Recently, Interfaith Justice Worker (IWJ)– an Alinskyian organization focused on using the religious community to support workers’ (union) issues – announced a new Executive Director, Laura Barrett, who spent 11 years with the Gamaliel Network, part of that as its National Campaign Director and interim leadership team.  (She was also Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.)
 
Barrett replaces Kim Bobo, a veteran organizer who began her career as a trainer for the Alinskyian Midwest Academy and founded the IWJ’s first iteration, the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, in the early 1990s.  The organization’s purpose was “to facilitate relationships between local religious leaders and labor unions throughout the United States.”[1]
 
Over the years, these “relationships” have made for some interesting – if disturbing – couplings.  “Unions are …cultivating the next generation of church leaders,” one observer wrote, pointing to IWJ’s “Seminary Summer,” an arrangement by which seminarians spend their summer with union locals.   “Within three years most of these students will be in leadership positions in congregations,” predicted IWJ head Kim Bobo shortly after the program began in 2000. Since then, some 200 seminarians have helped unionize Mississippi poultry workers, aided the Service Employees International Union in organizing Georgia public-sector employees, and bolstered campaigns for living-wage legislation in California municipalities. [2]
 
The strategy of engaging the religious left has been so successful that IWJ and its labor colleagues founded over 60 local affiliates – like the other Alinskyian organizing networks, IWJ has scores of locals all over the country.[3]
 
The Wayne State University Labor Studies Center’s “activist handbook” advises living-wage campaigns always to put religious leaders out front. “As soon as you have clergy arguing for something called a ‘living wage,’ you’ve lost the battle if you’re representing businesses.”[4]
 
It’s all about strategy, not religious values, per se:
 
“When you have a faith community, it adds a moral and ethical component”—all the more effective in that the Religious Left essentially has the spiritual terrain to itself on economic matters, which Christian conservative groups have mostly ignored. …Having established itself in many places as the moral authority on economic issues, the resurgent Religious Left has brought back the fiery redistributionist language of the social gospel. [5]
 
To assure that the religious voice was used to its own purposes, the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (IWJ) founding Board of Directors included Monsignor Jack Egan – one of Saul Alinsky’s staunchest disciples and a premier force behind the Catholic Church’s dissenting Call to Action movement.  “Labor priest” Monsignor George Higgins was another and Monsignor Phil Murnion, who was director of the National Pastoral Life Center and another Call to Action supporter, were others.[6]  It’s no coincidence that Kim Bobo, National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice founder and executive director,[7] has been listed for years as a speaker for Call to Action’s referral service.[8] 
 
The efforts of National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice/Interfaith Worker Justice have consistently been directed toward progressive political solutions.  In 1991, while working for Midwest Academy, Bobo coauthored Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990's.[9]  A few years later, Bobo is acknowledged for her “inspiration” in preparing the – among other things, pro-abortion – activist handbook "How to Win: A Practical Guide for Defeating the Radical Right in Your Community."  Her particular contribution concerned the involvement of religious communities. [10]
 
Bobo has challenged what she calls “conservative Christian forces” that are “monopolizing the morality-in-politics debate around such issues as abortion rights and same-sex marriage,” believing instead that Christians ought to focus more on economic justice.[11]
 
It is against this background that the work of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) is understood.  The 2011 IWJ website carried a number of “resources” targeted at “conservative Christian” congregations.  There was a set of “questions and answers” to clarify the IWJ position on a particular piece of legislation and another version “formatted as a bulletin insert.” There was also “a step-by-step guide [to]…explain how to organize a delegation of religious leaders and congregational members to engage [its]…senators” about the proposed legislation.  Lastly, there were supportive statements from numerous “faith leaders” – presumably useful for demonstrating how compatible the legislation was with various faith traditions – no matter how “conservative” they may be.[12] 
 
That is only one, small example of the materials targeting the congregations of various faiths. What is problematic about them is that they present the IWJ agenda as if it were “Church teaching,” redefining religious terms and concepts to forward their own, secular economic perspective, one that is shared with the Democratic Socialists of America. 
 
These, then, is the organization Laura Barrett is inheriting.  Given her 11 years with Gamaliel, she comes well-prepared to further the founder’s vision.
 
 
[1] George E. Schultze, SJ, “Work, Worship, and Laborem Exercens in the United States Today,” working draft paper, University of San Francisco, undated.  
[2] Steven Malanga, “The Religious Left, Reborn,” City Journal, Autumn, 2007.
[3] IWJ website, “History,” www.iwj.org/template/page.cfm?id=93:  “In just eleven years, IWJ has organized a national network of more than 70 interfaith committees, workers' centers and student groups, making it the leading national organization working to strengthen the religious community's involvement in issues of workplace justice…”
[4] “The Religious Left, Reborn…”
[5] “The Religious Left, Reborn…”
[6] IWJ website, “History,” www.iwj.org/template/page.cfm?id=93
[7] Bobo continues as the executive director of IWJ as of 2011.
[8] Call to Action, Speakers and Artists Referral Service: www.cta-usa.org/resstars.html (accessed 10-4-11). 
[9] Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, Steve Max, Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990's, Seven Locks Press, 1991 (copyright held by the Midwest Academy).  Chapter 17 is “Working with Religious Organizations.”
[10] Radical Right Task Force, How to Win: A Practical Guide for Defeating the Radical Right in Your Community, 1994. 
[11] Don Lattin, “Pushing poverty into 'moral-values' debate: Some religious leaders trying to broaden discussion beyond abortion and marriage,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12-12-04.
[12] Interfaith Worker Justice website, Employee Free Choice Act, links to supportive materials: http://www.iwj.org/template/page.cfm?id=203 (accessed 10-10-11)


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Spero News columnist Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequeños newspaper and is the author of the four-volume Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies, which is available at Amazon.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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