JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice


One doesn’t have to possess an advanced degree in economics to see that there is something definitively out of alignment when it comes to job creation in the United States. Multinational corporations with no national, much less local, allegiances are given billions of dollars in tax subsidies in a shell game, which moves an ever-shrinking number of manufacturing jobs from city to suburbs, and state to state. Big box retail stores are destroying locally-owned small businesses in shopping districts across the country, and the largest employment growth is taking place in low-paying service sector jobs. Real wages are stagnant and fundamentals, such as overtime pay, health insurance, retirement benefits, job security, even regular paid vacation, are swirling away at hurricane speeds.... more

Introduction to JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice


Vol. 14-1 Credits

Editors Emeritus
Carl Anthony
Luke Cole

Juliet Ellis

Ben Jesse Clarke

Editorial Advisor
Steven Pitts

Contributing Editor
Connie Galambos

Ben Jesse Clarke and
Guillermo Prado

Copy Editing and Proofreading
Merula Furtado, Marc Caswell

David Bacon

Race, Poverty & the Environment is published twice annually.     © 2007 by the individual creators and Urban Habitat.


For specific reprint information, please email editor@urbanhabitat.org.


RP&E was first published in 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. The views reflected in RP&E are not necessarily those of the editors, Urban Habitat, or its funders.




Urban Habitat Board of Directors
 Joe Brooks (Chair)
 Romel Pascual
Omowale Satterwhite
 PolicyLinkMayor's Office, City of Los Angeles
Community Development Institute
  Fred Blackwell (Vice-Chair) 
 Arnold Perkins  Tim Thomas
 S.F. Mayor's Office of Community Development 
 Alameda Public Health Department 
 East Bay Habitat for Humanity
 Tamar Dorfman (Treasurer)  Gabriela Sandoval Organizations are listed for
 S.F. Mayor's Office of Community Development 
 Department of Sociology, U.C. Santa Cruz identification purposes only.

About This Issue

One doesn’t have to possess an advanced degree in economics to see that there is something definitively out of alignment when it comes to job creation in the United States. Multinational corporations with no national, muchless local, allegiances are given billions of dollars in tax subsidies in a shell game, which moves an ever-shrinkingnumber of manufacturing jobs from city to suburbs, and state to state. Big box retail stores are destroying locallyowned small businesses in shopping districts across the country, and the largest employment growth is takingplace in low-paying service sector jobs. Real wages are stagnant and fundamentals, such as overtime pay, healthinsurance, retirement benefits, job security, even regular paid vacation, are swirling away at hurricane speeds.

In this issue, Greg le Roy, Anmol Chaddha, Manning Marable, and Barbara Ehrenreich contribute compelling portraits of the economic crisis at hand, detailing the scope of corporate subsidies and the breadth of economic dislocation.Steven Pitts provides a succinct overview of neo-liberalism and the advance of privatization as a path toprofit for corporate owners—at the expense of the rest of the population.

Manel Kappagoda and Rajiv Bhatia take a look at the health dimension of the question and discover that unemployed people live fewer years and have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression, and suicide than the employed. So just what will it take to win quality jobs for the communities we are committed to? Our contributors come back with an age old solution: Organize, organize, organize. But in the global economic system in which we now live, figuring out effective targets, successful coalitions, and winnable campaigns is more challenging than ever. To start looking for solutions, we look at notable strategies from the past and present. Howard Zinn reviews the history of the Flint sit-down strikes, Terry Messman considers mass civil disobedience, and David Bacon looks at immigrant labor, the most inspiring new movement in decades.

Immigration “reform” proposals that would create a new class of guest workers with even less rights than undocumented people currently inside the United States are a malevolent manipulation of the desire to protect United States-based jobs. Gerald Lenoir and Stephen Lerner unmask the lie that immigrants are stealing United States workers jobs. It’s unregulated capital—United States-based and multinational—that is depriving workers on both sides of the border of the ability to do work that benefits our communities and our environment.

Further, the very conditions which activists have denounced overseas, prison labor and coerced reproductive choices, are again rearing their ugly heads in the United States as welfare-to-work and prison labor policies become ever more stark. Jaron Browne describes the history of United States slave labor; Gopal Dayaneni and Aaron Shuman examine prison recycling industries; and Linda Burnham and Bill Berkowitz write about the impacts on women—10 years after the so-called welfare “reforms” of 1996. The low-wage low-benefit economy is indeed booming.

But of course, organizing efforts to turn bad jobs into well paid work with benefits are underway in many sectors, from domestic labor to healthcare. We present six organizing profiles that show how worker centers, unions, and community labor coalitions are opening new avenues for worker solidarity to challenge the power of unregulated capital. And we offer portraits of a half-dozen local efforts that demonstrate how to create good jobs for low-income communities of color, showing that the solutions to complex economic problems can be found right in our own communities.

Paradoxically, organizing for increased localization requires us to act in solidarity with our counterparts throughout the world. The impact of capital flight must be confronted at both ends of the transaction. Until we have won an international living wage and the right to organize freely for worker rights and union representation, capital will continue to press for the low-road option in economic development. But history has shown that courageous unified action by dedicated activists can have a transformational effect that far exceeds our numbers. Clearly, the time for that action is now.

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JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

From the Director's Desk

Heading into 2007, Urban Habitat is poised to take on some of the challenges of a regional economy that is ever more starkly divided into the haves and the have-nots, and where communities of color continue to bear the burdens of growth, without receiving the benefits. Urban Habitat’s expanding work on equitable development and quality jobs are keystones in building a new approach to regional development, so that good jobs, clean air and water, and accessible public transportation are available to all our communities.

In the last few years, as multinational corporations like Wal-Mart have invited themselves into the Bay Area’s Alameda and Contra Costa counties, some local communities have split over whether to accept low-paying jobs as being better than no jobs. Well documented studies of Wal-Mart’s impact on local businesses and on international labor standards have too often been ignored by local governments in the interest of short-term benefits, such as increased local sales tax proceeds.

To respond to this challenge, Urban Habitat is staffing a new effort by the Social Equity Caucus to make “Quality Jobs” a reality for our constituents. Working with the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, the Social Equity Caucus (a coalition of over 75 Bay Area nonprofit, union, and religious organizations) has created a “Quality Jobs Working Group” (QJWG) to analyze and participate in movements to create quality jobs for our communities. Our formula for progress: research, analysis, and action. QJWG members are well-represented in this issue of RP&E: East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, Apollo Alliance, Bay Area Localize, Change to Win, and the National Economic Development and Law Center share case studies from their own organizing work. Six months into its development, the QJWG has already identified and moved forward on key research needed to drive future campaigns, building partnerships with allies along the way.

Newly elected Mayors Ron Dellums in Oakland and Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond both owe their new jobs to a sense that business-as-usual is not working for many people in these cities and across the region. The QJWG sees these and other Bay Area political shifts—including adoption of comprehensive healthcare services to uninsured San Franciscans and their employers at a reasonable cost—as indications that campaigns should gear up to take advantage of innovative leadership and start moving on a progressive jobs agenda.

In Richmond, our Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) has launched a comprehensive campaign to move the city towards a new framework for land use and economic development. The REDI coalition represents a diverse group of stakeholders, including academics, religious organizations, labor advocates, lawyers, public health officials, and social and environmental justice organizations.
Working with our REDI partners—EBASE, Contra Costa Faithworks, the Center for Community Innovation at University of California Berkeley, Communities for a Better Environment, Ma’at Youth Academy, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and ACORN—we are laying the groundwork for a city planning process that will provide the residents of Richmond better jobs, cleaner air, and more effective transportation choices.

Of course, Urban Habitat transportation justice efforts and leadership institutes are also running full steam ahead, but we’ll have more on that in the next issue. To stay abreast, please visit our website, www.urbanhabitat.org.

Thank you for all your support.

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From the Social Equity Caucus Working Group

Environmental justice activists have taken heroic steps fighting environmental degradation, which falls disproportionately on people of color and is magnified by the poverty suffered by most communities of color. Clearly, the environmental and economic problems faced by our communities are intertwined, and environmental justice cannot be attained as long as poverty remains unchallenged. The twin ills of racial oppression and class exploitation indicate that the movement for environmental justice must expand its work to include the battle for quality jobs.

Environmental justice activists have long battled economic development plans that place hazards in communities of color. Now, increasingly, activists are seeking to be proactive by proposing “green” solutions to the problems of economic development and job creation. However, more must be done.

Because of institutional racism and the development model of the twenty-first century global economy, millions of people of color have jobs that fail to provide family-sustaining wages. “Green” industries are healthy correctives to this economic trajectory but they cannot address the need for quality jobs on a scale that is needed. Added attention to job training and access to existing good jobs is also vital, but this does not solve the problems facing most low-income workers. Disproportionately, people of color clean and guard office buildings, care for young children, the elderly, and the disabled, and work in retail and hospitality establishments. These jobs are being created by the millions each year and no attempt to move people into better jobs or generate alternate employment will change this dynamic. There must be a movement to transform the quality of these jobs. To ignore this reality does a disservice to communities of color.

How do we transform jobs? Two primary strategies can transform jobs: 1) workers can organize and use their bargaining power to improve job quality, and 2) laws can be passed which enact labor standards that force businesses to create better situations for their employees. Unions have long been the primary organizing vehicle. Many jobs, which we now take for granted as being good jobs, became that way through years of struggle by union members. Recently, worker centers have sprung up in many cities to improve the lives of workers through a combination of organizing, service delivery, and policy advocacy. In addition, coalitions of labor and community organizations have begun a movement to develop new laws that raise minimum wages, force city contractors to pay living wages, and require certain industries to pay higher wages.

Urban Habitat has long advocated for regional, multi-issue solutions to the challenges facing our communities. Joining and building labor-community coalitions is emerging as a positive path to fulfilling this vision. The emerging Quality Jobs Working Group of the Social Equity Caucus is one step on this path. Success in these arenas of struggle will especially benefit communities bearing the burdens of environmental racism. In addition, the alliances between the movement for environmental justice and the movement for quality jobs will generate more political power, which we can wield in fights to end environmental degradation. We invite our readers to study some of the successful projects detailed in the following pages and to join us in these efforts.

 Steven Pitts is a Labor Policy Specialist for the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.  Joe Brooks is the Chair Person for Urban Habitat's Board of Directors.

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Economy in Crisis


The Fight for Quality Jobs: Our Battle Against Neoliberalism

Globalization is not a new phenomenon. The transatlantic slave trade was a manifestation of “globalization.” The carving up of Africa, Asia, and Latin America into colonies of Europe was a manifestation of “globalization.” Twenty-first century globalization shares some features with these previous eras, chief among them, the reality that the costs and benefits of a global economy are distributed unequally and, hence, our true challenge is building organizations and alliances with sufficient power to force a redistribution of these costs and benefits.

These issues of power and control are particularly important when fighting for quality jobs. Most jobs are not inherently good or bad; the key question for workers is the power to control the terms of work. Jobs in the auto and steel industries became “good” jobs because workers organized unions, which brought better wages, benefits, and dignity. Jobs in the casinos of Los Vegas became jobs that could sustain families because workers formed unions, and their collective action forced casino owners to redistribute their winnings. The victories of janitors in Houston, which led to the recognition of their union, will give them the power to improve their jobs.

The crisis of bad jobs in the United States is simply a domestic manifestation of twenty-first century globalization. The policies which harm many people in other countries are closely linked to the policies which harm many people in the United States. Just as people and nations are battling to transform structural policies with respect to international economic forces, there is a need to transform certain structural policies in this country. In the area of work and employment, this means a need to develop campaigns to transform the jobs which workers in the United States currently hold.

There are two essential economic elements of twenty-first century globalization: the rapid movement of technology, capital, goods and services, and people across space (“the world is getting smaller”); and the subsequent changing of the global division of labor. Production, which used to be exclusive to the United States, Europe, and Japan can now take place in most countries throughout the world. Also, during previous globalization eras, dominant countries contained most manufacturing and colonies and other lands were sites of raw material extraction. Now, manufacturing can occur in countries with cheaper labor forces and the production of services play a larger role in the economies of the global North. In addition, these policies have led to a change in the relationship between corporations, governments, and workers. This new relationship can be called neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and What it Means


Key features of neoliberalism include a reduction in the role of government in regulating the economy; a greater role for the market in determining economic and social outcomes; and less protection for workers and citizens provided by governments. International economic institutions, such as the World Bank, reward countries that privatize national assets and balance budgets, even if these actions harm citizens. Transnational corporations seek those countries where markets are free of government regulations. The drive to balance budgets and have “business friendly” climates result in the elimination of needed social programs.

These features should sound familiar to activists in this country. Starting (with the Carter administration) in the late 1970s, the federal government has cut back its role in the economy and deregulated numerous industries, including trucking, telecommunications, and airlines. Local governments respond to insufficient revenue with cutbacks and contracting out. In the face of healthcare and pension crises, the Right calls for “market-based” solutions. Education is underfunded and welfare “reformed” to the point where former recipients are forced to take poverty level jobs.

What do these changes mean for jobs in the United States? Among the many impacts, three can be singled out. First, the rising importance of manufacturing in foreign countries means a greater role for the “goods movement” industry in this country. This industry includes the ports, which receive the goods, the trucks and trains, which move the goods off the docks, and the warehouses, which temporarily hold the goods. Second, the rising importance of a number of service industries, including hospitality, healthcare, and building services. A special feature of these jobs is that they cannot be shifted overseas because they involve people-to-people contact. Third, the strain on budgets cause local governments to use their land use policies to increase revenue streams. Thus, the retail industry becomes a special target for subsidies, with the resulting increase in retail jobs.

Given these domestic manifestations of neoliberalism, what lessons can be drawn by activists? Many advocates reference a so-called “Golden Age” of the United States economy between 1945 and 1973, when blue collar workers could earn decent incomes and the government had social programs to address poverty, healthcare, and retirement. In addition to the fact that this era was more complicated than depicted, it is important to note that the benefits of this period reflect a confluence of many factors, including the dominance of the United States in the international division of labor; the relative strength of labor, civil rights, and other social justice movements; and a range of social protections provided by the State. The first factor, United States pre-eminence following World War II, cannot be replicated. (Nor is it clear that we would want to return the world to such a state.) However, the other two factors reflect the conscious efforts of activists.

As we move forward, the battle for quality jobs in goods movement, services, and retail industries is a key arena where social justice activists should place their energies in the struggle against neoliberalism. Strong labor and social movements can indeed win direct concessions from employers and from the State, and force a redistribution of the gains from globalization.

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The Great Corporate Job Scam: Money for Nothing


Lurking within the records of most cities and states in America there lies a scandal. A tax scandal. A jobs scandal. A corporate and political scandal. Look up the names of corporations that have received taxpayer subsidies in the name of jobs. Almost every big company has gotten them, since the average state has more than 30 subsidy programs: such as property tax abatements, corporate income tax credits, sales and excise tax exemptions, tax increment financing, low-interest loans and loan guarantees, free land and land write-downs, training grants, infrastructure aid, and just plain cash grants. Chances are you will find many companies that have failed to create or retain as many jobs as they said they would. Companies that are paying poverty wages or failing to provide healthcare to their employees. Companies that are abandoning our cities and sprawling onto farmland and natural spaces. Even companies that are outsourcing jobs offshore.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll undoubtedly find companies that have

not created any new jobs, even some that have actually laid people off since they got the subsidies. Others that have gotten paid just to move existing jobs from one place to another, where they are proclaimed to be “new.”

How can they get away with this? Because the system is rigged. Corporations have it down to a science. They have learned how to chant “jobs, jobs, jobs,” win huge corporate tax breaks—and still do whatever they wanted to all along.
That’s the great American jobs scam: an intentionally constructed system that enables corporations to exact huge taxpayer subsidies by promising quality jobs, even when they fail to deliver. The other benefit often promised, higher tax revenues, often proves false as well.

This system costs taxpayers an estimated $50 billion a year in total spending by states and cities.1 The bottom of the iceberg is tax breaks. Those granted by states—income, sales, and excise—are the least visible, least accountable, and most corrosive ways of funding economic development. Those granted locally—property tax abatements and diversions—are especially problematic for their harm to schools.

Metastasis of the Business-Friendly Climate
This system has a long history and many moving parts. It can be traced at least as far back as the Great Depression, but it really matured in the 1970s. By then, most of the key actors were in place: secretive site location consultants who specialize in playing states and cities against each other; “business climate” experts with their highly politicized interpretations of tax and jobs data; and an organized corporate network orchestrating attacks on state tax systems.

Today, this $50 billion-a-year pot has spawned an even more elaborate cast of characters: rented consultants packing rosy projections about job creation and tax revenue; subsidy-tracking consultants to help companies avoid leaving money on the table; and even an embryonic industry to help businesses buy and sell economic development tax credits.

Maybe we could overlook all this chicanery if all boats were rising. But we are not getting higher wages, better benefits, a stronger tax base, or better public services. Instead, for the last quarter century, most wages have stagnated or fallen, healthcare has become less affordable and available, and pensions have shrunk in number and value. States and cities have developed structural budget deficits, prompting cutbacks in everything from school programs to infrastructure maintenance.

The only clear winners are large corporations. For building new facilities in many states, companies are actually paying negative income taxes. Subsidy packages routinely exceed $100,000 per job. Guess who’s getting stuck with the tab? When the big boys pay less, the rest of us pay more, or the quality of our public services declines.

Defining Competition
At the core of this scandal are corrupted definitions of “competition” that obscure cause and effect. We must create no-tax zones for factories, say the governors, to be competitive with other states—even though the whole country is bleeding manufacturing jobs and the obvious issue is globalization. We have to create a new Tax Increment Financing district and steal shoppers from neighboring suburbs, say the mayors, to compete for tax base—even though the metro area is strewn with dead malls.

These corrupted definitions salute corporate bottom lines while thumbing their noses at common sense, social science, and good government. They are the deliberate creations of a 50-year campaign by corporations to divide and conquer the states—as well as the suburbs. This corporate gospel of competition preaches that governments at all levels must not be allowed to cooperate, even if it takes litigation all the way to the Supreme Court, lobbying federal and state legislators, public relations campaigns, and consulting studies. Governments must not be allowed to cooperate. They must be kept in the dark and allowed into the room only when it’s time to talk about subsidies.

States must not be allowed to compare notes to determine if companies are lying about competing subsidy bids or cheating on their income taxes. Instead, states must only be allowed to compete to see who will tax the least, or who will give the biggest tax gift to a trophy deal.

Cities and suburbs must not be allowed to cooperate either, even though their fates hinge upon the health of their regional economies, not upon individual deals. Instead, localities must compete for tax base by pirating jobs and retail sales from each other, even though it means chewing up farmland for wasteful sprawl, and throwing away older areas, poor people, and past infrastructure investments.

Internalized by public officials, these corrupted definitions prevent governments from cooperating in the taxpayers’ interest. Business becomes the Alpha constituent. In these “public-private partnerships,” government gets to play spigot. Public officials get to practice economic development with a Seeing Eye® dog.

At every level, the system demeans and degrades public officials: the economic development official forced to bid for an unknown company against unknown competing sites; the school board members who have no say when property tax abatements corrode their budget; the revenue director whose sober advice is upstaged by the frothy projections of an economist rented by the Chamber of Commerce; the governor who overspends on a “trophy” project because she so fears the label “the governor who lost Mercedes.” Those who would dare to ask an impertinent question are quickly singled out for ridicule and isolation: They must be against jobs.

Collateral Damage
Besides creating corporate windfalls, the great American jobs scam is causing all manner of collateral damage. It was used to blunt calls for trade reform long before the North American Free Trade Agreement. It bankrolls interstate job piracy. It corrodes state budgets. It subsidizes private prisons, concentrated animal feeding operations, and hundreds of Wal-Mart facilities. It is used to help bust unions. It subsidizes poverty-wage companies that saddle us with hidden taxpayer costs, such as Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program bills. It is helping create a massive tax-burden shift away from big companies onto working families and small businesses. It is diverting precious resources away from the two investments that really do grow good jobs—skills and infrastructure. And just don’t get me started about stadiums.

The scam has also created mass confusion about cause and effect, about how little tax cuts and subsidies matter for jobs. The prevailing “business climate” ideology that plagues us today is a hangover from the meanest elements of the Old Economy. Our beliefs about taxes and jobs were shaped by a very politicized series of studies in the 1970s and 1980s that served the lobbying agenda of footloose manufacturers looking for cheap labor in the South on their way to Mexico or China. That agenda had no value for the rest of the economy then, and it is downright corrosive to succeeding in the New Economy today.

Much of our prevailing ideology about jobs and land is a hangover from a manufacturing site-location bias against cities, and a post-war consensus built around white flight from cities, concentrated poverty among people of color in older areas, and lots of subsidies for jobs out by the Interstate, be they factory, office park, or Wal-Mart. That consensus has left us with a sprawling, dysfunctional built environment that is harming our health and our economic competitiveness.


That the scam could get this far out of hand suggests a profound breakdown in whatever consensus we ever had about corporate responsibility to our society. The way you handle your money is your value system. By their rampant tax dodging, corporations are collectively saying: we don’t care if the schools fall apart and the bridges are crumbling and the public health systems are impoverished and college is becoming unaffordable. We are not all in this together. We are not investing in our communities’ futures. We are disinvesting.

The scam belongs in the dustbin of history. To put it there, we need strict accountability measures that will curtail private disinvestment and restore public reinvestment. By getting our taxpayer dollars out of private deals and into public goods, and by integrating our jobs strategy with land-use planning, we can spend less and get more.
We must eradicate the sub-scams that have grown up around the corrupted definition of competition and replace them with a healthy new form of competition in which places compete based on their assets, which are equally available to all employers: their skilled labor base, their infrastructure, their schools and universities, their entrepreneurial culture, their quality of life.

Fortunately, despite the siege of disinformation, there is a rich bipartisan history of reform that has created proven precedents to peel away the scam. The most important of these is disclosure. When more information is available about costs and benefits, many more people will get involved—and that’s the scammers’ darkest nightmare.
Getting a lot more people involved is the only way to challenge the prevailing ideology. Go to a conference of economic development professionals today and watch the public officials. You will never hear them crow about how well their working families are doing, about rising median incomes or declining dependency on Medicaid or fewer children suffering from asthma. But you will hear them touting big deals. And you will see them courting site location consultants and corporate vice presidents. That is what economic development in the United States has become. Welcome to the Great American Jobs Scam.


1.    Kenneth Thomas estimated total state and local subsidies at $48.8 billion as of 1996, and many states have enacted new subsidies since then. (Competing for Capital: Europe and North America in a Global Era, Georgetown University Press, 2000.) Peter Fisher and Alan Peters conservatively estimated total subsidies at $50 billion (“The Failures of Economic Development Incentives,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter 2004).

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The Economic Crisis Ahead

Millions of Americans are deeply worried about their economic futures. The signs of the economic crisis ahead are literally everywhere, if one bothers to look at the statistical evidence. The first, and most important indicator, is the unprecedented concentration of wealth within American society. According to USA Today columnist Yolanda Young, in 1970, the bottom one-third of all United States households (today, about 96 million people) “earned 10 times that of the top one percent” of all households. By 2004, the upper one percent “made as much as the bottom third of Americans.”

The vast destruction of millions of manufacturing jobs and outsourcing of United States businesses have pushed growing millions of black, brown, and working-class whites into what can be described as “the fringe economy.” Over half of all Americans, according to Young, now “live from paycheck to paycheck.”

Hundreds of multibillion dollar companies are reneging on their past promises to workers to cover healthcare, transferring those costs to their employees, past and present. In March, 2006, for example, Ford Motor Corporation announced that it would “charge the spouses of its workers to participate in its healthcare plan, if another healthcare plan is available.” The new fees for spouses, $110 per month, will force hundreds of thousands of Ford retirees to make hard decisions between their healthcare vs. home mortgage payments, food, and college savings for their children.

The same day, Chrysler announced it would eliminate 10-15 percent of its salaried employees. As of 2006, Chrysler employees must come up with 31 percent of their total health coverage costs based on their salaries.

About 56 million Americans, nearly one-fifth of the population, are unable to afford a checking account. On payday, millions of low-income Americans cash their paychecks at check cashing stores that charge three percent of a check’s total value. For a check worth $800 the check-cashing company skims off $24. Those exorbitant transactions generate millions of dollars daily for financial institutions and banks, taking unfair advantage of the poor.

What practical political measures can be initiated to reduce the economic insecurity of low wage, working families? Maryland’s legislature came up with one excellent solution when in January, 2006, it passed a state law requiring employers with 10,000 or more workers to pay at least eight percent of their payroll toward their employees’ healthcare coverage. The only corporation in Maryland with at least 10,000 employees is Wal-Mart, a corporation that has 1.3 million workers across the United States, over one-half of whom have no health insurance. In New York State, the progressive Working Families Party proposed in early March, 2006, an even more ambitious healthcare proposal. Called the “Fair Share For Health Bill,” it would tax all employers with more than 100 employees the equivalent of three dollars per hour, per worker, unless it provides health coverage worth that much. Similar legislation has also been proposed in New Jersey and in more than 20 other states.

These progressive healthcare reforms indicate that the economic crisis for the working poor has become so intense that even the established political parties are finally addressing—modestly—aspects of the misery which affects millions of uninsured Americans. It also indicates that a new political agenda could be constructed around a “social insecurity index.” Because, if you have no health insurance, no savings, no home ownership, no pension or individual retirement account, you are economically relegated to the edge of society.


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Fastest Growing Jobs: Are You Handy with Bedpans and Brooms?

Urgent breaking news for all job-seekers: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released a list of the fastest growing jobs, and you might want to revise your resume accordingly. I quickly scanned it to see if “dissident freelance blogger” was on the list, but alas, no. Nor were several other job categories that I would like to see on the increase, like primary care physician and particle physicist. I’m sorry, but we’re never going to get out of this nightmarish tangle of string theory and dark matter until we start generating huge cohorts of baby physicists.

Worse news—only 10 of the 25 jobs listed pay over $30,000 a year, and four of them pay less than $20,000 a year, which is just about the poverty level for a family of four. These are waiter/waitress, food preparation worker, home health aide, and “personal and home care aide.” Hovering just a little bit above $20,000 are janitor, hand laborer, receptionist, nursing aide, landscaping worker, and teacher assistant. And topping the list as the fastest growing job of all is retail salesperson, at $22,880.

You see a pattern here? That’s right, these are not the kinds of jobs you are hoping your brilliant, or at least above average, children will aspire to. In fact, the most shocking feature of the BLS list is that only five of these fastest-growing jobs require a college degree—or exactly 20 percent. OK, the third fastest growing job is “postsecondary teacher,” but in a job market dominated by janitors, truck drivers and customer service reps, what are these professors going to be teaching—“combination food preparation and serving”?

Of course, the fastest growing jobs aren’t the only jobs available. There’s still a need for a few elevator operators, blacksmiths, and dissident freelance bloggers. But the list does give us a clue as to where our economy is headed, and it’s not in the direction we were promised.

For at least 20 years now, the mantra has been, “get an education and you’ll be OK.” In some ways it made sense: Over those 20 years, the earnings gap between college-educated and non-college-educated workers widened to the point where the educated had a 70 percent advantage. That gap has begun to shrink a bit, although a B.A. on your resume remains almost as essential as an email address.

In fact, at a certain point in the late ’90s and early ’00s, higher education was beginning to look like the solution to all our problems. Robert Reich touted it when he was Clinton’s secretary of labor and, on the more conservative end of the spectrum, dozens of readers of Nickel and Dimed wrote to inform me that the problem with the working poor is that they just hadn’t bothered to go to college. Outsourcing was no threat, according to this line of reasoning, since the United States would send the dumb, routine, jobs abroad and keep the creative ones here. We would be a nation of thinkers and innovators, and the world would be our assembly line.

But that’s not how it’s turning out. Some companies have begun outsourcing their R&D to places like India—i.e., their creativity and innovation. And when we study the list of fastest growing jobs left here in the United States, we see a future filled with mops and trays, shovels and bedpans, and cash registers.

Don’t let this stop you from going to college if you haven’t already and you’re lucky enough to have the money to do so. After all, we, or the science nuts among us anyway, need those particle physicists.

But you should consider revising your resume to suit the demands of our new “new economy.” Did you ever make lattés, rake leaves, or change diapers? Good, pump that up! And you might want to lose that M.F.A. or Ph.D., because it would be a mistake to look “overqualified” for life in 21st century America.


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Are Bad Jobs Good for Poor People? The Wal-Mart Question

With over $315 billion in annual sales, 6,500 stores in 15 countries, and 1.8 million employees worldwide, Wal-Mart is now selling itself as a solution to urban racial inequality in the United States. Having built its base in rural and suburban United States in the latter part of the twentieth century, Wal-Mart began the twenty-first century by approaching poor, urban neighborhoods with a pitch that goes like this: Wal-Mart is good for poor people of color because they get jobs and get to buy cheap goods. So what if Wal-Mart offers notoriously low wages and cracks down on union organizing? As the largest private employer in the United States, with over 1.2 million workers, Wal-Mart is also a leading employer of African American and Latino workers, so company executives believe that poor people of color are in no position to be picky about their jobs.

And some city government and community leaders seem to be in agreement with the Wal-Mart executives. Most notably, Chicago City Mayor Richard Daley, who last September vetoed an ordinance drafted by local labor, religious, and community groups, requiring all “big-box stores” to pay a $10 minimum wage, provide health benefits, and remain neutral in employee unionizing efforts. Thanks to Mayor Daley’s veto, Wal-Mart did not have to concede to any of the community’s demands.

Chicago’s West Side Story: A Tale of Seduction

 Inglewood: The Little City That Could Inspire

In 2003, Wal-Mart came to Inglewood, a poor city near Los Angeles, where 47 percent of the residents are Black and 46 percent are Latino, claiming that it would create several hundred much-needed jobs—an attractive proposition for a small city with an official unemployment rate approaching double digits. The store would have been the first Wal-Mart Supercenter in a major urban area.

Wal-Mart failed to mention that it had been embroiled in over 200 so-called “site fights” in states such as Virginia, Vermont, and Oregon, and that it had subsequently been blocked out of those sites.


Wal-Mart spent over $10 million on the initiative, including running newspaper ads to publicize its financial support of Black and Latino organizations. Despite that, Inglewood voters rejected the initiative, 61 to 39 percent, in 2004.

The Inglewood initiative provided a spark for the Los Angeles City Council to consider an ordinance proposed by a coalition of labor groups, clergy, and community organizations.


In August 2004, the Council passed the ordinance, which requires a study of the economic impacts of any proposed superstore and allows the community to weigh the potential benefits against the real costs of the project. 



  Billionaire Medicaid Moochers

Five of the 11 wealthiest people in the United States are members of the Walton family, and 40 percent owners of the Wal-Mart chain of superstores. Collectively, these five people are worth in excess of $75 billion, yet the average salary of a Wal-Mart employee remains stuck at the federal poverty level for a family of four. Is there a connection between the wealth of the Waltons and the poverty of Wal-Mart workers? Some strongly believe so.

Critics, and most prominently labor unions, denounce the company for paying low wages, providing inadequate healthcare benefits, displacing local businesses, and contributing to undesirable sprawl.


A study at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that California pays in excess of $86 million in public benefits to Wal-Mart employees whose low incomes qualify them for food stamps, healthcare, and subsidized housing—programs that are funded by taxpayers. Recent studies have also identified Wal-Mart as the leading employer of workers receiving public health benefits in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.


It all began in May 2004, when the Chicago City Council met to discuss proposed zoning changes that would allow the construction of two Wal-Mart Supercenters—one on the South Side and another on the West Side. It was a heated debate.

Just as it has done in other poor urban areas, Wal-Mart appealed to Black church leaders and City Council members. And it worked to a certain extent. “Any job is better than no job,” declared the Reverend Ronald Wilks at the time.

While Wal-Mart was reaching out to the Black community, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 found that it could not easily build a coalition across race lines because some unions—particularly in the building trades—had historically excluded Black men from well-paying union jobs by keeping them out of apprenticeship programs. In the minds of many Black leaders, the rapid de-industrialization of the inner city, combined with the racism of some building trades unions, was largely responsible for the severe joblessness on the South and West Sides of Chicago. So, when the union spoke of fighting Wal-Mart, it only stirred more resentment. “Some of these same unions never say a thing about the lack of African Americans in the trades,” Alderman Isaac Carothers of the West Side complained at a City Council meeting.

Despite the company’s efforts to build support, however, not everyone was sold on the plan. The 8,500-member Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side became a center of opposition to Wal-Mart, and its leaders directly linked the store’s attractive low prices to its low-paying jobs. “Whenever price means more to you than principle,” wrote Trinity’s Pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in the church newsletter, “you have defined yourself as a prostitute.” Wright charged that Wal-Mart’s backers in the City Council and the Black religious community were “pimping” Black residents and their economic hardships.

In the end, the City Council gave a split decision. It rejected the South Side location and approved the proposed West Side store. In what has been described as the most controversial City Council issue in two decades, all but two Black aldermen supported the West Side Wal-Mart.

While the City Council debated, a coalition made up of unions and progressive Black church leaders was formed, led by Jobs With Justice, a national workers’ rights organization. Conceding that it was not politically feasible to ban Wal-Mart from Chicago, as the residents badly needed jobs, the coalition pushed instead for a Community Benefits Agreement that would require Wal-Mart to pay higher wages and hire local residents.

The ordinance was “a way to regulate the terms on which these stores come into the community,” explains Chirag Mehta, a researcher at the Center for Urban Economic Development, University of Illinois in Chicago. According to Alderman Joe Moore, one of the sponsors of the measure, which passed in July 2006, nearly 10,000 employees of giant retailers, such as Target Corporation, Sears Holdings Corporation, and Home Deport, Inc. would also have benefited from it.

Wal-Mart, however, paved its way with strategic contributions to the local NAACP (Rev. James Demus, director of the South Side NAACP testified against the ordinance) and City Council Member Emma Mitts (who voiced her strong support for the West Side store after receiving $5,000 from Wal-Mart).

When Mayor Richard Daley vetoed the ordinance, the Chicago City Council failed to override the veto on September 13, 2006 and the West Side Wal-Mart store opened on September 27, 2006—entirely on Wal-Mart’s terms.

The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

Everybody is familiar with the “I Have a Dream” refrain from Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech. What is less well known is the full title of the rally led by Dr. King (“March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”), who saw a clear link between the struggle for civil rights and economic justice. And in many ways, the enduring racial economic inequality is the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.

“It has been one of the weak links of racial justice organizing over the last three decades,” says Dorian Warren, an expert on race and labor from the University of Chicago. “We have been unable to answer what our fundamental demands are around economic justice, and how they relate to racial justice.”

Now that the rhetoric of race is being strategically used by developers, economic development is the only area of urban policy that emphasizes issues of race—however hollow that talk may be. There is no similar discussion from local politicians regarding education and health disparities.

Recognizing that the promise of jobs is often promoted to win the support of communities of color, New York City Councilman Charles Barron cautions, “We need to distinguish between economic development and economic exploitation.” In Barron’s district, which includes some of the poorest sections of Brooklyn, a cinema complex recently opened with the promise of jobs for community residents. “All we got was a bunch of popcorn-selling jobs,” says Barron.

Pitching proposals to poor communities who are desperate for jobs, private developers are able to exploit the failure of public policy to create jobs in these communities. But there are plenty of other ways to create jobs, insists Barron, such as increased investment in public infrastructure—hospitals and schools, for example—to revitalize poor areas. “But private developers [will] manipulate the race question for their financial gain.”

In response to Wal-Mart and other development projects, groups in urban communities around the country are using a variety of tools to broker deals that also address other vital areas of economic development, such as housing. Some organizations are pushing for “inclusionary zoning,” a regulation that requires developers to set aside residential units in a new development for affordable housing.

Other community groups, including some in New York, want to attach standards to jobs at Wal-Mart, if it does open a store somewhere else in the city. Besides its low wages, the lack of adequate healthcare provided to Wal-Mart workers places an unfair burden on the public healthcare system, many critics charge. A coalition of labor, community groups, and responsible employers in New York has sponsored a bill called the Health Care Security Act, which would require businesses in certain industries to either provide health coverage to their workers, or pay fees that the city would use to provide public healthcare to workers. If passed, the bill would cover any Wal-Mart Superstores that open in the city.

Organizers view Community Benefits Agree-ments and related tools as a critical first step in laying the groundwork for a long-term goal of redefining the terms of economic development. But, Warren points out, “As long as private developers set the agenda, we may just be trying to get a piece of the pie. What we need to do is ask, ‘What does a different pie look like?’”


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Healthy Jobs for All: What Will It Take?

What is a healthy job? For most people, it is first and foremost, a secure job that pays well. After all, a job is how you pay the bills, stay under a roof, buy groceries, and raise the kids. Without a way to obtain basic material necessities, one can’t possibly remain healthy.

Research in public health supports this common sense notion—employment correlates strongly to good health. This research also shows that unemployment is a cause of stigmatization, stress, and social isolation. Overall, the unemployed live fewer years and have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression, and suicide than do their more employed counterparts.

How much money you make also matters—above and beyond what it takes to meet material needs. Income is one of the most consistent predictors of health and disease ever shown in public health literature. For example, people with average family incomes of $15,000 to $20,000 are three times as likely to die prematurely as those with family incomes greater than $70,000. The strong statistical relationship between income and health is not limited to a single illness or disease: people with lower incomes are at greater risk than people with higher incomes to have low birth weight babies, to suffer injuries or violence, to get most cancers, and to suffer chronic health conditions.

Employment supports health by providing non-monetary benefits, including paid sick leave and vacation. In the United States, a system of universal healthcare for its residents does not exist. Therefore, employment provides the primary means of accessing health insurance for working-age adults. Individuals without health insurance frequently forego timely health care, suffer more severe illness, and are more likely to die a premature death than their insured counterparts. Union jobs tend to more often include employer-provided health benefits, reduced cost-sharing, and substantially increased extension of coverage to retirees. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimates that 18,000 unnecessary deaths are attributable to lack of health coverage every year.

From 1995 through 1999, there were 30,824 fatal work injuries in the United States, an average of about 17 fatal work injuries per day. These statistics underscore that workplace hazards remain a significant and avoidable concern in the United States. Truck drivers, laborers, janitors and cleaners, carpenters, nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants are the occupations with the most non-fatal injuries and illnesses in California.


More recently, work-related “stress” is being recognized as an important workplace hazard. Chronic illnesses that are caused or exacerbated by work-related stress include infections, hypertension, coronary heart disease, and depression. Some researchers assess “workplace stress” by looking at the number of workers who agree or disagree with the statement “I have a lot to say about what happens in my job,” and “My job allows me the freedom to decide how I do my job.” This is because an employee’s ability to control the pace of their work seems to have a significant effect on their ability to manage work-related stress. Workers with a high level of stress and low ability to control workplace demands were 50 percent more likely to suffer heart attacks.1 Despite the significant research associating job-related stress and poor health, occupational health surveillance systems do not provide routine and reliable measures of stress at work.

A lack of control over work time is also stressful. Shift work has been linked to sleep disturbances, smoking, drinking, a poor diet, digestive problems, and cardiovascular disease.1 For women, working night shifts is also associated with fetal loss during pregnancy.2 Conversely, flexible work arrangements that allow workers to work non-standard or flexible hours, or share jobs, may give workers a greater sense of control, greater job satisfaction, and more commitment to the employer. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that workers who felt they were treated fairly by their supervisors had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.

Clearly, there’s much to creating a healthy job. While our understanding of healthy jobs has grown beyond gaining a living wage and avoiding dangerous employment, our labor market is not meeting these demands.

In fact, the region’s labor market seems to tend towards two extremes: highly paid professional positions and very low-wage service jobs. Blue collar jobs, which traditionally provided less educated workers with secure employment, health insurance, vacation benefits, and pension plans, have been rapidly disappearing. In their place we find occupations with very low median hourly wages that typically offer few benefits. These types of jobs cannot be considered “healthy”: they barely pay a living wage; they usually do not have health insurance benefits; they frequently involve shift-work, which contributes to worker stress; and they do not provide workers with a high decision latitude or the opportunity to control work pace.


Earlier this year, the Program on Health, Equity, and Sustainability at the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) profiled workers in several common occupations, and asked the question: “What is a healthy job?” We profiled four occupations using focus groups and interviews: restaurant workers, domestic workers, computer software programmers, and artists. Although the lower wage workers—restaurant workers, domestic workers, and artists—worked in very different employment environments, there were striking similarities among their stories. All these workers described situations that placed them at high risk for employment-related injuries. Very few reported that they had health insurance. None of them had employer-paid vacation or sick time. Many of them had to work more than one job. Both, the restaurant workers and the domestic workers reported abusive treatment by supervisors. The domestic workers, in particular, articulated that they wanted their employers to respect them for their work.


SFDPH is not the only group to document these conditions. In 2005, the Coalition for Domestic Workers Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area conducted a survey of 247 domestic workers in San Francisco. Sixty three percent of the domestic workers surveyed believed their jobs were dangerous; however, only 26 percent of participants reported receiving protective equipment to prevent occupational exposure or injuries, and only 14 percent had received occupational health training. Twenty percent of participants reported that they had suffered a workplace injury requiring medical attention; nine percent of workers reported being victims of sexual harassment; and nine percent reported experiencing violence. While most domestic workers worked for minimum wage, many employers appear to ignore wage laws. Only eight percent of live-out domestic workers reported receiving overtime pay, and 12 percent of live-in domestic workers reported receiving overtime pay. Furthermore, 78 percent of workers report that they do not always receive a meal break after five hours of work and 83 percent of workers report not always receiving a paid 10 minute break.

Policymakers should look at the many possible ways to improve the health of work, particularly for marginalized groups. Some of these include:

?¢‚Ä쬆  Setting a minimum wage, or self-sufficiency wage, so that all workers can meet basic material needs through work

?¢‚Ä쬆  Recruiting and protecting industry, particularly in the light industrial and manufacturing sector, which often provides jobs with higher wages, standard work hours, sick leave, and access to education and training

?¢‚Ä쬆  Establishing a minimum standard of benefits for all workers, which includes health insurance, vacation time, and paid sick tim

?¢‚Ä쬆  Ensuring that workers in high risk occupations get training on common workplace hazards and safe work practices, along with necessary protective equipment

?¢‚Ä쬆  Improving workplace health and safety, with a focus on both traditional workplace hazards and the psycho-social aspects of work, which include a supportive work environment, job security, and workplace control. 

1.     Kornitzer, M., Desmet, P., Sans, S., Dramaix, M., Boulenguez, C., Debacker, G., Ferrario, M., Houtman, I., Isacsson, S.O., Ostergren, P.O., Peres, I., Pelfrene, E., Romon, M., Rosengren, A., Cesana, G., Wilhelmsen, L., “Job stress and major coronary events: Results from the Job Stress, Absenteeism and Coronary Heart Disease in Europe Study.” Eur. J. Cardiovasc. Prev. Rehabil. 2006;13:695-704.

2.     Zhu, J.L., Hjollund, N.H., Andersen, A.M., Olsen, J., “Shift work, job stress, and late fetal loss: The National Birth Cohort in Denmark.” J. Occup. Environ. Med. Nov. 2004; 46(11):1144-9.

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Economy in Transformation

Rising from Below: Immigrant Workers Open New Organizing Fronts


HR 4437, a bill sponsored by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, which passed Congress in December, 2005, hit immigrant communities across the country like an electric current. Its proposals to make undocumented status a federal crime propelled people into the streets by the millions on April 10 and May 1 of 2006, and inspired a wealth of activity, from work and consumer boycotts, student “blowouts,” and school strikes, denunciations from pulpits and union halls, and a surge in coalition-building.

The Democratic victories in November 2006 owed much to this upsurge. Although non-citizens could not vote, they mounted phone banks and walked precincts, and helped ensure the defeat of 20 of the most outspoken candidates of the House anti-immigrant caucus, led by Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo.

This wave of activism did not just happen overnight. It built on over two decades of efforts by immigrants to change sweatshop conditions, and, more broadly, to change an economic system that consigns some people to the bottom of an economic pyramid, working for the benefit of others.

New Strategies for Overcoming Old Laws

In the last decade in California, New York, and Texas, and in states where the immigrant population has appeared more recently, immigrants have been the backbone of strikes and union organizing drives in some of the hardest-fought labor struggles since the farm workers’ battles of the late 1960s. In 1993, drywall hangers shut down home construction for a year in half of California. Over a decade later, workers at the largest pork processing plant in the world, in North Carolina, walked off the job to march in immigrants’ rights protests, and to force the company to slow down its brutal “line speeds,” responsible for hundreds of disabling injuries. The fact that a union contract did not exist in this last example did not deter the workers, however.

“I see immigration law the same way I did when I first started as an organizer,” says UNITE regional manager Cristina Vasquez, who came up out of the garment shops of Los Angeles three decades ago. “It’s a tool of the employers. They’re able to use immigration laws as a weapon to keep workers unorganized.”

The last decade of strikes and organizing drives has profoundly changed the attitudes of unions and workers, setting new rules for the conduct of successful labor battles. They have an inclusive character reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century birth of the United States labor movement, when the radical “wobblies” of the Industrial Workers of the World proposed “one big union” for everyone. Today’s marches, mass picket lines, and flying squads of strikers are a reminder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) of the 1930s. In a world where workers and unions are hamstrung by routine procedures, on a playing field where only employers win, immigrants have recognized that their strength lies in having faith in the power of their own numbers, in direct action, and in the common culture shared by whole communities.

This wave of immigrant-based labor activity hasn’t been lost on labor activists seeking a new constituency for unions, and strategy and tactics appropriate for what many of them describe as class war. Unions in building services, hotels and restaurants, garment production, and light industries have rebuilt themselves by tying their organizing strategy to this upsurge, and are learning to combine intense community pressure with all-out attacks on parent corporations, often involving marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, and other mass actions to mobilize and amplify the pressure workers can bring to bear against their employers.

Today, organizing tactics rely increasingly on close alliances between workers, unions, and communities to offset the power exercised by employers. Asbestos removal workers joining the Laborers Union in New Jersey and Long Island, or employees at the huge Blue Diamond almond-processing plant in Sacramento allying with the International Longshore and Warehouse union, organize around conditions they face on the job. But they also take their campaigns out into the community, organizing around immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and many other issues that are part of daily life in immigrant communities

Unions Embrace New Members, Sometimes Resist New Leadership

The alliance between unions and immigrant workers, however, has been hampered by conflict over the rights those workers have once they become union members, and their ability to exercise leadership in the organizations they’ve joined. The United Farm Workers historically went through a number of internal struggles over the efforts of members to exert control from the rank-and-file. Once Southern California’s drywallers won their strike in the mid-1990s, they began to conflict with existing union leadership in the Carpenters Union. And a sharp struggle took place once immigrant janitors helped reorganize the Los Angeles local of the Service Employees.

Workers who faced down government terror in El Salvador or Guatemala, and who share the militant traditions of many immigrant workers from Mexico, also come with the expectation they will have a significant amount of control over their union once they are members. For Latino workers, unions have become an indispensable tool for winning political power, but they often join unions whose structure and power are held by others, and find they have to win power inside their unions as part of the process for using the union for larger struggles.

Cross-Border Solidarity

While immigrant-based activism has been a product of the migration of millions of working people from Mexico and Central America, that activism has also spilled back over the border into Mexico. Even before the passage of NAFTA, the growth of maquiladoras just south of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, led to the flight of thousands of jobs from the U.S. In the Southwest, thousands of those jobs belonged to immigrants themselves, whether in Levi’s garment factories in San Antonio or Green Giant’s freezers in Watsonville.

The connection is not hard to see. Just south of San Ysidro, or El Paso, or Brownsville, workers toil for incredibly low wages, according to The Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras (CJM) Director Martha Ojeda. “They earn $5.00 for an eight-hour day, when the same business in the U.S. pays workers $7.50 for a single hour, even if those workers are not legal immigrants.” Despite the promises of the backers of the free trade agreement between the United States and Mexico, wages in the border factories haven’t gone up in 13 years.

In the decade after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, efforts to develop working relations with unions and workers in Mexico sprouted all along the border. The United Electrical Workers and the United Steel Workers have formed cooperative relationships with Mexican unions–the Authentic Labor Front and the Mexican Miners Union—to try to organize unions in border factories and to defend workers against government policies of low wages and privatization.

CJM and other cross-border groups have provided help to border workers in their efforts to organize independent unions at Sony, Alcoa, Custom Trim, Sara Lee, Han Young, and a host of other plants.

Migration of Capital and Labor

Migrant Rights International estimates that over 170 million people today live outside of the countries in which they were born, not just moving from Mexico to the United States, but from developing countries to developed ones all over the world. Transnational corporations invest in the developing world, moving production to whatever area the wages are lowest. And in developed countries, they hire the workers who have been displaced by high unemployment and falling wages—by-products of the very economic realities created by transnational corporations. The migration of people is as much a product of the global economy as the migration of capital.

In this system, corporations are aided by United States immigration laws. While they are presented in the media as a means of controlling borders, 20 years ago, during the height of the debate over the Immigration Reform and Control Act, Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante declared that United States immigration legislation always has the purpose of regulating the price of Mexican (and more broadly, immigrant) labor in the United States.

In fact, United States immigration policy is institutionalizing the global flow of migration, not stopping it. Its basic function is defining the status of people once they’re here. Many in corporate America now think they see a better way to regulate the cost and supply of this flow, through guest worker programs.

Guest Worker Programs: Open Regulation of the Price of Labor

The National Association of Chain Drugstores (think Wal-Mart), the American Meat Institute, and many other corporate players (organized in the essential worker immigration coalition) backed a bill that passed in the Senate for an enormous expansion of guest worker programs in which employers would recruit four hundred thousand contract laborers every year outside the United States. Under these proposals, migrants will now be considered only as workers, directed to the industries where they can be used most profitably. While the Senate and House couldn’t agree on competing bills last year, it is almost certain that this Senate proposal will be reintroduced this year, with the support of large sections of the Democratic and Republican party leadership.

There are many visa categories employers already use to bring workers to the United States as contract laborers, in programs for high tech and healthcare workers, farm workers, garment workers, and others. The workers displaced by these programs, or threatened with displacement, are often other immigrants or workers of color whose jobs had higher wages and more job security. Furthermore, when workers under contract are fired, they lose their ability to stay in the country, effectively giving employers the power to deport.

Although the proposal to broadly expand the guest worker program comes from large corporations, and is supported by President George Bush, its primary supporters in Congress have been Democrats.

These industry-based visa programs are predicated on the idea that immigration law should be used to supply workers to employers. Only one bill in Congress, by Houston’s Sheila Jackson Lee, and supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, would have granted real amnesty to people living here without papers. That bill was virtually shut out of the debate by the leaders of both parties.

In previous periods, when United States immigration policy valued immigrants only for their labor power, it produced extremely abusive systems. The memory of the bracero program, which ran from 1942 to 1964, is so bitter that even today defenders of guest worker schemes avoid association with the name. Braceros were housed in barracks, shipped from job to job, and deported if they went on strike. They were isolated from and pitted against the communities around them, as employers sought to create a labor surplus to drive down wages. That’s why Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez fought for 22 years to end the scheme.

A policy based on supplying guest workers to industry, at a price it wants to pay, is an immigration policy that denies community and inevitably produces rootless people, vulnerable to exploitation.

“We all have a right to work and eat,” says Dolores Alcala, who, like most immigrants, expresses a mixture of gratitude to the United States for affording her economic opportunity, and anger over her exploitation. Alcala was only 11 years old when she went to work in the green onion fields in the Mexicali Valley, just below the border. She left for the other side when she was 15.

“I was afraid to come here, especially by myself, but my need was stronger,” she remembers. “My family went hungry all the time, and I just needed to eat.”

But in Los Angeles, although she was able to find a paycheck in a garment sweatshop, she also found she was not accepted. “What I didn’t expect was so much discrimination, so much abuse, especially in the factory,” she says. While she holds her boss responsible, she thinks the law shares responsibility.

“The immigration law,” says Alcala flatly, “is just trampling on all of us.”

A better alternative to the oppressive Alcala experience would be a policy that recognizes and values communities, and sees their support as a desirable goal. It would seek to integrate immigrants into the broader society, while protecting their ability to practice their own culture.

A pro-worker immigration policy would protect the rights and welfare of all people, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. People in the United States, and in immigrant-sending countries like Mexico, need the same things—secure jobs at a living wage, rights in the workplace and community, and the freedom to travel and seek a future for their families. For working people, borders should be a common ground, not a dividing line.


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Blacks and Immigrants: More Allies Than Adversaries

The year 2006 will go down as a watershed year for the immigrant rights movement in the United States. Bringing millions of immigrants and their families and supporters into the streets was a huge accomplishment. But much more needs to be done to consolidate a fragmented movement and bring on new allies.

Last April, a group of African Americans and Black immigrants in Oakland, California came together to form the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). “BAJI was founded to support the demands of the immigrant rights movement and to engage African Americans in a dialogue about the underlying issues of race and economic status that frame United States immigration policy,” says co-founder Rev. Phillip Lawson.

But why are African Americans taking up the cause of immigrants, many of whom are breaking United States law just by being in this country?

“We believe that African Americans, with our history of being economically exploited, marginalized, and discriminated against, have much in common with people of color who migrate to the United States—documented or undocumented,” Rev. Lawson explains.

There is a long history of blatant discrimination against the people attempting to migrate from Latin America, Africa, Haiti, China, and other regions, in favor of Western Europeans. Historically, as now, immigrants of color have been scapegoats for the economic ills of the United States and been subjected to exclusionary laws and racist violence.

BAJI’s goal is to organize a core group of African Americans prepared to oppose racism in all of its forms by actively building coalitions with immigrant communities and immigrant rights organizations, to further the mutual cause of economic and social justice for all. To succeed in the long run, activists must build a movement that incorporates all social justice movements, including immigrant rights and civil rights.

Formula for a Disaster

A public opinion poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts in April 2006 found that a large majority of African Americans feel that immigrants are hard-working (79 percent) and have strong family values (77 percent). African Americans were more than twice as likely as Whites (43 percent vs. 20 percent) to support public benefits for undocumented immigrants. Two-thirds of Whites and 79 percent of African Americans said that the children of undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools.

Yet, more African Americans (22 percent) than Whites (14 percent) say that they, or a family member, have lost a job, or not been hired, because an employer hired an immigrant. In fact, 34 percent of African Americans, as compared to 25 percent of Whites, say that immigrants take jobs from United States citizens.

Despite the concerns of many African Americans, the high unemployment rate endemic to their communities is not the consequence of immigration. Rather, its root cause, like the root cause of current mass migration trends, lies with the worldwide phenomenon called globalization. Through its domestic and international policies on trade, lending, aid, and investment, and its military policies and actions, the United States government and its corporations are the main promoters (and beneficiaries) of an unjust economic system that is negatively impacting poor people, locally and globally.

Since the 1970s, globalization has meant the de-industrialization of the United States, with union jobs in manufacturing being moved to low-wage countries in Latin America and Asia. More recently, it has meant the corporate outsourcing of jobs in the high tech and service industries. Add to that the historical employer biases against African Americans, the deterioration of the tax base due to White flight from inner cities, and the systematic public and private disinvestment in urban areas, and you have the formula for the devastation of Black communities across the United States.

The True Cost of Free Trade


A clear example of the bilateral and multilateral international policies of the United States that force migrants to risk their lives to come to the United States in search of a better life is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Ratified in 1996, NAFTA forced Mexico to open up its markets to subsidized food crops from the United States. As a result, 2.8 million Mexican farmers could not compete with cheap United States commodities and lost their land and their livelihood (according to the New York Times). Many of those farmers and their dependents have migrated to the United States, looking for employment.

Consequently, African Americans and immigrants of color are pitted against each other for the proverbial crumbs on the table. This competition is a result of the normal operation of an unjust economic system.

The United States is now attempting to impose a Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on countries in the region. Similar, so-called free trade agreements are also being proposed or implemented in many countries in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean.

The United States media loves to show images of a few African Americans protesting “illegal immigration” with rightwing groups, such as the Minutemen. With classic, blame-the-victim logic, these misguided individuals have ironically cast their lot with modern day Ku Klux Klansmen.

So what are we to do? BAJI says that African Americans must join forces with immigrants to fight for economic and social justice for all.

A New Model for an Old Struggle

Unite Here Local 11 has set an important precedent for our struggle. In its latest settlement with the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, the 5,000-member, predominately Latino and immigrant union won a contract obliging the hotel to increase wages, maintain an employee health plan, and hire more African Americans. The victory is a model for negotiations with other Los Angeles hotels.

“The tensions between African Americans and immigrants will not be lessened until you increase the quantity and quality of jobs for African Americans,” says Steven Pitts, an economist at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. “It’s good that one industry is taking baby steps in that direction.”

Pitts maintains that African Americans would benefit if undocumented immigrants were granted legal status, citing recent studies, which show that legalization would improve wages and working conditions for both, immigrant and non-immigrant workers.

The African American struggle for civil and economic rights has never been waged without allies. Conversely, the struggle of immigrants for recognition of their human rights cannot be won without friends and supporters. If they join together, the two movements can take giant strides toward victories now and for future generations.

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The Poor People's Campaign

Non-Violent Insurrection for Economic Justice

Unlikely allies George W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined in offering eulogies honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the November 2006 groundbreaking of the King memorial in Washington, D.C. Yet, even when federal officials attempt to honor this martyred revolutionary, they nearly always dishonor everything he lived and died for. The United States government continues to eliminate fundamental housing, welfare, and employment programs crucial to the well-being of the poorest Americans whom King championed.

King was slain at the very moment that he was organizing a massive army of poor people who would march on Congress and the White House and use militant nonviolence to force the federal government to enact an Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.

King’s last and most daring dream was a Poor People’s Campaign to win full employment, affordable housing for all, a decent income for those unable to work, and equal educational opportunities for the poor. He foresaw a massive public works program to rebuild the dilapidated and substandard housing of the inner city by those who lived there, providing jobs, training, and housing in a coordinated effort.

In organizing this campaign, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had designed a carefully detailed strategy for a prolonged effort that would train poor people in 10 different areas of the nation in the techniques of “militant nonviolence.” The intention was to create a nonviolent uprising, a multiracial coalition of poor people and their allies who would march to Washington, D.C., set up mass encampments, and then launch protests every day for economic justice.

To this day, the blueprints for this poor people’s insurrection remain the most visionary and brilliant strategy to overcome poverty ever put forth in our nation.

Origins of the Campaign


In 1965 and 1966, Rev. King brought the brilliant organizing insights of the SCLC to the slums of Chicago to confront the evils of racist landlords. King moved his own family into a rundown housing unit in Chicago’s notorious Lawndale slum (renamed Slumdale by its occupants), where they endured for a time the harrowing poverty, squalor, and overcrowding that other slum residents had endured for decades.

King and the SCLC organized huge marches for fair housing, and conducted systematic rent strikes where residents of many dilapidated buildings banded together, refused to pay rent to the slumlords, and instead, pooled the rent money to make building repairs themselves. With a daring audacity too little seen in today’s movements for economic justice, King crossed swords with capitalism’s central decree that property rights are sacrosanct.

Then, in March 1968, one month before his death, King marched with 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis, telling the striking workers to stay strong on the picket line: “Don’t go back on the job until the demands are met,” King said. “Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed....If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.”

Unlike today, when well-meaning housing advocates and liberal budget policy groups try to prevent further cuts to the already shredded safety net by politely lobbying and e-mailing Congressional representatives, King had the audacity to organize a multiracial coalition of poor people who would confront Congress and the White House in a daring showdown—a nonviolent insurrection in the nation’s Capitol. And that is what King was doing when his last day dawned—preparing to defy the whole might of an unjust United States empire that mercilessly oppressed its poor citizens, then and now.

After months of training in the discipline of nonviolence, the Poor People’s Campaign would march on Washington, D.C., erect shantytowns near the White House to make poverty visible, and then begin a campaign of massive sit-ins at federal agencies. King openly declared that his call for massive civil disobedience was aimed at disrupting, and ultimately paralyzing, the functions of the most powerful government on earth, unless and until it granted the Economic Bill of Rights.

King planned to erect shantytowns for tens of thousands of poor people, prefiguring the tent cities and squatter’s encampments set up by homeless activists today. The shantytowns would make the suffering of economic deprivation so visible that federal legislators—and the public—would be forced to see it all around them in Washington, D.C.

Then, once these encampments had forced all America to confront the national disgrace of joblessness and poverty, stage two would begin—a more militant phase of nonviolent resistance.

His words were visionary, uncompromising, and revolutionary: “The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Black—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to lift the load of poverty.”

If Congress and the White House still refused to take actions to lift the load of poverty, the Poor People’s Campaign would organize waves of protesters who would cause “major massive dislocations” at government buildings. Unemployed people would nonviolently blockade the Department of Labor. Those without health care would be organized to sit in at hospitals and refuse to leave until they received medical treatment. Massive demonstrations would be held at federal agencies, while across the nation, allies would mount economic boycotts and nonviolent shut-downs of factories which refused to hire the poor.

Federal officials and the FBI were frightened by King’s announced intentions to lead a campaign of civil disobedience on a scale that could disrupt the nation’s Capitol, and they denounced King with blistering venom. Negative leaks, disinformation, informants and provocateurs were just some the tools used by the government to derail the effort.

King had developed a strategy to confront the federal government with the same unwinnable dilemma earlier perfected by civil rights activists in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi: Either arrest innocent and poverty-stricken people by the thousands in the full glare of publicity in the nation’s Capitol and thereby create a national scandal, or capitulate to the just demands of those calling for an Economic Bill of Rights.

But it was not to be. King was murdered on April 4, 1968, just as the Poor People’s Campaign was getting off the ground. Long a prophet, King now became a martyr as well. Rather than the carefully planned civil disobedience that King was organizing, the United States went through riots and civil unrest in over 110 cities following King’s murder.


While the SCLC continued the campaign and got as far as building Resurrection City in Washington D.C., the riots, protests and violent repression that had followed Kings assassination had taken non-violent insurrection out of the realm of possibility.  While over 7000 people started the encampment in May 1968, and over 50,000 joined in protest marches, the encampment was torn down in late June by police order, the promise of mass civil disobedience unfulfilled.

King had predicted that the Poor People’s Campaign would be a turning point in American history, a chance for the nation to redeem itself from its legacy of poverty, racism, war, and exploitation. Instead, the dreamer fell and his dream of justice was assassinated.

Can the dream of a Poor People’s Campaign be resurrected? It won’t be revived by creating monuments of marble in Washington, D.C., as long overdue as that honor may be. But King’s dream does come back to life every time any one of us sets out and marches in Martin’s footsteps to confront and overcome the inhumanity of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.

On October 17, 2006, Martin Luther King’s voice, his image, and his torch of resistance flared up anew in front of the Federal Building in Oakland, California, where about 400 demonstrators gathered to demand that the federal government make a renewed commitment to ending the scourge of poverty. Hundreds of Oakland schoolchildren, organized by St. Mary’s Center, marched with homeless seniors, religious activists, teachers, and housing advocates. The march was inspired by Martin Luther King’s commitment to end poverty; and, fittingly, the marchers were led every step of the way by a massive puppet of King, crafted by homeless seniors at St. Mary’s in loving tribute.

The procession culminated in a rally at the Federal Building, where Congresswoman Barbara Lee gave a stirring call to abolish poverty. She said: “It is appalling that in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, 37 million people are living in poverty. That is wrong! It’s immoral, it’s unethical. Look at our homeless veterans. Shame on America!”

The protest resurrected King’s commitment to economic rights and honored his Poor People’s Campaign as an unsurpassed blueprint for the edifice of human rights we are still waiting to construct, some 39 years after his death.

Although he had long since fallen to an assassin’s bullet, the Dreamer still had the last word at this rally for federal legislation to eradicate poverty. The demonstrators grew silent as a recording of King’s prophetic cry, “Let Freedom Ring!” rang out from loudspeakers outside the Federal Building in Oakland, and the giant likeness of Martin Luther King stood unvanquished, taller than ever. It felt like resurrection. At that moment, it felt like Martin’s last dream could never die.


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Black and Brown: The United Colors of Low-Wage Workers

Conventional wisdom holds that tensions between Black and Latino workers are on the rise as the two ethnic groups compete for the same low-wage service sector jobs in many of our nation’s big cities. But recent successful efforts by both groups of workers, to form unions and organize for pay increase and health insurance, show that workers and leaders from both communities are crossing racial lines to help improve the very jobs that they are supposed to be fighting over.


In high-profile strikes this year by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) janitors in Houston and Miami, Black and “brown” national leaders united to support a largely immigrant workforce. Dozens of African American leaders—many of them veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and leaders in the ongoing struggle against racism and discrimination, such as Rev. James M. Lawson and Charles Steele, Jr.—lent their support to help mostly Latino workers win better jobs, using many of the same non-violent, civil disobedience tactics that helped spur the civil rights movement.

In cities like Los Angeles and Boston, labor leaders like Mike Garcia and Rocio Saenz are committing their union’s resources to the SEIU janitor strike to help improve the jobs of the (largely Black) security officers who work in their buildings—for many of the same employers and corporate real estate firms.

As a result of these efforts at “black-brown unity,” more than 20,000 security officers and janitors have secured the civil right to form a union, or have won a new union contract in the last few months alone.

Poverty Wages: The Real “Uniter”

The union victories so far show that the need for better jobs crosses racial lines. Also, workers are growing wise to the fact that the real culprits behind the bleak economic outlook are not other ethnic groups, but the large corporations that are driving our nation’s service economy.

A lot of attention is given to the fact that the service sector currently drives the overall American economy, but what is often ignored is the fact that the real estate sector drives the service economy. The entities that own, control, and invest in office buildings and shopping malls—companies like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase—either directly or indirectly control the jobs of more than nine million service workers (janitors, security officers, landscapers) at their commercial properties.

The real estate industry boasts of developing our cities and creating jobs for our communities. But in reality, the industry’s reliance on poverty-wages is actually undermining our inner cities and keeping African American and Latino workers stuck in dead-end jobs.

Corporate Policies That Undermine Communities

In Los Angeles County, thousands of commercial office buildings are protected by a private security workforce that is more than 65 percent African American and nearly 35 percent Latino. Most security officers live in South Los Angeles, where unemployment is three times higher than in other parts of the county, and 37 percent of the community lives in poverty.

As manufacturing jobs rapidly disappear from the area, private security offers one of the few employment opportunities to the men and women of South Los Angeles, where a fulltime worker typically earns at or slightly above minimum wage, and nearly half the adults and a third of the children do not have adequate access to affordable healthcare.

In the last 20 years, corporate landlords have drained more than two billion out of the South Los Angeles economy by stripping middle-class janitorial jobs from African American workers and replacing them with non-union, poverty-wage jobs. It has taken years of organizing to regain the unions in these jobs, and to win higher wages and health insurance.

Today, if the city’s corporate landlords would agree to pay security officers the same wages and benefits as the janitors who work in their commercial office buildings, it could bring an estimated $100 million more each year into South Los Angeles communities devastated by decades of discriminatory policies.

Redefining Urban Economics with Politics

People of color and recent immigrants are demonstrating a new brand of black-brown unity, as they try to lift themselves and each other out of dead-end jobs and into a future with dignity, respect, and promise. These are the workers who are at the center of the efforts in our nation’s cities to transform the service sector from a one-way ticket to poverty, into a new pathway to the middle class. As these nascent coalitions gain strength, their next casualty may be the economic and political status quo that has been the greatest obstacle to prosperity for America’s inner cities for far too long.


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In 1934 and 1935, hundreds of thousands of workers, left out of the tightly controlled, exclusive unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), began organizing in the new mass production industries—auto, rubber, packinghouse. The AFL could not ignore them, so it set up a Committee for Industrial Organization to organize these workers outside of craft lines, by industry, all workers in a plant belonging to one union. This Committee, headed by John Lewis, then broke away and became the CIO—the Congress of Industrial Organizations.


But it was rank-and-file strikes and insurgencies that pushed the union leadership, AFL and CIO, into action. Jeremy Brecher tells the story in his book Strike! A new kind of tactic began among rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, in the early thirties—the sit-down strike. The workers stayed in the plant instead of walking out, and this had clear advantages: they were directly blocking the use of strikebreakers; they did not have to act through union officials but were in direct control of the situation themselves; they did not have to walk outside in the cold and rain, but had shelter; they were not isolated, as in their work, or on the picket line; they were thousands under one roof, free to talk to one another and to form a community of struggle. Louis Adamica, a labor writer, describes one of the early sit-downs:

“Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works! . . . Superintendents, foremen, and straw bosses were dashing about....In less than an hour the dispute was settled, full victory for the men.”

In early 1936, at the Firestone rubber plant in Akron, makers of truck tires, their wages already too low to pay for food and rent, were faced with a wage cut. When several union men were fired, others began to stop work, to sit down on the job. In one day the whole of plant No. 1 was sitting down. In two days, plant No. 2 was sitting down and management gave in. In the next 10 days there was a sit-down at Goodyear. A court issued an injunction against mass picketing. It was ignored, and 150 deputies were sworn in. But they soon faced ten thousand workers from all over Akron. In a month, the strike was won.


The idea spread through 1936. In December of that year began the longest sit-down strike of all, at Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan. It started when two brothers were fired, and it lasted until February 1937. For 40 days there was a community of two thousand strikers. “It was like war,” one said. “The guys with me became my buddies.” Sidney Fine in Sit-Down describes what happened. Committees organized recreation, information, classes, a postal service, sanitation. Courts were set up to deal with those who didn’t take their turn washing dishes or who threw rubbish or smoked where it was prohibited or brought in liquor. The “punishment” consisted of extra duties; the ultimate punishment was expulsion from the plant. A restaurant owner across the street prepared three meals a day for two thousand strikers. There were classes in parliamentary procedure, public speaking, history of the labor movement. Graduate students at the University of Michigan gave courses in journalism and creative writing.


There were injunctions, but a procession of five thousand armed workers encircled the plant and there was no attempt to enforce the injunction. Police attacked with tear gas and the workers fought back with firehoses. Thirteen strikers were wounded by gunfire, but the police were driven back. The governor called out the National Guard. By this time the strike had spread to other General Motors plants. Finally, there was a settlement, a six-month contract, leaving many questions unsettled but recognizing that from now on, the company would have to deal not with individuals but with a union.

In 1936 there were 48 sitdown strikes. In 1937 there were 477: electrical workers in St. Louis; shirt workers in Pulaski, Tennessee; broom workers in Pueblo, Colorado; trash collectors in Bridgeport, Connecticut; gravediggers in New Jersey; 17 blind workers at the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind; prisoners in an Illinois penitentiary; and even 30 members of a National Guard Company who had served in the Fisher Body sit-down, and now sat down themselves because they had not been paid.

The Wagner Act and the New Deal: Bailout for Business?

It was to stabilize the system in the face of labor unrest that the Wagner Act of 1935, setting up a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), had been passed. The wave of strikes in 1936, 1937, 1938, made the need even more pressing. In Chicago, on Memorial Day, 1937, a strike at Republic Steel brought the police out, firing at a mass picket line of strikers, killing 10 of them. Autopsies showed the bullets had hit the workers in the back as they were running away: this was the Memorial Day Massacre. But Republic Steel was organized, and so was Ford Motor Company, and the other huge plants in steel, auto, rubber, meat packing, and the electrical industry.

The Wagner Act was challenged by a steel corporation in the courts, but the Supreme Court found it constitutional—that the government could regulate interstate commerce, and that strikes hurt interstate commerce. From the trade unions’ point of view, the new law was an aid to union organizing. From the government’s point of view, it was an aid to the stability of commerce. Unions were not wanted by employers, but they were more controllable, more stabilizing for the system than the wildcat strikes, the factory occupations of the rank and file. In the spring of 1937, a New York Times article carried the headline “Unauthorized Sit-Downs Fought by CIO Unions.” The story read: “Strict orders have been issued to all organizers and representatives that they will be dismissed if they authorize any stoppages of work without the consent of the international officers....” The Times quoted John L. Lewis, dynamic leader of the CIO: “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.” The Communist party, some of whose members played critical roles in organizing CIO unions, seemed to take the same position. One Communist leader in Akron was reported to have said at a party strategy meeting after the sit-downs: “Now we must work for regular relations between the union and the employers, and strict observance of union procedure on the part of the workers.” Thus, two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action developed in the mid-thirties. First, the NLRB would give unions legal status, listen to them, settling certain of their grievances. Thus it could moderate labor rebellion by channeling energy into elections, just as the constitutional system channeled possibly troublesome energy into voting. The NLRB would set limits in economic conflict as voting did in political conflict. And second, the workers’ organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers’ insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations.  

The history of those years seems to support the argument of Richard Cloward and Frances Piven, in their book Poor People’s Movements, that labor won most during its spontaneous uprisings, before the unions were recognized or well organized: “Factory workers had their greatest influence, and were able to exact their most substantial concessions from government, during the Great Depression, in the years before they were organized into unions. Their power during the Depression was not rooted in organization, but in disruption.”

Piven and Cloward point out that union membership rose enormously in the forties, during the Second World War (the CIO and AFL had over six million members each by 1945), but its power was less than before—its gains from the use of strikes kept getting whittled down. The members appointed to the NLRB were less sympathetic to labor, the Supreme Court declared sit-downs to be illegal, and state governments were passing laws to hamper strikes, picketing, boycotts.

For Black people, the New Deal was psychologically encouraging (Mrs. Roosevelt was sympathetic; some Blacks got posts in the administration), but most Blacks were ignored by the New Deal programs. As tenant farmers, as farm laborers, as migrants, as domestic workers, they didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance, minimum wages, social security, or farm subsidies. Roosevelt, careful not to offend southern white politicians whose political support he needed, did not push a bill against lynching. Blacks and whites were segregated in the armed forces. And Black workers were discriminated against in getting jobs. They were the last hired, the first fired. Only when A. Philip Randolph, head of the Sleeping-Car Porters Union, threatened a massive march on Washington in 1941, would Roosevelt agree to sign an executive order establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). But the FEPC had no enforcement powers and changed little.

The coming of World War II weakened the old labor militancy of the thirties because the war economy created millions of new jobs at higher wages. The New Deal had succeeded only in reducing unemployment from 13 million to nine million. It was the war that put almost everyone to work, and the war did something else: patriotism, the push for unity of all classes against enemies overseas, made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the CIO and AFL pledged to call no strikes.

Still, the grievances of workers were such—wartime “controls” meant their wages were being controlled better than prices—that they felt impelled to engage in many wildcat strikes: there were more strikes in 1944 than in any previous year in American history, says Jeremy Brecher.


The thirties and forties showed more clearly than before the dilemma of working people in the United States. The system responded to workers’ rebellions by finding new forms of control—internal control by their own organizations, as well as outside control by law and force. But along with the new controls came new concessions. These concessions didn’t solve basic problems; for many people they solved nothing. But they helped enough people to create an atmosphere of progress and improvement, to restore some faith in the system.

The minimum wage of 1938, which established the forty-hour week and outlawed child labor, left many people out of its provisions and set very low minimum wages (25 cents an hour the first year). But it was enough to dull the edge of resentment. Housing was built for only a small percentage of the people who needed it. “A modest, even parsimonious, beginning,” Paul Conkin says (F.D.R. and the Origins of the Welfare State), but the sight of federally subsidized housing projects, playgrounds, vermin-free apartments, replacing dilapidated tenements, was refreshing. The Tennessee Valley Authority suggested exciting possibilities for regional planning to give jobs, improve areas, and provide cheap power, with local, instead of national control. The Social Security Act gave retirement benefits and unemployment insurance, and matched state funds for mothers and dependent children—but it excluded farmers, domestic workers, and old people, and offered no health insurance. As Conkin says: “The meager benefits of Social Security were insignificant in comparison to the building of security for large, established businesses."


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“Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works!"

Paving the Road Out of Poverty

The crisis in America’s urban communities of color takes many shapes, but underlying these various manifestations are problems of economic segregation and persistent poverty. The emerging consensus among community leaders and advocates is that addressing lack of income and wealth must be at the top of the urban agenda.

Our organization, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), is a labor-based economic justice organization, dedicated to raising standards and building power for working families. Along with our sister organizations in the national Partnership for Working Families network, we are confronting poverty and economic inequality through a two-part strategy: expanding access to family-supporting employment and improving job quality. For urban community activists skeptical about labor’s record on race, we hope that EBASE’s work and that of our allied organizations will illustrate how new partnerships and new policy models are directly benefiting communities of color, while building a revitalized labor movement.

Expanding Job Access: Running Ahead of the Boom in Richmond

The inner urban community of Richmond, California, whose residents are overwhelmingly people of color, has long struggled with persistent poverty. EBASE’s research found that while there is no shortage of high-wage jobs in Richmond, they are disproportionately held by non-Richmond residents. Richmond residents face unemployment or employment in low-wage jobs that cannot possibly sustain a family.

Today, Richmond stands on the brink of a development boom. The city’s large tracts of undeveloped or underdeveloped land and waterfront proximity are attracting developers, speculators, and higher income residents from other Bay Area markets. Locals openly wonder whether lower income Richmond residents will be squeezed out during the city’s impending economic expansion.

Advocates took notice when Richmond’s Local Employment Ordinance (LEO), requiring local hiring for public works construction, was set to expire in the fall of 2004. The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), a collaborative including EBASE, Urban Habitat, and Contra Costa Faith Works, decided to make renewing, expanding, and strengthening the LEO a centerpiece of its efforts for equitable development in Richmond. Connecting residents with living wage employment is a key anti-displacement strategy; it stabilizes low-income communities and enables residents to weather neighborhood change. REDI reached out to allies in the Contra Costa Central Labor Council and Contra Costa Building Trades Council, as well as leaders in Richmond’s faith communities and neighborhood councils. EBASE and Contra Costa Faith Works took the lead in developing a policy proposal that expanded the LEO to cover city-subsidized developments, applied it to operational jobs (those beyond the construction phase of projects), strengthened enforcement, allocated staff resources to monitoring, and increased the local hiring requirement from 20 percent to 30 percent for most jobs.

Some business groups and City Council members initially feared that placing any requirements on city projects would hamper growth. REDI responded to these concerns with an “inside-outside” strategy: negotiating and working cooperatively with city staff and businesses, while also mobilizing residents and community leaders to demonstrate support and demand action. In July 2006, the City Council approved a proposal that achieved nearly all of REDI’s goals for improvement of the LEO. Projections indicate the policy will expand access to 2,000 permanent jobs and 5,000 construction jobs in the coming years. Of equal importance, the campaign built solidarity between community, labor, and faith organizations around a common agenda of good jobs.

Moving forward, EBASE, Urban Habitat, and the other partners in the REDI collaborative are working on a campaign to ensure that the city incorporates equitable development principles into all its planning decisions. The City of Richmond is currently in the process of updating its general plan which is the master plan for all development and zoning decisions. This updating process is an opportunity for Richmond to create a general plan promoting equity for low-income and people of color residents in the areas of housing, health, land use, transportation and economic development. EBASE is working with REDI on researching how the city’s general plan can promote economic development that encourages businesses to pay higher wages and benefits.

Improving Job Quality: Cleaning House in the Hospitality Industry

Three years ago, Eva Benitez was a housekeeper earning $8.75 per hour at a hotel in Emeryville, a small, heavily commercial city nestled between Oakland and Berkeley. “Not a single housekeeper can afford the rents here in Emeryville,” explains Eva. “We can’t afford the $160 per month medical plan either…. Our workload has gone up every year. Today we are cleaning more than 14 suites per day.” Injuries at work are common, because of the heavy equipment and the dangerous ergonomics involved in cleaning the rooms.

To raise standards for the Emeryville hospitality industry, EBASE and Local 2850 of UNITE HERE (the hospitality union) put Measure C, a hospitality industry living wage initiative, on the ballot. Emeryville voters passed it on November 2005. EBASE had already advocated successfully for several local living wage policies, including a 2002 ballot initiative covering 3,000 workers at the Port of Oakland. Measure C, however, was the first industry-targeted employment standards law of its kind in the country. It not only guarantees workers a living wage, but also sets maximum safe workload levels for room cleaners.


After passage, workers began to organize and demand their rights under Measure C. In response, Woodfin Suites hotel began to intimidate and harass workers. One outspoken worker was fired, and management claimed, among other things, that the law would get immigrant workers in trouble with immigration authorities. In October, nearly 30 workers were given written notices claiming the company had found problems with their social security numbers, and that they could not continue to work at the hotel unless they corrected the problem. Some workers believe these notices were issued in retaliation for their support of Measure C.

Workers remain uncowed by the intimidation. They’ve organized protests, filed a class action lawsuit to claim back wages owed to them under Measure C and to stop retaliatory firings, and called for a boycott of the hotel. “If we stand up for our rights here, then it won’t just help us, it will help many people who work in other places,” explains Alma Cruz, a housekeeper at the Woodfin since it opened six years ago. “We are very few here in this hotel, but if the people realize that we can win by uniting, that will have a big impact. We can help people realize that they have to inform themselves of their rights and then defend them, no matter where they work.”

Bringing it All Together

Perhaps the most inspirational example of the two-fold strategy of expanding job access and improving job quality in the last year was the Hotel Workers Rising campaign. This national campaign to elevate standards throughout the American hospitality industry raised issues much bigger than a standard labor negotiation. Hospitality workers—overwhelmingly people of color—asserted their right to join the middle class, just as factory workers and construction workers had done before them. Workers won significant victories: raising wages, winning pensions, and maintaining access to health insurance.


At the same time, hotel workers challenged the racial hiring and employment standards of the hospitality industry. Like many other sectors, the industry has replaced most of its African-American workforce with immigrant Asian and Latino workers, often at lower wage and benefits standards. Hotel workers called for and won the creation of an industry task force and a commitment to dismantle hiring barriers for African-American workers. They also won a landmark code of conduct for ethical treatment of immigrant hotel workers, and pushed the hospitality industry to join the union in lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform. In an era when desegregation policies are under attack and anti-immigrant sentiment dominates public policy, hotel workers and their union won important protections for workers of color largely outside of public policy, directly in the workplace. “Our members understand that they are not just fighting for themselves, they are fighting for all working people,” sums up Anand Singh, organizer with Local 2 of UNITE HERE. “That’s what it means to build a movement.”


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Economic Impacts


Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation

The United States has once again surpassed its own world record for incarcerating the highest percentage of its population. According to a report released by the Bureau of Prison Statistics, one out of every 32 adults was in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole at the end of 2005. But the crisis of mass incarceration is not felt evenly in the United States: Race defines every aspect of the criminal justice system, from police targeting, to crimes charged, and rates of conviction. African-American men between the ages of 20 and 39 account for nearly one third of all sentenced prisoners.1



Over the last three decades, the explosion of the prison population in the United States paralleled the stagnation in the global economy. In the early 1970s, the United States and the G7 nations began implementing neoliberal policies, moving production from the North to the global South, pushing entire sectors of workers in the United States out of the economy.  As the economic role of the working class in the United States shifted from manufacturing to staffing a rising service industry, African American workers faced staggering rates of unemployment.  The mid-1970s is also the first period when the incarceration rate in the United States began to rise, doubling in the 1980s, and doubling again in the 1990s.

It may surprise some people that as the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases—they become prison laborers. Everyone inside has a job. There are currently over 70 factories in California’s 33 prisons alone. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction, to manufacturing and service work. Prisoners make shoes, clothing, and detergent; they do dental lab work, recycling, metal production, and wood production; they operate dairies, farms, and slaughterhouses.

United States Prisons mirror Free Enterprise Zones in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the prison is a reflection of the Third World within the United States. Prisoners are not protected by minimum wage laws or overtime, and are explicitly barred from the right to organize and collectively bargain. In fact, the conditions for the overwhelmingly Black and Latino men and women inside the United States prison system are so similar to that of workers in the maquiladoras and sweatshops of the global South that in 1995, Oregon politicians were even courting Nike to move their production from Indonesia into Oregon prisons. “We propose that (Nike) take a look at their transportation costs and their labor costs,” Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix explained in an interview with researcher Reese Erlich, “We could offer [competitive] prison inmate labor” in Oregon.2

Rooted in Slavery

To understand the conditions that have allowed such an exploitative industry to develop, we have to look at the origin of the United States prison system itself. Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture, referred to as corporal or capital punishment. While the model prison in the United States was built in Auburn, New York in 1817, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War, with the official abolition of slavery, that the prison system took hold.

In 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime and opened the door for mass criminalization. Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to Black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave Black workers. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.

Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison illustrates this history best. In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.

Black Codes and Convict Leasing

When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws called the Black Codes emerged to criminalize legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew,” for which African Americans were imprisoned. As a result of Black Codes, the percentage of African Americans in prison grew exponentially, surpassing whites for the first time.3

A system of convict leasing was developed to allow white slave plantation owners in the South to literally purchase prisoners to live on their property and work under their control. Through this system, bidders paid an average $25,000 a year to the state, in exchange for control over the lives of all of the prisoners. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners. In 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 prisoners, and all but 115 were African American.4

Much like the system of slavery from which it emerged, convict leasing was a violent and abusive system. The death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between 1877 and 1879 was 16 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Arkansas, and 45 percent in South Carolina.5 The stories of violence and torture eventually led to massive reform and abolition movements involving alliances between prisoner organizations, labor unions, and community groups. By the 1930s, every state had abolished convict leasing.6

Chain Gangs

As the southern states began to phase out convict leasing, prisoners were increasingly made to work in the most brutal form of forced labor, the chain gang. The chain gangs originated as a part of a massive road development project in the 1890s. Georgia was the first state to begin using chain gangs to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. Chains were wrapped around the ankles of prisoners, shackling five together while they worked, ate, and slept. Following Georgia’s example, the use of chain gangs spread rapidly throughout the South.7

For over 30 years, African-American prisoners (and some white prisoners) in the chain gangs were worked at gunpoint under whips and chains in a public spectacle of chattel slavery and torture. Eventually, the brutality and violence associated with chain gang labor in the United States gained worldwide attention. The chain gang was abolished in every state by the l950s, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War.8

Prison Labor Exploitation in the 21st Century

Just a few decades later, we are witnessing the return of all of these systems of prison labor exploitation. Private corporations are able to lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. Private corporations are running prisons-for-profit. Government-run prison factories operate as multibillion dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system. In the most punitive and racist prison systems, we are even witnessing the return of the chain gang. Prisoner resistance and community organizing has been able to defeat some of these initiatives, but in Arizona, Maricopa County continues to operate the first women’s chain gang in the history of the United States.9

Shifts in the United States economy and growing crises of underemployment and poverty in communities of color have created the conditions for the current wave of mass incarceration and the boom in prison labor exploitation. In the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, a historically Black community with an estimated 50 percent unemployment rate, the community is facing criminalization, incarceration and mass displacement as a result of gentrification. San Francisco, along with eight other counties in California, is implementing gang injunctions—curfews, anti-loitering, and anti-association laws that function very similar to Black Codes for Black, Latino, and Asian youth—using the pretext of gang prevention to track young men into the prison system to become prison labor, while preparing the community for redevelopment and gentrification. People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) is building power among Bayview residents and fighting for economic development that addresses the interests of the Black community, which will create alternatives to prison labor exploitation.10

Struggles like this are being waged all across the country and provide an opening to link the demands for worker rights, community rights, and prisoner rights.

The fight against the exploitation of prison labor is at once a fight against racial profiling and mass incarceration, and also for genuine economic development in Black, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities. The labor movement in the United States has a responsibility to support prisoner unions such as the Missouri Prison Labor Union (MPLU), which is fighting for higher wages and collective bargaining, and to challenge labor unions who dismiss prisoners as stealing jobs from the “good law-abiding workers” on the outside. As Sidney Williams of the MLPU states, “In this struggle we seek to regain our human dignity.” That is the demand of the slavery abolition movement of the 21st century.



1.     There are more than 46 Black men in prison nationwide per 1000 Black men in the population, whereas the rate for white men is four per 1000. Democracy Now, “United States prison population jumps 3.7 percent to two million; Increase of 700 inmates every week,” Wednesday, July 30, 2003.

2.     Erlich, Reese, “Prison Labor: Workin’ For The Man.” Covert Action Quarterly #54, Fall 1995.

3.     In Tennessee, for example, African Americans were only 33 percent of the prison population in 1865, by 1877 the number had swelled to 67 percent of the total prison population. Shelden, Randall G., “Slavery in the 3rd Millennium Part II—Prisons and Convict Leasing Help Perpetuate Slavery,” The Black Commentator, Issue 142, June 16, 2005.

4.    Green, Fletcher M.,  “Some Aspects of the Convict Lease System in the Southern States,” Essays in Southern History, vol. 31, (Durham: University of North Carolina Press), 1949, pp. 116-120.

5.     Hartnett, Stephen,  “Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective” (c. 1997) referencing, Novak, D.A.,  The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery.

6.     Lichtenstein, Alexander, “Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: The Negro Convict is a Slave,” The Journal of Southern History, (Athens, Georgia: Southern Historical Association), 1993, p. 87.

7.     Wilson, Walter,  Forced Labor in the United States, (New York: AMS Press, Inc.), 1933, p. 68.

8.    Prison Law Office, The California State Prisoners Handbook, Section 3.17, pp. 79-80.

9.     Reuters. “Sheriff runs female chain gang.” www.cnn.com, October 29, 2003.

10. POWER is a San Francisco-based multiracial organization of low-wage workers and tenants. For more information, see www.unite-to-fight.org.

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Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States.

Toxic Sentence: Captive Labor and Electronic Waste

In October 2005, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality announced Project GREEN-FED, a unique partnership with Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI), also known as Unicor. Unicor, a corporation owned and operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, uses captive prison labor, and this pilot program promises “e-scrap recycling... at zero cost” to the consumer. If this pilot program in Arkansas, where e-waste is handled at the Federal Prison in Texarkana is profitable, Unicor plans to take it nationwide in 2007.

Electronic waste materials—computers, monitors, cell phones, and fax machines—are the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream, rising at a rate of five percent a year. FPI/Unicor, established in the ’30s, has been handling electronic waste as a business since 1994. Earlier this year, a Bureau of Prisons report divulged that prison workers and staff at e-waste recycling facilities in at least three prisons —Texarkana, Arkansas; Elkton, Ohio; and Atwater, California—were exposed to toxics like cadmium and lead.

The enormous amount of toxic waste generated from obsolete electronics is largely hidden from consumers and those who handle the waste. Driven by an industry model of planned and perceived obsolescence, over 100,000 computers become obsolete in the United States every day. The EPA estimates that 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years, and that figure doesn’t include all the other electronic waste, from TVs and stereos to cellphones and digital music players.

E-waste, rich in valuable materials for recovery and recycling, creates the perfect conditions for a toxic economy in which poor communities around the world labor through exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic, reproductive, and developmental toxins in the name of making a living. The vast majority of e-waste is exported to China, India, the Phillipines, and Nigeria, where impoverished workers manually recover precious materials from hazardous waste.

Meanwhile, a new form of e-waste processing has emerged in the United States in the last decade that can successfully compete with these dismally low wages and working conditions: Prison Recycling Programs. Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a high-tech industry watch-dog group that has been challenging Unicor on environmental justice and human rights grounds, describes Unicor as “A toxic high-tech sweatshop hidden from view behind prison walls.” And since the captive laborers in prison are required to work, Unicor maintains a steady stream of workers by using a sweatshop strategy, paying pennies more an hour than other work programs within the prison. Unicor wages range between $0.23 and $1.25 per hour.

In its 2001 annual report, Unicor proclaims “the right to work is a human right,” but, their operations do not comply with any of the rights codified in several international covenants, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In fact, the right to work includes the right to be paid a living wage, the right to occupational health and safety protection, the right to organize, freely associate, and collectively bargain, the right to be protected by labor laws, the right to gain redress for grievances, and freedom from intimidation, harassment, or retaliation for lodging grievances, and the right to freely choose work. None of these rights exists behind prison walls.

While Unicor engages in a range of industries, including the manufacture of furniture and textiles, dismantling of electronic waste is a cash cow for the company. Between 2002 and 2003, for example, net sales from electronic waste recycling more than doubled to over $8 million, while overall Unicor sales dropped. Unicor handles obsolete electronics for governments, schools, consumers, and private businesses, in eight federal prisons across the country, and is expanding operations. Over 1000 people work in Unicor’s e-waste recycling operations.

Unicor’s facilities are intentionally low-tech and depend on manual labor, in order to occupy the greatest number of prison workers with something to do for their long time inside, and to avoid the cost of investment in machines like air-powered tools and mechanical shredders used by responsible recyclers. A Bureau of Prisons-sponsored report on occupational health risks associated with electronics demanufacturing showed higher levels of lead and cadmium at workstations that manually break CRTs found inside computer monitors and televisions, as performed by Unicor, than workstations that mechanically cut CRT glass, indicating a much greater risk faced by those who labor in prisons.

“None of what we are doing in this plant would be used in a for-profit venture,” one worker says, because “it would be too dirty and hazardous, plus the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration would shut them down for I-don’t-know-how-many violations. [But] because we are... prison inmates, the Bureau of Prisons can get away with the hazardous conditions we face daily.”

The Bureau Of Prisons report, triggered by whistleblower LeRoy Smith, the former Health and Safety Officer at the Unicor facility at Atwater, California describes management’s “learn as you go” approach to complying with environmental standards. The report claims that there has been no toxic exposure since 2004. Prison workers, however, describe a continuing pattern of improper handling of materials, and inadequate health and safety precautions resulting in routine injuries, such as lacerations by leaded monitor glass or inhaling of toxic dust. Workers also report witnessing extensive clean-up operations in preparation for air-quality tests.

“Unicor hasn’t been in compliance since 1994 [when it started recycling e-waste],” Leroy Smith testified in a July hearing.

Prisoners who’ve spoken out have been punished by guards, and those who asked for test results or material safety specifications were told to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. “[Unicor officials say,] ‘this job is a voluntary one. If you are not happy here, you can quit,’” writes one worker. “Meaning, ‘Shut up. Don’t ask us for anything. Do your job, or we’ll replace you by pushing you out or forcibly retiring you.’”

E-waste related contamination impacts staff, as well as captive workers. Employees take these contaminants, many of them reproductive toxins and neurotoxins, home with them on their clothes and skin, subjecting their families to exposure. And for captive workers, the impacts from toxic exposure can far outlast their prison sentences.

Responsible e-waste recycling in the United States is a growing niche, led by small businesses and nonprofits, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete with the low-cost options of export dumping and prison labor. Faced with shrinking municipal and state budgets, officials responsible for managing e-waste are most often seeking their lowest-cost option, giving Unicor’s mostly Black and brown captive labor strategy a profound market advantage. For this to change, we must force these same officials to create sustainable electronic recycling programs, which can create living wage jobs in local communities where workers and the environment at least would have the protection of the law.

For more on electronic waste, prison labor, and Unicor, visit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (www.svtc.org) or the Computer TakeBack Campaign (www.computertakeback.org).


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Racism in United States Welfare Policy

The complex interplay of race and class in the United States ensures that certain areas of domestic policy are suffused with racial bias, bear the imprint of a more frankly racist past, are prone to political manipulation, and serve as touchstones for galvanizing key elements of a racist consensus. Social welfare policy is one such area.

The 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), commonly know as “welfare reform,” underscored how deeply embedded are racial bias and xenophobia in United States domestic policy. But, of course, it is not racism alone that characterizes welfare reform. Researchers and advocates have carefully explored the profound gender bias of the welfare system as well.1,2 The majority of people now receiving welfare benefits are poor women of color who face the “triple jeopardy” of belonging to a disempowered class, marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and a subordinated gender.

As others have cogently argued, welfare policy is also labor policy.3 Indeed, within months of the passage of PRWORA, evidence was already emerging that workfare and Work First programs were depressing wages and displacing low-wage workers. In the boom economy of the mid- to late-1990s, employers recognized that “Everyone has been raising wages to get people… and this [influx of welfare recipients] will make it possible to hold pay steady.”4

Work requirements and time limits that coerce women into the paid labor force are not implemented in a gender- or race-neutral environment, and cannot be expected to be neutral in their impact. Thus, while the surge of former welfare recipients into the low-wage sector of the economy worsens wages and working conditions for the poorest strata of the working class as a whole, some communities are hit harder than others. Communities of color, with traditionally higher unemployment and underemployment rates, higher proportions of very low-wage workers, and lower median incomes are further disadvantaged by PRWORA policies that force women into a labor market in which they have virtually no bargaining power.

There are substantial racial differences among working women. Full-time, year-round Latina workers earned a median annual income of $19,817 in 1998, considerably less than the $23,864 earned by African American women or the $27,304 earned by white women.5 All women are far more likely than white men to earn poverty level wages. But, again, racial differentials are substantial. More than half of Latina workers, 51.8 percent, earn poverty level wages, compared to 40.7 percent of Black women and 29.7 percent of white women. African American women with less than a high school education faced 1996 unemployment rates nearly twice as high as those of white women—20.9 percent vs. 10.8 percent—while 15.9 percent of Hispanic women at this educational level were unemployed. Underemployment rates were even higher.6 Analyzing the labor market conditions facing women receiving welfare benefits, one researcher concluded: “Such high rates of un- and underemployment, which persist in a labor market that has experienced overall unemployment rates below six percent for over two years, suggest that it may be difficult for welfare recipients to meet the work requirements of the new welfare law.”7

Former welfare recipients generally end up holding low-paid, entry-level jobs in the gender ghettos of service, sales, and clerical work. A study of the first two years of welfare reform in New Jersey found that the average hourly wage of those former welfare recipients who were working was only $7.31. More than one-third were holding jobs that paid less than $6.00 per hour.8 A 1997 national survey found that adults who left the welfare system and were employed had a median hourly wage of $6.61.9 This would bring a family just above the official poverty level, but fall far short of a “living wage.” Most former recipients who enter the labor force work at jobs that do not provide them with benefits. Less than one-quarter of these workers was covered by health benefits in one national survey.10

Far too many families end up in worse economic circumstances than they endured while receiving welfare benefits. For example, a study that tracked families who left Wisconsin’s welfare system found that during the first year off welfare, only half of the families had higher income than they had while receiving welfare benefits, even if they had been working while receiving welfare.11 An examination of seven state studies of former welfare recipients found that in only two of the states were families’ average annual earnings above the poverty line.12

Many women have been pushed off welfare but have not found employment. Several studies show that 20 to 40 percent of former recipients find no work.13,14,15 As more and more women reach their two-year and five-year limits in an economy that is far less robust than it was when welfare reform was passed, they will face an even less welcoming labor market.

There is some evidence that racial disadvantage in the labor market is also being played out in terms of the rates at which different racial groups are leaving the rolls. Welfare use is declining rapidly among all races, but white recipients are leaving the welfare rolls at a much more rapid rate than Blacks or Latinos. In New York City, for example, the number of whites receiving welfare benefits declined by 57 percent between 1995 and 1998, while the rate of decline for Blacks was 30 percent and that of Latinos, seven percent. White recipients have led the decline nationally as well.

Some explanatory factors may include: higher average educational levels among white recipients; greater concentrations of recipients of color in job-poor inner cities; and racial discrimination in employment and housing. Susan Gooden’s findings regarding racial discrimination in the provision of information and assistance,16 as well as her findings of racial differentials in employment outcomes among Black and white participants in one state welfare reform program,17 are clearly relevant here. Though the combination of contributing factors is undoubtedly complex, the more rapid transition of white recipients into the labor force is one indicator of the racially disparate impact of welfare reform.


The passage from welfare to work is beset with difficulties. Women are forced into jobs earning poverty-level wages that leave them worse off than they were while receiving welfare benefits. With no benefits, transportation problems, and high childcare costs, they struggle with the complex logistics of caring for their families while clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Other women are sanctioned off the rolls or reach their time limits, but find no place in the paid labor force.

In the current political climate we have been reduced to state by state battles to fight for the options which can be determined by state legislatures either within the federal framework or beyond it. In California, for instance, advocates are organizing to remove the punitive family cap regulations, which attempt to coerce women’s child-bearing choices based on the false perception that they choose to have children to increase their welfare grant.

Unfortunately, the political impulse behind welfare reform, apart from being mean-spirited and socially regressive, is racist and xenophobic. Welfare reform is being implemented in ways that follow well-worn patterns of racial and anti-immigrant discrimination. And, the negative impacts of welfare reform are unequally shared. Left unchallenged, we cannot but expect that this policy will bolster white privilege and more deeply inscribe racial subordination.


1.    Abramowitz, Mimi,  Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present, 1988. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press.

2.    Mink, Gwendolyn,  Welfare’s End, 1998. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

3.    Piven, Frances Fox and Cloward, Richard A., Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 1971. New York: Vintage.

4.    Uchitelle, Louis, “Welfare Recipients Taking Jobs Often Held by the Working Poor,” April 1, 1997. The New York Times.

5.    United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, “Women of Hispanic Origin in the Labor Force,” Facts on Working Women, No. 00-04, April 2000.

6.    Bernstein, Jared, “The Challenge of Moving from Welfare to Work: Depressed Labor Market Awaits Those Leaving the Rolls,” EPI Issue Brief No. 116, March. 1997.

7.    Ibid.

8.    Rangarajan, Anu and Wood, Robert G., How WFNJ Clients are Faring Under Welfare Reform: An Early Look, 1999. Princeton, New Jersey: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

9.    Loprest, Pamela, How Families That Left Welfare Are Doing: A National Picture, 1999. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

10.    Ibid.

11.    United States General Accounting Office. “Welfare Reform: Information on Former Recipients’ Status,” Washington, D.C.: USGAO, 1999b.

12.    Ibid.

13.    Ibid.

14.    Rangarajan and Wood, How Clients are Faring under Welfare Reform, 1999.

15.    Loprest, Pamela, Families That Left Welfare, 1999.

16.    Gooden, Susan T., “All Things Not Being Equal; Differences in Caseworker Support Toward Black and White Welfare Clients,” Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy 4:23-33, 1998.

17.    Gooden, Susan T., “Race and Welfare: Examining Employment Outcomes of White and Black Welfare Recipients,” Journal of Poverty 4, No. 3: 21-41, 2000.


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From Welfare to Low-Wage Work

“Ten years into welfare reform, caseloads may have decreased, but the number of people living in poverty has not,” Robert Wharton, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Economic Development Administration, wrote in a recent piece in the Chicago Sun-Times. “At the same time, the safety net of services and support that once protected the poor lies in tatters. Today, working parents in ill-paid jobs often work themselves right out of eligibility for desperately needed assistance.”

Just as all politics are ultimately local, the outcomes of welfare-to-work programs vary from state to state, and from locality to locality. Some programs have changed lives for the better, helping former welfare recipients find good jobs with decent wages and benefits. Other W-2 initiatives have failed and are complicit in the creation of a new underclass with more women and children in poverty, lacking even the most fundamental services.  

A 2002 report by the Chicago, Illinois-based Joyce Foundation found that while hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients in the Midwest went to work since 1996, most had “taken jobs that pay low wages, are part-time, or don’t last... As a result, most of those who have made the transition from welfare to work remain poor.”

The foundation’s report, entitled “Welfare to Work: What Have We Learned?” (www.joycefdn.org /welrept/), looked at welfare-to-work initiatives in Midwestern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and found that “both before and since 1996, these states... pioneered innovative strategies to support welfare recipients’ transition to work, including ‘work first’ and ‘making work pay’ by offering cash assistance and other supports to working families.

“Work supports—such as child care, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—have helped thousands of working families make ends meet. But many of the jobs are part time or short term, and wages are low.  As a result, many working families still face serious economic hardships.”

“If we define success in terms of helping women to take care of themselves and their families, we’ve seen some programs do better than others,” said Jane Henrici, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. In an email interview, Henrici, the editor of the recently published book, Doing Without: Women and Work after Welfare Reform (University of Arizona Press, 2006), maintained that “At least in the short term, women have reported more positive experiences where resources have been put into subsidized child care and early education, as well as other supports that vary by the region—such as substantive job training or support for higher education, reliable public transportation, and accessible healthcare facilities.”

Henrici also pointed out that “Privatization and related features of the policies and their implementation have not proven to be beneficial: Too many women continue to struggle to find and keep a job that either pays enough to cover healthcare or provides benefits at the same time as their health and that of their children decline. In addition, the rising costs of housing, and of education for themselves as well as their children, make any sense of financial stability a target that keeps moving out of reach.”

Henrici’s book, In Doing Without, concludes that “one of the largest multi-city investigations on welfare reform ever undertaken [reveals] that the employment opportunities available to poorer women, particularly single mothers and ethnic minorities, are insufficient to lift their families out of poverty.”

Contributors to the book look at “the challenges that the women who seek assistance, and those who work in public and private agencies to provide it, together must face as they navigate ever-changing requirements and regulations, decipher alterations in Medicaid, and apply for training and education.

Contributors urge that the nation should repair the social safety net for women in transition and offer genuine access to jobs with wages that actually meet the cost of living.”

Wendell Primus, currently a policy advisor to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was an outspoken critic of the original legislation; he resigned from the Clinton administration over welfare reform. In his remarks, Primus maintained that “while many families had earnings gains under welfare reform, a significant number would have done better without welfare reform under the expanding economy of the 1990s,” CNNNews.com reported.

“In the aggregate, there is absolutely no evidence that it (reform legislation) increased household income,” said Primus, pointing out that the rates of child poverty dropped more in the 1992-1996, pre-welfare-reform period, than they did in the post-reform period, from 1996-2000.

The Community Economic De-velopment Administration’s Robert Wharton suggests that we “begin to take better-planned, more deliberate action to alleviate poverty. Such an effort will require a federal agency charged with mounting a coordinated, nationwide attack on poverty….We must also include as a priority in budgeting—from the federal level down—some sort of entitlement to basic necessities, including shelter, food, healthcare, and education. These programs should be run on a sliding scale, so that the working poor are not penalized for earning what they can.

“We need scholars, social analysts, and politicians courageous enough to shepherd us in this national discussion of poverty.  We must commit to the philosophy of providing for the neediest, or we will continue—unconscionably—to tolerate intolerable poverty at home and in the larger world.”

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Home Is Where the Work Is: The Color of Domestic Labor

In 1998, 48-year-old Parvathi Ammal came to Cupertino, California from Madurai, India, to visit her distant but well-to-do relatives on their invitation. During her originally planned three-month stay, she helped the Gopalan family with household chores, including taking care of their two children and occasional cooking. At the end of her stay, the family invited her to continue living with them as a domestic help for a monthly payment of $300, convincing her that working informally and overstaying her visitor visa, were not crimes.

Unfortunately, within a few months, her sweet deal turned into a nightmare as she realized that her “employers” were out to exploit her. “At first, my work was well-defined—daily light chores like doing the dishes, and taking care of the kids when both [parents] were away at work. But within weeks, the work started piling up.”

Ammal’s work load ranged from doing the laundry and mowing the lawn, to cooking three meals a day for a family of five, and constantly cleaning up after them. Her health deteriorated, she was paid irregularly, and she was not allowed to call anyone. With her scant English skills, Ammal was helpless and endured the abuse until some friends helped her escape back to Madurai, where she now makes Indian pickles for a living.


The Domestic Worker Coalition of the San Francisco Bay Area

In 2004, a triad of Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area grassroots groups consisting of Mujeres Unidas Activas, the Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, and People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) designed a participatory research project, comprising of over 250 surveys, to analyze the working conditions of household workers. The surveys revealed that most Bay Area household workers typically support two adults and two children on average, but more than 80 percent of them do not earn enough to support a family of this size. One in three workers reported that in the last two months they had worked more hours than agreed. There were also claims that employers shame and bully their workers, so they are too intimidated to fight effectively for their rights.

In addition to documenting the abuses and outlining the demands of household workers, the Coalition sponsored a six-part study to examine sexism and the division of labor, the history of domestic work in the United States, and household worker movements in other countries.  

This participatory campaign, which explored the state of wages, benefits, and other issues that could help workers unite and effectively organize in the long run, is a successful example of outreach that’s driven by research and activism generated from within. The surveys reflect the extreme marginalization experienced by domestic workers: More than 95 percent of the surveyed women attested to the dire need for better wages, safer workplaces, paid overtime, sick days, holidays, health benefits, and the right to unionize and protect their rights. Other concerns expressed included not being paid on time, or being paid less than the agreed amount. And almost 10 percent reported that they had been sexually harassed or experienced some sort of violence on the job, while about a third reported being insulted or threatened by employers.

As part of the work in following up the survey, the San Francisco Bay Area Domestic Worker Coalition has forged alliances with the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and the Los Angeles Pilipino  Workers’ Center to form the California Household Workers’ Coalition. Coalition members co-wrote Assembly Bill 2536, which would have extended the right to overtime compensation to household workers and fined abusive employers and those who fail to pay their employees. The proposal passed both houses, but was vetoed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite the veto, the household workers see this proposal as the first step towards gaining respect and putting an end to the abuses in the industry.1 In the future they hope to address issues of occupational safety and health, healthcare access, and protection from discrimination.

1. www.mujeresunidas.net


Exploitation Begins at Home

Parvathi Ammal, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones because her story of abuse and exploitation, unfortunately, is not unique.

Every year millions of Asian women migrate from their home countries to work as domestic workers, service workers, and sex workers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. This international flow of labor, so to speak, is set in motion by the harsh domestic and trade policies of the first and third world governments, which systematically disempower the poor.

In the United States, cutbacks in healthcare and inadequate access to affordable childcare have made the middle-class desperate for cheap household labor. Consequently, immigrant women constitute a major proportion of the growing domestic workforce in the United States, with Latinas making up a majority in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. Sadly, a growing number of these immigrant domestic laborers frequently find themselves in inextricable situations of exploitation and abuse.

Domestic work is probably the most taken-for-granted labor worldwide. Yet, it is the most crucial and time-consuming and it fuels the economic engine of any society. In the United States, the history of domestic labor is a study in racism. The first domestic laborers during the colonial period were African slaves. With the abolishment of slavery, at least on paper, Black women provided the next round of domestic labor from the early 20th century up until the 1970s. Now, it is the turn of immigrant women of color to serve as the backbone of the United States economy. A detailed study of domestic workers in New York found that 95 percent of them are people of color, and 93 percent are women.

Sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo notes that while the structure of domestic work poses considerable obstacles to traditional organizing, it can open the door to new tactics and strategies that take advantage of women’s ability to network, connect, and draw strength from each other. Since the women are in vulnerable positions and cannot confront their employers, they have to be organized through self-help seminars that raise consciousness around issues of exploitation and teach strategies for negotiating better wages and benefits.

As for the feminist response to the problems of domestic workers in the United States, it has been lukewarm at best. Even the National Organization for Women has declined to comment on the issue of global trafficking of women, notes activist Grace Chang. “Perhaps the real issue is that privileged women of the First World, even self-avowed feminists, may be some of the primary consumers and beneficiaries in this trade,” she adds.1

Ultimately, these women’s struggles to live a life with dignity point glaringly to the flawed structures currently in place that are predicated on a system of exploitation of the marginalized. While policy reform is the goal of many of these struggles, and would indeed help alleviate the hardships of many an immigrant woman laborer, it is still an inadequate solution in the long run.

The greater need is for widespread, sustained mass movements of resistance that challenge the currently accepted norm of top-down capitalist economic paradigms with their many inequities—ranging from the disproportionately high income levels of corporate executives to the alarming increase in defense expenditure at the cost of national health and education programs. Worker-owned cooperatives are one alternative to the capitalist model of ownership, but service labor in a capitalist framework will always remain open to exploitation, as long as manual labor is rendered invisible and not valued by mainstream socio-economic systems.

1. Chang, Grace, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy,  Cambridge, Massachusetts, South End Press, 2000.

Nahar Alam and Workers’ Awaaz: The Protestor Prototype


Nahar Alam migrated to the United States from Bangladesh under the assumption that this transatlantic journey would help her escape the cycle of alienation and abuse she had experienced as the wife of an already married man since the age of 14. But without money, a knowledge of English, or friends, she soon found herself powerless again—as a domestic worker in New York City.

Nahar found lodging with a family in Astoria, Queens, and began work as a garment worker, earning 35 cents per finished piece. When in 15 days she had made only $35, she realized that she would have to find other sources of income. Nahar then embarked on a series of jobs cooking, cleaning, and baby-sitting, often working 12-hour days for as little as $50 a week. Meanwhile, she also spent long hours at the public library, teaching herself English. Finally, a couple who had hired Nahar to tutor their daughter in Bengali, introduced her to Sakhi, a non-profit organization for South Asian women. Through them, Nahar found full-time babysitting work at a decent wage, with a family that treated her with dignity and allowed her time to volunteer at Sakhi and learn English at Hunter College.

Sakhi eventually hired Nahar Alam to organize a group of South Asian immigrant women in exploitative, underpaid, and abusive domestic work situations. Many of these women were denied basic privileges, such as the use of a phone, days off, or even their promised pay. “They are isolated, they don’t know English. Many come to America because of problems at home and are afraid that [if they complain] their employers will send them back,” explains Nahar.

Nahar organized demonstrations outside homes of exploitative employers, implemented innovative outreach methods, and handed out flyers on legal minimum wage and unjust working condition regulations. She conducted training workshops on workers’ and immigrants’ rights, on labor laws, and on negotiating with employers. In 1997, her group split from Sakhi and renamed itself Workers’ Awaaz (Workers’ Voice). With the help of Mike Wishnie, an ACLU attorney specializing in labor rights, Workers’ Awaaz sued on behalf of an exploited member and succeeded in getting a $20,000 settlement in back pay from the employer.

Fighting legal battles for workers’ compensation is not the primary goal of her organization, explains Nahar, but she wanted to set a precedent that would demonstrate to the women of Workers’ Awaaz that their rights were very real, and that they should not be afraid to exercise them. Today, Workers’ Awaaz is made up of 30 domestic workers and a dozen volunteers and receives funding from several foundations and public service organizations.

Nahar Alam continues to work on reaching out to other exploited, low-wage immigrant communities. She helped start Andolan (Movement), a grassroots group that organizes low-wage South Asian women workers—mostly domestic, but also restaurant and retail employees—from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Andolan has helped its members resist a range of violations by their employers—from federal and state minimum wage laws, to sexual harassment and abuse, to assault and false imprisonment. Because of the power disparity between employer and worker, Andolan will sometimes resort to protests outside employer homes and workplaces to get a response to specific grievances and to raise public awareness. Successful cases have resulted in payment of back wages and other damages.


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Worker Centers

Worker centers vary in terms of their organizational models, how they think about their mission, and how they carry out their work. However, most share some core characteristics. Centers have a social movement orientation and organize around both economic issues and immigrant rights. They pursue these goals by seeking to impact the labor market through direct economic action, on the one hand, and public policy reform activity, on the other. They are enmeshed in the struggle for federal immigration reform and related issues like access to drivers’ licenses as well as housing, education, healthcare, and criminal justice issues. Many favor alliances with religious institutions and government agencies and seek to work closely with other activist groups in a variety of formal and informal coalitions.

The organizing and advocacy work that immigrant worker centers do is in three general areas:

  • Defending workers’ rights and trying to improve working conditions in low-wage industries;
  • Responding to attacks on immigrants in their communities and fighting for immigration reform;
  • Dealing with issues of immigrant political incorporation, including education, housing, and healthcare.

Centers apply a variety of strategic approaches to their organizing and advocacy work. These include bringing direct economic pressure to bear on employers and industries (pickets, direct actions and boycotts, and much less frequently, job actions) and building political and community support for public policy reforms that require employers and industries to change their behavior.

The vast majority of worker center members are recent immigrants (including large numbers of undocumented workers) who labor in the worst jobs. Worker centers have had unprecedented success in developing leadership among these workers. They now provide a central vehicle through which low-wage immigrant workers are receiving services and education around workplace issues, participating in civil society, telling their stories to the larger community, and organizing to seek economic and political change.


Most of the workers who contact immigrant worker centers are employed in low-wage industries. Immigrant worker centers have developed campaigns and devised some very creative and effective strategies to win lasting improvements for low-wage workers. The greatest accomplishment of these campaigns to date has been compelling individual employers to pay back wages to workers. Other campaigns have sought to hold large corporations responsible for the actions of their sub-contractors. Organizations have also won substantial economic improvements for low-wage workers by moving local and state government to require employers to raise wages and improve conditions of work via administrative action and public policy change.

While they often target particular employers as well as industries within local labor markets, worker centers are not work-site based. Unlike the traditional American union, most do not focus on organizing for majority representation in individual work sites or on negotiating collective bargaining agreements for individual groups of workers. Worker centers are hybrids that combine elements of different types of organizations—from political parties, settlement houses, immigrant civic organizations, community organizations and social movement groups to unions, feminist consciousness-raising organizations, and producer coops. In many centers, ethnicity and language, rather than occupation or industry, are the primary identities through which workers come to know and participate in the organizations. Ethnic identity and the experience of prejudice are central analytical lenses through which experiences in and the organization of the labor market as a whole, are understood by center organizers. Often workers come into a center because they live or work in its geographic area of focus, not because they work in a specific industry or occupation.

Because they are committed to going beyond advocacy to providing a means through which workers can take action on their own behalf, most centers place enormous emphasis on leadership development and democratic decision-making, putting processes in place to involve workers on an ongoing basis, and working to develop the skills of worker leaders, so that they are able to participate meaningfully in guiding the organization. Many identify strongly with the philosophy and teaching methods of Paulo Freire and other popular educators and draw upon literacy circles and other models that originated in Central and South American liberation movements.

Although they may relate to a much larger number of workers, most centers have fewer than a thousand members and they view membership as a privilege that is not automatic but must be earned. They require workers to take courses and/or become involved in the organization in order to qualify.    

Centers demonstrate a deep sense of solidarity with workers in other countries and an ongoing programmatic focus on the global impact of structural adjustment, trade, and labor policies. Some worker center founders and leaders had extensive experience with organizing in their countries of origin and actively draw upon those traditions in their current work. Some centers maintain ongoing ties with popular organizations in the countries from which workers have migrated, share strategies, publicize each other’s work, and support each other as they are able.

The first worker centers were founded by Black worker activists in North and South Carolina, and by immigrant activists in New York City’s Chinatown, along the Texas-Mexican border in El Paso, and in San Francisco. They arose during the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to changes in manufacturing that resulted in worsened conditions, factory closings, and the rise of lower-paying service sector jobs. Disparities of pay and treatment between African American and white workers, as well as exploitation within ethnic economic enclaves and in the broader economy (including the informal sector) were also major catalysts for the creation of the first wave of centers.  

The second wave of centers emerged in the late 1980s and early- to mid-1990s. They appeared as large new groups of Latino immigrants, some in flight from the Central American wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, came to live and work in urban metropolitan areas, as well as the suburbs, and growing numbers of Southeast Asians emigrated to the United States seeking work. Drawing on the first-wave centers for their organizational models, these groups were founded by a diverse set of institutions and individuals, including churches and other faith-based organizations, social service and legal aid agencies, immigrant NGOs, and unions. In fact, as a strategy for organizing in the non-union garment sector, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) opened four worker centers in Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

From 2000 to the present, a new wave of centers has emerged. Many of the workers involved are from new chain migration streams from communities in Mexico who are reacting to the push factors of uneven economic development and hemispheric free trade agreements, and to the pull of plentiful jobs in the United States. Most of the centers continue to arise in the nation’s cities. However, more centers are being organized in suburban and rural areas and in southern states in response to the large concentrations of immigrants working in the service, poultry, meat-packing, and agricultural sectors. Also, more centers are emerging among recent Filipino, African, and South Asian immigrants, and more of them than in past waves are directly connected to faith-based organizations and unions.

The number of worker centers in the United States has increased dramaticall, paralleling the increased flow of specific immigrant groups in large numbers. In 1992, there were fewer than five centers nationwide. As of 2007, there are at least 160 worker centers in over 80 cities, towns, and rural areas.


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The Workplace Project

The Workplace Project was founded in 1992 to help end the exploitation of Latino immigrant workers on Long Island. Working with—and learning from—our members, as well as other worker centers, such as Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association and Tenant and Workers’ Support Committee, we’ve tried many different strategies in our struggle for social justice. In some cases, we learned our lessons from other organizations, while other times our insight was gained through hard experience. This article is about those lessons.


The Workplace Project has participated in various studies documenting workplace abuses. One study we developed and carried out in collaboration with Hofstra University demonstrated the prevalence of abuse against day laborers: Half of the study’s respondents reported wage theft, while one-quarter reported being physically assaulted on the job or while looking for work. The abuse against domestic workers is at least as bad—our survey of over 20 domestic workers revealed an average wage of $4.03 per hour, far below minimum wage.

Given the systemic nature of this abuse, it is impossible to make any real change by fighting cases one by one. On the positive side, there are large numbers of community members who are personally affected and who want to take action. There are also larger numbers of potential allies among students, churches, businesses, and unions that support our work. Through our organizing, we have built committees of factory workers, building maintenance workers, day laborers, and domestic workers, and some of these have generated new, geographically-based committees.

After people join a committee and become associate members of the organization, they can then take a workers’ rights course and become leader members. These members are the driving force for our campaigns and activities. They conduct outreach campaigns; hold educational workshops; engage in direct action against targets; provide legal support for individual cases and legislative work for broader campaigns; produce media for both the Latino, and general North American community; and essentially multiply our ability to accomplish what we could never accomplish with a small staff.

By combining strategic legal action and community organizing, The Workplace Project has won several noteworthy victories, including:

  • Helping pass a 2006 domestic workers Bill of Rights legislation in Nassau County, New York, to better inform domestic workers about their basic rights by requiring placement agencies to provide that information;
  • Stopping a racially discriminatory campaign in Farmingville, New York, which sought to evict 2000 immigrants from their homes in 2005-06;
  • Recovering over $170,000 in unpaid wages in 2006;
  • Convincing the local district attorney’s office in 2006 to begin to arrest employers (largely construction contractors) for non-payment of wages;
  • Achieving various other workplace victories, such as helping workers reduce their workload and oust their abusive supervisor at a luxury hotel.

Immigration Policy Reform

In 2007, the most crucial issue will be whether Congress will pass immigration policy reform that will legalize immigrants, reunite families, and protect workers’ rights. However, no matter what happens, the work of building our movement must include the following:

  • Creating self-sustaining organizations. Funding for worker/community organizing is scarce, which means that as the number of worker centers grow, we must become more creative and self-reliant, and seek to develop our own alternative sources of funding. The Workplace Project is participating in an initiative to develop a “stored value card” that would serve as a long-term benefit for our members, as well as a way to save money that would otherwise be given in fees to large corporations, like Western Union. Using revenue generated from this card, membership dues, and an array of grassroots fundraising events, our intent is to become self sufficient.
  • Convincing non-immigrants that they have much more in common with immigrants than they think. In particular, we have to speak to those who see that life is getting more difficult, wages are being stretched, housing costs are rising, and healthcare is a luxury—and point out who really deserves the blame.  Many of the same Congress-men who are responsible for the devastation of the economy in Mexico, for example, are also responsible for helping financial institutions take money out of the pockets of citizens through exorbitant credit card interest rates and ATM fees.

Planting Seeds for Victory

As the immigrants’ rights protests grew in the spring of 2006, some observers were surprised by how immigrants were able to mobilize so spontaneously and in such great numbers. However, these mobilizations were no more spontaneous than plants sprouting during periods of rain and warm weather. The mobilizations were due in large part to seeds that we had been planting for many years—when we were educating workers about their rights to a minimum wage, and to organize and fight for justice. The future of our movement for justice will depend on diligently increasing the number of organizations and community leaders that continue to plant these seeds of struggle. When the rains come, we will be ready.

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No Justice, No Growth: How L.A. Makes Developers Create Decent Jobs

Community Benefit Agreements, says Cecilia Estolano, the new executive director of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, “work best when there is substantial agency money invested, when they’re big projects, and when they’re in hot markets or emerging markets.” In much of Los Angeles—in much of urban America—none of those conditions pertain. Which compels Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), now the primary architect of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) across Los Angeles, to go project by project, creating an archipelago of decent living standards in a sea of working-class stagnation.

Working often in close partnership with a Los Angeles city council member from Hollywood, Jackie Goldberg, LAANE has steadily enlarged the scope both of CBAs and the living-wage ordinances within Southern California. Its successes have inspired unions and community organizations across the nation to create their own campaigns linking growth to justice. Living wage ordinances have now been enacted in more than 120 municipalities across the country, while CBAs—which now may require developers not merely to provide decent jobs to local residents, but to build affordable housing, parks, health clinics, and other social amenities—have been implemented on at least 48 major projects from Seattle to Miami.

This is, of course, justice by increments, but in the absence of a federal government interested in raising the minimum wage, providing health coverage for all, or enabling workers to join unions, incremental justice is as good as it gets. So it falls to the states to hike the minimum wage, and to more liberal cities to enact living wage ordinances covering employees of city contractors. And for now, even in a city as liberal as Los Angeles, passing an ordinance mandating CBAs for projects that aren’t recipients of city funding or redevelopment district tax abatements is not possible.

Even though they are negotiated on a project-by-project basis, CBAs have become, in less than a decade, the way that major developments get built in Los Angeles. For one thing, while CBAs clearly impose additional costs on the developer, they also help ensure that the project will get green-lighted. “The best way to get our project approved is to join with the community,” says Cliff Goldstein, a partner in J.H. Snyder, one of Southern California’s largest commercial developers. “Once we’ve crafted an agreement, we walk hand-in-hand downtown to the council. We become a formidable foe if someone wants to make us their foe.”

Birth of a CBA

Since Goldberg and LAANE first established the CBA in a project in Hollywood, a distinct process has emerged on subsequent projects. One group—often, but not always, LAANE—organizes residents in the vicinity of the proposed project, and links pre-existing community organizations and institutions with other affected parties: the building trades unions that want to construct it, the building maintenance unions (usually, the SEIU), and the hotel union (UNITE HERE) that may staff the facilities the project will contain, and environmental organizations concerned with the effects of the project on the area. The local council member may serve as a liaison to local institutions—community colleges, for instance—that will be called on to offer job training to local residents hired by the project.


The expanding scope of CBAs is apparent in looking at the agreements crafted for three major projects over the past half-decade. In the late 1990s, two right-wing billionaires—Rupert Murdoch and Denver’s Phil Anschutz—announced that they wished to develop the area surrounding the Staples Center, home to the Lakers, with luxury hotels, condos, stores, office buildings, and theaters. A coalition of 25 community groups from the area—a neighborhood consisting largely of desperately poor immigrants—already had come together to deal with problems of housing relocation, increased traffic, and the like. Separately, Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, entered into negotiations with the developers on behalf of five unions that sought to represent the parking attendants and the hotel, theater, and maintenance workers who would get permanent jobs once the project was completed, and the building trades unions that would construct it. The unions reached an accord with the developer first, but refused to sign it until the community groups reached their own accord, which included a commitment to hire half the permanent employees from the neighborhood, to set aside one-fifth of the new housing units for low-income residents, and to create neighborhood parks. Once these accords were reached, the city council gave the go-ahead for the project, which is under construction today.

LAANE crafted an even larger and more diverse coalition in dealing with the proposed expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, which had been stymied for more than a decade when Mayor James Hahn finally sought council approval for the proposal, shortly after he took office in 2001. In deference to labor’s political clout, Hahn had given Contreras a seat on the Airport Commission, which helped ensure local hiring, living wages, and union contracts for workers at the airport’s many concessions and retail outlets. Also, the city committed $500 million over the next decade to noise abatement improvements in the schools near the airport and to air-quality improvements throughout the area. “The muscle of the labor movement was the linchpin” in broadening the coalition, says LAANE’s Executive Director Madeleine Janis, since it was apparent that Contreras’ commitment to a far-reaching CBA ensured that a deal would be struck. “It convinced the environmental movement—the Environmental Defense Fund, the Coalition for Clean Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council—to switch its approach from suing at the back end, to helping come up with solutions at the front end.”

Raising Wages, Building Power

On the one hand, the range of community benefits continues to grow with the varied needs of the impacted communities. On the other hand, both in Los Angeles and in cities around the country, the vast majority of CBAs contain no genuinely enforceable language covering the wages and benefits of workers in the retail establishments that the project owners lease. Only where the city itself has owned the development—that is, at the airport and at a new mixed-use project slated for development across the street from Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall—have retailers been required to set pay rates in accord with the city’s living wage ordinance. “The problem is, unionized supermarkets and Costco are the only retailers to pay a living wage,” says Roxana Tynan, who is now LAANE’s chief negotiator of CBAs. Most CBAs require the developer to seek out retailers who will pay such wages. The agreement at one North Hollywood project even imposes some manageable financial penalties on the developer, J. H. Snyder, if it fails to have its retailers pay a living wage to a specified percentage of their employees.

But if CBAs have often failed to raise the pay levels of non-supermarket retail workers, they have plainly boosted the wages of the construction workers who build the developments, the janitors who clean them, and the workers who staff the markets, hotels, and theaters (if not clothing stores) therein. Between 2000 and 2006, 104,000 construction jobs and 113,000 permanent jobs were covered under CBAs, according to an estimate from the Partnership for Working Families, the national coalition of local CBA advocacy groups.

Surprisingly perhaps, in cities where the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality has routinely blocked development, many in the business community welcome the emergence of this growth-with-justice political constellation. Economist Jack Kyser, who as vice president of the private Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation is the closest thing the city has to a business community spokesperson, is no fan of living-wage ordinances or, more generally, increased regulations on business. He has kind words, though, for CBAs, which he believes, often “defuse the opposition to very high-profile projects. Purists may say this is not the best way to go. But if you want to get something built, especially in an area as contentious as L.A. can be, it’s a good way to go. You get your project, and everybody benefits.”

The success of CBAs in Los Angeles, and the willingness of LAANE to commit its resources to the development of kindred campaigns in other cities, means that CBAs and the coalitions demanding them have now sprung up in roughly 20 cities across the nation.

To some degree, of course, the scope of a CBA is a function of the power of the forces demanding it. It is hardly an accident that these local strategies first appeared in cities with strong unions, organized neighborhoods, and progressive city councils. CBAs are inherently a second-choice strategy, a narrow attempt to create broadly shared prosperity at a moment when broad attempts that rely on state policy or large-scale unionization are beyond the horizon of the possible. Their limited scope notwithstanding, they represent a considerable achievement—intellectual, organizational, and political—at a time when working-class America is otherwise losing ground. And if more of America were organized, there would be more such local achievements, as well as more complementary national policies.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Harold Meyerson, “No Justice, No Job Growth,” The American Prospect, Vol. 17, No. 11: Nov. 05, 2006. All rights reserved.


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Sweatshops on Wheels: Union-Community Coalition Takes Aim at Port Trucking

The economic development deal usually offered to low-income communities is very much like a bad trade deal: it offers minimal jobs and ignores environmental sustainability. The jobs created tend to be the dirtiest and most dangerous and—especially in the case of retail—jobs without living wages. The result is unchecked degradation that pits unions, environmentalists, and communities against each other. The only winners are the businesses that profit from the divide.

The Coalition for Clean Air and Safe Ports in Oakland, a blue-green partnership of local environmental groups, unions, faith-based organizations, workers, and community groups, has embarked on an innovative campaign to reverse the old development standard and make the port work for all. While the shipping industry booms at the Port of Oakland, neighboring communities and the truck drivers who work there choke on a cloud of smog. Fixing port trucking for workers and the community is one key to unlocking this cycle.

Container trucking at ports is where pollution, low wages, danger, and inefficiency meet. Heavy-duty trucks produce 30-40 percent of the pollution at ports, making them a significant health hazard. Groups such as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project have long pushed the Port for more accountability on the environmental impacts associated with this industry. Their studies show there is five times more diesel exhaust per person in the communities surrounding the Port of Oakland than in other parts of the city. Residents near the ports are plagued by asthma and bronchitis, and have some of the highest incidences of cancer in the region. Truck drivers also experience the effects of direct exposure to exhaust.


Port trucking is like working in a sweatshop on wheels.1 Because they are misclassified as independent businesses, drivers have no employment protections. Paid by the load instead of the hour, drivers spend up to half their time—with engines idling—waiting at the port to transfer loads. Motor carriers they work with have little incentive to speed up the wait times. At this point, drivers are struggling to pay for fuel and rent, and have little power to improve their conditions. Drivers must purchase their own trucks, so they often buy aged rigs that lack modern safety and clean air technologies.

At the Port of Oakland, over 100 small motor carriers contract with over 2,500 truck drivers. Motor carriers undercut each other in pricing in a race to the bottom with razor-thin margins. The sector is plagued by inefficiency, instability, and a driver shortage.

Drivers have poverty-level earnings with median income of $25,000 after truck expenses.2 The majority of workers are immigrants; many are undocumented.3 Turnover is high, making it nearly impossible to monitor who has access to the port. The Port of Oakland, which handles over one million containers a year, offers truck replacement incentives to reduce pollution, but that only addresses one piece of the puzzle.4 We need a holistic vision in order to serve drivers, community members, and the shippers that use the ports.

The Port ranks among the top four in the nation and top twenty in the world in terms of annual container traffic,5 but the “global gateway from the West Coast to the world” hasn’t been sharing those benefits with the community closest to it.

To move ahead, we need to create new relationships with the Port of Oakland. The Coalition for Clean Air and Safe Ports in Oakland advocates that port trucking must be included in the Port of Oakland’s purview. The Port needs to take responsibility for the trucking operations on its property, just as it does for the concessions which operate on Port property at the Oakland Airport. At the Airport, businesses who win contracts for concessions are expected to meet minimum operating standards. For the trucking industry at the Port, this would mean clean, fuel-efficient trucks, off street parking that frees the neighborhood from unnecessary truck traffic, union scale wages, and clear recognition of the truckers’ employment rights, including of course, their right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

Together, we can create a new model that promotes environmentally and economically sustainable growth. This sort of organizing, to hold a public agency accountable to the standards the community demands, can create stable, quality union jobs, which will create lasting benefits to the economy of the region. Truckers will have employment protections, employers will have incentives to switch to clean technologies, ports will have more checks in place for safety, security, and efficiency, and communities will have cleaner air and quieter streets.


1.    “Clearing the Air: Reducing Diesel Pollution in West Oakland.” A West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project Report by the Pacific Institute, in conjunction with the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, November 2003.

2.     Belzer, Michael H., Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation, 2006.

3.    Monaco, Kristen, “The Labor Market for Port Drivers in Southern California,” California State University at Long Beach, Aug. 30, 2005.

4.    Jordan, Miriam, “Port security plan could slow deliveries, thin ranks of low-wage workers,” Wall Street Journal, Oct 17, 2006.

5.    www.portofoakland.com/environm/prog_06.asp, Dec 10, 2006.


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Sewing Alliances: Anti-Sweatshop Activism in the United States

Picketers surround a chainstore clothing outlet and hand out leaflets about labor conditions on the Pacific island of Saipan. A mainline church sponsors a talk on how the world’s largest sneaker companies use Indonesian sweatshop labor. Students at the local college take over a campus building, demanding that the school quit licensing its logo to appear on goods made in sweatshops.

These are just some of the events happening with ever-greater frequency in cities across the United States. Dozens of overlapping activist networks and hundreds of groups—some with paid staffing and thousands of supporters—are mobilizing to improve wages and conditions in sweatshops. Most United States anti-sweatshop groups specialize in one of four areas: generating mainstream media attention, mobilizing activists nationwide, developing a base in a particular community, or supporting workers at a particular company or location.

Picking up steam since the early 1990s, the movement has pushed the sweatshop issue into the national consciousness, forcing corporations to adopt “codes of conduct” for their suppliers, creating organizations to monitor compliance with the codes, and helping workers in at least two overseas sweatshops forge union contracts. “There have been great advances,” says Stephen Coats, executive director of the Chicago-based United States/Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP). “We are light years ahead in terms of the power we can bring to bear on companies.”

But the movement has yet to significantly improve the industry’s wages and labor conditions, either in the United States or abroad. The missing ingredients, leading activists say, include sweat-free alternatives for consumers, resources for workers to organize industrywide, and enforceable laws and international pacts protecting worker rights.

“[Inside] the movement there’s not enough coherence around strategy, vision, or how to move forward,” says Lynda Yanz, director of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network.

Sweatshop History

United States-based organizing against sweatshops dates back to the 1890s, when progressives helped garment workers organize legislative campaigns. But sweatshops remained widespread until workers formed unions and carried out industry-wide strikes. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, formed in 1900, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, founded in 1914, won labor contracts that dramatically improved wages and working conditions and set up programs for worker healthcare, pensions, and even housing. By mid-century, the two unions and the Textile Workers Union of America, formed in 1939, represented nearly one million workers.

In the 1960s, however, apparel production began relocating from northern cities to the United States South and eventually to Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Factories in more than 60 nations now supply the United States market. And, as unionized factories have closed in the United States, shady garment-assembly shops have made a comeback, especially in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. More than half of the apparel production in this country now happens in illegal sweatshops, according to the United States Labor Department.

All told, about 75 percent of clothing sold in this country is made in sweatshops. The typical worker is a young woman whose wages leave her struggling at less than one-third of her country’s official poverty level. Her work week may extend to 80 hours or more. Her chances of encountering sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and safety hazards are high. She’d likely be fired for trying to form a union.


Mergers among the three apparel and textile unions led to the 1995 creation of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Faced with dwindling resources and a membership of just 150,000, UNITE further merged with the Hotel and Restauraunt Employees union to form UNITE HERE. Working as part of the Change to Win coalition, their current campaign focuses on CINTAS, the largest uniform manufacturing company in the United States.

“Taking on the retail industry requires an international solution,” union organizer Ginny Coughlin says. Toward that end, the United States-based union has strengthened ties with unions and worker organizations in the garment and textile sectors of 10 countries, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, China, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The National Labor Committee did extensive work focusing public attention on sweatshop practices. The committee captured extensive media coverage with a series of exposés, including a 1996 disclosure that Wal-Mart clothing marketed under Kathie Lee Gifford’s name was produced in Honduras by 13-year-old girls working 13-hour shifts for 31 cents an hour. When Gifford cried on TV, the movement was on the national radar.

Global Exchange expanded the awareness with high-profile litigation, including a 1999 lawsuit against United States corporations that held workers in virtual slavery on Saipan, the largest island of the United States “commonwealth” known as the Northern Marianas. Global Exchange backed the suit with demonstrations and picket lines at Gap stores and company headquarters in San Francisco. Most of the retailers eventually settled, agreeing to pay for independent monitoring of the plants.

Mobilizing the Masses

Groups focusing on mass mobilization constitute the movement’s second pillar. Two based in Washington, D.C.—the Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR), founded in 1993, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), initiated in 1997—have created communication networks to mobilize supporters in dozens of  locations simultaneously. “We work on campaigns that support workers when they’re trying to organize sweatshops,” says Daisy Pitkin, CLR’s national coordinator. “We become involved when a United States retail company is involved, because that’s how grassroots activists can get a handle. We never work on a campaign alone. We always work in coalition with other groups.”

USAS chapters pressure universities across the country to keep school names and logos off sweatshop clothing. “The organization functions like an information clearinghouse,” says Amber Gallup, who became the USAS field coordinator after volunteering for the Indiana University chapter. “We have the strategy of national, coordinated grassroots action that seems to have worked really well in a couple of campaigns. We have built student power on campus to leverage our administrators and then leverage large companies to make real changes in workers’ lives.”

The third type of anti-sweatshop group focuses on a local base, like churches or K–12 schools. The most powerful example is the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, a network of nine affiliates. Last year, the coalition convinced the state legislature and Gov. George Pataki to enact a law permitting schools to reject bids from companies for using sweatshop labor. The coalition now works with teacher unions and child-labor activists on a campaign for sweat-free purchasing policies in the state’s 740 school districts.

The fourth anti-sweatshop pillar—groups focusing on a particular company or location—includes US/LEAP, Educating for Justice, Sweatshop Watch, STITCH, Make the Road by Walking, and many others.

The power all four types of groups can wield when coordinated is evident at Mex Mode, a Korean-owned sweatshop in the central Mexican state of Puebla. The plant, formerly called Kukdong, makes fleece garments for Reebok and Nike. When its workers went on strike for union recognition in January 2001, the AFL-CIO’s Mexico City office relayed the news to United States anti-sweatshop groups.

USAS sent members to investigate the factory and used its involvement in a factory-monitoring organization called the Worker Rights Consortium to pressure university administrations. “We created listservs and conference calls and we started coordinating this campaign together,” Gallup says. “We got 30 schools to send letters to Nike on the same day. Nike was forced by the pressure of these administrators—and the fear of losing this college market and having its public image affected—to get its manufacturer to recognize an independent union, and it was forced to keep the production there.”

CLR, for its part, mobilized religious groups, union locals, and others to visit 40 of Mexico’s 45 consular offices across the United States last July. Others rallying for the Kukdong workers included Global Exchange, US/LEAP, the International Labor Rights Fund, and a myriad of local groups in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The workers won their first union contract in September and another this April. “This is the first time that workers in [Mexico’s] maquiladora zones have been able to create an independent union,” Gallup says.

Corporate Concessions

Under pressure from the movement, some apparel corporations have agreed to “multi-stakeholder arrangements”—standards and enforcement mechanisms set by the company, consumers, and sometimes workers, local NGOs, and other groups. The standards cover the company or a particular assembly plant.

In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the anti-sweatshop movement and worker groups have managed to open some factories to independent monitoring to verify whether the nation’s labor laws and United States apparel company codes are being followed. The most effective monitors are local NGOs or plant workers. “Local groups that understand labor rights in the community can better understand the situation than commercial monitors that come in for two days,” says Yanz, the Maquila Solidarity Network director.

Coordinating the Coalition


The movement’s effect on labor conditions ultimately depends on greater coordination among anti-sweatshop actors: agreeing on which corporations to target and which union organizing to support; joining forces behind pro-worker legislation and treaty proposals; and linking local grassroots bases for nationwide responses when workers are fired for organizing. “We’re often behind in bringing all of our leverage to bear,” Coats says. “By the time people in the north hear about a problem, it’s often too late.”

A large antisweatshop alliance could convince foundations to devote more money to the movement. A national coordinating center, perhaps modeled after Canada’s Maquila Solidarity Network, could enable unions, NGOs, faith-based groups, and students to develop a coherent strategy and increase the movement’s political power. Two initiatives appear to be steps in the right direction. The National Labor Committee is working on an international effort, the Abolish Sweatshops Campaign, modeled after the campaign to abolish land mines. Participants include USAS, the International Labor Rights Fund, TransAfrica, the United Steel Workers of America, and labor and NGO leaders in Nicaragua, Honduras, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, and Mexico.

The other promising initiative is called SweatFree Communities, a network for local actions against sweatshops. “We’re still growing as a movement—growing in both our reach and creativity,” says Larry Weiss, the Resource Center of the Americas organizer. “And we’re more connected than ever with workers in the various places. I believe we’re close to some changes for apparel workers, both in terms of organizing and conditions.”


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Growing Local Food into Quality Green Jobs in Agriculture


"I couldn’t stand; my eyes were watering and my throat hurt from the gas. I would run outside the field to get some air. The boss made me go back, to keep working without a mask. Now I can’t breathe well, and my vision is blurry, cloudy.” Jorge Fernandez pauses to gasp for breath, a result of chronic on-the-job exposure to pesticides. Fernandez is a Salinas, California farmworker who spent 11 years applying fumigants without access to protective equipment. “The inspectors are friends with the bosses. They say, ‘So what if this Mexican dies, there are more.’ They just find other workers.”[1]

Industrial agriculture is notorious for low wages, workplace health hazards, racial discrimination, and dependence on the legal vulnerability of undocumented immigrant labor. This is especially true in California, where twenty-first century agriculture was built on wringing short-term utility from workers, soil, and petrochemicals to minimize costs and maximize profits.

Agricultural labor conditions present a particularly daunting challenge to the green jobs, sustainable agriculture, and local food movements. These three progressive visions share the core concept of production based on adequate income and humane conditions for producers in the context of ecologically sustainable enterprises. One of the driving goals of the local food movement is to support the income of family farmers and the economic viability of sustainable small-scale farms as an alternative to industrial agriculture. Can the local food movement’s vision of sustainable agriculture extend to support the dignity of farmworkers as well?

Struggling Farmworkers, Struggling Farmers

The growth of California’s industrial agriculture has depended on waves of cheap migrant labor since before the 1880s, when the state’s farmers began protesting that restrictions on immigration from China in 1883 would stall planting in the fields. Waves of Japanese immigrants displaced depression-era family farmers, and later, Mexican immigrants took their place. [2] Today, 75 percent of farmworkers in the United States were born in Mexico. Crop workers earn an average of between $10,000 and $12,499 a year. Among the major occupational groupings, only private household employees earn less.[3] Not surprisingly, 30 percent of all farmworker families fall below the federal poverty line, and only 23 percent are covered by health insurance.[4]

The economic picture for small-scale family farms is also%alt dicey. According to United States agricultural census data, commercial family-owned small- and medium-scale farms (on which farming is an occupation instead of a hobby) operate at a loss on average, even when they generate up to $175,000 annually in sales. The owners of the majority of small- and medium-scale farms, which make up roughly 73 percent of United States commercial farms, rely on off-farm income to supplement their household livelihood. In contrast, large family farms and non-family farms on average operate at a 10-15 percent profit.[5]

Due largely to these realities, the sustainable agriculture movement has struggled with how to manifest social and economic equity on farms that operate on slim margins while competing with their industrial counterparts.[6] Labor on family farms is rarely provided just by the family—small-scale farmers are also employers and contractors, who make decisions about how much to pay and how to treat their employees and themselves.

The localization movement increases revenue opportunities for small-scale, local, and sustainable farms by providing opportunities to market directly to customers or institutions, which can offer better prices to farmers than can a highly concentrated food industry, where farmers have little negotiating power. Direct marketing programs include Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organizations, farmers’ markets, and farm-to-institution programs.

Social Equity in Sustainable Agriculture

As employers, sustainable farmers are all over the map in their views regarding labor standards. A survey of certified organic farmers in California regarding adding social criteria to organic certification found that 47 percent of the respondents agreed that certified organic growers should be required to pay their workers living wages. However, roughly the same percentage opposed granting workers even collective bargaining rights, although they are already enshrined in labor law (see Table 1). In one of the more telling results, 67 percent of respondents found that the hypothetical social criteria would create an unacceptable financial burden. According to a representative of a California certified organic farmers foundation, “You go organic and get there and you’re still in a system set up for failure. It’s failing the farms, it’s failing the farmworkers, and it’s failing the farm communities.”[7]

Table 1:  Percentage of certified organic growers in California who believe that certified growers should be required to provide selected labor benefits as part of certification


Collective bargaining rights

Living wage

Health insurance

Paid sick leave

Paid vacation

Strongly agree or agree






Neither agree nor disagree






Strongly disagree or disagree






Organizing for Quality Green Jobs

  Table 2: Conditions Farm Workers Most Appreciate
  • Respectful treatment
  • Slower pace of work
  • Fair compensation
  • Year-round employment
  • Health insurance
  • Personal loans
  • Food from the farm
  • Paid holidays and vacation
  • Flexible work schedule
  • Healthy and safe work environment
  • Housing
  • Opportunities for advancement and training
  • Diversity of tasks
  • Involvement in decision-making processes
  • Clear and effective grievance procedures
Source: Strolich and Hammershlag, 2006.

A pilot survey conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies on job benefits and conditions most appreciated by workers on small-scale, sustainable farms found that “respectful treatment” topped the list. A slower pace of work, fair compensation, year-round employment (for greater income security), and health insurance also ranked highly (see Table 2). [8] Even if direct marketing significantly raises revenue and profitability of small-scale farms, there is no guarantee that economic benefits will be passed on to farmworkers. The example of low farmworker wages in large-scale industrial agriculture, where profit margins range from 10 percent to 15 percent, indicate that employee compensation is typically driven more by the labor market than by what an employer is able to pay. Labor markets are influenced by the demand for and supply of labor, regulations, and the vigor of their enforcement, and the relative negotiating power of workers. For instance, when the federal government ended the bracero agricultural guest worker program in 1964, tighter demand for workers contributed to United Farm Workers union winning a 40 percent one-year wage increase from selected grape growers in 1966. [9]


Addressing Immigration at its Roots

At its root, the steady northward stream of men and women risking their lives crossing the


border for United States agricultural jobs, is driven by economic policies in Mexico. The Mexican government’s own shift from supporting indigenous small-scale subsistence farming to subsidizing intense agricultural industrialization has driven former small-scale farmers north. Economists clearly predicted in the early 1990s that Mexican small-scale corn farmers would shoulder the heaviest impacts of NAFTA due to loss of market share to United States corn production, and indeed, corn imports from the United States rose from 14 percent to 24 percent of total Mexican corn consumption just between 1994 and 2000. [10]

 “It’s time to take on the agricultural agreements in NAFTA—they don’t benefit the people of Mexico, the United States, or Canada,” declared Alberto Gómez Flores, President of the National Union of Autonomous Regional Farmers’ Organizations (UNORCA), Mexico’s largest small-scale farmer organization. UNORCA is calling for a renegotiation or outright cancellation of NAFTA based on its evaluation of the negative impacts on Mexican farmers. [11] UNORCA joins similar farmer organizations from around the world in the Via Campesina movement advocating for food


sovereignty, the idea that “all people have the right to decide what they eat and to ensure that agriculture in their community is fair and healthy for everyone." [12] The food sovereignty movement is building local market access for traditional and sustainable farmers around the globe, so they will not need to migrate to urban areas or other countries to find jobs. In the United States, the National Family Farm Coalition and numerous other sustainable agriculture organizations are engaged in a slow struggle to transform agricultural and food policy by renegotiating the United States Farm Bill, which currently favors industrial production oriented toward national and international consumption.

The Role of Localization
Localization of the food sector can be a powerful tool to shift revenue to sustainable agriculture. Direct relationships between sustainable producers and local markets is one key component. Yet the extent to which the sustainable agriculture movement will succeed in implementing its vision of social equity depends on the extent to which economic gains are distributed to workers. Sustainable farmers’ openness to organizational models that increase worker income and negotiating power is of paramount importance. Enterprising farmers and workers are already researching and experimenting with unionization of small-scale farms, domestic fair trade certification, the addition of social criteria to organic certification, profit-sharing, and worker-owned agricultural cooperatives. Their success will hinge, in large part, on whether urban consumers seek out and support innovative models of sustainable agriculture.


1.    Interview with Jorge Fernandez, Salinas, California, January 16, 2006. Published in www.panna.org/magazine/spring2006/honoringCourage.html.
2.    Martin, Philip L. and Taylor, J. Edward, "For California farmworkers, future holds little prospect for change," California Agriculture January-February, 2000.
3.    Runyan, Jack L.,"Hired Farmworkers’ Earnings Increased in 2001 But Still Trail Most Occupations,” Rural America 17:3,2002.
4.    United States Department of Labor, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2001-2002: A Demographic in Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers, 2005.
5.    Hoppe, Robert A. and Banker, David E., Structure and finances of United States farms: 2005 family farm report. USDA Electronic information bulletin; no. 12.
6.    Inouye, Janel and Warner, Keith Douglass, Plowing Ahead: Working Social Concerns into the Sustainable Agriculture Movement, California Coalition for Food and Farming White Paper, 2001. Accessed 11/23/07 at www.calfoodandfarming.org/
7.    Shreck, Aimee, Getz, Christy, and Feenstra, Gail, “Farmworkers in organic agriculture: toward a broader notion of sustainability” in The Newsletter of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005.
8.    Strolich, Ron and Hammerschlag, Kari,  Best labor practices on 12 California Farms: toward a more sustainable food system. California Institute for Rural Studies, 2006. Accessed 11/23/06 at www.cirsinc.org/docs/Social_Equity.pdf
9.    Martin and Taylor, 2000.
10.    Ackerman,Frank, Wise, Timothy A., Gallagher, Kevin P. , Ney, Luke , and Flores, Regina, “Free Trade, Corn, and the Environment: Environmental Impacts of United States--Mexico Corn Trade Under NAFTA,” Tufts University Global Development and Environmental Institute Working Paper 03-06, 2003. Accessed 11/23/06 at www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/Pubs/wp/03-06-NAFTACorn.PDF.
11.    Gómez Flores, Alberto, “La agricultura a diez años del TLCAN, una perspectiva desde el movimiento campesino,” 2004. Accessed 11/23/06 at
12.     National Family Farm Coalition, Via Campesina, and Grassroots International, “Food Sovereignty: join the local, national and international movement to regain control of our food and farm system.”  Pamphlet published by the National Family Farm Coalition, Washington, D.C., 2006. 


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Case Studies


Health Industry Jobs Help Build Healthy Economy

When the fledgling United Automobile Workers staged their decisive sit-down strike of 1936-37 in Flint, Michigan, they won union representation for auto workers, collective bargaining, and better wages and benefits for workers in Flint and throughout the auto industry. But as has been true for so many other industrial midwestern cities, global competition has decimated Michigan’s manufacturing sector and left the state with one of the highest jobless rates in the nation.

As auto manufacturing has declined, healthcare has grown into the region’s major industry. Jack Litzenberg, Senior Program Officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, says the city and regions like it face a “perfect storm”: a transitioning economy, a stressed education system, comparatively low rates of education, and an aging work force. As a result, Michigan faces a dire shortage of skilled workers—an estimated 334,000 by 2012.

In a study funded by the Mott Foundation, the National Economic Development and Law Center (NEDLC) found that the healthcare industry in Genessee County, in Michigan, was experiencing both a high turnover rate among entry level healthcare workers and a labor shortage. In response, working with NEDLC on program design and planning, the Greater Flint Healthcare Coalition developed Flint Healthcare Employment Opportunity (FHEO).  FHEO works with healthcare employers to make entry level positions a stepping stone to a better life for Flint’s low-income, and primarily African-American, residents. The program provides occupational skills training, and works with employers to restructure hiring, retention, and promotional practices to help reduce turnover and meet hiring needs.

“Around here, a lot of people have just given up hope of finding good work, and I was one of them,” says Sunserria Lorick, who once worked at a GM plant and earned more 25 years ago than she’s been able to earn in the series of jobs she’s had since. “I’ve been laid off more times than I can remember. Finally, I see some light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. Lorick is enrolled in college classes en route to her new career as a pharmacy technician, a job that pays about $20 an hour. “What’s different is that I’ve got people showing me the way to get a real job.”

Strategy and Results

Traditional workforce development programs train workers first and then hope to find employers who need them later. FHEO and other “sector initiatives” take a different approach. Led by a strategic partner with industry knowledge, sector initiatives focus intensively on a specific industry over a sustained period of time, customizing solutions for multiple employers in a region. They strengthen economic growth and industry competitiveness by reducing turnover and increasing the skill level of workers. Sector initiatives also benefit low-income individuals by creating new pathways into the industry and on to good living-wage jobs and careers that offer benefits and provide a means of getting out, and staying out, of poverty.

Greater Flint Healthcare Coalition has Chief Executive Officers from the region’s three major healthcare systems on its Board of Directors. As a result, employers participate on several FHEO decision-making committees, and are active partners in strategy and programming. FHEO and its partners, Flint Strive and Faith Access to Community Economic Development, conduct research on the needs of and best possible solutions for both employers and workers, and deliver well-designed, effective services to both

The FHEO program includes:

  • Outreach, recruitment, training, and placement of low-income adults into entry-level healthcare positions. The entry-level program includes attitudinal and life skills training customized for the healthcare employment environment, optional Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) training, and certification preparation, mentoring, and case management training.
  • “Career Exploration” programs, which inform incumbent workers of training opportunities and career path assistance through FHEP and their respective employers.
  • A scholarship program for FHEO entry-level graduates that fosters advancement from entry-level to mid-level positions.
  • Enhanced training for front-line managers who supervise entry-level workers.

Since the project’s launch in 2002, 100 Flint residents have graduated from its CNA training, and more than half have obtained entry-level jobs in the healthcare field. Ten graduates of the entry-level training have received scholarships from the program and are currently enrolled in college, pursuing mid-level healthcare careers. An additional eight have found living-wage employment in other sectors. The success of FHEO’s work is being used as a model for similar workforce development efforts statewide. In her March 2004 State of the State address, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm cited FHEO as an exemplary model combining economic and workforce development to rebuild distressed communities, and called for the development of a dozen similar sector initiatives across the state.

Sector initiatives make it possible for people struggling on the economic margins to get jobs with living wages and viable career paths, and help bring about systemic change that benefits workers and the industries they work in.


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Green Jobs Corps in Oakland

In the aftermath of the 2001 California energy crisis, several energy companies were sued for overcharging and contributing to the fake shortages. The companies eventually settled, and $4.5 million of that settlement is earmarked for the city of Oakland, to be spent over the next three years on renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Thanks to the Oakland Apollo Alliance and the Oakland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability—and pending formal approval in early 2007—$100,000 will be used to create the Oakland Green Jobs Corps.

The program will create paid internships in renewable energy and energy efficiency industries, and will provide a comprehensive job-training pathway— soft skills training and basic literacy, followed by vocational hard skills and on-the-job training. More importantly, the Green Jobs Corps program will primarily benefit Oakland residents with barriers to employment: young adults lacking work experience, kids snared in the juvenile justice system, and immigrants with cultural and linguistic barriers.

In the long run, we need a larger set of overlapping pathways involving major educational institutions. The public school district, community colleges, union apprenticeship programs, workforce training institutions, community-based programs, and the continuing/adult education system must all embrace green job training. And all of these institutions must connect with the industries and businesses that actually employ people. This creates more than a pipeline—it creates a real “green collar” infrastructure.

Consider the Peralta Community College District, which includes Laney College, Merritt College, the College of Alameda, and Berkeley City College, and serves over 25,000 students, 70 percent of whom are people of color. The vast majority of these students seek vocational training and job opportunities, not transfers to four-year colleges. In spring 2006, the District launched the “Sustainable Peralta Initiative,” which will have a chance to prove itself in 2007. Peralta is set to renovate all of its buildings with a recently approved $390 million bond measure. Hopefully, the colleges can train their students, and then actually employ them, renovating Peralta’s own buildings, using green, energy-efficient technology.

A 2006 study by the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable (www.economicrt.org) revealed 17 promising green technology industries in Los Angeles that are stable or growing, already have over 500 jobs, and pay monthly wages of $2,500 or more. In Los Angeles, thousands are already employed in green jobs, and these numbers will grow.

Oakland needs similar studies. Which “green” industries are likely to grow, and by how much? Los Angeles points the way, but every urban community faces unique challenges, which we believe can be met with opportunities in the growing green economy. By 2020, Oakland should employ an impressive array of sustainable practices: we will be “oil independent” and “zero waste,” with a localized food economy and plenty of renewable energy. While we may not hit the mark in all these areas, few other cities are even trying. Across America, communities have lost their manufacturing base, and are looking for answers. We know those answers need to be sustainable. It’s our belief that Oakland’s long history as a blue-collar town leaves it well positioned to thrive as a green-collar mecca, but only if the city shows real leadership—and if advocates  insist on a place at the table for low-income people and people of color in the new green economy.


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Painting Boston Schools for a Fair Wage

In spring 2006, Community Labor United (CLU) won its first campaign: to get Boston Public Schools to change its contracting policies, and to hire local residents for high-wage union painting jobs and training opportunities.

The victory reclaimed $2.5 million from non-union companies that had been painting Boston’s schools using dubious business practices and underpaid workers from outside the city. CLU proposed and won an agreement to create a direct-hire program between the Painters and Allied Trades DC 35 for repainting Irving Middle School in Roslindale using 100 percent Boston resident journeyman painters and youth apprentices. With the support of a $50,000 grant from the Boston Neighborhood Jobs Trust, apprentices were recruited, screened, and pre-trained by a network of community organizations, including Women in the Building Trades (WIBT) and YouthBuild Boston, with Sociedad Latina as lead. Throughout the summer, these organizations continued working with CLU and the Painter’s Union to provide union and community mentorship to help each apprentice succeed on the job.  

The CLU also won bid language on apprenticeship training that led to a union painter, the McDonald Company, winning and carrying out the $1.7 million repainting of Madison Park High School in Roxbury. Although this job was not carried out entirely by Boston painters and apprentices, the McDonald Company did hire a number of Boston residents and apprentices from the CLU program.  Both jobs came in on time, on budget, and with low apprentice turnover.

This program created a rare career opportunity for recent Boston high school graduates and GED recipients, who earned a starting wage of $15.75 an hour, and will receive raises after every 750 hours of work completed, until reaching journey-level wages after three years. (Journeymen painters working on the Irving and Madison Park Schools earned over $31/hour.) Apprentices will also qualify for Painter’s Union benefits: comprehensive family health insurance, a pension, and an annuity. In addition to on-the-job training, apprentices started twice-a-week classroom instruction in painting and allied trades that will continue for three years, as well as safety training that will continue throughout their painting careers.

Partnership and Research, Keys to Success

The innovative partnership CLU created between the Painters and Allied Trades DC 35, the Boston Teacher’s Union, and 12 diverse community organizations was a major factor in our victory. CLU’s research also provided critical ammunition for the campaign, documenting that in past years only four percent of the public dollars spent to repaint Boston schools went to Boston residents. It also detailed wage, hour, and overtime abuses and very high contract profit margins on these jobs. This information, coupled with the power of the Labor Council and the broad Campaign Committee, got the partnership to the table with the Mayor’s top leaders.

The campaign showed community members the positive role unions can play in their neighborhoods. It also demonstrated why unions matter in the workplace. “We still have to pressure the city to make awards to union contractors,” says Jim Snow, director of organizing for the Painters Union, but “a lot of eyes have been opened among community organizations [that] didn’t know that we have been quietly doing this kind of community-oriented work all along.” 


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Quality Work Through Self-Employment

Traditional wage employment doesn’t work for everyone, and many people dream about the flexibility, earning potential, and control of being their own boss. Since 1988, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment (WI) has provided training, financing, and technical support to low-income women micro-entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. Clients come to WI for many reasons. Many find that they are unable to provide for themselves and their families in low-wage jobs, minimum wage is no living wage for Bay Area families. United Way finds that one of four Bay Area families—nearly half a million households—has income too low to pay for housing, food, transportation, childcare, healthcare, and taxes.1 This problem is particularly acute for immigrants with limited English abilities.

Outcome evaluation research with WI graduates shows that the majority are self-sufficient after participating in the program. Whether or not they start their own business, WI participants see their incomes rise on average $10,000 in the first year. After two years, median household income jumps to $37K from $14K at intake. In addition to the economic advantages of starting a business, WI graduates report that, as entrepreneurs, they are able to do business according to their values—using environmentally sound practices, giving back to the community through volunteerism,2 and philanthropy.3

Micro-businesses Paying Living Wages

Wage increases are often portrayed as damaging to small businesses. The argument suggests that these businesses will not survive if the profit margin is reduced by paying higher wages to workers. Contrary to such claims, research with low-income micro-entrepreneurs who have graduated from training with WI demonstrates that even the smallest businesses owned and operated by individuals with a variety of personal, social, and economic challenges are able to succeed while providing high-quality, well-paying work for others.

Every day, WI works with business owners who supposedly would be hardest hit by mandatory wage increases—those operating on razor-thin budgets with few external resources. WI clients are all low-income women; 83 percent are ethnic minorities; 22 percent have limited or no English-language proficiency; 20 percent are single parents; 12 percent have a documented disability; 33 percent have a high school equivalency education or less. Approximately one in three clients enters the program at or below federal poverty level.

Contrary to common expectations about the ability of microenterprises to pay adequately, WI’s research shows that the average wage paid by graduates—over $15 per hour—is more than double California minimum wage and also significantly exceeds San Francisco’s city-mandated minimum wage. This wage is especially impressive given that many client businesses operate in traditionally low-wage sectors, such as housekeeping and food service.

The Story of Franchesca Valdez


A case in point is Franchesca Valdez, who came to WI in 1996 after closing Club Arte, a failing nightclub business she had owned with two partners. Ms. Valdez came to WI to acquire business management skills and financing. Just 10 months after closing the doors of her joint venture, and with only $20 in cash and a beat up Toyota as capital for a loan with WI, Ms. Valdez reopened her nightclub under a new name, Broadway Studios.

In the decade since, Broadway Studios has grown from a nightclub in a rented building employing two people, into a successful club with more than 20 people in a mix of full-time, part-time, and contracted positions, paying on average $25 per hour. “A lot of the employees have been here five or 10 years,” reports Ms. Valdez. “We’re like a family.”

Creating Quality Work

Franchesca Valdez is not alone. WI’s research, following up with program participants for up to five years after their graduation, shows that every year, more than 200 new jobs are created in Bay Area communities by WI graduates. Since that figure includes only jobs reported by clients who stay in touch with the agency, the actual number is significantly higher.4 WI graduates provide quality jobs for food preparers, retail sales representatives, band members, construction workers, magazine editors, ecological cleaners, light manufacturers for clothing and accessories, and many others. Also, WI clients often specifically seek to provide quality work for youth, single mothers, monolingual immigrants, and people with criminal histories, who otherwise might be unable to get work.

Wages are Just the Start

Despite the common belief that a high wage equals a high-quality job, WI research shows job satisfaction closely tied to other factors, including flexibility, autonomy, stability, opportunities for professional advancement and personal growth, and meaningful work that is aligned with personal values.

Providing flexible, quality jobs was a major motivator for Shoshana Frumkin, who started her business, On the Spot Massage, after being on welfare for 14 years. Just six years after graduating from the WI program, Frumkin provides jobs for 50-55 massage practitioners, and two administrative staff.5 She estimates that most workers have been with the company for at least two years. As someone who had found wage work unsatisfying herself, Ms. Frumkin put a lot of thought into providing work that met more than just the income needs of local massage practitioners.

What she has created in On the Spot is a unique employment model that combines flexibility and stability for the therapists. Many practitioners find that the demands of marketing, scheduling, and bookkeeping detract from their core passion, and they benefit from On the Spot’s handling of the bulk of the administrative work. This model allows massage practitioners to gain regular clientele in a visible environment, while building a private clientele for their own businesses.

The economic benefits from WI’s work in the Bay Area, though multifaceted, can best be illustrated with a simple statistic: For every dollar invested in WI, $23 are generated for the local community. These economic benefits are complemented by a range of benefits to the community when clients give charitably, volunteer and mentor, create environmentally responsible businesses, and take on leadership roles in the community.

WI research shows that when low-income women create well-paying, quality work for themselves and others, everyone wins. For WI graduates, quality work allows people to care and provide for themselves and their families, and benefits business owners, workers, and the entire community.


1.     United Way of the Bay Area, “The Bottom Line: Setting the Real Standard for Bay Area Working Families,” September, 2004.

2.     In surveys with over 200 women selected at random, nine of 10 WI clients report spending time volunteering or mentoring each month.

3.     In the past year, 75 percent of WI clients donated money or made in-kind donations, compared to 45 percent of all Californians. The average value of client gifts over the previous year is $734, more than $500 of which was in cash and over $200 in kind.

4.     Research shows that 70 percent of program participants are running a business making consistent sales within a year of starting the program. Between one in four and one in five of these businesses will create paid work for others.

5.     Ms. Frumkin, like many WI clients, also does business with other local women-owned businesses and hires a WI graduate to do all bookkeeping for On the Spot Massage LLC.


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One Million Good Jobs

This is a story of how the Gamaliel Foundation and the Transportation Equity Network (TEN) took to heart author Jim Collins’ (Good to Great) prescriptions and set about realizing a ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ of moving one million unemployed, underemployed, people of color, women, and poor people into construction jobs with good pay.

Gamaliel and TEN fought for and won a workforce development amendment to the nation’s second biggest spending bill ever, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU), which became law in August of 2005. SAFETEA-LU funds more than $286 billion in highway and transit spending over six years. The workforce amendment treats highway and transit projects as economic development projects, in addition to being transportation initiatives, and creates job and training opportunities on highway and transit construction for local residents.


SAFETEA-LU Sec. 1920 Transportation and Local Workforce Investment

It is the sense of Congress that Federal transportation projects should facilitate and encourage the collaboration between interested persons, including Federal, State, and local governments, community colleges, apprentice programs, local high schools, and other community-based organizations that have an interest in improving the job skills of low-income individuals, to help leverage scarce training and community resources, and to help ensure local participation in the building of transportation projects.

The successful workforce development amendment campaign was led by United Congregations of Metro-East (UCM), an affiliate of Gamaliel based in East St. Louis and Illinois, and supported by three key lawmakers—Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Kit Bond (R-MO), and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL).

Using the ACJC Success Story

The workforce development amendment was based on an earlier ground-breaking program developed by the Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition, a grassroots organization in California, which won an agreement that guaranteed 1,000 job-training slots for low-income people and reserved 30 percent of the work hours for low-income residents on a $2.4 billion Rapid Rail project. The program was a tremendous success and put more people to work than projected, saving the state over half-a-billion dollars in welfare, incarceration, and childcare costs.

Using the SAFETEA-LU budget on highways, $244.1 billion with the ACJC projections, the potential impacts are enormous. One billion in highway expenditures generates 47,500 work years (jobs), so $244.1 billion should generate 11.6 million jobs. About five million of the jobs will be in supporting industries, such as manufacturing I-beams and steel cables, but at least six million jobs will be in the construction field, and it is not unreasonable to expect that one to two million of them can be set aside for apprenticeship positions to move the unemployed and underemployed into construction careers.

A Shared Platform

Aware that in the past, low-income people, women, and minorities had been left out of highway construction opportunities, TEN came up with the following innovative platform—later adopted by the rest of the TEN network—for city and county ordinances, project agreements, and state policies regarding highway construction:

  • Thirty percent of all work hours will be reserved for low-income, women, and minority construction apprentices.
  • Half a percent of the project budget (or in the case of state policy, federal highway funds) will be used for job training programs and contractor incentives that will include recruitment, mentoring, support services, and pre-apprentice programs.

How to Raise Hell with DOTS

Exactly 50 years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, the ground work for the workforce development program was laid at Gamaliel’s 2005 National Leadership Assembly in St. Louis, where 1,200 concerned members rallied to support it. They secured a commitment from a top official at the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) to work with local Gamaliel affiliates to use a pending $500 million interstate highway construction project to generate as many jobs as possible for low-income people, women, and minorities.

Assembly attendees went home to their states with a mandate to form their own workforce development task forces and, this recommendation from Professor Todd Swanstrom of St. Louis University: “Go and raise all sorts of hell with DOTs!” These efforts, supported by a monthly TEN conference call for sharing ideas and materials, seemed to be paying off.

In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm has publicly pledged to direct $4 million in federal highway funds per year towards workforce development. Gamaliel affiliate and statewide TEN member MI-VOICE is currently working on fleshing out the policy agreement with Michigan DOT and other stakeholders.

In May 2006, Metropolitan Congregations United, Gamaliel’s St. Louis affiliate, worked out an agreement with MODOT that reserved 30 percent of all work hours for low-income, women, and minority apprentices. MODOT will also invest half of one percent of the project budget ($2.5 million) in incentives, support services, and training to promote workforce development. MODOT has pledged to follow this policy on a project-by-project basis and also to consider a state policy that encapsulates the workforce platform. Currently, MODOT is in negotiations with Gamaliel’s Kansas City affiliate on a $250 million Kansas City project.

Father Richard Creason, past president of Metropolitan Congregations United, characterized the experience this way: “Going into this campaign felt like David against Goliath. By the end of Friday’s negotiations, it felt more like the chosen people walking together into the Promised Land. A feeling that we accomplished something unique!”


 A Growing Coalition

At least 17 grassroots groups—also Gamaliel affiliates and TEN members—are working on their own workforce development campaigns. They are:

  • Ohio: AMOS in Cincinnati, NOAH in Cleveland, and ACTION in Youngstown
  • New York: ARISE in Albany and NOAH in the Niagara region
  • Missouri: MCU in St. Louis and MORE2 in Kansas City
  • Illinois: UCM in East St. Louis and Granite City SSAC in Chicago
  • Indiana: Interfaith Federation in Gary
  • Michigan: MIVOICE (statewide), MOSES in Detroit, EZEKIEL in Saginaw,
  • ISAAC in Kalamazoo, and JONAH in Battle Creek
  • Minnesota: ISAIAH in Minneapolis

To join the conference calls, get supportive materials, and bring this campaign to your community, contact: Dr. Ron Trimmer, (618) 604-6216, trimmer@charter.net; or Laura Barrett, (314) 443-5915, laurabarrett@gamaliel.org; or visit www.gamaliel.org.

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Work Work Work

Studies have shown that the time workers believe they have to themselves really belongs to an authoritarian presence, particularly on weeknights. For no apparent reason, a subject will up and leave a movie, a party, even a steamy moment of passion. In 97 percent of the cases, the explanation the subject gave was the same: “I have to work tomorrow.”

Further, results of comprehensive survey research show that during the “work week” there’s a dramatic increase in cell phone usage, television-watching, web-surfing, and anti-depressant drug-ingesting, paralleled by an astounding decrease in learning behavior, and a strange affinity for traffic, collars, ties, high heels, panty hose, and pancake make-up, even on stifling hot muggy afternoons. This has led experts to believe that the time a worker can likely claim as his or her own is, in fact, limited to weekends—though with the arrival of the unofficial six-day work week, even this is in doubt.

 But supposing one does have a “good job” with weekends, holidays, benefits, and two weeks of vacation, we might conclude that for two days a week, your life belongs to you. 2 × 52 weeks in a year + 10 days of vacation + the 9 official holidays = 123 days of life per year. Now, if one has gone to college and graduates in 4.65 years, as per government statistics, and works full-time from age 22 until a retirement age of 66, one can count on a total of 123 × 44 years, or 5,412 days of life during this period.

In other words, the average “40-hour” week worker is alive 14.82739726 years (5,412 days / 365 days in a year) from the time he or she is waiting for life to begin after graduation, up until the time he or she is still waiting for life to begin, not long before death. Fourteen years, nine months and a little over 28 days. Let’s round this figure to the 15 year mark, because after all, in spite of statistics, people do manage to get some time off using “sick” days. In fact, if you can manage to swing 10 “sick” days a year and two days off for Thanksgiving and Christmas each, you could pull off 16.2739726 years of life. That’s a bonus of almost 1.4 years.

There you have it folks: 15 years of life, 8.25 of which must be subtracted in that 44 year period, if you’re the average 4.5 hour-a-day TV-watcher, according to Nielsen. Six-and-three-quarters years of life, 21 spent in purgatory waiting for this life, and 29 years of indentured servitude to enrich those who’ve hardly worked at all.

So just don’t do it, is all. Join a union, organize a general strike for a 36-hour or less work week, engage in anti-work. Anti-work at something you love, something that will better our collective lives and bring down a system of primarily unnecessary, even harmful work: like real estate speculation, market manipulation, health insurance gouging, writing government propaganda, and designing nasty widgets for the purpose of blowing up cuddly little children. Stop the machine and turn on the dream, that’s the real work to be done in a society such as ours.


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ACORN Living Wage Resource Center
739 8th Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
(202) 547-2500

P.O. Box 720364
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
(718) 426-2774

Apollo Alliance
1025 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 205
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 955-5665

%altBay Area Localize
436 14th Street, Suite 1218Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 834-0420

Change to Win
1900 L Street, NW, Suite 900
Washington, DC 20036    
(202) 721-0660

Community Labor United
8 Beacon Street, 2nd Floor
Boston, MA 02108
(617) 723-2639

East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy
%alt1714 Franklin Street, Suite 325Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 893-7106

Economic Policy Institute  
1333 H Street, NW
Suite 300, East Tower
Washington, DC 20005-4707
(202) 775-8810

Gamaliel Foundation
203 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 808    
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 357-2639


Good Jobs First
1616 P Street, NW, Suite 210    
Washington, DC 20036    
(202) 232-1616

Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy
464 Lucas Avenue, Suite 202
Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 977-9400

Miami Worker Center
6127 NW 7th Avenue
Miami, FL 33127
(305) 759-8717


National Economic Development and Law Center (NEDLC)
2201 Broadway, Suite 815
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 251-2600

People Organized to Win Employment Rights
32  7th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 864-8372
101 Broadway
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 663-2333

Prison Activist Resource Center
P.O. Box 339
Berkeley, CA 94701
(510) 893-4648

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
760 N. First Street
San Jose, CA 95112
(408) 287-6707

Sweatshop Watch
1250 So. Los Angeles Street, Suite 212
Los Angeles, CA 90015
(213) 748-5945

Transportation Equity Network
Center for Community Change
1000 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20007
(207) 339-9343

UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education
2521 Channing Way #5555     
Berkeley, CA 94720-5555     %alt
(510) 642-0323

WalMart Watch
1730 M Street, NW, Suite 601
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 557-7440


Women of Color Resource Center
1611 Telegraph Avenue #303
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 444-2700

Women's Initiative for Self Employment
519 17th Street, Suite 110
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 287-3100

The Workplace Project
91 N. Franklin Street, Suite 207 
Hempstead, NY 11550
(516) 565-5377


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RP&E Release Party, March 14, 2007, 6-8 p.m.

%alt Race, Poverty & the Environment
Release Party

Get a first look at the newest issue: JUST jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice

Photo Exhibit and Reception in Urban Habitat's new conference room & office with welcoming remarks by:

David Bacon, Photographer and Journalist

Rev. Phil Lawson of Black Alliance for Just Immigration

Organized Workers of the Woodfin Hotel in Emeryville

Joe Brooks of PolicyLink & SEC Working Group Member

Event Info
436 14th St.
Suite 1205
Oakland, California 94612
Wednesday March 14, 2007
6:00-8:00 p.m.

RSVP recommended!

Call (510) 839-9510 or
Reply to this email: rsvp@urbanhabitat.org
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