15—Building Communities of Solidarity
from Madison to Bend
from Wisconsin Uprising Labor Fights back
“At the 2011 Left Forum in New York City, in a discussion about building a workers’ offensive, London-based labor economist Paul Mason spoke
of the importance of creating new cultures of struggle and creating communities
that actively support social justice. This means creating history,
values, beliefs, and behaviors that reflect class consciousness, which is then transformed into action.1
For example, historian Zoltan Grossman
said in a recent article that the response of Wisconsin workers to the conservative
assault on their rights is no surprise.
Milwaukee workers struck for an eight-hour day in 1886, and
seven workers were lost in the infamous Bay View Massacre. Populist
farmers took on the railroad companies during the 1890s depression,
sparking the formation of a Progressive Republican movement that
briefly took power in the 1900s, and dairy farmers launched “milk
strikes” against creamery bosses who were skimming off their income.
Unemployment benefit and workers’ comp laws, vocational
schools, and the AFSCME public employee union all started in
Ingrained in community cultures of solidarity is the expectation
that the community will respond to injustice and hold itself accountable
for defending social justice. Neoconservative cultural strategies
create a formidable obstacle to cultures of solidarity.
mass media is an important part of the neoconservative agenda. In the United States, a conservative overhaul of the Communications Act of 1934 enabled the corporate monopolization of the media and
enhanced corporate manipulation of culture, making possible the
monopolized media power we see today.2 Neoconservative cultural
strategies have played a major role in the reshaping of the cultural terrain of the U.S. working class. Consumerism, personal enrichment,
privatization, and the diminishing social role of government, deteriorating
public infrastructure, deregulation, increased poverty, deteriorating health care and education, immigrant-bashing racism, and no alternative worldview all breed hopelessness. National and local conservative
community cultures have diminished the scope of civic
responsibility along with notions of class solidarity. The building of
local “cultures of solidarity,” thus expanding the scope of civic responsibility, becomes an essential building block for making possible an alternative worldview.
At its essence, our labor movement is about democracy.
It is only through collective action that regular working folks have a voice.
As stated by the public sector workers in Wisconsin themselves, their willingness to fight on was inspired by the people’s victory in Egypt over tyranny and for democracy. It is no accident that right-wing forces in the United States are currently trying to obliterate unions.
For forty years the conservative political forces in North America
have been experiencing a cultural and political resurgence. They
have been spurred on by the theories of Milton Friedman and the
conservative Chicago School of Economics.3 Since the 1970s, conservative policymakers who influenced presidents have advanced a
revised conservative economic and political agenda that transferred
income and wealth upward and guided U.S. foreign policy. In the
United States, this neoliberal strategy provided the means to reverse the reforms of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. This strategy Page 252
has five major policy components that manifest themselves locally,
nationally, and internationally. T
These are: implementing a regressive
tax system (the rich and the corporations get a much lower tax
burden), casualizing the workforce (more part-time work), reducing
the political and economic role of unions, eliminating the role of government
to regulate and redistribute resources to those who are poor,
and the privatization of public services.
In order for this to be accomplished, the role of the public sector
has to be dramatically reduced, and the burden of taxation has to be shifted onto the backs of working people. Data from the Tax Policy Center shows that in 1940 corporations paid 18.3 percent of the federal
tax, while personal income accounted for 13.6 percent. In 2011,
personal income accounts for 44 percent of the federal tax revenue,
while taxes on corporations accounted for 9.1 percent.4 A similar
redistribution of the tax burden is reflected at the state level.
In Oregon, 44.1 percent of tax revenue comes from personal income, and corporations pay 3.6 percent.5 Because governments do not tax those with the largest incomes or corporations with high profits, governments find themselves strapped for revenues. The result is an unnecessary
but universal fiscal crisis. What is left of the public sector in
terms of its social welfare function is being stripped away through privatization and sale of public assets.
Our unions have difficulty forming a united front against this
assault. They operate like competitive corporations instead of workers with a common enemy. The reason lies in an example from the book written by Bill Fletcher and myself, Solidarity Divided.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, we were engaged in a dialogue between U.S. and South African unions. In a discussion about political action, a question was raised about the fundamental purpose of unions. A progressive
union leader from SEIU responded in a manner that seemed
obvious to him: that the role of a union is to represent the interests of its members. A South African union leader responded diplomatically:
“Comrades, the role of the union is to represent the interests of the working class. There are times when the interests of the working-class conflict with interests of the members of our respective unions.” 6
Page 253 For example, in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo successfully broke
the solidarity of the state’s union movement by offering needed jobs to the building trades with the money saved by eliminating public sector work. Fundamental notions of working-class solidarity gave way to the
interests of particular unions and their members. On the other hand, in Wisconsin the police and firefighters were exempted from the draconian laws that would weaken or destroy the other public sector unions; however, when asked to support Governor Walker and his policies, they said they would rather stand together with their union brothers and sisters than support a tyrant like Walker.7
This essay is about turning the cultural tide in local communities
by consolidating communities of solidarity and making the fight for
social justice a cultural norm.
I take my examples from Oregon, where I have been helping to build working-class solidarity for many years.
In Oregon, there are wonderful examples of building communities of
solidarity. Probably no better example is the twenty-year-old Portland Jobs with Justice Coalition, which was an inspiration for the work in
which I participated in Central Oregon.8 The difference in Central
Oregon was that the social movement component of our labor movement, which became the Central Oregon Jobs with Justice Coalition (JwJ), and the traditional union-based institution, the Central Oregon
Labor Council (COLC), were able to consolidate resources around
the same goals and objectives with common leadership.
But before I can get to the details of the work in Central Oregon, I need to briefly discuss Central Labor Councils (CLC). A CLC is a voluntary federation of AFL-CIO local unions in a particular U.S. city,
county, or region. CLCs represent the oldest federated structure in
the U.S. labor movement and are independent of any particular union.
They are subordinate only to the national AFL-CIO. They predate
national labor federations, including the American Federation of
Labor and the Knights of Labor. On a geographic basis, there are
“many questions affecting the interest of working classes which
cannot be dealt with in special and separate Trade and Labor
Unions.” Thus central labor organizations were formed for the purpose of organizing, educating, and mobilizing working people.9
Competition intensified between national unions and CLCs for the
affiliation and resources of local unions. After the AFL constitution
was changed in the 1890s to prevent CLCs from competing with
national unions for members, CLCs became dependent on local affiliates
of national and international unions for resources.10
In 1996, the AFL-CIO made a dramatic effort to jump-start the
union movement when it embarked on “The Road to Union City.”
Then AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said:
Today’s AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils (CLCs) have a critical
role in the revitalization of the American labor movement. By
building real power and strength in communities, we are raising the
voices of working families. Through our Union Cities campaign,
labor councils are fulfilling their mission to organize our communities and fight for social and economic justice.11
The Union City program was the coming-out party for the New
Voice coalition of the AFL-CIO, which took power in an unprecedented open election in 1995.
In the late summer of 1996, the
National AFL-CIO produced a glossy fold-out titled, “The Road to
Union City: A Guide to Greatness for Local Unions and Their AFLCIO
Central Labor Councils.” It prescribed eight steps for rebuilding
the U.S. labor movement in cities, towns, and communities.
• Step 1 was “Organizing for Change, Changing to Organize.” The
idea was for CLCs to get half of their local unions to commit staff
and at least 30 percent of their resources to organizing the unorganized.
• Step 2 was “Mobilizing against Anti-Union Employers.” CLCs
were to recruit 1 percent of the union members in their jurisdiction to “Street Heat,” the AFL-CIO’s rapid response team.12
• Step 3 was “Building Political Power and Community Coalitions.”
Page 255CLCs were supposed to establish a group of one hundred political activists to build community alliances and coalitions for legislation and candidates that championed working families. Candidates would also be held accountable for their promises.
• Step 4 was “Promoting Economic Growth, Protecting Our
Communities.” CLCs were to promote growth and economic
development that advanced public health, improved the environment,
increased employment, and promoted labor management
• Step 5 was to “Educate Union Members in Pocketbook
Economics.” The “Common Sense Economics” training program
developed by the AFL-CIO Education Department could be used
to teach workers why working families were experiencing economic
hardships and how education, political power, and organizing
could improve their future.
• Step 6 was “Generating Support for the Right to Organize.” CLCs
had the responsibility to educate public officials and the general
public about supporting union organizing and the need for labor
• Step 7 was “Making Sure Our Leadership Mirrors the Faces of Our Members.” CLCs were charged with building an inclusive labor movement. This included emphasizing the importance of having union leaders who were as diverse as their members and
creating solidarity with communities in the governance of the
• Step 8 was “Encouraging All Local Unions to Increase Their Membership.” CLCs were given the goal of achieving a 3 percent growth rate in their jurisdictions by 2000. CLCs were instructed to create a culture of organizing, to employ multiple union organizing strategies, and to use their developing political clout to achieve greater union density.13
Using the Union City Program as their model, activists set out to
build a community of solidarity in Central Oregon. For at least a generation,
rural Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains has been a conservative
stronghold. In 2002, the population of Bend (the largest city
east of the Cascades) was about 48,000 (in 2010 it was nearly 85,000).
It was rapidly becoming the second-largest city in Oregon. When I
first moved to Bend, lifelong residents told me about the KKK in the 1930s and the old Sundowner law that persisted into the 1960s and how it required black people to be out of town by sundown. African American exclusion in Oregon is well documented in Elizabeth McLagan’s “A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in OregoA History of Blacks in Oregon,
1788–1940” ( Georgian Press Company, 1980).
Central Oregon in the early 2000s was a boom economy with
rapid growth and construction. It was also an agricultural region, and Mexican immigrant populations began to grow in agriculture, construction,and the service industry.
Bend is a pretty place. It is surrounded by a ring of volcanic mountains that remain covered with snow most of the year. The area offers loads of outdoor activities like skiing, golfing, kayaking, and fly fishing.
Rivers and lakes that surround Bend provide excellent opportunities
for fly fishing. In fact, the world-famous Deschutes River runs right through the center of town. Fly fishing was an industry that at one time supported eight fly shops. Many have since gone out of business because of competition from Internet vendors and big box stores.
Bend also had the third-cleanest water in the United States. Since the logging mills in Bend closed in 1992, the city’s leaders have attempted to reconstruct the image of Bend by focusing on the natural resources
of the area and characterizing the city as a “destination resort location.”
The low union density of Central Oregon (11.2 percent compared
to 15.6 percent statewide) and the nearly invisible union movement
was conducive to working people forgetting that cultures of union solidarity
had existed in Bend since 1905 when almost all of the building
trades were unionized and even clerks, printers, and barbers were
union. The Central Oregon Labor Council (COLC) was founded in
Labor Day picnics organized by the unions were the largest Page 257
community events during most of Bend’s history, and the AFL
building in the town center was a focal point for social events.
When the mills were organized in 1949 in the wave of AFL and CIO organizing after the Second World War, union power reached its pinnacle in
Bend. And on two separate occasions during the 1950s, the president
of the Woodworkers Union was also the mayor of Bend, with a
majority of council people being union members or supporters.
Although militant, Bend’s union history was not necessarily enlightened.
In the 1980s, a president of the COLC claimed fame for having
sawed down a tree with an environmental activist still in it.14 In other words, if we were going to build a culture of solidarity, we had to revitalize but also change local traditions.
The major newspaper, The Bend Bulletin, is conservative, overtly
anti-union, and a strong advocate of the privatization of public services.
It set the tone for the media in the area. Union organizing was
nonexistent, and Labor Day picnics had not been organized for the
better part of the previous decade.
Three events began to change this scenario. The Oregon School
Employees Association (OSEA) represents classified school workers
in 133 school districts in Oregon.
The biggest threat facing the OSEA
was the privatization of their members’ work. In Bend, in 2000, the
school board was about to take a vote to privatize student bus service.
Second, in 2001, Cogentrix, a major power company, wanted to build
a non-union power plant along the Deschutes River. Third, community
activists organized an event to emphasize the economic plight of
the area and the need to organize. With the help of the local community
college and the local Chandler Foundation, they brought the
author of Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich, to the town known
for its “Poverty with a View.”
Since most local unions in Oregon have their headquarters in “the
Valley” (the I-5 corridor on the west side of the Cascade Mountains),
union members on the east side of the Cascades, such as in Central
Oregon, planned their own local actions and relied on other union
members for support. In January 2000, OSEA , not a member of the
AFL-CIO, reached out for help, and in the middle of a blizzard that
Page 258 blanketed Bend with several inches of snow, a hundred OSEA and other union and community activists marched in the freezing cold around the besieged Bend LaPine School District Office. Their march was later joined by the school board chair, Randy Gordon, and the
measure to privatize Bend’s school buses was defeated.15
In 2001, behind closed doors, Cogentrix negotiated a deal with
Jefferson County commissioners to build a power plant along the
Deschutes River near Madras. Neither Cogentrix nor the County
commissioners would discuss the deal with community members, let
alone organized labor. This covertness alienated large sectors of the community, including farmers, Native Americans, environmentalists, unions, and both the Republicans and Democrats.
The Oregon Building Trades Council retained high-priced environmental lawyers
to put up legal obstacles, while the Central Oregon Labor Council and the Central Oregon Building Trades Council formed a broad political coalition in Jefferson County, which was supported throughout Central Oregon. In November 2002, the Jefferson County commissioners were unseated and Cogentrix was forced to leave town and abandon its anti-union, anti-community project.16
Because of growing concerns about the low wages, low union density,
and civil rights, the December 2002 Barbara Ehrenreich event
drew 700 people together at Central Oregon Community College.
She highlighted how companies like Wal-Mart intensify poverty by
getting tax breaks and supplying only minimum wage jobs with no
benefits and reducing the revenue of local communities. She also
made clear that the most important thing workers could do to end
poverty was unionize. This event linked union activists, housing
activists, peace activists, environmentalists, and gay rights activists in
a way that created ongoing interaction.
In 2002, as the population grew, new activists, people with previous of creating
a progressive agenda for Bend and possibly Central Oregon.
Since many of these activists had a history of union action, they gravitated to a small but energetic COLC. They began to plan how the labor movement could be revitalized and how the organizing of
workers could be accomplished locally.17 Their planning process
involved changing the political culture of the town and the region and creating a political power bloc. Two organizing attempts provided the impetus for planned action.
In 2003, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) started an organizing campaign at Bend Broad Band, a cable television company with about a hundred employees. COLC contacted CWA to see if it could render assistance. It was suggested that CWA and COLC create a joint strategy that would include community activists. CWA organizers agreed that they would need such a campaign, but only after they won an NLRB election. Unfortunately, the company moved
faster and employed a union-busting firm that isolated the workers in captive audience meetings and one-on-one interrogations. CWA was
trying to organize the workers from the other side of the Cascades, and the workers felt isolated. One worker said, “We felt like we were on an
island and alone.” What had been an 80 percent majority dwindled to
less than 50 percent within two weeks. CWA staffers realized they
could not win and withdrew their petition for an election.
Soon after, a group of Head Start workers asked the COLC for
organizing help. Head Start in Central Oregon was run by a highly
visible nonprofit corporation known as the Central Oregon Community
Action Agency Network (COCAAN). Some of the workers
had a memory of a previous OSEA campaign that failed, but most
wanted a union because they had no voice about working conditions
and because discipline was arbitrary. It became the campaign
of the COLC.
The COLC leadership wanted to build a broad-based organizing
campaign that would incorporate the community forces that put on
the Barbara Ehrenreich event. Because the COLC constitution
included only AFL-CIO unions, activists needed to build an organization
that combined other social movements with union activists.
They created a social map of Central Oregon to determine how to
work with the different social forces in the region. In the course of their investigation, they learned about the key economic and social issues facing workers in the region.
The COLC invited the various organizations to participate in an
organizing conference in the fall of 2003. The guest speaker was the president of Seattle-based UNITE HERE Local 8, who was also a
national vice president of UNITE HERE. The newly elected president
of the COLC had previously worked with the president of
UNITE HERE Local 8 in a large California city and through their
CLC had built a labor/community coalition and organized downtown
hotels and businesses. The conference had two major components.
First, the participants had to identify the most important issues to working people in Central Oregon. Second, they had to build an
organization to address these issues. The primary concerns of
working people involved: public transportation, affordable housing,
affordable health care, fair trade as it was related to immigrant rights (End NAFTA), and family-wage jobs (accomplished mainly through union organizing).
The conference participants were committed to the idea that no
worker who was trying to organize would be without support in
Central Oregon and that the model for organizing workers should
involve making whole communities stakeholders in the success of
workers organizing. The Head Start workers’ campaign became the
labor movement’s campaign. The consensus reached by the fifty-plus
participants was to build a chapter of Jobs with Justice to facilitate the organizing of the entire community.
After meeting the requirements to become one of the forty-two
chapters of Jobs with Justice, a steering committee was elected that included community activists, union members, and COLC leaders.
The steering committee was evenly divided between men and women.
Its demographic weaknesses were that, with the exception of two
Latinos, it was all white, and it lacked faith-based membership and
youth activists. Its events, however, included a diversity of activists.
The COLC developed a strategic plan that focused on addressing
the social and economic concerns brought forward at the organizing
conference. They also adopted the slogan “Workers in Central Page 261 Oregon stand shoulder to shoulder for social justice.” Because of the lack of organizing activities by unions in Central Oregon and because
the AFL-CIO’s Union City program guided it, the COLC was committed
to the idea that if workers needed organizing then the CLC
would do it.18 Care was taken by the CLC leadership to always balance
the broad interests of social justice with the practical concerns of each union affiliate. Leadership always included private and public sector workers, service, and building trades workers. Care was taken to make sure that all of the unions participated in the decision-making
process. Public sector unions were always alert to contracting opportunities
for the building trades, helping to establish a fair bidding
process, and if possible creating favorable project labor agreements for the building trades unions.
An ongoing process of education and
reciprocation became a habit for the COLC, and in this process, more often than not, the unions supported each other’s projects, including those advocated by social movement organizations. This was critical in Central Oregon because of the hegemony of right-wing conservative politics and culture.
Together, the COLC and JwJ raised money because of growing
union participation in the COLC and the writing of grants for JwJ
projects. They were able to get seed grants from progressive foundations
like the McKenzie River Foundation, the Social Justice Fund
Northwest, and CAUSA. They established coalition partners with
organizations like the Oregon-based Rural Organizing Project, the
Human Dignity Coalition, Basic Rights Oregon, and Pineros y
Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Sweatshop Watch, Oregon
Fair Trade Coalition, and the Oregon Center for Public Policy (OCPP, a research-based nonprofit). In later years, especially as the work
among Latino immigrants increased and as they attempted to expand
organizing to the service sector, they reached out to Enlace (a crossborder workers’ rights nonprofit) and Restaurant Opportunities
Centers United (a nonprofit for organizing restaurant workers).
The two groups planned annual events that focused on education
and organizing. They reestablished a Labor Day event that was
renamed Solidarity Day. It served as an event to celebrate workers’
struggles throughout the year. They helped organize and create a
racial justice curriculum for the annual celebration of Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.’s birthday. They used the opportunity to bring
activists and cultural workers to Central Oregon. Maya Angelou,
Dolores Huerta, and David Bacon were among the guests. They did
annual educational events around May Day, Cinco de Mayo, and
Mexican Independence Day and supported other events like Earth
Day and Gay Pride. They did the annual press release for the OCPP
report on the economic state of Oregon. They did regular events
about labor history, labor cultural events, immigrant rights, living wage, and worker rights. Curriculum-based labor education was regularly taught by the University of Oregon Labor Research and
All of the legislative changes they helped pass were preceded by
identifying a need and the mobilization of mass action. The equal
rights ordinance occurred because of assaults on African American
and gay people. The passage of the ordinance was vehemently
opposed by right-wing Christian zealots.
In fact, the groups opposing
the ordinance were so large that the City Council meeting venue had
to be changed to a local theater on two occasions. The COLC vigorously supported a coalition led by the Human Dignity coalition.
Public transit was achieved when a broad coalition of working
people, small business, and disabled people (Citizens for Bend Area
Transit) demanded it and forced the City Council to create a public
transit system out of its general fund. The measure for manufactured
home park tenants came about when land developers began to evict
manufactured home tenants from their homes and Jobs with Justice
and hundreds of tenants formed a coalition called Tenants United for Fairness (TUFF) that jammed the council chambers for months until it and eventually the state legislature passed legislation that protected the property rights of tenants.
When Wal-Mart bought a huge tract of land to build a superstore,
JwJ organized another coalition of organized labor, property owners, small business owners, and mall owners (Community First) to fight its creation. With the help of the City Council, the coalition has fought and defeated multiple appeals by Wal-Mart, and after seven years of struggle the lot remains empty
Since 2003, the COLC and JwJ have recognized the importance of
incorporating the struggle for the civil rights of immigrant workers into the labor movement. Regular educational events have linked the
scapegoating of immigrant workers to free trade policies and the retrograde immigration policies of the United States. JwJ helped form different coalitions to organize immigrant workers in Central Oregon.
Success occurred when JwJ received grant money that was earmarked
for the purpose of immigrant organizing and targeted the churches as sites for this organizing. The catalyst for the creation of a multiethnic coalition and mass movement in Central Oregon was a 2008 tour organized by JwJ that featured labor journalist and photographer
David Bacon and his new book, Illegal People: How Globalizaton Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.19
The tour occurred during the MLK celebrations, and by May Day 300 workers, immigrants,
and union members from Central Oregon marched with 2,000
other workers on the state capital demanding justice for immigrants.
The immigrant rights group in Central Oregon eventually merged into
a statewide immigrant rights group organized by CAUSA.
Central Oregon played a role when the whole Oregon labor movement
showed the nation how to create and pass “tax the rich” legislation
when they united to pass Ballot Measures 66 and 67 in 2009.
After three and a half years of organizing weekly solidarity events
inside the bargaining unit and with community support built on the
outside, Head Start workers with OSEA achieved a collective bargaining agreement. Similarly, after helping to create the transit district, the COLC and JwJ set out to organize the workers of ParaTransit Inc. into a union. After forming an organizing committee, the workers picked ATU as their union. Authorization cards were collected by the
COLC and JwJ, and when ParaTransit tried to change the venue of the
election to a distant location, the Bend City Council ordered
ParaTransit to hold the election at the work site. The union won.
ParaTransit hired anti-union consultants and tried to break the union, but mass demonstrations helped win back the jobs of transit workers that ParaTransit illegally fired. Eventually, the workers received a significant
wage increase and some benefits. Unions have begun to pick Page 265
up the pace of organizing in Central Oregon, in no small part due to the continued efforts of the COLC and JwJ. The Oregon Nurses
Association has had successful organizing drives and contract fights in Redmond and Prineville, and SEIU organized the rest of the largest
employer in Bend, St. Charles Hospital, when 600 hospital workers
successfully organized in 2011. And Bend workers brag that they have been able to turn out more support for the struggle in Wisconsin than in Portland, the largest city in Oregon.
At some point, building communities of solidarity has to be a conscious process, and the values and behaviors that promote social justice have to be reinforced over time. The leadership of the labor movement in Central Oregon has changed, but so far, though new leaders do things differently, the social movements continue to be supported and workers are still getting organized.
And if the right-wing promoters of regressive anti-people culture want a fight, they will find one in Central Oregon, where workers stand shoulder to shoulder for