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Building Community Unions | The Nation

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Building Community Unions

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The second reason the Stamford project is remarkable is the extent to which it has embraced community organizing and the broader agenda for change this implies. "We knew that there was not much history of community activism in Stamford and that relationships had to be built and trust had to be won," explains Julie Kushner, a UAW organizer affiliated with the project. "We knew that the basis of a partnership with the community was the clergy, and that establishing trust meant we couldn't just go to them and say, 'How can you help us with our organizing drives?' We needed to say, 'How do we really work together to change this city and make it a better place for working people?'"

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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For a growing number of community organizations and unions scattered across the country, the line separating "community issues" from "labor issues" is breaking down--just as it always has in the lives of poor and working-class families. These unions and community organizations are sharing turf and creating new alliances that go well beyond isolated acts of "solidarity" to ongoing partnerships based on mutual self-interest. Such "community unions," of which the Stamford project is one example, combine features of labor unions, ethnic associations and community organizations, and engage in organizing activities at the local level to advance the interests of low-wage workers. In contrast to most US unions, these organizations move back and forth between worksite and community organizing, and use a combination of economic and political strategies to achieve their goals.

By most accounts, the unions of the SOP are working well together. To minimize squabbling over turf, at the outset of the project the participating unions forged an agreement defining organizing jurisdictions, which required the unions to declare their core industries--a concept that is still only at the discussion stage at the national level. The low-wage workers the unions seek to organize hail from diverse sectors with their own unique challenges: The nursing-home workers of the healthcare union 1199 are often new immigrants and extremely poor; the janitors of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are low-wage immigrant workers; and the UAW brings in a combination of low-wage workers from childcare centers--primarily African-American and some Latino--as well as immigrant taxi drivers, middle-class municipal employees and newspaper reporters. Still, these workers have basic problems in common. Many earn too little to support a family working one job, so it is the norm to have two; to the extent that employers provide health benefits they are often prohibitively expensive and substandard; employers invest little in training and development; and, since workers have no organizations to represent them, they have no protection from mistreatment and little or no voice on the job.

Starting out on virgin territory, the project knew that community support would be crucial to the success of organizing campaigns. That's why, as the unions stepped up their organizing activity, aggressively targeting nursing homes and taking on the mayor in a bitter contract fight for municipal workers, Jane McAlevey, the project's director, worked with 1199, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), SEIU Local 531 and the UAW to find out what churches their new members belong to. These members then went out in teams to speak with their ministers about the union organizing efforts. Several of those ministers became important allies, visiting worksites and rallies in support of organizing and contract fights. And along the way, the union became more and more conscious of pressing community problems.

"The first time we all sat down with members and African-American clergy, we wound up talking about the cost of housing being so high as one of the main reasons workers needed unions--they needed more money to pay the rent," McAlevey remembers. The unions and the clergy began to brainstorm together about ways to control skyrocketing rents and increase the supply of affordable housing.

Then, in April of 1999, some newly organized nursing-home workers were "invited" to a discussion with the Stamford Housing Authority about the future of their housing complex. Says McAlevey, "We did some digging and realized that this was the next public-housing development that the city wanted to target for demolition and privatization. These were the workers at Courtland Gardens, the [nursing] home where these women had just prevailed against a massive anti-union campaign. They had just learned to fight the boss. They were the first to say, 'Hey, we just beat a huge multinational company, surely we can beat the housing authority and save our homes!'"

When the unions discussed how to get involved at the next SOP staff meeting, it was a watershed event: They were no longer talking about the affordable-housing crisis in the abstract, or even contemplating a campaign just to cement ties with community allies--they were talking about their own union members losing their homes.

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