Sermon by Kim Bobo, Executive Director, Interfaith Worker Justice
Delivered at Skyline Church, August 31, 2014
Good morning – this Labor Day Sunday. Thank you for letting me join you. I bring you greetings from Good News Community Church, a UCC fellowship on the northside of Chicago where I am a member and the choir director.
You heard the lectionary text read earlier – Exodus 3:1-15. The story of the burning bush. Here I am: hearing and responding to the call. There are lots of messages from the text, but I’d like to lift up three lessons that speak to me, and hopefully to you as well.
Lesson One: God hears the cries of oppressed workers. The text is so clear: “I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings….The cry of the Israelites has now come to me. I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.” The text is repeated in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, when it says, “Do not take advantage of a worker. Pay them their wages…otherwise, they may cry to the Lord against you and you will be guilty of sin.”
God didn’t just hear about the poor workers. God heard about the oppression – the intentional subjugation of the workers. It is not a passive – it just happened – kind of situation. There is a system of oppression, a pattern of behavior that is causing the workers to cry to God. People weren’t just born oppressed – stuff happened to them.
What’s happening for workers in the U.S. is not inevitable. It is NOT simple “the way things are.” The crisis for workers in the U.S. is about lots of decisions, some small and many large, that oppress workers. The text is clear that God not only cares about the conditions, but the oppression – the fact that there are intentional choices made that cause or keep workers poor.
You all know there is a crisis for workers, but let me quickly review the big-picture dimensions of the crisis.
First, there aren’t enough jobs. As a nation, we have no jobs policy. We have no commitment to invest in companies that create jobs. There are lots of ways this could be addressed, but it is not a priority. And honestly, this will be one of the toughest issues to change.
Second, we have too few core standards. As a nation, we have the fewest core standards of any country in the industrialized world. Our minimum wage – federally – is pitifully low. We have no federal standards on sick days, vacation days, maternity leave, mandatory overtime, use of permatemps and only now a miniscule standard on health care. It doesn’t have to be this way. Most European workers have standards around wages, benefits, health care – standards that make life better for most workers.
Third, wage theft is rampant. Nothing is clearer in terms of “oppression” than wage theft. Too many unethical employers are literally stealing workers wages. According to the largest surveys ever done, one out of four low-wage workers (those who earn $10 per hour or less) is not paid minimum wage. Three-fourths of low wage workers who work more than 40 hours per week are not paid the overtime premium they are owed. One out of ten tipped workers has his/her tips stolen.
And this wage theft is not somewhere else. It is all around us. Last summer, my niece Alisa came to live with me. Just what I needed – a third teenager in the house. Because jobs for teenagers are hard to come by and Alisa speaks Thai, I asked my son Ben to drive her around to a bunch of Thai restaurants and see if she could get a job.
Sure enough. She got a job at my favorite – well, my formerly favorite – Thai restaurant. After her first work day, I asked about her pay. Her employer was only giving her tips. No minimum wage. Even though the tipped minimum wage is super low, it is still something. This was illegal, blatant wage theft. At the end of eight weeks or so, she’d been paid about $1800, when she should have gotten paid about $2800. This kid, saving for college, had been shorted about $1000. Of course I went with her to get the money back. My niece was mortified. Wage theft wasn’t somewhere else. It was at my favorite Thai restaurant and happened to my neice.
Fourth, workers’ rights to organize into a union are routinely oppressed. One way to try to address wage disparities, core standards and wage theft is for workers to organize a union. For those of you who are not in a union, what do you think would happen if you tried to organize a union? Hmmmm….. are you thinking you’d get fired? You might. And even if you wouldn’t, most people think they would be fired. We say we officially have the right to organize a union, but we mostly believe we would lose our job if we did organize. Not much of a right. Like with other core standards, U.S. workers have the lowest organizing rights of any workers in the industrialized world. And some companies, and large monied interests, are intent on destroying unions. Unions, like our churches, are not perfect institutions. Nonetheless, unions create a standard for wages and benefits. Unions stop wage theft. Unions have helped build the middle class.
The oppression of U.S. workers didn’t just “happen.” The oppression is intentional – not by one person, but intentional nonetheless. It doesn’t have to be this way. And thus, I believe that God not only sees the plight and despair of poor workers, but sees the oppression that puts workers and keeps workers in terrible situations. God hears the cry of oppressed workers, as the text says, “on account of their taskmasters.”
Lesson Two: We must choose to recognize (and listen to) the burning bushes. Moses was minding his own business – caring for his flock. His life was fine. He was married, comfortably settled with family, had a job to do. He kind of knew there were some problems back in Egypt, but he and his family were good. Moses was probably a great husband, great dad, great son-in-law – even a good hard worker. But it wasn’t enough.
God wanted Moses to get out of his comfy bubble and address the crisis. So the texts says “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush,” which blazed but didn’t burn up. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” So even with the burning bush, Moses had to make a decision to look…to turn aside, turning aside from his day-to-day herding work.
I do believe God regularly puts burning bushes near us – opportunities to learn more about what is really going on in the world and God’s priorities, but we have to be willing to look, to make a decision to turn aside.
We live in a world of great segregation and disparity. Our schools, our neighborhoods, our jobs can isolate us from those who struggle and are oppressed. And sometimes, I suspect, God is putting burning bushes all around us and we’re ignoring them, avoiding them. Moses had to intentionally decide to look at the bush and heard God’s call. We do too.
We need to spot those burning bushes and then investigate – see what God is trying to tell us through the burning bush.
Now sometimes the burning bush is so in your path that you can’t ignore it. Anyone who has had a family member injured or killed on the job – you get it. You are 60 and lost a job and can’t find another. You are a recent college grad with loads of debt and you are flipping hamburgers for minimum wage. You or someone you know got fired and didn’t get your last paycheck. These are not individual problems, but rather problems that demonstrate the broader society. They are burning bushes of the crisis.
You may need to take more deliberate action to find or view the burning bush. Could you go to a community forum organized by the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, the IWJ affiliate here in Oakland? If there’s a public forum on your living wage campaign, could you attend and hear workers’ stories? If there is a wage theft clinic nearby, could you volunteer for it, so you can hear the stories?
Honestly, I think there is nothing as important as hearing workers stories directly. The personal stories are the best burning bushes…the best wake up calls that there is a human crisis. Reading books, learning statistics, intellectually understanding the problem is not the same. There’s no passion, no wake-up call.
My kids for many years heard me talk about my work. But it wasn’t till they were about 12 or so and I took them to a forum to hear from workers who hadn’t gotten paid that they really “grasped” the work and its importance. They came home shocked and angry and wanted to know what I was going to do to help those workers. My sons had turned toward the burning bush (or I’d helped them turn).
A number of years ago, I was going to be a part of a delegation to meet with the owner of Cintas, the nation’s largest industrial laundry. I knew all the facts about the company. I’d helped write a report on it. But the Saturday before the meeting, I spent the day visiting in the homes of Cintas workers. I wanted to really understand, to appreciate the human implications of the oppression at Cintas. I sought out women who served as a burning bush for me.
Given the business of our lives and sometimes the isolation of our worlds, sometimes we have to seek out people and situations that help us understand and truly feel what is happening to God’s people. These human stories, human interactions, give us the courage to take actions. The stories help us focus our attention on God’s priorities and not our own. But, listening to and finding the burning bush may require some effort on our parts – a turning aside or toward, a searching, an intentional visit or meeting. Turning to, and then listening to, the burning bush, allows us to focus on God’s priorities.
Lesson Three: God can use us to address the oppression. God heard the cry of the Israelites and he saw how the Egyptians oppressed them. So, God told Moses that he should go bring God’s people out of Egypt. Moses immediately began backpeddling. Wow…. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh.” God assures him, “I’ll be with you.” Moses again questions God… “Who should I say sent me? What shall I say.” Moses clearly did not want this leadership role. This was a bit confrontational – way messy. He was doing fine herding the animals. I’m sure that it really wasn’t a good time for Moses to leave home.
We are all so much like Moses. We are not the right people to make a difference. It is not a good time. I don’t have much power. I don’t speak well. I don’t know enough. This should be left to the experts. And on and on. I personally have lots of excuses for why I don’t and can’t do more, but they are usually just excuses.
God can and wants to use every single one of us – not only to help people in some vague way, but to challenge oppression, to right the wrongs, to create a more just and level playing field for workers. Let me suggest four simple things each of you can do to help workers today. You can’t leave a Labor Day sermon without a few things to do!
1) Support the Lift Up Oakland ballot initiative. Sign up on the clipboard (or send an email to Kbobo@iwj.org) and I’ll send you a window sign to put in your window. I’ll also connect you with Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, the IWJ affiliate group in Oakland that is helping lead the campaign. This is an important campaign. It will not only raise wages to $12.25 per hour, but will establish a standard for earned sick days in Oakland. Almost two-thirds of workers in Oakland earning less than $12.25 per hour have no paid sick days. This ballot initiative is not only important for Oakland. It is important of the nation. The linking of two core standards – minimum wage and earned sick days – is visionary and significant. You can help Oakland lead the nation on these issues.
2) Pay your tip in cash. About one out of ten wait-staff won’t get a tip if its put on a credit card. Thus, you must ask wait-staff, “Will you get the tip if I put it on thecredit card.” If the person responds, “Sure, no problem,” then you can put it on the credit card. But if the person asks if you can give the tip in cash, or if you don’t ask, then tip in cash.
3) Ask how contracted workers are paid. If you hire any contracted workers at your home, job or church, ask how workers are paid. Contracted workers – landscapers, janitors, construction workers – are often victims of wage theft. Almost all contracted workers are in sectors that are notorious. If you don’t ask how workers are paid – and make sure they are paid as employees and not independent contractors – you could well be contributing to wage theft. You must ask.
4) Urge Mr. Tom Perez, Secretary of Labor, to require employers to give workers a paystub. Perhaps as many as 20 million workers are not given a paystub explaining how they are paid, even though their employers are required to keep the info. Interfaith Worker Justice believes that giving workers a clear paystub will help deter wage theft and help workers advocate for themselves when they are victims of wage theft. It is a simple regulatory change and Mr. Perez can do it. Go to the IWJ website, www.iwj.org, and send a simple email. For those who signed up already, I will send you a link for sending the emal to Mr. Perez. How easy is that!
Work can be a blessing. It can be a way we find meaning in the world. Work is how we support our families. But too many workers, like the Israelites in Egypt, find themselves in oppressive situations – low wages, inadequate supplies or tools (making bricks without straw), wage theft, discrimination, dangerous conditions and abuse.
This Labor Day weekend, let’s do our share to stand with workers. Let’s remember that:
God hears the cry of oppressed workers. Workers and justice for workers is not a minor issue. It is the central theme in the liberation story.
We must choose to recognize and learn from the burning bushes. We are regularly sent burning bushes, messages, about God’s priorities, but we must intentionally turn to hear them.
And, God can use each one of us to make a difference, to fight oppression, to help workers. We may think we are inadequate, or too busy, or that someone else could do a better job, but each one of us can – and should – make a difference.
I know you are part of this congregation in part because of worship, in part because of community, but also in part because you are encouraged to make a difference. God cares about workers, sends us messengers to understand oppression and with your fellow congregants, you are called to respond. Here I am Lord. Thanks be to God.