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Building Community Unions | The Nation

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Building Community Unions

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Sometimes the payoff for unions of community work is quite concrete. During the throes of the housing campaign, for instance, the UAW was deep into its first contract fight with the mayor. Battling over wages and benefits, the mayor broke off bargaining and declared his intention to force the union into arbitration. The union needed to turn the heat up dramatically--and the housing campaign helped them to do just that. They called a march on the mayor's house for affordable housing and a contract settlement, and against privatization of the city-owned nursing home. City workers and public-housing residents turned out in droves, and other actions quickly followed. Under intense pressure, the mayor agreed to resume negotiations, and the UAW achieved its contract goals.

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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In the three years the Stamford Organizing Project has been in operation, more than 4,700 workers have been organized into the four affiliated local unions. All four unions say they are now positioned to organize thousands more. Justice for Janitors, SEIU's pathbreaking organizing program, launched a successful drive this past fall to organize 2,700 janitors in Stamford's myriad corporate headquarters. By SEIU's reckoning, this was an extremely effective campaign both in terms of how quickly it came together and how significant the economic gains for workers were; as a result of the new contract, workers who had almost all been earning the state minimum wage of $6.15 will be getting $9 an hour. For its part, in addition to organizing area nursing homes, 1199 is branching out to the thousands of workers employed at hospitals and assisted-living facilities. And the UAW, in addition to organizing city workers, is doing the same for childcare workers, 200 of whom just voted to join the union by a 3-to-1 ratio. The UAW is also heading toward a first contract for the city's taxi drivers.

The participating union locals believe that the SOP's community-oriented approach has made a decisive difference in the outcome of several organizing drives. It played a key role, for example, in 1199's campaign to organize the Atria corporation's Courtland Gardens, which was the first assisted-living facility ever organized in Connecticut. Atria, one of the biggest assisted-living chains in the nation, aggressively resisted the union. Because of the strong relationships the SOP had built, key clergy in Stamford adopted a strong pro-union position and even reached out to workers who attended their churches to encourage them to remain strong in their commitment to bringing the union in (the SOP provided the information on workers' church affiliations that made this outreach possible). They talked with their parishioners directly, sent them letters and stood outside facilities during the final days before the vote with a clear message--the union is the way out of poverty.

Of course, unions and community groups do not always work together easily. The Stamford project has been able to skirt a lot of tensions because there were no power-building community organizations with which turf had to be negotiated. The SOP, with so many more resources than any of the local churches, is speaking out and organizing around community issues without having to negotiate strategies on an equal basis with any other group.

Still, Stamford provides one model for making the economic problems besetting poor and working-class people a matter of serious concern and debate. City Council President Carmen Domonkos has seen a dramatic change: "No one was representing and speaking out on a consistent basis for working people--until the AFL-CIO came to town. This has made some people uncomfortable and some of us very happy!"

The message labor leaders are shouting from the rooftops of AFL-CIO headquarters is "Organize!" but it could well bear the coda "Right Now! This Instant--Or We're All Screwed." The federation, with its affiliated international unions, has been encouraging serious discussion about how to increase the numbers, get to higher levels of density and foster greater cooperation between unions.

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