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A “New Idea” From 1980s

In the run-up to their convention next month in Los Angeles, top AFL-CIO officials have welcomed closer ties with non-labor groups and associations of workers’ who lack bargaining rights. In an interview with USA Today this summer, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka claimed that formal partnerships with the Sierra Club and NAACP would soon be forthcoming. In a Wall Street Journal interview, he waxed enthusiastic about bringing a leading Hispanic civil-rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, into the house of labor as well (despite its controversial funding from the Walmart Foundation).

Trumka also told a conference of the Labor Research and Action Network in June that “we must rethink what it means for working people to have a collective voice and real power.” He urged the assembled academics and activists to provide him with some “fresh thinking and new ideas for a dynamic labor movement.” He announced that the federation would collect “a lot of ideas, try them, experiment with them and see which ones work.”

The AFL-CIO’s latest quest for “new ideas” was launched shortly after the country’s most durable community-labor coalition celebrated its first quarter century of grassroots organizing work. Formed in the late 1980s, Jobs with Justice (JwJ) is the subject of a timely new book, edited by JWJ supporter Eric Larson, from Providence, R.I. and with an introduction by Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen, a founding father of the group.

Jobs With Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices (from PM Press in Oakland) uses oral history to trace JwJ’s development as a singularly effective vehicle for uniting workers, their unions, and non-labor allies. Among the longtime activists interviewed are the late Mattie Stegall, an African-American cafeteria worker at a state university in Texas; Margaret Butler, a former telephone operator in Portland, Oregon; Barb Ingalls, a printer radicalized by the Detroit newspaper strike in the mid-1990s; Lara Granich, a former tenant and student organizer in St. Louis; Maria Whyte, an organizer for economic justice in Buffalo; and Rev. Calvin Morris, a veteran of the southern civil rights movement. Rand Wilson and Russ Davis report on the experience of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, while Carl Rosen, John Ryan, and Stewart Acuff describe how their big city coalitions took root in Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta respectively.

Reading this book, one wonders if Trumka and others at AFL-CIO headquarters are not missing one key element of JwJ’s success? (If so, it wouldn’t be the first time, as noted below.) As the best case studies in this volume demonstrate, it takes direct networking among local insurgents to enhance individual union effectiveness and revitalize labor in any city or region. Roping together the walking wounded of institutional liberalism, inside the Beltway, is an entirely different project. It’s also far less likely to produce any discernible results, nationally or locally, other than a few convention-related newspaper headlines.

JwJ was created at a time when a far more conservative AFL-CIO dominated any “letterhead coalitions” of national organizations that it deigned to participate in. Too often, local central labor councils were, as Rosen puts it, “pretty moribund” and certainly more wary of left-wing “outsiders” (including Rosen’s own unaffiliated United Electrical Workers). Worse yet, many CLCs proved unable or unwilling to generate real solidarity in major strikes, organizing campaigns, and contract fights. When JwJ emerged to fill that void, it often had “an uneven, rocky start,” according to Acuff. In Atlanta, where he was a local leader of the Service Employees International Union, JwJ was initially “crushed and suppressed by the State Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Council.”

But this only spurred Acuff to campaign for the Atlanta AFL-CIO presidency “focusing on organizing and solidarity, all of which was the JwJ program.” When he got elected, Jobs with Justice became “a committee of the labor council” and the main vehicle for its strengthened ties with the community. Elsewhere in the book, John Ryan recalls his parallel experience as a reform-minded CWA local president, who played a similar dual role in Cleveland Jobs with Justice and, later, the city’s central labor council. As Ryan recalls:

“Jobs with Justice allowed for smart, energetic incredible women and people of color to be leaders of the coalition at a time when they were shut out of the labor federation, which we later changed. Now, there’s a much more diverse labor federation. Today, it is headed up a by a big supporter of Jobs with Justice, our first woman leader after I left.”

Out-reach to students, immigrants, environmentalists, the clergy, civil rights organizations, and others in the community is now second nature to many unions, when they find themselves in a tight spot. But, in the late 1980s, the mainstream labor movement was just beginning to value community-labor relationships that were more reciprocal and less opportunistic. As immigrant minister and Pride at Work member Israel Alvaran notes in the book, JwJ has helped many unions “realize that a lot of their membership can easily be part of community organizations. Maybe you are a hotel worker and you are Filipino. There’s an overlap.”

Eventually, some (but not all) Jobs with Justice-affiliated unions contributed to the national AFL-CIO’s own political upheaval in the mid-1990s. SEIU’s John Sweeney was elected president of the federation on a “New Voice” slate. Trumka, an early JWJ backer when he led the United Mine Workers, became Sweeney’s secretary-treasurer. JwJ’s initial reward for their victory was to be informed by Trumka (and New Voice backer Jerry McEntee, then president of AFSCME) that the only community-labor coalitions needed in the future were those created by the “new” AFL-CIO.

In 1997, after Trumka and Sweeney became reconciled to the continuing existence of JwJ, the AFL-CIO did donate $100,000 a year to its national office. Fifteen years later, the federation was reportedly still contributing the same amount out of an annual budget of $140 million. During labor’s failed campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, American Rights at Work (ARAW) received greater labor funding, now scaled back to the same level as JwJ, which merged with ARAW last year.

With the AFL-CIO poised to “invest” more in formations allied with labor, one would think that JwJ would be at the top of its grantee list? After all, as Cohen notes in his introduction: “Jobs with Justice brings to the table 25 years of practice building unity, bringing diverse groups together, balancing interests, seeking commonalities, and aligning campaigns and movements. That experience and those skills will be crucial in the coming period.”

It remains unclear, however, whether national JwJ will receive AFL-CIO funding at the same level as before its absorption of ARAW or more generous allocations. “We’re hoping that they’ll see the utility of supporting a stronger, merged organization at a higher level,” one local JWJ leader told me. He touted ARAW’s boost to JWJ’s national lobbying, research, and public relations capacity. Other representatives of the AFL-CIO and JwJ/ARAW would not confirm any details of their financial relationship.

If there’s a weakness in 25 Years, 25 Voices, it’s the amount of ink devoted to mutual back-scratching by past or present national staff members (who are all fine folks). Inside the Beltway, such self-congratulatory “discourse” may be standard fare, at labor and political testimonial dinners. But it doesn’t reflect what built JwJ at its best, over the years, at the grassroots level. There, the group was often defined by its rebel spirit, rank-and-file orientation, and bottom-up initiatives. JwJ’s leaders were widely known and respected for being self-effacing and self-sacrificing. Among them are formidable organizers like ex-GE machinist Russ Davis in Massachusetts or former Pac Bell worker Margaret Butler in Oregon. Both have toiled for much of their career on “movement” salaries far below the pay of the full-time union functionaries whose faltering campaigns their JwJ affiliates have rescued on innumerable occasions.

Hopefully, 25 Years, 25 Stories will be a reminder that JwJ was created as an alternative to the bureaucratic functioning of existing unions and their “progressive alliances” of three or four decades ago. “What’s different about Jobs with Justice is it really is about building a permanent network of relationships grounded in one local community,” says Butler, who was initially skeptical of JwJ when Cohen visited her local union in 1987 to promote the idea. “He was from the national union,” she explains. “In Portland, we were a radical union and we didn’t like the national that much.”

Mimicking the organizational behavior of national unions today, however much improved, or the model of foundation-funded workers’ centers is not the best way to be what Stewart Acuff calls “the militant wing of the labor movement.” In the 45 communities and 24 states where JwJ is still promoting union member mobilization and direct action, there is no more important and unfinished role for it to play.

Steve Early worked on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. During that time, he was an active supporter of Jobs with Justice in Boston and its predecessor, the Massachusetts Labor Support Project. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, forthcoming in November from Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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