Building Bridges, Building Muscle, Building Momentum

Two cities show how community-based organizations and labor can overcome their historical divide to work together.

Not so long ago, better jobs and stronger communities were separate visions, carried out separately: Unions organized workers at their workplaces. Community organizations focused on neighborhoods where people live when they’re not working.

Recently, however, unions have been engaging with communities to organize workers, especially in the service industries where scattered workplaces preclude traditional worksite organizing. And many community development organizations are expanding their agendas to include job creation and training, while community organizers are fighting for local hiring ordinances in addition to other neighborhood benefits.

Boston’s Community Labor United (CLU) and Atlanta’s Georgia Stand-Up are two alliances crossing this historical divide to protect and promote the interests of both low- and middle-income workers and their neighborhoods.

Opportunities and Challenges

Labor unions and community-based organizations have complementary strengths. Unions have financial assets, political capital, and expertise in negotiating with private- and public-sector power brokers. Yet they are struggling with declining membership. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 11.3 percent of the nation’s wage or salary earners were union members in 2012, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Community groups have deep relationships with a broad base of constituents who need the kinds of protections, financial resources, and political clout unions can offer.

But taking advantage of those synergies is often challenging, explains Leslie Moody, former executive director of Partnership for Working Families, a nationwide alliance of community and labor coalitions, including CLU and Georgia Stand-Up. Unions depend on dues collected from members who elect their leaders and can depose them if achievements fall short of expectations, and so their campaigns often focus on shorter-term wins. At the same time, local chapters face pressures from their national unions and federations to launch industry-wide campaigns that promise far-reaching impact. National goals don’t always resonate with local residents’ concerns, and national priorities can shift, causing internal tension for local union organizing.

In contrast, suggests Moody, community-based workers’ rights organizations tend to take a longer view that is more consistently focused on local issues. Because leaders frequently remain with their organizations for decades, they become adept at aligning constituents’ emerging concerns with the organization’s overarching mission. They are often more accustomed to fighting against the establishment for systems changes than sitting at the negotiating table to reach compromises on nearer-term objectives. Community-based organizations are also less subject to external pressures, especially when they do not rely on financial support from funders with competing priorities. At the same time, limited funding means that they are typically understaffed and have less capacity to invest in research and development to explore new strategies or take proven ones to scale.

Bridging the differences in those cultures may be particularly challenging in Atlanta and Boston.

Atlanta’s unions operate in a “right to work” state where union membership is among the lowest in the country. The BLS reports that only 5.4 percent of Georgia employees were represented by a union in 2012. Unions are more powerful in Massachusetts, where 16.2 percent of workers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining. However, Boston’s trade unions are known for their old guard solidarity that can exclude newcomers.

Deepening Relationships

Despite these constraints, community-labor alliances in both cities are galvanizing union and community actors, and deepening relationships between them, which allows the two groups to work more closely together. It’s easy to say that building relationships is important, but one of the lessons from these alliances is that it’s not automatic.

The first step is creating opportunities for community and labor leaders to talk with and listen to each other. Stand-Up’s office is located in what has come to be known as the “Labor-Community Building.” Owned by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, it also houses the Northern Georgia Labor Council and other workers’ advocacy organizations. Stand-Up takes advantage of its ample meeting space to convene stakeholders and hold events.

But a more significant advantage of co-location may be the chance for regular communication. For example, a facilitated discussion involving residents and members of the Amalgamated Transit Union helped community and labor leaders understand one another’s concerns about proposed changes in Atlanta’s public transit system. Bus drivers talked about their struggles with stagnant wages, layoffs, and the lack of respect they get from passengers. Stand-Up’s community partners conveyed their frustration with chronic lateness and disrespectful drivers. Drivers acknowledged these criticisms and explained that budget cut backs were forcing them to drive unsafe buses that break down frequently. After these conversations, Stand-Up’s member organizations helped turn out hundreds for a rally at the state capital in support of the union’s right to a better contract.

Being on the streets together has also deepened mutual understanding among community and labor activists. Darlene Lombos, CLU’s executive director, observed a shift in union leaders’ appreciation for the value of community connections when organizers from the tenants’ rights organization City Life/Vida Urbana joined Local 615 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to encourage security workers to unionize.

Organizers from each organization talked with one security guard about how joining the union would not only improve her own wages and job security, but would also benefit the entire neighborhood by helping residents avoid home foreclosure and invest more resources in local businesses. As the conversation continued, the community organizer discovered that her cousin attended the same church as the security guard’s ex-husband. Recognition of this personal connection ultimately prompted the worker to sign the union card.

Lombos reflects that understanding the synergies between unionization and fighting foreclosures helped all involved realize the value of the community-labor nexus. But the labor organizer’s exposure to the power of personal relationships to instill confidence in an organizing campaign may have been more significant.

Acknowledging the labor movement’s history of excluding people of color and women from union ranks has also helped bridge the divide between community and labor. “When the union owns their racist past and says, ‘Now is a new day,’ it goes a long way,” says Lombos.

Dispelling persistent myths that perpetuate exclusion of women and people of color was key to establishing the Trade-Up pre-apprenticeship program in Atlanta. This partnership between Stand-Up, the North Georgia Building Trades Council, and Goodwill Industries prepares young men and women from high-minority, low-wealth neighborhoods for jobs in the building trades.

Before Trade-Up was established, Stand-Up’s executive director Deborah Scott had been hearing resistance to including people of color from the still largely white membership of the building trades, many of whom had followed their fathers into the union. She recalled typical reactions to the pre-apprenticeship program: “Our folks have been on the bench waiting for work. You’re trying to help these black and brown workers get into construction jobs that are our jobs.”

“We turned it around on them,” she explained. “We told them, ‘These are new workers for a new economy and a new construction force.’” Scott stressed that the coalition’s community benefit campaigns were increasing work opportunities for everyone. Moreover, she emphasized that expanding the skilled workforce is key to securing pensions for the growing number of union members reaching retirement age.

That’s when the stereotypes about black workers surfaced. “We heard people say that black people can’t do the jobs or don’t want them,” she recalls. Scott and her partners addressed those myths by interviewing apprenticeship directors to learn their concerns and find out what prospective workers need to know to succeed. They recruited specialists from the trades to train participants from a construction standpoint. Trainees practice these skills at the trades’ training sites and become familiar with the equipment they are likely to encounter on the job.

Trade-Up selects participants who, as Scott describes them, “want to change their lives and are ready for a new future.” Once enrolled, staff conveys work expectations, resolves transportation issues, and communicates with probation officers and drug counselors to prevent problems before they surface. After launching the first cohort of women, they introduced life coaches who help secure reliable child care, build participants’ self-esteem, and develop life-affirming relationships.

According to Scott, “We help peel back layers of their past so that they can reshape their futures. … [And then] we hold them from the hard hat to their steel-toed boots so they’re already ahead of the curve when they go for a job.”

Efforts are clearly paying off not only in terms of new union members who bring secure and well-paying jobs to their families and communities, but also in deepened relationships. Scott recalled: “We went from waving in the hallways and saying ‘I don’t know what you do [but] you want our jobs,’ to ‘We have this project and some of your guys will get work!’”

Both of these coalitions have achieved more than either unions or community groups could have on their own, but their strategies for doing so reflect contextual differences. CLU has tapped Boston’s strong grassroots organizations to build organizing muscle, while Stand-Up and its allies have taken advantage of the city of Atlanta’s large-scale developments to generate new opportunities.

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