Economy in Transformation

Rising from Below: Immigrant Workers Open New Organizing Fronts


HR 4437, a bill sponsored by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, which passed Congress in December, 2005, hit immigrant communities across the country like an electric current. Its proposals to make undocumented status a federal crime propelled people into the streets by the millions on April 10 and May 1 of 2006, and inspired a wealth of activity, from work and consumer boycotts, student “blowouts,” and school strikes, denunciations from pulpits and union halls, and a surge in coalition-building.

The Democratic victories in November 2006 owed much to this upsurge. Although non-citizens could not vote, they mounted phone banks and walked precincts, and helped ensure the defeat of 20 of the most outspoken candidates of the House anti-immigrant caucus, led by Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo.

This wave of activism did not just happen overnight. It built on over two decades of efforts by immigrants to change sweatshop conditions, and, more broadly, to change an economic system that consigns some people to the bottom of an economic pyramid, working for the benefit of others.

New Strategies for Overcoming Old Laws

In the last decade in California, New York, and Texas, and in states where the immigrant population has appeared more recently, immigrants have been the backbone of strikes and union organizing drives in some of the hardest-fought labor struggles since the farm workers’ battles of the late 1960s. In 1993, drywall hangers shut down home construction for a year in half of California. Over a decade later, workers at the largest pork processing plant in the world, in North Carolina, walked off the job to march in immigrants’ rights protests, and to force the company to slow down its brutal “line speeds,” responsible for hundreds of disabling injuries. The fact that a union contract did not exist in this last example did not deter the workers, however.

“I see immigration law the same way I did when I first started as an organizer,” says UNITE regional manager Cristina Vasquez, who came up out of the garment shops of Los Angeles three decades ago. “It’s a tool of the employers. They’re able to use immigration laws as a weapon to keep workers unorganized.”

The last decade of strikes and organizing drives has profoundly changed the attitudes of unions and workers, setting new rules for the conduct of successful labor battles. They have an inclusive character reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century birth of the United States labor movement, when the radical “wobblies” of the Industrial Workers of the World proposed “one big union” for everyone. Today’s marches, mass picket lines, and flying squads of strikers are a reminder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) of the 1930s. In a world where workers and unions are hamstrung by routine procedures, on a playing field where only employers win, immigrants have recognized that their strength lies in having faith in the power of their own numbers, in direct action, and in the common culture shared by whole communities.

This wave of immigrant-based labor activity hasn’t been lost on labor activists seeking a new constituency for unions, and strategy and tactics appropriate for what many of them describe as class war. Unions in building services, hotels and restaurants, garment production, and light industries have rebuilt themselves by tying their organizing strategy to this upsurge, and are learning to combine intense community pressure with all-out attacks on parent corporations, often involving marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other mass actions to mobilize and amplify the pressure workers can bring to bear against their employers.

Today, organizing tactics rely increasingly on close alliances between workers, unions, and communities to offset the power exercised by employers. Asbestos removal workers joining the Laborers Union in New Jersey and Long Island, or employees at the huge Blue Diamond almond-processing plant in Sacramento allying with the International Longshore and Warehouse union, organize around conditions they face on the job. But they also take their campaigns out into the community, organizing around immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and many other issues that are part of daily life in immigrant communities

Unions Embrace New Members, Sometimes Resist New Leadership

The alliance between unions and immigrant workers, however, has been hampered by conflict over the rights those workers have once they become union members, and their ability to exercise leadership in the organizations they’ve joined. The United Farm Workers historically went through a number of internal struggles over the efforts of members to exert control from the rank-and-file. Once Southern California’s drywallers won their strike in the mid-1990s, they began to conflict with existing union leadership in the Carpenters Union. And a sharp struggle took place once immigrant janitors helped reorganize the Los Angeles local of the Service Employees.

Workers who faced down government terror in El Salvador or Guatemala, and who share the militant traditions of many immigrant workers from Mexico, also come with the expectation they will have a significant amount of control over their union once they are members. For Latino workers, unions have become an indispensable tool for winning political power, but they often join unions whose structure and power are held by others, and find they have to win power inside their unions as part of the process for using the union for larger struggles.

Cross-Border Solidarity

While immigrant-based activism has been a product of the migration of millions of working people from Mexico and Central America, that activism has also spilled back over the border into Mexico. Even before the passage of NAFTA, the growth of maquiladoras just south of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, led to the flight of thousands of jobs from the U.S. In the Southwest, thousands of those jobs belonged to immigrants themselves, whether in Levi’s garment factories in San Antonio or Green Giant’s freezers in Watsonville.

The connection is not hard to see. Just south of San Ysidro, or El Paso, or Brownsville, workers toil for incredibly low wages, according to The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM) Director Martha Ojeda. “They earn $5.00 for an eight-hour day, when the same business in the U.S. pays workers $7.50 for a single hour, even if those workers are not legal immigrants.” Despite the promises of the backers of the free trade agreement between the United States and Mexico, wages in the border factories haven’t gone up in 13 years.

In the decade after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, efforts to develop working relations with unions and workers in Mexico sprouted all along the border. The United Electrical Workers and the United Steel Workers have formed cooperative relationships with Mexican unions–the Authentic Labor Front and the Mexican Miners Union—to try to organize unions in border factories and to defend workers against government policies of low wages and privatization.

CJM and other cross-border groups have provided help to border workers in their efforts to organize independent unions at Sony, Alcoa, Custom Trim, Sara Lee, Han Young, and a host of other plants.

Migration of Capital and Labor

Migrant Rights International estimates that over 170 million people today live outside of the countries in which they were born, not just moving from Mexico to the United States, but from developing countries to developed ones all over the world. Transnational corporations invest in the developing world, moving production to whatever area the wages are lowest. And in developed countries, they hire the workers who have been displaced by high unemployment and falling wages—by-products of the very economic realities created by transnational corporations. The migration of people is as much a product of the global economy as the migration of capital.

In this system, corporations are aided by United States immigration laws. While they are presented in the media as a means of controlling borders, 20 years ago, during the height of the debate over the Immigration Reform and Control Act, Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante declared that United States immigration legislation always has the purpose of regulating the price of Mexican (and more broadly, immigrant) labor in the United States.

In fact, United States immigration policy is institutionalizing the global flow of migration, not stopping it. Its basic function is defining the status of people once they’re here. Many in corporate America now think they see a better way to regulate the cost and supply of this flow, through guest worker programs.

Guest Worker Programs: Open Regulation of the Price of Labor

The National Association of Chain Drugstores (think Wal-Mart), the American Meat Institute, and many other corporate players (organized in the essential worker immigration coalition) backed a bill that passed in the Senate for an enormous expansion of guest worker programs in which employers would recruit four hundred thousand contract laborers every year outside the United States. Under these proposals, migrants will now be considered only as workers, directed to the industries where they can be used most profitably. While the Senate and House couldn’t agree on competing bills last year, it is almost certain that this Senate proposal will be reintroduced this year, with the support of large sections of the Democratic and Republican party leadership.

There are many visa categories employers already use to bring workers to the United States as contract laborers, in programs for high tech and healthcare workers, farm workers, garment workers, and others. The workers displaced by these programs, or threatened with displacement, are often other immigrants or workers of color whose jobs had higher wages and more job security. Furthermore, when workers under contract are fired, they lose their ability to stay in the country, effectively giving employers the power to deport.

Although the proposal to broadly expand the guest worker program comes from large corporations, and is supported by President George Bush, its primary supporters in Congress have been Democrats.

These industry-based visa programs are predicated on the idea that immigration law should be used to supply workers to employers. Only one bill in Congress, by Houston’s Sheila Jackson Lee, and supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, would have granted real amnesty to people living here without papers. That bill was virtually shut out of the debate by the leaders of both parties.

In previous periods, when United States immigration policy valued immigrants only for their labor power, it produced extremely abusive systems. The memory of the bracero program, which ran from 1942 to 1964, is so bitter that even today defenders of guest worker schemes avoid association with the name. Braceros were housed in barracks, shipped from job to job, and deported if they went on strike. They were isolated from and pitted against the communities around them, as employers sought to create a labor surplus to drive down wages. That’s why Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez fought for 22 years to end the scheme.

A policy based on supplying guest workers to industry, at a price it wants to pay, is an immigration policy that denies community and inevitably produces rootless people, vulnerable to exploitation.

“We all have a right to work and eat,” says Dolores Alcala, who, like most immigrants, expresses a mixture of gratitude to the United States for affording her economic opportunity, and anger over her exploitation. Alcala was only 11 years old when she went to work in the green onion fields in the Mexicali Valley, just below the border. She left for the other side when she was 15.

“I was afraid to come here, especially by myself, but my need was stronger,” she remembers. “My family went hungry all the time, and I just needed to eat.”

But in Los Angeles, although she was able to find a paycheck in a garment sweatshop, she also found she was not accepted. “What I didn’t expect was so much discrimination, so much abuse, especially in the factory,” she says. While she holds her boss responsible, she thinks the law shares responsibility.

“The immigration law,” says Alcala flatly, “is just trampling on all of us.”

A better alternative to the oppressive Alcala experience would be a policy that recognizes and values communities, and sees their support as a desirable goal. It would seek to integrate immigrants into the broader society, while protecting their ability to practice their own culture.

A pro-worker immigration policy would protect the rights and welfare of all people, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. People in the United States, and in immigrant-sending countries like Mexico, need the same things—secure jobs at a living wage, rights in the workplace and community, and the freedom to travel and seek a future for their families. For working people, borders should be a common ground, not a dividing line.


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Blacks and Immigrants: More Allies Than Adversaries

The year 2006 will go down as a watershed year for the immigrant rights movement in the United States. Bringing millions of immigrants and their families and supporters into the streets was a huge accomplishment. But much more needs to be done to consolidate a fragmented movement and bring on new allies.

Last April, a group of African Americans and Black immigrants in Oakland, California came together to form the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). “BAJI was founded to support the demands of the immigrant rights movement and to engage African Americans in a dialogue about the underlying issues of race and economic status that frame United States immigration policy,” says co-founder Rev. Phillip Lawson.

But why are African Americans taking up the cause of immigrants, many of whom are breaking United States law just by being in this country?

“We believe that African Americans, with our history of being economically exploited, marginalized, and discriminated against, have much in common with people of color who migrate to the United States—documented or undocumented,” Rev. Lawson explains.

There is a long history of blatant discrimination against the people attempting to migrate from Latin America, Africa, Haiti, China, and other regions, in favor of Western Europeans. Historically, as now, immigrants of color have been scapegoats for the economic ills of the United States and been subjected to exclusionary laws and racist violence.

BAJI’s goal is to organize a core group of African Americans prepared to oppose racism in all of its forms by actively building coalitions with immigrant communities and immigrant rights organizations, to further the mutual cause of economic and social justice for all. To succeed in the long run, activists must build a movement that incorporates all social justice movements, including immigrant rights and civil rights.

Formula for a Disaster

A public opinion poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in April 2006 found that a large majority of African Americans feel that immigrants are hard-working (79 percent) and have strong family values (77 percent). African Americans were more than twice as likely as Whites (43 percent vs. 20 percent) to support public benefits for undocumented immigrants. Two-thirds of Whites and 79 percent of African Americans said that the children of undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools.

Yet, more African Americans (22 percent) than Whites (14 percent) say that they, or a family member, have lost a job, or not been hired, because an employer hired an immigrant. In fact, 34 percent of African Americans, as compared to 25 percent of Whites, say that immigrants take jobs from United States citizens.

Despite the concerns of many African Americans, the high unemployment rate endemic to their communities is not the consequence of immigration. Rather, its root cause, like the root cause of current mass migration trends, lies with the worldwide phenomenon called globalization. Through its domestic and international policies on trade, lending, aid, and investment, and its military policies and actions, the United States government and its corporations are the main promoters (and beneficiaries) of an unjust economic system that is negatively impacting poor people, locally and globally.

Since the 1970s, globalization has meant the de-industrialization of the United States, with union jobs in manufacturing being moved to low-wage countries in Latin America and Asia. More recently, it has meant the corporate outsourcing of jobs in the high tech and service industries. Add to that the historical employer biases against African Americans, the deterioration of the tax base due to White flight from inner cities, and the systematic public and private disinvestment in urban areas, and you have the formula for the devastation of Black communities across the United States.

The True Cost of Free Trade


A clear example of the bilateral and multilateral international policies of the United States that force migrants to risk their lives to come to the United States in search of a better life is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Ratified in 1996, NAFTA forced Mexico to open up its markets to subsidized food crops from the United States. As a result, 2.8 million Mexican farmers could not compete with cheap United States commodities and lost their land and their livelihood (according to the New York Times). Many of those farmers and their dependents have migrated to the United States, looking for employment.

Consequently, African Americans and immigrants of color are pitted against each other for the proverbial crumbs on the table. This competition is a result of the normal operation of an unjust economic system.

The United States is now attempting to impose a Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on countries in the region. Similar, so-called free trade agreements are also being proposed or implemented in many countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean.

The United States media loves to show images of a few African Americans protesting “illegal immigration” with rightwing groups, such as the Minutemen. With classic, blame-the-victim logic, these misguided individuals have ironically cast their lot with modern day Ku Klux Klansmen.

So what are we to do? BAJI says that African Americans must join forces with immigrants to fight for economic and social justice for all.

A New Model for an Old Struggle

Unite Here Local 11 has set an important precedent for our struggle. In its latest settlement with the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, the 5,000-member, predominately Latino and immigrant union won a contract obliging the hotel to increase wages, maintain an employee health plan, and hire more African Americans. The victory is a model for negotiations with other Los Angeles hotels.

“The tensions between African Americans and immigrants will not be lessened until you increase the quantity and quality of jobs for African Americans,” says Steven Pitts, an economist at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. “It’s good that one industry is taking baby steps in that direction.”

Pitts maintains that African Americans would benefit if undocumented immigrants were granted legal status, citing recent studies, which show that legalization would improve wages and working conditions for both, immigrant and non-immigrant workers.

The African American struggle for civil and economic rights has never been waged without allies. Conversely, the struggle of immigrants for recognition of their human rights cannot be won without friends and supporters. If they join together, the two movements can take giant strides toward victories now and for future generations.

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The Poor People's Campaign

Non-Violent Insurrection for Economic Justice

Unlikely allies George W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined in offering eulogies honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the November 2006 groundbreaking of the King memorial in Washington, D.C. Yet, even when federal officials attempt to honor this martyred revolutionary, they nearly always dishonor everything he lived and died for. The United States government continues to eliminate fundamental housing, welfare, and employment programs crucial to the well-being of the poorest Americans whom King championed.

King was slain at the very moment that he was organizing a massive army of poor people who would march on Congress and the White House and use militant nonviolence to force the federal government to enact an Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

King’s last and most daring dream was a Poor People’s Campaign to win full employment, affordable housing for all, a decent income for those unable to work, and equal educational opportunities for the poor. He foresaw a massive public works program to rebuild the dilapidated and substandard housing of the inner city by those who lived there, providing jobs, training, and housing in a coordinated effort.

In organizing this campaign, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had designed a carefully detailed strategy for a prolonged effort that would train poor people in 10 different areas of the nation in the techniques of “militant nonviolence.” The intention was to create a nonviolent uprising, a multiracial coalition of poor people and their allies who would march to Washington, D.C., set up mass encampments, and then launch protests every day for economic justice.

To this day, the blueprints for this poor people’s insurrection remain the most visionary and brilliant strategy to overcome poverty ever put forth in our nation.

Origins of the Campaign


In 1965 and 1966, Rev. King brought the brilliant organizing insights of the SCLC to the slums of Chicago to confront the evils of racist landlords. King moved his own family into a rundown housing unit in Chicago’s notorious Lawndale slum (renamed Slumdale by its occupants), where they endured for a time the harrowing poverty, squalor, and overcrowding that other slum residents had endured for decades.

King and the SCLC organized huge marches for fair housing, and conducted systematic rent strikes where residents of many dilapidated buildings banded together, refused to pay rent to the slumlords, and instead, pooled the rent money to make building repairs themselves. With a daring audacity too little seen in today’s movements for economic justice, King crossed swords with capitalism’s central decree that property rights are sacrosanct.

Then, in March 1968, one month before his death, King marched with 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis, telling the striking workers to stay strong on the picket line: “Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met,” King said. “Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed....If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.”

Unlike today, when well-meaning housing advocates and liberal budget policy groups try to prevent further cuts to the already shredded safety net by politely lobbying and e-mailing Congressional representatives, King had the audacity to organize a multiracial coalition of poor people who would confront Congress and the White House in a daring showdown—a nonviolent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol. And that is what King was doing when his last day dawned—preparing to defy the whole might of an unjust United States empire that mercilessly oppressed its poor citizens, then and now.

After months of training in the discipline of nonviolence, the Poor People’s Campaign would march on Washington, D.C., erect shantytowns near the White House to make poverty visible, and then begin a campaign of massive sit-ins at federal agencies. King openly declared that his call for massive civil disobedience was aimed at disrupting, and ultimately paralyzing, the functions of the most powerful government on earth, unless and until it granted the Economic Bill of Rights.

King planned to erect shantytowns for tens of thousands of poor people, prefiguring the tent cities and squatter’s encampments set up by homeless activists today. The shantytowns would make the suffering of economic deprivation so visible that federal legislators—and the public—would be forced to see it all around them in Washington, D.C.

Then, once these encampments had forced all America to confront the national disgrace of joblessness and poverty, stage two would begin—a more militant phase of nonviolent resistance.

His words were visionary, uncompromising, and revolutionary: “The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Black—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to lift the load of poverty.”

If Congress and the White House still refused to take actions to lift the load of poverty, the Poor People’s Campaign would organize waves of protesters who would cause “major massive dislocations” at government buildings. Unemployed people would nonviolently blockade the Department of Labor. Those without health care would be organized to sit in at hospitals and refuse to leave until they received medical treatment. Massive demonstrations would be held at federal agencies, while across the nation, allies would mount economic boycotts and nonviolent shut-downs of factories which refused to hire the poor.

Federal officials and the FBI were frightened by King’s announced intentions to lead a campaign of civil disobedience on a scale that could disrupt the nation’s Capitol, and they denounced King with blistering venom. Negative leaks, disinformation, informants and provocateurs were just some the tools used by the government to derail the effort.

King had developed a strategy to confront the federal government with the same unwinnable dilemma earlier perfected by civil rights activists in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi: Either arrest innocent and poverty-stricken people by the thousands in the full glare of publicity in the nation’s Capitol and thereby create a national scandal, or capitulate to the just demands of those calling for an Economic Bill of Rights.

But it was not to be. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, just as the Poor People’s Campaign was getting off the ground. Long a prophet, King now became a martyr as well. Rather than the carefully planned civil disobedience that King was organizing, the United States went through riots and civil unrest in over 110 cities following King’s murder.


While the SCLC continued the campaign and got as far as building Resurrection City in Washington D.C., the riots, protests and violent repression that had followed Kings assassination had taken non-violent insurrection out of the realm of possibility.  While over 7000 people started the encampment in May 1968, and over 50,000 joined in protest marches, the encampment was torn down in late June by police order, the promise of mass civil disobedience unfulfilled.

King had predicted that the Poor People’s Campaign would be a turning point in American history, a chance for the nation to redeem itself from its legacy of poverty, racism, war, and exploitation. Instead, the dreamer fell and his dream of justice was assassinated.

Can the dream of a Poor People’s Campaign be resurrected? It won’t be revived by creating monuments of marble in Washington, D.C., as long overdue as that honor may be. But King’s dream does come back to life every time any one of us sets out and marches in Martin’s footsteps to confront and overcome the inhumanity of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.

On October 17, 2006, Martin Luther King’s voice, his image, and his torch of resistance flared up anew in front of the Federal Building in Oakland, California, where about 400 demonstrators gathered to demand that the federal government make a renewed commitment to ending the scourge of poverty. Hundreds of Oakland schoolchildren, organized by St. Mary’s Center, marched with homeless seniors, religious activists, teachers, and housing advocates. The march was inspired by Martin Luther King’s commitment to end poverty; and, fittingly, the marchers were led every step of the way by a massive puppet of King, crafted by homeless seniors at St. Mary’s in loving tribute.

The procession culminated in a rally at the Federal Building, where Congresswoman Barbara Lee gave a stirring call to abolish poverty. She said: “It is appalling that in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, 37 million people are living in poverty. That is wrong! It’s immoral, it’s unethical. Look at our homeless veterans. Shame on America!”

The protest resurrected King’s commitment to economic rights and honored his Poor People’s Campaign as an unsurpassed blueprint for the edifice of human rights we are still waiting to construct, some 39 years after his death.

Although he had long since fallen to an assassin’s bullet, the Dreamer still had the last word at this rally for federal legislation to eradicate poverty. The demonstrators grew silent as a recording of King’s prophetic cry, “Let Freedom Ring!” rang out from loudspeakers outside the Federal Building in Oakland, and the giant likeness of Martin Luther King stood unvanquished, taller than ever. It felt like resurrection. At that moment, it felt like Martin’s last dream could never die.


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King was slain at the very moment that he was organizing a massive army of poor people who would march on Congress and the White House and use militant nonviolence...

Black and Brown: The United Colors of Low-Wage Workers

Conventional wisdom holds that tensions between Black and Latino workers are on the rise as the two ethnic groups compete for the same low-wage service sector jobs in many of our nation’s big cities. But recent successful efforts by both groups of workers, to form unions and organize for pay increase and health insurance, show that workers and leaders from both communities are crossing racial lines to help improve the very jobs that they are supposed to be fighting over.


In high-profile strikes this year by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) janitors in Houston and Miami, Black and “brown” national leaders united to support a largely immigrant workforce. Dozens of African American leaders—many of them veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and leaders in the ongoing struggle against racism and discrimination, such as Rev. James M. Lawson and Charles Steele, Jr.—lent their support to help mostly Latino workers win better jobs, using many of the same non-violent, civil disobedience tactics that helped spur the civil rights movement.

In cities like Los Angeles and Boston, labor leaders like Mike Garcia and Rocio Saenz are committing their union’s resources to the SEIU janitor strike to help improve the jobs of the (largely Black) security officers who work in their buildings—for many of the same employers and corporate real estate firms.

As a result of these efforts at “black-brown unity,” more than 20,000 security officers and janitors have secured the civil right to form a union, or have won a new union contract in the last few months alone.

Poverty Wages: The Real “Uniter”

The union victories so far show that the need for better jobs crosses racial lines. Also, workers are growing wise to the fact that the real culprits behind the bleak economic outlook are not other ethnic groups, but the large corporations that are driving our nation’s service economy.

A lot of attention is given to the fact that the service sector currently drives the overall American economy, but what is often ignored is the fact that the real estate sector drives the service economy. The entities that own, control, and invest in office buildings and shopping malls—companies like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase—either directly or indirectly control the jobs of more than nine million service workers (janitors, security officers, landscapers) at their commercial properties.

The real estate industry boasts of developing our cities and creating jobs for our communities. But in reality, the industry’s reliance on poverty-wages is actually undermining our inner cities and keeping African American and Latino workers stuck in dead-end jobs.

Corporate Policies That Undermine Communities

In Los Angeles County, thousands of commercial office buildings are protected by a private security workforce that is more than 65 percent African American and nearly 35 percent Latino. Most security officers live in South Los Angeles, where unemployment is three times higher than in other parts of the county, and 37 percent of the community lives in poverty.

As manufacturing jobs rapidly disappear from the area, private security offers one of the few employment opportunities to the men and women of South Los Angeles, where a fulltime worker typically earns at or slightly above minimum wage, and nearly half the adults and a third of the children do not have adequate access to affordable healthcare.

In the last 20 years, corporate landlords have drained more than two billion out of the South Los Angeles economy by stripping middle-class janitorial jobs from African American workers and replacing them with non-union, poverty-wage jobs. It has taken years of organizing to regain the unions in these jobs, and to win higher wages and health insurance.

Today, if the city’s corporate landlords would agree to pay security officers the same wages and benefits as the janitors who work in their commercial office buildings, it could bring an estimated $100 million more each year into South Los Angeles communities devastated by decades of discriminatory policies.

Redefining Urban Economics with Politics

People of color and recent immigrants are demonstrating a new brand of black-brown unity, as they try to lift themselves and each other out of dead-end jobs and into a future with dignity, respect, and promise. These are the workers who are at the center of the efforts in our nation’s cities to transform the service sector from a one-way ticket to poverty, into a new pathway to the middle class. As these nascent coalitions gain strength, their next casualty may be the economic and political status quo that has been the greatest obstacle to prosperity for America’s inner cities for far too long.


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In 1934 and 1935, hundreds of thousands of workers, left out of the tightly controlled, exclusive unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), began organizing in the new mass production industries—auto, rubber, packinghouse. The AFL could not ignore them, so it set up a Committee for Industrial Organization to organize these workers outside of craft lines, by industry, all workers in a plant belonging to one union. This Committee, headed by John Lewis, then broke away and became the CIO—the Congress of Industrial Organizations.


But it was rank-and-file strikes and insurgencies that pushed the union leadership, AFL and CIO, into action. Jeremy Brecher tells the story in his book Strike! A new kind of tactic began among rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, in the early thirties—the sit-down strike. The workers stayed in the plant instead of walking out, and this had clear advantages: they were directly blocking the use of strikebreakers; they did not have to act through union officials but were in direct control of the situation themselves; they did not have to walk outside in the cold and rain, but had shelter; they were not isolated, as in their work, or on the picket line; they were thousands under one roof, free to talk to one another and to form a community of struggle. Louis Adamica, a labor writer, describes one of the early sit-downs:

“Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works! . . . Superintendents, foremen, and straw bosses were dashing about....In less than an hour the dispute was settled, full victory for the men.”

In early 1936, at the Firestone rubber plant in Akron, makers of truck tires, their wages already too low to pay for food and rent, were faced with a wage cut. When several union men were fired, others began to stop work, to sit down on the job. In one day the whole of plant No. 1 was sitting down. In two days, plant No. 2 was sitting down and management gave in. In the next 10 days there was a sit-down at Goodyear. A court issued an injunction against mass picketing. It was ignored, and 150 deputies were sworn in. But they soon faced ten thousand workers from all over Akron. In a month, the strike was won.


The idea spread through 1936. In December of that year began the longest sit-down strike of all, at Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan. It started when two brothers were fired, and it lasted until February 1937. For 40 days there was a community of two thousand strikers. “It was like war,” one said. “The guys with me became my buddies.” Sidney Fine in Sit-Down describes what happened. Committees organized recreation, information, classes, a postal service, sanitation. Courts were set up to deal with those who didn’t take their turn washing dishes or who threw rubbish or smoked where it was prohibited or brought in liquor. The “punishment” consisted of extra duties; the ultimate punishment was expulsion from the plant. A restaurant owner across the street prepared three meals a day for two thousand strikers. There were classes in parliamentary procedure, public speaking, history of the labor movement. Graduate students at the University of Michigan gave courses in journalism and creative writing.


There were injunctions, but a procession of five thousand armed workers encircled the plant and there was no attempt to enforce the injunction. Police attacked with tear gas and the workers fought back with firehoses. Thirteen strikers were wounded by gunfire, but the police were driven back. The governor called out the National Guard. By this time the strike had spread to other General Motors plants. Finally, there was a settlement, a six-month contract, leaving many questions unsettled but recognizing that from now on, the company would have to deal not with individuals but with a union.

In 1936 there were 48 sitdown strikes. In 1937 there were 477: electrical workers in St. Louis; shirt workers in Pulaski, Tennessee; broom workers in Pueblo, Colorado; trash collectors in Bridgeport, Connecticut; gravediggers in New Jersey; 17 blind workers at the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind; prisoners in an Illinois penitentiary; and even 30 members of a National Guard Company who had served in the Fisher Body sit-down, and now sat down themselves because they had not been paid.

The Wagner Act and the New Deal: Bailout for Business?

It was to stabilize the system in the face of labor unrest that the Wagner Act of 1935, setting up a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), had been passed. The wave of strikes in 1936, 1937, 1938, made the need even more pressing. In Chicago, on Memorial Day, 1937, a strike at Republic Steel brought the police out, firing at a mass picket line of strikers, killing 10 of them. Autopsies showed the bullets had hit the workers in the back as they were running away: this was the Memorial Day Massacre. But Republic Steel was organized, and so was Ford Motor Company, and the other huge plants in steel, auto, rubber, meat packing, and the electrical industry.

The Wagner Act was challenged by a steel corporation in the courts, but the Supreme Court found it constitutional—that the government could regulate interstate commerce, and that strikes hurt interstate commerce. From the trade unions’ point of view, the new law was an aid to union organizing. From the government’s point of view, it was an aid to the stability of commerce. Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were more controllable, more stabilizing for the system than the wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the rank and file. In the spring of 1937, a New York Times article carried the headline “Unauthorized Sit-Downs Fought by CIO Unions.” The story read: “Strict orders have been issued to all organizers and representatives that they will be dismissed if they authorize any stoppages of work without the consent of the international officers....” The Times quoted John L. Lewis, dynamic leader of the CIO: “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.” The Communist party, some of whose members played critical roles in organizing CIO unions, seemed to take the same position. One Communist leader in Akron was reported to have said at a party strategy meeting after the sit-downs: “Now we must work for regular relations between the union and the employers, and strict observance of union procedure on the part of the workers.” Thus, two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action developed in the mid-thirties. First, the NLRB would give unions legal status, listen to them, settling certain of their grievances. Thus it could moderate labor rebellion by channeling energy into elections, just as the constitutional system channeled possibly troublesome energy into voting. The NLRB would set limits in economic conflict as voting did in political conflict. And second, the workers’ organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers’ insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations.  

The history of those years seems to support the argument of Richard Cloward and Frances Piven, in their book Poor People’s Movements, that labor won most during its spontaneous uprisings, before the unions were recognized or well organized: “Factory workers had their greatest influence, and were able to exact their most substantial concessions from government, during the Great Depression, in the years before they were organized into unions. Their power during the Depression was not rooted in organization, but in disruption.”

Piven and Cloward point out that union membership rose enormously in the forties, during the Second World War (the CIO and AFL had over six million members each by 1945), but its power was less than before—its gains from the use of strikes kept getting whittled down. The members appointed to the NLRB were less sympathetic to labor, the Supreme Court declared sit-downs to be illegal, and state governments were passing laws to hamper strikes, picketing, boycotts.

For Black people, the New Deal was psychologically encouraging (Mrs. Roosevelt was sympathetic; some Blacks got posts in the administration), but most Blacks were ignored by the New Deal programs. As tenant farmers, as farm laborers, as migrants, as domestic workers, they didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance, minimum wages, social security, or farm subsidies. Roosevelt, careful not to offend southern white politicians whose political support he needed, did not push a bill against lynching. Blacks and whites were segregated in the armed forces. And Black workers were discriminated against in getting jobs. They were the last hired, the first fired. Only when A. Philip Randolph, head of the Sleeping-Car Porters Union, threatened a massive march on Washington in 1941, would Roosevelt agree to sign an executive order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). But the FEPC had no enforcement powers and changed little.

The coming of World War II weakened the old labor militancy of the thirties because the war economy created millions of new jobs at higher wages. The New Deal had succeeded only in reducing unemployment from 13 million to nine million. It was the war that put almost everyone to work, and the war did something else: patriotism, the push for unity of all classes against enemies overseas, made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the CIO and AFL pledged to call no strikes.

Still, the grievances of workers were such—wartime “controls” meant their wages were being controlled better than prices—that they felt impelled to engage in many wildcat strikes: there were more strikes in 1944 than in any previous year in American history, says Jeremy Brecher.


The thirties and forties showed more clearly than before the dilemma of working people in the United States. The system responded to workers’ rebellions by finding new forms of control—internal control by their own organizations, as well as outside control by law and force. But along with the new controls came new concessions. These concessions didn’t solve basic problems; for many people they solved nothing. But they helped enough people to create an atmosphere of progress and improvement, to restore some faith in the system.

The minimum wage of 1938, which established the forty-hour week and outlawed child labor, left many people out of its provisions and set very low minimum wages (25 cents an hour the first year). But it was enough to dull the edge of resentment. Housing was built for only a small percentage of the people who needed it. “A modest, even parsimonious, beginning,” Paul Conkin says (F.D.R. and the Origins of the Welfare State), but the sight of federally subsidized housing projects, playgrounds, vermin-free apartments, replacing dilapidated tenements, was refreshing. The Tennessee Valley Authority suggested exciting possibilities for regional planning to give jobs, improve areas, and provide cheap power, with local, instead of national control. The Social Security Act gave retirement benefits and unemployment insurance, and matched state funds for mothers and dependent children—but it excluded farmers, domestic workers, and old people, and offered no health insurance. As Conkin says: “The meager benefits of Social Security were insignificant in comparison to the building of security for large, established businesses."


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“Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works!"

Paving the Road Out of Poverty

The crisis in America’s urban communities of color takes many shapes, but underlying these various manifestations are problems of economic segregation and persistent poverty. The emerging consensus among community leaders and advocates is that addressing lack of income and wealth must be at the top of the urban agenda.

Our organization, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), is a labor-based economic justice organization, dedicated to raising standards and building power for working families. Along with our sister organizations in the national Partnership for Working Families network, we are confronting poverty and economic inequality through a two-part strategy: expanding access to family-supporting employment and improving job quality. For urban community activists skeptical about labor’s record on race, we hope that EBASE’s work and that of our allied organizations will illustrate how new partnerships and new policy models are directly benefiting communities of color, while building a revitalized labor movement.

Expanding Job Access: Running Ahead of the Boom in Richmond

The inner urban community of Richmond, California, whose residents are overwhelmingly people of color, has long struggled with persistent poverty. EBASE’s research found that while there is no shortage of high-wage jobs in Richmond, they are disproportionately held by non-Richmond residents. Richmond residents face unemployment or employment in low-wage jobs that cannot possibly sustain a family.

Today, Richmond stands on the brink of a development boom. The city’s large tracts of undeveloped or underdeveloped land and waterfront proximity are attracting developers, speculators, and higher income residents from other Bay Area markets. Locals openly wonder whether lower income Richmond residents will be squeezed out during the city’s impending economic expansion.

Advocates took notice when Richmond’s Local Employment Ordinance (LEO), requiring local hiring for public works construction, was set to expire in the fall of 2004. The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), a collaborative including EBASE, Urban Habitat, and Contra Costa Faith Works, decided to make renewing, expanding, and strengthening the LEO a centerpiece of its efforts for equitable development in Richmond. Connecting residents with living wage employment is a key anti-displacement strategy; it stabilizes low-income communities and enables residents to weather neighborhood change. REDI reached out to allies in the Contra Costa Central Labor Council and Contra Costa Building Trades Council, as well as leaders in Richmond’s faith communities and neighborhood councils. EBASE and Contra Costa Faith Works took the lead in developing a policy proposal that expanded the LEO to cover city-subsidized developments, applied it to operational jobs (those beyond the construction phase of projects), strengthened enforcement, allocated staff resources to monitoring, and increased the local hiring requirement from 20 percent to 30 percent for most jobs.

Some business groups and City Council members initially feared that placing any requirements on city projects would hamper growth. REDI responded to these concerns with an “inside-outside” strategy: negotiating and working cooperatively with city staff and businesses, while also mobilizing residents and community leaders to demonstrate support and demand action. In July 2006, the City Council approved a proposal that achieved nearly all of REDI’s goals for improvement of the LEO. Projections indicate the policy will expand access to 2,000 permanent jobs and 5,000 construction jobs in the coming years. Of equal importance, the campaign built solidarity between community, labor, and faith organizations around a common agenda of good jobs.

Moving forward, EBASE, Urban Habitat, and the other partners in the REDI collaborative are working on a campaign to ensure that the city incorporates equitable development principles into all its planning decisions. The City of Richmond is currently in the process of updating its general plan which is the master plan for all development and zoning decisions. This updating process is an opportunity for Richmond to create a general plan promoting equity for low-income and people of color residents in the areas of housing, health, land use, transportation and economic development. EBASE is working with REDI on researching how the city’s general plan can promote economic development that encourages businesses to pay higher wages and benefits.

Improving Job Quality: Cleaning House in the Hospitality Industry

Three years ago, Eva Benitez was a housekeeper earning $8.75 per hour at a hotel in Emeryville, a small, heavily commercial city nestled between Oakland and Berkeley. “Not a single housekeeper can afford the rents here in Emeryville,” explains Eva. “We can’t afford the $160 per month medical plan either…. Our workload has gone up every year. Today we are cleaning more than 14 suites per day.” Injuries at work are common, because of the heavy equipment and the dangerous ergonomics involved in cleaning the rooms.

To raise standards for the Emeryville hospitality industry, EBASE and Local 2850 of UNITE HERE (the hospitality union) put Measure C, a hospitality industry living wage initiative, on the ballot. Emeryville voters passed it on November 2005. EBASE had already advocated successfully for several local living wage policies, including a 2002 ballot initiative covering 3,000 workers at the Port of Oakland. Measure C, however, was the first industry-targeted employment standards law of its kind in the country. It not only guarantees workers a living wage, but also sets maximum safe workload levels for room cleaners.


After passage, workers began to organize and demand their rights under Measure C. In response, Woodfin Suites hotel began to intimidate and harass workers. One outspoken worker was fired, and management claimed, among other things, that the law would get immigrant workers in trouble with immigration authorities. In October, nearly 30 workers were given written notices claiming the company had found problems with their social security numbers, and that they could not continue to work at the hotel unless they corrected the problem. Some workers believe these notices were issued in retaliation for their support of Measure C.

Workers remain uncowed by the intimidation. They’ve organized protests, filed a class action lawsuit to claim back wages owed to them under Measure C and to stop retaliatory firings, and called for a boycott of the hotel. “If we stand up for our rights here, then it won’t just help us, it will help many people who work in other places,” explains Alma Cruz, a housekeeper at the Woodfin since it opened six years ago. “We are very few here in this hotel, but if the people realize that we can win by uniting, that will have a big impact. We can help people realize that they have to inform themselves of their rights and then defend them, no matter where they work.”

Bringing it All Together

Perhaps the most inspirational example of the two-fold strategy of expanding job access and improving job quality in the last year was the Hotel Workers Rising campaign. This national campaign to elevate standards throughout the American hospitality industry raised issues much bigger than a standard labor negotiation. Hospitality workers—overwhelmingly people of color—asserted their right to join the middle class, just as factory workers and construction workers had done before them. Workers won significant victories: raising wages, winning pensions, and maintaining access to health insurance.


At the same time, hotel workers challenged the racial hiring and employment standards of the hospitality industry. Like many other sectors, the industry has replaced most of its African-American workforce with immigrant Asian and Latino workers, often at lower wage and benefits standards. Hotel workers called for and won the creation of an industry task force and a commitment to dismantle hiring barriers for African-American workers. They also won a landmark code of conduct for ethical treatment of immigrant hotel workers, and pushed the hospitality industry to join the union in lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform. In an era when desegregation policies are under attack and anti-immigrant sentiment dominates public policy, hotel workers and their union won important protections for workers of color largely outside of public policy, directly in the workplace. “Our members understand that they are not just fighting for themselves, they are fighting for all working people,” sums up Anand Singh, organizer with Local 2 of UNITE HERE. “That’s what it means to build a movement.”


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JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

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