In 1990, a manufacturing plant in San Antonio laid off more than 1,000 employees, most of them Mexican-American women with limited formal education. The local economy had already lost 14,000 of these medium wage jobs in manufacturing, textiles, transportation, and other industries during the 1980s. The layoffs affected families in nearly all of the 50 member congregations of two San Antonio-area organizations, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) and The Metro Alliance.
COPS and the Metro Alliance are confederations of institutions – congregations, schools, civic associations – that have been organizing for power for over 20 years. They are concerned with issues affecting working-class families: education, infrastructure, and jobs, to name a few. Both groups are affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing institute founded over 50 years ago by Saul Alinsky and now directed by Ed Chambers.
In response to the mass layoffs in San Antonio, COPS and the Metro Alliance began organizing house meetings around the issue of work. Leaders invited their neighbors – eight to ten people at a time – into their homes to discuss their experiences in the labor market. People told stories of their frustrations and disappointments with existing job training programs: instructors were uncertified, and no jobs were available in the labor market after training was completed; short-term training failed to prepare people for jobs that paid a living wage, and high-skill training programs required more time and resources than low-income families could afford.
Through these house meetings, leaders came to understand the major impediments to successful job training, and thus developed three goals to guide their efforts: first, training must be long-term in order to match the demands of available mid-to-high-wage jobs; second, training must be job driven; and third, individuals receiving training must have financial support throughout the training (a concept families remembered from their experiences with the G.I. Bill). Forty COPS and Metro Alliance leaders also formed a job training core committee. This committee met bimonthly for two years. They consulted with state and city officials, economists, and job training experts from around the nation.
After two years of house meetings and research actions, COPS, the Metro Alliance, the private sector, and local government launched Project QUEST, a job training program that prepares workers and welfare recipients for jobs that pay at least $7.50 an hour, plus benefits, and provide opportunities for advancement. Perhaps more significantly, Project QUEST trains participants for jobs in demand in the local labor market. COPS and Metro leaders understood from the beginning that it was fundamental to bring employers into the process of designing the program, in order to investigate and address their real needs and interests. Many job training programs simply churn out graduates factory-style, without any real connection to or understanding of the job market awaiting those graduates. COPS and Metro have worked with area businesses to secure job commitments for program participants before they begin the training. Leaders from these two organizations have held hundreds of conversations with business leaders and employers in order to develop the strong relationships that secure commitment. They have also helped employers develop relationships with each other in order to make collective job commitments that they could not have made in isolation. As one bank president comments, “QUEST was instrumental in creating a forum in which bank presidents and human resources staff from a variety of banks talk more with each other about labor market issues.”
By all accounts, the program has been a success. In 1994, Project QUEST participated with only 11 other institutions in a national forum on job training reform sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. In 1995, Project QUEST received an Innovations in American Government Award by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. And M.I.T. Professor Paul Osterman, who has studied the program, concludes that it “does well regardless of the characteristics of the participants when they enroll,” and that QUEST has “rates of return which exceed virtually all other employment and training programs.” Eighty percent of the program participants have either found jobs or gone on to higher education, and Osterman reports that participants annual earnings increased by between $4,923 and $7,457 per year. Sister programs have been developed in Dallas, Fort Worth, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Despite these successes, COPS and Metro organizers know there is no magic bullet, no flagship program, no one institution in which they can place the responsibility for the economic well-being of their families and community. The fact of the matter is that the San Antonio labor market, like most labor markets, is constantly changing. The health care industry, on which Project QUEST relied for many of the original job commitments, is shifting dramatically. Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio’s largest employer of blue-collar workers and mid-level managers, is scheduled to close in the next few years. Consolidation of the banking industry has narrowed a traditional source of economic stability. However, there are also new employers in San Antonio, including the main offices of national firms such as Southwestern Bell and World Savings.
COPS and Metro Alliance volunteer leaders are addressing these changing conditions by continuing to staff 15 outreach committees in local congregations, and meeting with local employers. They are also now meeting with economists and public policy experts to do yet another evaluation of the San Antonio labor market and the global economy. And they continue to organize hundreds of house meetings in their communities each year.
This ongoing work demonstrates one of the universal principles of the Industrial Areas Foundation – that “all organizing is constant re-organizing.” It is the nature of politics, and, indeed, of human interaction that circumstances change. Situations that seem predictable become volatile. Such is the case with the San Antonio economy, school finance, welfare, health care, and any other matter subject to the ever-changing tides of politics. That is why organizing for political power requires coming to a clear understanding of the need to constantly reevaluate goals, tactics, strategies, and interests.