#111 May/Jun 2000

All the Issues in Workers’ Lives

Challenging the notion that unions should limit themselves to workplace concerns, breaking new ground on how to connect labor and community issues, exploring the relationship between the fight over economic issues and racial justice, and creating what some think actually has the look, feel, and smell of a social movement.

In the last 12 months, a remarkable string of organizing victories involving thousands of low-wage workers and their families has taken the corporate hub of Stamford, Connecticut by storm. Haitian taxi drivers have joined Jamaican nursing home workers and South American janitors in public actions to challenge the leadership of this New York City suburb. Hundreds of clergy, public housing tenants, union members, and civil rights activists have besieged the Mayor’s office to demand action on a broad range of issues.

The effort is being led by the Stamford Organizing Project, an innovative effort sponsored by the national AFL-CIO and including Region 9A of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Justice for Janitors Local 531 of the Service Employees  International Union (SEIU), District 1199-New England, and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 217. These four locals have agreed to an unprecedented coordination of organizing efforts in the workplace and beyond.

In the process, they are challenging the notion that unions should limit themselves to workplace concerns, breaking new ground on how to connect labor and community issues, exploring the relationship between the fight over economic issues and racial justice, and creating what some think actually has the look, feel, and smell of a social movement.

Just two years ago, Stamford was an unchallenged playground for Fortune 500 companies. District 1199 had 20,000 members and a strong track record of dealing with racial issues, but its base was in the northern part of Connecticut. The scanty labor presence in the south proved to be one of the factors that persuaded the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Department to select Stamford as one of four regional pilot projects to support collaborative organizing by union locals. With so much room to organize, unions could test new ways of working together without the baggage of prior relationships.

According to former AFL-CIO Organizing Department director Kirk Adams, the region’s economic and political geography was another factor in Stamford’s selection. “It’s a classic tale of two cities,” says Adams, referring to the vast economic inequities in a city where the median income is $93,400 per year and houses sell for an average of $300,000 each. The elected leadership of the 120,000-person city is almost entirely white and overwhelmingly supportive of a pro-business, pro-growth agenda. People of color comprise 25 percent of the population. Project director Jane McAlevey says that “whether it’s the public schools or the neighborhoods, the city is resegregating itself in the nineties.” The AFL-CIO leadership correctly predicted that these disparities could catalyze a broad-based labor-community alliance against an  entrenched corporate elite.

Following lengthy negotiations among the participants, the project began organizing in earnest in late 1998. Within a few months, McAlevey says, “we began to have these small but palpable moments that felt like we were building a legitimate movement.”

Jobs in the City

The basis of the project’s success in organizing workers, explains project training director Myrna Iton, is a nuanced understanding of the relationships workers have to their jobs, communities, and each other, that unions traditionally overlook. “If you do an analysis of the connections between workers in the area, you see definite patterns,” she explains. For example, the workers at the dozens of nursing homes in the county are almost entirely Haitian, Jamaican, and African American women. McAlevey says the organizers refer to the area as having a “servants economy – something a little more intense than a service economy.” Because Stamford is so segregated occupationally and residentially, these workers tend to live in the same housing developments, go to the same churches, and often work in the same second and third jobs.

Most labor-community alliances are built on the foundation of alliances between existing labor unions and community organizations. But in Stamford, the core of the strategy is to organize the rank-and-file workers themselves to organize both on the job and in their neighborhoods, churches, ethnic organizations, and precincts.

Iton says this means that unions would be foolish to go it alone. “You have to make joint strategic decisions in conjunction with the unions around you.”

Iton is one of five project staff paid directly by the AFL-CIO to facilitate this kind of coordination between the unions. On one day she may accompany organizers from District 1199-New England on house visits to meet with nursing home workers. On the next day project staff may move to help a United Auto Workers organizing campaign targeting two taxi companies that have been paying sub-minimum wages to 100 mostly Haitian male drivers. Later in the week, the focus may be on rallying support for SEIU janitors at nearby Fairfield University.

By coordinating their work strategically, a synergy develops that lifts all the unions’ efforts. Staff and leaders from every union regularly participate in all of the project’s actions and recruit members for all the unions. McAlevey keeps in constant communication with the leadership of the respective unions, persuading and sometimes cajoling them to train their attention on the larger movement for union power rather than retreating to a more narrow issue focus.

Face-to-Face with Race

While organizing nursing homes and the taxi workers was a quick success, netting several strong first contracts, the project soon turned its attention to what McAlevey calls “strategic non-workplace” organizing. McAlevey and the project staff challenged the leadership of the local unions to better understand the totality of the issues faced by their members, both inside and outside the workplace. This strategy has brought the project face-to-face with racism, Stamford-style.

An extensive union survey discovered that many members name housing issues to be more important than increased wages and benefits. Lucrecia Barreda Rueckert, a former rank-and-filer who now works for 1199, says, “If the union wins a five percent raise in the nursing home and the workers’ rent is raised six percent, it’s a defeat.”

But the unions also quickly realized that, in segregated Stamford, housing is fraught with racial conflicts. Viola Clark, a resident of Oak Park, a 168-unit cluster of moderate income housing, says the city targeted her development for privatization because “they want to move the black people out of Stamford and take our land.” For Clark and her neighbors, many of whom work in service jobs, the $44,000 annual income needed to afford the typical two-bedroom rental unit in Stamford was literally out of reach.

Marie Pierre, an 1199 rank-and-file leader, was forced out of a city housing development that was privatized and fears that Stamford’s elite “wants to get rid of us. As the corporations came, more and more rich people started coming to town. I think they want to take over Stamford and send us all to Bridgeport,” where housing costs are roughly one-half those in Stamford. One 1199 leader even likened Stamford’s housing policies to “nothing less than ethnic cleansing” of the black and brown residents of the city.

Iton points out that in much of Stamford’s moderate- and low-income housing, up to 75 percent of the residents work in industries represented by the project’s unions. “In Oak Park, you go to one door and it’s a nursing home worker, the next a janitor, and so on.” Project staff and local organizers began organizing among the tenants to block a proposed sale of the development by the city. Union organizers and members became tenants’ rights activists almost overnight, mobilizing members to meetings and stopping the privatization plan dead in its tracks.

Speaking Truth, Gaining Power

The unions’ ongoing commitment to issues such as housing has propelled them into community alliances and enabled them to become players in local politics as well. Project staffers like Angelucci Manigat, a Haitian community organizer, assist workers in building long-term relationships with their own pastors and elected officials, effectively aligning them into a broader, more strategic movement for power.

Manigat says that nearly all the Haitian union members attend the same handful of churches. “The workers come home from working two or three jobs and they are like zombies, they are so tired. These issues should be the churches’ issues. We organize the workers to sit down with the pastors and talk about the big picture: jobs, housing, education, and political power for working families.”

Reverend Winton Hill of the Stamford Bethel AME Church explains, “People have been saying that housing has been a problem for years. But the unions’ involvement made a huge difference.” Hill is one of two dozen religious leaders who support the demands of their congregations and the community for better housing and decent wages. Iton says, “Nearly every time that union members speak publicly about their issues, the clergy are right there, and the clergy now regularly speak to their congregations on union rights and social justice issues.” Hill says the new partnership is based on the fact that “labor has moved from a narrow focus to understanding its collaboration with the community in broader terms.”

Kate Andrius, an 1199 organizer for two years, says such relationships transform the unions’ reputation and elevate their standing in the community. “It’s much more difficult for the boss to paint the union as a narrow interest group when pastors and other community leaders are walking in step with our leaders,” she says.

The project’s organizing in the workplace and around housing has also led them into politics. Three weeks before the November 1999 election, the unions decided to back Chiquita Stephenson, a 28-year-old working-class African American parent, in a citywide school board contest that pitted her against two white establishment candidates. Stephenson’s unexpected victory, following an intense week of door-to-door work by nearly all the project staff and leaders, confirmed the unions’ status as a potent political force in the city.

The project has also developed alliances with the state’s speaker of the house and the senate majority leader, who recently appointed Jane McAlevey to a blue ribbon housing commission. Last fall, members and their supporters got a private audience with Vice President Al Gore at the home of a local pastor to discuss their concerns.

The Future is Now

While the AFL-CIO’s Adams concedes that the project mainly represents a tactical initiative to recruit more union members rather than a major economic or racial justice engagement, he says the project does exemplify some new thinking within the AFL-CIO about organizing on scale. “The labor movement understands a little better now that we’ll never be strong enough to carry a social agenda by ourselves. No matter what we do, it has to come from a community perspective as well as a labor perspective.”

District 1199 Organizing Director Dave Pickus argues, “It comes down to what you think the purpose of a union is. Is it to do the `best you can’ and try to win a two or three percent raise in the next contract, or is it to create a vision of where the members want to be and how the union can make a real difference in their lives?”

The biggest challenges that the project faces may be internal to the labor movement. Funding from the AFL-CIO is only guaranteed through the end of the year, according to Adams, who says that geographic initiatives like the Stamford Project must build their capacity so they can run by themselves.

Finally, more conservative union locals in Fairfield County and across the state have yet to wholeheartedly endorse the project. If the project is to ever reach the scale and impact its leadership envisions, it will likely have to navigate through even more treacherous labor politics.

But these obstacles seem small compared to the project’s ongoing activities and aspirations. SEIU Local 531 joined the project last year and plans a massive Justice for Janitors campaign across the city to align the wage and working conditions with those of other cities. District 1199 hopes to add to the 1,000 Stamford-area healthcare workers it has already organized in the last two years. The UAW, fresh from victories with the taxi drivers and a unit of city employees, has just initiated a campaign among Head Start workers. The project hopes to support this work by expanding its tenant organizing, offering voter registration and citizenship classes to immigrants, and helping to train a cadre of member organizers to recruit new members.

Is the Stamford Project a model for other regions? There are several conditions that have contributed to its rapid success that may not exist elsewhere: blatant examples of poverty in the midst of plenty, the manageable size of the region and the existing interrelationships among the workers, the absence of competing organizing agendas, and the strategic savvy of the participating unions.

In addition, the project’s staff in general and McAlevey in particular have struck a delicate but effective balance between challenging the unions’ leadership to broaden their agenda while understanding their self-interest in building their respective organizations. But the priority of building a strategic alignment for power committed to racial and economic justice must be fortified in Stamford and replicated in many regions if that fight is to gain real momentum.

If successful, the Stamford Organizing Project may become the opening chapter in a new story of building powerful economic and racial justice movements in an age of corporate domination.

This article is reprinted from the Summer 2000 edition of ColorLines, a national magazine of Race, Culture & Action published by the Center for Third World Organizing and the Applied Research Center.Visit www.colorlines.com.


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