Friday, July 29, 2011

The Politics and (Clean) Power of Coalition

The public action, for me at least, was actually quite a diappointment. My roommate canceled at really the last moment, leaving me to represent Trinity House. Then I noticed it was still drizzling after the explosive thunderstorms of the previous night. 30 minutes later I discovered that those same storms had knocked out the electricity of the man whom I was to meet at the L stop. The alarm of this man, also named Joe, was thus disabled, which extended his beauty sleep until I called him while watching the trains go past. Joe commented that traffic was in the Loop was worse than normal (as a rule I avoid driving downtown), so we had only five minutes when we passed by Daley Plaza. But we still had to park. Joe told me to just go, take his sign along with mine, and he would join me at City Hall.

I walked hurriedly by the ominous brown-tinted windows of the Daley Center, trying to dodge raindrops and suit-clad lawyers. Wait, did I fail to mention that I had never been to City Hall before? Crap! I entered into the classical revivalist building and was greeted by "office of the mayor" signs. This was the place, all right. Following the sound of cheering coming from somewhere through the stairwell, I finally got the hallway where over 100 people, most dressed in green shirts, hooted and hollered for the aldermen who were introducing the ordinance. And then it ended. I waited around, signed in, got a t-shirt, and then checked my watch. It was going to be late day at the office. Oi.

Why do we do this again?

"This" referring to attending planning meetings, writing op-eds, knocking on doors, and occasionally attending public actions. Essentially, community organizing. Seriously, after a frustration like Thursday morning, why do we try to organize for change?

Well, we all have our reasons. That's called self-interest.

To give a brief lesson on organizing (get a longer one by checking the Midwest Academy's "Organizing for Social Change"), it pretty much begins with identifying one's self-interest. That does not mean that one is interested in only oneself, or selfishness. A mother's self-interest in a community policing program could be keeping her children safe when they play on the playground. Of course, that safe self-interest in a mother's children's safety might also persuade her to support the failed war on drugs, which has not really made the streets safer but has needlessly locked up an awful lot of African-American men (and spend billions of tax-dollar money). The next lesson in organizing might have to be "framing" the issue...

My self-interest that drove me to City Hall on Thursday was the health of my adopted home neighborhood. Fisk Power Plant in Pilsen, just across the river from my home Bridgeport, has been linked to about 40 deaths annually from the particulate matter that it spews every day. Apparently, a coalition of national and community groups has been organizing to clean up Fisk and its sister plant, Crawford, just a bit south and west, for years. The plants had been grandfathered past the Clean Air Act regulations of the 1970's with the condition that they eventually get up to snuff. But they never did.

What about the other groups that were represented in that hallway? Well, that's the tricky part. Some were expected: the Sierra Club, which recruited me at my church, Greenpeace, and a smattering local green organizations. But then there were the labor unions. And that's where the story gets interesting. SEIU and the Steelworkers both supported the ordinance. Why? Green jobs would likely be new opportunities to organize workers. And that's where the electrical workers get angry. Closing Fisk and Crawford would mean the loss of over about 200 jobs taken by IBEW-represented members. The ordinance would provide funding for transferring of jobs and retraining, but everyone knows that it's not the same as keeping one good job.

As a quasi-labor organizer, this fascinates me and fills me with dread at the same time. There are some real power players involved here, including Midwest Generation, which owns the dirty plants, several powerful labor unions, several more community and environmental groups, and of course, "dose guys" we voted into City Hall. It thrills me to part of such a showdown.

However, it pains me to see unions fight each other when collective bargaining is being cut all over the United States and "right-to-work" legislation is rearing its ugly head. The cruelest cut is how unions sometimes back policies that destroy communities. In this case, it is IBEW that supports the maintenance of out-of-date coal power plants that are poisoning my neighbors (and likely yours truly, but on a lesser scale). Another example is in West Virginia where the Mineworkers were advocating for strip mining Blair Mountain, where one of the great labor conflicts in the United States took place a century ago. Far too often business style unions support actions that alienate them from the local community and from the larger public.

Unfortunately, what I see in my near South Side neighborhood is the creation of a false dichotomy; choose between good, union jobs or clean air for breathing. I am an organizer for a worker justice group, so I am well aware of what the loss of even more jobs means. But I am also a neighbor, so I see people have asthma attacks too. There must be a way that these two identities, these two forms of self-interest, can work together to create a cleaner, safer, and more prosperous South Side. That's why I waited in the rain for a sleeping man and why I showed up to my office 2 hours later than I usually do.

I support the Chicago Clean Power Ordinance. I hope that many others--union, environmentalist, alderman, Bridgeporter--do the same.

Monday, July 18, 2011

He's Just a Boss: Ministry With Low-wage Workers

It was a chilly day in Chicago—nothing that would compare to true Windy City winter, but still. The group of 30-40 people was a mixed bunch. We were union members, clergy, community organizers, journalists, and most importantly, low wage workers. We made a picket line outside the carwash on Broadway and made our presence felt. Luckily, the owner got word pretty quickly, and he invited us—all of us—into the waiting room, out of the November chill.

We stayed there for about an hour and a half, waiting for the owner to negotiate some sort of settlement with a Methodist minister, the Arise Chicago workers’ center director, and, most importantly, the carwash worker who was owed several thousand dollars in back wages. Finally, the trio came out of the office, announced that they had reached an agreement, and we filed out of the waiting room.

The carwash worker left with a $1,000 check in his hand. And a warning to never come back. The worker stood with us outside the carwash and thanked the group for accompanying him. He told us proudly that as long as we stay together, there is no reason to be afraid of unethical employers. “Es solamente un patrĂ³n.” He’s just a boss.

We work in a culture these days where we have good reason to be afraid of our bosses. 10% unemployment is reality all across the United States. Wages aren’t even worth what they were back in the 1970’s. And for folks who work for the lowest wages, missing work for a week means not eating. Or not making rent. Or not buying medication for your children. But workers’ centers are fighting the fear.

Workers’ centers make up a movement of low wage-earning, mostly immigrant, often undocumented workers who stand up out of the shadows imposed by irrational laws and unscrupulous bosses and demand respect. They often work in industries that are intentionally excluded from labor laws—domestic workers, farmworkers, restaurant workers, day laborers—and far too often ignored by labor unions. They endure abuses that make your stomach turn, your eyes water, your fists clench.

But members of workers’ centers are far from powerless. They have made national networks that wield growing influence (NDLON, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, ROC United, and Interfaith Worker Justice) in local, state and even federal policy. Workers’ centers are on the front lines in the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform, fighting against the scourge of wage theft, and supporting their sisters and brothers in formal labor unions. These often invisible workers leave the margins that dominant culture has left for them and then take center stage.

I am very blessed to work with the workers centers in the national network of Interfaith Worker Justice. The organizers and the worker-members of the workers’ centers continually inspire me with their creativity, courage, and perseverance.

 One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible comes from the first epistle of John, "There is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out all fear..." (1 John 4:18). Surely it is love - love of their families, love of their friends, love of their neighbors - that drives low-wage workers to support one another in their struggles for a life of respect and dignity. After all, I saw no fear in the "carwashero" on that chilly November day.

I pray that we all minister with no fear as we minister with our all of our neighbors.