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CURRENT ISSUE:  September 3, 2007 • VOL. 45, NO. 15 • Okland, CA

East Bay group labors for worker justice

Jesuit John Braverman, a graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, participates in a prayer vigil on May 15 in front of the Emeryville City Hall on behalf of workers at the Woodfin hotel.

INTERFAITH COMMITTEE FOR WORKER JUSTICE PHOTO


Who says there is no place for religion in the workplace? The Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice certainly doesn’t.

The 8-year-old group, a project of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, supports workers’ causes, with faith as its bargaining tool.

“People are trained to separate public citizenship and faith…they think they need not and cannot get involved because it’s a labor or business issue,” said ICWJ organizer Kristi Laughlin.

But “faith calls us to create conditions and relationships that are bound by justice and that are ethical,” she said.

ICWJ, which includes clergy and laity from diverse faiths, has played a pivotal role in labor disputes in the East Bay, most recently involving hotel and spa workers, and truck drivers at the Port of Oakland.
This Labor Day weekend, ICWJ presented its annual Labor in the Pulpit program, where more than 35 of these workers spoke at approximately 40 area services.

Each worker highlighted “their stories and struggles in their fight for better working conditions,” said ICWJ organizer Pastor Ricky Jenkins.

The struggles of Port truck drivers have consumed much of Jenkins’ energy this year, as activists pressure the Port to implement environmental and labor standards.

Supporters of the drivers attribute to the Port low trucker wages, unsafe trucks, health problems, a lack of benefits, and pollution from truck emissions.

At a prayer vigil on May 15, 2007, Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Mary Pat White, blesses Delfina, a housekeeper at the Woodfin Hotel in Emeryville who was fired April 27 for standing up for a living wage ordinance.

INTERFAITH COMMITTEE FOR WORKER JUSTICE PHOTO


ICWJ, which organized a “Drive for Justice” in support of the truckers in February, has joined with the national Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports to leave its stamp on “clean trucks” standards being drafted by the Port.

Among other things, supporters have urged the Port to enforce local hiring programs, set clean air standards and require trucking companies to improve working conditions as a prerequisite for doing business with Port.

The Port’s Director of Public Affairs Libby Schaaf values the input. “We are listening to many stakeholder groups including Drive for Justice about their concerns and suggestions which will influence our decisions,” she said.

“The Port of Oakland is definitely open to change…,” Schaaf said.

Imperative to the Coalition’s blueprint for change is the reclassification of drivers as employees, Jenkins said.

Trucking companies currently classify about 2,500 drivers as independent contractors, precluding oversight by the Port.

Independent drivers are responsible for their own health insurance—which about 90 percent forego—and costly maintenance of their own trucks, said Jenkins.

Religious leaders join with labor leaders and local residents in a march from Emeryville City Hall to the Woodfin Hotel on April 10 to demand justice for hotel workers. Over 300 people participated in the march, including from left, Father Stephan Kappler, parochial administrator of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Berkeley, Franciscan Father Ponchie Vasquez, Franciscan Brother Sebastian Sandoval, and the Rev. Israel Alvaran, a Methodist minister.

INTERFAITH COMMITTEE FOR WORKER JUSTICE PHOTO

Truckers’ wages are low; Jenkins estimates as little as $7 per hour.

As independent contractors, the drivers cannot unionize and improve their conditions, Jenkins explained.

Because of such factors as insufficient Port parking and other inefficiencies, truckers sit idling for hours in West Oakland, awaiting their loads, Jenkins said. The trucks spew harmful diesel fumes, causing residents and truckers to become ill, he said.

The Port could improve conditions by forcing trucking companies to hire truckers as employees, Jenkins indicated. The Port would then have the authority to mandate benefits and shift the cost of truck maintenance back to the companies.

The Port’s latest clean truck proposal, part of a comprehensive truck management plan, incorporates many of the Coalition’s requests, such as environmental standards and local hiring, Jenkins said.

But it stops short of employment reclassification, “and that is the lynchpin,” he said. The Coalition will continue to advocate for that concession.

Although there are issues to work out, the relationship has been favorable, said Diann Castleberry, the Port’s manager of community and customer relations.

“We have had very positive experiences with religious leaders in this community including the ICWJ. It’s clear that the faith-based community is genuinely concerned about quality of life issues facing working people in the East Bay,” she said.

The Port expects to submit its proposal to the Maritime Commission by the end of the year, said spokesperson Marilyn Sandifur.

Yvonne Smith brings her own experience to the Port battle.

The St. Patrick’s parishioner and 60-year resident of West Oakland is also an active member of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), network of grass-roots community groups that is part of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports with ICWJ.

She recently addressed Port commissioners at an open forum.

Smith stressed the need for a local hiring program, describing closed factories throughout West Oakland and neighborhood shootings. “Maybe with jobs, we could alleviate crime,” she said.

She echoed concerns about the health hazards posed by emissions, recalling her two great nephews who died from asthma. “It’s a big thing in children and adults in West Oakland,” Smith said.

Smith spoke at Labor in the Pulpit this weekend. Her message: “Get involved in any way you can…These things are important.”

ICWJ’s voice was heard loud and clear in Emeryville last week where a year of pickets and rallies culminated in victory for immigrant workers terminated by the Woodfin Suites Hotel last April.

ICWJ claims the 12 housekeepers were fired in retaliation for demanding that the hotel comply with Emeryville’s living wage law in August 2006, Laughlin said.

On Aug. 27, the Emeryville City Council voted unanimously to order Woodfin to pay the housekeepers approximately $250,000 in back wages. The hotel was also fined $45,500 for failing to turn over records in a timely manner.

The hearing opened to a “standing room only” crowd, Laughlin said, following a City Hall rally of more than 200 supporters, including Woodfin workers and their families.

Woodfin must comply by Sept. 14, and workers vow the pickets will continue until then. “We’re so close to victory,” said housekeeper Maria Lopez. “We won’t give up now.”

ICWJ met with success at another hotel in March, helping secure higher wages and health benefits for hospitality workers at Claremont Resort and Spa in Berkeley, said Laughlin. Spa employees also gained union representation, she said.

Father Brian Joyce, pastor of Christ the King Church in Pleasant Hill, urges Catholics to support workers. “Our faith and our Church has a long tradition of concern for justice in many areas, a major one being labor,” he said.

Joyce, who helped acquire $10,000 for the Hardship Fund for the fired Woodfin workers, said, “Catholics should lend moral support to workers’ issues, contact public officials, give financial support, and, if possible, be present at important rallies.”

ICWJ has around 50 members, led by an interfaith board. Despite their different religious traditions, members join in one common cause. “We have a proud saying,” said Jenkins. “‘All religions believe in justice.’”

For information, contact Kristi Laughlin at (510) 893-7106, ext. 14 or kristi@workingeastbay.org.



 


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