What Can We Learn from 25 Years of Jobs with Justice?
As AFL-CIO convention delegates gather in Los Angeles this weekend to discuss, as President Rich Trumka has put it, how to “do things different,” and become “integrated in the community in every way,” they would do well to take a page from the book of the far feistier Jobs with Justice. Trumka says labor now needs to make common cause with other progressive organizations, from the Sierra Club to the NAACP; local JwJ chapters have been working in community coalitions for 25 years.
Reviewer Mark Vorpahl from the Portland, Oregon, chapter extracts some lessons from JwJ’s record, and points the way forward. –Eds.
It’s no secret that the last 30 years have seen a brutal corporate assault on U.S. workers. Incomes and union membership rates have plummeted, unemployment is soaring, and the two corporate parties have joined forces to go after our previously untouchable historic gains.
This class war has largely been one-sided—but not entirely. The organization Jobs with Justice, for one, demonstrates that the workers’ movement is still lively, innovative, and capable of resistance.
A well-organized, tantalizing, and frequently inspiring new collection of interviews and essays, Jobs with Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices, traces the group’s history and points toward what could be a promising future.
JwJ is an ongoing national coalition with 40 chapters where, in the words of co-founder Stewart Acuff, “community leaders and leaders of faith can sit down as equals with labor leaders and plan campaigns and plan initiatives.”
It has created a space where union members can count on activists focused on community issues to support their workplace struggles—and vice versa.
‘I’ll Be There’
JwJ’s “I’ll Be There” pledge encapsulates this commitment. “Those who signed the ‘I’ll Be There’ pledge card realized that if we were there five times a year for someone else’s fight, we might start winning,” according to Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, a co-founder of JwJ and national board member.
While the pledge could be reduced to “I’ll show up at your event if you show up at mine,” victories won through collaboration promote a deeper solidarity. Participants begin to realize that no struggle is isolated, and learn the meaning of “An injury to one is an injury to all” from their own experience.
With this model, JwJ is able to stretch the boundaries of what union leaders are usually willing to take on. As Carl Rosen, co-founder of Chicago JwJ and president of the United Electrical Workers Western Region, wrote:
To me, the most important impact of Chicago Jobs with Justice has been its role in breaking [machine politics] up, and instead helping Chicago regain a much more independent labor movement where the labor leadership can stand up on behalf of what they think is right for their members. They aren’t beholden to elected officials or anyone else.
By uniting union and non-union workers, JwJ can even sometimes embolden labor to take on corporate politicians of both parties. It builds its power for political change from the grassroots—rather than running lobbying campaigns with no strength behind them, as many unions do.
The book describes campaigns ranging from strikes and union organizing drives to health care, living wage, and anti-discrimination efforts, where JwJ has played a pivotal role in winning. JwJ was even a key player in bringing the U.S. Social Forum to Atlanta in 2007.
One disappointment is the omission of the Vermont Workers Center, which is that state's chapter of Jobs with Justice. In 1998 the VMC launched its “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign and changed what was politically possible in the state. As a result, Vermont politicians passed legislation with the potential to create universal health care and a single-payer plan—in striking contrast with the rest of the country and with Obamacare.
VWC activists are now following up with “Put People First: The People’s Budget Campaign,” an alternative to the cuts only/shared sacrifice budgets of the Democrats and the Republicans. The book would have greatly benefited from detailed discussion of the VMC’s work.
A Single National Campaign Is Needed
Reading about these victories is inspiring. But there are limitations, too.
JwJ chapters’ efforts are largely local and scattered all over the issues map, without prioritization. Meanwhile, politicians of the 1% are busy erasing the gains made by the union and civil rights movements, and the political voice of workers has diminished to an ignorable whisper. The rights to jobs, health care, education, housing, and a good retirement are under attack, while the corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes to lift the well-being of all.
The AFL-CIO has passed resolutions and some labor leaders have made powerful statements in defense of these rights. But they have not committed serious resources toward building a mass movement. Gains for workers are now considered politically impossible and unrealistic.
By fighting its many defensive local battles, JwJ cannot hope to pose a challenge to corporate domination, except in isolated incidences. While admirable, these campaigns are like sticking fingers into the cracks of a crumbling dam.
How might JwJ develop to meet the present challenges? The group could consolidate its efforts into a focused national campaign that can draw in the widest layers of the 99%.
The movement should demand a federal jobs program—as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom did, and the AFL-CIO is on record advocating—to be paid for by taxing the rich, the corporations, and Wall Street.
Because of its efforts over the last 25 years, JwJ is in a good position to promote a united movement of labor and its community allies for economic justice—starting first and foremost with the right to good jobs.
Mark Vorpahl is a steward in Service Employees Local 49, social justice activist, and member of the Portland chapter of Jobs with Justice. He can be reached at Portland[at]workerscompass[dot]org.