN Act, unused vacation days and two months of health care coverage. The settlement marked the end of a six-day factory occupation. Last Tuesday, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) board members visited with and prayed over the workers. Below is a reflection by Rev. Aaron McEmrys, an IWJ Board member and Minister of the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara.

Inside Republic Windows and Doors

Yesterday, in Chicago, Illinois, that strange place where they send their Senators to the White House and their Governors to jail – I got to pray with the heroes.
I was far from my home in sunny Santa Barbara for my first meeting as a member of Interfaith Worker Justice’s board of directors. IWJ is a network of people of faith from many different traditions that works to educate, organize and mobilize religious communities around issues and campaigns that will improve wages, benefits, and conditions for workers, and give voice to workers, especially workers in low-wage jobs. The other UU on the board is Susan Leslie, UUA director for congregational advocacy and witness. Together we bring an ‘institutional’ and ‘field’ perspective to the work.

We were doing all the usual things that happen at Board meetings – reviewing programs, talking about funding (or the lack thereof) and charting the course ahead – when we heard that the workers at Republic Windows and Doors had asked us to come down to their plant to pray with them.

I can understand why those folks might be in a praying mood.

About a week ago the owners of their company announced that they were closing their doors for good, saying that orders for doors and windows had dropped off. They gave their two hundred and fifty employees just three days notice – even though the law requires sixty. They also withheld the pay the workers had already earned, over a million dollars worth, I am told.

The company claimed they couldn’t pay the workers because their bank, Bank of America, refused to extend them any more credit. Talk about adding insult to injury – this is the very same Bank of America that had just been given 25 billion dollars of taxpayer bailout money!

Let’s take a quick look at the scoreboard:

  • Republic Windows and Doors = closes Chicago location, doesn’t pay workers, buys new factory in Iowa where they won’t have to pay workers fair wages and benefits.
  • Bank of America = receives 25 BILLION dollar bailout, paid for by the American people.
  • Republic Employees = fired with three days notice and have their wages stolen three weeks before Christmas!

Enough was enough.

The workers occupied the plant. Following the example of the famous autoworker strike of 1936, the workers of Republic Windows and Doors simply sat down and refused to move!

They’d already been there for five days by the time we went to pray with them. They “work” in eight hour shifts, and are very well-organized, with cleaning crews, food crews and everything else they need to stay in there indefinitely. Nobody gets in or out except them – and, on this occasion – us.

We arrived at the plant and stepped out into a very cold grey rain that got even colder after you’d been standing in it for a while. There were already lots of folks gathered there: union members, people of faith and other well-wishers who’d been standing in the rain and would keep on standing in the rain for as long as necessary.

We started singing, and as IWJ’s Kim Bobo led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” the rain and the cold seemed to fade far into the background. Some of the workers came out to say hello to the crowd and an enormous cheer went up. Everyone wanted to let the workers know that no matter how alone they felt we were all right there with them.

After a brief press conference (for the few remaining press crews who had not been diverted to cover the Governor’s latest and most breathtaking act of corruption), we clergy were ushered inside the plant.

The first thing I noticed was a plain white sign that said, “5 Days and Still Strong!” written on it in black magic marker – and then we were whisked in through the double doors leading into the plant proper.

Republic’s production floor is a big one any day, but with all the machines shut down it seemed even bigger, emptier and more cavernous. But it was warm and bright after the relentless chill outside – at least nobody had cut the power on them yet.
We all went our own ways, shaking hands and talking with the workers, many of whom didn’t have a ton of English but held out hands warmly and said, God bless you…God bless you…God bless you.” I speak plenty of English, but those were pretty much the only words I could find too.

In movies heroes are always portrayed as being special somehow – brilliant, powerful, beautiful, fearless, larger than life – but that’s not how life really is. The heroes I have been fortunate enough to meet in my life are never like that – they are always so normal. So ordinary. Just…people, like anyone else.
And those are exactly the kind of heroes I met on Republic’s factory floor. Just ordinary folks. And they were far from fearless, in their eyes and in their hands I could feel anxiety and fear as well as hope – and it was the hope that kept them going in spite of everything. Courageous people are not those who feel no fear (those people are fools), but those who keep on in spite of their fear – and those are the people I met in Republic – truly courageous people.

They are just ordinary people, the kind of people I might not even notice on a crowded sidewalk – unless they were clearing up my dishes at a restaurant or cleaning my hotel room. And this is my loss.

Ordinary people. But there they were, a couple hundred folks, mostly Latino and African American – occupying their factory and refusing to budge. And they aren’t just doing it for themselves – just to get what they are owed. It was so clear, visiting with them, that they understand themselves to be taking a stand for everybody! They are standing up for everybody who gets treated like dirt, whose wages are stolen and whose rights are denied. They are standing up against a system that bails out millionaires while families lose their homes and children go to bed hungry. What an incredible gift they are giving.

The workers moved together, into the center of the circle formed by we clergy. We laid our hands upon them and prayed. Some of the prayer was spontaneous and aloud – and much of it was silent.

I will always remember the texture of the fleece and t-shirts under my hands, and the human warmth beneath that. I will always remember the prayers – of courage, hope, love and healing – I will always remember the sound of breathing and the taste of tears. Words cannot possibly describe what happened in that little circle, but I will never forget what that inexpressible something felt like. We were together in that moment – and our circle was so much bigger than we were – somehow expanding to include all those who stood outside in the rain… and even farther than that…the circle stretched even farther than that…. and with such warmth and love and connectedness flowing through my body I opened my eyes and, through my own tears, saw that almost every face was wet.

This, I thought, is what is possible for us! These are my sisters and brothers, every single one of them. In that moment it was impossible to imagine letting harm come to them, to these good, brave – ordinary people!

I do not know what will happen now. I know that negotiations continue. I am optimistic that, at the very least, these workers will get the pay that was stolen from them. But is that enough?

What the workers at Republic want is not just a paycheck – they want their jobs! Good, decent, reliable jobs. They want to go to work every morning and build windows and doors. They want to buy Christmas presents for their kids and to know where they will be living next month. They want to work hard, to be treated with respect and to know that everything will be okay.

Is that so much to ask?

I don’t know how things will work out for those workers – those heroes – I prayed with yesterday in Chicago, but I do know this. They are not alone. How many workers, how many factories, how many children, how many hopes and dreams and futures hang in the balance in these troubled times?


And so as far as I am concerned, any conversation about bailouts that does not include provisions for the ordinary heroes all around us is unconscionable, unjust, and downright sinful. We must do everything in our power to support our sisters and brothers at Republic Windows and Doors – and everywhere else our people need us.

The one thing those folks needed to hear from us more than anything is that they are not alone – and that’s what we told them. Now we need to prove it, come what may.
See Interfaith Worker Justice to learn more about this struggle and how you can support these workers and the faith community’s partnership with them.

Read There is Power in Union (PDF): A UU Guide to Worker Justice, by Rev. Aaron McEmrys.

More information:
UUA January Action of the Month: Living Wage
UUA Resources for Living Wage
UUA Resources for Immigrant Rights
Interfaith Worker Justice Report and photos!

Faithful Democracy and the 2008 Elections

Why Registering People to Vote Matters

It takes a lot of ongoing engagement to keep democracy vibrant and working. Our fifth principle commitment to democracy and our anti-oppression commitment to strengthen the voices of historically marginalized groups provide solid religious grounding for congregational efforts to register people to vote.

Only 64% of voting age citizens in the US voted in the last federal election. However, 89% of registered voters did vote. According to the US Department of the Census Report: Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004 the key to voter turnout is voter registration. Once people are registered they are on the rolls and are contacted by the campaigns, political parties and non-partisan Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts.

There are still 55-60 million unregistered voters in our country. Youth and young adults account for 21 million of them and African Americans, Latinos and low-income women also constitute a large portion of the unregistered.

There is still time to reach out to these disenfranchised communities and get them registered. Most state voter registration deadlines are in early to mid-October. New Hampshire, Wyoming and Idaho have same day registration. See VoteSmart for your state’s deadline.

The UU Funding Panel has Voter Registration/ Get Out the Vote (GOTV) grants — $500 to $1500 grants for congregations now through October 15, 2008!

According to the same report many people didn’t register because they missed the registration deadlines and/or had a conflict with work and school schedules. It was not because they didn’t care.

So, let’s do all we can to increase participation in the democratic process, especially by helping ensure that the voices of our most oppressed communities are heard in this high stakes election.

In 2004, hundreds of UU congregations registered over 80,000 new voters. Our efforts were most successful when we did this in partnership with community group voter registration projects.

One of our partners, ACORN’s Project Vote, registered over 1.15 million new voters in 2004. This year their goal is to register 1.2 million voters in underrepresented communities — African American, Latino and low-income neighborhoods. Additionally, they plan to reach 2.8 million new and infrequent voters in GOTV campaigns.

  • Project Vote is working in 26 states including Colorado, Ohio and PA. For a listing of states and contact information see their website.

In 2004 our voter work led to some lasting partnerships and raised the profile and relevance of our congregations in our communities. Wear you Standing on the Side of Love T-Shirts while registering people and/or bring congregational banners.

The UUA has excellent resources to assist congregations in their voter registration, mobilization, and education efforts.

See our voting page where you will find Faithful Democracy: UUs and the 2008 Elections and The Real Rules for IRS Guidelines.

Registering people to vote lets people know that they matter to us.
It is an act of faith.

Standing on the Side of Love with Immigrant Families: A May Day Rally with President Sinkford

I was so proud to be a UU yesterday as I stood in a crowd of several hundred immigrants from Central America and their allies and listened to UUA President Rev. William Sinkford address the crowd. Bill was surrounded by a group of interfaith clergy as he spoke saying “The Gospel instructs us to ‘Love our neighbor as ourselves.’ We need to ask ourselves, ‘Who is my neighbor”’ and we need to include undocumented folks in our answer.”

The rally was held in Chelsea, MA, a small city north of Boston with a large immigrant population. The Chelsea City Council voted to become a Sanctuary City in June 2007 and is a welcome contrast to the kinds of sweeps we see being conducted by the sheriff in Phoenix and his volunteer posse that keep a count of people they have detained and deported up on their website.

In fact, there is now a campaign in MA called Welcoming Massachusetts aimed at making us the first state to be officially welcoming to all immigrants. President Sinkford was asked to address the rally because of the leadership role the UUA has been taking in that campaign and as the first religious denomination to sign on to the New Sanctuary Movement.

The New Sanctuary Movement was launched a year ago on Mother’s Day weekend (Saturday in Latin American and Sunday in the US & Canada). Forums, vigils, press conferences, film showings and more will be held across the country May 8-11 to mark the anniversary and highlight the continued need to stop the raids and enact humane immigration reform. (Check the website for an event near you). ICE has made over 5,000 workplace arrests this year and extended their reach to Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses. Many cities continue to see raids and hateful rhetoric. However, we are also seeing lots of solidarity. UU congregations are active in the 30 interfaith new sanctuary coalitions across the country.

There will be a statewide forum at the Arlington Street Church (UU) in Boston on May 10th being co-sponsored by the UUA, UUSC, Centro Presente, and MA Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

As a staff person who helped launch the UUA’s anti-racism multi-cultural initiative, I am so gratified to see us developing partnerships with the immigrant community. At a time when hateful rhetoric and fear surround the issue of immigrant rights, it is as people of faith that we call for compassion, for keeping families together, for recognizing that we are all children of god. I think we can help build bridges between communities. As the largely Latino crowd cheered Bill Sinkford, an angry white man rushed in front of the stage demanding to know if Bill was from Chelsea. The Imam standing on the stage with Bill came down and took the man by the arm and led him to the side as he talked with him calmly while the crowd chanted “Si Se Puede – Yes We Can!” Bill began talking again about how we are all neighbors. People came up to shake Bill’s hand. And I’m happy to say that several of them were UUs! It was a religious witness we must continue.