Jobs with Justice conference calls for working class unity

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — While the positive work of the Jobs with Justice (JwJ) network were evident at their National Conference May 2-4 in Providence, R.I., new trends were also evident. The organization that was founded by five large industrial unions in 1987 has continued to grow and fulfill its original purpose of reaching outside to assist the union movement. It has also taken on more general tasks of organizing the entire working class both in America and abroad.

Executive Director Sarita Gupta announced proudly that the group had exceeded its goal of tripling its activist data base, and that 45 active coalitions now belonged directly to the network. Each coalition includes unions, churches, community groups, civil rights organizations, and occupation groups not easily incorporated into the legal and traditional structures of unions. Some chapters have been organized in Brazil and other countries. There is an affiliated student organization called the “student labor action project (SLAP).”

Domestic workers, independent taxi drivers, day laborers, security guards, former prisoners, mobile home owners, tenants, imported immigrant construction workers, and other hard-to-organize groups now look to Jobs with Justice and its associated networks for help in organizing. Their confidence is rewarded with success after success, as explained by speakers at the conference. At the same time, the organization’s commitment to organized labor continues, as shown by its commitment to national health care, fair trade laws, and the right to organize as codified in the Employee Free Choice Act. One JwJ goal is to gather 1 million signed commitments for this vital American legislation.

Jobs with Justice is a tax deductible (code 501c3) organization, and thus cannot endorse or support political candidates, but a number of workshop leaders pointed out that a fundamental change in the government is needed to accomplish the many goals of organized labor and working people.

Gupta took note of the giant upsurge in American political activism, which she referred to as a “sea change.”

Internationalism was evident throughout the conference. A raffle was conducted to benefit Colombians, and a large group of “guest” workers from India took the stage to explain their militant fight to make American contractors live up to their promises. The men and women from India had already marched from New Orleans, where they were brought as cheap labor for hurricane Katrina disaster clean-up, to Washington DC. They announced that they would begin fasting for justice on May 14. The Jobs with Justice Education Fund is conducting a world-wide fight for living wages that includes worker correspondents and cooperating organizations in Asian nations.

The first speaker introduced at the first plenary session set off a pattern for wildly enthusiastic responses that lasted through the entire event. When International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) Organizing Director Peter Olney announced that his union had shut down West Coast ports on May 1 to oppose the Mid-East war, 1,000 American activists rose to shout, applaud, and shake their fists in solidarity. Olney said that government leaders viewed the ILWU action as if it had been an “act of defiance.” “Of course it was an act of defiance!” he told the wildly enthusiastic supporters.

Hardly any sector of the world working class, hardly any concern of workers, was overlooked during the two-day conference.

A new major strategic planning process to meet the needs of the new situation was emphasized throughout with a resounding call for unity and solidarity to meet the shifting challenges mounted by the power elite. There could be no doubt whose side JwJ is on.

Not only has JwJ proven itself a powerful force that is completely on the side of working people, but it is clearly expanding its activities to include the entire working class at home and abroad. Not since the disastrous ideological diversion of the Congress of Industrial Organizations during the Cold War has America seen this level of commitment within our American working class!

Jobs with Justice leaders reject any description of their organization as one that primarily studies and talks. They are nothing if not an activist organization, and they demonstrated it with a major march of a diverse crowd of about 2,000 from the conference hotel to the Rhode Island state capitol, where they demanded fair treatment for state workers. Chants included, “People come first!” The speakers pointed out that the state of Rhode Island is operating at a $450 million deficit and the “economy is going belly up.” The speakers noted that 29 states are operating at a deficit now.

The clear demand was to invest in the community instead of the prisons and military.

Janet Valencia of the Tucson JwJ chapter described her experience at the march as “I thought it was very powerful, moving and inspirational to be part of such a large sea of humanity. It made me realize the power the working class could have to bring about change in our government. It was very moving to see all the unions represented – firefighters on Harleys, a huge 18 wheeler with the Teamsters sign and logo on it, AFSCME, faith based groups and students. It was like a celebration of the power we have together in unity to achieve the demands to advance the working class.”

At a workshop on “Low-wage Workers Organizing! Workers’ Centers,” one of the panelists began his short address in Spanish with the familiar slogan “Workers of the world, unite!”

A workshop moderated by Nick Unger of AFL-CIO clarified tactics to maximize unity in the fight for health care. He suggested that the 2008 election is more than just picking the pilot to fly the plane, it is about picking which direction the plane is going. He pointed out the importance of talking to people about their concerns rather than trying to dictate to them their concerns in organizing efforts. He was clear that the people in power will try to divide us and we need to strive for unity and set aside sectarian differences in order to win. He declared, “If they can’t hear it, don’t say it!”

“Immigrant rights: Defending workers’ rights by fighting ICE raids and “no match” was another workshop which emphasized the importance of working-class solidarity in fighting vicious right-wing anti-immigrant forces. Panelists told horrifying stories of lives shattered by the ICE raids, but also pointed out the public relations disaster which has resulted from the outrageous, unconstitutional attacks. They also spoke of the importance of an international response to the brutality of the anti-immigrant forces. Margarita Alvarez, of Voces de inmigrantes (Voices of immigrants) and Dallas JwJ, pointed out that immigrants should not be confused with criminals and should have a right to live in dignity and “to eat and and sleep in peace.” She declared, “the U.S. belongs to Americans and it doesn’t matter what country you come from.”

There was also a workshop titled “Stop the war and fund public services! Making the case for a peaceful, worker-centered economy.” Paul Bigman of Washington JwJ pointed out that the Iraq war has been used as another excuse for union busting here in the U.S. and in Iraq as well. He noted the war has also been used to justify the attacks against immigrants.

Stewart Acuff, Organizing Director, AFL-CIO and member of the National Jobs with Justice Board stressed unity in an inspiring discussion of the labor movement. He said, “We live in a country that values individualism. How do we struggle for collective action?” He clarified, “We confuse our institutions with our movement. A movement is made up of humanity engaged in common struggle and common vision. Our labor movement includes all who struggle for worker power. It is all of our struggle! The movement does not recognize national boundaries. The movement is all of us.”

Matt Howard of the Iraq Veterans against the War and a participant in the Winter Soldier project reminded us of Smedley Butler, who was one of the most decorated marines in the history of the United States who wrote the book, “War is a racket.” In it Butler concluded his own war exploits made him merely a “gangster for capitalism.”

Steven Valencia from the Tucson JwJ summed up his feelings on the conference experience saying “It was a wonderful conference. It was so good to be around so many activists and people that want to make this country and the world a better place. They embraced the idea that another world is possible and the urgency that was expressed that another world is necessary. I think there has been a real shift in the intensity of the coalition and its content on the issue of the global transnational oppression and our response to it. The conference was full of hope, unity and a new, heightened sense of purpose and at the core of this shift is the multiracial, multicultural, male and female, younger and older struggles that are being fought wherever capitalist oppression is intense.”