Jobs with Justice Holds Annual Meeting in Miami

Over 1,000 activists from 36 states and seven other countries met at the Jobs with Justice Annual Meeting from June 19-22 in Miami, Florida. The gathering, the largest annual meeting yet of the national organization that brings together workers, community groups, religious groups, and students to support workers rights, was held in the very city were Jobs with Justice was first founded over 15 years ago, during the hard-fought Eastern Airlines strike.

“We come here,” said JwJ Executive Director Fred Azcarate in an opening session, “to celebrate the work we do day in and day out,” and the conference did have a largely celebratory, upbeat atmosphere. Although many speakers and panelists criticized the anti-union policies of President Bush and discussed the challenges facing workers today, the focus was largely on victories local unions or Jobs with Justice coalitions had had in recent months, with a secondary focus on planning for future actions.

In a panel on "Building a Powerful Movement for Universal Health Care," Valerie Long, the President of SEIU Local 82 in Washington, DC discussed her cleaners' local's health care coverage victory in its recent contract negotiations. Sue Lucas, of United Nurses and Allied Professionals (UNAP) Local 5109 in Vermont, made a similar speech in the same panel touting the recent contract victories of her nurse's local.


Sara Mersha, an Executive Board member active with Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, and Marilyn Sneiderman, the AFL-CIO’s director of field mobilization, presented JwJ’s national strategic plan which calls for local coalitions to focus on four major campaigns over the next few months. The campaigns will focus on: global justice, which will in the near future include fighting the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas; organizing for a day of action around the right to organize (co-sponsored by JwJ and the AFL-CIO) scheduled for December 10; supporting immigrant's rights, particularly with organizing for the Hotel and Restaurant Employee-headed Immigrant Worker's Freedom Rides; and organizing in support of universal health care.

Western Massachusetts JwJ activist Stephanie Luce told Labor Notes that the nationally coordinated campaigns of the past centered more around using "tools" like Worker's Rights Board hearings, public hearings which bring attention to local abuses of worker's rights. “This time it feels like they are focusing more on the content of the issues.” Luce believes that, although the step to bring campaigns to the national level is a step forward, Western Mass JwJ will continue to focus primarily on local struggles.


Jobs with Justice has grown exponentially in the past 15 years; Azcarate noted that the reason its gathering is called an Annual Meeting is "that it started out as just that-a meeting." The first such gathering in Florida 15 years before had about two dozen people, Azcarate said.

“It’s hard to imagine a more diverse, more youthful confab of energetic activists” than the group that came together in Miami, said Rand Wilson, communications director for SEIU Local 285 and a Boston JwJ activist, who has been to every one of the organization’s Annual Meetings.

But along with its growth, which is a positive development for the social movement unionism, Jobs with Justice espouses, come some complications.

The annual meeting was the first since Jobs with Justice created a formal board at the national level last year, and since that board's decision to implement a chartering process for local coalitions. The chartering process, which JwJ's board said in a memo was created "to ensure that local coalitions bearing the JwJ name are meeting our network's standards," has thus far proved too difficult for a only handful of local coalitions, including ones in Tucson, Arizona; Bloomington, Indiana; and the Triangle area in North Carolina.

JwJ has given these coalitions, which are currently listed in JwJ's "Worker's Rights Directory" as "organizing committees," six months to comply with the chartering criteria, after which they will no longer be officially connected with JwJ if they have not complied. At least one organizing committee, in Bloomington, Indiana, has requested and received an extension from the national office.

Chartering requirements mandate that local coalitions have at least five unions and five community, faith, or student organizations in their chapter; that each chapter have at least 100 signed JwJ 'pledge cards' on file (these cards are the bedrock of JwJ membership, in which pledgers commit to "be there" five times in the next year for "someone else's fight, as well as my own"); and that chapters participate in a twice-yearly process of reporting activities, organizational growth, and finances to the national office. In return, local coalitions have the right to participate in national trainings, receive support from the national staff, use signs and other materials bearing the JwJ name and logo, and be listed on the website and in the Workers' Rights Directory.

JwJ maintains that its decision to create a formal board and put local coalitions through a chartering process is not an attempt to limit local coalition autonomy. The October 2002 memo establishing the chartering process says that JwJ "value[s] that informality, the autonomy of our local coalitions, and our lack of bureaucracy. But, because we have grown so much in the last five years we need to make some structural changes in order to keep growing in a healthy and productive way."



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Jeff Vincent, a member of the Bloomington JwJ steering committee, believes that the chartering process may have developed in part out of some concerns about organizations affiliated with different chapters. "Certain organizations [were] running around doing things," Vincent said, "saying they are with JwJ," which at times might have bothered the national office.

“It’s sort of the inevitable, bureaucratic control,” says Wilson. “But it’s probably the kind of thing that allows you to have certain benchmarks about what constitutes a coalition. It used to be you put five chuckleheads in a room, and bingo, you had a JwJ coalition. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.”


New developments in JwJ also seem to reflect its growing connection to the AFL-CIO and many of its member unions. Indeed, the Day of Action around the right to organize is a joint project between JwJ and the AFL-CIO.

"One of JwJ’s main strengths," Luce says, " is to kind of pull the official labor movement, the AFL, into a more social movement unionism perspective. And I think they can do that, to some degree." But, she adds, "The AFL brings constraints as well as resources. I think the AFL will often then try and pull the relationship back to the right, to some extent. I think for JwJ it will always be a struggle, to kind of pull the AFL to their side of it."

As of October 2002, the JwJ board had seven representatives from international unions and the national AFL-CIO, one representative of a state federation, one rep from a local CLC, one rep from an SEIU Local in Florida, four JwJ staffers, two student group representatives, and four representatives from community and faith-based organizations.

Although the majority of officials and staffers from AFL unions at the conference came from a small number of internationals in the federation's more organizing-conscious wing (SEIU, HERE, CWA, and AFSCME, especially), there is also a growing presence from other more conservative unions in the federation on an international level, as well as from the AFL-CIO itself.

“It’s a huge victory,” says Rand Wilson of the AFL-CIO’s increasing involvement of JWJ. “I think that the large number of AFL-CIO people who were at the meeting, and the general spirit of collaboration between the two is a recognition by the AFL-CIO that it needs that activist wing that’s grassroots, bottom up, democratic and open.”

But some local JwJ activists worry that growing AFL-CIO involvement means that the coalition will not retain sufficient autonomy from the official labor movement. They worry that this influence will promote the already unbalanced relationship between unions and community groups in solidarity work. As one community organizer that works with a local coalition put it: “When unions can get past '911 solidarity' in their relationships with community organizations,"-that is, forging short-term relationships with community groups only when they are in crisis- “then we can build labor-community coalitions that better reflect the Jobs with Justice mission."

Of course, the tensions between unions and community groups existed long before Jobs with Justice, and some say that JwJ has done more to heal than inflame those tensions in the past 15 years. Paul McLennan, a retired Amalgamated Transit Union member and a JwJ activist in the Atlanta area, says that low union density in the South means that relations between unions and community groups are often more equitable. In Atlanta, McLennan says, “We’re freer to form those [union-community] coalitions on the basis of equality. There are no illusions here that the unions can do anything on their own.”

Gene Carroll, treasurer for New York Jobs with Justice, believes that the need to be in an equal partnership with community groups exists throughout the country, and that this is what makes Jobs with Justice so important. “More and more,” Carroll says, “union leaders and activists are understanding that if a dispute with an employer and a union remains simply between that employer and that union, and doesn’t involve the larger community interests,” than the union will be at a great disadvantage.

Carroll argues that a growing AFL-CIO presence only makes JwJ’s social movement unionism a more powerful force. “Jobs with Justice is not here to dump on the limits of the AFL-CIO,” he says. “We see ourselves as part of a larger labor family, and a larger social family that is concerned about economic injustice in the workplace. So we want to partner with the AFL-CIO, we don’t want to focus on whatever limitations we may believe it has.”

Peter Ian Asen is a Labor Notes intern, and has been an activist with Rhode Island Jobs with Justice for the past three years.