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Building Community Unions | The Nation

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Building Community Unions

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For the next several weeks the project conducted exhaustive research while union leaders and organizers door-knocked throughout the housing complex and turned out 150 residents for the Housing Authority meeting. "Healthcare Union Fights for Housing" read the headline in the Stamford Advocate the following day. With the Stamford Organizing Project providing research, staff and strategic leadership, hundreds of Stamford workers and public-housing residents mobilized to block the privatization and demolition of two public-housing complexes, kicked off a comprehensive affordable-housing policy debate and generally placed the housing crisis at the top of local lawmakers' agendas. As a result of their efforts, a media spotlight was focused on the soaring cost of housing in the city.

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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At the state level, the presence of organized labor added considerable political muscle to the affordable-housing agenda--leading to the repeal of a pilot housing-privatization law and generating a legislative deal worth $10 million in affordable-housing construction funds. Perhaps most significant, the AFL-CIO offered to use up to $50 million in finance capital from its pension funds to match state spending dollar for dollar on affordable-housing programs. Since labor is sometimes accused by community groups of being all take and no give, this commitment was a tremendously important step--as important symbolically as it would have been practically if the state had accepted the challenge (it still might after the new legislative session begins in January).

The SOP's work on housing has strengthened its standing in the eyes of community organizations. According to the Rev. Winton Hill III, minister at Bethel Church AME, the SOP's coming to town has made a dramatic difference. Hill says the project "[crunched] the numbers which we just did not have the resources to do, helped us to put on paper how many families were displaced, how many units destroyed, how many units at risk. The coalition with the union has helped us to move the agenda forward." Housing activists were equally impressed. "Labor was an absolutely essential partner. Our colleagues in the labor movement worked with labor-friendly legislators to deliver their support. This is the first time that labor has made affordable housing a legislative priority," said Jeff Freiser, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition.

At such a do-or-die moment for the labor movement, it's tempting for union leaders to dismiss the housing effort as an altruistic distraction from the urgent task of organizing. But union organizers in Stamford view it as an integral component of their work. "Our members were saying a two-dollar raise is great, a pension, terrific; but we still can't afford to live in the city," said Kate Andreas, 1199's lead organizer in Stamford. "We can't achieve the 200 percent wage increase it would take to live in the city."

The SOP organizers attest that the housing work has advanced their organizing in important ways. Because unions have acted boldly to block the demolition of housing, they are seen as advocates for the poor and the working class, and have built a good name for themselves among those they seek to organize. In a field where the work force is tightly segregated by immigrant group and where people live in tightly condensed areas, word about the union travels fast. Indeed, organizers have found that residents they encountered during the housing fight are also working at facilities they are organizing.

"We knock on their door, they know us, invite us in and sign the union card," says McAlevey.

The housing work has also created additional opportunities for members to become active in the union. Members have met with legislative leaders and testified at hearings, at both the state and municipal levels. They have led actions, marches and protests. Some members who were not leaders during organizing drives or contract fights have become actively involved through the housing campaign, reaching out to their ministers, playing important leadership roles and becoming more engaged in other union activities as a result.

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