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Originally posted on Jspot.org.
In the United States during the 1930s, revolution was in the air. With the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the broken economy was failing most Americans. This gave rise to a spectrum of responses, providing communists and socialists on the left and fascists on the right with a compelling argument that capitalism and democracy were fundamentally flawed. With millions unemployed and living in poverty, people were primed for change.
But in the United States, the revolution never came. Capitalism survived the 1930s. So did democracy.
Instead, the calls for social change compelled President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress to pass sweeping reforms, while the Supreme Court provided the new laws with a constitutional seal of approval. Today, the reforms of the New Deal remain vital to America’s compact with its citizens: part safety net, part ladder of opportunity.
Since 2008, economic conditions have sparked new movements for change. Organizers behind the Tea Party conservatives, the Ron Paul libertarians and isolationists, and Occupy Wall Street’s anti-corporatists all believe another world is possible. The messages are simple and clear. “End the Fed” the libertarians proclaim. “Tax the Rich” the occupiers chant. “Seal the border” the tea partiers insist.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were attracted to revolutionary, utopian movements like socialism and communism. Anti-Semitism made life hard for Jews, and the idea that we could create a more just society in which Jews and other embattled communities would be accepted as equals was very appealing.
Eventually, though, utopianism lost its luster for most American Jews. The revolutions of the 20th century often turned out to be more dangerous than the flawed societies they replaced. Both Stalin and Hitler inspired followers with their visions of utopia. Reform, not revolution, became the norm for American Jews.
Today, iin economic and soical conditions reminiscent of the 1930s, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is generating considerable excitement and some nervousness among American Jews. On the one hand, its critique of economic inequality and of a political system that excludes most voices from civic discourse resonates with the community’s liberal majority. On the other hand, Jews have often been scapegoated during economic crises, accused of being puppet masters behind the scenes.
So, what’s a Jew to do?
We can take a lesson from the 1930s, and advance an aggressive reform agenda that addresses the critique of structural inequality put forward by Occupy Wall Street.
[I]income inequality is grinding down [the] middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people… [T]he financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. … [E]lected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street… has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer… [The] dysfunctional economy [is] dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.
If we agree with this assessment, we should be sympathetic to the voices of Occupy Wall Street. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to create a more just society. The potential strategies are limitless. In Boston, for example, the Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods (SUN) initiative has prevented more than 125 homeowners from being evicted by helping them repurchase their homes with affordable fixed-rate mortgages.
Occupy Wall Street is many things. It is an opportunity for regular people to share their frustrations with an economic system that no longer works for them. It is a mechanism for mobilizing individuals to collectively confront powerful interests. And Occupy Wall Street is a new town square where democracy is practiced and the First Amendment comes alive.
There is a reason why a majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of Occupy Wall Street. You don’t have to be an occupier to share their frustration. Finally, a populist movement even a reformer can love.
Originally Published on Truth-Out.
The last five years have been grim and isolating ones for immigrants and working people, right? Overall, this may be the case, but if you talk with organizers at Fuerza Laboral, an independent workers’ center in Rhode Island founded in 2006, you might get a different impression.
Despite difficult times, the group has taken on some bold and determined organizing. And they have some important victories to show for their efforts.
“Fuerza’s roots are really and truly the essence of what the labor movement is: workers organizing themselves and getting together with their communities to identify some real injustices that are systemic throughout the country,” says Josie Shagwert, the group’s executive director. “They got together to say, ‘How can we put a stop to this? Because the system is failing us.’”
Not long ago, workers’ centers were seen as service providers, staff-driven organizations where individuals could go to have caseworkers help with their problems. That has changed over the past decade, and the Rhode Island group is part of the transformation. “Fuerza Laboral builds worker power,” the organization’s web site explains. “[We] organize to end exploitation in the workplace. We train workers in their rights, develop new community leaders, and take direct action against injustice to achieve real victories.”
This work sounds a lot like what unions do. And, yet, Fuerza Laboral is not formally affiliated with the labor movement. Instead, it is an affiliate of National People’s Action (NPA), and shares with other NPA members an organizing model rooted in communities. Fuerza Laboral’s campaigns show two things: why organizing among workers remains essential, and how the labor movement still has work to do in bridging the gap between its traditional practices and new groups doing cutting-edge organizing, especially among immigrants and low-wage workers.
What Good Are Laws Without the Power to Enforce Them?
When Fuerza Laboral first started organizing, it focused on the abuses of temp agencies in Rhode Island, “employers who were underpaying, not paying, taking illegal deductions,” Shagwert says. Having first coalesced around this industry, the group soon moved to take on other businesses with unjust labor practices – notably a local manufacturer called Colibri. On a cold morning in January 2009, some 280 workers showed up for work at the Colibri jewelry factory, a nonunion shop in East Providence. They found a handwritten sign taped to the factory door reading, “Plant Is Closed. Go Home.”
“Shock turned to anger pretty quickly,” says Shagwert, “with people asking, What kind of treatment is this? People had worked there for 5, 15, 20 years.” One of the workers called a local Spanish-speaking radio station and complained on the air about the closing. The radio host suggested that he get in touch with Fuerza Laboral.
“For the first meeting they had 12 people,” Shagwert says. “By the time they got together for a second meeting there were 60 people in the living room of one of the workers, crowded in to talk about what to do and what an organizing campaign would look like.”
The group discovered that Colibri’s closing violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which mandates that any business with 100 or more employees must give 60-days notice before closing. (The WARN Act was in the news during the December 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows factory by the Chicago company’s laid-off workers, which Kari Lydersen chronicles in her book “Revolt on Goose Island.”) The law affords an important protection for employees. Unfortunately, there is no federal agency to enforce it. The Colibri workers decided that they would take it upon themselves to make the company obey the law.
“The vast majority of those workers had never organized before,” Shagwert says. Yet, in the course of the campaign, they pulled together a 250-person rally at the Colibri site and also began engaging in direct action. “The workers practiced civil disobedience at the auctions [of company assets],” says Shagwert, “which resulted in 13 people getting arrested.”
During the action, one observer told the local NBC affiliate, “I’d like to see them get justice … This is another AIG deal. The rich get richer, and the workers get the shaft.”
The activists subsequently brought 100 people to the headquarters of the private equity firm in New York that had purchased the company, and workers held a sit-in in the firm’s lobby. “As a result of all those actions,” Shagwert explains, “a prominent labor lawyer in Rhode Island, Marc Gursky, felt inspired by this grassroots surge of energy. He stepped forward and said, ‘I know that to enforce the WARN Act you are going to need a lawyer.’”
For two years, Fuerza Laboral pursued the case in court, and it ultimately reached a settlement. The precise terms of the agreement have not yet been made public. Nevertheless, Shagwert notes, “I will say that the workers felt really happy that after two years they were vindicated.”
“Unity” and Unions
Fuerza Laboral’s efforts show why, even with only 7 percent of workers in the private sector of the American economy covered by traditional unions, there is no substitute for organizing among working people. Even with pro-employee laws on the books, there is little hope of justice without a grassroots demand. Prior to the labor laws enshrined in the New Deal, mutual aid among workers was the very essence of union life. With collective bargaining in decline, the revival of this type of action may be important for labor’s future as well.
Asked what Fuerza Laboral takes from the organizing model of National People’s Action, the national coalition of which it is a member, Shagwert says, “Networking and constantly building leadership. It’s a real belief that everyone who belongs to your organization, or wants to belong, has the potential to take leadership.”
In addition to developing leadership through their campaigns, Fuerza Laboral has also actively pursued a program of political education. “The essence of Fuerza Laboral is having the passion to develop leaders who will confront social injustice,” says Heiny Maldonado, a community organizer at the group. “We have a year-round calendar of trainings for our members and leaders.”
Shagwert adds: “Since 2006, we have put at least 3,000 workers through a really aggressive popular education model within which our members and leaders get trained to teach basic workers rights. We also hold democracy schools: a multi-week school that teaches about organizing, the history of the labor movement, and the history of immigration. Many of our leaders have come through those courses. They take a course, get fired up, and then we look for ways to plug them into the regular organizing we do. That feels like a huge victory.”
If there’s going to be a progressive revival in this country, having a broadly inclusive approach to worker education and developing community leadership will be just as important to traditional unions as they are to workers’ centers. Currently, the labor movement is engaged in efforts to reach out beyond its established membership in shops covered by collectively bargained contracts. From the AFL-CIO’s Working Americaprogram to Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU)Fight for a Fair Economy, labor organizations are seeking to expand their reach into working-class communities at large, recognizing that if they are perceived as a narrow special interest that benefits only a few workers, the movement will be destined to permanent decline.
Operations such as Fuerza Laboral represent another strain of organizing among workers that is taking place outside of traditional labor structures. A decade ago, the relationships between emerging workers’ centers in different parts of the country and traditional labor unions tended to be mistrustful – if not outright hostile, as Janice Fine discussed in her book “Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream.” Few ties existed in most cities. Since then, both sides have made inroads into this challenge and have strengthened their relationships with one another. In the past five years, the AFL-CIO has formed partnerships with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and with Interfaith Worker Justice.
Yet, gaps in organizational cultures and strategies still remain. The relationships between traditional unions and workers’ centers are continually being redefined, and the interaction of the groups represents a vital ongoing conversation.
As for Fuerza Laboral, Shagwert says: “Our board president has started calling us Unity Union. Which is what we are doing: Representing people in terms of grievances, doing a lot of the things a union would do for its members. But we’re not a union. We don’t identify with workers based on where they are working, we identify with them based on the abuses they are experiencing.”
While she cites alliances with unions such as SEIU and labor groups like Jobs with Justice as crucial to Fuerza’s work, she views her organization differently: “It’s the way I compare working on human rights to working on the rights of one small minority,” she says. “It doesn’t feel right to throw our hat in the ring and fight for one particular group of people. We are fighting for all of us because we are fighting for the most vulnerable.”
She adds, “I want to find a way to say this that isn’t critical of unions. Without unions what would our country be? But I see Fuerza as able to be a little more flexible than a union can be because we don’t represent one particular group of workers.”
Fuerza Laboral at once embodies an impulse toward mutual aid that has deep roots in the history of workers’ struggles and represents a new breed of organization that is expanding in areas where traditional union structures have not been able to reach. For a labor movement that desperately needs to make clear its relevance for all Americans, the task of deepening partnerships with such community allies could not be more urgent.
No force did more to build the American middle class than organized labor. In recent decades, however, unions have been decimated. Despite concerted efforts to turn the tide, the movement now represents only 7 percent of workers in the private sector. Never have working people in this country been more in need of a collective voice. Yet, we must ask, can labor alone create the change we need? If it can’t do it by itself, what role can unions play in supporting a wider progressive uprising?
Few individuals are offering more interesting, credible and challenging views on this question than veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner. Ezra Klein recently wrote in The Washington Post: “Ask union types who the smartest labor organizer is and they’re likely to point you towards [SEIU] organizer Stephen Lerner, who planned the legendary Justice for Janitors campaign.” In the most recent issue of New Labor Forum, Lerner has an essay titled “A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment.” It is a must-read for all those who wish to think seriously about creating change in this country.
On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I had a chance to sit down with Lerner on his back porch and have a conversation about his article. I walked away with the resolve that never before has it been so important for labor to have an inside-outside strategy. This means that unions can’t just work to get better politicians elected, but must also help foster a wider grassroots insurgency that can directly challenge the forces that have undermined the American middle class.
We are about to enter an election year, a time when we would normally put all our eggs in the basket of electoral campaigning. But Lerner makes a compelling case that it is necessary for the labor movement to maintain a dual focus. And that will mean changing the way we usually operate.
In his essay, Lerner argues that, amid efforts by the super-rich and major corporations to restructure the economy for their own benefit, unions have not been able to formulate a response by themselves. “Unfortunately,” he writes:
organized labor can be as much of an obstacle as it is a solution to mounting a movement for social justice that might reverse this trend and offer hope for the future.
Unions have the money, members, and capacity to organize, build, and fuel a movement designed to challenge the power of the corporate elite. But despite the fact that thousands of dedicated members, leaders, and staff have worked their hearts out to rebuild the labor movement, unions are just big enough – and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure – to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed.
Lerner cites examples in which unions have called off high-profile protests or acts of civil disobedience because they were worried that the actions would be perceived as too confrontational, or concerned that such protests would have negative legal, economic or political ramifications.
“If our goal is not to offend anyone,” Lerner told me, echoing a point he makes in his essay, “we might as well not do anything at all.”
I agree with one of his central points here: The more labor is seen as a narrow special interest group, representing the small pools of workers who have union contracts, the more its power will continue to decline. It will be left fighting defensive battles to hold on to the remaining vestiges of the New Deal, even as these are successively whittled away.
In order to change this, labor needs to address the issues that are of central concern to working people in this country, even if those issues fall outside the workplace. This means taking on the big banks, fighting foreclosures, pushing for public investment in our neighborhoods, reversing efforts to strip the state of revenue so that we can pay for essential social services.
I talked with Lerner about the groups that are doing this. A variety of national and regional networks – including National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment - are organizing in communities around just such issues. They are making savvy decisions about which specific lenders, employers and politicians they target. They are coordinating with other community groups across state lines to share best practices for campaign strategy and leadership development.
The labor movement has an urgent need to engage such allies and join in community-wide campaigns in cities across the country. Housing justice, predatory lending, transportation, immigrant rights, the elimination of public services: these are the issues that a huge number of Americans – including those who are union members – are confronting on a day-to-day basis. Efforts such as Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight for a Fair Economy are starting to join with community allies on such fights, recognizing that labor needs an outspoken progressive movement bigger than itself if it is to succeed.
“One day protests won’t do it,” Lerner told me. “We need actions that escalate, that really grow and gain intensity over time.” In his New Labor Forum essay, Lerner argues that unions should financially support – but not exercise control over – “a new wave of direct action and mass activity.” He uses this year’s protests in Madison, which linked unions with community allies and embraced militant tactics such as building occupations, as an example. More recently, in The Washington Post, he discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement as part of the same model.
Talking with Lerner about how labor might fund, but not control, such protest movements, I expressed some skepticism. Practically speaking, I asked, isn’t it unrealistic to expect local union leaders to hand over resources to community mobilizations without being able to mandate any clear outcomes?
“It’s not a blank check,” Lerner said. “Unions should be engaged with the movement. They should be encouraging their members to join broader efforts and sharing information. But labor sometimes has too much at stake, economically and politically, to take the lead itself.”
As the election year approaches, I believe that Lerner’s argument has profound implications for how unions approach their political program. Now more than ever, labor needs to revive an inside-outside strategy by marrying its political muscle with engagement in community organizing.
In the past decade, unions have developed more sophisticated electoral field campaigns than ever before. This gives the labor movement sway among elected officials, particularly on the local and state levels. The problem is that, in most parts of the country, we are not holding politicians accountable to any concrete agenda. These lesser-evil politicians have no real stake in helping to expand our ability to build up an institutional counterbalance to the power of corporate America. To hold them accountable, we need a progressive movement that applies pressure from the outside.
“People in this country know that the economy is rigged and it’s not working for them,” Lerner said. “They are angry about it, and they are ready to mobilize in ways we haven’t seen in generations. I think unions can play a part in this process.”
What is important about the community mobilizations that Lerner discusses is that they are gaining steam at the same time that labor’s electoral machinery is gearing up. Instead of letting the election cycle distract us from the broader fights we need to be having, the mobilizations can allow unions to be working on both inside and outside tracks. Being engaged with community allies who are undertaking escalating public actions makes labor part of a wider progressive insurgency that is articulating an agenda for how to make the economy fair again, and that is putting that vision out in the street.
“I understand why unions sometimes can’t risk their relationships with certain employers or politicians,” Lerner said. “But that can’t stop efforts to create accountability for corporations and for politicians. Unions need to take a leap of faith and support the uprisings that are working to rebalance power in our country.”
A PDF of Lerner’s article can be found on the New Labor Forum web site here.
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