The Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) National Conference, this year themed “Coming Together: Building a Just Economy,” took place from June 22- June 24, 2014 in Chicago Illinois. The conference was held at DePaul University’s Student Center. Over 500 people attended the conference, including members of interfaith groups and worker centers, students, pastors, congregation leaders, and worker justice activists. Multiple faith traditions were represented, including Christians from a variety of denominations, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. Resources and translators were available in both English and Spanish throughout the conference and some workshops were conducted primarily in Spanish.
The biennial conference featured several tracks: Organizing Skills, Capacity Building, Public Policy, Workers Center, and OSHA. Each track consisted of several workshop sessions, each featuring a moderated panel of activists and faith leaders. The Organizing Skills track emphasized coalition building, tactics for community organizing, and organizational management and improvement. The Public Policy track focused on running state campaigns and advocating for policy change, specifically around fair wages for workers. The Capacity Building track included sessions about cultivating donors, managing not-for-profit finances and budget, and developing a board of directors. The Worker Centers track sought to offer leadership development techniques for young leaders, as well as best practices for membership retention. The OSHA track focused on preventing injuries and deaths at work sites.
The conference officially began Sunday evening June 22, with a welcome and plenary session featuring remarks by Kim Bobo, the Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice. The conference continued Monday morning with breakout workshops within each track then followed by plenary sessions. The plenary speaker Monday evening was the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, a South African Dutch Reformed cleric and anti-Apartheid activist. Rev. Dr. Boesak’s talk, titled “What If,” followed a worship service that included gathering music, a call to worship, and victory stories.
On Tuesday, June 24, all conference attendees participated in workshops that centered on specific skills or causes. These included Preaching in the Public Sphere, Models of Interfaith Activism around Worker Justice, Religion and Labor Advocacy, and Prophetic Activism. Tuesday’s sessions in particular bridged faith-based teachings and activism, specifically using sacred texts to support ideas about worker justice. The workshop session facilitators were current leaders of not-for-profit organizations, clergy, and faculty members at seminaries including Claremont School of Theology and Perkins School of Theology.
The plenary sessions on Tuesday were facilitated by the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). SCUPE seeks to prepare seminary students, pastors, and church and community leaders to work for justice in their own communities. This joint day between the IWJ conference and SCUPE kicked off SCUPE’s 2014 Congress on Urban Ministry, a gathering focused on building a just economy. According to SCUPE, the “new ground” explored in the partnership between the two organizations links together “workers’ struggles for economic justice with the Gospel march towards the Kingdom of God.”
All of the conference’s plenary speakers connected their passion for worker justice with their faith traditions and leadership roles. Sister Simone Campbell, the plenary speaker on Tuesday, spoke about the need to care for the 100 percent, not just the 99, because everyone encounters oppression and everyone needs to walk with Jesus. Further, she noted that wealth disparity hurts everyone, because it creates separation and fear in communities. Sister Simone used multiple biblical stories and images in her talk, including that of Jesus walking toward those who suffer.
After Tuesday’s morning workshop block, over 400 conference attendees traveled by bus to Chatham, Illinois to join other protesters in a joint action at the Walmart. Together they carried signs, chanted, and marched on the sidewalk surrounding the shopping center, demanding fair wages for Walmart workers. Some Walmart employees, both current and former, shared stories about their experiences with workers’ rights violations. One worker even told the group he had been terminated the day before the action due to management illegally accusing him of saying something bad about another worker. Leaders of the joint action, including IWJ board members, interns, and center directors, told another story about a woman who incurred an injury while not on the job and was terminated because she told her supervisors she would have to miss a significant amount of work. Though the action mainly focused on fair wages, many of the chants and songs did include language about God, Jesus, or came from worship traditions.
The conference concluded after a briefing session on the joint action. Conference attendees spoke about their experience in Chatham, how they will serve after the conference, and what faith means to them in their work toward justice for workers around the nation.