Byline: Karen Brodkin
Here’s a report from the May 18 workers’ rights landscape convening at Liberty Hill. There were about 40 people including Liberty Hill staff, Community Funding Board members, and organizers from workers rights, community and labor organizations.
Overall, it was clear that Los Angeles has a strong and creative economic justice movement that has persisted in the face of a dismal economic prognosis. Too many good struggles, not enough time to work it all through, but I felt that there were threads of the discussion that pointed to a possible long-term political and organizing agenda. So, I’ll summarize what I heard, what it suggested to me, and hope it stimulates more talk about what a workers’ rights economic justice agenda could look like in Los Angeles.
We’re up against an economy that has long demonstrated a series of recessions and bubbles more than real growth. There’s almost no likelihood that sustainable jobs will return in the private sector, unionization here is near dead, and workplace organizing almost impossible. Unions survive in the public sector, which is also where sustainable jobs are most likely to be created. So defense of the public sector is important for economic justice.
Worker centers and community/labor groups are taking their fights about jobs and economic justice into the public sector. They are testing a variety of campaigns that combine self-help with legislative efforts to improve wages and protect vulnerable workers, as well as pushing for public investment for working class needs in a mix of worker training, public jobs, and more livable visions. Here are some specifics:
1. Statewide political coalitions to pass an anti-wage theft ordinance and a Domestic/Household Worker Bill of Rights are gaining traction. There are beginnings of national coalitions with their own legislative and political agendas: National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) are examples.
2. These fights widen the scope of investment in economic justice issues. The Caring Across Generations campaign joined caregivers and families of those they care for, as well as disability rights groups, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and unions such as United Long Term Care Workers (ULTCW).
3. Place-based worker center organizations are developing conscious strategies for working through race issues that have divided communities. The Black Worker Center (BWC) and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) have created new community narratives that reflect multiracial worker ownership. Difficult discussions about race, gender and power are part of a double-stranded process of community-making and narrative-making that allows previously excluded groups to form multiracial communities with a potential to reshape public development priorities. This needs to be done much more around gender as well.
4. Worker centers are engaged in discussions about dues and job creation projects in ways that destabilize conventional contrasts between organizing and service. Examples of these projects include community gardens; cooperative car washes run by workers; and Pilipino Workers Center’s tax business. This built on a base of middle-class origin members who possessed those skills and, as they prepare tax returns, they also engage people in analysis of the economy. All these keep the focus on organizing, but also create DIY forms through which people can also help sustain themselves.
5. Community-labor groups combine self-help with campaigns for public investment in a mix of worker training, public jobs, and more livable visions. For example, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (County Fed), Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), Green LA Coalition and the Apollo Alliance’s focus on jobs/training through a program of construction training and creating green jobs in public sector clean energy retrofits.
Put together, these campaigns suggest a range of strategies that have great potential for scaling up, and for bringing new allies into public sector fights for economic justice. They could be the beginnings of a grassroots political and legislative agenda for what economic justice and economic development could look like in Los Angeles today.
Karen Brodkin is a member of LIberty HIll's Community Funding Board, Professor Emeritus UCLA Dept. of Anthropology, and the author of many publications including Power Politics: Environmentalism in South Los Angeles, Making Democracy Matter: Identity and Activism in Los Angeles, and How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America.