Editors: Claudia Lahaie, MSW, Madeline Perez, MSW, and Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D.


Co-Facilitators:   Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D., Hunter College School of Social Work, Esperanza Martell, C.S.W. Adjunct Professor, CUNY


Education Center for Community Organizing (ECCO)

Hunter College School of Social Work

129 East 79th Street, New York NY 10065

Phone: (212) 452-7112 or 7132

Fax: (212) 452-7154








This series was to further develop our CUNY-wide community and labor organizing curriculum project (C.L.O.C.P.). It built upon a successful day-long colloquium held in May 1997 and a seminar in Fall 1998, both funded in part by the CUNY Faculty Development Program. Over 200 CUNY faculty, staff, and community leaders attended one or more of these events


The goals were:


            a) to enrich the knowledge of classroom and field faculty about new models of community and labor organizing occurring in community and workplace settings in New York City and elsewhere;


            b) to increase the skill level of faculty teaching organizing in the classroom and field;


            c) to strengthen an interdisciplinary collaborative model of exchange between academics and practitioners on many CUNY campuses;


            d) to enrich the curricula of interested departments, schools and programs by providing materials for inclusion in existing relevant classroom and field-based courses;


            e) to stimulate faculty and administration interest in creating new or revised courses and other collaborative programs with organizations that are attempting to improve the social conditions of communities and workers; and ultimately,


            f) to enhance CUNY's role in improving the quality of life for New Yorkers by promoting faculty, staff and student leadership in community and labor organizing.


Until the C.L.O. Colloquium in 1997, there had not been a concerted effort to bring interested or involved faculty together across CUNY campuses for in-depth exploration of the opportunities as well as obstacles for improving the conditions of people where they live and work utilizing community and labor organizing strategies and structures. The field is ripe for a more comprehensive and coordinated effort under CUNY leadership of which the C.L.O.C.P. would be a part.


There is tremendous interest and growing support for community and labor organizing inside and outside academia today that was and will continue to be reflected in the continuing C.L.O.C.P. Union and other workplace organizing is burgeoning with a renewed sense of commitment: the AFL-CIO with their student-oriented "Union Summer," and their ongoing AFL-CIO Training Institute; UNITE (Union of Needle trades, Industrial & Textile Employees with their "Justice Centers" to work on issues related immigrants; other worker advocacy organizations such as the Chinese Workers and Staff Association and the Latino Workers Association; and other community organizations organizing women in the W.E.P. program such as ACORN and the Urban Justice Center, and Hunter's own Welfare Rights Initiative. NYPIRG and other community action programs are expanding on CUNY campuses, and students are being exposed to community and labor organizing in career and civic pursuits.


Perhaps most innovative is the renewed interest in electoral organizing to accompany community and labor organizing. New and revitalized third parties--Green, Unity, Working Families, Labor--

and voter education and registration drives, are evidence mobilizations with direct affect on CUNY's future.


Organizing training institutes and programs inside and outside academia have developed in the last few years. Among them are: The Organizers’ Support Center, TICO (Training Institute for Organizers), the AFL-CIO Organizers’ Training Institute, and the Brecht Forum. Inside academia are: the Community Organizing and Development Program at Hunter College of CUNY, and the Neighborhood Organizers Concentration at LaGuardia Community College of CUNY. The Education Center for Community Organizing at Hunter College School of Social Work still has written resources and a library available to organizers.


Also available is a 2 hour video presented as part of this series: Community Building: The Potential of A Capacity Enhancement Framework--An Interactive Telecommunications Dialogue using Distance Learning Technology with Melvin Delgado, Professor, Boston University School of Social Work. Researcher, Community Builder, Author: Community Social Work Practice in an Urban Context, and Megan Nolan, Director, Community Programs, New Settlement Apartments (NSA), Bronx and NSA youth and parent organizers.


SEE WEB PAGE FOR Education Center for Community Organizing through


Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D. Coordinator, ECCO

Chair, Community Organization & Planning Sequence at HCSSW

(212)-452-7112 or 7132, email:













DECEMBER 17. 1998 - ELECTORAL ORGANIZING .................... 7










NEW MILLENNIUM .................. 24




Bertha Lewis, Director of Organizing, ACORN

             Jan Peterson, Founder, National Congress of Neighborhood Women and GROOTS International      


The presentation and discussion that are summarized here were based on questions that the participants addressed to the speakers at the beginning of the seminar around the theme mentioned above. The majority of them related to the questions of gender, class and race in doing organizing; issues of outreach and relationship building; staff and students' involvement; relationship between labor and organizing.


National Congress of Neighborhood Women: Organizing with a gender issue lens

Jan Peterson presented her organization through her own experience in training and teaching organizing. It all started in the 60's, when the Women Movement raised the question about how to link different movements throughout the United-States. A whole lot of reflection and collaboration developed among women from different organizing groups. As a result, the National Congress of Neighborhood Women was established.


The work first started in Williamsburg's neighborhood, a culturally diverse area. There was a split between women who were involved in different neighborhood organizing groups. In order to create linkages between these different organizations, a group of women decided to meet together to create a methodology that would be especially sensitive to the cultural diversity of their group. At the beginning, they particularly struggled on the way to implement the different visions and ideologies of each individual within the group process. Throughout meeting and discussion, they finally succeeded in fostering a structure, which was focusing on analysis instead of fighting. Their methodology emphasizes on the creation of a safe space. They identified specific behaviors that the group members agreed on which enhanced their level of comfort in sharing personal experiences.


Through several meetings, the group of women reached a stage where they wanted to know how to move from a small group to a bigger place. They realized that community development, social services and advocacy were tools that they needed to use. They realized that they needed to organize. At that point, their major struggle was to create a real organizing model that would still keep the group organic, where everybody would be able to share what each other is doing.           


In looking at political and social programs as well as at existing organizing models developed by Alinsky or the ones used in labor or in community development, they realized that gender issue was totally absent. On that matter, the United-States seemed to be worst than any other countries. The women started to analyze everything on a woman's point of view. They also started to link internationally. They studied and developed organizing models that were an alternative to the victim oriented -service approach that was prominent and it still is. They rejected the type of organizing that is issue or block based. They created a new paradigm with a gender issue lens, which was claiming for resources and was developing a better consciousness among the women

Jane Peterson concluded her presentation by summarizing the women organizing methodology developed by her organization by asking the following three questions:


1.                  How do you take an organization and turn it around from a casework to an organizational position?

2.                  How do you start from a single-issue model to a comprehensive, holistic model which includes gender and thus which really empowers the women?

3.                  How does the group get into politics and planning at a larger scale?


ACORN: Organizing basics

Bertha Lewis started her presentation in answering the question about how to handle the diversity within a group. The answer comes from organizing basics. First, an organizer needs to identify an issue that transcends the borders of economic, race, class and gender differences. People come together around common issues that they can do something about. This is also true for the labor and organizing movements in order for them to be able to work together. Second, the organizer needs to deal with the tensions within the group. His/her role is to anticipate where the conflicts come from and to organize against them. The democracy should always remain the organizer's guide. In order for these recommendations to work out, the organizer needs to work on his/her own perceptions about issues of identity, class and so on. 


Following that, the presentation moved on defining who are the people who get in organizing. According to Bertha Lewis, people who get in organizing are hard worker, ambitious, driven. It is clear however that even if the goal of an organizer is to do social change, community organizations will never compete the corporate world in terms of money and prestige. Another characteristic of organizers is that they come and go. Once done with a project, an organizer will move on to something else. Being an organizer is a real career. "You want the revolution or you don't". A lot of education work needs to be done.


 The work of an organizer starts in people's living room, finding about what is going on and what people want to change. In order not to get discouraged, it is important to remember that it is impossible to organize everybody. The role of the organizer is also to get the people to look at the bigger issue and to identify the real target for action. "It is the organizer who thinks globally and acts locally". The organizer works with the people in a proactive way. Together, the people research on a problem and make a plan in order to take action.


Tensions between Mutual-Aid and Social Action

Terry Mizrahi spoke about the tensions between the mutual-aid movement and social action. The mutual-aid movement supports self-help autonomously within a community without seeking any concrete responses in terms of funding from the government. In the social action perspective, the government is seen as the targeted enemy, which should provide resources. The question then is how do we use the best of mutual-aid movement and have the resources and the institutions to support it.


Bertha Lewis presented ACORN organizing strategies, which combine neighborhood organizing which, is not self-sufficient with a membership organizing. People need community development, advocacy, social services, and social action all together. The government should at least provide the services. What is the fundamental goal is that people organize to change the role of the government that should be to give the resources needed to the people in order to be able to create and run their own institutions. But to be able to sustain the people's will to organize around big policy issues, they need to win little battles at a local level. Their sort-term needs are to be with each other and to have fun. Neighborhood organizing is the beginning point. People need to be geographically organized.


Based on her own experiences in dealing with these tensions, Jan Paterson added on what Bertha Lewis presented by emphasizing on the fact that it is important to analyze the political environment and not to become totally dependent on the government funding. "It is really easy to loose what you have built". You need to find alternatives against the Government cuts.  It is also important to know how to use the connection that an organizer or a community-based organization has with politicians. Basic grassroots organizing is essential.


Community Organizing and Labor movement

The seminar continued with a discussion about globalization.  A union organizer, explained that corporate America started to organize really well, at an international level. On the other hand, the American labor force did not organize enough during the last 30 years.  In 1900, there were only 5% of the labor force that was organized. In 1950, it reached 38%. In 1960-1970, the Labor and Civil Rights Movements worked together. Today, less than 13% of the labor force is organized. This percentage is still going down. This led to an increase in the level of poverty and racism. The working class is totally disorganized. The labor movement needs to revive by finding new strategies to fight for power. It requires a combination of human contact, a vision of power that is just and a mastery of the technology.  There is a need for a change in the relationship within the people in the labor movement. It already started three years ago with an election at the AFL-CIO. A Mexican woman was elected a Secretary Executive. Internal organizing needs to continue. Democratic vehicle has to be restored within the institutions that are existing. As mentioned previously by the two speakers, the key is to start small, by entering in direct contact with the workers. A strong membership needs to be built. In order to really increase the power of the workers and underserved people in community, one strategy is to bring the neighborhood and labor-organizing movements together, like it happened in the 60's with the Civil Rights Movement. One example of this collaboration is through the Working Family Party created by ACORN and small unions. According to Bertha Lewis, voting is the first step in creating social change. We are not used to democratic in all aspects of our life.



All the participants demonstrated their satisfaction and the questions that this seminar raised about organizing. Following is a listing:


·                      Get background information as much as possible such as ethnicity, economic status, past conflicts, problems about a neighborhood and about the group of people that you are getting involved with.

·                       Identify the potential tensions between the members of a group.

·                      Scrutinize the organization you want to get involved with..

·                      Connect different groups of people with each other. For example, connect an environmental group with a church.

·                      Never be alone.

·                      Organize around existing issues.

·                      Go where people are.

·                      Education is part of organizing.

·                      Prevent burnt out by creating something bigger where organizers can come together.

·                      How do you prevent people to burn out after a victory or a failure? How do you make them willing to continue?

·                      How do you get homeless and SRO tenants involved in organizing since they may not belong to a specific neighborhood or have a home?


Jan Peterson and Bertha Lewis both mentioned that what keeps them going is that they have a vision. Principles and values are essential when doing organizing. Jan Peterson emphasized on the benefits of being part of a support group. "Organizers need to build network and start to get together. Organizers should trust their instinct, be persistent, do follow up. The tools of organizing are needed in everyday life. How do you make things happen? Everybody should know how to do that. It is a political tool. An organizer can work use different angles by moving the same agenda through many entry points. You need to ask to you the question: What am I willing to do?" 


Esperanza Martell, one of the moderators and long-time organizer, concluded by saying that a vision was key for her also. This vision is to change the fundamental underpinning of the society. "We have to take what is and transform it. We have to change globally, talk about having a critical mass, and transform the state... and then what?"





Dominic Chan, Organizer, U.N.I.T.E.; formerly, Jobs with Justice

Mili Silva, Organizer, WEP Workers' Organizing Committee, ACORN

Susan Borenstein. National AFL-CIO for New York State


Due to a tape recording problem, initial presentations of Dominic Chan and Susan Borenstein are missing.


WEP Workers' Organizing Committee

Mili Silva presented part of the mission and the work of the WEP Workers' Organizing Committee. One of their most successful events was that they organized a voting site for WEP workers in order for them to get unionized. Ninety eight percent of the 17,000 WEP workers, who voted, voted for the creation of a union of WEP workers. Even with such a result however, Mayor Guiliani has not recognized this union.


The WEP Workers' Organizing Committee also has been intensively working on childcare issue. Most women on WEP have seen their right to childcare violated. During a special event, 60 women on WEP decided to go outside of the building where they were working. They got coverage in the New York Times and Spanish TV. In that same afternoon, they all received their check so that they could pay for day care services on time and not be discriminated against. Mili Silva specifically explained that when doing a campaign, it is essential to get press coverage. It is the only way that the politicians cannot hide from the public.


Another WEP Workers' Organizing Committee issue is organizing CUNY students that are on welfare. The dilemma for these students is that either they decide to remain in school and not get food stamps and cash assistance or they decide to do their WEP assignments and stop being able to go to college. Fifty members of the organization organized two actions at Hostess Community College. Seventy students participated asking the City to work on an agreement on the procedures for students on welfare. The campaign is having some success. When organizing works with labor, when everybody is a worker.


In earlier discussion, Susan Borenstein noted the increase of efforts the AFL-CIO has placed on organizing drives and organizer recruitment and training. She also explained that while the press has been excited by the recent successes of the AFL-CIO, the organization is not going well. Many more improvements need to happen. Dominic Chan explained that it has been a real struggle, especially in New York, to have people working together: He noted that there is no way that Al Davidoff (New York State Director of AFL-CIO) can force people in different cities to do what is decided by the AFL-CIO at the state or national level". More and more people have to work together. He explained that it is important to recruit as many people as possible to become unionized. His principle is that everybody is a worker. For instance, many students have one or two jobs and are considered cheap labor. As an illustration, students hold 75% of the jobs in stores that sell sporting goods.  He also mentioned that it would be interesting to use the professors to help the AFL-CIO in organizing those students.

According to him, it is necessary for labor organizing to be involved in community organizing. If the labor movement wants to get involved with community organizations, it is important that is gives back some of its power and reaches out to the people on the ground. A major difficulty in building this collaboration is to develop a sustainable leadership to do this kind of outreach. For instance, Jobs with Justice has been supported by several unions that work on labor issues, but it is very small and has always had funding problems. Only a few progressive foundations contribute. The key is for both labor and community organizing to find a convergence of self-interest that would enhance their work together.


Terry Mizrahi mentioned the fact that organizing WEP workers was not an either/or situation. Work needs to be done so that good jobs are created with a living wage and benefits, and that ultimately the WEP program is eliminated. On the other hand, it is also really important that existing working conditions of the people who are actually doing WEP assignments be improved. There are many things that the WEP workers need that other workers need as well. For instance, childcare is an issue that concerns many working women. It is important to create ways of working together on common issues such as affordable day care, a "living" wage, etc. to lessen the divisiveness between the working and the welfare poor.


Political organizing and the Role of the labor unions.


Many felt that it was important that the labor organizing movement be involved in electoral organizing. But it is important also that the effort made by different parties, who are the voices of low-income people, link together in one party if they want to have their voices heard. Because there are still too many people who are not registered, Some unions have also been involved in registering and get out the vote campaigns.


Mili Silva talked about the Working Family Party, an effort of ACORN, other community organizations and the larger unions in the New York State. WFP, received more than 50,000 votes in the Nov. election so that it is now going to be on the ballot for the next four years. Its goal is to represent the issues of low-income people. The WEP Workers' Organizing Committee will assure that this new party collaborates with the WEP workers and reflects their issues.



In speaking about organizing efforts, Esperanza Martell made the observations that privatization is the big push. She concluded by reminding all of us that we are all part of a community and this is

where the power is.





Sean Sweeney, Queens College Worker Education Program; Labor Party

Charles Barron, Dynamics of Leadership; Chair, Unity Party

Susan Metz, Green Party


Terry Mizrahi started the seminar by asking Charles Barron the question: "How important is it for community organizations to connect with politics?"  She explained that one role for electoral organizing among progressive contingents has been to create new parties to pressure the Democrats to pay more attention to important legislation and policies. This has been done in recent times in conjunction with a strong effort toward voter participation and voter education.


The major issues that the participants articulated for this session included: procedures to get independent parties formed; the reasons for a community organizations to get involved in electoral organizing; the involvement of students in electoral politics; the role of coalition among independent parties, and the place of accountability and democracy for independent parties.


Labor Party

Sean Sweeney started his presentation by looking at the last 20 years of the labor movement. He acknowledged the fact that the public is asking a lot of questions about the political activities of the movement. For 20 years the labor movement has been pressuring the Democrat party, but nothing worked. The Democrat party has been under the control of corporate agents for many years, which has affected its role in a severe way. Because of that, the labor movement had big losses. The living standards and political power of working people is really low right now, he believes. There is no enthusiasm for electoral politics and the Labor Party is a response to this situation.


In the 90s, the labor movement formed its own party. Twelve major unions supported the party. Its goal is to represent not only the 10%-12% unionized working people, but also all the people who are part of the working class.


This party believes in the role of electoral organizing. As a candidate-of the Labor Party, a person will need to be accountable to the internal program of the party. Unlike the major parties, the candidate will be pressured to comply to the program because of the strong and active membership that the party is trying to create. In fact, the party voted that their first objective is not to run a candidate for election, but to organize a strong base. The crucial point is to gain the trust of the people working in their community. Once the party achieves this membership base and accumulates enough resources, it will participate in primary elections. He concluded by saying that the most important resources for a party are its human resources. Many working people organized isolated efforts to improve their conditions. They need to have a place where they can work on a common agenda for social change. Sean believes that the Labor Party represents an opportunity to do so.


Green Party

Susan Metz explained that the reason why she turned to electoral organizing is because of the actual corrupt political system, which she considered fascist. She mentioned the increase in the number of jails and the destruction of the CUNY system as examples. It is out of desperation that the Green Party developed its ideology. It is present in 17 countries and 13 states. Having gained 53 000 votes during the last elections, the Green Party is going to be on the ballots in those states for the next four years.


According to her, the Green party is not a class-based party. It goes beyond focusing on the means of distribution and production. It has a broad and unifying vision based on diversity, community and ecology. Issues around environment such as energy policy or wasted disposal for instance seems to particularly fit this vision well. It also believes in political pluralism and in a mixed economy, with a strong public sector that is unionized and with support for the development of individual initiatives.


Susan explained that the Green Party has a decentralized way of organizing in order to keep its candidate in line with the party. She said that the membership comes from independent political initiatives and local groups. They can sign to become part of the Green Party, which gives them the opportunity to have a voice in choosing their candidate. It is a bottom up approach, different from what is done in the major parties right now. The candidates are active members who have a strong engagement in "Green" values.


Unity Party

Charles Barron began his presentation by asking the question: "Is it a waste of time to get involved in electoral organizing? He said that Republican and Democrats know what their vision is. However, progressive parties which are growing right now do not know exactly what they want, but that these parties are asking a lot of diff~cult questions.


The Unity party however is really speaking about the real issues which are race, gender and class, even in the internal structure of parties. According to him, most parties are White dominated. He asked what diversity means exactly. He said that even progressive parties have a lack of diversity. They have diversity at the base but not at the top. Diversity needs to be present at the decision-making level. This is real democracy.


The Unity Party started only last May and got petition drive in July with 20,000 signatures. According to him, it is the first time in the history of that country there is a party lead by people of African ancestry.


Issues Related to Coalition-building, Cross-endorsement, and Diversity and Leadership Raised by Participants

Sean Sweeney said that right now the labor movement needs to break with Democrats. The Labor Party does not want to be a pressure on the Democratic Party anymore. He raised the debate among progressivists about coalition politics across these progressive parties. The Labor Party does not have time right now to do coalition work. It has to work on its own base which only represents 10,000 to 12,000 members. Later it will be possible for the party to be able to be in a coalition.


Susan Metz said that the constituencies and the internal structure of the Green party were a little different than other parties. It is a community-based party. In fact, the party is most criticized because of its lack of leadership. There is no one to tell any other what to do. She believes that it is both a fault and a strength. As for the issue of cross-endorsement, she said that only three states allow that, but she hopes to cross-endorse a candidate that will appeal to both Green and Working Family Party (discussed in the November Seminar), and that all progressive parties will provide staff to work with that person.


She described two types of constituents present in her party. Some are members who receive newsletters about the party on the WEB. Others are activists who participate in meetings. These are the ones who have the decision-making power. It goes against New York State law which prescribes that every registrant in a party has the right to vote for a candidate. She said that her party supports candidates to are "movement" people really involved in their community. But she admitted it is difficult to bring in people of color. However, the Green Party is working on anti-racist issues such a prison moratorium, sweatshops and CUNY. She believes the Green Party would like to be affiliated and cross-endorse candidates with the Unity party, respecting the differences between the parties, while working on common issues.


Sean Sweeney recognized that his party was dominantly White. He explained that the reason for this is historical. The strategies and tactics used in the past were not inclusive of African Americans. This is why the Party is struggling right now to get a diverse membership. However, through the support of many unions which have a diverse membership, things may become better. The Party also is not young; most people are in their 40s. However, there is the beginning of a youth movement, but it is really early.


The Labor Party really is promoting a diverse membership that looks like the composition of American people in the US


Charles Barron explained that the Unity Party has a platform similar to the other parties in terms of issues. However, it differs in how it diversifies its leadership. The party is now experimenting with a rotating leadership in order to have a real democracy. If they relied on numerical majorities then African Americans for example, (who are only 12% of the US population) would never be leaders.


Concluding Remarks

Charles Barron said that he really believes that small groups can have major impact using inside and outside electoral organizing strategies. The candidates are there to help the constituency do their organizing.


Susan Metz said that the most important thing is to keep working on electoral organizing. There is a need to find candidates whom voters will believe in, and develop a system to register more young people. It is possible to make changes in working on an issue with a candidate in coalition. We need to find common candidates in different districts and to cross-endorse candidates.


Sean Sweeney said that it is important to work on creating a real progressive party that will really come from the base. It is important to create a party that will be there over time because it is supported by its constituents. He said that it is a project in formation and that everything is possible. There is a need to discuss who should own the control of social policy and economics. There should be a debate on these various alternatives.


Terry Mizrahi concluded that the major issue that all the parties are facing is to have candidates who will be able to hold up to the values and principles of the parties and at the same time be effective. The key is to communicate with the constituencies and obtain their agreement or understanding when there is a need to compromise. Every party needs a strategic vision, a vision for the long haul, one that has flexible and interim short-term victories related to the political climate of the time. Esperanza Martell had everyone comment about what they had learned or were taking from the session. She urged everyone to stay active and informed.

    Community and Labor Organizing Seminar Series


October 17, 1999 - Neighborhood Organizing: Where it came from and where is it going?


Robert Fisher, Professor University of Houston; Visiting Moses Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work; author Let the People Decide

            Mary Dailey, Executive Director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition


The presentations and discussion that are summarized here were based on brief presentations made by our guests and questions that the participants addressed to the speakers at the beginning of the seminar. Many questions related to issues of gender, race, and class in community organizing, issues of relationship building, increasing the use of social action, and building resident and student involvement.  Esperanza Martell facilitated the discussion.


Robert Fisher: Some History of Neighborhood Organizing & Lessons from the Past

Community organizing has a history, certainly as old as neighborhoods. It’s not a product simply of the 1960s. Community-based resistances around geographic communities (neighborhoods), and communities of cultural identity (blacks, gays, women), have become the dominant form of social action in the United States since the 1960s, replacing more class and labor-based organizing. The ever-increasing significance helps explain the widespread contemporary interest in community-based organizing. I think “community” is absolutely hot! This presents a lot of opportunities for us. But the focus tends to obscure the rich and fundamental history that undergirds current neighborhood organizing and it narrows to debates to contemporary conservative limits. One of the problems of not knowing history in a conservative period is that you miss out on all these alternative models. To illustrate all of these points, I’m going to begin by talking about different models of organizing and then lead into the kinds of challenges that I think we face. Someone from the audience mentioned that there is this “conservatizing” influence that is affecting organizing at this point. This makes it a real challenge to do what people used to refer to as “community organizing”, as opposed to community building or community development.


Three Models of Organizing

Since the 1880s there have been three types of organizing. One of these types is a “social work” model, which I have argued was dominant in the early 20th century. The best example of this is the social settlements and community-based services, like the Cincinnati Social Unit plan and community health services. A second model is a “community activist” approach, which isn’t limited to the 1960s but was certainly popular then. It was also very evident in the 1930s. I’ve talked about this model in terms if the Communist Party, Saul Alinsky, and the New Left in the 1960s. Certainly other groups have used this model like ACORN, NWBCCC, and IAF. The third type of organizing is a much more conservative type of organizing. Its what I call the “neighborhood maintenance” approach, which is more characterized by people who wanted to maintain property values and engage in economic development and stabilize their communities- not engage in social action, and not engage in community building or social reform. Certainly in the 1980s and 1990s there are lots of examples of this type of organizing approach in the contemporary community economic development efforts- CDCs, etc.


Let’s talk about some lessons from the past. Community organizing has a long history. Organizing is as American as apple pie. People turn to work in their communities to get a variety of things done. The critical issues around that are that despite the fact that organizing has long roots in the American past, it’s never been easy. Organizing is an audacious act. It’s basically designed to legitimize what the society doesn’t want to have legitimized- so it makes organizing that more difficult. The primary skill that organizers bring is to challenge the accepted vision of things- not alone, but with the community. The vision of the leader to help challenge the accepted vision of things and then to work in a democratic way to help people mobilize around these challenges.


The second point is the community organizing cuts around the political spectrum. Don’t enter it thinking that it is inherently progressive, or it’s inherently liberal, or it’s inherently a good thing. It gets used for a wide variety of purposes depending on who’s doing it, who’s funding it, what their politics are, what the radiology is, what there goals are, etc. So on the one hand, pat yourself on the back for all the good progressive work that you do, but at the same time keep a skeptical eye out for what other people are doing. Just because it happens at the community or neighborhood level doesn’t necessarily mean that its ultimately progressive or social and economic justice oriented.


The third point is that the larger context in which organizing occurs has an incredibly dramatic effect on the kind of organizing that occurs in any given period. It has occurred whether it’s the progressive era, the 30s, the 50s, the 60s, the 1880s, or the 1890s. It doesn’t mean that what an organizer gets to do is completely pre-determined. But in more conservative context (like the one we’re in), what seems salient, what resonates, what gets funded, what is legitimate is much more about conservative kinds of organizing. For example, the conservative version, which states that organizing is all about relationships. Organizing is all about building consensus. Organizing is not about confrontation. It’s not about conflict. It’s not about social action. That’s 60s stuff. That’s dinosaur. So the context in which we do our work, heavily shapes our organizing. It doesn’t mean that it’s pre-determined or that there isn’t a dialectical interaction. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get to shape that larger context as well. The kinds of work that we do in our organizations, lays the seeds for change. It begins to challenge the limits. What do we do now to introduce more social action, as social action develops more (and it will). Then ultimately the conservative context in which people have to operate begins to change as well.


Another lesson from the past

 There are liberal eras (public-regarding) and conservative eras (private-regarding). We are currently living in a private-regarding era.  In the more liberal eras, I think the historical lesson is push hard. Push as hard as you can. There’s a whole revision now about the 60s that the “good 60s” were the early 60s, but the “bad 60s” were the mid- late 60s because people became militant. I’m not sure if the historical interpretation is accurate or inaccurate, but the point is that it seems as though these periods don’t come around that often. When they do come around, then the opportunities are there. Its hard  enough even in those periods to get stuff done. Push hard. It’s probably no time for moderation. It doesn’t mean you have to do this ultra-leftist craziness, but when the opportunity occurs (hopefully in our lifetime), push hard.  In the kinds of periods that we’re in right now, the role is to organize, educate, plant the seeds of resistance, and survive. The groups we have right now, includes those that have been in existence for 20 or 30 years have survived, and need to be given more credit. Those groups, which have survived, have lots of gifts and lots of skill and lots of experience. We, as an organizing community have to do a better job of recognizing that and supporting it.


We are in a new private world. Power is increasingly concentrating, as the tasks of that world are increasingly deconcentrating. This means that in some ways, “community” is hot! This provides openings for us who have been doing community work and who know about this kind of work to maybe get some money from foundations, to maybe get some sort of support, and to maybe have people come and talk to us about our work. At the same time, this economic globalization that we face really requires more than just working in our individual communities. We need to think not only about doing good work in our communities, but where we have the skills and abilities, to form coalitions, to form political parties, to form something larger, to ultimately challenge for power. Otherwise, I think we’ll be stuck in our communities doing the good work that we do for a long, long time, which isn’t bad, but really isn’t where any of us wants to be in 20 or 30 years.


Organizing also means keeping in mind short-term goals and long-term goals. In order to continue the work on these goals it is essential to keep issues of the political economy in mind. Long-term goals are absolutely important in organizing, especially in a period, which are anti-the long term goals of social and economic justice.


My last point is, I think we need more social action

As mentioned earlier,(in my view) we have had a lot of conservative pressures that have occurred on organizing in the 90s.  You know, organizing is about consensus. Organizing is about relationships. Organizing is NOT about relationships. Organizing is about power.  Relationships are part of building power, but organizing is about power. So what we need to think about in terms of our own work is where there’s potential for doing more social action. I have this theory that the economic globalization can’t stand challenges. The last thing they want is for the social costs to rise because they can’t deal with the challenges. So we have to think of how to bring back social action organizing, not as the sole way of doing community work, but into the mix of what is called community building and community development. [1]


Mary Dailey, Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition

Mary Dailey presented a clip from the video, Passin’ it on: 25 Years Organizing the Northwest Bronx. Mary explained that in the 1960s and early 1970s, insurance companies, banks, many landlords, and New York City drew a “red-line” around the Bronx and stopped investing in those neighborhoods. 12,000 fires burned each year, 300,000 people fled, and in the South Bronx 40% of the housing stock was destroyed. To put an end to this abandonment and burning in the Northwest Bronx, community people of every color and ethnic background, working people, poor people, college students, Catholic priests and their congregations formed a 10 neighborhood coalition. The Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition recently celebrated their 25th anniversary.)


Organizing in the Northwest Bronx, NY

Since we are on the topic of social action, in 1988, the NWBCCC had a very successful social action, which you just saw on this videotape, Passin’ it On[2]. We moved a couple of hundred people up to HPD (Housing & Preservation Department) and we had some very specific demands coming off of a year and a half of organizing around a whole platform of affordable housing issues. Our northern neighborhoods were organizing around rent increases and co-op conversion and southern neighborhoods were organizing around reclaiming the vacant properties. People asked earlier about how to unite people across race and class. Well, at that point in time, in the NWBCCC’s history, we used this housing campaign to do that. Our northern neighborhoods at that time were still predominantly white, working class neighborhoods. These folks could not afford the type of rent increases that were coming forward. A lot of these people came from union backgrounds, so they were exposed to organizing at the jobs. Our southern neighborhoods were just fighting to survive.


As we’ve moved in the past ten years, we’ve faced a lot of these hard organizational decisions that Bob Fisher’s book talks about. He wrote about some organizations that did not survive. Hundreds of organizations were created at about the same time we were. It was also around the same time that the National Campaign for Human Development (of Catholic Charities) started funding community organizing. This is not a coincidence.  A lot of those organizations moved in the direction of either doing community development or doing direct social services. That’s what people wanted. We wanted more service developed for youth. We wanted more people to know about their rights as tenants. We wanted to see the houses taken back and the land developed. So as we won things through our organizing victories, organizations had to make hard choices about whether or not they were going to do the direct service delivery themselves or do the development themselves. New York is not unlike many places around the country, in that many of these kinds of “people’s organizations” grew up to be community development organizations.


Our organization was kind of smart about community development. The real issue that people always raise is accountability – are you going to be able to hold that community development corporation accountable afterwards or are they just going to go off and do what’s going to make them money and what’s attractive to them and not what’s in the best interest of the people in the neighborhood? Accountability is a huge issue when you spin off a group and also whether or not they remember what the mission was and whether they continue to grow. We’ve lost a few of those groups. But the two that survived are doing well.


A lot of the organizations that came from that period in time, had done a lot of strong anti-redlining work in the late 1970s and the early 1980s around the creation of the community reinvestment act, forcing banks to begin to reinvest in neighborhoods around the country. In 1988 most groups had created community development corporations around that time and were able to work CRA under agreement and were able to not have to challenge a bank around CRA’s but were able to negotiate with these new entities that Chase and Chemical and other banks New York had created. So the question was: Were there still economic fights to be had? At that time, our organization took on a major campaign that took four years of targeting the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation.


At the moment we are confronted with massive school overcrowding in our area. We met this problem of stabilizing the neighborhoods, but people are still moving in our area in droves, so we have massive school overcrowding. At that time we were confronting our successes against the anti-redlining campaign in that the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation moved into our turf and decided to put mortgages on 700 apartment buildings. Unfortunately they were doing that in a very speculative way, so they were competing with Wall Street. People all over the country thought we were insane. Our national network didn’t give us support. They said, “What the hell are you talking about? We’re still trying to get Freddie Mac to invest in other places. You’ve got 700 Freddie Mac mortgages and you’re complaining about it?” And we said, “Yeah, because its going to create building deterioration and increasing rents and making it less affordable for people to live here. If they’re going to lend, they have to lend the way we tell them to.”


For our NWBCCC, community organizing was all about having control over the decisions that were going to affect our day-to-day lives in the neighborhoods and building up enough power to do that.  In terms of where we are now, we also often say that organizing is as American as apple pie. We did a “hit” this past April when we went to Senator Ross’s home in Delaware. He’s the Chair of the United States Finance Committee. He’s a very wealthy individual and lives in a very exclusive area, outside of Wilmington, Delaware. When twenty people showed up at his door with an apple pie, they were all invited inside and had a chat with him.


In terms of where we’re at right now, I think we’re in a period of alliances. Some of the networks really need to realize that they have to work with one another. For example, yesterday our New York City Board chair and the NYC Board Chair of Acorn when together to met with Chuck Shumer. Something like that would have never happened last year. This weekend in Chicago, ACORN and NTIC- affiliated organizations will do a joint action. That would not have happened three months ago. AS far as the theme of the seminar being around CUNY and Labor organizing, Finally, I think that the Working Families party here in New York is probably one of the most exciting examples of where that could lead when you see ACORN doing a tremendous amount of work in terms of identifying unions that want to move some type of progressive agenda. Thank you.



After some discussion, our facilitator Esperanza Martell reemphasized that we are living in a privatization era, but all the stories shared by the audience members demonstrated that social action is alive and well in New York City.

December 17th 1999 - Workplace Organizing with Immigrants: Challenges in making Labor/Community Connections


Tarry Hum, Asst. Professor, Dept Of Urban Studies at Queens College; Mike Donovan &  Jerry Dominguez, Local 169, U.N.I.T.E.

Monica Santana, The Latino Workers Center

Margaret McHugh, New York Immigrant Coalition

Carmella Chen, Chinese Staff & Workers Association

National Mobilization Against Sweatshops


The presentations and discussion that are summarized here were based on brief presentations made by our guests and questions that the participants addressed to the speakers at the beginning of the seminar around the theme mentioned above. Terry Mizrahi facilitated the discussion.


Tarry Hum- Immigrant Economies and the New York City Garment Industry

I’m going to talk about the different strategies of the government in terms of addressing the garment industry that comprises a combination of carrots & sticks. I think the immigrant community is going to feel more the sticks and maybe benefit very little from the carrots. My own involvement in the garment industry is both personal and professional (academic). I’m the first generation woman in my family that does not work in the garment factory- both my maternal and paternal grandmothers and my mother worked as sewing-machine operators in the NY garment industry. As a community planner, I’m also interested in immigrant economies- in particular, the dual-nature of immigrant economic activity as both a revitalizing force in the sense that immigrants have been key to revitalizing urban neighborhoods and many industries- including the garment industry. Yet because immigrant economic activity is concentrated in marginal industries immigrant economies also reproduce a great deal of exploitation and inequality. So, my work centers on moving beyond conventional definitions of community development (beyond small business ownership). It’s clear that for many immigrant groups, while small business ownership may be common, the goals of equity, workforce development, and community wealth are not.


I’d like to give you a status of where the garment industry is now. It remains a vital source of employment for Asian and Latino immigrants, despite that it has been declining for many years. Nation-wide employment in the garment industry peaked in 1973, with 1.4 million jobs. By 1997 (the latest figures we have), employment in the garment industry fell by 40%. By the year 2005, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that employment will continue to fall in the garment industry. While NYC remains a key production center in the U.S garment industry, its share of the national employment in power production has declined from 24% in the late 1950s to 8% in 1996. Over the past 4 decades the number of garment jobs in NYC has fallen as well. In addition to declining number of jobs, the real wages of garment workers (that is the wages after they have been adjusted for inflation) have also been declining in the past few decades, indicating greater working poverty.


A power production has always been a labor-intensive process because of the nature of fabrics, which makes it difficult to mechanize the assembly or the production of clothing. In the majority of jobs, (close to three-quarters) in the garment industry are labor intensity sewing machine operators jobs. Most of these are held by immigrant Asian and Latino women. Since the capital requirements for setting up a garment shop is minimal, many immigrants seek self-employment as sub-contractors, with access to cheap labor as their key competitive advantage. There are approximately 45 hundred manufacturing firms located in NYC, of which 4 thousand are contractors and 500 are designers or manufactures. Immigrants own between 1,700 -2,000 of the contracting facilities in NYC. It is in these small shops that the majority of garment workers are employed. In addition to these firms, the New York State Department of Labor estimates that the number of sweatshops is between 1,500 to 2,500.


Finally, another trend, which has important implications in terms of the relationship between labor/workplace issues and community issues, is the formation of new sites of garment production, outside of Manhattan. Although Manhattan still accounts for 60% of garment employment, many garment contractors are moving to the surrounding boroughs in search of cheaper rents and a non-unionized work force. The garment industry is becoming a key part of he local economy of many immigrants’ neighborhoods, including Sunset park and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Some recent reports on NYC’s garment industry include public testimony on sweatshops that was held 2 years ago in Sunset Park sponsored by Assemblyman Felix Ortiz. The testimonies emphasize the brutality if the work conditions in the garment industry and the subsequent costs in terms of worker’s health and well being. Another recent study is by Mark Levinton at the Community Service Society, who investigates whether the garment industry is a viable source of employment for welfare recipients. He finds a declining industry faced with high international competition.


I will now direct my comments towards local policy responses to improving the conditions of NYC’s garment industry. Essentially, the government employs a two-prong strategy, which I stated earlier is a “carrots and sticks” approach. The “sticks” is the policing and regulation of garment shops that violate standard labor, health & safety laws. This includes an array of legislative tools, including the Unpaid Wages Legislation that was recently passed by the New York State Assembly. Part of the “sticks’ approach is also to hold a greater number of players in the chain of liability, such as retailers and manufactures accountable for labor law violation. The ”carrots” are incentives and substitutes for legitimate firms to upgrade their production and technology. These “carrots” represent economic development strategies or innovations that are being employed to sustain and improve the garment industry. The central premise is that NYC garment industry has a very important competitive advantage- its location. It’s located in a global fashion center. That serves as a unique niche in NYC garment in serving the rapid changing women’s fashion oriented apparel lines. Current economic development policies emphasize how to better develop and serve this niche through upgrading manufacturing technology, managerial and workforce skills, strengthening relationships between manufactures and retailers through a quick response system. It is also important to expand local and global export markets. While I think that the enforcement of labor standards and holding manufacturers and retailers accountable for their part is creating substandard work conditions are absolutely necessary strategies, my sense is that the immigrant sector of the garment industry will only receive the “stick” form of government intervention and not the “carrot”. They will not get the resources that will be necessary to plan or develop economic strategies that address immigrant workers needs and issues in terms of skills development or the effects of working poverty in their communities.


The implications of this two-prong strategy may be a further segmentation of NYC’s garment industry where immigrant workers employed primarily in immigrant-owned firms will be concentrated in the marginal sectors of the garment industry, pursuing a low road strategy of development.  This observation is shaped by the experience of the development of a business incubator in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which just had an opening in September 1999. This garment incubator space is part of the Borough President’s larger vision of reestablishing a garment industrial center. These tenants will benefit from tax substitutes. They will also receive technical assistance. Community involvement was key in gaining designation of Sunset Park as the site to receive the garment incubator. This development is indicative of the kinds of policies that will be pursued to sustain the garment industry- to pursue this high road of development that is focused on the specialized niche in the industry.


Mike Donovan, Local 169, U.N.I.T.E.

U.N.I.T.E represents the workers in the needle trade and apparel industries, but the campaigns we have been running lately have been away from the garment industry and more towards the service sector where the jobs have been created in the United States. Since 1975, 90% of the work created in the U.S has been in the service sector. Obviously there is some shrinkage going on here and as Terry mentioned its our industry that is getting nailed more than any (the textile industry). We have one major campaign against the Green Grocery Stores in the Lower east Side.


Local 169 is a union that is headed by a man named Ernesto Jofray, a Chilean refugee committed to immigrant rights. UNITE was founded by immigrants. Things that are required for our difficult campaigns are a commitment of resources- money, legal, and personnel. We’re an independent local within UNITE, so we are able to carry this out. We have to have a contact between the immigrant groups. This contact has to someone who is dynamic and a leader. We’ve been able to target two. One is Jerry Dominguez. Jerry’s been working with the Mexican groups. He came to us through an organization he founded called Mexican American Worker’s Association. The other gentlemen is Mamadou Camaro who is an African from Mali, working with the delivery personnel in the supermarkets on the Upper east & West sides. We are trying to get a campaign up among the delivery personnel in the stores (about 600 in the NYC area). The final component is getting workers who are prepared and willing to fight. There’s nothing more discouraging than when you find these pockets of exploitation and we can’t find anybody to set up. There are reasons for that. Immigrant workers are not unlike American workers. They’re afraid when the boss says something. They also have the additional problem of immigration. The workers that we are going after are almost 100% undocumented. We find them covered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. They have rights in the workplace. They even have labor rights. They can belong to unions. The one right that we have that they don’t have is the right to stay in this country.


Jerry Dominguez , Local 169, U.N.I.T.E.

Almost ten years a go I crossed the river. I was an illegal alien in this county. I worked as a farm worker in Florida and South Carolina, etc. We used to be exposed to pesticides very often. We worked from sunrise to sunset. No Holidays. Sometimes we used to make $12 a day or $20 a day in terrible conditions. When I arrived to NYC, I found the same conditions. Through the Mexican American Workers Association, we decided to do something. We knocked on many doors. Most of them were shut in our faces stating that the Mexican community is not ready to fight. We are undocumented. We don’t speak the language. We are afraid. So forget about it! So we said, “O.k. You don’t want to help us, so we’re going to do it by ourselves.” We started boycotting 17 stores in Brighton Beach and luckily 169 came and said they could help. Even though we were boycotting all these stores, and just trying to get minimal wage to start with some basic things, we didn’t have the legal knowledge, the economic power, or political connections, which is what Local 169 was providing. We had a very hard time. Our lives were threatened. Somehow these people were not expecting that the Mexican people could organize and join forces. For them it was as though nothing was going on. They used to come in our faces and tell us,” If you keep organizing, we’re gonna kill you!” But we kept going. Fortunately, some of the workers began supporting us because they got increases in their salaries. From making $200 a week, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. Making $300 dollars from $200 was a big change. So of them thought, “We don’t need the union. We have money.” We went in to fight elections, because the National Labor Relations Board asked the workers if they wanted a union. They had to vote. So we went in to fight an election; we lost for that reason. We won one single election, but the NLRB cannot force this employer to bargain with us- to have a contract.


Based on those experiences, we went into the Lower East Side, where many community groups are helping us. The workers in Manhattan are a little more militant. We have some workers that are on strike for more than three months. We have the Blake & Todd workers that are volunteering and helping us. So, we are showing that we are ready to fight! We really want a better life for ourselves, but we also don’t want people to feel pity for us. Pity is the wrong attitude. If you want to help the workers, you have to go and empower them. Tell them, “You are very smart. You are very powerful. Just organize! We are here to support you.” If you make them feel as though they are less than you, you won’t connect with them. There are certain things that you need to know about these workers. For instance there are certain cultural aspects- they like to go to parties. They like it. So if you are an organizer who thinks you don’t have time for parties, they will ignore you. There is another key element is this campaign- an I.D. card. An I.D. for them is better than gold. They need it for everything and they don’t have it. When you give them an I.D. that means they are somebody. So we give them I.D.’s to say that they are temporary members of Local 169. So far the Attorney general has been involved, and the U.S. Labor department. This is very good for us. One year ago, we didn’t have that support. We hope to further expand.


Camilla Chen, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops

N-Mass started out a few years ago as part of the Chinese Staff & Workers Center. We then became our own organization because our mission became to fight sweatshops. We are trying to fight against this whole sweatshop system that says, “You are not a human being. You are just here to make money for us”. We do campaigns that focus on grassroots worker’s power. The focus of today’s session is immigrant labor. We’ve found that it’s hard to just talk about immigrants because even if you are documented, you spend so much time trying to get your papers. Once you got your papers, you still can’t do anything. We doing a campaign right now called, “Ain’t I a woman?” We’re having a demonstration tomorrow. Some of the workers involved in this are sewing clothes for DKNY in Mid-Town Manhattan. Some of them are documented but they still cannot use the bathroom. They cannot take phone calls. They still get money stolen from them. They are still treated like animals. You have to fight for more than just papers. One woman was telling me, “Now I have papers. I feel like a slave with papers.” You have to have a bigger vision.


You also have to think bigger in terms of immigrant or American-born. I was born here. I’m a paralegal and college-educated. I can’t leave at night to take care of what I need to take care of. Is that what we come here for? As immigrants, we come here so we can get papers and be a slave with papers. They actually want to fire me now because they say I’m not supposed to leave at 5:30 Pm. I have to leave when “they want me to leave”.

The “Ain't I a woman” campaign started when some women came into our worker’s center. Donna Karen fired them for speaking out about long hours, unpaid overtime, padlocked bathrooms, and racist comments towards Asian & Latinas. The campaign was started so that the women can get reinstated as workers; get all their back wages they are owed, a public apology from Donna Karen and a promise to stop intimidating people and guarantee that her clothing is made in a law-abiding factory.


The reason we call the campaign “Ain’t I a woman?” is because the female workers were being treated like slaves. Donna Karen is someone who made her money by designing clothes for the working woman. What about the working women under your nose? It’s called “Ain’t I a woman?” because we want to liberate ourselves from the modern-day slavery. We talk in this campaign about all different kinds of women workers issues. One of the biggest issues is that a lot of women spend about 50 hours at home taking care of their kids, taking care of the house, etc and that’s considered their duty. No, that’s work. Women do two jobs. They work outside of the house and they work inside of the house. Why is that not considered work? Why is it when you don’t have a job outside of the house, you’re considered lazy?


A lot of times this country actually encourages illegal immigrants. They make-believe they don’t want people coming over the border, but they do. They want the cheap labor. That’s what this country was built on. It was built on free labor and now cheap labor and it continues. They want Asian and Latino people to come over undocumented. The more undocumented people that come here, the worse working conditions will become. I feel like the undocumented will always come here. They will always come to the U.S. they will always come to NYC. You can’t do anything to stop undocumented people. Everyone is looking for a better life. The only thing you can do is fight for a better life once you’re here.


Monica Santana-Latino Worker’s Center (speaking in Spanish with some translation)

I work for a community organization called the Latino Worker’s center.  This organization deals with labor and community issues. We’re a relatively young organization, approximately 5 years old. We are focused on labor and community campaigns, mobilizing workers. Our organizing methodology focuses on the leadership development of women and of the community in general. Our organization has developed various campaigns. In the development of those campaigns we have experimenting with different tactics depending on the changing needs of the community we serve. Originally, our intentions were to organize around the issues of injustice that our people have encountered in garment work, home care, maintenance, restaurant/deli workers, supermarkets, service delivery, etc. An essential part of our campaign was to educate the public about labor issues and the need for the organization to help improve the work and life conditions of the community. In 1996, we started to see results of our efforts around certain restaurants that we targeted. As we continued to develop our campaign, we realized that in the community we worked, a lot of the workers were undocumented. In that process of organizing people, we realized that when we won a campaign victory around labor issues, the results were still not good because workers would be fired and dismissed. The made us integrate immigration issues along with labor issues in our organizing work. We then educated workers on the effects that changes in immigration policies had on their lives.


The last three years, we have been working and combining all of these factors- the promoting of labor rights, the demand of a law for international amnesty to give the possibility for undocumented workers to obtain documents that authorize them to work. 1997 and 1998 were very active years at the Latino Workers center because immigration was strict, and as a result many people were deported. With the changes in immigration law and in public assistance, there was a displacement of people. Many of these people began looking for work- the same work that had very bad working conditions. Now that people were more vulnerable and in more need, it lead them to accept even worse working conditions. If any worker spoke out about the abuse they were automatically fired. They caused people to accept all the horrid work conditions, for fear of being fired from a job they desperately needed. We’ve worked in alliances with the religious sector, with some unions, and with various community-based organizations.


In the beginning of this year, we began a national coalition with various organizations that all support the national campaign for general amnesty. This collation recently did a demonstration in Washington in which we mobilized over 20,000 people. Within this coalition are various groups from a wide variety of religious sectors and different labor and union groups. We are now developing our plan for next year.


Margaret McHugh, New York Immigrant Coalition

Our coalition has been around since the late 1980s. The main things that we focus on are immigration policy, as well as education policy, health care, housing and political empowerment. After the 1996 laws we have been involved in a lot of social services. I think that a lot of groups that have been involved in the immigrant rights field have been hit with a tidal wave with the 1996 law that passed regarding immigration & welfare. Social service has been a big focus also for us. In terms of the labor issues, we have a number of groups in our coalition that have been doing really wonderful work at the grassroots level on organizing issues. Its work that everyone is really proud of but there’s always been a disconnect about having there be a policy agenda that all of the other groups that work on immigrant rights could really connect to and move forward. Part of that has to do with this country’s climate right now.


I wanted to talk about how things have changed in the last ten years. First, there’s a dramatic shift under way in terms of organized labor and its orientation towards immigrants. The labor union movement had its roots with immigrants. Immigrants started the labor union movement in this country but then over a few decades, we got away from those roots and suddenly labor groups were very anti-immigrant and tried to protect the jobs of native-born workers. The perception was that native-born workers were against foreign-born workers and the idea that foreign –born workers were going to undercut their wages. Unfortunately, we have the labor movement to thank for most of the worst anti-immigrant laws of this country. A lot of the worst anti-immigration laws were very heavily supported by organized labor. That may not feel very relevant to us locally, but it is huge when you look at the national picture. How labor weighs in or doesn’t weigh in has a really huge impact. In the last 10-15 years, the labor movement has been dying or feeling that they were losing their base. John Sweeney and other people came in with a real focus on organizing. As they tried to organize, all they found were immigrant workers. Unions like SEIU, who do service-sector organizing, are now ascendant within organized labor. They are where all of the new energy of the movement id coming from and its all immigrants that they are working with. Its created some uncomfortable dynamics nationally within the AFL and a real power struggle over the immigrant issues. In fact, a special commission was appointed a few months ago to have the AFL to look at its position on immigrant issues. This is significant because, its largely organized labor that supported employer sanctions, the law in 1986 that created the circumstances that everyone is talking about in work places. The fact that organized labor is revisiting its position on employer sanctions is really big news. The second thing is that AFL is also revisiting its position on amnesty. This could also change the political landscape. So, these are things that are happening that could really take us in a different direction.


Now, you have people like Allan Greenspan talking about “how good immigrants are”. It’s a scary thing that someone who is the ultimate, free-market economy conservative type of guy. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. The country is turning more pro-immigrant right now. Part of this is because the economy is booming- and more immigrants are needed for a lot of the jobs that are being created. But, what kinds of jobs are we bringing people into? I think this is a hard moment for people who do immigrant rights work- to be saying on the one hand, enjoying that there are these new opportunities to try to get people legal status and move forward with all these immigrant policy questions because the economy is doing so well. But there are all the downsides of what kind of work situations are you bringing people into. These people are vulnerable and have a hard time with these jobs they are brought into. Secondly, what happens when we inevitably hit a recession? I don’t think we are building info structure or public dialogue about the long-term commitment to immigration here in the U.S. and how it should not just is a function of the market dynamics. What we hard sounds pro-immigrant, but its all employer driven. Its all about the needs of the employer.


I wonder a lot about what it means for labor to be more supportive on these issues. Its not going to be helpful if labor comes on more pro-immigrant and puts forward a lot of controversial proposals that even their membership, for the most part, is not going to agree with and then they stand back and watch the fight happen. If they come out pro-amnesty or anti-employer sanctions, and then back away and don’t do the really deep work that needs to happen to pull their membership along with those issues, it could ultimately be more destructive than helpful. For those of those who have connections, its important to make sure that there’s more commitment on the issues. A hopeful side in the state level in New York is that the state AFL has made a commitment to making progress on a lot of farmworker issues. I think its embarrassed labor to see just how awful the conditions are for farmworkers. I think this is an example of a good way to direct this new energy- to have the traditional labor constituency speak up for immigrants. I think the fundamental problem with immigrants in the workplace is the legal status issue. I think this is the issue that makes immigrant workers so much more vulnerable than other low-wage workers.


Lastly, I think that this could be a different year for worker rights. I think we’ve all evolved to the point where there are a real  set of policies that people can join together and  push forward on. On the city level, the taxi workers alliance have a whole set of proposals that really could move forward at the city council. At the state level, it really looks like there will be movement of the farm worker issues. If enough people get behind them, they could get a whole set of protections that had not previously existed. There’s also a lot of unfinished business around the unpaid wages act. Local groups did a terrific job of organizing around passing this act a few years ago, but there hasn’t been enough money put into enforcing it. That’s a real agenda that could make a big difference. There are also various types of amnesty issues nationally. It’s a campaign year and everyone is courting the Latino vote.


Part of the strategies here are to (1) get people legal status, (2) to try and change the fundamental legal structure that people are working with in the workplace, and (3) to raise the threshold about the conditions that people are coming into. All of these things have movement right now and we can work on them together.  Immigrants have not mattered to anyone in elected office because they cannot vote. A huge number of immigrants have come through the citizenship process, and finally there are enough numbers in places like New York and California to make a difference in elections. I think that’s the only thing that is going to make people pay attention. Although we may be ambivalent about the current electoral system, I really think that voting is a real path to making real change on the immigrant rights issue.

    Community and Labor Organizing


January 14th, 2000 -  Three Visions of Organizing for the New Millennium


Richie Perez, National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights


Richie Perez - The Socio-Economic Context in which we do our Organizing

I’m a life-long NYC resident, a graduate of CUNY, Morris High School in the Bronx. I’ve lived in the Bronx for most of my life until I fell in love with a woman who lived in Brooklyn. So, then I had to make that move. I’ve been a community organizer, I was a public high school teacher for five years, I joined the Young Lords in the late 60s, and I taught Black & Puerto Rican Studies at the University level for 15 years. I was active in the movement to free the Puerto Rican Nationalists. I helped found a group called the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights and for the last 19 years I have been leading the organization’s work in terms of police brutality and racially-motivated violence. Most recently in the last 5 years, we been doing a lot of work with youth organization, including gangs in the Latino community and were successful in negotiating a truce, which is still in effect between the Latin Kings and the Netas, two of the largest Latino street organizations and actually recruited a few dozen of those members to be active in the political movement, especially working on the issue of police brutality.


My area of discussion today is the socio-economic context, in which we do our organizing. I’m talking about globalization and changes in the U.S. economy that have links to the increased prison population and some other changes in social policy. A few years ago, the NY Times ran an article called “The Downsizing of America.” The series told readers that in one-third of all households in the country, a family member had lost a job. The NY Times reported that workers with at least some college education made up the majority of people whose jobs were eliminated in the last five years.[3] In addition to downsizing here, American corporations have found a way to maximize profits by moving to low-wage national abroad and closing factories here. This “global factory” is one cause of the deindustrialization of the U.S. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing, while most new jobs are in the lower-paying service sectors.


Globalization and deindustrialization don’t result in higher unemployment. They cause a ripple effect. Generally, for each manufacturing job that is lost, three-and-a-half additional jobs are affected—in support industries, service industries and in local small businesses. As jobs are lost, local governments face a drop in income from both corporate taxes and local taxes paid by employees. At the same time, the demand for social services goes up, as newly unemployed members of the community try to adjust and survive. One study estimated that every 1% increase in unemployment, lasting for 6 years, is associated with 37,000 deaths, 920 suicides, 650 homicides, 500 deaths from cirrhosis of the liver, 4,000 state mental health admissions, and 3,300 state prison admissions.[4]


Taken together, globalization, deindustrialization, and the restructuring of the economy have resulted in a decreased need for both unskilled labor AND educated workers. There has been a shift to a low-paying service and high-technology economy—the “Two Cities” theory manifests itself again. However, most people of color are kept out of the high tech and growth sector of the economy through constantly increasing educational requirements and outright discrimination. The American economy, as it is structured today, cannot absorb all those who want to work; and it cannot reward its members for hard work and education.  Corresponding to a decline in America’s need for our labor, today, we see public schools in inner city communities being allowed to deteriorate educationally and physically. We also see the doors to the universities being shut in our faces. Those of us who survive the public school system, and go on, face growing obstacles in the colleges too. Open Admissions are dead; and tuition rises every year. Cuts in financial aid coincide with the nationwide attack on special admissions programs, ethnic studies, and student support services. The economy does not need our young people; and it seems everything possible is being done to blunt our educational dreams.


How this Plays out on the Local Level

The NY city economy is deeply divided. We live in a two-tier economy-in “Two Cities”. In three key measures of economic health, unemployment, job growth, and the local rate of inflation, New York is amongst the weakest urban economies. New York has an unemployment rate of almost 10%; it is about 50% for Black and Latino youth. The city ranks ninth in job creation among the ten largest cities. Approximately 90,000 elementary students don’t have classroom seats. These realities are the result of policy choices and spending decisions that have been made by the mayor and his municipal government. For example, in 1996, the budget of the Youth Services Department spent an estimated $10 million on a new “Youth Strategy”, which consisted of approximately 150,000 “interventions” with youth, picking up school truants and filing two kinds of juvenile reports on youth perceived to be acting “improperly.[5]


Deep cuts to youth programs and the increase in juvenile arrests go hand in hand. A 1997 report by the Citizen’s Committee concluded that with declines in funding and roughly 1 in 14 youths arrested annually by the NYPD, youths age 13 to 20 have a greater chance of getting arrested than they do of getting a job after school or having a community youth program to go to after school (Citizen’s Committee: Keeping Track of Children,” 1997). Is it any wonder that increasing numbers of us believe that government has adopted a policy of replacing the coach with the cop. During Giuliani’s first year in office, juvenile arrests jumped to 98,553, an increase of 22,229 over 1993. “Four our of five arrests in Giuliani’s first year were for non-violent offenses such as disorderly conduct and drug possession, and half were for violations so minor that they did not require fingerprints, just a summons according to the Division of Criminal Justice.” Arrests of youth for disorderly conduct, a charge that is used to cover everything from hanging out on a corner to playing a radio that a cop decides is “too loud”, jumped from 4,516 in 1993 to 7,579 in 1994. The NYPD’s “quality of life” sweeps are jailing an average of 280 young people a day for activities like playing loud music, not having “proper identification’, loitering, and drinking beer in the streets.[6]


Hundreds of people are spending hours, even days in crowded holding cells, just waiting to be charged. Former police commissioner Bratton predicted that his “quality of life” street sweeps would “probably” result in some people’s rights being violated; but that it was worth it. (NY Times, 6/20/96). These arrests are not making our communities safer! They are ADDING to the worries families now have about their loved one’s safety. Communities of color, in particular, are being told that in order to fight certain forms of crime, we must accept widespread violations of civil and human rights and an increase of police abuse- a different kind of crime.



Today, as globalization and deindustrialization bring profound changes to the U.S., we see an economy that cannot provide jobs for all who want them; and we watch as the youth of our communities are locked out of the U.S. economy. The only program America seems to be willing to invest in for our young people is expanded prison spending. We see our youth become the raw material that these prisons process- while whole upstate communities thrive from prison-related industries. Indeed, the prison industry is one of the fastest-growing and most profitable in the country.  Today, families consider themselves lucky if their children grow up without being arrested or killed. May inner city youth consider it a rite of passage to go to jail; they EXPECT to be arrested and jailed. This is a crime that has been committed against; the lowering of our expectations, the taking away of hope from young people. police brutality and institutionalized cover-ups that invariably follow are part of this crime.


[Note: Unfortunately, the Visions of Ellen Gurzinsky from The Funding Exchange and Safiya Bandele, from Medgar Evers College were not recorded.]

 [1] Also see Fisher, R (1994). Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America.                 

 [2] Passin’ it On: 25 Years Organizing the Northwest Bronx Mass Transit Street Theater & Video. (718) 882-2454.

[3] NY Times, March. 3, 1996.

[4] Data from The Deindustrialization of America.

[5] 1996 City Project report: “Doing Less with Less, Doing Less with More.”            

[6] Newsday, November 27, 1995.