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Religious voice needed for workers’ rights


The United Methodist Church has been a long-term advocate for farm workers' rights in the United States. Its Board of Church and Society heard a presentation on workers' rights during its April 26-29 meeting. A UMNS file photo by John Gordon.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

May 2, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

People want to work.
That simple message was delivered by three women during a presentation on workers' rights to the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination's social action agency, at its April 26-29 spring meeting.

They called for greater involvement on the issue by the religious community.

The Rev. Faith Fowler recounted the biblical story in Matthew 20 of the landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers and found people waiting to go to work. "They were standing idle because no one had hired them. People want to work," said Fowler, pastor of Cass Community United Methodist Church in Detroit.

Michigan, she said, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation -- 7.1 percent compared with the national average of 4.6 percent and surpassed only by Mississippi at 7.5 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. CEOs make $1,000 to every $1 that a minimum-wage worker earns, she said. In other countries, the average ratio is $30 to $1.

"Young people need jobs and their options should be more than selling drugs or joining the military," said Fowler.

Grounded in scripture



Kim Bobo, founder of Interfaith Worker Justice, speaks about the spiritual basis for fair and just working conditions. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Principles of fair and just working conditions are grounded in scripture, said Kim Bobo, founder and director of Interfaith Worker Justice.

"The Exodus story is a story about the exploitation of immigrants," she said. "The workers were upset at having to work so hard and long and they wanted a break. It was the first strike."

The opportunity to earn a living should not be monopolized by a few, she said, outlining seven areas of crisis around work in the United States:

  • Not enough jobs
  • Jobs that don't pay enough
  • Jobs without benefits
  • The inability for workers to organize in the workplace
  • Immigration and no rational path to citizenship
  • Wage thievery
  • Crisis of leadership in the U.S. Department of Labor

"There are not enough jobs, especially for young people with no high school education and for those who have been in jail," she said. One quarter of laborers filling those jobs don't make enough money to reach the poverty level, and another quarter are at the poverty line, she added.

"This is the greatest income disparity since 1929. It is a desperate moment for the nation," she said.

"This is the greatest income disparity since 1929. It is a desperate moment for the nation."
-Kim Bobo, Interfaith Worker Justice.
Bobo said health care should not be tied to employment or the nation always will be in crisis. More than 47 million people live and work without health care and 46 percent of low wage workers have no paid leave. "That means it becomes a crisis when a child is sick," she said.

She said one out of 10 workers believes that he or she will get fired for trying to improve working conditions by forming unions. Immigration officials, she said, conducted seven times as many workplace raids in 2006 as the previous year. Undocumented workers -- many of them parents -- are arrested and brought to detention sites, leaving children alone with no idea where their parents are.

"The religious community is leading the way in changing conditions," she said. "United Methodists in every city play significant roles."

Food and faith

Virginia Nesmith, executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, said The United Methodist Church has been involved in advocating for farm workers' rights "from the start."



Virginia Nesmith updates the board on developments related to farm workers' rights. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

Nesmith talked about the April 9 agreement reached between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and McDonald's.

"The agreement with McDonald's and its suppliers marked another step in the march to justice for all workers," said John S. Hill, staff member of the Board of Church and Society.

After four years of struggle and boycotts, Taco Bell agreed to improving working conditions for tomato pickers in Florida. The United Methodist Church supported the boycott against Taco Bell that ended in March 2005.

The three key components of the McDonald's agreement are: An additional penny per pound of tomatoes paid to the workers; a stronger code of conduct based on the principle of worker participation; and an agreement to develop a third-party mechanism for monitoring conditions in the fields including investigations into workers' complaints of abuse.

The farmers are now asking for similar conditions from Burger King, and Nesmith expects a speedy resolution.

"These are the people who are climbing ladders to pick our oranges, digging for potatoes and carrying 32 pound buckets of tomatoes," she said. "Farmers give us two gifts. They put food on our tables and they give us a chance to put our faith into action."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.




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Cass Community United Methodist Church

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United Methodist Board of Church and Society

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