WASHINGTON DC-Executive Director Sarita Gupta asserted that the Jobs with Justice coalition is needed "more than ever" at their 25th anniversary celebration here on August 6th. Several speakers, including President Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers of America, emphatically agreed with her.
Cohen told the story of the first beginnings of the organization after a series of particularly severe labor setbacks in December of 1986. He and Congressman John Conyers went to a senior statesman, Congressman Gus Hawkins, with an idea for broadening support for working people and increasing their range of options for action. Hawkins asked if it was all about jobs, and Cohen replied, "We don't just want jobs, we need jobs with justice." Quickly afterward, ten unions in the old AFL-CIO Industrial Department agreed to bring the coalition to life, Cohen said.
Cohen's next topic underlined the truth of the earlier assertion. In less than four hours, he told the 400 or so activists assembled in a banquet room at the Omni Shoreham hotel, 50,000 Verizon workers would be going on strike if management did not respond to their just demands.
Management, Cohen told the rapt audience, was trying to take away everything that the organized workers had ever won. The fight was sure to be a hard one. The President of one of the mightiest industrial unions in America then told the activists, many of whom were not even as old as the coalition they were celebrating, that the union could not win without the Jobs with Justice coalition.
True to its purpose, Jobs with Justice has carried out both of the missions originally intended. They have broadened the base of support for working people, and they have inventively multiplied the arsenal of labor's strategies.
Both were illustrated the day before, when the entire conference joined local activists in a picket at Walmart's headquarters. They took up the sidewalks on both sides of the street, and then convened in the middle of the street to chant and rally. They brought a drummer and a brass band to help keep up the rhythms.
Speakers made it clear that the biggest employer in America must improve the lot of its employees and, further, must begin showing respect for the communities it enters. One testament to the strength of the action came from Walmart management, who shut down their office for the afternoon!
Diversity was an unspoken theme of the conference. Barriers of race, geography, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, background, and everything else fell before the enthusiasm of the assembled activists. Speakers and workshop activists were from all walks of life. Topics ranged from the time-tested basic rules of organizing to the latest opportunity-creating technical breakthroughs. Age was respected, to be sure, but youthful confidence and enthusiasm dominated every encounter.
Even in these difficult times, encouragement was in every breath of the conference. Some of the most encouraging words came from Joe Hansen, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and from U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Hansen hailed "twenty-five years of solid benefits" for his union's collaboration with the coalition. Hansen said, "UFCW is stronger because of the work that JwJ does."
Solis began, "As Labor Secretary, I'm telling you that everything you're doing here today really does matter!" She listed many improvements in her department that she and others had made with backing from President Obama, and commended the confidence of Jobs with Justice and other organizations in showing their support. She told the cheering group, "Your energy and your enthusiasm are contagious!" There were three standing ovations for Hilda Solis.
While preparing for the future, leaders of the organization did not forget its past. They have created the Reverend James Orange Award in honor of one of their founders. Reverend Orange had an illustrious career with the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, the AFL-CIO, and with Jobs with Justice. The award recipient at the big banquet on August 6 was Orange's longtime friend and colleague, Reverend Dr. Calvin S Morris, Executive Director, Community Renewal Society, and a member of the Board of Jobs with Justice. Reverend Morris spoke only a few words on the glories of the past. Like the entire Jobs with Justice conference, his eyes were on the coming battles.