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COMMUNITY UNIONISM: A Strategy for Organizing in the New Economy

Simon J Black. New Labor Forum. New York: Fall 2005. Vol. 14, Iss. 3; pg. 24, 10 pgs Copyright New Labor Forum Fall 2005 THE LABOR MOVEMENT HAS BEGUN TO THINK BIG. SINCE THE NEOLIBERAL TURN OF THE 1970s, organized labor has been losing power, influence, and members. Big problems have prompted debates over big solutions. Today, trade unionists talk of social movement, global justice, and transnational unionisms as strategies to rejuvenate labor's power in the era of globalization. Within the AFL-CIO, recent debates have focused on proposals to consolidate labors power through mergers and bold organizing initiatives. While the movement's current focus on "the global," and on large-scale efforts to reverse the decline are a welcome turn from the business-as-usual unionism of old, a number of unique organizations and activists are already reshaping the labor movement from below. Community unionism is a particularly 'local' response to the global processes that challenge working people today. In these times of renewal, community unionism demands the labor movements attention.1 Since the 1970s, urban labor markets in North America have undergone profound restructuring. Immigration, deindustrialization, and the expansion of service sector employment have significantly altered the urban landscape. For working people, the urban labor market is now characterized by insecurity. The growth of contingent work and forms of nonstandard employment combined with the decline of the welfare state has had a deleterious effect on the working poor and unemployed. Furthermore, neoliberal globalization has negatively affected the capacity of trade unions to organize the unorganized. The rise of contingent work, or precarious employment, challenges traditional forms of trade unionism, and has opened the way for new initiatives, including community unionism. THE ORIGINS OF COMMUNITY UNIONISM USE OF THE TERM "COMMUNITY UNIONISM" stretches back to the 1960s. In a 1964 article in Studies on the Left, James O'Connor predicted that in the future, due to long-run unemployment and the deskilling of work, "the social base for working class organizations will lie more and more in the community ... community unions clearly will be the appropriate mode of working class organization and struggle."2 O'Connor argued that "since the poor lacked steady jobs ... the community rather than the workplace was the logical place to organize them."3 This analysis is relevant today as fewer workers find "steady" employment in what neoliberals like to call the "flexible" labor market. O'Connor believed community unions would

focus their energies on improving housing, welfare, and public services, and predicted that these new forms of working-class organization would spring up in deindustrialized towns and urban slums.4 The idea of community unionism was also developed by a number of visionary UAW organizers in the 1960s.5 In the UAWs Industrial Union Department organizers like Jack T. Conway spoke of a new form of unionism that was built on the example of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Union (FWU). Conway observed that the FWU was developing a new organizational model because "the problems that face farm workers and their families go far beyond the workplace and work relationship, and for an organization to be effective in dealing with these problems it has to deal with the totality of the situation."6 Conway realized that the "structure of the labor movement" was not designed to "reach" the urban poor or other sections of the working class, such as migratory farm laborers.7 Like O'Connor, Conway believed the labor movement must come to see the community as if it were a factory or workplace.8 Community unions could use the techniques and tactics of traditional trade unions to organize members of the community and defend their interests.9 For Conway, these new organizations would address grievances, carry out political education, and engage community members in other practices that trade unions had effectively used to represent workers at their place of employment.10 If, for example, a member had a 'grievance against a landlord or the police, the community union would represent that person in an effort to have the grievance resolved. Yet, recent discussion of community unionism has given the term a new connotation. It is important to distinguish between community unionism as a process and community unionism as an organizational model that stands independent of traditional trade unionism. The first definition entails the cooperation between a trade union and a community group in the struggle for a common objective. Community-union alliances may be forged in the fight to keep a factory open or to have a city council adopt a living wage ordinance. This type of community unionism varies depending on the structure of the alliance between the community group and the union. A community group may play a supporting role in a union's organizing drive, perhaps facilitating the dialogue between the union and a group of non-English speaking workers. In other instances, unions may provide resources to aid the efforts of a community-based campaign. The other model of community unionism, which is the focus of this article, is that of an autonomous community-based labor group" and is more faithful to the vision of community unionism developed by Conway and O'Connor. These community unions can also differ in a number of areas. They may vary by tactics (legalistic, direct-action such as civil disobedience, or lobbying); membership structure (dues collecting or not); sources of funding (union support, individual donations, or foundations); and their organizing geography (focus on an ethnic group within a community, or on a community defined solely by geographical boundaries). Many of these community unions use workers centers as the hub of their organizational activity.

Unlike trade unions, most community unions seek to organize the employed, unemployed, and underemployed; they press for change in the workplace and beyond, organizing around issues such as welfare reform, health care, jobs, housing, and immigration. Membership is based on community not workplace. In short, these community unions bridge the homeworkplace divide'2: whereas trade unions' primary concerns are typically workplace-related, these organizations take a holistic approach to the lives of working people. The members of a community union often face a nexus of low-wage insecure employment, a punitive welfare bureaucracy, and neighborhood issues ranging from landlord-tenant relations to exploitative pay-day loan companies. The community union's adversary may be an employer, but could also be the immigration department, a development agency, city council, the welfare bureaucracy, a landlord or the police. The development of this model of community unionism is a response to two related socioeconomic trends: first, to conditions created by neoliberal globalization, and second, to the failure of the labor movement to adequately address these conditions. The deregulation or "flexiblization" of the labor market is an important feature of the neoliberal project. Paired with the decline of long-term employment and governments' abandonment of full-employment policy, "flexibilization" has left many workers resigned to insecure, temporary, or contingent work of which the rapid growth of temp agencies is a symptom. Unions have had little success confronting the challenge of these new work relations. Relatedly, the alarming expansion of the informal sector,13 especially in urban centers, has put many workers outside the legal framework of unionization and collective bargaining, as work in this sector is typically not recognized or protected by law, or regulated by public authorities. In addition, many workers in the informal sector are considered self-employed or "entrepreneurs," for whom collective bargaining legislation is of little use. Due to limited resources, many trade unions have ignored those workers they consider unorganizable, including undocumented workers, workers in the informal economy, or workers in "flight" sectors such as the garment industry or call centers. Immigrants, women, and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the growth of exploitative working conditions and apart from some important initiatives undertaken by SEIU and UNITE HERE, the working poor have remained outside of the labor movements strategic focus. Many community union activists feel that trade unions have lost their organizing impetus and have focused on "servicing" their members through collective bargaining, thereby isolating the union bureaucracy from its members, and disempowering workers in the process. It is in this context that community unionism has reemerged as an organizational model that seeks to empower some of the most vulnerable workers in the neoliberal economy. REDEFINING SOLIDARITY COMMUNITY UNIONS POSE A VITAL QUESTION: What happens to the sense of solidarity fostered by union membership when a unionized worker loses his or her job? Upon losing a union job workers can experience political isolation as they also lose their identification with a collective whose combined strength is superior to that of the individual worker. At times,

unions can continue their relationship with a recently unemployed member through retraining programs, or they may attempt to place the worker in other union shops. But beyond these initiatives, solidarity is lost. As community unions do not base membership on employment, they foster a sense of solidarity that goes beyond the workplace. In doing so, community unions allow working people to organize around common class interests regardless of their employment status. In terms of political empowerment, this is an important feature of community unionism. Community unions can cultivate political participation and engagement, moving their members to challenge power structures with a collective strength that is not reliant on an employment relationship. U.S. labor history is all too full of examples of worker pitted against worker undermining the very notion of "solidarity." Immigrants have been pitted against the native born, the welfare poor against the working poor, and black workers against white workers. Community unionism is an effort to move beyond this self-destructive history. Community unions may count trade unionists amongst their members along with home workers, students, welfare recipients, or injured workers. Many contemporary community unions have argued for a more inclusive definition of work recognizing that the collective power of a union must be extended to those without waged work. For example, community unions can acknowledge the emotional and physical labor of a primary caregiver; the work of homeless persons who recycle the waste and scrap created in large urban centers; or the labor of sex workers. They may be "redefining solidarity," but community unions are not immune from the inherent tensions that can characterize traditional trade unionism. Like trade unions, community unions can be territorial and may come into conflict with each other over attempts to organize the same community. Community unions must also set agendas and organizational visions. Conflicts may arise as to which struggles a community union should devote what are often limited resources. Internal disputes may arise over what the long-term goals of the organization ought to be, ranging from the pragmatic (a living wage) to the ambitious (abolition of the wage system). And often there is conflict over the internal structure of a community union and its democratic practice. COMMUNITY UNIONISM IN ACTION TWO OF THE MOST EXCITING EXAMPLES OF community unionism today are the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, in Toronto, and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, in New York City.14 Founded in 1990, OCAP combines direct-action advocacy and grassroots mobilization in the struggle for decent work, housing, and social assistance. While OCAP may appear to be a conventional community action group, the organization sees itself as part of the broader working-class movement. Its efforts to build a mass organization that empowers the unemployed, precarious workers, and the working poor in a specific geographical area demand we rethink what a unions function and capacities should be in the neoliberal economy. Organizing in the downtown Toronto area, OCAP counts several hundred members amongst its ranks, and is able to mobilize up to a thousand supporters for demonstrations.

OCAP's operating budget is derived from individual donations and the financial support of a few progressive union locals. In Toronto, OCAP has led the fight against workfare, the city's lack of affordable housing, and the criminalization of homelessness. What OCAP lacks in resources, it makes up for in creativity and political daring. The organization's most recent campaign has put the province of Ontario's welfare bureaucracy on the defensive, and won thousands of dollars in payments for people on social assistance. The province's welfare package has a virtually unknown $250 supplement for recipients who have special dietary needs. These needs must be confirmed by a health practitioner for the recipient to be eligible for the extra monthly payment. When this was brought to OCAPs attention, the organization met with progressive doctors across the city to set up health clinics in which social assistance recipients could meet with health practitioners and have their eligibility for the food supplement verified. Health practitioners have been approving the supplement en masse on the accurate assumption that the current monthly welfare check is not enough money to sustain a healthy diet. The campaign has won the broad support of the progressive community in Toronto, and become a crusade to raise welfare rates for all recipients regardless of their dietary status. Apart from sweeping campaigns such as this, OCAP engages in direct-action advocacy for members of the community. OCAPs members are mobilized to intervene in tenant evictions, immigration deportations, and cases of employer misconduct. For example, if a community member is owed money from an employer, temp agency, or the welfare department, OCAP will usually issue a letter to the relevant party demanding the payment be made immediately. If there is no response, OCAP will set up pickets at the place of business, or in the case of social assistance, members may occupy the local welfare office. OCAP has won victories for many of its members and has enlarged its support base in the community as other residents realize the power of collective action. There may be times when community unions "step on the toes" of organized labor. For instance, OCAP recently supported an independent workers committee established by unionized hotel workers who were not satisfied with the representation their union local had given them. Struggling to ensure that their collective agreement was enforced, both by their local and their employer, the workers committee took as its guiding vision the words of an old Scottish rank-and-filer who proclaimed, "We will support the [union] officials just so long as they represent the workers but we will act independently if immediately they misrepresent them."15 OCAP has mobilized members in support of the workers committee, setting up pickets at the hotel, and accompanying the committee to confront the union local. OCAP has thus come in for criticism by some sections of organized labor in Toronto. This example points to the tensions that can exist between independent community unions and the traditional labor movement. Although dialogue can facilitate cooperation and understanding between community unions and organized labor, inevitably there will be points of contention. COMMUNITY UNIONISM, NEW YORK STYLE

ESTABLISHED IN 1996, THE NATIONAL MOBIlization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) operates out of two workers centers in New York City. NMASS draws on the tradition of such community unions as the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a pioneer of community unionism. Whereas OCAP relies on individual donations and the financial support of a few progressive union locals, NMASS has a dues-paying structure. NMASS focuses on the struggle to abolish the sweatshop system. NMASS seeks to organize "injured workers, students, mothers and care-givers working in the home, retirees, unemployed persons, and people from all communities and walks of life." The organization's primary demands are "the right to a 40-hour workweek at a living wage for all...and the right to a 40-hour workweek for those currently unemployed."16 In addition, NMASS demands "the recognition of care giving work done in the home as part of that paid 40-hour workweek."17 These demands represent an expansion of the notion of solidarity, and NMASS stresses the inclusiveness of its organizing strategy. The group sees itself as part of a new labor movement committed "to fighting for long-term changes that will enable workers to have genuine economic, political and social power."18 Like OCAP, NMASS relies on a variety of tactics to press for change in a number of areas. In 2000, NMASS successfully lobbied for the first minimum wage increase for New York State restaurant workers in over ten years. Through collective action, the group has won wage concessions and back payments from garment manufacturers and helped launch a NAFTA lawsuit challenging New York's workers compensation system. Under NAFTAs labor side agreement (called the North American Agreement for Labor Cooperation or NAALC) workers and their organizations can file a complaint alleging failure by any one of the three participating governments to enforce its labor standards. Although relatively toothless, the NAALC's decisions can put the spotlight on a government's labor relations. NMASS's successful challenge led to a public shaming of the New York State government as Mexican officials in charge of investigating the complaint harshly criticized New York's workers compensation system, and censured the government for failing to "protect workers from dangerous work conditions and to ensure that workers hurt on the job receive timely and adequate compensation and medical treatment for their injuries and illnesses."19 One of NMASS's most recent campaigns challenges the city of New York to deal with the health issues that working people have faced in their neighborhoods since 9-11. Working with other community groups, NMASS has organized a medical clinic to document the health ailments many lower Manhattan residents have developed due to the toxic fallout generated by the collapse of the Twin Towers. Poor air quality affected many working people in the post-9-11 period, and NMASS has organized numerous marches and demonstrations demanding the government take action to address health conditions ranging from respiratory problems to rashes.20 In a related campaign, NMASS helped organize a coalition of community organizations, churches, and small businesses to challenge the plans of real estate developers and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, whose mandate to rebuild lower Manhattan promises to gentrify the traditionally working-class community.

NMASS has also been at the forefront of the struggle for workers rights in New York City's Chinatown. Immigrant workers face exploitative conditions in restaurant and garment work. Through boycotts, picketing, and letter writing campaigns, NMASS has helped these workers command the attention of elected officials and the public at large. Using Sojourner Truth's famous proclamation, NMASSs "Ain't I a Woman?" campaign has framed the struggle of working women in the New York garment industry, who are primarily women of color, as a struggle for race and gender justice. Such a campaign highlights how community unions can avoid pitting so-called "identity politics" against class politics, a debate that has consumed the Left in recent years. PUTTING THE MOVEMENT BACK INTO LABOR COMMUNITY UNIONISM MAY HAVE ITS LIMits. Skeptics in the labor movement claim that although community unions may provide political representation for a largely unrepresented population, they cannot make the type of economic gains for their members that a trade union can through collective bargaining. This critique has some validity. Community unions win economic concessions through lobbying, direct action, and other tactics. In other words, their power is primarily political, not economic.21 Consequently, community unions must focus their efforts on building strong coalitions with other community organizations and the labor movement in order to push for progressive legislation and broader social change. In addition, community unions have to win the hearts and minds of voters to add moral and political legitimacy to their campaigns, making it increasingly difficult for elected officials to ignore their demands.22 Yet there is no denying community unionism is an emerging form of working class organization that challenges the conditions working people face in the neoliberal economy. In many ways community unionism is putting the movement back into labor. The long-term relationship of community unionism to the labor movement is yet to be determined. The labor movement must not see community unions as necessarily pre-union formations, that is, neither as threats, nor as spaces to be colonized by the labor movement "proper." Community unions have developed their own organizational structure and culture, ways of fostering leadership, and political agendas. Both community union activists and trade unionists would benefit from engaging in a dialogue based on their capabilities, limitations, and shared interests. If trade unions are to regain their power and build strong organizations capable of challenging capitals agenda, they must learn from the tactics and organizing strategies of community unionism. Those workers community unions have been successful in organizing and empowering (specifically women, immigrants, and people of color) are vital to the rejuvenation of the labor movement. A movement that does not harness the power of all working people is destined to be weak and ineffective in the struggle for a socially just society.
[Sidebar] Unlike trade unions, most community unions seek to organize the employed, unemployed, and underemployed...

[Sidebar] The community unions adversary may be an employer, but could also be the immigration department, a development agency, city council, the welfare bureaucracy, a landlord or the police.

[Sidebar] Community unions pose a vital question: What happens to the sense of solidarity fostered by union membership when a unionized worker loses his or her job?

[Sidebar] There may be times when community unions "step on the toes" of organized labor.

[Sidebar] [The NMASS] campaign highlights how community unions can avoid pitting ... "identity politics" against class politics...

[Footnote] Notes 1. The article draws on the groundbreaking scholarship on community unionism by Janice Fine and Cynthia Cranford. 2. James O'Connor, "Towards a Theory of Community Unions, Part I," Studies on the Left, 2 (1964): 164. 3. Jessica Tait, Poor Workers' Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below, Cambridge Mass.: South End Press, 2005. 4. James O'Connor, "Towards a Theory of Community Unions, Part II," Studies on the Left, 3 (1964): 240-257. 5. Janice Fine, "Community Unions in Baltimore and Long Island: Beyond the Politics of Particularism," PhD dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 2003. 6. Ibid. 313. 7. Ibid. 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid. 11. Cynthia Cranford, Mary Gellatly, Deena Ladd, and Leah F. Vosko, "Workers' Centres and Community Unionism: Organizing for Fair Employment in Toronto," Paper Presented at the International Colloquium on Union Renewal, Montreal, November 18th-20th 12004. 12. Janice Fine, "Community Unions and the Revival of the American Labor Movement," Politics & Society, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2005): 153-199. 13. The informal sector is very heterogeneous and it is thus difficult to define its boundaries and characteristics. However, the International Labour Organization (ILO) considers workers to be in the informal sector if they are "not recognized or protected under the legal and regulatory frameworks."

Plus, informal workers "are characterized by a high degree of vulnerability."The ILO states that the "situation of those in the informal economy" should be defined "in terms of decent work deficits" These deficits include "poor-quality, unproductive and unremunerative jobs that are not recognized or protected by law, the absence of rights at work, inadequate social protection, and the lack of representation and voice are most pronounced in the informal economy, especially at the bottom end among women and young workers." See page 3 of the ILO report Decent Work and the Informal Economy at: employment/infeco/download/reporto.pdf. 14. Much of the information in this section is drawn from discussions I've had with activists in OCAP (including an interview I conducted with OCAP organizer John Clarke) and NMASS. 15. See the Metropolitan hotel Workers' Committee website at httpy/www.metropolitan 16. National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, Introductory Pamphlet. 17. Ibid. 18. NMASS, "Workers, Centers and the New Labor Movement," NMASS Homepage, accessed at: workers%20centers.htm. 19. NMASS, "Pataki blamed for failed state Workers' Comp system." NMASS Homepage, accessed at: 112404NAFTAPressConference.html 20. For information on NMASS' Beyond Ground Zero Campaign, see http:// bgz/bgz.html. 21. Fine 2003 and 2005. 22. Ibid.

[Author Affiliation] Simon Black is a native of Toronto, Canada, and is in his first year of Ph.D. study at The New School in New York City. He is a former shop steward in the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He has participated in, and keenly observed, the community union movement in both Canada and the United States. He can be reached at