Tell Your Neighbor the Truth

Arise Chicago has been partnering with low-wage immigrant workers for years. Here are the stories of their courage and devastation in the face of Covid-19.

In a recent lectionary reading, the book of Ephesians admonishes us to “Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ’s body we’re all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself.” 

As Christians, we are called to speak the truth. Jesus never hesitated to speak the truth, regularly rebuking hypocrisy, greed, patriarchy, and exploitation, regardless of his audience or the consequences.

Today, we must speak the truth to those who are creating a parallel universe that ignores working peole, filled with self-promoting opinions being promulgated as truth. Daily, even hourly, false pronouncements from elected officials and conspirators, spun millions of times over on social and traditional media, have resulted in a prolonged pandemic, a devastated Earth, a democracy in peril, families torn apart at the border, and a soaring global refugee crisis − to name just a few tragedies. Capitalism is at the core of each one of these tragedies.

Moreover, the rise of neofascism in our country and across the world is as alarming as the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich should have been in 1923. The alarms are sounding and the barbarians are at the gate. Capitalism is scorching the earth and threatening our lives. Where is the church? Where is its moral voice? And how can it be heard above the cacophony of false prophets?


Labor Day

While the Christian faith compels us to tell our neighbors the truth, this is impossible without also listening to our neighbors. In this article, I focus on one “neighbor” we must attend to urgently: low-wage immigrant workers.

The second Labor Day of the Covid pandemic provides a laser-focused lens for seeing how patriarchal capitalism is devastating the lives of our neighbors. In honor of the very people who kept most of us safe and comfortable in the pandemic, this article introduces five low-wage immigrant workers, most of whom were or are deemed “essential” in this pandemic. Their stories demonstrate how capitalism dehumanizes the lives of those struggling at the bottom of the economic and social ladders – ladders that, by design, are missing the next wrung. I also propose some questions and possible solutions for the reader.

These stories emerge as a result of the dedicated and talented staff of Arise Chicago, a  workers’ rights group that has been partnering with faith communities for over 30 years to bring a fuller measure of God’s justice to the workplace.

For Labor Day week, here are the stories of our neighbors’ courage and devastation.


Meet Juan

“I shouldn’t have gone to work. I just shouldn’t have gone in,” a dazed Juan reflected.

A food production worker, Juan was the sole supporter of his retired parents, who also lived with him. At the outbreak of the pandemic, Juan did all the grocery shopping and got medicines for his parents, protecting them from risking a Covid-19 infection by leaving the apartment. Juan was proud of how well he cared for his parents and loved them deeply.

Arise Chicago first connected with Juan and his coworkers back in 2018. At that time, three workers at the suburban Chicago food processing plant reached out to Arise because they were alarmed by the plant’s unsafe working conditions. For the next year, Arise Chicago educated the workforce and organized them into a solid majority, culminating in the majority of the 120 food processing workers voting to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 union.

So when a coworker turned up positive for Covid-19 at the plant in April 2020, Arise and Local 881 swept in to advise workers on their rights. Over 60 workers signed a petition, stating that they were leaving the workplace to quarantine for 14 days, as advised by the CDC. They delivered the petition to management and left for two weeks. It was a tough decision for each worker because they would not receive unemployment benefits for the two weeks.

However, Juan wanted to continue to provide for his vulnerable parents and decided to stay in the plant. He called Arise a week later to tell us his father had died. Juan had been asymptomatic and, unbeknownst to him, transmitted Covid-19 to his father. Juan was devastated.

Juan called Arise again one week later. His mother had also died. Juan, who is in his mid-30’s, is now sentenced to live out his days with deep regret. Regret that he needed a paycheck. Regret that he is trapped in a system where his labor is exploited, to the point of family death. Regret that his plant stayed open at all.

What did the food processing plant produce that was so essential for us to consume? Jello, pudding, and flan. Really? Do we need jello, pudding, and flan so badly? How can this be deemed “essential”? At a time when there were no masks, Covid-19 tests, or vaccines, who made the decisions about what was deemed “essential” food?


Meet Maria

Another member of Arise Chicago lived in a multi-generational household with eight related adults and one teenager. Everyone in the household had their wages routinely stolen, resulting in their need to house together. At the onset of the pandemic, all eight adults were laid off from their jobs, with no hope of collecting unemployment insurance or a stimulus check, due to their documentation status. For several months, the teenager supported the entire household with her part-time job.

Why couldn’t all laid-off workers receive unemployment insurance and stimulus checks, regardless of documentation status? These workers pay into the system, just like native-born workers. Shouldn’t they receive the same benefits in the pandemic crisis? We relied on the essential immigrant workforce to serve us in the pandemic. But, once they were laid off and undocumented, they were simply abandoned.


Meet Raphael

At a Chicago-based food processing plant of 400 workers, management refused to provide masks and did not enforce social distancing protocols, despite the clear guidelines laid down by the CDC. By late Spring 2020, 85 workers had tested positive for Covid-19. But the plant continued to operate. Workers were regularly discouraged from taking time off, even if they had contracted the virus. Five workers died. For those who did leave the plant to quarantine, the employer illegally withheld their paid sick days from their paychecks.

For a day or two, some workers walked off the job. But, with no financial safety net, they were forced to return. In the summer 2021 hiring spurt, newly hired workers were paid as much as $3.00 an hour more than the experienced workforce. Workers submitted petitions and are now being paid as much as the new hires, but only because they fought for their raises.

What did the plant make that was so essential? Tortillas and chips. Like jello, pudding, and flan, couldn’t we have lived without tortillas and chips for the duration of the pandemic?

While some business owners acted more responsibly, many others did not. Arise Chicago partners with the most vulnerable, exploited workers and is accustomed to how management cuts corners. If conditions were dismal pre-pandemic, it was almost certain that owners were not going to facilitate humane, safe conditions in the pandemic. Indeed, virtually all of our members’ lives and the lives of their families were placed at risk.

Why did the U.S. government leave it up to owners as to whether workers were essential or not? Where was OSHA? Moreover, now that we are 19 months into the pandemic, with no end in sight, where is the church? Is the church here just to list the names of the deceased and hold their funerals? Or is the role of the church to lift its prophetic voice to help stop these deaths and the system of exploitation that threatens workers? There is no neutrality in this question.


Meet Sabino

Sabino is a former car wash worker whose wages were stolen by the owner. The owner of the car wash business had illegally refused to pay regular wages to his workers, forcing them to work only for tips. Wage theft is a long-ignored epidemic, impacting the lives of millions of workers each year. In Cook County, which includes Chicago, over $1,000,000 a day is stolen from low-wage workers.

Without his wages, Sabino and his wife were forced to move in with their daughter, who had to work to support the family. Sabino’s wife then contracted Covid-19 and died in December 2020. In May 2021, after a nine-year campaign of being bounced to five different government offices, and with the support of Arise Chicago, the 80-year-old car wash worker won his stolen wages and was awarded a six-figure sum. If Sabino had been paid his stolen wages, he and his wife could have remained in their own home and, quite possibly, she would not have died.

Ten years ago, in partnership with the University of Illinois Labor Education Program, Arise surveyed 81 car wash locations, representing one-third of car washes, in Chicago. Not one single business paid their workers properly.

The rise of our nation as an economic powerhouse on the world stage was rooted in an economy of stolen bodies, stolen labor, and stolen land, dating back over 400 years. Although slavery has been outlawed, the racialized roots of systemic workplace exploitation remain in place, a stain on our nation. Our economy churns and the stock market rises because those at the bottom are exploited. Through day-to-day acts of exploitation, their wages are stolen, their safety is ignored, and their lives are treated as disposable.

Stockholders’ appetite for larger profits and consumer demands for lower prices forces harsher working conditions and lower wages, continually squeezing workers at the bottom. Add to this the fact that immigrant workers pay $7 billion into Social Security each year, a benefit they will never collect because of documentation status. As Barbara Ehrenreich correctly asserted in Nickel and Dimed, the poor are subsiding the lifestyles of the middle class and wealthy.

Where has the church been in all of this? What public stances do denominations take against workplace exploitation and how do they advocate for enforcement? What is the response of the local church, rooted in the communities where these violations take place daily?


Meet Isabella

Arise did see one case where workers were clearly essential: workers who made Personal Protection Equipment – masks, gowns, etc. – for health care professionals. However, the same workers manufacturing PPE were not provided with any PPE in the plant. A worker at the Chicago-based PPE plant died of Covid-19 within the first two months of the pandemic.

“How could we make PPE and not be given PPE?” reflected an outraged Isabella.

With the help of Arise Chicago, the workers walked off the job and until they received PPE – the very next day.

In another campaign, a Chicago chiropractor “opened” a business to make masks. He hired immigrant workers, gave them supplies, and they sewed masks in their homes. They worked for four months and were never paid, not even Not a penny. Arise Chicago is now vigorously working this campaign, building on its history of recovering over $9 million in stolen wages.

The world was demanding PPE and rightfully so. But, did we stop to think about the workers making the masks? Some of them were slaves. All of them were at risk.


Let’s Get Real

Food production workers, manufacturing workers, nursing home workers, and other essential workers did not work to be “heroes”. They worked, at great risk to themselves and their families, because they had no savings, no generational wealth to fall back on, and no other means to support their families. They live in multi-generational households and felt compelled to work, resulting in death, long-Covid cases, and widespread trauma.

A stark light has been shed on the pandemic truth with which we all must now grapple: “Essential workers” are trapped in an unjust economic system that exploits their labor and, in some cases, plainly steals their lives and the lives of their families.

For those of us who have worked remotely (a privilege reserved mostly for high-end workers), we must ask ourselves, “How can I support the workers who helped to make my life safe and comfortable, when they were not safe and comfortable?” And “How can the church launch the kind of response that Jesus would have made?”


A Thank You Note with PRO-Act

We must recognize that our economic system,  kick-started 400 years ago when Europeans came to the Americas, is still based on systemic exploitation. As the centuries unfolded, other European states built more equitable societies by establishing national health care and pension systems, as well as state-owned industries of utilities and transportation. These were not purely elite gifts to the working class. Militant unions were the tool to demand and secure humane workplace treatment. But the Americans did not follow suit. Instead, we have pursued a hyper-capitalist approach, glorifying profits above all else, declaring industrialists to be the patron saints of our country, and doggedly fighting the establishment of working-class organizations.

In the mid-1950’s, when one-third of U.S. workers were unionized, the income equity gap was small. While deindustrialization has contributed to a decline in union membership, there are more insidious forces that have gutted the labor and union movement, including the multi-billion industry of union-busting law firms (unleashed during the Reagan era), the anti-union rhetoric perpetuated especially by corporations and the GOP, and anti-worker laws. This anti-union culture has directly produced today’s chasm between the rich and poor, which has now reached levels not seen since the Great Depression.

But we now have a once-in-a-century chance to begin rebuilding this. The U.S. can allow workers to more freely unionize by passing the PRO Act. “Protecting the Right to Organize Act” has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is now parked in the Senate. The PRO Act would put us on par with other industrialized countries by strengthening the ability of workers to form a union and to collectively bargain wages and working conditions, without fear of retaliation.

2018 MIT study showed that nearly half of all workers today would join a union if given a chance. We need the PRO Act to secure that chance, thereby closing the chasm of inequality, building up working-class power, and stabilizing families and communities. Nationally and locally, over 400 faith leaders are proclaiming the truth that all labor has dignity and that the remedy to end the entrapment of workers in an unjust economic system is unionization. Passing the PRO-Act is a small “thank you” for the huge gift of keeping us fed, comfortable, and alive in the pandemic.


The Hospitality of Legalization

Second, we must grant legal status to all undocumented people living in the U.S., not in ten years but in two years.  David Lettermen once quipped, “Some might say we have 12 million illegal immigrants. If you ask Native Americans, it is more like 330 million.” Not only was the U.S. founded on stolen land, but it has also contributed mightily to economic devastation and social instability in the countries from which immigrants are fleeing. The very least we can do, as an act of justice, is to welcome everyone into it, just as generations of our Irish, German, and Italian ancestors were welcomed. 


Mr. Billion-Coats

Third, we need much more government regulation and oversight of capitalist bosses, and we must resource the government to protect workers. The division of the U.S. Department of Labor that oversees workplace safety, OSHA, has not cited a single employer on unsafe Covid-19 practices. Additionally, we need to shore up the Department of Labor so that employers are fined heavily when they steal wages and force workers into unsafe conditions. Increasing taxes on the wealthiest 1% can fund this and other initiatives.

In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist instructs us, “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.” Let’s assume a coat costs $200. Current calculations place Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as having 1,000,000,000 “coats,” while 45% of the population have no savings, no coats. Mr. Two-coats is actually Mr. Billion-Coats. Since Mr. Billion-Coats used our roads to build his warehouses, our public schools to teach his staff how to read and write, our public resources of water, electricity, fire departments, etc., he should have no objection when the state needs to extract revenues. If he and others like him believed in sharing resources to build his sprawling empire, he should believe in socialism and share resources with others. Mr. Billion-Coats could become Mr. One-Hundred-Coats or Mr. Dozen-Coats and let his workers enjoy a share of the wealth they created.

Of course, this isn’t something billionaires will ever do out of charity. Building popular movements that pressure legislators to serve working people, rather than billionaires, is imperative. The recent Amazon union effort in Bessemer shows us exactly why unions are key to these movements.


Delete “Essential” Flan

Last, we must protect workers for the remainder of the pandemic. During their lockdown, the United Kingdom provided everyone with 80 percent of their income. In order to protect its workers, the U.K. also shuttered far more businesses than the U.S. Let’s constitute a governmental panel to decide which foods are essential to keep in production and which are not. Let’s keep the flan and chips out of the essential category and not allow business owners to make these decisions. If they and their workers are receiving 80 percent of their income, there is no reason to put workers at risk. The pandemic should have been the perfect opportunity to rigorously regulate capital for the safety of workers and our country. Instead, capitalism run wild led  to needless suffering and death for the sake of profit.


Jesus Came to Start a Movement

“Jesus came to start a movement, not an institution.” I first heard this from Prof. Henry Young in seminary and it quickly became my favorite quote. When I entered ministry in 1984, it felt as if the church was building momentum on the civil rights movement, the student movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the labor movement. We had come out of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s with strong new voices of liberation − we had momentum!

But, in the ’80s and ’90s, most denominations were buried in a doctrinal fight over gay rights that would last for the next 20-30 years. This was an important fight, one that I was immersed in for six years as a hospice chaplain at the height of the AIDS crisis. The fight was essential to the inclusivity that Jesus embodied and taught.

However, crucial energy was siphoned off from other serious political matters, resulting in denominations and local churches taking their eyes off the issues of poverty, the wealth gap, racial equality, voting rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, climate change, etc. We cannot build a broad, inclusive movement if we are endlessly fighting within a structure. A church that is only focused on settling doctrinal disputes is contrary to Jesus’ radical life and teaching.

Instead, let us see local churches become hubs for faith-based movement building. For instance, in 2017, many of the 136 suburbs in Cook County attempted to opt out of the newly passed Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Day county ordinances. The opt-out campaigns happened in rapid succession over a four-month period, due to a highly resourced right-wing business lobby. In response, Arise Chicago reached out to congregations who leaped into action, eager to defend these sorely needed workers’ rights. They joined forces with other groups in their communities to form committees, develop locally honed strategies, meet with their village trustees, make signs and t-shirts, and hold marches and press conferences. Many congregants attended and spoke at their village board meetings for the first time. As a result of this congregation-based organizing, roughly half of the workers in Cook County are now protected by ordinances.

Guided by Scripture, we can develop a shared analysis of how people on the margins are trapped in unjust systems. With Jesus the movement-builder as our model, we can and must organize inside and outside of the church. With marginalized people shaping the solutions and with the support of congregants, the church could usher in a new era of listening to our neighbors and taking bold action.

Our vision is for the church to build a table where everyone has a seat and shares in the abundance of creation, bringing about a new heaven on earth. Beginning with the laborers in our communities, especially those neglected and thrown away by our capitalist system, is a basic place to start.


Rev. C.J. Hawking has served as the Executive Director of Arise Chicago since 2007. She has been in ministry for 37 years, with a focus on workers’ rights for the last 27 years. Hawking has taught on labor and social movements for over two decades. She is co-author of Staley: The Fight for the New American Labor Movement, which won three “Book of the Year” awards and serves as the Harry F. Ward Pastor for Social Justice at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park, IL.


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