#147 Fall 2006

Thinking Collectively

In Boston, labor and community groups are using their shared values to collaborate and win victories

Two years ago, when the Boston Tenant Coalition proposed to restore limited rent control to the city, it ran into fierce opposition from the real estate industry. Kathy Brown, BTC’s executive director, recalled the impact when the principal officer of the Greater Boston Labor Council spoke out in support of the idea. “The president of the city council flipped out that his labor allies were supporting this bill,” she says.

Though the bill included protections for homeowners and small property owners and garnered critical union support, the city council voted it down in the fall of 2004. “The real estate industry used their extensive resources to distort the issues, do mailings and make phone calls,” recalls Brown. “Also, while we had greater labor support, it was the middle of the presidential elections, and the unions were totally focused on national politics.”

Historically, affordable housing has been an issue with seemingly inherent fault lines when it comes to the interests of low-income residents and union workers. “There has been a longstanding clash between the building trades and other unions that depend on development for their livelihood, and the affordable housing movement,” says Dick Monks, an organizer for Boston’s Area Trades Council and a community activist. “Also, the real estate industry has been very effective at framing all housing issues in terms of ‘rent control,’ which still has a very negative connotation to a lot of the rank and file.” Some unions include small property owners and landlords among their members, who generally oppose any attempts to regulate rents. All of which means BTC faces an uphill battle to make housing issues more relevant to union members.

Recently labor and housing groups have come up with some innovative strategies to strengthen the links between them. Community Labor United (CLU), formed in 2005, is one exciting new development. The concept originated with the national AFL-CIO Field Mobilization Department and the Greater Boston Labor Council. Modeled after successful efforts in California and Denver, CLU intends to give labor and community organizations the capacity to do joint campaigns that benefit shared constituencies. CLU reflects renewed efforts among community-based groups and unions in Boston and other cities to work together.

Equal Partners

Many community groups view labor as a critical ally in their efforts to create social change. “Labor is powerful politically and in city government,” asserts Brown. “Also, labor has shared values, especially among the lower-income unions. We have common interests because working people, even union folks, can’t afford housing in the region.”

From labor’s perspective, Monks sees a similar need for unions to reach out to community groups. “Now more people in labor understand that it can’t be a one-way street. Without active community support for unionization, it isn’t going to happen – because workers are influenced by leaders in their community, their church, their ethnic group, etc.”

CLU’s mission statement (see sidebar below) reflects the organization’s commitment to a truly shared agenda, including a notable emphasis on housing. Although the idea for CLU came from labor, community groups were involved in developing its vision and goals. Housing is a key issue for several of those groups, including ACORN, City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU) and the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA). Each works closely with CLU, as do several local community development corporations. In addition to affordable housing organizations, CLU works closely with multi-issue groups and those that work on immigration, youth, health care, education, transportation, the environment and voter mobilization.

From CLU’s beginning, community groups have been equal partners with unions – a refreshing change from past practice, according to some community leaders. Juan Leyton was until recently executive director of City Life/ Vida Urbana, a multi-issue organizing group with strong ties to labor. “CLU gives community groups more leverage with labor unions,” he says. “Rather than coming together on one issue, CLU is more of a true two-way partnership, where we are setting common goals together. In the past, unions’ agendas drove the relationships. But now we are at the table as equals, developing campaigns together.”

For Tom Callahan, MAHA’s executive director, hiring Lisa Clauson as executive director of CLU was a pivotal decision. “The hiring of Lisa sent a strong signal. She is someone who has deep roots in the community and with housing issues.”

Clauson is indeed well-suited to play a bridge role between community groups and unions. While lead organizer of Boston ACORN, she built extensive relationships with labor, and through joint campaigns won increases in the state minimum wage and the city’s living wage. “In many cases community groups don’t see the interest and value of working with labor and vice versa,” she remarks. “Now I have an opportunity to slowly and steadily build connections and relationships, and build respect [for] what different groups can bring to the table and how they can build power collectively.”

CLU’s board includes three representatives each from community groups and unions and one seat reserved for the Greater Boston Labor Council, an umbrella group that provides in-kind support to help house and staff the effort. Board members are selected from the Strategy Committee, the main decision-making body that researches potential campaigns. The committee is made up of membership-based groups that organize low- and/or moderate-income constituencies. Once it chooses a campaign, a separate committee is formed to run it and decide on strategy and tactics.

Borrowing Labor’s Ideas

The labor movement’s focus on corporations offers a new perspective to many community organizers who have traditionally targeted the public sector rather than private companies. “Corporations are a good common target for community groups and labor,” says Brown. CLU’s focus on corporate accountability is an especially big draw for MAHA, which has a longstanding mission to increase resources for housing from the private sector, whether developers, banks or the insurance industry.

City Life/Vida Urbana recently adopted some of labor’s corporate accountability analysis as well as its organizing model. It has developed a promising tenant organizing strategy that uses the “right to organize” collective bargaining frame of unions, applying it in the context of tenant-landlord relations. CL/VU organizes tenant associations to oppose both rent increases and no fault evictions, and to demand negotiated agreements with landlords. If a landlord refuses, the tenants go on “strike,” refusing to pay any rent increases. The strategy has worked in several instances to date. Because tenant unions don’t have the same legal bargaining rights as labor unions, the actual agreement is between the landlord and each individual tenant. Typically these bargaining agreements stipulate how much rents can be raised each year, contain a clause removing no fault eviction (which is otherwise legal in Boston), and guarantee that Section 8 tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Steve Meacham, a tenant organizer at CL/VU, explains the parallel to a labor approach: “For labor the key issue is always to give workers a share of the profit regardless of what the ‘market’ may dictate. Similarly, we want landlords to share their profit and not validate ‘market’ rents.” The organization is trying to challenge the idea that some invisible hand defines real estate value, and create a paradigm shift so that the public, policymakers and property owners think about real estate in terms of its social value. Meacham asserts, “If you aren’t challenging profits, but merely chasing them with public dollars, then we lose.”

In addition to benefiting renters, the collective bargaining campaign for tenants has helped build bridges between the affordable housing community and organized labor. The Greater Boston Labor Council voted to endorse city legislation that would threaten sanctions against landlords who bargain with tenants in bad faith. While this bill faces substantial opposition in the city council, and then requires state legislative action due to home rule requirements, Clauson believes it is a “tremendous model that can be applied in other places.”

Recent and Future Campaigns

In the months ahead, CLU will go beyond organizing to conduct research, something Clauson says many labor and community groups have limited capacity to do. Beginning this fall, CLU will issue a series of framing reports to educate the broader public about issues that affect working families.

Along with strategic research and organizing, leadership development and training are important objectives for CLU. It held its first Civic Leadership Networking Institute last spring, with participation by 25 community, labor, faith-based and political leaders. To realize its ambitious goal of matching and challenging corporate power, CLU wants its leaders to understand the changing regional economy and how to influence private capital. It also educates members about Boston’s political and organizing history and who has power in the region today, as well as municipal finance and the role of public subsidies in development.

CLU intends to build on recent union support for limited rent control and collective bargaining rights for tenants. The organization is considering campaigns to win resources for affordable housing and require its developers to use union workers and pay them prevailing wages. One approach would be to secure passage of the Community Preservation Act through a ballot initiative in Boston. The CPA would leverage millions of state and local dollars for affordable housing. MAHA led a dynamic grassroots campaign to pass the CPA in 2001, but fell short of a majority vote. With greater union support and the strategic involvement of CLU, passage could be more likely next time. Other possible campaigns may focus on inclusionary zoning or community benefits agreements, which have been used in Los Angeles and other cities to negotiate specific benefits from large development projects.

Meanwhile, CLU won its first campaign victory in 2006, flexing its new muscles and demonstrating the power of community/labor collaboration. A member of CLU, the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35, proposed to win public sector support for young people in Boston to be trained to paint the public schools. A core group of labor and community leaders negotiated with Mayor Thomas Menino and school officials, who agreed to redirect existing resources for the program. Youth are identified by community-based organizations, screened by CLU, and placed in the painters union’s apprentice training program. The program began in July, with qualified youth painting two public schools and working their way up the union ladder.

“A lot of eyes have been opened among community organizations [that] didn’t know that we have been quietly doing this kind of community-oriented work all along,” says Jim Snow, director of organizing for the painters union.

In addition to exposing community members to the positive role unions can play in their neighborhoods, the campaign also helped educate residents about why unions matter in the workplace. “Two of the school painting contracts are with union contractors, but the other two are not, so we still have to pressure the city to make awards to union contractors,” says Snow. “A lot of people are comfortable with a level of wage exploitation that shouldn’t be allowed.” Snow anticipates that an upcoming affordable housing campaign will require CLU to educate communities about recent trends in the construction industry, including plummeting wages and the abuses many immigrant workers suffer.

In future campaigns, it will be the community groups’ turn to prove themselves, by turning out large numbers of residents. “There has historically been skepticism on the part of labor about what kind of power base community groups have,” says Callahan. “Some of us are stronger than they thought, but we have to prove that.”


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