Community-Labor Coalitions

In 1986, when over 800 UAW Local 376 members went on strike at Colt Firearms in Hartford and West Hartford, Connecticut, union leaders knew they faced a long and bitter strike. They were right: it lasted more than four years. The company seemed intent on breaking the union and began recruiting replacement workers. The union needed to rally not only the entire labor movement but also the larger community to discourage strikebreaking and develop public support for the strikers. In collaboration with the Greater Hartford Central Labor Council, UAW Local 376 initiated the Community-Labor Alliance for Strike Support (CLA).

Framing the issue as an attack on the standard of living in the entire community, CLA members approached community groups in Hartford and gained the support of three important local neo-Alinsky style neighborhood organizations, Hartford Areas Rally Together (HART), Asylum Hill Organizing Project (AHOP), and Organized North-Easterners-Clay Hill and North End (ONE-CHANE). The effort drew other activists from labor, the clergy, and the community.

Since the 1980s, Community-labor coalitions like the CLA have sprung up all over the U.S. and tackled a range of issues. Reeling from an ongoing corporate assault and with shaky allies in the Democratic Party, unions are forced to devise new strategies for both workplace struggles and the public policy arena. Now, with an emerging activist spirit in the labor movement – including a willingness among the AFL-CIO’s new leadership to reach out to community and academic forces – coalition efforts will likely take on increasing importance and expand across the country. These coalitions are often ad hoc, yet they can be vital, effective vehicles for forging social change and building new relationships among diverse organizations. Moreover, these partnerships can build bridges that overcome historic divisions between work and community and create levels of mutual understanding.

In recent decades in Connecticut, community-labor coalitions developed around strike support, organizing drives, plant closings, electoral campaigns, legislative battles, or specific policy issues such as health care reform.  Sometimes unions decided they needed external support to achieve a goal. In other instances, a group of organizations formed a coalition around common legislative issues. When successful, they have been potent vehicles to help shift public debate and place economic issues usually deemed “private” affairs between unions and employers – such as strikes, organizing drives, and corporate behavior – onto the public agenda.

Although unions often initiate coalitions and assume key leadership roles, labor has built relationships with other organized constituencies. Coalitions offer concrete settings in which community groups and labor can sit together, develop strategies, and define a common agenda. Often both types of organizations are targeting the same populations; it is just that the two spheres of organizing – workplace and community – have not traditionally intersected.

Making the Community-Labor Alliance Work

During the Colt strike, labor had to confront a number of issues within the CLA. The neighborhood groups were not necessarily eager to enter into coalitions and often viewed them as draining energies from their own organization-building activities. Since these groups define their work around localized “turf”-oriented issues in which they can win specific limited victories, they are sometimes reluctant to take on issues that seem so overwhelming and “unwinnable.” A strike of indeterminate length is a serious gamble.

In addition, several stylistic differences, in terms of organizational functioning, surfaced between unions and community groups. For example, the decision-making processes of community organizations are often different and less formal than those of unions. Unions are more centralized and use the formalities of Robert’s Rules in meetings. Leadership roles and staff authority in community organizations also differ from labor: paid staff of neighborhood groups can’t take positions on behalf of their groups without checking with the volunteer “citizen leaders.”  This meant that neighborhood group representatives would not immediately commit to any CLA ideas, sometimes causing delays in finalizing the plans.

In the early 1980s, the three community groups worked together on an effort known as the “linkage campaign” to pressure city hall to provide the benefits of the downtown development boom to the neighborhoods. They went through a careful process of agenda-setting, in which each organization had to feel comfortable with the definition of the issues and the selection of strategies. Conversely, the unions were used to moving more unilaterally and had to learn to slow down and bring others along as part of the CLA process.

All of this meant that it took some time to build trust between unions and community forces in the CLA. To help the process, the Community Organizing faculty at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work sponsored workshops to acquaint the two constituencies with each other’s governing models and philosophies. Representatives of each group explained to each other how they analyzed power, how they organized, how they defined victory, and how they developed members.

One reality is that community organizations are relatively free of many of the legal constraints that circumscribe union activity, so their activists do not necessarily understand legal obstacles or have patience with labor’s strategies. Therefore, they also had to understand the complexities of American labor law and its arcane procedures, ineffective sanctions, and biases toward corporations.

The UAW leadership was both intrigued by and concerned about some of the novel strategies of neighborhood organizers. When community organizers presented a plan to bring direct pressure on the president of Colt through tactics such as demonstrations at his home and in his community, UAW representatives were at first cautious about adopting the plan. Later, after considering how it could either mesh or at least not interfere with their legal strategies before the National Labor Relations Board, they embraced it. Accordingly, several large demonstrations were held in front of former Colt President Gary French’s home in suburban Vernon, Connecticut. One was organized as a “Children’s Vigil,” with children and grandchildren of strikers leading the way. French, in turn, attempted to sue the union and several key activists for invasion of privacy, but his suit was unsuccessful.

The CLA grew into an effective effort that began to build relationships between unions and local community organizations. In terms of material support alone, the CLA raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and in-kind donations during the Colt strike. A hardship committee was established to help with rents, mortgages, and medical issues. Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets and toys were distributed each year to Colt strikers from 1986 until the strike ended. Support was also cultivated with numerous rallies and actions. Forty-five labor (non-UAW) and community activists, dubbed the “Colt 45,” held a civil disobedience sit-in at the plant gate in May 1986. Among those arrested were the director of the Capital Region Conference of Churches and several state representatives, including Carrie Saxon Perry, an African American woman who eventually became mayor of Hartford. Rallies held every year on the January anniversary of the strike – usually in the bitter cold – drew thousands of supporters.

The strike also prompted political action and took on significance in public debate. The Connecticut Legislature was called upon to take a stand: the UAW, the CLA, and others pressed legislators to support a boycott of Colt products until the strike ended. The business community argued that the state should not get involved in a “private” labor dispute. Labor countered that strikes of the proportion of the Colt strike were indeed public issues and affected the public welfare, especially the standard of living in the area. A majority of legislators eventually voted for the resolution.

The strike finally ended after the pressure of boycotts and declining sales of Colt firearms forced Colt Industries (later renamed Coltec) to put the firearms division up for sale. The union’s case before the National Labor Relations Board – in which they alleged unfair labor practices on the part of the company – prevailed, and Colt had a huge back-pay liability to the strikers. After a complicated set of events and negotiations, a group of private and public investors and the union were involved in a buyout plan involving State of Connecticut pension funds, private investment, and partial worker ownership. The new company, Colt Manufacturing Company, signed a contract with UAW 376 that included raises and full company-paid health benefits. The union agreed to a back-pay award of $13 million, though some of that payment was deferred until the company got on its feet financially.

Outgrowths of the CLA

It was not a one-way street in terms of unions gaining support for their issues alone. Unions also worked with Hartford community groups in anti-crime coalitions to focus on the heavy police deployment at the Colt picket line that was draining neighborhood crime control efforts. Moreover, the spirit of coalition building extended from the strike into the realm of local politics. As active Democrats, UAW leaders expected an embrace from local elected officials in Hartford during the Colt strike. Yet, the union received only lukewarm support from the local city council members, most of whom were Democrats. Given this frustration, the UAW joined with other local forces who had other grievances with Hartford politics to form a local third party, People for Change (PFC), to run candidates for the city council. This alliance included activists from the “linkage” coalition whose efforts had been unsuccessful, and disgruntled political leaders in the Puerto Rican, African American, and left-activist communities. Emerging political activists from the gay and lesbian community also signed on. The neo-Alinsky groups could not formally join the effort due to their nonprofit, non-partisan status, but many of their activists were initially involved in PFC’s efforts.

PFC ran candidates in three elections between 1987 and 1991, several of whom were elected. This effort helped insurgent Democrats sweep out all incumbent city Democratic and Republican council members in 1991 and attempt progressive local governance in Hartford. PFC’s first slate of candidates in 1987 featured an AHOP neighborhood leader, Marie Kirkley-Bey, who won the election and subsequently ran and served both on the city council and in the state legislature as a Democrat.

By the 1993 election, the business community perceived PFC and its progressive Democratic allies in the Mayor’s office and on the city council as a threat. The downtown interests and others organized to “take back” city hall, and PFC’s fourth election bid was unsuccessful. By this time, some of the neighborhood groups’ base and leadership had aligned themselves with this effort to change the direction of City Hall away from progressive governance. Yet it was within the CLA that many of the initial PFC participants first came together. From that work, labor’s presence was more clearly established in community affairs in Connecticut, particularly in Hartford, as a partner and force on the local scene and for social change more generally. In the late 1990s, this work continues.

Enduring Coalitions and New Community-Labor Efforts

Throughout the 1990s, the notion of community-labor coalitions has endured, and new coalitions have emerged in Connecticut. For example, while PFC ceased functioning after 1994, its activists fanned out into other organizing endeavors. CLA met periodically, as strikes occurred for several years, and participants are now involved in several ongoing projects, including a particularly interesting CLA heir, Citizens for Economic Opportunity (CEO).

CEO formed in 1995, initially in response to job loss and restructuring of the insurance industry in the Hartford area, and it evolved to define a legislative agenda focusing on corporate responsibility. Its foci have included: the insurance industry restructuring and its effect on local communities; the trend toward managed care and its significance for the quality of health care, particularly for consumers and unions who bargain collectively over health benefits; and public policy options and standards to address corporate behavior in an era of continual downsizing and restructuring.

In 1997 and 1998, CEO centered much of its energy on legislation that specified standards of corporate responsibility. The group introduced legislation that would require corporations receiving state economic development assistance or public contracts to meet certain wage and benefits standards, including those for temporary and part-time workers. Tax breaks for irresponsible corporations would only be available to companies with demonstrable records of paying living wages. Although these proposals did not pass, they forced a new debate in the legislature and aroused a strong reaction in the business community. CEO participants will also raise these issues in future legislative sessions and use them in screening political candidates.

CEO’s work builds on the bridge-building that took place earlier in the CLA and especially through the most enduring community-labor political coalition, the Legislative Education Action Program (LEAP). LEAP began in the 1980s and continues playing a critical role in Connecticut’s progressive movement. LEAP provided PFC with many essential campaign resources during its existence. Besides orchestrating the issue of the Colt strike in the legislature, LEAP successfully coalesces labor, civil rights, women’s, environmental, human service, and citizen activist organizations to recruit and assist progressive candidates. Unions are a consistent force in LEAP, yet careful attention is given to constructing an inclusive agenda that attracts a variety of organizations. Within LEAP, close working relationships evolved among the UAW, the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) – a national Citizen Action affiliate – and others. The UAW and CCAG each play important leadership roles in CEO.

An important connection to the faith community has been forged over a number of years, through the work of the Capitol Region Conference of Churches (CRCC). Its director has worked both with the labor movement and community organizations and played a pivotal role in providing a moral basis for CEO’s corporate responsibility campaign. CRCC sponsored a forum in which former Aetna Chief Executive Ronald Compton agreed to address the topic of corporate responsibility.

Community organizations, including HART, as well as women’s advocacy groups and welfare rights activists, also participate in CEO as they are able. Coalition participants have come to understand that each group has its priorities and processes, and these differences are respected. CEO’s greatest challenge is to cultivate deeper grassroots support for its efforts.

Continuing Need For Coalitions

In Connecticut, the community-labor coalition activity that began in the 1980s has resulted in effective long-term relationships and developing trust among participants. Now, with some 15 or more years of history, many organizations are used to working together and know what to expect of one another in specific situations.

Contemporary conditions demand these coalitions. More are needed in diverse settings and on issues such as welfare reform, immigrant rights, and the basic right to organize. They help create vitality in communities and they are necessary to sustain any measure of social progress. So get out there, coalesce!


Contacts:

  • Hartford Areas Rally Together, 860-525-3449.
  • Asylum Hill Organizing Project, 860-249-7691.
  • Organized North Easterners – Clay Hill and North End, 860-525-0190.

 

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