Although there has always been a core of religious allies focused on labor issues, during the ’70s and ’80s they were disconnected, isolated, and disorganized. In the early ’90s, a dozen groups formed around the country – half in New York State and the rest primarily in the Midwest – to reconnect and re-involve the religious community in the labor movement.
In 1996, the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (NICWJ) was formed to educate and mobilize the U.S. religious community on campaigns to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for low-wage workers. The organization’s work has exploded. In a little over two years, NICWJ has:
- Identified or organized 41 local religious affiliates committed to working together on worker justice issues. These groups support workers’ rights to organize; seek to ensure that union workers can get a contract within a reasonable length of time; educate the religious community; and improve enforcement of labor laws. These groups lead prayer vigils, conduct fact-finding delegations, attend public meetings, encourage workers, and advocate for workers with managers.
- Developed worship aids, study guides, sample sermons, skits, prayer services, and other tools that can be used by congregations to broaden understanding.
- Expanded educational opportunities for seminary students, rabbinical students, and other future religious leaders.
- Developed a code of ethics for the poultry industry and religious employers. Currently working on a code of ethics for nursing homes and ethical questions for congregations to ask regarding construction contracts.
- Trained hundreds of union organizers in how to work more effectively with the religious community.
- Initiated dialogue between religious health care sponsors and leaders and unions that organize in those institutions.
- Recruited and trained labor leaders, who spoke in 450 congregations this past Labor Day weekend.
Since its formation, the National Interfaith Committee has identified and consolidated supporters of worker justice. The biggest challenge facing the organization over the next few years is how to greatly expand the base of religious people committed to worker justice and working in partnership with the labor movement. A broad base of religious allies is required for challenging the income disparities the country faces as we enter the new millennium. To quote the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require, but to do justice, love, mercy, and to walk humbly with God?”
Colonia Women’s Organizing and Self-Development Project in Hidalgo County, TX is not just another social services project. Composed entirely of Latina women living in poverty in the colonias – settlements along the U.S.-Mexico border, lacking most of the infrastructure and services of an incorporated municipality [See Shelterforce #82] – it aims to motivate the women to become active participants in the decision-making processes of agencies, institutions, and governmental bodies that affect them.
The organizing project was born in 1989, when Border Association for Refugees from Central America (BARCA), an advocacy and social service agency, started bringing women together to talk about their concerns and giving them the tools to take the lead in advocating for improvements.
BARCA is careful to keep its role focused on empowerment or technical assistance, so that if it ever folds, the work will go on. “Before, [the colonias] were dependent on some kind of outside advocate,” says Ninfa Ochoa-Krueger, BARCA’s Executive Director. “They expected that from us. We kept saying to them, ‘I have water in my house. You are the one with the need, and you can express it better than anyone else.’ “It’s a lot faster if we just do the stuff,” Krueger continues, “but then we lose funding and we fold and no one has been empowered to get the stuff done on their own.”
Most women begin to get involved through mutual self-help groups devoted to self-esteem, leadership skills, and issue analysis. From there they learn to identify and meet with the agencies and people in power to address their concerns, give public testimony, and keep up the pressure until change happens. Often, problems are fixed before they ever get to the public meetings, but they go there if they need to.
Their persistence is paying off. Colonias involved in the project have secured, among other things, water connections, paved roads, postal delivery, and improved school bus service, not to mention a new self-image and respect for the women within their families and communities. “I feel sorry for the bureaucrat who tries to pass the buck with these people,” writes Dave Harmon of the McAllen Monitor, a local paper.
Organizing the women, many of whom can’t work because their families can only afford to legalize one resident, has also created an unexpected advantage: they can meet and act during the day, when all the agencies they want to influence are open, when the people they need to reach are around, and when public meetings and hearings are held. This daytime focus has given the women the additional access they need to make their voices heard.
Six colonias are now incorporating into Coalition de Mujeres de las Colonias (Coalition of Colonias Women), and one of the leaders, Socorro Gonzalez, has been selected to sit on a colonias development review panel. This in itself signifies progress to Krueger. “Before it was always developers and Ph.D.s [reviewing the proposals],” she says. “Now there’s this woman who isn’t even a citizen yet. But she has more knowledge about the realities of it than they do.”
The mission of the LaBOR aRT & MURaL ProJECT (LAMP) is to organize cultural activities that support union and working-class struggles for social and economic justice. “Art is what changes and inspires people,” says artist Michael Alewitz. “You can have this great program, but what inspires people are the songs and the poetry and the visions.” And, apparently, the murals.
Alewitz founded LAMP eight years ago to give an institutional base to continue the kinds of mural projects he and others had been doing in solidarity with various labor struggles in Nicaragua and the United States. LAMP works through an informal structure, consisting primarily of artists, an advisory committee, and sponsors, such as the Industrial Union Council of NJ and the Labor Education Department of Rutgers University. LAMP has no staff and raises its money, mostly small donations from working people, project by project. “We don’t sit around in an office and raise money; we go out and do projects,” says Alewitz. “That’s why we can accomplish a lot.”
LAMP projects are initiated either by LAMP or based on workers’ requests. Dedications, educational projects, and other events are also held around each mural. LAMP views the results of all these events as part of the success of the mural project. “In some of the projects the mural itself is the least important thing,” says Alewitz.
But a mural project may be a good way to indirectly raise difficult political issues. For example, the mural “An Injury to One is an Injury to All,” created in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, was specifically aimed at promoting the idea that police brutality is a labor issue. While many would have shied away from directly organizing a labor rally on this topic, the mural dedication, as a cultural event, was able to spread the idea and create a show of support similar to a more clearly political effort.
LAMP also produces banners and posters to support specific labor actions, such as strikes. “You almost have to look for what’s going on in the labor movement today,” says Alewitz. “But we do look for it, and we find it, and then we do stuff.”
LAMP, 908-220-1472; firstname.lastname@example.org
Located in the Red River Valley of Eastern North Dakota and West Central Minnesota, the People Escaping Poverty Project (PEPP) is organizing low-income people to affect the policies and services they depend on. With 450 members, the group has organized around issues such as state welfare cuts, housing, public housing building security, and neighborhood park issues. PEPP has effectively addressed North Dakota Welfare Reform policy in part by using computer technology, such as the Internet and e-mail, as tools for community organizing.
The organization began in 1986 when a group of women receiving financial assistance joined together to fight a 30 percent cut in Minnesota’s AFDC program. These women began a grassroots movement in the Moorhead community, organized with others throughout the community, and defeated the cuts. Following this effort, the group formed a formal board, started a newsletter, and became People Escaping Poverty Project, which focuses on developing a strong and unified voice to gain economic justice. With few other grassroots groups in the area, and none advocating on behalf of low-income residents, PEPP has grown significantly since its inception.
Leasing a large office building, PEPP has created an incubator for area social justice organizations. PEPP offers reduced or free rent, technical assistance, and the opportunity to share resources. The organization has also provided computer, fiscal, organizing training, and other assistance to a wide range of organizations that have made their home in the building, including Centro Cultural, a local Hispanic organization; Social Organizational Development Agency, an organization serving the local Sudanese population; and Communities Working to Dismantle Racism.
In a lawsuit that could have repercussions for tenant activists across the country, two organizers with the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES) are challenging their arrest last November during a meeting with residents of L.A. Gardens, a HUD-subsidized housing complex in Los Angeles.
Organizers Catalina Mendiola and Jung-Eun Son were visiting a tenant’s apartment when they were met by eight police officers, five squad cars, and a police helicopter two days before Thanksgiving last year. The police said they were implementing a citizen’s arrest as a “courtesy to the owner,” according to Organizing Times, a CES newsletter. The next day, a tenant, who needed help because her ceiling had caved in, invited Mendiola back to the complex. She was arrested a second time, despite the presence of an attorney from the L.A. Housing Law Project.
In May, an L.A. Superior Court judge denied the landlord’s motion to dismiss the cross-complaint, filed by the ACLU on behalf of CES, the two organizers, and five L.A. Gardens tenants. The cross complaint charges that the landlord violated tenants’ and organizers’ rights to privacy and freedom of speech and association, as guaranteed by the California constitution.
The suit is the latest step in a history of struggles between landlord Frank DeSantis, Jr., and L.A. Gardens tenants over restrictions placed on tenant meetings and organizing. DeSantis and his company, the Community Partnership Development Corporation (CPDC), have had a series of disagreements with members of the LA Gardens Tenants Association over the process for elections to the association’s board of directors.
CES Executive Director Larry Gross said many L.A. Gardens tenants are hesitant to get involved due to the owner’s intimidation of tenants and organizers. For example, a staff member of the Inner City Law Center was recently invited into the building by tenants concerned about the rodent problem. After he went door to door to hand out mouse traps and document the problem, the landlord’s lawyer sent him a letter that claimed he had been canvassing and threatened him with arrest.
Gross said national HUD officials have recognized tenants’ right to organize independently of HUD-subsidized property owners, but local HUD officials have not. “Because local HUD officials haven’t clearly established the right to do this, owners are allowed to get away with this kind of intimidation,” he said.
Similar arrests have occurred in Texas [see Shelterforce #98], Indiana, and Florida. The National Alliance of HUD Tenants is working on a national campaign to ensure tenants’ right to organize. In addition, Congress recently passed a law, Section 599 of the HUD/VA Appropriations bill, extending the right to organize beyond HUD-subsidized properties covered by current law to buildings with Project-based Section 8 assistance or that receive enhanced vouchers after a prepayment. Tenant organizers have long asserted their right to enter a housing complex to assist tenants, as long as tenants have invited them.
Though CES is looking into mediating a settlement with the landlord, Gross said it’s not yet clear whether such a course will be possible.
“If the landlord prevails on this, it will have a chilling effect for tenant organizing around the country,” he said.
For more information or to get Organizing Times, the Coalition for Economic Survival’s newsletter dealing with tenants’ issues and organizing, contact CES, 1296 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90046; phone: 323-656-4410; email: email@example.com
As public housing residents rapidly lose many of the protections formerly provided by federal policy safeguards, the Public Housing Residents National Organizing Campaign seeks to create a large, stable network of resident organizations to improve overall conditions and influence federal and local policy makers. Formed in 1997 with technical assistance from the Center for Community Change (CCC), the campaign has more than 100 member organizations in 33 states, representing thousands of residents.
Each member organization is home to a Residents and Partners Group, made up of residents, welfare reform specialists, legal services attorneys, organizers, voter registration specialists, and intermediary organizations that will plan and carry out residents’ ongoing action strategies. These local groups closely monitor and try to influence the policies and practices of the governing boards of housing agencies and officials of welfare agencies in their jurisdictions – the sites where key decisions will now be made under the federal deregulation scheme.
To help establish and jump-start the operations of each group, CCC staff and technical advisors help campaign participants convene the appropriate number and mix of representatives of the various stakeholders and service and assistance providers. This local group coordinates its efforts with the regional and national levels of the campaign, and CCC staff and consultants regularly provide resources and technical assistance. Local organizations also provide peer-to-peer technical assistance, learning from each other which tools and strategies have been most effective.
Participants conduct major letter-writing campaigns, draft and advocate for policy proposals around such issues as income targeting, governance, and rent levels, and twice annually stage simultaneous local actions nationwide, to dramatize and win support for their concerns. The Campaign’s Steering Committee meets at least twice annually with HUD officials to respond to federal housing proposals and to advocate their own policy proposals. The Campaign also publishes Housing Matters, a bimonthly newsletter with a circulation of 40,000.
Center for Community Change Public Housing Initiative, 1000 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20007; 202-342-0567; www.communitychange.org
The Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA) has received national attention for its work in the Lyndale neighborhood of Minneapolis, making the transition from a crime-infested, transient community to one of the most diverse and vibrant neighborhoods in the city. The area’s recent renaissance – new housing, revitalized retail areas, and community-based services for families and children – is due in no small part to the work of hundreds of residents organized by LNA.
LNA takes pride in its reputation as an organization that empowers the community. Based on the philosophy “We’re not building a community organization, we’re building a community,” staff was cut dramatically several years ago, and the organization now depends on the talents and abilities of residents to define its goals, create projects, and implement solutions to neighborhood challenges. Hundreds of residents are involved in LNA’s work each month, and the organization focuses on building resident leaders. LNA supports any projects residents want to take on with technical assistance and funding, providing an incentive for residents to become organizers and gather support for desired projects. This level of involvement holds true for virtually all the group’s community initiatives. Even young people plan and implement programs to serve their needs.
Through a decentralized network of block clubs – 48 of the neighborhood’s 52 blocks participate – LNA’s organizing approach emphasizes strengthening relationships among neighbors, finding common interests, and developing mutually supportive skills and needs, and then building on these relationships to shape how problems get solved. Residents who work with LNA choose to be involved in every aspect of the systems that provide them with services, both to avoid being relegated to “client” or “customer” status, and to ensure that the community controls how its needs are met and develops its own capacity to meet those needs.
Organize! Ohio, a new project started by the Grassroots leadership Development Program of Lorain County in conjunction with the Center for Community Change and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, seeks to advance and encourage community organizing in Ohio.
The project grew out of a 1997 survey, “Community Organizing in Ohio,” which identified over 120 organizations around the state involved in community organizing. The survey found that most of these groups were organizing in isolation and were interested in linking up with others doing organizing in their region and around the state. Most groups also identified a need for additional resources, training, and information.
Over 200 groups from around the state have expressed interest in the project. These groups are organizing in both rural and urban areas; they are doing neighborhood, city-wide, labor, identity-based and issue organizing; and they are organizing around housing, health care, tenant’s rights, welfare reform, and education, to name just a few issues.
Organize! Ohio is in the process of holding its first regional meetings around the state, in Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Athens, and Columbus. The first meetings are to identify regional priorities and training and information needs. Other Organize! Ohio activities include an annual statewide gathering, a newsletter, website, volunteer recruitment, and information on funding sources for community organizing.
The project has received fiscal support thus far from the Cleveland Campaign for Human Development, and the Mott start-up grant program and has recently been recommended for a grant from the National Campaign for Human Development.
For more information or to attend an upcoming regional meeting, contact Heather West , project coordinator, Grassroots Leadership Development Program of Lorain County, 1875 North Ridge Rd. East, Suite A, Lorain, Ohio 44055; 440-277-6504; www.organizeohio.org. Also see”Community Organizing in Ohio” online at: http://comm-org.utoledo.edu/papers98/orgohio.htm