Since the 1970s economic inequality has surged to levels not seen since the 1920s, Dickensian abuses of workers have returned, and deregulation has enabled the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. President Obama’s Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, faces challenges not unlike Perkins’s. Yet today, as in the 1930s, crisis also creates the opportunity for a bold new direction—a New New Deal, potentially more inclusive of the nation’s diverse labor force than Perkins could have imagined. Might the nation’s churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples again have a role in rescuing a wayward economy?
In addressing this question, Solis can learn much from Kim Bobo, founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). Bobo’s goal is to revive America’s justice-seeking prophetic tradition, with a particular focus on economic justice. In her new book, Wage Theft in America, Bobo argues powerfully for the importance of community allies in improving struggling workers’ lives. She aims to rouse believers from all faith traditions to a new sense of social mission. Her starting point, and the focus of her book, is to address a more specific challenge: “why millions of working Americans are not getting paid and what we can do about it.” The charge is not an exaggeration. Using Department of Labor settlements (which her organization has done much to win), Bobo documents how companies steal literally billions of dollars from millions of workers each year.
The cruelest cases involve undocumented and vulnerable immigrants, among them construction day laborers who are sometimes paid literally nothing for their back-breaking work. But the problem is not confined to small businesses using undocumented workers. Cintas, the huge industrial laundry with more than $3 billion in sales in 2007, subcontracted to a sweatshop in Bobo’s own northside Chicago neighborhood that was shortchanging workers $1 an hour by paying less than minimum wage—even requiring them to supply their own toilet paper in the company restroom. Through its outsourcing system, Cintas “had essentially stolen over $100,000 from poverty wage workers.” The Department of Labor agreed and mandated