by Patrick Young
Seventeen days ago I met up with about a dozen other union members and community activists from all over North America in Philadelphia, PA. Over next two-and-a-half weeks we crossed the county, traveling 5,500 miles facilitating workshops, giving concerts and joining some really exciting and energetic actions in support of local workers rights and economic justice organizing projects. Most importantly we had a chance to meet hundreds of organizers working on bold, dynamic, and innovative projects to fight back against the 1% and build power for the working class.
We had advertised that the purpose of the tour, which was titled “The Summer of Solidarity Tour,” was to build connections between grassroots organizers working on economic justice issues. Over those 17 days and 5,500 miles we certainly did build some relationships and help folks we were working with build a broader narrative about their work. But, for me, the real take-away from the tour is what we learned.
We have been hearing for years that labor is in crisis and that we need to transform our movement to survive. And while working class people are certainly under attack, the working class movement in this country is far from dead. To the contrary, working class organizing is growing and evolving in bold and exciting ways. They’re organizing in their workplaces and in their communities and building major capacity and winning significant victories. But because the attacks from the employers and the political elite are so daunting, through the thick of the battle, it’s sometimes difficult to recognize the swelling movement for economic justice.
Over the past 17 days we met thousands of people from dozens of different organizations trying new and old strategies to organize for union contracts, workplace improvements and economic justice in their communities. As we crossed the country we saw three major trends in economic justice organizing: housing and anti-foreclosure organizing, fights against austerity, and non-traditional forms of workplace organizing.
In Detroit we had an opportunity to join an action with Detroit Eviction Defense, a community group that has been organizing and taking direct action to help people fight evictions and stay in their homes. When Detroit area residents receive eviction notices Detroit Eviction Defense has been mobilizing hundreds of people to join them in court. And when the banks come to evict people’s homes they have mobilized to block off dumpsters and keep the deputies from throwing families out of their homes.
The day we left Detroit more than 40 activists and union members joined us in a caravan to travel to Chicago. In Chicago we joined the Chicago anti-eviction campaign at the home that had been repossessed by Bank of America on the South Side of Chicago. When the bank evicted the family the Chicago anti-eviction campaign moved the family back into the house. Then when the bank came back to re-evict the family the Chicago Anti-Eviction campaign moved the family back in.
In Minnesota we had the chance to join Occupy Our Homes and the Garcia family-who is facing eviction by Wells Fargo for a visit to a Wells Fargo’s office. The Garcia family had been trying for weeks to get a meeting with Wells Fargo management. The bank’s officers refused and refused to meet with the Garcias so several dozen of us went to the bank and set up a bargaining table in the building’s atrium. When the Garcia family sat down on one side of the table a giant banner was dropped from the third floor of the atrium reading “Wells Fargo: the Garcia Family Will Not Be Moved.” After about 20 minutes a bank manager came down to sit across the table and start the process of negotiating with the Garcias.
They Say Cut Back-We Say Fight Back
Coming out of the 2008 financial crisis, state and local governments across the country are facing dramatic budget shortfalls. Meanwhile the 1% continues to take tax breaks and to refuse to pay their fair share of taxes. In city after city politicians are trying to pit the working class people who rely on public services against the public sector workers who provide those services.
In Philadelphia we held an event with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating Public Schools–a group that is bringing together students, teachers and parents to demand that the local government and the state invest in the future and fund public education. In Pittsburgh, ATU Local 85 has partnered with a riders’ union–Pittsburghers for Public Transit–to demand sustainable funding for public transportation in Southwest Pennsylvania.
In Portland we joined the workers at Portland State University and their union SEIU Local 503 who are fighting to win a fair contract. The University administrators and the state government want to implement cuts to workers pensions and force younger workers to work at a lower rate. Local 503 is mobilizing workers, faculty and students to demand good jobs for the workers who make Oregon’s university system work.
Building A New Labor Movement
As workplaces change and evolve, workers are experimenting with new models for workplace organizing. In Pittsburgh the United Steelworkers have kicked the doors open to the labor movement, creating Fight Back Pittsburgh, an associate member local union that anyone can join. Fight Back Pittsburgh organized around community and neighborhood issues and operates a workers rights hotline that any worker can call for help with enforcing their rights at work or support in organizing to improve their workplace.
In Los Angeles we had a chance to join workers from the CLEAN Carwash Campaign for a picket at a carwash that is under boycott. The CLEAN Carwash Campaign is employing an innovative organizing model that combines traditional workplace organizing strategies with broader community organizing efforts through churches, community groups, and social services to bring together a very marginalized group of workers who historically have not had the opportunity to join the labor movement.
In Oakland we joined a massive rally of fast food workers and supporters who were engaging in a historic nation-wide one-day strike. The national fast food workers campaign, which is backed by the SEIU has been mobilizing and organizing workers at fast food stores sound the country, demanding $15 an hour and a union.
While new and non-traditional models of workplace organizing have gained a lot of attention recently, we also had the opportunity to see workers and their unions mounting energetic collective bargaining fights at the bargaining table and on the picket lines. We joined strikers at Neville Chemical at their picketline in Pittsburgh, strikers from Rotek/ThyssenKrupp at their company’s office in Chicago, workers at Sloan Valve in Franklin Park, IL who held a massive plant gate rally as their bargaining committee prepared to enter contract negotiations, and we visited the ILWU Local 8 picketline at Columbia Grain in Portland.
We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For
Over the past several decades there has been a lot written and said about revitalizing and rebuilding the labor movement and it is absolutely clear that today, workers are facing unprecedented attacks from employers and the political elite. But traveling across the country, meeting thousands of workers fighting and organizing and, in many cases, winning real victories in their workplaces in their communities, its impossible not to recognize that the labor movement is strong, and it’s growing.
We don’t need to wait for someone to come up with a plan or a program to revitalize the American labor movement, we are seeing workers across the country taking bold and exciting action in a new labor movement that reflects the organizational realities of the current political economy.
Today we are all still digging out of the financial crisis, and the gap between the wealthy 1% and the rest of us is bigger than it’s ever been. But everywhere we look workers are fighting back and we’re winning. We are the ones that we have been waiting for and together we have the power to stand up and to fight back to win social and economic justice for working people in this country.