Growing and strengthening west Michigan's middle class
Jordan Bruxvoort is the director of The Micah Center, a non-profit faith-based organization in Grand Rapids which serves to educate people about the biblical call to do justice and empower them to respond to that call in their local community. The Micah Center operates out of Hope Reformed Church.
GRAND RAPIDS February 2, 2015– Four years ago while surveying the extent of wage theft in Grand Rapids, the Micah Center became aware of the need to equip vulnerable workers with both the knowledge of their rights and how to exercise them in the workplace. Through a visit from Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, we learned about how the worker center model was being used across the country to build power for low-income workers and win not only stolen wages but city ordinances and even statewide legislation to create stronger mechanisms for workers to hold unscrupulous employers accountable.
After successfully campaigning in 2012 to move the city of Grand Rapids to instate measures that both block employers who have cheated their workers in the last two years from obtaining city contracts and require the city to withhold payment to any company with a city that is caught cheating their workers, we renewed our efforts to secure funds to start a workers’ center. But nothing seemed to work out.
Then this past summer we received news from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development that they had approved our proposal to start a worker center in Grand Rapids! We moved quickly to hire a worker center organizer and found experienced immigrants’ rights activist Gema Lowe to fill the job.
Since starting in her position this September, Gema has spoken with hundreds of workers about their rights through trainings at churches and schools and conversations with individuals at restaurants, grocery stores, and most recently, laundromats. In the process, Gema is building a team of worker-leaders who, together with some members of the original Micah Center wage theft advocacy group, are helping her organize and lead workers’ rights trainings and will be deciding the center’s strategic priorities at an upcoming planning retreat.
Oscar is one of those worker-leaders. Originally from Mexico, Oscar has worked various jobs all over the U.S.. Through these experiences, Oscar learned first-hand the challenges faced by vulnerable workers and the need for people to step in and support these workers. So when he sat down with Gema and learned about the center, standing on the sidelines was not an option.
“I have always felt the necessity to contribute a little in the struggle for human rights and have always believed in a more equal world,” Oscar shared. “Through my life working in a variety of jobs, I learned the struggles that workers face, and when the workers’ center appeared, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to give something back to the community. The little time I have been with the center has been a blessing.”
Since connecting with Gema, Oscar has played a support role at workers’ rights trainings in addition to leading a training all by himself. Regarding that experience, Oscar said, “People that attended the training had a wide variety of stories at their work places and from coworkers, and they showed enthusiasm and to see that somebody is trying to help them. The workers and their kids are the reason why somebody like me decides to help out in the workers’ center.”
Cirila is another one of those worker-leaders. A parishioner at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Cirila first connected with Gema through a workers’ rights training held after mass. After learning about the mission of the worker center, Cirila reports, “I decided to come to the Micah Center because the Micah Center is fighting for the workers and against the injustices that we are suffering. I believe the worker center is doing great work and we need more workers to come and make a difference. I want to be part of this movement to help others suffering injustice and I want to bring more people to get involved and work for the workers’ rights.”
Since then, Cirila has gotten her whole family (her husband and four teenage daughters) coming out to worker center events. Recently Cirila volunteered to play the role of an unscrupulous restaurant owner in a skit about worker exploitation at a training held for parents at Westwood Elementary. “When I was playing the mean boss I felt bad about how I was acting towards the oppressed worker,” Cirila reflected. “I think if we make the bosses and owners see themselves in how bad they are treating their workers, they will feel bad like I did, and we can change their conscience to be more fair. And I think they will see that the workers will perform better and be more productive in their work”.
The worker center will be holding an organizational meeting on Feb 7 from 9am-3pm at Hope Reformed Church, 2010 Kalamazoo Ave SE in Grand Rapids. Participants will be mapping out the worker center’s campaign strategies for the year. Anyone interested in getting involved or being a part of this discussion is welcome to attend. For more information on The Micah Center, visit them on the web, follow them on Facebook, or call them at (616) 425-1559.
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