Pulling Together to Fight for Jobs
By Leigh Dingerson
Grassroots community organizations across the country often win significant local change for their constituents. But particularly around welfare reform issues, many of these campaigns get ensnared by federal issues-allocations, regulations, or restrictions. These same groups often have a tough time creating a powerful enough presence in Washington to push through the changes they need.
On January 23-24 of this year, the Center for Community Change (CCC) brought together representatives of 24 community organizing groups to explore opportunities for collaboration on welfare reform and jobs organizing through national "handles." While each of the participating organizations has a track record of strong organizing on a range of related issues, several groups in particular came to the meeting with a model for how the collaborative process can help advance their local work.
Fighting for New Bus Routes in Columbus
One of these groups, Building Responsibility, Equality, and Dignity (BREAD) in Columbus, Ohio, is demanding new bus routes to link inner-city residents to suburban jobs. BREAD is also demanding comprehensive "transportation hubs"-inner-city complexes that combine a central bus station with services like day care, job training, and adult literacy programs. In addition to working through city, county, and state sources to find funding for their comprehensive transportation plan, BREAD began, in early 1997, to look at federal transportation dollars to determine how to shake free the money it needs to continue its ambitious campaign. [See sidebar.]
Fighting for Representation in Chicago
Another participant in CCC's January meeting, the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations (MAC), has been fighting for the last two years to win a voice for low-income public transit users on the Chicago Area Transportation Study (CATS), the body that will disburse $600 million in federal transportation funds throughout the Chicago area over the next 20 years. MAC argues that the CATS Board, which lacks even a single member who is a public transit user, has contributed to urban sprawl by neglecting public transit and funneling money into more highways in the suburbs. Instead, MAC wants the CATS to focus on connecting welfare recipients and others to new suburban jobs through an inner-city light rail system.
When 250 MAC members attended a "public" meeting, held in March 1996 in the Chicago suburb of Schamburg, the CATS board quickly agreed to negotiate. But several months later, CATS' only concession was to propose creation of a "Community Advisory Board" without voting power. Frustrated, and angry, MAC members decided to join with groups facing similar issues in other cities to take their campaign to Washington.
Fighting for Jobs in Los Angeles
Los Angeles County is undertaking a massive construction project to connect the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to a nexus of rail yards just south of the downtown area. The so-called Alameda Corridor Project is promising to create 10,000 new construction jobs over the next five years, and has received $400 million in federal funds.
The Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition (ACJC), a coalition of community, labor, and advocacy organizations, is demanding that the Alameda Corridor Project fill a portion of the jobs created with low-income residents of local corridor communities. Like MAC in Chicago, ACJC has held several large actions to press their demands with the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. Local officials, initially receptive to the demands, later reneged, claiming that federal regulations prohibit local jurisdictions from entering into hiring agreements. To help counter local officials' reluctance, the ACJC, too, began linking with other community organizing groups to demand that transportation projects funded with federal dollars include access to jobs for low-income unemployed workers.
These community-based organizations have waged impressive campaigns around local transportation issues. Each campaign aims, ultimately, to link low-wage workers to jobs. And each organization has begun to take its effort to the national level through an impressive model of collaborative work. With support from CCC, these and other grassroots groups working on transportation and access-to-jobs campaigns have come together to agree on a set of common national demands.
Their "handle"-or point of access to press for national support-is the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). ISTEA, passed in 1991 and expiring this September, is the underlying authority for over $26 billion in annual federal funding for highways and mass transit programs. Congress is now debating how to revise and renew the program. [See Legislative News, this issue.] Representatives of BREAD, MAC, the ACJC, and others came together last fall to meet with each other and for a series of informational visits with Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, Congressional staff members, and the White House to describe their local efforts and make their common demands. Already, this model of local organizing with coordinated national demands has started to pay off.
Jobs and Welfare Organizing Strategy Meeting
In January, the transportation groups' collaborative efforts served as a model for over 50 organizers and leaders from 24 grassroots groups brought together by CCC. This Jobs and Welfare Organizing Strategy Meeting, held in Washington, provided an opportunity for organizers and leaders to draw on their own experiences and others' to develop a series of common national-level handles around which to organize. Unlike initiatives to create a "national campaign," the CCC meeting rigidly aimed to advance local campaigns through collaborative action. Too often, national campaigns fail to make the essential link to grassroots organizing, or they drain money, staff, and energy from those efforts. The challenge of the Jobs/Welfare meeting was to figure out how effective, locally-focused organizing groups could build relationships with each other and collaborate in a way that avoids the frequent pattern of national campaigns and still advances their common issues.
The meeting was more than a year in the making and part of CCC's increased attention to welfare reform and jobs issues over the last several years. CCC is one of three organizations chosen to administer a $3 million grants pool-primarily from the Open Society Institute, with matching support from a handful of foundations-for groups working on welfare reform. With staff in Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities, CCC has bolstered local organizing efforts, linked common campaigns, and opened communication networks among community-based organizations.
CCC staff worked closely with organizers and leaders around the country to define common issues, identify possible national handles, and create an agenda that would maximize each group's opportunity to work with each other during the January meeting. The participating organizations were diverse in terms of their geographic reach, membership, and organizing methodologies. The groups included local staff and leaders from ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation and Gamaliel networks (two church-based organizing institutions), as well as a wide range of independent community groups. All were constituency-based organizations of low- and moderate-income people engaged in pathbreaking work at the local, regional, or state level on welfare reform and jobs issues. Each organization sent one staff person and one community leader to the meeting.
The meeting encompassed these campaign themes: work must be there; work must be fair; work must be possible; and there must be a safety net. Issue areas identified for discussion at the gathering included: (1) TANF and welfare reform; (2) job creation and job training; (3) living wages, job linkage, and corporate accountability; and (4) transportation. The four broad issues were chosen based on the potential for national collaboration and participating groups' solid track records in organizing around these issues.
Most of the organizations that participated in the Jobs/Welfare meeting have actively opposed welfare reform, both in their state capitols and through local campaigns in their cities.
Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD) is organizing students on Temporary Cash Assistance, many of whom are being forced out of colleges and into ineffective job training programs by federal welfare reform's stringent work requirements. Last October, BUILD mobilized over 175 people directly affected by the new welfare law for a rally in Baltimore to demand that the law recognize school as a work activity and that people be moved into living-wage jobs, not meaningless training programs that fail to equip workers for work. Now, after only five months of campaigning, BUILD has won an agreement from Maryland Governor Parris Glendening that will allow many welfare recipients to remain in school by counting some categories of post-secondary education as a 'work activity' under Maryland's welfare reform law.
As participants in the Jobs/Welfare meeting listened to stories like BUILD's, and to experts on federal welfare reform, they identified two national handles the participating organizations felt were relevant to their ongoing local work.
One of these issues is proposed language from the Department of Health and Human Services that would discourage the use of so-called "state-only programs." Under current language, only welfare reform programs that use federal dollars are covered by the stringent restrictions, time limits, and work requirements of the federal welfare reform bill. A few states have segregated federal and state funds and are using their state funds to provide a safety net not available under federal law, or to continue assisting recipients beyond the federal lifetime limits. But with its new proposal, HHS is attempting to discourage "state-only" programs. Meeting participants agreed on the importance of maintaining the states' ability to segregate funding and discussed potential ways to demand that HHS revise its proposed language.
A second issue raised at the January meeting-and one that has been nagging organizers, the media, and even some welfare officials-is recipient tracking. Because the federal welfare reform act focuses almost exclusively on caseload decline to measure success, states have taken what some activists refer to as a "slash and burn" attitude toward reducing the number of people receiving assistance. Such policies have led to unprecedented reductions in caseload, with virtually no information about whether the programs are succeeding in lifting recipients out of poverty and moving them into work.
Another section of the HHS proposed regulations would require states to track welfare recipients as they leave public assistance, and to collect data on their economic and family status. These provisions are energetically opposed by many state officials, who argue that the cost and burden of tracking the results of welfare reform are excessive and prefer to continue measuring success on the basis of caseload decline.
Participants at the Jobs/Welfare meeting agreed to work together to monitor these new regulations, and evaluate opportunities to affect them. Initial plans center on the possibility of state-level actions on officials who oppose the data collection provisions.
Job Creation and Job Training
The Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP), another group that shared its work at the Jobs/Welfare conference, is campaigning for a Job Opportunities in Basic Services (JOBS) bill that would create 10,000 wage-paying public jobs for entry-level workers coming off welfare or long-time unemployment. The bill would create a guaranteed minimum wage of $6, with health benefits and quality child care; provide a minimum of four hours of training each week for each participant; and protect current workers from displacement. PUP has brought together a broad coalition of labor, church, and other organizations to lead the campaign, and JOBS bills have now been introduced in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate with bipartisan and statewide support.
PUP's local actions and creative strategies-including the development of neighborhood "Jobs Committees," which identify public works projects that could employ area residents-have helped win Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell's early support for the JOBS bill. Rendell has committed to using a portion of the city's Welfare To Work funds to create thousands of public jobs in the city and work/study slots that would allow welfare recipients to complete educational programs under welfare reform's work requirements.
There's a solid information base supporting public job creation in Pennsylvania. A recent study of the "jobs gap" between workers coming off welfare and available entry-level jobs around the country placed Pennsylvania 42nd, with only an estimated one-third of the number of jobs available as there are recipients being forced into work. While the state has reported that 14 percent of welfare recipients were engaged in some "work activity" as of October, state law requires 100 percent of those receiving public assistance to be involved in at least the minimum required work activity by March 1999. PUP's efforts respond to this increased demand for jobs.
Job creation was also the key goal of a successful campaign in Minnesota, where the St. Paul Ecumenical Alliance of Congregations (SPEAC) won $68 million over seven years for the cleanup and redevelopment of thousands of acres of brownfields-abandoned and polluted industrial sites-across the state. [See Organize!, this issue]
These organizing experiences led participants at the January Jobs/Welfare meeting to consider ways to bring more support from organized labor to state-level job creation struggles and to provide support for a long-range plan to win federal job creation legislation. Participants discussed two job creation bills likely to be introduced in Congress this year. They will also share information about brownfields cleanup strategies. Finally, many participants plan to work together locally to win a portion of the federal Welfare to Work funding for job creation and more effective job training programs.
Living Wages and Corporate Accountability
The third "work group" at the Jobs/Welfare meeting addressed a range of issues including living wage campaigns and corporate welfare. Participants discussed several exciting campaigns, ranging from ACORN's leadership in minimum- and living-wage efforts across the country, to local campaigns against temporary employment agencies accused of exploiting welfare recipients.
In Georgia, for example, a range of community groups is fighting to raise the state minimum wage-currently an unbelievable $3.25an hour-to $6.24. Members of the Georgia Citizens Coalition Against Hunger, which was represented at the meeting, are spearheading this "Up and Out of Poverty Campaign." The Atlanta Labor Council and other human rights and advocacy groups actively support the effort.
Montana People's Action (MPA) is working on local living wage ordinances through their "Campaign for a Fair Economy." MPA members are conducting intensive meetings and actions to win the support of key county commissioners and city council members. To help local officials put things in context, MPA has also released a report on corporate welfare in the state. The report uncovered millions of dollars in subsidies and tax credits to Montana businesses, many of which promised-but did not deliver- jobs in return for the public assistance. Not only have jobs not materialized, MPA demonstrated, but some of the corporations have actually packed up and left the state only months after receiving the subsidies. The MPA report, released on February 6th, received significant statewide media attention, and drew an angry response from the Montana Chamber of Commerce, which defended corporate welfare and accused MPA of digging up the "few bad apples."
The working group that reviewed these campaigns and potential national collaborative opportunities is planning several activities in support of the federal minimum wage legislation in Congress this session. Members are conducting additional research on corporate beneficiaries of welfare tax credits and subsidies and other businesses that seem to be profiting from welfare reform without providing needed jobs.
The final work group of the January Jobs/Welfare meeting brought together BREAD, MAC, ACJC, and other groups to form the Transportation Equity Network and continue the effort around the reauthorization of ISTEA. Just three weeks later, over 1,500 members of BREAD turned out to a meeting in Columbus with Federal Transit Authority Deputy Administrator Nuria Fernandez. This was the first in a series of five local meetings with DOT officials scheduled by Transportation Equity Network groups in Columbus, Hartford, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Chicago. At each meeting, host organizations are pressing officials around both local and coordinated national demands, including a demand that DOT Secretary Rodney Slater meet with representatives of the Transportation Equity Network to hear their concerns about transportation needs in low-income communities.
At the Columbus meeting, BREAD presented Ms. Fernandez with its demands on ISTEA and asked her to respond to three questions relating to the federal Access to Jobs program (a component of the new ISTEA legislation). Fernandez agreed to support provisions emphasizing grassroots involvement in selecting funding sites under Access to Jobs; agreed to encourage the Secretary of Transportation to meet with the Network and other groups in Chicago; and agreed to return to Columbus to brief a summit meeting of Columbus political, business, and community leaders on federal funding sources for getting people to work.
ACJC has also seen local progress since the January CCC meeting. The Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority (ACTA) gave a huge victory to ACJC on March 12th, when it adopted a plan requiring that 30 percent of newly hired construction workers on the Alameda Corridor Project be very low-income. ACJC also secured a commitment from ACTA and the unions for 1,000 pre-apprenticeship training slots to go to low-income corridor residents.
These efforts to unite experienced community organizing groups are already
yielding local results. Communications with the DOT have made clear that
the coordination of demands and the multi-group push for change has also
been heard in Washington. The Center for Community Change and grassroots
activists around the country are continuing to work together in these campaigns
to demand that work is there, work is fair, work is possible, and a safety
net exists for those who cannot find or maintain a job.
Leigh Dingerson is leadership development information specialist for the Center for Community Change (CCC) and co-editor of CCC's Organizing newsletter, which provides updates to groups on welfare reform-related campaigns around the country. She is a former community organizer with ACORN. For additional information on CCC or the Jobs/Welfare Reform Strategy Meeting, contact CCC, 1000 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20007. 202-342-0567. Or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building Responsibility, Equality, and Dignity (BREAD), founded two years ago in Columbus, Ohio, has made rapid progress in its campaign to improve transportation for central-city residents seeking jobs. BREAD began as collaboration between Columbus clergy and two faith-based community organizing networks, Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) and the Gamaliel Foundation. With over 30 dues-paying congregational members, BREAD has, in a short time, become one of the strongest community organizations in Ohio.
The transportation campaign, BREAD's first major effort, was a natural for the organization. Despite glowing reports about economic good times in central Ohio, BREAD members knew that their low-income constituents in downtown Columbus were unable to find work. The problem became dramatically clear when BREAD found a map showing the location of new and available jobs in comparison to high poverty neighborhoods. The new positions, many of them entry-level positions in the hotel, restaurant, retail or manufacturing industries, were virtually all sited in the "outer ring" suburbs lining the beltway around the city. The high-poverty neighborhoods were located in the city center.
BREAD approached the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) to learn about the agency, its funding, and vision. In a failed 1995 tax levy campaign, COTA had proposed a series of 13 "transit centers" lining the outer belt. The transit centers would not only be a hub for public transportation but also provide on-site day care for its users. Though the levy campaign failed, COTA had secured federal funding for a single such center, to be located at a shopping mall being constructed outside the city. BREAD immediately liked the concept and argued that the centers should be sited in low-income communities, where workers could leave their children and board buses to suburban jobs. COTA agreed to amend its federal grant proposal to include a second center located downtown.
From there, BREAD developed a comprehensive campaign plan, calling for two additional transit centers in center-city communities as well as expanded bus routes to the outer ring. The organization's first public action was a 1,500-person meeting with Columbus Mayor Greg Lashutka, during which members challenged him to spearhead the proposal. After being initially vague in his support, the mayor came fully on board two weeks later, when he again met with BREAD and this time assigned some of his staff to continue working on the issue.
Success came rapidly for such an ambitious campaign. In December 1997, COTA established a pilot project, a new bus route between downtown Columbus and one of several suburban job sites. The new bus began with only limited service but was immediately successful, running at or near capacity from the start. By January, COTA had agreed to create four additional routes and modify several others, based on negotiations with BREAD. The first of three transit centers will also open this spring. The new centers will include a daycare facility, classrooms for job training and other community activities, and a state-of-the-art transit scheduling system.
Changes in the welfare system leading to increased national attention to transportation issues have played a role in building local support for BREAD's transportation campaign. Ohio's welfare reform law provided some new money for transportation, and BREAD is working to secure more welfare-reform-related funds to cover new routes. The area's booming economy produced additional revenues for COTA (which is funded by a portion of a local sales tax). In addition, a large number of employers outside the central city were frustrated with the lack of applicants for their job openings and pegged the transportation system as the culprit. Several employers offered to buy bus passes for their employees, helping to fund an additional route.
BREAD has played the key role of pressing a comprehensive transportation vision that would benefit low- and moderate-income residents of the region. These local efforts continue, along with collaborative work on the federal level with other strong organizing groups.
Back to March/April 1998 index.