‘Fearless prophet’ links religion with labor justice
Written by Anthony Moujaes February 2, 2013
Kim Bobo, standing at right, speaks to a crowd in Cleveland about labor issues.
At the place faith communities and labor issues intersect, that's where you'll find Kim Bobo. As the founder of the Interfaith Workers for Justice, and member of the United Church of Christ, she has been at the forefront of bridging religion with labor justice for 15 years.
"This is my faith. If you put the scripture down into a nutshell, it's loving God and worshiping God, and it's loving your neighbor as yourself, and how do you love your neighbor as yourself if you don't care how they are treated and how they are cared for?" said Bobo. "I feel like I've spent my whole life trying to do that second part, really loving my neighbor as myself in a meaningful and useful and significant way."
Bobo, of Good News Community Church in Chicago, has been recognized for her work by the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries as a "prophet on the edge," the theme for Women's Week, Feb. 3-9.
The UCC has been engaged with IWJ from start, Bobo said. She founded the organization in 1996, and as its executive director she worked to nurture partnerships with the organized labor (primarily unions) by engaging the religious community on economic issues. Since then, IWJ has built a network of interfaith groups and worker centers throughout the country.
Paul Sherry, who was president of the UCC from 1989 to 1999, said he knows of "no one who is more fully committed to working for justice for the working poor than Kim Bobo. The interfaith organization that she heads, Interfaith Worker Justice, is the primary national faith based body working on behalf of the working poor. Kim founded IWJ over 15 years ago and has led it effectively since that time. She is an outstanding justice advocate."
The first 10 years of Bobo's career involved with mobilizing faith communities on hunger issues and low-income housing. During a coal miners' strike in southwest Virginia 1989, Bobo volunteered to assemble a religious committee, but the various denominations she contacted for help didn't have anyone focused on the issue of labor. "I always thought there were groups in the faith communities working on labor issues. I knew the hunger people and the housing people and thought, there must be these other labor folks," Bobo said.
People such as Edith Rasell, UCC Minister for Economic Justice, have seen Bobo's impact in bringing faith communities to the forefront of advocating for labor justice.
"Kim is an incredible force for justice — a very smart, strategic thinker, charismatic leader, tireless advocate, dynamic speaker, and fearless prophet," Rasell said. "I see and hear about what she does around the country and I am so grateful that she is part of the UCC."
So from 1991 to 1995, Bobo worked with religious communities in Chicago on labor issues as a volunteer, then in 1996 she founded IWJ to spread her work throughout the United States to advocate on issues such as a decent minimum wage, paid sick days and wage theft — which has become her signature issue.
Her book, 'Wage Theft in America,' written in 2008 and revised in 2011, has become the go-to guide on outlining the wage-theft crisis for workers.
"I've kind of become the queen of wage theft," Bobo said. "So we're really lifting up and helping workers. In the last year, our network helped workers recover about $5 million in unpaid wages. Frankly that's a drop on the bucket of what needs to be done because its millions of dollars that are stolen."
In the next 6 to 9 months, Bobo will have IWJ concentrate almost exclusively on immigration reform, an issue central to labor justice. IWJ considers the creation of a path to citizenship a critical issue in stopping the exploitation of immigrant workers.
"Immigration reform and worker rights are synonymous in this moment in history," Bobo said. "People come to this country not to go to Disneyland. The come to this country to work. Figuring out how we create a path to citizenship for these 11 million undocumented immigrants is clearly what we have to do as a nation.
"This is a place where (the faith community) are coming together in really amazing ways," Bobo added. "This is a great unifying issue for the faith community."