Working Class Values in 2012



As a half million union members across the country prepare to put on their walking shoes and spend the summer and fall knocking on the doors of their neighbors and co-workers to get out the vote,  they will be making history.  Labor's unprecedented campaign this year is aimed at organizing workers' political power community by community.


"What's at stake are basic values," says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.  "Will we bow to the top 1%?  Or will we honor the simple idea that made America great and will make America great again -- respect for hard work and the contributions of every person?"


Organizing working class communities to vote on the basis of working class values is a powerful antidote to the poisonous right-wing mantra that each one is on their own. 


The basic working class values of fairness, dignity, solidarity and respect brought together hundreds of thousands of people to resist attacks on public workers in Wisconsin and Ohio, and attacks on immigrant workers in Arizona.


Announcing that President Obama has "earned the support of working people for a second term," Trumka noted his accomplishments including pushing job creation measures through a hostile Congress.  "Each of the Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, has pledged to uphold the special privileges of Wall Street and the 1%--privileges that have produced historic economic inequality and drowned out the voices of working people in America," said Trumka. 


The goals of the AFL CIO also include winning a shift in Congress to end Republican rule of the House and obstruction of the Senate. 


The Citizens United decision has unleashed wild pro-corporate mega-funding of the Republican extreme right-wing.  Labor's strength lies in its numbers.  Instead of contributing through the Democratic Party, the unions will put their resources into building up their own member structures for political action. 


Labor '96 was the launch of the first independent union get out the vote program.  Today, Labor 2012 is  fulfilling the original slogan, "building to win - building to last."  Methods and structures are now in place in most unions to mobilize large numbers of their members.  This year they will be able to speak to the community at large, opening new avenues for political independence.


A dramatic example of labor's independent politics in New Haven, Connecticut  is gaining national attention. 


Last spring, a group of workers in New Haven were brought together by their unions for a leadership training in values based organizing.  They were custodians and clerks (Unite Here Locals 34 and 35), group home workers (1199 SEIU) and social workers (AFSCME).  Many had their first big political experiences traveling the country to campaign for Barack Obama in 2008.  They brought to the table their life experiences and their readiness to stand up and fight for their co-workers, families and neighbors to have a decent life.


No one imagined that nearly every one of those workers would get elected to the New Haven Board of Aldermen just a few months later, filling two-thirds of the 30 seats and changing the political climate. The bold action to run union activists in so many wards was based on the idea that it is the workers who should be the decision makers.  Their story offers great inspiration for 2012.


New Haven's population is majority African American and Latino. Deep poverty exists side by side with the lavish wealth of Yale University, the dominant employer.  Last year 32 youth died from gun and street violence. Something had to be done.


New Haven's new governing body is the product of a reawakened activism throughout the city.  Relationships between the unions at Yale and the community had grown close over several years of organizing around struggles for community benefits and a community voter project.


Service and  maintenance members of Local 35 at Yale, and clerical and technical members of Local 34, along with members of the graduate student union GESO  led the Aldermanic campaign effort neighborhood by neighborhood, ward by ward.  Door knocking began in the spring to talk with people about what was on their minds.


Anger and dissatisfaction were widespread at the lack of investment in neighborhoods compared to downtown, the lack of jobs for community residents created by big new development, and the shocking number of youth killed in street violence.


At first people shrugged off the home visits saying that nothing will ever change. But as the summer wore on and attitudes shifted, more and more residents began joining the team of door knockers in their wards.  The idea became contagious that participation and unity can win positive change.  Across the city over 400 people, many for the first time, and many youth, made the commitment to knock on the doors of their neighbors four days a week and make the case for why they should come out and vote.


There was electricity in the air at an overflow rally before election day for the 15 primary challenges to incumbent Aldermen.  No one could remember a campaign rally with such a diverse turnout truly reflecting every section and population of the city including the youth. When 14 won it was a stunning victory.  It showed that people were looking for leadership and they responded.  In the general election a total of 21 Aldermen elected are a part of the labor community movement.


It was the relationships built during door knocking that negated an all-out effort aided by the media to discredit the movement by claiming that union members holding public office would only represent their union's agenda and not the agenda of the neighborhood.  Residents could see for themselves that the agenda is one and the same.  The working class values of these candidates were clear. 


The fact that these candidates had learned their leadership skills within the union became a positive factor.  The anti-union split and divide tactic fell flat.  At the doors campaign workers would explain how proud they were to be working for their candidate "who knows how to organize and win a grievance because of all the experience in the union.  Together we can do the same thing in the neighborhood."


However,  the anti-union tactic continues post-election.  The new leadership is also being tested with attempts to create racial divisions by the old political structure.  Defeating these attempts requires an ongoing structure in each ward, turning the contacts made during the campaign into permanent volunteers who will keep their block informed and mobilize when need be.


After the election and before the January 1 inauguration there was a remarkable overflow meeting at Conte School.  People from all parts of the city, organizations, clergy, block watches and other groups took part.  Many who had been looking narrowly at their own concerns were now talking about common issues of economic justice.


At this meeting proposals were presented and the priorities for the new Board of Aldermen were developed - a jobs pipeline, meeting the needs of youth, and ending the violence.  Research and solutions were then laid out in a booklet published by the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, "A Renaissance for All of Us - Building an Inclusive prosperity for New Haven." 


The report acknowledges that "closing the gap between rich and poor, averting the extinction of the middle class, and revitalizing the economy will require large-scale structural reform on a national level and a reinvention of America's place in the global economy.  However, there are concrete steps we can take on the local level to make sure New Haven has good jobs, opportunities for young people, and strong communities for all."   


The report draws on the Grass Roots Community Agenda developed over the past eight years and projects four concrete steps:


-                    Make sure more people have access to good jobs with living wages, affordable health care and organizing rights by improving the standards for service sector jobs in the growing fields of health care, education and hospitality.

-                    Connect local people to good jobs through local recruitment and training programs that guarantee full time employment for all qualified participants upon completion

-                    Make sure more people have a voice in decisions about development projects in order to prioritize job access, affordable housing and other community issues.

-                    Increase civil participation and engagement year-round (not just on Election Day) by making sure our communities are organized, educated and informed of their rights, opportunities for involvement, and the plans and proposals that will shape the future of their city.


As the big challenge of shaping and enacting these proposals unfolds, the ability to mobilize neighborhood  input and support is key.  Leadership building at the ward and neighborhood level is required to establish permanent organizations that can respond to problems and mobilize on a year round basis.


Youth played a significant part in this election.  In one ward, the Young Communist League was the core of the campaign.  Voters were very impressed at the interest and dedication of high school youth knocking on their doors.  In turn, the youth got the experience of a successful collective effort that won.


Without waiting to catch their breath after the primary, the youth organized a Jobs for Youth conference in late September.  They formed themselves into the New Elm City Dream and began meeting weekly to organize a march for youth jobs prior to the general election. 


Over 200 people came out for the candle light vigil remembering all the youth who had been killed to violence.  They marched to City Hall, joined by union members and Occupy New Haven, where they were greeted by elected officials and union leaders.


Six weeks later the New Haven Labor Council joined with Occupy for another march from City Hall to Wall St near Yale University.  New Elm City Dream was asked to lead that march of 1,000.


The work of these youth has helped the labor community coalition shape its agenda.  Likewise, participation in the political process by these youth with the unions has given them experience and confidence in discussing issues and getting commitments from their peers.


When Jarvis Tyner, Executive Vice Chair of the Communist Party came to meet with the youth in February, there was also an opportunity to exchange ideas with some of the newly elected Aldermen.  When he placed their election experience  into the national context of defeating the right-wing in 2012, he received an enthusiastic response..


In New Haven there are now no Republicans elected to city government.  The same is true in Hartford, Connecticut's capitol city, where voters elected three Working Families party candidates and six Democrats to their city council.  However the state's open Senate seat is expected to be a sharp contest between a Tea Party Republican and a progressive member of the House.


The right of workers to a voice at work with union representation, the role of government for the common good, the equal rights of racially oppressed people and women, the chance for youth to earn, learn and live are all at stake in the elections of 2012.


By placing the struggle for working class values at the center of the Labor 2012 campaign, Richard Trumka is preparing the way for battles beyond the election, objectively laying the basis for a larger, more powerful, independent voice for labor and allies that can put working class concerns at the front of the national agenda.


It will take the leadership of the labor movement, the mobilization of the community, and tireless one-on-one conversations about whose interests each candidate represents in every election district across this country to win this epic election battle for the White House, the Congress and State Houses on the side of working people.  It can be done.







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