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  Click here to read Stephen Lerner's essay, Reviving Unions.

New Organizations

Peter Cervantes-Gautschi

It is true, as Stephen Lerner says, that a just society depends on a powerful workers' movement driven by collective organization. And yes, non-violent civil disobedience is a necessary element of the movement: Without that intensity of commitment to the cause, there is no convincing evidence of movement. Every successful social movement has employed non-violent civil disobedience to change unfair rules that have unjustly bound people. Andale.

Reflecting on my own recent experience, I want to supplement Lerner's argument regarding collective organization. A powerful workers' movement needs different types of organizations, much as the Civil Rights movement needed organizations as different as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the NAACP. I work for the Workers Organizing Committee. We are organizing low-wage workers and their families in metropolitan Portland, Oregon. Our constituency is multi-racial, multi-lingual (we function in five languages), and includes many immigrants. We are both neighborhood- and workplace-based. For the first few years of our existence we were linked with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. Last year we ended the formal ties with the union and expanded our organizing beyond hotel workers into all low-wage work in our urban area.

I have spent much of the past year going around the country visiting groups that are involved in organizing low-wage workers. I always ask three questions: 1) Where is comprehensive organizing of low-wage workers happening? 2) Who is doing multi-ethnic organizing that includes immigrants and crosses all the ethnic lines present among low-wage workers? and 3) Who is building organizations for power?
In short, we need
strong and effective
community organizations
as well as strong
and effective unions.
What I found is that there is very little organizing of low-wage workers going on relative to current needs. To the extent that low-wage worker organizing is happening, it is being done by unions, worker centers, and community-based worker organizations, often in collaboration with unions. More of the multi-ethnic organizing that includes immigrants and crosses ethnic lines is being done by unions than other groups. Some good examples: In Los Angeles, a collaborative effort by the Tourism Industry Development Council and HERE Local 11 has pushed local government to implement standards of corporate accountability in ways that enhance the organizing capacity of multi-ethnic and low-wage workers who speak several different languages; in Chicago, ACORN organized 200 home care workers, and that organization gave birth to an SEIU local union that today has more than 11,000 members; in Portland, our organization has organized several hundred low-wage workers across a variety of ethnic and language barriers. These workers won the adoption of a workers' bill of rights by the Metropolitan Human Rights Commission and are pushing local governments and businesses to adhere to the provisions of that document.

Unfortunately, however, if the number of unionized low-wage workers in the United States were to quadruple tonight, more than three quarters of the low-wage workers in the country would still be without collective organization in the morning. Unions are not the only collective organization we need.

Successful union organizing -- whether for recognition, or to win a contract -- takes longer now than it has at any other time in the second half of the twentieth century. Serious union organizing efforts must sustain campaigns for years rather than months. And sustaining those efforts often requires the support of strong, stable, allied community organizations and accurate research on corporate vulnerabilities.

In short, we need strong and effective community organizations as well as strong and effective unions.

Unions should shift resources to organizing and labor's message to the moral high ground, as Lerner suggests. Unions should also support the efforts of progressive community organizations, because community organizing has also become more difficult. It has become more difficult because low-wage workers are deeply isolated from each other: fragmented by race, ethnicity, language, dissolving community identity and institutions, and -- with two jobs and the need to hustle to survive -- by the loss of available time to associate with others.

Both sectors need each other in order to succeed in their efforts to organize more people into their respective memberships and to sustain their campaigns in ways that generate enough energy to make building the movement for social justice possible.

The other side is not well organized. They are internally divided, but they are very well resourced. There's a difference.

Our problem has very little to do with the level of organization among corporations and everything to do with the fact that unions and progressive community organizations are too small.

Our moral obligation is to put what precious little time and resources we have into building a social justice movement large enough to enable people to take their rightful place on the planet. This means organizing lots more low-income people into unions and progressive community organizations.

Click here to return to the Boston Review Forum, Reviving Unions.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

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