In GOP Country, a Small Labor Organization Offers a Model for Fighting Trumpism

In GOP Country, a Small Labor Organization Offers a Model for Fighting Trumpism

In GOP Country, a Small Labor Organization Offers a Model for Fighting Trumpism

The Workers’ Project in Indiana has been uniting undocumented immigrants with white union workers since long before Trump hit the campaign trail.


Ten years ago, before Donald Trump made anti-immigrant scapegoating into popular politics, a group of organizers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were trying to figure out how to bridge the divide between white workers and undocumented Latino workers.

Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) had hired a construction company that used some union labor and some non-union, undocumented workers to helm an expansion project. The unions involved reached out for help to the Workers’ Project, at the time an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council (CLC), to represent workers who weren’t formally members of the council’s member unions. The unions had planned a campaign under the banner of “Local Jobs for Local People,” but Workers’ Project co-founders Tom Lewandowski, at the time president of the CLC, and Mike Lauer, director of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, argued against this framing—it would contribute to xenophobia, to us-against-them thinking. Instead, Lewandowski says, “Our operational theme for this campaign was going to be, ‘If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked.’”

Community outreach also paid off when a local Mexican restaurant owner stepped in to help with the campaign, offering lunch receipts from Saturdays as proof that the laborers were working overtime for which they weren’t getting paid. “We ended up eventually developing enough trust among the undocumented workers that they began to come to meetings,” Lewandowski says. “I would have them sign their names on a sheet, and I said, ‘What do you want to call yourselves? Because you are a union at this point.’ They said ‘IPFW Construction Workers Association.’” The union workers kept an eye on safety conditions for the undocumented workers, and when the non-union workers held an informational picket outside the job site to protest threats to their jobs, the building trades honored their picket line and refused to work. Eventually, some of the undocumented workers won settlements; some of them also got into the unions.

“If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked” isn’t a TV-ready campaign slogan, but it speaks to the core organizing philosophy of the Workers’ Project: solidarity, not scapegoating. In Indiana, where Donald Trump won the Republican primary handily and selected his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, trying to rally anger about trade and immigration into a wave he can ride into the White House, such campaigns have special significance. While organized labor has begun only in recent years to reverse course on immigration, to support the rights of undocumented workers and guest workers and welcome new immigrants into its ranks, in Fort Wayne organizers were building a bulwark against Trumpism long before Trump hit his first campaign stage. They were doing their best to create a model for the rest of labor as the old model crumbled around them.

The Workers’ Project exists to organize the broader community around issues that matter to working people. It is not a union, but it is supported by union members; it is not a community organization, but it is open to the community. Some of its projects, like the annual Labor Day picnic, draw near 6,000 people; others, like a high-school workers’ initiative spearheaded in the 1990s, focus on specific people left out of labor unions. Over the years, its funding and staffing have fluctuated; some projects lasted for years and others wrapped up quickly. But its mission has remained consistent, says Cheryl Hitzemann, who has worked with the Workers’ Project for years: “to help give workers some voice and power in the workplace, the economy and the community,” to act as a counterbalance to business and corporate interests.

However, the Workers’ Project faces an uncertain future. Until recently, it had been an outgrowth of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council. But this spring, as part of an initiative to restructure CLCs nationwide, the AFL-CIO took the Northeast Indiana CLC into trusteeship. Lewandowski, the longtime president of the CLC, was removed from his job, but with support from Lauer and others within the Workers’ Project, decided to keep the Workers’ Project going as an independent organization. Without the funding and institutional support of the AFL-CIO, the Workers’ Project is scrambling for its survival.

The split comes at a time when labor is under attack, around the country and particularly in Indiana. The passage of anti-union legislation, including “right to work” laws, in Indiana and other Rust Belt states, along with the decline in manufacturing, has gutted both union membership and funding.

The AFL-CIO, which has been thinking about how to restructure and revitalize CLCs for decades, sees reorganizing the labor council as part of a strategy to strengthen labor’s ranks and build region-wide solidarity to defend against these attacks; the Workers’ Project, though, sees building a strong movement that is locally rooted and creates common cause among union members, non-union workers, the unemployed, and undocumented as the best response to anti-worker efforts. What happens in Fort Wayne can offer a glimpse at the answers to questions that labor has struggled with for decades.

* * *

On June 27, I sat in on a meeting of the Workers’ Project. About 50 people had come out for the gathering, many of them members of industrial or building-trades unions, but also public-sector workers, young people who had come in through Occupy Fort Wayne, representatives of community organizations, faith groups, and others who’d gotten involved with one project or another over the years and continued to come back and put in the work. As he kicked off the meeting, Lewandowski greeted the members with, “Welcome to whatever this is about to become.”

While the question of the Workers’ Project’s future hung in the air, much of the energy at the meeting was focused on preparing for the Project’s annual Labor Day picnic. “It is a huge working-class potluck and party and everybody is invited,” says Lewandowski of the event. In preparing for the picnic, members hashed out who would be picking up the trash, who would be making the hot dogs, who would be making the Burmese food. Such details may seem mundane, but they are as important as any others that get asked in Workers’ Project meetings, says Lewandowski, unconsciously echoing labor historians Bethany Moreton and Pamela Voeckel, who argue in an essay in Labor Rising, published in 2012, that this kind of work is as essential to the labor movement as what happens on the shop floor. Such work was often missed by the older, more male-dominated, immigrant-unfriendly labor movement of decades past. To the Workers’ Project too, that kind of unglamorous, gendered-feminine work is important.

The Workers’ Project began in 1996, after Lewandowski returned from Poland, where he had been working alongside Solidarity, the independent, anti-communist union. Back in Fort Wayne, he returned to his position as president of the Central Labor Council and began to discuss with colleagues ways to implement what he’d learned. They sought ways to extend labor representation beyond members of the industrial, building-trades, and public-sector unions that made up the CLC, to reach into the community, not just for support for strikes and struggles on the shop floor but to build understanding of the labor movement as a force for all working people.

Early projects combined research and organizing; they compiled a handbook for student workers and hired high-school students to work as shop stewards within their schools, making themselves available to help classmates who might have workplace problems.

When the financial crisis hit and unemployment spiked, the Workers’ Project created its Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers Initiative, at once to keep laid-off union members connected to the labor movement and to provide support for the unemployed and precarious.

Sociologist Gayle Goodrich created a survey for these struggling workers in English, Spanish, and Burmese, collecting comments from them about their difficulties in the crisis economy, and held public events to dramatize the comments. “It had an amazing impact on folks, because it made it personal. When you hear people talk about how it is affecting their household and they are afraid they are going to lose their home, their children, all these changes they are experiencing; then, you ask the question ‘Who cares the most about you?’ One by one all of these people are popping up in the audience saying ‘Nobody. Nobody cares about me. Nobody.’”

It is that feeling that nobody cares that is echoed across the country these days, not just in Fort Wayne. I have heard it over and over again in recent years, reporting on labor and social movements. In Indiana, in particular, the decline of organized labor has hit the community hard.

Indiana has been in many ways the poster state for deindustrialization and de-unionization. In the 1990s, the Fort Wayne area was still dense with manufacturing plants—indeed, Indiana still leads the country in the percentage of its workforce employed in manufacturing, but that number has been in decline since its 1999 peak. After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, plant closings began to accelerate and wages began to fall as jobs disappeared.

The damage of deindustrialization was kicked into a higher gear by former Governor Mitch Daniels, who, on his first day in office in 2005, eliminated collective bargaining for state employees, limiting wage increases for many and outsourcing other jobs entirely to private companies. In 2012, he pushed a so-called right-to-work law, which allows workers to gain the benefits of union representation without paying fees to the union, through the state legislature, making Indiana the first state in over 10 years to implement such a law and the first in the industrial Midwest since 1947. It would not be the last. Once again, the state was a canary in the coal mine for attacks on working people.

“People are surprised that Trump is so popular here, but I am not because he is saying the things that these people want to hear and he is talking about NAFTA and trade and things that impacted them,” says Goodrich. “I don’t think he is really going to do anything about it. But he knows what to say.”

Barack Obama won Indiana in 2008, but lost it in 2012. Bernie Sanders won the state’s Democratic primary with 52 percent of the vote. But it is Hillary Clinton that will be on the ballot next week, and the name Clinton brings with it echoes of NAFTA in the Rust Belt. To Tom Lewandowski, Trump is providing workers with at least some emotional representation, if not any actual solutions.

“Bad bosses and totalitarians create spaces between people. Donald Trump is probably both,” Lewandowski says. “It is no different than in a workplace. When you have a bad boss who is playing one off against another, it is the same thing. First shift versus second shift. Shipping and receiving versus the tool crib. It is always the same dynamic. We have to diminish the spaces between people. We have to have people understand each other and work together.”

The labor movement at its best provides a solution to that problem, bringing people together in collective action for a better workplace and better world. But for those who don’t have the benefit of a union, those who lose a job and with it that connection to others who share their struggle, the feeling of being alone and forgotten can fester. With union density down to 11 percent, that’s a lot of people feeling disconnected, and it is those spaces between people that the Workers’ Project has tried to bridge.

* * *

Lewandowski’s office is spare, with no computer—most of the assets were taken by the Central Labor Council when it severed ties with the Workers’ Project last spring. But the office is covered with labor posters and clippings from Workers’ Project victories. Over his desk hangs a photograph of labor leader, socialist, and Indianan Eugene V. Debs.

Lewandowski and other local labor leaders resisted the restructuring of the CLC. They worried that, without the support of the institutional labor movement, the Workers Project would, in many ways, look like a traditional worker center, with all its strengths, to be sure, but with its challenges as well—including the hunt for funding that comes without regular union dues. Ana Avendaño, formerly the director of immigration and community action at the AFL-CIO, once described worker centers a movement in search of an institution, while traditional labor was an institution in search of a movement. Until it was set loose from the CLC last spring, the Workers’ Project tried to fuse the two.

Al Davidoff, the AFL-CIO’s director for governance, organizational and leadership development, defends the decision to restructure in Fort Wayne, explaining that it was part of a strategy that has been ongoing for quite a while. “There are over 400 labor councils across the country,” he tells me. “In order to make them strong enough, and in order to build effective field organizations that can unify unions and mobilize our members, build community alliances, we needed to take a hard look at whether our own structures were helping that or getting in the way.”

Labor councils date back to an earlier era, Davidoff notes. They were designed as places where the leadership of local unions could come together, where labor could act as a citywide movement. They are the AFL-CIO in miniature, in cities. But in many cases, they were organized around industries that no longer exist, Davidoff notes, and leave out industries that have since become highly unionized. As labor changed, many of the CLCs simply shriveled or fell fallow.

Marilyn Sneiderman, now director of the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers University, led a major attempt at rejuvenating and remaking the CLCs from 1996–2005 as head of the “Union Cities” initiative. When she started out, she says, “I took the structure of the AFL-CIO and put it on a flip chart, and then I got up and ripped it up and said, ‘What should it be? What kind of organization makes sense, how do we really build power?’” The attempt ultimately faded, in part because of resistance from both locals and international unions and in part because of internal changes at the AFL-CIO, but the problems it was trying to solve persist.

It is because of these problems that some local labor leaders have embraced the restructuring of the CLC as a positive step. Terry Cunningham, who has been vice president of United Steelworkers Local 715 for the past five years, says, “With some, the change is difficult, but I believe moving forward it will be a more effective organization for labor locally. That’s why we here at my local are supporting these changes.”

Meanwhile, Davidoff acknowledges the “creative and valuable” work done in the city by groups like the Workers’ Project. “It would be our hope that there is a strong partnership with labor and the community going forward and that these changes will build on a lot of good work that has been done.”

As for Mike Lauer, whose union disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO in 2001, citing disputes over organizing strategy, he says, “We will ride side by side with them. If they want to pick up what we don’t do, that is fine, because we are picking up what they are weak at with regards to being a community-based organizing presence, things of that nature.”

* * *

These days, maintaining a “community-based organizing presence” means thinking about what collective bargaining might look like for workers who don’t have unions. The Workers’ Project is continuing its research into tax abatements granted by the city to businesses that claim to create jobs, and attempting to find a way that workers can be a part of holding companies to their promises. One of these companies, Vera Bradley, the handbag manufacturer, has gotten several tax breaks from Allen County already. A 2013 analysis found that the company had not created the number of jobs it had promised from three previous tax abatements—including one for which county records showed it had only created 17 percent of the jobs it promised. In 2015, it closed a facility and laid off or transferred 250 workers.

The company disputes those figures, though, and the Workers’ Project thinks that it can help figure out the real story there and at other companies that get tax abatements by empowering workers to report on the jobs being created and what those jobs are like. “At GM, because we have union members there, if GM gets a million dollars and they say they are going to add one hundred new jobs, we can check to see that, yes, one hundred new jobs have come in,” says Jane Porter Gresham, a founding member of the Workers’ Project and a now-retired public employee. The Workers’ Project leaders think this could be a new way to represent the workers that are undocumented immigrants or those who aren’t formally union members, to allow them to have some power in their workplaces.

Going forward, after the election has passed and the nation’s quadrennial obsession with the working class has faded, the people in Fort Wayne will still be working to overcome the suspicion, anger, and fear that decades of deindustrialization, bad trade deals, and union busting have stoked. To Lewandowski, the work of creating an organized and connected community is about more than having allies to bring out to the occasional picket line. It is, perhaps, the only thing that offers a challenge to the bluster and bullying of Trumpism.

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