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Workers’ rights advocate will receive Pacem in Terris Award

By Barb Arland-Fye on May 31, 2012
© The Catholic Messenger

A woman who leads an interfaith organization committed to improving wages, benefits and conditions for low-wage workers will be honored with the 2012 Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.


Kim Bobo, the executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, based in Chicago, will receive the award Sept. 16 in Christ the King Chapel at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.The award commemorates Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris, which means Peace on Earth. Previous award recipients include Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Lech Walesa and Msgr. Marvin Mottet.


Bobo told The Catholic Messenger she felt honored to be selected for the award, but after looking at the list of past recipients didn’t think she belonged on it.


Pacem in Terris Coalition members respectfully disagree. Msgr. Mottet, a retired priest of the Davenport Diocese, nominated Bobo for this year’s award. “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,” Msgr. Mottet said.


“Kim Bobo, as the national authority on the injustice of wage theft, calls people of all faiths to join together in defense of the ‘inalienable dignity of workers,’” said Kent Ferris, facilitator of the Pacem in Terris Coalition. “She shows the world that education, organization and advocacy are means of achieving the common good,” added Ferris, director of Social Action and of Catholic Charities for the Davenport Diocese.


Bobo, a 57-year-old Ohio native, comes from a devout Christian family that believed in coming to the aid of those in need. After graduating from college, she began working for systemic change while employed with Bread for the World. She later worked as a trainer for Midwest Academy, which engages people in social change through a strategic, results-oriented approach to social action and organization building.


Through her organizing efforts, Bobo realized “labor didn’t understand the power of the religious community and there was no structure locally or nationally to do this labor support work.” So she created the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues.


She didn’t figure her work would go beyond Chicago, but she discovered that “the involvement of religious communities mattered to the workers, the employers and the public perception of the issue,” she said. Requests came in from across the country to form similar groups in other cities. That led to the creation in 1996 of the National Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice. Through the organization’s efforts, a network of more than 50 religion-labor groups and 20 workers centers around the country has been developed. Programs have been launched, such as “Labor in the Pulpits” and “Seminary Summer,” the latter of which places seminary and rabbinical students with unions for summer internships. Congregational resources on economic justice have been created, and a national campaign is underway to challenge wage theft and to seek new ways to collaborate with government agencies to better enforce labor laws.


“In my experience, most everyone in the religious community really wants to help … they want to make sure people get paid and get paid fairly,” said Bobo, who wrote a book “Wage Theft in America” that was published last year. But, as a wife and mother of twin high school seniors, she recognizes that “most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Where am I going to picket’? Our job as organizers — and that’s fundamentally what I am, a woman of faith who is an organizer — is to help people understand where they can get involved to make a difference.”


She doesn’t ask anyone to do anything she wouldn’t be willing to do. She recalled receiving a request to have religious leaders chain themselves to a poultry line. “Who in their right mind is going to chain themselves to a poultry line?” Bobo said. “I ask people to do things that make sense and there’s a decent chance that the things people do are going to make a difference and change conditions.”


As a result, “we are winning local and state wage-theft campaigns to strengthen enforcement efforts to help workers get paid all of their wages,” she said.  And, “we’ve won campaigns to get paid sick days for workers” in places such as San Francisco, Seattle, the state of Connecticut and Washington, D.C.


The abuse and exploitation of immigrants also concerns Bobo, who in 2003 helped organize the 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride to engage people of faith in speaking out on this issue.


Now she’s calling for Walmart to redistribute wealth at the top by providing living wages and better treatment for workers. In an email to supporters, she said Interfaith Worker Justice plans to deliver an open letter June 1 at the company’s shareholders’ meeting.


“Walmart is celebrating its 50-year-anniversary this year, and people of faith are calling for Jubilee at Walmart. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, jubilee mandates the freeing of slaves, canceling of debts and redistribution of resources every 50 years to limit inequality,” she said in the email. “It seems very biblical to me to ask people who have more to give more,” she told The Catholic Messenger.

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