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Commentary Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Long Live the Day Laborers!

The following is a speech by Professor José Calderón Clausura of the José Fernando Pedraza Institute, which was originally published in Popular Education Liberates.

The development of the National Day laborer Organizing Network, Radio Jornalera, and this Institute, are very close to my heart.

I was part of the start of the Day Labor Center in Pomona in 1997. At that time the City Council passed a law that, if implemented, would have fined each day laborer $1,500 just for looking for work on the street. We responded with a march and filled the Council with hundreds of people. Out of this organizing, the city council rescinded the unjust ordinance and agreed to help support the development of the Pomona Day Labor center.

I was also part of the beginning of the National Day Labor Organizing Network alongside twelve organizations at a conference held at Cal State Northridge in July 2001.

I have to tell you that my commitment – my passion – in support of these struggles came from the fact that I was an immigrant from Mexico, that came to this country when I was 7 years old with my parents – who were farmworkers their entire lives in Colorado and with my father who was a day laborer in the winters, waiting on the corners, even when there was snow, for a job so that we could eat. I never forgot – and when I graduated from college, I went to work for a while with the United Farmworkers Union of Cesar Chavez in Delano, CA – and when I returned to Colorado with my parents, I started a little school in the back of my parents’ house – and I have to tell you, I started teaching 18 students who did not know English in the same way that you are using the Paulo Freire and Popular Education method.

And I must also share with you today that there is no better way to honor the life of José Fernando Pedraza, than with the development of this Instituto, because truly, Fernando was an example of the development of a consciousness, of a day laborer who organized other day laborers – on a street corner – to respect each other in the search for work – and also to fight injustice. Fernando was part of the classes with some of my students on the street corner in Rancho where he was not only a learner but a teacher – and went beyond the learning to read and write – but to use his skills in organizing against injustices.

In 2002, when the city of Rancho Cucamonga passed a law against day laborers being able to look for work on the street, Fernando was not afraid and took the city to court to ensure that his comrades could continue to organize themselves on the corner. After that victory, Fernando continued the struggle to create a center for day laborers.

That is the way it was for Fernando, Don Gilberto, and other workers who, with the support of students, the Pomona Day Labor Center, and NDLON, developed a corner of struggle that, not only helped the workers in employment and education, but organized them to respond to monthly attacks, on the corner of Arrow and Grove, by such anti-immigrant groups as the Ku Klux Klan and the Minute Men. Hence, on April 2, 2007, a dozen of Ku Klux Klansmen wearing their Klan t-shirts and hats protested the day laborers on that corner. A month later, on Cinco de Mayo 2007 (a day celebrated in Mexican communities when the colonial French army was defeated in Puebla by a largely Mestizo and Zapotec force in 1862) dozens of Minute Men protested across the street from the day laborers. In the middle of the protest, two cars collided on the road and one of the cars landed on the sidewalk killing our leader Fernando.

Although his death hurt all of us deeply, Fernando is very much alive in the ongoing development of the Pomona Day Labor Center, the continuance of classes and leadership development at the corner, and in the annual organizing of an annual memorial attended by day laborers, students and the community. The example and spirit of Fernando is here today with all of you – leaders from all over the country- with the advancement of the National Day Labor Organizing Network (which began with a few and now includes hundreds in corners, centers and cities throughout the nation).

We are here in the spirit of Fernando, to use our skills – without fear – to defeat the walls of ignorance, racism, and scapegoating. At this time when the conservative right and the government use the frustration of workers– (many who don’t have livable salaries and benefits) to advance hatred against our immigrant communities – now, more than ever, it is necessary that we commit ourselves to fight and organize (in the spirit of Fernando) for justice, for fair wages and benefits, for the legalization of our immigrant communities (that contribute billions to the economy with our labor and the taxes that we pay).

We all know very well that this is what Fernando and all those who have sacrificed their lives across the nation would want. Their spirit is very much alive among us – and in that spirit – with the NDLON – with the development of the Jose Fernando Pedraza Institute – we can be sure that in the end we will win – and that a better future – as a result of our efforts – is on the horizon for our communities.

Fernando Pedraza Lives and La Lucha Sigue!

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Commentary Economic Justice

Commentary: No, China didn’t steal our jobs. Corporate America gave them away.

The following article was originally published in Salon.

For as long as outsourcing has been a major trend in global capitalism, the ruling classes have had to weave a narrative of how workers in the Global South are “stealing our jobs” as a cover for the reality that global capital actively seeks out cheap, exploitable labor. These narratives have long been embraced by the American right-wing to scapegoat non-American labor and drive a wedge between the international working classes. As such, it is always worthwhile to sharpen our arguments highlighting the ways that these trends are a result of our global economic system and the will of the ruling elite, and the only way to fight back is to forge international solidarity among workers. The following article by Cody Cain in Salon is an important contribution to these efforts.

China is not “stealing” American jobs.

President Trump loves to blame China for the job losses that have devastated American workers under globalization. But the truth is that Trump is blaming the wrong party. Trump’s reckless trade war against China is misguided and amounts to a colossal charade that will not solve the actual problem.

Yes, it is true that numerous American manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas to China, thereby leaving American workers jobless and suffering. But China did not steal these jobs.

No. These jobs were given to China. It was all legal and legitimate. China merely accepted the gift.

What would anyone expect China to do? Accepting these jobs was a perfectly rational course of action.

China was an underdeveloped nation with a large population of poor people willing to work for a fraction of the hourly wages of American workers. And then corporations came along and presented China with an attractive offer: We would like to build manufacturing plants in China and hire droves of your unemployed people to work there. What was China supposed to do? Naturally, China said yes.

This is hardly stealing.

It is true that these new jobs in China were intended to displace American workers. But does that concern belong to China? Does China have the responsibility to care for the well-being of American workers? Is China supposed to prioritize American workers over its own workers?

Of course not.

China is supposed to look out for itself and for its own workers, not for American workers. Thus it was perfectly proper for China to allow the manufacturing plants to be built in China and employ Chinese workers. China did not steal these jobs.

So if China is not at fault, then who is to blame for the devastation caused to American workers?

The answer is plain to see, and it lies within our own shores. The fault belongs squarely with corporate America.

It was corporate America that made these decisions. Corporate America decided to close their American plants and open new plants in China. Corporate America decided to lay off multitudes of American workers and ruin entire American communities.

And who profited from the destruction to American workers? It was the wealthy executives and shareholders of American corporations. They earned millions of dollars for themselves by cutting the costs of their workforce.

This is part of the larger trend of economic inequality that is eroding the entire middle class in America. Wealth is being shifted away from the workers down below and transferred up into the hands of the wealthy executives and shareholders at the top.

Trump blaming China is nonsense. China is not at fault. To be sure, China is hardly an angel and indeed engages in improper trade practices. But even if China agreed to whatever bone-headed demands Trump is seeking, the problem still would not be solved. The truth is that America cannot possibly compete against China on labor costs. The standard of living is much lower in China and thus Chinese workers are willing to accept wages far below living wages in America. So corporate America will continue to transfer more and more jobs to China and elsewhere. If we do not address this fundamental economic reality, then we will never solve the problem.

Trump blaming China has an insidious aspect to it as well. Focusing all the ire upon China is a grand misdirection that conceals the true culprit, namely, the super-rich corporate executives and shareholders in America.

This is part of Trump’s standard playbook. Trump falsely proclaims to be fighting for blue-collar workers, when in truth, Trump acts entirely in favor of the rich at the top.

Surprisingly, this seems to work. Some of the hard-working Americans who are being crushed by Trump’s idiotic trade war and who should be denouncing Trump, nonetheless praise him for standing up to China, believing that Trump is fighting for blue-collar jobs. It is painful to witness such good people falling victim to Trump’s despicable con job.

In order to actually save the middle class, we need to focus on the true cause of the problem. We must direct our great powers of reform where they belong — upon the wealthy executives and shareholders of corporate America who caused this problem in the first place.

The nature of the problem is that corporate America has no incentive to protect American workers. In fact, corporate America has every incentive to harm American workers by shifting their jobs overseas.

So the financial incentives must be reconfigured. If corporate America is going to ship American jobs overseas, it must not be permitted to pocket all the profits themselves and leave their displaced workers with nothing. Instead, corporations that send jobs offshore must be required to sufficiently compensate their displaced American workers. Executives and shareholders must not be permitted to enrich themselves unless and until their workers are financially secure.

Our society must favor people over profits, not profits over people.

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Analysis Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Watch: Voices for New Democracy Immigration Forum

This weekend, Voices for New Democracy hosted the second forum in our new series of panels focused on pressing issues for today’s left: the future of the labor movement, immigration, economic democracy, and more.

Our latest forum centered on immigration, with presentations from our four panelists on key trends in the immigration landscape: the domestic political context for growing demands for immigration reform, the intersection of our racist criminal legal system with the deportation machine, the international context of neoliberalism in the Global South driving migration in the first place, and the need to link immigrant struggles with other social justice movements to effectively combat the white supremacist movement that threatens both.

Watch the full presentation and learn more about panelists below.

José Z. Calderón:

José Guillermo Zapata Calderón is an Emeritus Professor in Sociology and Chicano Studies at Pitzer College and President of the Latino and Latina Roundtable of the Pomona Valley and San Gabriel Valley.

As an immigrant and the son of immigrant farm workers, he has had a long history of connecting his academic work with immigrant rights organizing, student-based service learning, participatory action research, critical pedagogy, and community-based coalition building.  

After graduating from the University of Colorado, he devoted fourteen years to community organizing efforts, particularly in Northern Colorado. While working on his PhD at UCLA, between 1984 and 1991, he helped organize multi-racial coalitions to defeat an English Only movement in the city of Monterey Park and to elect various local leaders to political offices. More recently, he has connected his academic work with community organizing in California’s Inland Empire region.

Miguel Tinker Salas:

Miguel Tinker Salas is an authority on political and social issues confronting Latin America. He is the author of Venezuela, What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2015); The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela (Duke University Press, 2009) Spanish edition Una herencia que perdura, petróleo, cultura y sociedad en Venezuela, GALAC 2014); co-editor with Steve Ellner of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy, (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); co editor with Jan Rus of Mexico 2006-2012: neoliberalism, movimientos sociales y politica electoral, (Miguel Angel Porrua and Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, 2006) and author of Under the Shadow of the Eagles, The Border and the Transformation of Sonora During the Porfiriato, University of California Press 1997; Spanish edition, A la sombra de las águilas, Sonora y la transformación de la frontera durante el Porfiriato, Fondo de Cultura Económica 2010).

His expertise includes: contemporary Latin America, society and politics in Venezuela and Mexico, oil, culture and politics in Venezuela, the drug war in Mexico, Mexican border society, Chicanos/as and Latinos/as in the United States, and Latin American immigration.

Miguel Tinker Salas is currently a Professor of Latin American History and Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Lee Wang:

Lee leads the development of IDP’s strategic vision, working across program areas to ensure that the organization advances its goals and mission. Previously, she was the founding Director of the New York Immigrant Freedom Fund, a program at the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund that fights to free immigrants from detention. She started her legal career at IDP as a Skadden Fellow and has played a key role in building the organization’s ICE Out of Courts campaign. Lee is a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and Yale College. In a previous life, she was a muckraking journalist and documentary filmmaker.

Leticia Bustamante:

Leticia Bustamante is a Project Coordinator for the Dream Resource Center focused on the annual Dream Summer program. Leticia graduated from UCLA in 2017 with a major in Political Science and minor in Labor Studies. Leticia is an alumni of the Dream Summer program herself, she formed part of the Labor Cohort for the class of 2016 and interned with the California Nurses Association. As a student at UCLA, she participated in the UCLA Center for American Politics and Public Policy (CAPPP) program in Washington, DC. She interned at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) Committee where she investigated the economic effects of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Categories
Analysis Economic Justice Financial Justice

The Coming Crisis in Affordable Rentals: Don’t Let a Crisis Go To Waste!

| Matt Perrenod |

As I write this, the Washington Post reports that the federally- imposed eviction moratoriums are fraying under legal assault from landlords. The article notes that as the pandemic has continued, and the moratorium extended, that pressures have increased on smaller landlords who lack the financial capacity to go month after month without revenue. What the article does not say is that even if evictions go forward, there is a likelihood that many of these smaller owners will fail financially. Eviction is an expensive process, and finding replacement tenants who can pay is not easy when large numbers
of potential takers are themselves facing hardship.

In emphasizing the impact on property owners, I am not attempting to downplay the destructive impacts of eviction on renters. The wave of evictions will take its greatest immediate toll on those families and individuals. This situation was created by a failure of the federal government to meaningfully fund relief for the millions who lost jobs and income as a result of the pandemic. The rent moratorium was at best a short-term fix, unsustainable over any extended period of time, and no substitute for the material relief Congress and the Trump Administration failed to provide. The $40B in rent assistance finally passed by Congress in March as part of the larger American Recovery Plan is likely too little, and very much too late for many.

What happens with the real estate, however, will likely have a larger long-term impact on the prospects for housing affordability for most tenants. And a lot of that real estate is likely to change hands over the
next couple of years, as small-scale landlords, under financial stress, sell or are foreclosed upon.

I’d like to refer readers to this article by David Abromowitz and Andrew Jakabovics, published last October in Shelterforce, a progressive housing journal. It lays out a persuasive case for the importance of rental housing stock owned by smaller, non-corporate landlords, who own about 7 million apartments in communities of fewer than 50 units, many of them in small 2 – 4 unit buildings. These are often the most affordable rental housing available, except for the small slice of the market that is already publicly owned or publicly-assisted. Roughly 1 in 6 of these small private landlords are in serious financial distress. Abromowitz and Jakabovics argue for a dedicated fund to assist mission-oriented owners to purchase these buildings, either from their current owners, or from foreclosing banks.

This echoes the situation during the last financial crisis, when millions of U.S. homeowners lost their homes through foreclosure. The federal government, which ended up as temporary owner of these properties through its control of FHA, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac allowed them to be sold off to the richest bidders. The immediate pain for the foreclosed families and individuals was bad enough, but in the aftermath huge private equity firms swooped in to buy these houses at fire sale prices, most of which remain high-priced rentals. We should not allow this dismal result to be repeated, with corporate owners jacking up rents on affordable units as the market recovers. But that’s exactly what will happen if the federal government once again takes the approach of “let the markets work.”

Fortunately, as I noted in a previous Voices article, we have on hand a nonprofit lending system, Community Development Financial Institutions, which are ready to channel public capital to recover this
important housing resource. And we have a class of nonprofit owners of affordable rentals who can take on the long-term ownership of these buildings as high-quality affordable housing. All it takes is the
money.

Matt Perrenod is a consultant to nonprofit community development and finance organizations working throughout the United States.

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Analysis Economic Justice Organizing

Amazon Appears to Defeat Bessemer Union Drive. What Went Wrong?

Read: Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign

The historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, AL appears to have been defeated. 

As Voices for New Democracy covered earlier this year, the union drive of 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers with the RWDSU represented the largest labor challenge to Amazon yet in the United States. The effort drove national attention, to the point that even President Biden released a video affirming the workers’ right to hold their election. The efforts heroic, and had it succeeded, it likely would have sparked union elections in other Amazon warehouses across the country. It is no surprise, then, that Amazon pulled out all the stops to defeat it. 

From forcing workers into overtly anti-union meetings, to conspiring with the Bessemer city government to change traffic light patterns to throw off union organizers outside the warehouse, to colluding with the Postal Service to illegally add a voting dropbox to the Amazon site itself, to countless other nefarious efforts — the deck was stacked against the workers from the beginning. 

But the loss cannot be blamed on entirely on Amazon’s massive opposition. If the labor movement and new union drives are to succeed, then we must reflect on our defeats soberly to make sure we do not repeat them. Fortunately, Jane McAlevey’s recent article in The Nation offers a much-needed retrospective of the campaign — where it went wrong, and what we can learn from it. 

McAlevey highlights three general reasons for the loss: Amazon’s own union-busting, weaknesses in the union’s strategy, and the local context within Bessemer. 

The union-busting is nothing novel. On top of the previously mentioned actions, Amazon effectively threatened layoffs if the union drive was successful. In a city suffering from a stagnant economy, such an outcome would be unacceptable. And given Amazon’s enormous influence within the city as a major employer, it is understandable why workers would fear going up against it. Especially considering reports that Amazon was ramping up surveillance and heightening tensions within its sites over the union drive, many employees likely developed concerns that joining the union would lead to Amazon permanently instituting these tensions and hostilities.

Messaging against such a behemoth is no easy task. But difficult opposition is no excuse for giving up. These fights can be won, and to make sure we win the next one, we must explore our mistakes. 

McAlevey offers an important summary of the weaknesses within the RWDSU campaign. For one, the union had a widely inaccurate assumption of how many workers were in the warehouse — while they assumed ~1,500, Amazon quickly countered with a demand to include all 5,800 workers in the campaign, significantly raising the number of employees they would have to win to their side to clear the 30% threshold required to start the election. 

The organizers also fumbled their messaging, particularly around the question of dues. Because Amazon is a right-to-work state, organizers explained that unionization would not necessarily mean workers have to pay dues — but dues are essential to build the power required to take on monstrous employers like Amazon, and the organizers missed an important opportunity to “ask workers why the company suddenly wants to discuss how workers spend their own money.” The organizers also treated the union as an external entity with messages like “the union is on your side,” missing an important opportunity to highlight that the workers themselves are the union.

Organizing tactics were another key issue in the trajectory of the campaign. The majority of face-to-face contact between workers and organizers was happening at the plant gate, effectively giving Amazon a home court advantage. Successful campaigns require house calls because, as McAlevey explains, “[t]he last thing nervous workers want is to be seen near the place they work, talking with union supporters.”

Finally, McAlevey highlights that the campaign simply had not built up the capacity that they needed to win the election. Rather than pursuing public structure tests — where a majority of workers publicly declare their support an action — the organizers declined to ask workers to go public with their support in a misguided attempt to protect the workforce. But what really protects the workers is the collective action of the majority. Ultimately, the organizers ended up reinforcing the atomization and fears of collective action that workers already experience at Amazon. 

Regardless of these weaknesses in the campaign strategy, the final nail in the coffin was the lack of local support. While the campaign quickly garnered national media coverage, it did so at the expense of building relationships with local groups with more direct ties to the community. 

It should be noted that this is not the end of the fight. The RWDSU has already announced that it will dispute the election and file a number of “Unfair Labor Practice” charges against Amazon — and some are still holding out hope for another election down the line. The tenacity is inspiring, and progressives should applaud efforts to try again. But if the union is going to win next time, it must be careful not to make the same mistakes.

Read: Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign

Categories
Analysis Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: Possibilities for Labor Transformation

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Eric Gill delivered a presentation on his experience in driving labor and union transformation. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

Given the state of the American labor movement, it’s critical that the left renew its commitment to labor transformation. When unions transform, it happens from the bottom-up. And as many unions have seen their power decline and their administrations fail their workers, they will need activists to help renew and transform them.

With this analysis, Eric and his cohort pursued the transformation of the hotel workers’ union in Hawaii. Eric himself joined as a janitor in Waikiki after a discussion about strategic industries in the islands, recognizing the major role that the tourism industry plays in Hawaii’s economy. But the union had long been a reactionary one, and was in desperate need of reform.

Knowing that the union is defined by its membership, Eric and his cohort worked to develop a core of activist left workers within the union as the vehicle for change. And ultimately they were successful, managing to transform union leadership.

This work was not without its challenges. The cohort had to immerse itself within the union, learning which leaders could be allies and which were opposed to their aims. Organizing within the union, they made a point to unite with leaders when they were doing the right work, and were not afraid to expose them when they didn’t. Strike actions were especially fertile ground for driving change, since they move workers’ class consciousness rapidly and move the economic struggle into a political struggle. Nevertheless, the “price of admission” was high, as Eric’s cohort had to contend with participating in both of the administrations they eventually deposed.

Transforming union leadership is not enough, though. Eric and his cohort continued to build out their progressive core by finding worker leaders and starting a committee-building program. The reason is clear: worker leaders are much more effective than anyone else at getting through to people. Their efforts have largely been successful and continue to pay off, as much of the union’s work is now led by the committee leaders they trained.

After their successful takeover, the renewed union began to focus on what was important. They began to turn their attention towards development of worker leaders among immigrant members — the large majority of the membership, which had previously been neglected. These efforts continue to pay off, as the support of immigrant workers has made their continued work possible.

With this transformation, the union has since been able to achieve a number of major victories. During a strike, the union created the slogan “one job should be enough,” which went beyond the very small $1.50 wage increases the union previously devoted attention to. Not only did this strengthen the resolve of the workers, but it also transformed the union’s public relations. As Eric explains, they were no longer seen as the corrupt guys, but rather the guys in the red shirts out there fighting and supporting the other movements in the community. As a result, they were able to build support among tourists, some of whom even donated to the strike fund.

The union also developed new capacity to shape change on a national level. During the 2020 Presidential election, the union deployed 1,700 trained organizers to the field to work doors in swing states like Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. As one of the only unions deploying an effort like this, their work was invaluable and ultimately succeeded in helping flip the states and ensure a Trump defeat.

Eric’s experience demonstrates that we have an extraordinary moment where we can build worker power and start shifting the balance, as public perception of unions and labor is high — but we must not miss our chance. Now is the time to salt the unions with progressive activists who are focused on long-term unity with workers and wider social change in unions. And it’s vital to remember, workers want this. They want the union to be powerful, they want a program that advances their conditions, and they want solidarity.

As Eric concluded, “Solidarity for many years has been a word. Now, we need action.”

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Economic Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: International Solidarity

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Carolyn Kazdin delivered a presentation on her experiences in the international solidarity movement and the links between the American labor movement and the international context. The following is a summary of the key points she presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

To understand the possibilities for international labor solidarity, it is first essential to understand that the American labor movement has traditionally been a reactionary one on the international stage. The U.S. trade union movement has been known for engaging in “trade union tourism” in visits to other countries, rather than building relationships and forging solidarity. While progressive unions around the world have already been working together, U.S. unions have largely been left out of the picture.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change. And as the American labor movement begins to explore international possibilities, it is worth taking a look at the trends already unfolding across the world.

The Brazilian labor movement is an important place to start, as they elected one of their own as President of the country with the election of Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT). In his 8 year tenure, Lula and his movement lifted 40 million people out of extreme poverty, and created 20 million jobs. While the movement has since faced significant setbacks under the Bolsonaro administration and the corrupt trials that jailed Lula and his associates, their successes are an important reminder of what a robust trade union movement can achieve when it wins power.

International solidarity work also offers an important illustration of the ways that global capital works. During NAFTA struggles, for example, amid all the anti-immigrant rhetoric a number of U.S. workers were sent on delegations to Mexico to see where their jobs went. Those American workers saw firsthand what had happened to their jobs with heightened exploitation, which is why these jobs were offshore to begin with: to exploit workers in the Global South, where their governments would allow it. And when they came back, those workers were able to speak to other workers across the U.S. to explain what was really happening with NAFTA, why Mexican workers are allies not enemies, and why global capital is at the root of the issues they face.

When these international bonds are forged, they pay dividends. When Brazilian companies bought steel mills in the U.S. and mines in Canada, workers across these countries resisted the union-busting efforts and launched campaigns forcing those companies to respect unions and right to bargain. When the UAW attempted to unionize Nissan workers in Canton, MS, they recognized that the U.S. is the only country where Nissan workers are not unionized, and brought in unionized Nissan workers from other countries to show why their unions are so important to them. And when the tire maker Firestone opened new sites in Liberia, the Steelworkers union sent delegates to the Liberian workers to help them in collective bargaining.

International solidarity work also casts an important light on the intersection of class and race. As the U.S. and Brazilian labor movements have built relationships, they’ve also been able to explore how racial struggles fit into the labor struggles both domestically and internationally. Brazil’s is over 50% Black, home to the largest Black population outside of Africa, and Black Brazilians face many of the same struggles as Black Americans. In particular, Black Brazilians suffer from an epidemic of police murders and a growing prison-industrial complex. With that in mind, Black Brazilian workers have been inspired by the recent resurgence of racial justice movements in the U.S., and have been eager to learn more about how the Black Lives Matter movement was launched so that they could develop their own.

All told, international solidarity work offers an important reminder that the labor movement is a global struggle. And in building relationships between labor movements across countries, we can both strengthen our own campaigns at home and gain new insight into how we can advance our shared struggles.

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

Categories
Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: Labor and Social Justice Movements

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Joe Alvarez delivered a presentation on his experiences and insights around the relationship between the labor movement and the growing social justice movements across the country. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

The Black Lives Matter uprisings of summer 2020 shook up the labor movement significantly. In one illustrative protest in Washington, D.C., protesters defaced the AFL-CIO building, putting up signs challenging the inclusion of police in the labor movement. This was followed by calls across the country to expel police unions from the AFL-CIO. A number of unions even joined the calls, with some teachers unions going so far as to launch their own campaigns to expel police from their schools.

While labor would typically be a natural ally in the fight for social justice, events during the uprising suggest a rift between social justice movements like BLM and unions. In this national moment of reckoning, we will continue to see fights and debates around the role that unions have to play in these social justice struggles. But if unions can find the right ways to ally with these movements, it could reignite the labor movement’s momentum in tremendous ways.

In fact, we are already beginning to see these trends in the new generation of labor leaders. New generations of young Black and other activists of color have been creating pressure on their unions to support social justice struggles — and notably, they have not always been doing so from a position of power. Even as outsiders, rank-and-file union workers are increasingly organizing to make demands of their unions and of the labor movement more broadly to advance a bolder vision of both social and economic justice.

There are a few key trends driving this momentum:

  • New organizing
  • Diversifying leadership
  • Changing paradigms around bargaining
  • Leadership development
  • Generational change

New organizing, for one, is bringing new populations into the labor movement, particularly people of color. In doing so, we are seeing a dramatic transformation of the face of labor. And with that comes new insight into the concerns of those communities and the need for the unions that represent them to fully stand up for the rights and needs of their communities.

Efforts to diversify union leadership are likewise transforming the what unions stand for. Diversity is important in and of itself to ensure that leadership reflects the demographic makeup of the membership. But this also comes with new understanding of the role that unions can and should play in advancing rights of workers and their communities, both in and out of the workplace.

Changing paradigms around bargaining and campaigns are also driving these transformations within the labor movement. While major union campaigns have traditionally focused almost exclusively on economic issues (e.g., the workplace, safety, conditions of employment, etc.), there has been a recent rise in bargaining that involves the broader community and that demands more fundamental changes, often targeting finance and Wall Street. Teachers, in particular, in places like Chicago have recently led campaigns demanding changes in how education is funded, as well as changes in non-workplace issues like municipal relationships with banks. Likewise, strikes in West Virginia have demanded taxes on the wealthy, and strikes in Oklahoma have targeted tax breaks for oil and gas interests. Increasingly, the labor movement is embracing a new understanding of its role in driving broad social change.

The growing emphasis on leadership development within unions is also changing the trajectory of the labor movement. Union leaders are increasingly grappling with questions about how to change culture within unions themselves to make them a stronger vehicle for leading social change: i.e. “How do we change ourselves to better lead change?” And importantly, leaders are not only thinking about leading change in the workplace, but also about how unions can contribute to broader social movements. By cultivating relationships between labor and social movements, leaders can strengthen their own unions and also play a larger role driving in social change.

Finally, the generational changes in the labor movement are also transforming it. New generations of union members are advancing new visions for social and economic justice, and the role that labor can play in both. It bears noting that these changes are themselves the result of historic victories that enabled new workers to enter into the labor movement to begin with. While these are important victories in and of themselves, they have also laid the groundwork for further change and we are currently seeing the baton being passed to new generations bringing new momentum to the labor movement.

Labor organizers must take note of these trends and recognize where momentum is growing to strengthen our movement. If we can do this and embrace new visions for our unions and social/economic justice more broadly, the labor movement will only grow more powerful.

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Analysis Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Organizing Social Justice

Forum on Labor’s Future: The State of the American Labor Movement

As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, UCLA Labor Center Director and moderator Kent Wong began the discussion with a recap of the state of the American labor movement. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.

On May 1st, 2006, 1 million immigrant workers in Los Angeles held the largest May Day action in US history. Billed as a “day without immigrants,” the informal strike brought the city to a standstill and successfully defeated a major anti-immigration bill. But while this represented a major victory for the immigrant rights movement and demonstrated the power of organized labor, it is notable that this action was not led by the American labor movement.

The May Day action is just one illustrative example of broader issues facing the labor movement in the United States. It has faced years of assaults by federal and state governments, shocks of austerity and deregulation, and fissures within the labor movement that have sometimes left it at odds with other social justice movements like the struggle for immigrant rights. With that in mind, it is critically important to understand how we got here, so that we can craft the right strategy to rebuild stronger than ever before.

Since the 1950s, union density in the United States has been steadily on the decline. American unions reached their height in the 1950s with roughly 35% union density across all sectors of the American economy. But since then, this number has declined to just ~10% today, with only 6% of private sector workers represented by unions. Today, the public sector is the last stronghold of the American labor movement, with major unions like SEIU, AFSCME, NEA, AFT, UFT holding strong.

Faced with this reality, the key task for the labor movement is rebuilding. And these five strategies and tactics may hold the key to doing so:

  • Build labor-community unity with a broad vision for social & economic justice (like Fight for $15)
  • Embrace racial justice
  • Organize the unorganized
  • Fight for immigrant rights
  • Link organizing power and political power

By embracing these principles and expanding the scope of its vision – both of the working class itself and the social transformation it seeks to build – the labor movement can recapture momentum and power.

Recent campaigns are a testament to this fact. The Justice for Janitors campaign, for example, successfully reorganized the industry through pathbreaking organizing strategies and tactics. Likewise, the hotel workers campaign embraced nonviolence and use of direct action/civil disobedience, pioneering creative organizing tactics resulting in the reorganizing of the hotel industry across LA.

Even beyond the workplace, recent events show that the labor movement can also exert major strength in the political sphere, provided that it adopts the right strategies and visions. The LA Federation of Labor, for example, recently developed a major political mobilization campaign that successfully flipped the political alignment in LA and California based on a union organizing framework. This battle was won precisely because the Federation tapped rank-and-file union members to engage in political process, offering lost-time wages paid for by the union to members who were doing political organizing.

Likewise, the Biden-Harris presidential victory was won by an alliance of labor and communities of color. The context is important: Trump had won (by thin margins) former union strongholds like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania (which have been the target of robust anti-union attacks and legislation). But in 2020, they flipped back — in part, due to massive union infusion of organizing, which also played out in Arizona and Georgia. Hundreds of full-time canvassers were sent by their unions to do door-to-door mobilization even during the pandemic, which decisively helped flip Arizona and secured the victories of Senators Warnock and Ossoff in Georgia.

Labor organizers and unions must take note of these trends and these case studies as we continue working to build the power of the labor movement. If we can do so, labor’s future looks bright.

Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.

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Watch: Forum on the Future of the Labor Movement

On March 14th, Voices for New Democracy hosted its first event of a new forum series with a “Forum on Labor’s Future,” featuring a panel of organizers with extensive and diverse experience in the labor movement.

Through presentations and discussion, the forum covered key questions including the historical trajectory of the labor movement, new challenges and opportunities, the relationship of labor to ongoing social justice movements, the international context, and strategies for union transformation.

Watch the full presentations and learn about the panelists below.

JOE ALVAREZ

Joe is a veteran labor leader, organization development expert, and visionary labor educator. After a 30-year history in social justice activism and labor organizing, he co-founded the Alvarez Porter Group in 2007 to help leaders and organizations work effectively toward creating a just, equitable and sustainable world.  As an organization development practitioner, Joe specializes in developing leadership in others and in helping unions and social change organizations be visionary, adaptive, and effective.

Joe is a fellow of Cornell University’s Worker Institute. He was the Northeast Regional Director of the AFL-CIO before pursuing a graduate degree in leadership and organizational development. Joe designed and co-led the AFL-CIO’s “New Alliance” program, a major state-by-state campaign to revitalize and reorganize state and local AFL-CIO bodies.  In 2000, he helped found the NY State AFL-CIO/Cornell University Union Leadership Institute, where he still teaches. Since its inception in 2013, he has been a co-designer and core faculty of the AFL-CIO’s National Labor Leadership Institute. He has taught courses in union leadership and management at U-Mass Amherst, City University of New York, and at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  Joe is a consultant for SEIU’s BOLD Center, and a member of the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences.

CAROLYN KAZDIN

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Carolyn Kazdin served as Representative in Brazil for the Solidarity Center, AFL-CIO from 1997 to 2005. She continued to work in Brazil for the United Steelworkers (USW) for the next 5 years, before moving to Pittsburgh, PA, to join the Strategic Campaigns department.

A graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, Carolyn served in the Peace Corps in Bahia, Brazil Back in the USA, she worked in government, in politics, and in the trade union movement. Carolyn worked on Capitol Hill with Congressman Bernie Sanders, and in the presidential campaigns of Reverend Jesse Jackson. In addition, she served as Legislative Director for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (now UNITE HERE).

Capital is global, and labor needs to be global too. Carolyn’s work in Brazil has helped demonstrate the importance of communication, strategic planning and joint action among international labor organizations that deal with similar issues and employers. The struggle for workers’ rights and dignity for all peoples is truly global.

During her time at the Solidarity Center, Carolyn worked alongside the United Steelworkers (USW) and various Brazilian unions on multiple international campaigns. Once in Pittsburgh, this important work continued directly in the USW. Carolyn is currently retired from the United Steelworkers (USW) in the USA and Canada.

ERIC GILL

Eric Gill started work in 1976 at the Sheraton Waikiki hotel as part of CWP’s strategic organizing program in Hawaii’s unions.  An activist rank and file leader from the start, he has also served his union in various staff and elected positions over the years. Over the past 21 years, he has been elected eight times as the executive officer of UNITE HERE Local 5.  

An officer of the international union as well, Eric has played a central role in promoting combined action by local UNITE HERE affiliates in multiple cities, most notably the coordinated eight-week strike that 8000 union members in seven local unions successfully conducted against the Marriott Corporation in 2018.   

KENT WONG

Kent Wong is the director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles where he teaches Ethnic Studies and Labor Studies. The UCLA Labor Center promotes research, teaching, and policy to advance workers’ rights.

Wong previously worked as staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles. He was also the first staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Los Angeles. 

Kent Wong was the founding President of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance—the first national organization of Asian American union members and workers. He is a Vice President of the California Federation of Teachers, representing 120,000 teachers and educational workers.

Kent Wong has published more than twelve books on the labor movement, immigrant rights, and the Asian American community.