Boston Workers Alliance




M

embers
of the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA) met last October in New York
City for the second national conference of the U.S. Federation of
Worker Cooperatives. They were there to discuss plans for a temp
agency cooperative and to network with people willing to assist
their efforts. 


The BWA was founded in 2005 at a convergence of “jobless workers”
from Boston’s low-income Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods.
Committed to “uplifting [the] community by building powerful
collective challenges to the crisis of unemployment,” BWA envisioned
creating a network that would work cooperatively to aid ex-offenders
being released from prison and other individuals unable to find
work in Massachusetts due to discriminatory hiring practices under
the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) Act. 


The BWA currently has 300 members who pay $2 a month in dues, 50
of whom attend regular meetings and participate in projects. They
work in partnership with local residents who are unable to access
the job market. Projects they are involved in include everything
from community outreach and CORI reform advocacy to developing and
implementing job creation strategies as well as legislative lobbying
and media work. 


Aaron Tanaka, an organizer for the BWA, works with the job creation
committee to gain support from local employers and the community
for the temp agency. “The temp agency is our first economic
development project. The reason we decided to do this is because
we want to use worker co-ops as a job creation strategy,” he
said. Tanaka believes “the temp agency will allow us to place
people where they might not ordinarily get hired.” He admits
it may be difficult to run a cooperative temp agency due to the
high rate of employee turnover, but feels it is not impossible. 




The
BWA is working in partnership with the Industrial Cooperative Association
(ICA), which has already set up three successful temp agencies.
Tanaka points to an ICA-created temp agency in Baltimore as a working
model for BWA. “The structure…is different than other
temp agencies because it is non-profit,” Tanaka said. Though
it may not be a worker owned cooperative by textbook definition,
he explained that being a non-profit “will allow workers to
have full control over their wages.” Unlike for-profit temp
agencies that take a certain percentage of each of their clients
earnings, BWA’s agency intends to cover its overhead costs,
but will “take nothing away from its workers” at the end
of each pay period. In order for BWA to be successful in establishing
worker cooperatives, Tanaka feels the group must first meet people’s
“immediate financial needs.” The goal of the temp agency
is to provide those in need with a greater sense of economic mobility.
Creating a stable environment by working with the residents of Greater
Boston’s marginal communities to meet their needs will allow
those in the neighborhoods who wish to devote time to organizing
for social change the opportunity to do so without having to worry
about how they are going to pay their rent or feed their families. 


David Ludlow, a volunteer and support member with the BWA, sees
the group starting “an alternative economy for communities
of color in the greater Boston area, through creating worker cooperatives
in which people can sell their services to each other rather than
relying on large corporations.”  


According to the BWA, “Blacks with [criminal] records applying
for entry level positions have a 5 percent chance of being called
back for interviews and blacks without [criminal] records have a
14 percent chance. Whites with records have a 17 percent chance
and whites without records have a 34 percent chance.” 


Greg Young is an active BWA member to whom the temp agency project
would be beneficial. Following his release from a Massachusetts
State Correctional facility after serving a two-year sentence, Young
was turned away or terminated from employment because of his CORI
status. A CORI is a record of a person’s criminal history.
This record includes any time an individual was in court on a criminal
charge, no matter what the final outcome of the charge. Many employers
are required to run a CORI check on all job applicants even though
CORI documents are full of  legal jargon, making the documents
very difficult for the untrained reader to understand. 


There are over 2.3 million CORIs on file in Massachusetts and over
10,000 organizations in the state have access to these records.
CORIs are frequently used to deny people housing, employment, and
access to student loans. CORIs from misdemeanors remain open for
10 years and felonies for 15 years, even if the individual is found
not guilty. It is possible for individuals to access their CORI
and have it sealed—but that requires time and processing fees,
which are often hard to come by in low income communities. According
to the BWA, “many businesses will not hire anyone with a CORI
regardless of their qualifications or commitment.” 


Young believes that the majority of people who are incarcerated
are good people who “deserve a second chance.” For most
people, he explained, “time in prison is lonely. Guys are in
a cell all by themselves with nothing but walls and guards. All
we ever think about is freedom and how we want to work because we
screwed up.” Upon his release, he felt he “had already
been corrupted by all the violence” he witnessed in jail and
was “looking for some peace and humbleness,” along with
the opportunity to “have a job to take care of [his] kids and
be a good role model.” 


Young’s involvement with the BWA has been an uplifting experience
that has given him hope for his future. “Getting in touch with
this organization really touches me because though I am not working
temporarily I feel as if it is really going to take me to a different
place. What we need to do is focus on the CORI situation. Guys just
want to turn their lives around and do the right things.” 







 







Chris
Heneghan is an independent journalist who reports on social justice
issues. His work appears in

Grass Roots Economic Organizer

and the

Uconn Free Press

. He is also the founder of the Wrench
in the Works Collective, a radical lending library in Connecticut.