Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Anti-immigrant measures promote wage theft

     Even though Arizona's controversial SB 1070 isn't scheduled to take effect until tomorrow, worker rights advocates in Arizona are already reporting a marked spike in wage theft reported by immigrant workers. As my co-workers from our national organization report on the In These Times blog, employers are telling undocumented workers in Phoenix "go ahead and try to make me pay you."
    Let's be clear: most workers who experience some form of wage theft are not undocumented: they're citizens or immigrants who have legal papers to work. But anti-immigrant measures like Arizona's SB 1070, and many that were considered in the Tennessee legislature this year, help create an environment where wage theft is more likely to happen to undocumented workers.
    That's because when workers know they can be arrested and eventually deported by local police, they're not likely to trust any government agency enough to report wage theft. Unscrupulous employers can embrace a pattern of wage theft, followed by firing employers who complain, knowing that few workers will want to speak up if deportation is the consequence. And if you're a dishonest employer, why wouldn't you hire even more workers and pay them below minimum wage if you knew there weren't going to be consequences? SB 1070 is already driving undocumented workers further underground where they can be taken advantage of even more than before.
    On the flip side, strong enforcement of wage and safety laws lessens the incentive that dishonest employers have to hire undocumented workers. And, it gets to the root of the problem: exploitation by some employers who want to operate in sweatshop conditions.
    Even though this year has had many bleak moments for those who believe in justice for all workers, there are some hopeful signs and potential new strategies out there. The Progressive States Network reports that in several states, worker rights advocates have been able to change the direction of anti-immigrant bills. They did it by adding amendments to them that strengthened workers' rights.

  • In Connecticut, a bill that made it a state crime to hire undocumented immigrants was changed to a bill that went after all employers who don't pay workers' compensation. This is a win for all workers who are risking their lives on the job without the safety net of workers' compensation. 
  • A Kansas anti-immigrant bill died after amendments were added to it that would severely punish employers who break wage laws.
       What other ways do you think we strengthen workers' rights while pressing for real immigration reform?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Are We Truly Ready for Discipleship? A Reflection on the Gospel Lesson for Labor Sunday

          I’ve learned from some clergy friends who are very diligent in their sermon preparation that it’s never too early to start thinking about a sermon. So, I want to offer my reflections on the lectionary’s gospel text for Labor Day Sunday this year in case they may be helpful to you. For links to other Labor Day weekend worship resources for a variety of faith traditions, visit WIN’s website.

In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus asks the throngs of people surrounding him to consider whether they are really ready to become his disciples. Can they give up the things that may be required? Jesus’ questions about whether they can hate their parents, siblings, or children must have rung harshly in their ears, as they do in ours today. Why would Jesus ask this? And what does this have to do with his final words that “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”?

In Luke, Jesus’ message of justice for the poor and marginalized is often aimed at the wealthy and powerful. Perhaps in this passage, Jesus is warning some of those powerful people who believe they are ready to follow him, wanting them to know that they could lose much in becoming his disciple. The crowd may think they are ready to spread Jesus’ message that “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20-26). But this could easily result in being disowned, or worse, by family members a person was deeply dependent on for wealth and for identity.

So Jesus urges those who think they are ready to follow to really consider the costs of discipleship. Are they really ready to obey God rather than their families if the two conflict? Is the gift of God’s kingdom more precious than the gift of earthly possessions and power they hold now? It is not that Jesus doesn’t want disciples. He is simply looking for those whose enthusiasm won’t be destroyed by rejection from loved ones, or by the stripping away of wealth.

Jesus’ advice to count the cost of discipleship reminds me of something in social justice movements called “inoculation.” Union organizers know that workers who speak up for a union can gain better wages, fair treatment, and decent benefits. But they also risk a lot. (In thirty percent of union organizing drives, at least one worker is illegally fired because of their support for the union.) So the organizer “inoculates” the worker by warning her of what she could face: being fired, harassed, demotions or harder work assignments, being forced to sit through hours of anti-union videos on work time, or being asked to inform on her friends and co-workers. Some workers will walk away after this, knowing they’re just not ready to take the risks involved. But those who remain know what they are risking for the cause of justice, and they become stronger with that knowledge.

Being a disciple of Jesus today still puts us at risk of condemnation, especially if we follow his path of seeking justice. Consider people of faith in Arizona who give rides to church to undocumented immigrants. They are indeed welcoming the immigrant as Christ himself (Matthew 25:35), but they are also now breaking the law in their state. I also think about members of WIN who believe their faith calls them to stand in solidarity with workers who haven’t been paid. Occasionally they have found that the result is trash being thrown at them or threats being made to their safety. Or what about Jesus’ warning about family? At one time or another, many of us have been tempted to keep the family peace by holding our tongues when a relative says something offensive about poor people or people of color. And of course, there are workers every day who risk – and lose – their livelihoods because they are no longer willing to tolerate the injustice and even abuse that they experience at work.

            For those of who have some privilege in this nation because of our skin color, our gender, our citizenship status, our wealth, or our professional standing, it’s hard not be frightened a bit by Jesus warnings about what we can lose as disciples.

            We have to remember his words in light of the gospel – the good news – that what we gain in return for this sacrifice is the kingdom of God. We get to welcome God’s reign, where the hungry are fed, where the lowly are lifted up and the powerful brought down, where we live in shalom as one family, where mourning and crying and pain are no more. Despite my fears and doubts at times, I know I want to be one of the disciples who follows Jesus to this place, even if the road there will be a rocky one.