Building Community Unions

Building Community Unions

In Stamford, Connecticut, organizers are putting the movement back in labor.


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.

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.

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?'"

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

More organizing has gone on in the past few years than in the past twenty before them. Between 1997 and the end of 1999, approximately 1,375,000 new workers were brought into the labor movement; in 1997, 300,000 new workers were organized; in '98, 475,000 and in '99, 600,000. This is indicative of enormous focus and effort–but in the face of explosive job growth on the one hand and attrition of union jobs on the other, the labor movement has barely been able to maintain mid-nineties levels of density. Simply to maintain the status quo, the labor movement must organize 500,000 new workers a year. And while precise numbers for 2000 are not yet available, early estimates fall well below that threshold.

The recent adoption of the "One Million Members" campaign, in which the federation will work with national affiliates and their local unions to achieve specific numeric organizing goals toward a target of 80,000 new members a month, is a move in the right direction. But what the recent statistics tell us is that despite much more emphasis on organizing, it's still not proving to be enough–labor is struggling to break through. A mismatch between old labor laws and the new economy, and virulent unionbusting by employers, with sanctions coming too little and too late, are two major reasons organizing is so difficult.

In this context, it has become increasingly clear that in order to succeed labor needs a new paradigm for organizing. For one thing, it needs a base beyond the worksite. In labor markets that are overwhelmingly nonunion (as most are today) and in which a growing percentage of the work force moves between jobs, firm-by-firm organizing is inadequate. Just as they did in the early years of craft and industrial unionism, many unions in recent years have concluded that they have to focus on geographic or industrial strategies in order to take wages out of competition across a city, region or industry. But most unions have failed to grapple with what that means in terms of community organizing and community partnerships.

As the Stamford project shows, workers can be organized effectively outside of worksites by building relationships with their ethnic communities, their neighborhoods and their churches. Indeed, in a sense, the community itself has become the new "unit" for labor organizing campaigns. To achieve their goals, worker organizations must gain community support by casting worker issues in broader terms; by speaking explicitly about social, economic and racial justice; by speaking on behalf of the working class, as opposed to a particular group of workers; by nesting pay and benefits issues within broader frameworks like quality of care and education; and by forging deep partnerships with community organizations.

To achieve the kind of expansion labor desires, a new generation of workers will have to be won over, and it won't be done solely on the basis of targeting and tactics–women and men, especially those of color, must be won to the mission of labor. Unions have become used to organizing the majority of a workplace and calling it a victory–and it is. The trouble is that this model of organizing has made many of them act like winning hearts and minds outside the workplace doesn't matter. When they stopped making their case to the broader community, they were tagged with the special-interest label. What unions need to pursue now are strategies that transform the larger community's power relations and its overarching political climate.

Despite the Stamford Organizing Project's impressive record, it and the other "geo" projects have had to struggle for support within the AFL-CIO. What's more, from the start, participating international unions worried that the projects would distract them from their industrial strategies, and even questioned whether the federation should be involved in organizing drives at all. Of course, there is no single answer to the question of how to rebuild the labor movement–depending upon the local context, different strategies will make sense–but as the AFL-CIO debates how to build its density and change the organizing climate, community-based organizing efforts like the one in Stamford provide clear examples of thinking outside the box.

As labor historian James Green, among others, has argued, during the epoch of organizing on a mass scale during the 1930s, unions benefited enormously from shifts in the broader political climate. It wasn't the bosses who suddenly changed their stripes–it was the public whose sympathies shifted. Unions also relied heavily on community organizations and newspapers that could reach ethnic communities. At its best, the labor movement was perceived to be fighting not for a particular group of workers but for the general interest of the working class. In the end, the greatest contribution of labor's community-organizing efforts may lie in challenging the status quo, recapturing the moral high ground and providing a gathering place and an entree into collective action for low-wage workers. That's enough to justify a sizable investment on the part of the labor movement.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy