UUs Support CIW for Justice in the Tomato Fields

by Rev. Allison Farnum of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ft. Myers, FL

Unitarian Universalist congregations all along in Florida have been picketing with the CIW at Publix Supermarkets, delivering letters to the Publix managers that ask for Publix to come to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ table to talk about the tomatoes they buy. Documented cases of slavery have occurred in the fields of two large Florida tomato growers, 6Ls and Pacific. Publix continues to buy from both growers. Publix cites a policy that states they do not get involved in labor issues between those from whom they purchase and their employees. Since when is slavery a labor dispute?

Folks in our southwest Florida cluster congregations share that, when speaking with Publix employees, the managers themselves are disappointed that the corporate level will not cooperate. Even Publix employees on the front lines expect better of this corporation (the 4th largest privately-owned company in the United States, recently reported in Forbes Magazine) that claims it cares about its local community. As far as I can tell, Publix officials turning their backs on slavery in Florida tomato fields is far from caring.

Money talks. As Publix buys from growers that condone slavery in their fields, this giant supermarket chain is participating in a harvest of shame. This Sunday people of faith from Florida, Unitarian Universalists and all kinds, will gather in Lakeland, FL, home of the corporate headquarters, to send prayers of courage and caring to Publix. We will make our presence known as allies and supporters of the tomato pickers and stand on the side of love.

Act Now to Stop Employment Discrimination

Take Action today to pass the Employment Non Discrimination Act!
On Wednesday, September 23rd, the Labor and Education Committee of the House of Representatives held hearings for ENDA, the Employment Non Discrimination Act of 2009 (H.R. 3017), which guarantees the right to protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity for all Americans.
Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) testified in strong support of the bill, as well as Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, William Eskridge, Yale Law school professor who has experienced job discrimination because of his sexual orientation, and Vandy Beth Glenn, a transgender woman who was fired from her Georgia state legislative job when she informed her supervisor that she was transitioning from male to female.
Among those who face sexual orientation and gender identity based employment discrimination, transgender employees are often the hardest hit. In his testimony, Brad Sears, Executive Director of the Willimas Institue at the UCLA School of Law cited a survey completed earlier this year: among over 640 transgender employees in both public and private sectors, 70% of respondents had experienced workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity. You can find links the full testimony of each witness as well as a webcast of the entire hearing here.
Despite unfounded criticism from opponents, many of whom are religious groups, the bill protects bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination while including broad exemptions for religious organizations, the military, and employers with fewer than 15 employees. Representative Frank urged his colleagues to remember that:

These are our fellow human beings… they’re not asking for anything other than the right to earn a living…. How can we, as people who make the laws… say to one small group of our fellow citizens, ‘You know there’s something about you that people do not like, so you are not eligible for work’?

As people of faith, it is imperative that we show our strong support for this bill, which would bring justice to millions of Americans who face daily discrimination simply because of who they are or who they love.
Contact your Representatives today and ask them to support ENDA.

Planning for Justice in 2009: Planners and Calendars

With autumn’s arrival, many people start thinking about their schedules for the coming year. We have a few suggestions for justice-oriented planners and calendars for 2009, and for some important dates to put in them, too. This post will tackle planners and calendars, while tomorrow’s will include important social justice dates and campaigns to be aware of in the coming year.

Many people rely on their calendars to tell them which days are important, historic, and worth celebrating. Calendars frame how we view time, seasons, growth, and change. For this reason, I prefer calendars which mark the anniversaries of important strikes, protests, court decisions, and changes in the Earth and lunar cycles. My co-workers and I have compiled a list of some of our favorite calendars, and some we’ve never seen but sound cool, below.

Planners and Calendars

2009 Peace Calendar – According to the Syracuse Cultural Workers, based in Syracuse, New York, the 38th edition of their annual peace wall calendar is “greener than ever.” Printed on paper made from 100% postconsumer waste (PCW) which is processed free of chlorine and dioxin, the calendar is sold without wasteful extra packaging like plastic shrinkwrap and cardboard stiffeners. Sweatshop free, made in the USA, and Union-printed, the Peace Calendar is packed with social justice/peoples’ anniversaries, holidays of many faiths, and lunar cycles. Inside, inspirational art touches on topics including resistance to US militarism at home and abroad, urban sustainability, indigenous women, response to gay hate crime, and the celebration of the 77 year history of the Highlander Center in New Market,TN. Click here for more information.

Slingshot 2009 Organizer

The Slingshot Organizer is produced by an all-volunteer collective–“no bosses, no workers, no pay”–in Berkeley, California. The organizer has a strongly anti-capitalist tone. It opens with an essay entitled, “False Hope, Real Transformation,” which slams the notion that a new leader produced by a corrupt capitalist system can solve the nation’s problems. The essay also sounds the call to “seek forms of organization that re-localize decision making,” and make “our day-to-day existence more meaningful, engaged, and connected with others.” The following 160 pages of the Slingshot organizer mark the forgotten history of people of color, immigrants, indigenous peoples, women, working class people, and members of queer communities. Also included are a list of radical bookstores and infoshops, information on sexuality, transgenderedness, interacting with police, and a calendar for recording menstrual cycles. Click here for more information.

The War Resisters League 2009 Peace Calendar

From the War Resister’s League website:

“A desk calendar and state-by-state account of the places where radical history happened, from the civil rights and anti-racist struggles of Alabama and Mississippi to centuries of war tax resistance in Massachusetts, indigenous opposition to oil-drilling in Alaska, and union organizing in Kentucky and California.”

Includes a directory of U.S. peace and justice organizations and publications, and international contacts. Click here for more information.

Mothers Acting Up in 2009

Also produced by the Syracuse Cultural Workers, Mothers Acting Up is “[d]edicated to moments that change our lives– that take a person and give back an activist.”

Changingworld.com describes the calendar as “a weekly engagement calendar for mothers that also offers tools, information, weekly actions, and most importantly, portraits of people who inspire our own activism–from the mom next door to movie stars and elected officials.”

Click here for more information.

Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints

Features radicals & rebels for every day of the year. Last year’s “saints” included Audre Lorde, Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Frida Kahlo, James Joyce, U.G. Krishnamurti, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Jesus Christ, Albert Einstein, William Blake, Cesar Chavez, Bob Marley, and more, with short bios on each one. Check the Autonomedia online bookstore for the 2009 calendar release date, which may not be until December.

Now that you’ve got your radical calendar, now what? Check back tomorrow for a schedule of UUA Advocacy & Witness social justice campaigns for 2009.

Interfaith Viewpoints: Justice and Workers’ Rights

Yesterday my co-worker Kat and I attended an interfaith dialogue on workers’ rights at D.C.’s Jewish Community Center. Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim speakers spoke on the theme of “Caring for the Caregiver.”

A Christian Perspective

A woman whose little daughter was possessed by an evil spirit came and fell at [Jesus’]feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. “First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” “Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. –Mark 7:25 – 30, New International Version

Rev. Noemi Mena, from the National City Christian Church in D.C., shared reflections on a passage from the Book of Mark in which a Greek woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Rev. Mena pointed out that the clash of cultures in this story echoes tension over cultural divides between those receiving care and caregivers today.

Like many people in our time who struggle with prejudice, Jesus seems to be put off by the woman’s foreignness at first, telling her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Jesus implies that the woman does not deserve his blessing because of her ethnic origin. When the woman persists in her faith, Jesus heals her daughter.

As a child, I was taught that Jesus was intentionally testing the woman’s faith in this story. But Rev. Mena pointed out that some Christians believe that Jesus “was a man who did not fully understand God’s claim upon him at the beginning.” In this light, the reader sees not the woman, but Jesus being tested–Jesus must struggle with and overcome his own prejudice during this interaction.

With wealth and power unevenly divided along lines of color, class, and national origin, people must work for understanding that bridges cultural divides. “The miracle occurs,” Rev. Mena said, “when we begin to understand.”

A Buddhist Perspective

In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees: 1) by assigning them work according to their ability, 2) by supplying them with food and with wages, 3) by tending them in sickness, 4) by sharing with them any delicacies, 5) by granting them leave at times. The servants and employees thus ministered to by their master show their compassion to him in five ways: 1) they rise before him, 2) they go to sleep after him, 3)they take only what is given, 4)they perform their duties well, 5) they uphold his good name and fame. –Sigalovada Sutta
Dr. Sovan Tun, president of the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring, Maryland, shared the above excerpt from the Sigalovada Sutta, detailing the responsibilities of an employer and employee to one another.

Dr. Tun stressed the interrelationship of different walks of life. Indeed, this excerpt was particularly interesting to several of the dialogue attendees because it was one of the few scriptures discussed which elaborated on the mutuality of employer-employee relationships.

For me, one of the most interesting points that Dr. Tun brought up related to how we talk about what world religions have in common. If one views the common ground between religions as faith in God, millions of Buddhists and Jains (and many UUs) are being left out, Dr. Tun pointed out. “Common ground between religions should be service to one another,” he said.

This idea really rocked my world–especially as an atheist UU who has struggled all year in interfaith coalitions to define the similarity between our denomination and theistic religions. When the commonality between spiritual traditions has more to do with how we relate to one another and less to do with how we do or do not relate to a God or Gods, it opens up many new doors for interfaith work.

A Jewish Perspective

One who hire workers and instructs them to begin work early and to stay late – in a place in which it is not the custom [to do so], the employer may not force them to do so. In a place in which it is the custom to feed workers, he must do so. In a place in which it is the custom to distribute sweets, he must do so. Everything goes according to the custom of the land – minhag hamakom. –Mishna; Baba Metzia 7:1

Rabbi Greg Harris opened by saying that labor issues are as old as the Torah itself. In the oldest Hebrew scriptures, one sees the concerns of employer and employee. Like Dr. Tun, Rabbi Harris emphasized the mutuality of the employer-employee relationship, which stems from respect for one another. The employer must treat the worker fairly, and the worker must ask themself whether they are “living up to the employer’s obligation back to them.”

Rabbi Harris also spoke about minhag hamakom, “the custom of the land.” This text from the Mishna’s Baba Metzia commands employers to treat their workers according to local standards. To me, it seemed that this injunction related to the Living Wage Campaign, which is based on the idea that anyone working a full-time job ought to be paid enough to be able to afford shelter, food, medical care, and other necessary expenses in their area. It also reminded me of the struggle for the rights of undocumented workers, who are sometimes underpaid and maltreated by U.S. employers who argue that $3 or $4 per hour is a good wage in an immigrant worker’s country of origin.

A Muslim Perspective

None of you has faith unless you love for your brother what you love for yourself. —An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13

Sister Asma Hanif, the Executive Director of Muslimat Al-Nissa, INC, and a member of the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations, discussed several ways in which Islam speaks to workers’ rights.

Asma’s first observation was that the two women on the panel–herself and Rev. Mena–both mentioned self-care in their talks, while the two men focused on the employer-employee relationship–which set me to thinking about different ways that men and women may approach workers’ rights.

Sister Asma Hanif also observed that each speaker had mentioned a version of the “Golden Rule,” or ethic of reciprocity, found within their faith tradition. The ethic of reciprocity simply holds that one should treat others as one would like to be treated. The Sahih al-Bukhari Hadith records Mohammed as saying, “None of you has faith unless you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” (I am fascinated by the small variation between this Muslim version of the ethic of reciprocity and the Christian version I grew up with, which is almost identical except for that lead-in: “None of you has faith unless . . .”) Stated in any of a variety of ways, the ethic of reciprocity is a profound injunction to all those who have power over others, including employers, supervisors, customers, and consumers.

Finally, Sister Asma Hanif explained that in Islam, “Your body has rights over you.” For example, “Your body has the right to eat and sleep,” she said. “You have to take nourishment.” Things are designed to keep people from over-taxing themselves; bodies impose limits that each person must respect. It is important to honor the rights of the body, and to make sure that workers who care for others are in turn able to care for themselves.

Labor in the Pulpits/Labor on the Bimah/Labor in the Minbar

Last night’s dialogue was sponsored by

as a lead up to Labor in the Pulpit/Labor on the Bimah/Labor in the Minbar, which will take place in hundreds of churches, synagogues, and mosques across the United States on Labor Day.

Labor in the Pulplit/Bimah/Minbar is an annual joint project of Interfaith Worker Justice and the AFL-CIO. Last year over 600 churches participated in 52 cities.

For more information on interfaith perspectives on worker justice and labor issues, including a four page booklet on The Qur’an and Worker Justice, a handout on American Buddhists and Worker Justice, a Prayer for Labor Day, and much, much more, check out Labor in the Pulpits.

Gulf Coast Guest Workers Launch Hunger Strike for Justice

“Instead of punishing the criminals, they see us as criminals and set immigration after us. While they are trying to send us back, we are standing here on hunger strike until the real criminals are brought to justice.” –Guest Worker on Hunger Strike

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people, left without jobs or homes, were forced to leave the Gulf Coast and begin new lives elsewhere. Over the next two and a half years, the government and its agencies proved ineffective at revitalizing Gulf Coast communities. The massive displacement which had initially been viewed as temporary gradually assumed the aspect of a permanent “Katrina/Rita diaspora.”

Meanwhile, Signal International, a company with shipyards in hurricane-affected coastal areas of Texas and Mississippi, claimed that it could find no willing or able workers to hire. While the government continued to fail to bring Gulf Coast residents home and back to work, the United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved Signal to bring in guest workers from other countries. In late 2006, Signal hired a labor recruiting firm called “Global Resources” to find workers in India.

Global Resources recruiters promised 550 Indian workers that they would receive permanent jobs with Signal International, green cards, and eventually the right to bring their families to America, in exchange for $20,000. For many of the men who accepted the offer, $20,000 represented their entire life savings. Some men borrowed money, and others sold their homes for a chance at U.S. citizenship. But when the workers arrived in the United States, they found that they had been lied to.

Instead of receiving a path to citizenship, the workers from India were given H2B guest worker visas–permission to work in the U.S. for ten months, with the possibility of renewal controlled by their employer, Signal International. The workers were forced to live on company property, paying $1,050 a month to share a room with 23 other men. Signal tried to make about 30 welders who had been promised wages of $18.50 per hour sign papers to cut their salaries to $13.50/hr. Because the welders’ permission to work in the U.S. was tied to Signal by their H2B visa, which does not permit guest workers to change employers, the threat of deportation hung over their heads if they did not comply.

When some of the workers tried to organize for better wages and living conditions in the spring of 2007, armed guards raided the workers’ bunk-rooms at 3:00 AM and detained six of the organizers with the intention of deporting them. The workers made contact with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), who called in Hindi-speaking organizer Saket Soni from the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice. The workers began to organize under the aegis of the New Orleans-based Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity. (Saket Soni, pictured with workers & allies, left).

On March 6, 2008, after having reported themselves to the Department of Justice as victims of trafficking and demanding federal prosecution of Signal International, nearly 100 of the guest workers employed in Signal’s Pascagoula, MS, shipyard walked off the job, leaving their hard hats at Signal’s gate.

The workers launched a “Journey of Justice,” traveling, largely on foot, from New Orleans to D.C., traveling through key sites of the civil rights struggle. In May, the workers–now turned activists inspired by both the Indian Ghandi and the American King–arrived in D.C. Yesterday morning, the workers assembled in front of the White House with allies from SAALT, AAJC, UFCW, ARW, and more, and launched a hunger strike with the message: “The US needs a just immigration system that does not link the US economy to exploitable foreign workers while displacing poor and working-class American workers.”

“Our fore-father, Mahatma Ghandi, did a hunger strike against the odds, to make the impossible, possible,” one worker said through an interpreter. “And that is what we are following today.”

Through the hunger strike, the guest workers hope to pressure Congress to hold hearings on Signal International and other Gulf Coast companies’ use of the federal Guest Worker program as a legally sanctioned vehicle for exploitation.

How you can help:

Where to learn more:

Tenth Anniversary of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS)!

In 1996, the National Labor Committee published a report exposing the use of Honduran sweatshops by Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line, Kathie Lee, sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. The NLC’s exposé, along with similar concerns raised about Nike and Gap, brought sweatshops into the limelight. In response, concerned university students across the United States began organizing. Thus, United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS, was born.

Members of USAS began by targeting their own universities to ensure that the clothing their university sold was produced under fair labor standards. But students didn’t stop there—USAS was directly or largely responsible for multiple gains made in the anti-sweatshop movement in the years that followed. Among these was the October 1999 announcement of Nike and other companies that they would comply with the requirement to disclose their factory locations. This was the first time that any garment industry company conceded to this demand.

In 2000, USAS members helped found the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization. In one year, over 80 universities joined the WRC, in spite of Nike’s “bullying” of WRC-supportive universities, such as NIKE CEO Phil Knight’s withdrawal of a $30 million donation to the University of Oregon. In 2001, the WRC and USAS achieved major strides for fair labor standards at the KukDong International factory (a Nike/Reebok production facility) in Atlixco de Puebla, Mexico, and the New Era factory in Derby, NY. Currently, over 170 universities and colleges are affiliated with the WRC.

Today, USAS organizes its works into three major campaign areas: the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, Ethical Contracting campaigns which includes a campaign against Coca-Cola, and Campus-Community Solidarity campaigns, which includes fighting for living wages for campus workers, and campus workers’ rights to organize.

USAS has taken as its motto a quote from aboriginal Australian activist Lilla Watson,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

USAS demonstrates its solidarity with workers in sweatshops and on college campuses by supporting workers organizing themselves for better conditions. They pay special attention to the rights of women, as 90% of garment industry workers are women. USAS also runs not only regional member blogs, but also blogs for and by people of color, BGLT folk, people who identify as Womyn-Genderqueer, and working class people. In short, USAS is committed to working for justice in a just and inclusive way.

So to celebrate USAS’s 10th birthday, try one of the following:

  • If you want to read a more complete and truly inspiring account of the history of USAS, take a look at their page on the History and Formation of USAS. If you are affiliated with UNC–Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, UC-Irvine, UW-Madison, Middlebury, Duke, Georgetown, University of Oregon, or Occidental College, you might find this article particularly interesting.
  • Visit USAS’s Take Action page and find out how you can become involved in the fight for workers’ rights.
  • If you are a university freshman, sophomore, or junior, you can apply to be an international summer intern with USAS, which will send 8-10 students to different countries to research, organize, and build relationships with workers, unions, and other allied organizations.

Happy Tenth Anniversary to USAS, and many happy returns!