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Where Do We Begin?

Madeline Talbott

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.

The job 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.

When you get right down to it, on a popular issue like the living wage ordinance, he may be right. If we can capture the attention of the community and polarize, people are going to come down on our side. And once elected officials have to take a stand, it's hard to stand against the people.

One of Lerner's messages is that labor's choice is to grow or to die. And, he adds, for the most part, major sectoral and industry-wide organizing campaigns that are necessary to grow cannot be won without direct action tactics.

So where do we begin?

Here are some proposed first steps:

1. Develop direct action tactics by doing them, and start now. That argues for hooking up labor's efforts with the community organizations that have been keeping direct action tactics alive.

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
various versions of living wage campaigns in cities and states across the country,
including Missouri, Denver, New Orleans, Houston, Washington DC, and Albuquerque, and will soon have similar efforts in other cities and states. These campaigns will bring the big-spending corporations out of the woodwork and will be tough fights, but if the wage is set high enough, such campaigns also have a large natural constituency that will benefit directly from the increase. In Missouri, for instance, fully 30 percent of working people in that state will benefit from a new minimum wage of $6.25/hour, and they'll have a chance to vote for it in November.

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
call "Six and a Quarter Clubs," with dues
of course, of $6.25. The campaign over
the summer will include actions on low-wage companies and the development
of organizing committees among low-wage workers. And, in Missouri, as in all of
our states and cities, we will be taking
the campaign to the doorstep of the corporations who are fighting the minimum wage proposals.

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.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

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

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



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