Progressive union coalition gathers in Providence

Annals of labor
By MATT JERZYK  |  May 8, 2008

If there was an “intelligent designer” who could design a coalition to unify the disparate, passionate elements of the American left, the result would resemble Jobs with Justice (JwJ).

This unity was on display this past Friday in the kick-off march and rally for the annual national JwJ convention, held at the Westin Hotel in Providence: union firefighters playing bagpipes joined students toting large puppets, while anti-war activists from Vermont, immigrant activists from California, and housing activists from New Orleans joined with hundreds of Rhode Island union members. 

At the subsequent rally with more than 1000 people packed in front of the State House, George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, proclaimed, “Labor unions need to work together with com-munity groups. And community groups need the support of labor unions. This is why Jobs with Justice is so important.”

Similarly, Scott Duhamel, a leader from the Painters’ union, dispelled the notion that building tradesmen are anti-immigrant, asserting that the trades unions “were built on the blood, sweat, and tears of immigrants.”

The three-day JwJ conference featured dozens of workshops led by activists from as far away as India, Brazil, Hong Kong, and South Korea, on a host of subjects including the freedom to form unions, partnerships between workers and environmentalists, youth organizing, and campaigns for universal health-care. 

From its beginning more than 20 years ago in a Washington, DC, office to its contemporary lineup of 40 state-based coalitions, Jobs with Justice hasn’t strayed from its core principles. “We have learned that the principles of Jobs with Justice are right on: long-term relationships rooted in collective action,” says national director Sarita Gupta. “It is through people taking action together that there is a deeper sense of what solidar-ity and movement mean, and this reciprocity creates a space for people to have the hard discussions and debate.”

Gupta points to the Employee Free Choice Act and universal health-care as top priorities for the organization this year. 

JwJ’s Rhode Island chapter (disclosure: of which I am a former director) is led by director Rachel Miller and a steering committee of more than 50 members.

Miller was enthusiastic about the conference. “Given the current political climate in Rhode Island,” she says, “it was critical to have each part of our coalition together: marching for workers’ rights and immigrant rights.  This weekend’s conference further strengthened us to oppose funding for Governor Carcieri’s executive order [against undocumented immigrants] and to promote a budget that puts people first.”

Miller also points to a new project, the Green Jobs Alliance, as evidence of the power of the coalition in bringing together traditional antagonists (unions and environmentalists) to work toward a common goal of job-creation in the renewable energy sector.

With the ongoing bleed of manufacturing jobs, the recession, and the scapegoating of immigrants and the poor, there is much to be glum about in the fight for workers’ rights. But with groups like Jobs with Justice inspiring a new generation of leaders and building broad coalitions on important issues facing working families, there is reason yet to have hope. 

Related: Labor Pains, CVS gripes reach the State House, IWW prepares for North Providence, More more >
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