The drinks were pouring, the flesh was pressing and a “dream team” of brassy, bluesy, soul and salsa players out to affiliate San Antonio’s Tejano bands with the American Federation of Musicians was raising the temperature on the last Saturday of February at the annual meeting of Jobs With Justice in Louisville, Kentucky. In the same room where, earlier in the day, Henry Nicholas, president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (AFSCME), had called on 650 conferees from thirty-six states and five countries to turn around the unions, the government and the politics of division-by-scarcity, labor guys told fish stories, lesbians draped arms about each other, foreign and home-grown activists–multihued, many-aged–spoke the international language of dance, and a machinist from Massachusetts told me, “What we’re trying to do is turn our slogan from ‘I’ll be there’ to ‘We are there’–or at least, ‘You be there.'”
Intensity of play, intensity of work; JWJ’s trademark is joy in struggle. As its slogan suggests, the original mission of the organization–founded by labor activists frustrated by union complacency in the heat of the 1987 Eastern Airlines strike–was defense of besieged workers. Eleven years of protest, jail-going and close-to-the-roots coalition-building later, it still gets union funding and is steered partly by central labor council leaders, but far from being an AFL-CIO auxiliary that rustles up allies for solidarity in a crisis, it has taken the lead as the only national fighting partnership of labor, community, religious, student and social movement movers for whom defense is not enough. At the conference, the accent was on offense; the talk all about picking a fight rather than waiting for it to pick you. And from lead figures to fresh activists, a question rarely heard was being raised, not lightly, not with illusions: Can we build a movement out of today’s disparate campaigns? Can we articulate a liberating vision of human possibility and power over capital?
Implicit in the question was the knowledge that it would demand a strategic response. An unprecedented, daylong meeting of national privatization opponents began with the simple assumption that collective good trumps profits. Soon enough, things weren’t simple at all. Small groups hashed things out, unionists and poor people’s activists confronted their separate realities, the floor was alive with questions: How do you defend a public agency that’s indefensible? Doesn’t arguing for the superiority of public over private-sector workers split the class? What happens to a strategy tying labor and consumer interests when the privateers’ target is social services, when caseworkers and “clients” over whom they have power are not necessarily allies? How do you convince people that “the government is us” when everyone knows it certainly is not? How to imagine a different setup of public services? a different setup of power? a different government?
It’s just one damn thing after another. No one had all the answers, but in the JWJ style of mass participation and linked but autonomous direction, the process for action was rolling. Through the weekend, unionists challenged living-wagers to push their demands to cover all workers who produce goods paid for by a city’s public dollars, wherever they live. Students challenged labor to extend the fight for “working families” to the Third World. Labor challenged community allies to form workers’ rights boards, given that 50 percent of workers who organize into unions never get a contract. Preachers challenged execs during a brief sit-in at Kentucky Fried Chicken with their prayers. And the lesbians reminded everyone that there is no such thing as economic justice without human justice.
If there is to be a new, anticorporate mass movement in America, Jobs With Justice provides a space broad, deep and energetic enough for it to take root. Whether JWJ could be in the forefront of such a movement, whether it could project a transformative vision and be the advance guard of further institutional and ideological shift in organized labor–these are all unknowns. But for now it is the only national group reviving the long call for Jobs and Freedom, and doing so with a passion, toughness and intelligence that ought to induce anyone to “be there.”