When the Nuns on the Bus rolled into Chicago

“We are working on voter registration which is an action people can take easily. It’s so important because there is so much big money in our country trying to steer legislation away from the common good.”– Dr. Patricia M. Fishman, Sisters of Mercy Associate

Nuns on the Bus? It sounds like a joke. But while the Catholic sisters of Nuns on the Bus do joke and laugh often, their mission is a serious one of social justice and compassion for the oppressed.

It was no joke to Sister Marie McKenna who is a social activist in Chicago:

“I work with a lot of people who can’t afford to pay their rent. They’re working full time but there is no living wage for them. Lots of folks are pulled into part-time employment situations with no benefits. If there is an illness or anything that disrupts even a short period of time, people are going under.”

Started in 2012 as a reaction to the Paul Ryan budget which punished people simply for the “sin” of being poor, Nuns on the Bus is a traveling group of nuns who ride across the country to promote their social justice agenda.   In 2013, the theme of Nuns of the Bus was immigration. In 2014 it was voter registration.

Chicago was one of the bus stops for a day of action last week on Thursday September 25, 2014.


The Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Working with Arise Chicago, a local workers center, there were plans for a morning of voter registration among students at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a meeting with Governor Pat Quinn where 3 low wage workers could tell their stories and a picnic in Union Park followed by a press conference and rally.

 The Nuns on the Bus arrive

At around 10 am the gaily decorated Nuns on the Bus vehicle pulled in front of the UIC Student Center to the cheers of Chicagoland sisters and their supporters.

The Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Founder of Nuns on the Bus Sr. Simone Campbell

After everyone had gotten off the bus, Nuns on the Bus leader Sr. Simone Campbell addressed the crowd of about 75:

“We are on the road to make sure our people wake up to the fact that there is an election on November 4. What we heard in June was that 60% of the American people did not even know there was an election.”

However this year’s theme was not just a simple Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. The sisters had some radical social objectives, as can be seen on the card they asked people to fill out.


 photo vote-card.png

The completed cards will be forwarded to the political leaders In Washington:

  • Mending the Wealth Gap
  • Enacting a Living Wage
  • Crafting a Faithful Budget that Benefits the 100%
  • Securing Healthcare for All
  • Protecting Immigrant Rights
  • Promoting NonViolent Solutions to Conflict

However the card did have one line of curious language that said  “Crafting a Faithful Budget that Benefits the 100%”, reflecting Sr. Simone Campbell’s view that somehow we are  “all in this together”, even the wealthy perpetrators of exploitation who make  social reforms necessary in the first place. It’s hard to imagine top CEO’s agreeing with the nuns’ goals, especially as they persist in hacking away at wages and an already badly frayed social safety net.

After Sr. Simone’s brief remarks, the nuns, accompanied by allies from the Illinois Hunger Coalition, then fanned out across the campus talking with students.  They handed out voter pledge cards and directed students to authorized registrars if they were not registered to vote.


Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Some students ignored the nuns, but others filled out pledge cards and said they planned to vote and still others engaged in extended conversations. Several of the nuns expressed a concern about low voter turnout among young people.

Sr. Mary Loftus was one of these:

“I have worked with young people of this age level and I realized that so often they are non-involved. Young people I have met over a number of years feel that their vote doesn’t matter; that they really have no power in this governmental structure of ours. I am just happy to keep inviting them and really pushing them toward voting because they are really influencing legislation in this country.”


Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Members of  the Illinois Hunger Coalition aided the nuns  with voter registration

It is understandable why many young people feel their vote doesn’t count in a nation where Big Money drives electoral politics and largely excludes alternatives to the two major parties.

A round table discussion between low wage workers and Governor Pat Quinn

The sisters left the UIC campus around noon and headed for their picnic in Union Park, located next to the now  diminished Union Row where some Chicago unions still have their offices. In its southwest corner Union Park has a statue of James Connelly, the Scottish-born Irish revolutionary and radical union leader . To the west is the First Baptist Church, a stop on the underground railroad where Dr. King once spoke.

Both of these are reminders that social change requires stepping outside of the laws and conventions of society as well as exercising the vote. Voting by itself is not enough.That is one reason why there is a strong civil disobedience tradition within the Catholic social justice movement.

While most of the sisters lunched, the leadership went to the Arise Chicago office for a meeting with Governor Pat Quinn where low wage workers were waiting to describe their challenges. The Democrat Pat Quinn is facing his own challenge in this election cycle, with the wealthy Republican Bruce Rauner pouring millions into the tight race for governor. Quinn was clearly trying to burnish his faded populist image by associating himself with low wage workers and social justice nuns.

 The three workers who addressed Governor Quinn were car wash worker Martina Sanchez, McDonalds worker Doug Hunter and Golans striker Augusto Rufasto. Arise Chicago Executive Director C.J. Hawking opened the meeting by explaining how Arise Chicago functions as a workers center for non-union low wage workers. They help workers become leaders in their workplaces and in their communities. They currently have 800 worker members. Hawking said that wage theft is one of the biggest  issues that they organize around:

“Workers are not paid minimum wage, proper overtime, being forced to work off the clock etc. In the 12 years we have been doing this work, Arise Chicago has helped recover $5.5 million dollars… and every penny we recovered went to the workers.”

Martina Sanchez was one of those workers. A car wash worker for many years, she survived off of tips by customers. She was forced to work from 7 am to 7 pm, but was not paid for that time, nor did she ever receive minimum wage or overtime. All of these are clear violations of labor law and constitute wage theft. She was even told that she and her co-workers had no labor rights because they were “Hispanics”. She turned to Governor Quinn and said to him:


“I ask Gov. Pat Quinn to help us, all who live in poverty and face abuse and labor violations as there are hundreds or thousands of people in the same situation and if we want the economy to improve we must stop wage theft and support all the workers who are asking for a minimum wage increase, because it is the only way to improve the lives of families in Illinois.”

Martina is currently partnering with Arise Chicago to fight for her wages.

Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Martina Sanchez

Doug Hunter spoke about his experiences as a West Side McDonalds worker and his involvement in the Fight for $15movement. He is a single dad with a 16 year old daughter in high school. He makes $9.25 an hour and with the hours that he gets, that never comes close to a living wage:

“I have to juggle between rent and whether I can pay the light bill each month and if I can afford groceries…and with a 16 year old in high school, it’s a real struggle. It’s so stressful to have to go through this day in and day out. I heard about this Fight for $15 and it interested me because it was something that would help me and benefit other people.”

Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Doug Hunter with  C.J. Hawking

Hunter finished by urging young people, many of whom are skeptical about the political process, to get out and vote because,” Even if you vote for nobody, you’re still voting for somebody.”

The issue of wage theft came up again when striking Golans  worker Augusto Rufasto addressed the Governor. Golans, a moving company based in Skokie IL, has been on strike since July 28, represented by Teamsters Local 705. Rufasto explained how the workers were required to purchase their own uniforms, were required to deposit $500 if they wished to apply for promotion and were required to come to work at 6 am but were not paid until 9 am.

Rufasto invited Governor Quinn to join the workers on the picketline. Quinn said he would “check his schedule”, but Rufasto did get Quinn to hold a sign for the cameras in solidarity with the Golan workers.


Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Sr Simone Campbell with Governor Pat Quinn

The wage theft stories of Martina Sanchez and Augusto Rufastoare hardly isolated cases. C.J Hawking referred to a 2010 University of Illinois at Chicago study which estimated,”…that in one week in Cook County 7.3 million dollars were stolen from low wage mostly immigrant workers. So it’s a million dollars a day, just in Cook County.”

Quinn was clearly on the hot seat, but did appear to listen and take notes, occasionally interrupting to make observations, tell personal anecdotes or say he would take up an issue with the appropriate state official.   

Following the meeting with Governor Quinn there was a press conference in front of the Nuns on the Bus vehicle. It was well attended by the media, eager for a statement from Quinn in a close governor’s race. Sr. Simone Campbell introduced the Governor by saying he would talk about “some of the legislation that has been passed here”.


Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Doug Hunter with Governor Pat Quinn and Sr Simone Campbell

Instead Quinn spoke in generalities about an economy of inclusion with “everybody in and nobody out”. He talked about raising the minimum wage and referred to the referendum on the Illinois ballot. Unfortunately it is only an advisory referendum that recommends $10 an hour, far short of the $15 an hour that has caught the imagination of low wage workers across the country. After thanking the nuns for their ethic of service, he was gone.

No one brought up Quinn’s role in cutting pensions for state workers or his choice for Lt. Governor, the anti-union and anti-public education Paul Vallas.

A rally of about 150 people followed with speakers continuing the same themes that had been raised throughout the day.

Nuns on the Bus: Dogged dedication and a sometimes mixed message

The dedication of the  Nuns on the Bus as well as the Chicagoland sisters who came to greet them is undeniable. Most of them either work in or are retired from education, social welfare and health professions. Many have been on the frontlines of battling poverty and racism, with few resources and nothing but their determination, faith and communal solidarity to keep them going.

Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

They have come under fire from the Catholic rightwing for putting issues of peace and poverty ahead of abortion and gay marriage. In 2012, they were reviled by the Tea Party as “bums on the bus”. They’ve been branded radical feminists. They’ve been criticized as being a tool of George Soros.

It’s not just the Nuns on the Bus who have come under attack. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest US organization of Catholic sisters, has been under investigation by the male hierarchy of the Church for doctrinal deviations.

Yet while the Nuns on the Bus social goals are radical in today’s world of neo-liberal capitalism, (it would take a major social transformation to mend the wage gap, for example), their message is at times confused. Sr. Simone Campbell called out the McDonalds CEO for his bloated salary but then said:

“There’s enough money to go around… it seems to me he could share it and I’m sure he would if he knew his workers’ stories. He’d want to. Because he’s not a bad person. What he wants to do is reach out and make a difference.”

But when McDonalds employees  from around the Midwest came to the McDonalds HQ in Oak Brook IL last summer, the CEO reached out with black-clad riot police when the workers tried to present their petitions and stories.


May 21 2014:  McDonalds workers & allies marched on the McDonalds HQ in Oak Brook IL There were over 100 arrests

Riot police stop workers  from bringing their grievances to the McDonalds HQ 

To maintain that we are all part of the same “100%” as if the McDonald’s worker and the McDonald’s CEO are on the same footing, does not reflect reality. The USA is a deeply stratified class society with a racial and gender caste system embedded within it.

With some of the worst labor laws in the developed world and a mean-spirited social welfare system that is always under attack despite the paltry benefits it doles out, the USA does need  serious legislative overhaul. That will take  voter mobilization as part of a broader social movement which weaves together a variety of tactics into an interrelated whole, much like an eco-system. 

Explaining those interrelationships with greater clarity needs to be part of voter education for social justice. That is not easy to do and would doubtless heighten attacks from the wealthy and powerful.  These should not only be expected, but  welcomed, because they are a measure of success.

Dorothy Day, the radical Catholic social justice activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement had this to say:

“Once a priest told us that no one gets up in the pulpit without promulgating a heresy. He was joking, of course, but what I suppose he meant was the truth was so pure, so holy, that it was hard to emphasize one aspect of the truth without underestimating another, that we did not see things as a whole, but through a glass darkly…”


Nuns on the Bus Voter Registration Project

Sr. Lisa Polega from Nuns on the Bus in a moment of reflection


More photos from Nuns on the Bus may be found HERE


Bob “BobboSphere” Simpson has been a socialist since childhood.
He spent two decades teaching history and English in South Side Chicago Catholic high schools

October 2, 2014 by
Filed under: Society and Economy, Unions, US politics 


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