“Employers Feel Wildly Free to Pay People However They Want”: An Interview with Kim Bobo

About Theo Anderson

Interfaith Worker Justice founder Kim Bobo explains why progressives should be doing more to woo evangelicals; how the Chamber of Commerce is abandoning small businesses by not fighting wage theft; and why some Catholic employers are lobbying for workers to get paid overtime.

This interview is part of the Winter 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), is one of the Left’s luminaries when it comes to the intersection of faith and economic justice. Bobo, who was herself raised an evangelical Christian, and is the author of Wage Theft: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid, and What We Can Do About It, will transition out of leadership at the end of 2014.  Although the problem of wage theft—workers not being paid what they are owed for their work—is rampant in low-wage workplaces, Bobo’s ability to persuade Christians, Jews, and Muslims to support the rights of workers in their communities has even earned her the respect of some employers. But it has also earned her the distinction of being targeted by both the Religious and Corporate Right. In 2012, the Catholic-funded American Life League issued an 80-page “report” red-baiting Bobo. Recently, too, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has challenged IWJ by blocking anti-wage theft laws and naming IWJ in a series of reports claiming that worker centers should be regulated just like labor unions.  Bobo sat down with The Public Eye to talk about her personal journey of bringing together workers’ rights and faith, and about her reasons for remaining optimistic despite the continued suffering of many low-wage workers under the most extreme economic inequality in 100 years.

The Public Eye (PE): How did you come to start Interfaith Worker Justice?

I had gotten involved in 1989-1990 in putting together a religious support committee for the Pittston Coal strike. I realized that there was not much structure in the faith community to be involved in labor issues. That seemed just a missing piece to me, because in faith communities we cared about poverty, we cared about poor people, we were doing soup kitchens and shelters.

Clearly we needed to do something around labor, jobs, wage payment, those kinds of issues, as well. So I did this Pittston work and the folks I worked with at UMWA (the United Mine Workers of America union) were phenomenal and interested in the partnerships with the faith community.  While there was no structure, it was pretty easy to get people to do stuff.

I was living in Chicago, so I put together a group of religious leaders to support labor.  I didn’t understand the politics of labor, but I happened to completely luck out: Don Turner, who was the assistant to the President of the Chicago AFL-CIO, was assigned to be my liaison. He was interested in rebuilding these partnerships. We became this team, with me mobilizing the religious community for labor and him helping me understand labor.

We called it the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice.

PE: What is your faith background?

I grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist home in Cincinnati, Ohio, in what’s called the Church of Christ. I memorized lots of Bible verses as a kid. The heart of the scripture is: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. For me, my whole life is trying to figure out how to put that into actuality. Some would say that’s an odd background to be doing this work. I don’t think so. It was fundamentalist teachings of the core of the scriptures that drove me.

I have been involved in church work my whole life; in fact, I’m the choir director and moderator at my church. I am now a member of the United Church of Christ. (The names sound similar; they’re about as far away from one another as you can get.)

One of the things that has not been smart has been to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists in with the conservative Christian Right. While a lot of people have been confused on things and connect with the Christian Right on stuff, to lump this huge group of people or write them off as not part of our [workers’ rights] movement is dumb.

You see that right now on immigration reform. The evangelical world is completely solid on immigration reform. And at the local level, we see a lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals involved in the work.

We need to understand there are some very well-funded, concerted efforts by right-wing forces to continue to capture [evangelicals]. The Heritage Foundation published a small study guide entitled “Seek Social Justice.” It argues that the best way to help poor people is to do it through your church, because we are closer to people, and thus the best way to get there is to cut taxes of rich people and give more money to the church. It also makes these wild statements like, “If people aren’t happy with their jobs, they can just go find another one.”  Really?  It is not a very sophisticated argument.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing. This is a set of folks that have a set of values of their faith that are being contested. I think that we need to be in there contesting for them. It’s hard because the Right Wing understands the importance of the faith community in these issues. They put a lot of money into funding right-wing religious organizations; the progressive world doesn’t.

You look at those of us working in the economic justice space within the religious community and every one of us is struggling for money. The progressive funding infrastructure doesn’t get that this is contested space and that we need to be out there working at it. Most progressive donors do not fund in this world. It is a problem. We get a little money from the unions, but most large donors, the people who are viewed as the larger progressive donors, do not fund in this world. They just don’t believe in it.

PE: How did the worker centers start?

I can remember that in ’96 and ’97, pastors would refer us workers who hadn’t gotten paid. They said, “Oh you got a workplace problem? Oh, call Interfaith Worker Justice.”  So these random workers would call us. I would say, “You haven’t gotten paid? You work at a restaurant? Maybe the hotel and restaurant workers union can help you.” My assumption was if workers weren’t getting paid, I could just refer them to unions, but unions didn’t want these workers that didn’t make sense in their strategic plans.

We produced a workers’ rights manual in English and Spanish. Then, when workers called, I could send them the manual and I could go back to doing my real work – supporting workers’ right to organize.

Yet we had to figure how to create a structure that could support these workers who are not being served by the labor movement.

I describe the work right now in three prongs. One is the work engaging the faith community in supporting workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Second is helping support and build structures that help workers that are not yet served by unions: the worker center movement. We now have 27 worker centers. The third is public policy. How can we be involved in policies that raise the core standards of workers, from minimum wage to sick days to anti-wage theft ordinances?

Our wage theft work, which grew out of the worker center movement, has merged with all aspects of our work. On the one hand, dealing with wages is the heart and soul of worker centers. It’s their number one problem.

But unions are recognizing that the issue of wage theft resonates with workers and makes sense to use in organizing workers. In sectors where they are unionized, the non-union companies are committing wage theft in a way that undermines the standards of whole industries.

Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

We’ve been winning all of these local ordinances around the country around wage theft. Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

PE: Can you name a couple of significant victories?

Fe Y Justicia in Houston just passed a wage theft ordinance that strengthens enforcement at the citywide level and says that when they do city contracts they’ll look at wage theft criteria for city enforcement. Arise Chicago (a worker center) led an effort that allows city government to pull a business’ license if someone is found to be a repeat violator.

PE: Are such ordinances largely symbolic, or do they have real teeth?

I think that a bunch of them have teeth. Some of the state bills have treble damages, which is huge [Ed. note: this means the employer must pay the worker triple the amount owed]. The New York State includes a provision for protection against retaliation. The city ones, it’s early to tell.

PE: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been portraying worker centers as a problem, as crypto-unions that should be regulated in the same way.

The Chamber doesn’t like worker centers because worker centers have been effective in challenging bad practices in businesses. To the extent that unions have a bad reputation in the country, which the polls generally show, the Chamber is trying to taint worker centers by calling them unions. I like unions so that doesn’t taint them in my book, but the truth is, legally they’re not unions and the Department of Labor has been really clear [about that].

Worker centers work with and support labor unions, but that doesn’t make them labor unions—in the same way that they work with religious communities but are not a church. If you want to compare them to something, they’re much more like settlement houses at the turn of the century or the Catholic or Jewish labor schools from the ’30s and ’50s. They are community organizations that support labor.

The Chamber of Commerce would be much better served helping its members address the wage theft problems that they have.

PE: What do IWJ worker centers do beyond helping workers who have been denied their wages?

We advocate in general for higher wages through increasing the minimum wage.

If you have a group of workers who come in and they haven’t been paid or are having problems, we talk to them about their rights in the workplace, including their right to have a union.

Workers make the choice. Sometimes they want to get their money back. We’ll work with them on direct action and help them get their money back. Sometimes, we’ll file claims with the Department of Labor or file a lawsuit. Sometimes, they decide, “we need ongoing representation in our workplace,” and the workers organize a union.

We do education around these issues and tell people what their rights are, but the worker center is not the union.

PE: What is the role of congregations with worker centers?

We are trying to encourage deep engagement of the faith community with worker centers. Some worker centers were started by people of faith or by social justice committees. Some of them had a secular start, but because they are affiliated with us, they want to know how to do a better job. Congregations and denominations provide financial support and volunteers. IWJ’s national headquarters is housed at a church that offers space for modest rent. There are a lot of worker centers in church basements and they provide advocacy. If a group of workers want to get their money back from an employer, local clergy will go with them. Or, if they want to strengthen enforcement at the city level, there’s engagement of the faith community in advocating for that.

PE: IWJ says it aims to address the root causes of economic disparity and indignity in the workplace. What are those causes?

It’s because workers don’t have power.  We are trying to figure out how we get more power through unions and through workers working independently, and through core standards and public policy.

We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

We believe that the economic system in this country, monopoly capitalism, is not serving the common good and not serving the vast majority of workers in the country. We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

How do you put some limits on capital, as it is now?  How do you get higher core standards in the society? How do workers get more power, more ability to influence what happens?

PE: IWJ calls for a proactive and transparent Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. How far are we away from that?

We have great leadership in the Department of Labor. Tom Perez is really great, but he’s new.

[Labor enforcement] also hasn’t been on the top of the list of the White House and that’s a problem. While the Department of Labor touts its expanded enforcement as, “We’ve added 250 more investigators,” [that means that] they went from 750 to 1,000 for 135 million workers in the country. That’s not enough. They’re really working hard and doing creative work—but they’re not scratching the surface of the problems.

If they had 4,000 investigators, I think we could start making a dent, but I’m convinced that wage theft has gotten worse, not better, in the last few years. The economy has gotten rough and employers feel wildly free to pay people however they want.  Calling people independent contractors [so that] they are exempt from all basic laws is another practice exacerbating this. How do we stop that?

It’s outrageous: there’s no sense right now of the importance of paying workers fairly. We’ve got to strengthen this sort of work that worker centers are doing around this, beating up on employers who are cheating people.  [That’s] why the Chamber of Commerce is so upset, but we’ve got to keep doing this.

We’ve got to always stand with unions because if we had more unions we wouldn’t have this crisis of wage theft.

We also need to engage the business community in some conversations around this. The Chamber of Commerce needs to stop these attacks and start having conversations with its members: how can we have a democratic society if we can’t figure out how to pay workers enough to raise their family with dignity?  The Chamber ought to be helping lead those conversations.

PE: Do you see any signs of that actually happening? 

I see several signs. They’re not huge ones, but I always look for the glimmer of hope as a person of good faith. There are some business leaders in construction in Texas who are good Republicans, Catholic businessmen who are saying, ‘We can’t compete against these low-road employers who are calling [employees] independent contractors.’

So they are standing up for the anti-wage theft bills in Houston. [Ed, note: Since this interview was conducted, Houston has begun implementing its anti-wage theft law, and workers have been getting the money they are owed.] They’ve got a commitment from both the public entities and the universities and hospitals to only hire employers in construction that pay people fairly. That’s huge and that’s really being driven by the business community. They may be conservative, but these are ethical people.

We are trying to figure how to lift up employers who are paying fairly. I think that’s encouraging.

I did an interview with human resources professionals who were concerned that they’re being asked to condone [employer] behavior in the workplace that’s not right. What if the Chamber of Commerce were saying, “We’re going to start a conversation with our members about how to pay people fairly and justly?” That would change things. They should be doing that.

PE: On the other hand, the HR people are probably worried about their legal responsibilities and the Texas businessmen are worried about competing with low-wage labor. Does the moral argument ever resonate with people?

I think it’s hard to separate them. Stan Merrick in Houston has really led. There are clearly economic arguments. He’s getting hurt by [low-road contractors], but he also has all these immigrant workers. He’s become a huge advocate for immigration reform, as well, because he knows these guys. He’s hired these guys. They’ve got families. It’s also personal. He was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. His values are also a part of this. When you talk to business leaders, some of them are cutthroat and don’t care about anyone else, but that’s not all of them. A lot of them, on the one hand, are hardcore business guys, and, on the other hand, know it’s not right to cheat people. We’ve got to appeal to people on that.

I think figuring out how to pay people fairly is a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue in the long term. We can’t be a consumer-driven society if the consumers don’t have any money to buy anything. So, I’m going to make all the arguments. You can’t separate one from another. 

PE: “Can you talk about how IWJ’s economic justice work also intersects with and reflects a commitment to racial and gender justice?”

You see companies using race to separate people and to make economic gain. The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative is suing temp agencies that refuse to hire African American workers, and have instead intentionally hired immigrant workers and then stolen their wages from them. The lawsuits seek to recover back wages and stop discriminatory practices. Clearly, the temp agencies believed they could make higher profits that way.

Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

Race and class are intermingled in ways that are used against us. Anybody who is vulnerable is likely to be a victim of abuse in the workplace. African Americans often feel vulnerable and are often victims of abuse. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are even more vulnerable. Women’s wages are not what men’s wages are. Almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and you’ve got this whole sector of jobs that continues to be viewed as women’s work and has historically been paid less.

And these discriminatory practices are embedded in our labor laws. So farm work, which was historically performed by African Americans and then by Latinos, was not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

PE: What can you leave us with that would be helpful in social justice work?

On the one hand, we’ve got to learn from the past. What are the struggles that people have had before us, and what can we learn from that?

For organizers, how do we make sure we spend time with our families so we’ve got the support structures that we need? We need love surrounding us so we can do the work for the long haul.

And how do we keep hope so we can keep going, especially in what’s been really rough times the past few years? How do we have the hope for the future?

How do we in the faith community do more at the congregational level, because there’s a structure. There are so many young people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. So how do we capture engaged people who are spiritual not religious, not connected with a congregation? Is there a way to have people participate?

PE: To have a sense of the common good?

Right! I’m intrigued by all the online stuff that people are doing, like social networking. We need to do that, but I’m not convinced that it’s a substitute for “people stuff.” How do we do the people stuff and the social networking? the only way change ever happens is when people work together.

Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Theo Anderson is the former editor of The Public Eye magazine, and a journalist and historian with a special interest in the origins of the conservative movement and the activism of the Christian Right in the U.S. He has graduate degrees in U.S. History from Indiana University and Yale, where his dissertation focused on the roots of the growing religious, intellectual, and cultural divide between conservatives and progressives in the early twentieth century.