PN99 At Lowell: Labor and Community Meet

By Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly

WHO’S IN THE HOUSE?” Participants at the Planners Network 1999 conference got used to hearing conference co-coordinator Ty DePass calling out this invitation to stand up and be counted. At this first-ever PN meeting on labor and community, held at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in June, over 230 activists and planners were challenged to be present in the continuing dialogues between labor and community.

DePass, an organizer in Boston’s African American community and recent recipient of a planning degree from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, asked each group to stand — union members, community activists, practicing planners, students, professors, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and more. The conference theme called for “Bridging the Gap between Labor and Community,” and the first step in our weekend-long dialogue on that subject had to be figuring out who was present to talk.

Achieving Diversity

So, who was in the house? Young people like Tamara Powell, an African American student in the College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) at UMass-Boston and a member of the Boston Carmen’s Union. Older people like Walter Thabit of New York City, the now-retired founder and mainstay of Planners for Equal Opportunity through the 1960s and early 1970s. Bob Heifetz, grizzled veteran of the Bay Area Peace Navy. Carlos Suarez of La Gran Alianza de Queens (a coalition of Latino groups). Carloads from Toronto and Urbana-Champaign, and visitors from Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil! There were labor people doing community organizing, like Elly Leary of United Auto Workers Local 2324, active in fighting welfare cuts. There were community people doing labor organizing, like Lydia Lowe of Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association, which runs a Worker Center serving the Asian community. Many participants had done both community and labor organizing, as in the case of Guillermo Lopez, a laid-off steelworker who now organizes for the Alliance for Building Communities in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

As conference organizers, achieving this kind of diversity was one of our central goals. The resulting mix was exciting, but we have to admit that the hardest sell was getting labor activists to take part. To be sure, we moved beyond “Why the heck should I go to a conference with a bunch of planners?” as one local labor activist growled when we first invited her. The conference featured speakers and workshop presenters from the Service Employees International Union, the International Union of Electrical Workers, the Carpenters and many other unions, including leaders of the Massachusetts and national AFL-CIO. We even reached across borders to include Erminia Maricato, former coordinator of urban policy for Brazil’s Workers Party, who was a plenary speaker.

Growing sections of today’s U.S. labor movement recognize the importance of making common cause with communities, whether to win Living Wage campaigns, mobilize immigrant workers, or garner strike support. Even so, few labor folks stayed more than one day of the four-day conference. But at least the conference got them “in the house” so we could start our dialogue.

Achieving Participation

A second key goal was to jump-start participation, breaking down boundaries between audience and participants and facilitating multiple modes of communication. The question posed by Ty DePass, “who’s in the house?” challenged everybody in the room to move and respond. Jorge Diaz, director of Agitarte, a local youth hip-hop group, also helped break the ice by leading a theater workshop that put us to work acting out the conference theme. “Cultural Tools” workshops got people thinking about labor and community through poetry, song, theater, and painting. Even in the plenary sessions, speakers sat in easy chairs onstage, with two empty chairs inviting audience members to come up and join the discussion for a while. And we pressed workshop organizers to build in participation from the start.

Again, results were mixed. Participants were enthusiastic about the Agitarte and Cultural Tools activities. Some of the results were impressive, particularly the huge paint-on-cardboard images protesting welfare cuts and denouncing a proposed stadium that would wipe out a Newark, New Jersey neighborhood (created in the “Making Your Issue Visible” workshop led by Los Angeles artist/planner Judy Branfman). Community tours led by organizers gave people a “hands-on” look at the area. The labor history tour of Nashua, New Hampshire was co-led by a labor historian, a retired firefighter, and a fired air traffic controller!

The onstage easy chairs at times facilitated lively dialogue, but also invited some audience members to make seemingly unconnected mini-speeches. Workshop leaders who were already conversant with participatory techniques, such as Susan Winning of the Boston-based Women’s Institute for Leadership Development, quickly got participants engaged and talking, but too many workshops slipped into the familiar “talking heads” routine. Nonetheless, the conference was more participatory than any that either of us has experienced.

Bridging the Gap

The third and most fundamental goal of the conference was to actually contribute to bridging the gap between labor and community. It was an important step forward simply to get a mix of both groups “in the house” together. In their evaluations of the conference, participants made positive comments about “meeting people ˆ getting to know people ˆ folks were accessible and approachable ˆ nice sense of community ˆ opened my mind to the opinions of other viewpoints.” The conference program definitely raised consciousness about the connections between labor and community issues, and spread the word about successful alliances, from a joint union-community machinist training program in Lynn, Massachusetts to efforts across the country to set job quality and environmental standards for companies that receive public aid. “I really enjoyed this year’s conference,” one planning professor commented, “although I was wondering if I would understand much since I am not a union member, nor do I work with unions in my community workˆ.” She concluded, “Unions folks ain’t so bad after all, and I heard a few of them saying the same thing about those confounded planners.”

The good feelings didn’t mean controversy was absent. In the final plenary, Paul Filson, a Pennsylvania official of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE), voiced skepticism about the prospects for labor-community cooperation, saying “My dream is that just once my members would actually ask me to do something for the community.” Libardo Rueda, an immigrant from Colombia and recent graduate of UMass-Boston’s CPCS, said that based on the U.S. labor movement’s weak track record of international and even local solidarity, “I can’t see that unions have anything to offer us.” One unionist complained that “some sessions I was in did seem to bash unions a little too much.” On the other hand, some too-hot-to handle questions never made it to the conference floor. We tried to organize a discussion about the problems that community development groups have paying union wages and their use of non-union labor to build and rehabilitate housing. Labor and community groups decided the issue was overly explosive. However, many of the key groups in the Boston area have indicated a strong interest in beginning private discussions on the topic this coming fall.

The plenary session on the relations between building trades unions and communities in the Boston area illustrated the main strengths and weaknesses in the four days of discussion. Featured speakers were Mark Erlich of the New England Joint Council of Carpenters, Priscilla Golding of Women in the Building Trades, and Chuck Turner, initiator of a series of efforts to gain access to construction jobs for people of color. None was a big name, but all have been toiling for decades to move the building trades in a progressive direction, and they have a long history of discussion among each other. They didn’t pull any punches. For example, Turner declared bluntly that “The construction unions still exclude people of color.” Once the speakers set the example, audience members jumped in to join a productive, wide-ranging dialogue. The combination of long-standing relationships among labor and community actors (rather than “instant coalitions”), a (more or less) shared broader vision of social change, and a focus on concrete goals (such as the Boston Residents Jobs Ordinance, which guaranteed shares of publicly financed jobs for Boston residents, people of color, and women) were hallmarks of the most successful labor-community collaborations discussed at the conference.

But taking a step back, the limitations of the discussion were also evident. The speakers dodged a question about the clash between the construction unions’ desire for jobs and community concerns about sustainable development and community preservation — a critical issue in cities like Boston where a hot economy is fueling megadevelopments. We were not able to move the strategy discussion forward to next steps. And some of the most powerful players — the mainstream leadership of the building trades, and the growing number of nonunion contractors (including those of color) — simply were not in the room. Bottom line, though, this plenary and the conference as a whole did a lot to strengthen and publicize existing labor-community connections, and create new ones.

Fortunately, the end of the conference doesn’t mean the end of the discussion. Conference participants have used the conference email list to stay in touch. The conference also sparked new, ongoing conversations among local activists, particularly in the Boston area. Thirty conference participants joined or re-joined PN, connecting them to ongoing dialogue in the newsletter, local forums, and future conferences. In next year’s PN conference in Toronto, maybe there will be a few more labor activists “in the house” to take the discussion to the next level.

Marie Kennedy is co-chair of the PN Steering Committee and directs the Center for Community Planning at the College of Public and Community Service, University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Chris Tilly is a labor economist in the Department of Regional Economic & Social Development at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and in the editorial collective of Dollars and Sense magazine.

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