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Building Community Unions | The Nation

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Building Community Unions

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Each year, the mayor of Stamford, Connecticut gives an address at a State of the City event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. A $40 minimum will get you in the door, but they would prefer it if you'd take a table. Who's on the guest list? SACIA, the Fortune 500 business lobby, whose members include such powerful corporations as GE Capital, Swiss Bank and Pitney Bowes. The Stamford area has the third-highest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the country, surpassed only by New York City and Chicago. This invitation-only event is no aberration; indeed, the city has been catering to the corporate elite for close to forty years.

Janice Fine wrote this piece with support from the individual project fellowship program of the Open Society Institute. It is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series, supported by the New World Foundation and the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Janice Fine
  Janice Fine is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at the School of Management and...

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During the mid-1960s Stamford's leadership made a conscious decision to reinvent the town as a major commercial center, opening up space for corporate headquarters by eventually razing ninety-nine acres of the downtown and displacing 1,100 predominantly African-American families. "When my husband and I first moved here in 1965, urban renewal was in full swing," recalls Stamford City Council President Carmen Domonkos. "The downtown was leveled, or almost leveled, and what wasn't was slated for redevelopment and allowed to deteriorate.... There was huge displacement of everybody that lived downtown--mostly minorities and low-income people."

Thirty years later the results are plain to see. Stamford's nighttime population of 107,000 quadruples during the day with wealthy business commuters. The luxury housing market is booming as more and more of those commuters are coming to stay. In fact, in the north Stamford neighborhood with the ZIP code 06903, average household income after taxes was recently estimated at $174,081. Meanwhile, life for Stamford's nursing-home workers, home health aides, taxi drivers, janitors and hotel workers--overwhelmingly people of color--has grown increasingly difficult. Wages are either at or slightly higher than the minimum, conditions of work leave much to be desired, and if they can find a place to live in Stamford at all, they can barely pay the rent. A recent study by the State of Connecticut found Stamford housing costs the third highest in the nation; to afford to live in a two-bedroom unit, a worker would have to earn $21.27 an hour.

These realities made Stamford ripe for an unusual multi-union effort, launched in 1998 by the AFL-CIO, to organize the city's struggling service-sector work force. "We felt there was a lot of potential in Stamford. It's in the richest county in the US and has some of the poorest people living in it. There was huge growth going on in the service sector and it was a tale of two cities, so rich on the one hand and on the other so much poverty," says Merrilee Milstein, deputy regional director of the AFL-CIO for the northeast region. Stamford was chosen in part because it had the highest concentration of unorganized workers in Connecticut, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, had both begun organizing drives there. Moreover, with an array of influential state legislators and top state officials hailing from lower Fairfield County (not to mention the senator who would soon join the Democratic presidential ticket), Stamford also had the highest concentration of political power in the state.

Out of a cramped, nondescript office downtown, four different unions target at least six different industries and organize among at least that many ethnic groups. You can feel the momentum when you walk through the door. It has the air of a movement organization combined with the tight organization of a political campaign. Rather than maintaining separate offices and coming together only around specific activities, organizers from all four unions share the same space, along with the AFL-CIO central staff--encouraging a joint sense of purpose and cameraderie frequently lacking in multi-union organizing efforts. Taped to the walls, alongside the requisite Ralph Fasanella posters and children's drawings, are elaborate campaign timelines, lists of worksites and picket signs. In the conference room, a ten-foot-long scroll chronicles the Stamford effort's recent history, with multicolored stars marking campaign benchmarks and victories.

The Stamford Organizing Project (SOP) represents an unusual approach to union organizing in two respects. First, it is a multi-union drive in a labor movement in which interunion organizing partnerships are rare.

The SOP was one of four multi-union "geo," or geographically based, organizing projects to grow out of the period of experimentation that followed John Sweeney's election as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995. Despite their compelling logic, multi-union drives are notoriously tricky to pull off. Locals almost never establish the level of trust necessary to share information on their targets and coordinate strategies--both of which sometimes require subordination of individual interests for the health of the overall project. And international unions have often been reluctant to fund efforts they can't control themselves.

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