Monday, June 28, 2010

Why We Are Called to Stand Against Arizona's SB 1070

I've heard from a couple of Workers Interfaith Network members who are wondering why WIN is holding a prayer vigil next week to stand up for immigration reform, and against Arizona's SB 1070. Before I tell you why, I invite you to sign up for the Isaiah 58 vigil, which will be held next Tuesday, July 6th at 6:30 p.m. at Gaisman Park. Whether you are someone who is at risk of being racially profiled under bills like SB 1070, or you are someone like me who is relatively safe from the effects of it, it's important that we speak with one voice for justice.

So, why is WIN holding this vigil?

First, our faiths call us to speak, pray, and act for justice for immigrants in the same way that we speak, pray, and act for justice with people who were born in this country. As a Christian, my faith story is one in which leaders including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus lived the life of an immigrant. Matthew 25:31-46 makes the bold claim that whatever we do to the least among us, including refusing hospitality to immigrants, we have not done to Christ. In the Hebrew scriptures, God reminds us again and again that we are to love the immigrant as ourselves, because were were once strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23: 9, Leviticus 19:33-34). In God's eyes, there is no room for dividing ourselves into camps of native-born and camps of immigrants. We are all strangers on this earth, dependent on God's grace and care.

Second, Arizona's SB 1070 is a distraction from the needed solution to our immigration problems, which are very real. What is really needed is comprehensive immigration reform. If you are not an immigrant yourself, you may not realize that if you are an "unskilled" worker, it is next to impossible to immigrate legally to the United States unless you have close relatives who are citizens or green card holders. To say our immigration system is broken is a gross understatement. Enforcement actions like expanding local police powers on immigration, or focusing only on border security, will not work. As long as there is severe unemployment and poverty wages in other countries, people will continue to immigrate to the United States looking for work. It is in all of our best interests if more workers have a way to immigrate legally, instead of living in the shadows because they are undocumented.

Third, SB 1070 will almost certainly lead to some racial profiling of Latinos and other people of color. The law requires police to interrogate people about their immigration status during any lawful stop (such as a traffic stop), and allows the police to arrest someone without a warrant if they believe they are removable from the United States. So, if you have an accent, are Latino, or have dark skin, and you cannot persuade an officer that you are a legal resident of the United States, you could be headed to jail. For more information about the specifics of SB 1070 and why they matter, the Immigration Policy Center has done an excellent analysis of the law.

Fourth, SB 1070 will not make Arizonans safer. Law enforcement will have to spend more of their time investigating whether ordinary people who are just trying to work and make a life are undocumented, rather than investigating serious criminals. Crime being committed by drug cartels in states like Arizona won't be stopped by arresting and deporting hardworking construction workers, farmworkers, and janitors.

Finally, there are signs that legislation very similar to SB 1070 will likely show up in the Tennessee legislature in the 2011 session. Before they adjourned, the legislature passed a resolution praising Arizona for its actions. Legislators in 22 states have either introduced, or are considering introducing, copycat bills of SB 1070.

If Tennessee passes a similar bill, immigrants, both those who are documented and undocumented, will live in fear. Volunteers for churches and social service agencies that provide ministries of mercy to undocumented immigrants could face charges for simple things like providing someone a ride to church. State and local law enforcement will face an unfunded mandate to try to determine everyone's immigration status, while taking their attention away from serious and dangerous crimes. Tennessee will develop a reputation as an unwelcoming place that does not want diversity in our state.

Please stand with us next week on July 6th as we pray for justice. It will be an interfaith vigil, and we encourage people of all faith backgrounds to attend. If you can't be there, hold a personal vigil at your home or congregation next week. With either action, please be sure to sign up with WIN so that your name is added to a petition to Governor Bredesen, urging him to reject legislation like SB 1070 here in Tennessee.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wage Theft on Menu at Safari World Tapas Bar

A worker from yet another downtown restaurant is partnering with Workers Interfaith Network to try to win her stolen wages back. Zorina Bowen worked at Safari World Tapas Bar on South Main St. as a cook for three weeks last summer to help out the owner, who was a friend. She was only paid $440 of her wages, and she is still owned $1,493. She was fired when she asked for the rest of her pay. 

As you may have seen on ABC 24's news last week, WIN members joined with Ms. Bowen to picket the restaurant after many attempts to talk with management. A manager came out to belittle Ms. Bowen for not having enough money to hire a lawyer, and refused to talk privately with WIN staff about our records which show how much she is owed.

You can support Ms. Bowen in her struggle for justice by emailing Safari World Tapas Bar and telling them wage theft is unacceptable. Use their website's Contact Us feature to call on Safari manager Faatimah Muhammad to pay Zorina Bowen the entire $1,493 that she is owed for the work she did at the restaurant. Let her know that you will not be visiting Safari until the restaurant follows the law and pays their workers for all hours worked.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

It Takes a Village to Raise a Social Justice Organization

Parents know what it’s like to see your child one moment and wonder “How did she get so big, so strong, and so smart so suddenly?” As WIN’s founder, I kind of feel that way as we celebrate our 8th anniversary. How did an organization that started with a handful of people and enough donations to last four months become a powerful force for justice in our community?

    Although the exact way things turn out is always a bit of a mystery, what is clear is that you are the ones who have made WIN what is today: you—the active, generous members who have given of your resources and yourselves. God has worked through you to make WIN the place that workers struggling against injustice can turn to.

    Many times, people point to me and the other WIN staff members - Alfredo, Kyle, and James as the reason for our success. And I'll be the first to applaud our staff for their creativity, perseverance, and passion. But the truth is, just like it takes a village to raise a child, it also take a village to raise up a strong social justice organization. 

   So take a moment to celebrate some of the victories you’ve accomplished over the past eight years. And please add your memories, reflections, and hopes for the future - I really want to hear them!
  • June 2002: A handful of religious and labor leaders officially launched WIN this month (originally called the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice) so that people of faith would have a chance to take effective action to raise wages and improve working conditions for low-wage workers in Memphis. I started beating the bushes for interested people soon after, which is when I met many of you who showed up at a picket, sent in a donation, or opened your congregation up to learn about our work.
  • September 2003: The Memphis Living Wage Campaign is launched to press the City Council to pay City workers and contracted employees a living wage. Your action, from rallies to prayer vigils to fasting,    result in a city living wage ordinance being passed in 2006, and a county ordinance in 2007, raising the wages of thousands of workers.
  • February 2004: WIN members fill up the buses to Nashville to lobby against a proposed legislature bill that would have banned living wage ordinances in Tennessee cities, as well as any other local laws that raise workers' wages like prevailing wage laws for construction workers. You're successful in defeating it (and you defeated it again in 2009 when a similar bill was introduced).
  • February 2005: WIN joins forces with AFSCME Local 1733 and Grassroots Leadership in successfully rallying against an effort to turn control of Shelby County's Correctional Facility over to a private, for-profit company. 
  • July 2005: Fred’s warehouse workers win their first union contract, raising wages and improving working conditions after years of trying to establish a union. You helped send them to victory through a 40 Day Rolling Fast, picketing at Fred’s stores, and delegations of faith leaders to meet with management. 
  • September 2007: Ready to partner with some of Memphis’ most vulnerable workers experiencing wage theft and other violations of their basic rights, you enable WIN to launch the Memphis Workers’ Center. Today the Workers’ Center has partnered with 42 workers to recover more than $177,000 in stolen wages, workers’ compensation, and discrimination settlements.
  • April 2008: Action by WIN members leads the City Council to raise the wages of City of Memphis temporary workers from $10 an hour to $12 an hour, to make up for their lack of health care benefits.
  • April 2009: The Shelby County Commission passes a prevailing wage ordinance after WIN members join forces with the Memphis Building Trades Council to lobby for its passage. The ordinance ensures that workers on county construction projects are paid sustainable wages, and that the County receives quality work done by trained workers.
What are the significant moments that you think of in WIN's history, that led us where we are today? What lessons can we learn from our past that will help us do our work right now? What is it that drew you to get involved in the worker justice movement through WIN?