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Kim Bobo: Labor and the Lord’s Work

Kim Bobo’s work at the Interfaith Worker Justice organization focuses on alleviating poverty as well as educating and protecting low-wage workers.

January 5, 2014

Kim Bobo founded Interfaith Worker Justice in 1996 to organize community leaders to advocate for labor rights. Photo by Nicolas Gourguechon.

The old church that houses the offices of Interfaith Worker Justice on Chicago’s far north side is the manifestation of Kim Bobo’s purpose: the fusion of religion and social justice.

On the building’s fourth floor, Bobo works in what was the pastor’s quarters. She apologized for the little clutter strewn about the office, but that little bit of clutter, scattered atop her desk and bookshelves, reveals this is the office of somebody wholly dedicated to a cause.

Bobo is the author of “Wage Theft in America,” which highlights the widespread and often unnoticed practice of wage theft — or the illegal withholding of wages or benefits owed to an employee — in the United States. The second edition of the book was published in 2011.

Jane Addams for the 21st Century
Bobo likens the work her organization does to that of pioneering social worker Jane Addams in Chicago’s immigrant slums in the early 20th century.

“The settlement houses at the turn of the century were trying to organize immigrant workers who weren’t being protected by our labor laws — and frankly were being abused in many workplaces — trying to figure out how they got paid and to figure out the standards of the society,” said Bobo, Interfaith Worker Justice’s executive director.

One hundred years later, it appears that labor-rights advocates such as Bobo are still necessary as she and others continue to push for an increased federal minimum wage and fast-food industry workers to earn $15 per hour.

Bobo founded Interfaith Worker Justice in 1996 as a way to organize community religious leaders to advocate for labor rights. The group is connected with more than 70 interfaith groups nationwide, as well as the growing number of worker centers and student groups dedicated to workers’ rights issues. The agency’s mission is to help workers file complaints with the U.S. Labor Department and other government agencies. It takes groups of religious leaders to speak with employers regarding workers’ rights and organize worker centers — nonprofit groups that function as a resource center for many low-wage immigrant workers.  

Oftentimes immigrants from non-English speaking countries can go to worker centers to take English as a Second Language classes, learn their workplace rights or seek pro bono legal advice.

Wage TheftIn 2012, Bobo received the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, which is given for achievements in peace and justice, not only in the person’s home country but also around the world. Past recipients of the award, given by the Davenport (Iowa) Catholic Interracial Council, include Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu.

“She’s doing something that has to be done; she’s bringing all the faiths together to support the right of working people to organize. She gets seminarians and clergy of all faiths to support the weakest people in the United States, people like immigrants, people of color who work in jobs with very low pay,” said Monsignor Marvin Mottet, a retired priest of the Davenport (Iowa) Diocese who nominated Bobo for the award, in a written statement.

While Bobo and her 18 employees tackle labor issues such as wage theft through public policy changes and community organizing, she said human resources managers can help reduce unethical or questionable business practices in the private sector that negatively affect low-wage workers.

“HR directors can stop bad behavior if they speak up against it. They can also allow it to go on, but they ought to know what the laws are and they ought to be speaking up when their employers aren’t paying people fairly. It’s a huge problem in this society,” Bobo said.

Background
Bobo, 58, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in Cincinnati. “I memorized lots of Bible verses as a kid,” she said. She came to understand the importance of charity early on and realized she could live a fulfilling Christian life by helping poor people. Bobo attended Barnard College in New York and majored in religion.

“I got my B.A. in religion because I wanted to understand how people of faith were engaged in the world,” said Bobo, who also has a master’s degree in economics from New York’s New School for Social Research. “I wanted to help people. When I realized there were broader ways that we could help people, other than just one-on-one casework and that organizing people was part of how you do that, I became kind of an organizer.”

She moved to Chicago to work for the Midwest Academy, a training center for community organizers. While she was working there, a young Barack Obama was making a name for himself as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, too. Although they never worked together, Bobo said they were both aware of each other’s work in poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Chicago. When Obama first ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Bobo held a fundraiser for his campaign at her house and he made an appearance. “Although, of course I have no photos,” she lamented.

After working for the academy, Bobo took a job with Bread for the World, an organization dedicated to fighting global hunger.

Although it was Bobo’s faith that initially steered her toward a career in social work, her involvement in the Pittston, Pennsylvania, coal miners’ strike in the late 1980s convinced her to fight for social justice as a labor-rights advocate.  

The Pittston Mine Co. decided to cut pensions and benefits for pensioners, injured miners and the surviving widows of deceased miners. In response, the Pittston miners went on strike. Bobo said she was deeply moved by the miners’ display of solidarity.

“These folks were going out on strike not even for themselves. They were going out on strike for pensioners to make sure they got the health care they were promised. And I said, ‘Boy is that a righteous strike.’ So I engaged the faith community in working on that and supporting those workers. In the process I realized there was not much structure around the country for engaging faith leaders in these issues and that we need to figure out how to do that.”

In response, Bobo started Interfaith Worker Justice to organize the faith community as a way to advocate for low-wage workers. Shortly thereafter, the organization also became involved with organizing worker centers throughout the country.

“People started sending us random workers who hadn’t gotten paid. There were no structures to help them. We started building worker centers, and other worker centers heard about our work and connected with us,” she said.

Established in the American South in the late 1970s and early ’80s, worker centers first appeared as a way to protect workers in states where unions held little power.

In Texas the first worker center supported migrant agriculture workers. In the Carolinas, worker centers were organized by black workers to combat institutionalized racism in Southern society. Compared with the first couple of decades of their existence, they have grown rapidly in recent years. In the past 30 years, worker centers have increased their power and numbers. In 1992 there were only five known worker centers in the United States, while today there are more than 200.

Recently, worker centers have attracted negative attention. Some critics allege they are simply labor unions operating as nonprofit organizations, while some believe worker centers give unions an unfair advantage over employers in organizing campaigns. Others say worker centers’ status as nonprofits and their consequent freedom from National Labor Relations Act limitations offers an opportunity for worker centers to abuse their members.

Bobo said she believes worker centers are being criticized because they challenge the status quo of labor relations.

“Worker centers are pointing out the legitimate problems that are occurring in our society,” Bobo said. “These efforts are really challenging employers to ask, ‘How are we paying people?’ How do we pay people equitably and fairly, so that when we’re competing, we’re competing on quality of work and not by driving down wages and standards for all society?”

As a nonprofit, a worker center is not limited by federal labor union laws, which means worker centers can engage in activities that labor unions cannot. For example, a worker center can legally stage a secondary boycott — when one of the bigger customers of a targeted company is picketed — to pressure an employer to acquiesce with employee demands for better wages, benefits or working conditions.

A nonprofit organization could be ruled a labor union under various federal acts, but mainly groups are determined to be unions according to the definitions provided by the NLRA and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.

Labor Rights and the Role of HR
Fifteen percent of people living in the United States live in poverty, which is the highest level since the early 1990s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The increase in U.S. poverty can in part be explained by a widening income and wealth disparity, the decline of national union membership and influence, and widespread wage theft — all of which potentially present obstacles to the upward mobility of low-wage workers. A 2009 National Law Employment Project study noted that two-thirds of low-wage workers in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago were victims of wage theft.

Worker centers have been trying to remove those obstacles.

‘She’s doing something that has to be done; she’s bringing all the faiths together to support the right of working people to organize.’
—?Monsignor Marvin Mottet, a retired priest of the Davenport (Iowa) Diocese

Bobo said the ultimate goal is to “lift up core standards in society, so we don’t have people working and still living in poverty. The church where I’m really active in Chicago started a soup kitchen that feeds 150 people a night. Half the people who are in there work. It’s not like they don’t work. They work! And they’re still having to take advantage of a soup kitchen because they don’t earn enough.”

Bobo and her staff work to alleviate poverty by ensuring labor laws are enforced, advocating for public policy changes, and encouraging groups of workers that are affected by a common workplace issue to organize or join a union.

But organizations like the Interfaith Worker Justice can only effect so much change on behalf of low-wage workers. Employers also need to be willing to fairly compensate their employees in the bottom levels of the organization. Bobo thinks human resources departments have an important part to play in labor-rights issues.

“I think HR has an advocacy role to play for workers who are most vulnerable to those inside their organizations,” Bobo said. “The HR people in the ethical companies who are treating people fairly need to be pushing the whole private sector because, honestly, what’s happening is the bad apples that cheat their workers’ wages and undermine wages really place the ethical companies at a disadvantage.”

Permatemp workforces — a relatively consistent, large group of temporary workers used for years without being converted to full-time employees — and classifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees and wage theft are a couple of examples of unethical business practices Bobo said HR managers should advocate against.

Susan Heathfield, a human resources consultant in Michigan and the curator of About.com’s human resources page, said she agrees with Bobo on this point. In fact, Heathfield said she would take the argument a little further.

“I think that human resources staff should be the heart of the company, working with all the organization on development issues, working to keep managers ethical, law-abiding,” she said. “I have to make sure we’re treating every single employee ethically, and with care, and with respect.”

Heathfield said the traditional role of HR acting as the systematizing, policing, enforcement arm of executive management is dead. She believes HR managers should act as coaches of both managers and employees, and also work with executives to develop programs that help the corporation achieve its goals while making sure employees are engaged and motivated.

Successfully improving standards for low-wage workers will ultimately come down to a joint effort by private-sector companies and labor-rights advocates, Bobo said.

“I think it’s really got to be a collaboration. Workers do have to organize; we’ve got to have some unions. I think we’ve got to have worker centers at this moment,” she said. “But what we also need is ethical leadership in companies. Part of that ethical leadership is HR.”

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.