Where Do We Begin?
A few days ago I sat in on a meeting with a Chicago
alderman who argued that if labor really wanted to win a living wage ordinance
in Chicago, they could do it. Though this particular alderman is not known for
his progressive politics (he's a leader of what we call the "regulars" in Chicago),
his strategy was not so different from Lerner's: "Get enough people and lie
down in the street out here until we pass it," he suggested.
2. Organize the community and the workplace at the same time. Direct action works if it polarizes a community over to labor's side. The most direct way to insure that members of the community will come out for labor is to get them into the street with labor to begin with.
3. Create alliances of integrity between labor and community that build organizations in both areas. The goal in building such partnerships is not just to win, but to foster working people's organizations, in the community and at work.
The job, then, is to organize working people in both communities and workplaces, and to bring them together in direct action campaigns that win and build their capacity to do more organizing.
In Chicago, for example, ACORN and SEIU Local 880 have convened the Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign, a coalition that includes the Chicago Federation of Labor and 60 union locals, as well as community and church groups. The immediate objective is to win an ordinance that requires companies with city contracts and subsidies to hire from the community and pay at least $7.60 an hour: enough to get a family of four above the poverty level. In the course of the campaign, we are planning to move 10,000 of our coalition members into an active role in this campaign: Already we have had 750 at a rally in December, 1100 at a rally and doorknocking session in February, and, led by the SEIU at their international convention in Chicago in April, 1500 came to march on City Hall. Hundreds more have participated in actions that have disrupted business at low-wage anti-union companies that receive city contracts and subsidies -- for example, Farley Candy Company and Whole Foods.
Two things mark the Chicago Living Wage campaign for long term success: We have always assumed that we have to put our people in the streets in large numbers in order to win, rather than depending solely on the clout we can exert with strong labor support; and we have insisted that the coalition lend as much or more than it borrows, i.e., we expect that this activity will increase our capacity to organize new members into each of our member organizations. That all-too-familiar coalition experience, of feeling "ripped off" because the coalition borrowed more of your base or your money than it lent back in increased organizing capacity/opportunity, is something that we address straightforwardly.
ACORN and others are mounting
The goal in these ballot initiative campaigns must be to organize the constituency,
not just to mobilize the vote. Therefore, ACORN in Missouri is organizing thousands
of volunteer petitioners, along with low-wage worker organizations that we
By remembering that working people can be organized in the community where they live as well as in the workplace, and that doing both increases the effectiveness of our joint direct action campaigns, we have the opportunity to build community-labor alliances that build organization while they win in the streets.
Click here to get to Stephen Lerner's essay, Reviving