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National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice Leads Religious Communities in Support of Poultry Workers
By: William Bole
September, 2002The religious campaign on behalf of poultry workers began in 1996, the
year the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice was founded, in
Chicago. Prodded by clergy as well as labor leaders, the Clinton
administration conducted two investigations of the industry.
The second one, in 2000, found that 100 percent of the poultry plants
investigated failed to pay workers for all the hours worked. At more than a
third of the plants, workers had money illegally deducted from their
paychecks for the protective gear, according to that study.
Meantime, the interfaith committee drafted worker-rights manuals in
English and Spanish and distributed thousands of bulletin inserts to
congregations located near poultry plants.
At the start of the Bush administration, religious advocates found a
less receptive ear in Washington. An open letter signed by 150 religious
leaders brought no reply from the Department of Labor. Then, clergy and lay
activists began delivering copies of the letter, in groups, to department
field offices around the country.
That caught the attention of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who met with a
delegation of 25 religious leaders in June of last year. A year later, the
Bush administration announced its tough stance against the poultry industry's
alleged violations of federal wage-and-hour laws.
"We were able to politely keep up the pressure on DOL," said Leone
Bicchieri of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, using the
department's acronym. "But they weren't dragged kicking and screaming into
this. They had a lot of things on their plate."
Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council in Washington said there
was "no question" that religious activist groups played the key role
initially in getting the government to probe the poultry practices. He added,
"It's taken on a life of its own, at this point."
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