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The InterVIEW

Campaign funds advocacy for workers' rights

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Tim Bell didn’t know much about the struggles of low-wage workers until he started teaching English as a second language in South Chicago. There, he met people who had come to Chicago to work in the steel mills. When the mills shut down, their jobs were gone, and with little education, the workers found themselves taking employment that barely made ends meet. When his students would tell Bell about the issues they faced, he thought they should work together to do something about them.

He leads the Chicago Workers Collaborative, an organization that this year received $40,000 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. The campaign is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic anti-poverty program. This year, the campaign distributed grants totaling $9.6 million to 314 projects in 46 states. In the Archdiocese of Chicago, 24 organizations received a total of $533,000 in grant money.

Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago have traditionally been the largest contributors to the campaign; last year, they contributed $881,982. This year’s collection will be the weekend of Nov. 17-18.

Catholic New World: What does the Chicago Workers Collaborative do?

Tim Bell: The workers collaborative works directly with low-wage workers, develops their skills so that they can improve their working conditions, and seek more just treatment in their workplaces.

We do that through reaching out to the workers throughout the Chicago metro region, inviting them to learn, inviting them to denounce injustices that they’ve suffered and inviting them to work collectively to make changes in their workplaces, and also in the laws that protect their rights in the workplace.

CNW: What are injustices that have happened?

TB:We’ve had workers getting paid $2 an hour, workers physically beaten to (make them) work harder. We’ve had sort of a systemic discrimination against workers based on their national origin, their inability to speak English well and therefore not understand the protections that most workers in the United States take for granted. That opens the door to all the other exploitative practices.

CNW: Are they in permanent jobs or are they temporary workers or day laborers?

TB: It’s a mixture. Increasingly, the permanent jobs are being lost to the temporary labor sector. That makes their jobs very precarious. It puts the workers at another disadvantage in terms of being able to improve conditions in their workplaces because, if they speak out, there’s an immediate form of retaliation that their employers can use, which is to say, “There’s no work for you tomorrow,” in the temp situation. In the temp sector, there are literally 300,000 or 400,000 people in the Chicago region.

CNW: What does CCHD funding do for you?

TB: It enables us to survive, basically. It enables us to do all the training and logistical work that workers need in order to be able to really fight for their rights. It’s funding that if we didn’t have it, we would have a hard time existing as an organization.

We’ve invested a lot of time and effort into volunteers and building people’s ability to be effective without having to be paid staff so that the organization has a bigger impact than just its staff.

CNW: When people do speak out, do they face ramifications?

TB: Oh, absolutely. These are brave people. There were people who sacrificed their jobs to march on May 1. There were workers that basically just said, “We’re marching, and you didn’t give us permission. We understand you may fire us.” Those are people who are members of our organization. They realize you can’t have any gain unless you take risks.

But whatever risks that people take we want them to see that there’s a plan and that the risk that they are taking is an intelligent risk; it’s not a crazy risk. In all of our history, that’s how improvements in labor conditions have been made: People took the risk, whether it was for the 40-hour workweek or the right for women to be able to take time off to have a baby. Whatever the reason is, there are workers who take risks to win those things.

CNW: How is immigration reform connected to worker rights?

TB: Unless there is an immigration reform, the rights of all workers in this country are undermined because you have a second tier of workers that unscrupulous employers can employ, and this undercuts the standards of all workers.

The most important action that U.S.- born workers can hope for, as far as their ability to have higher pay and better working conditions, is that other workers that are second-tier are given full legal protections. That puts everybody on the same playing field.

Worker-rights organizations look at it a little bit differently than immigrant-rights organizations, because our focus is what actions are we going to take that are going to improve working conditions for everybody— not just immigrants but also for African Americans, for anyone who doesn’t have an opportunity to go to college and is stuck in a job that’s low-wage? People have to do this work in this country. You can’t have a country that says everyone is going to go to school and no one is going to clean.