past April a group of organizers and leaders representing grassroots
organizations, unions, and student groups met in San Antonio, Texas
where they formalized a strategic relationship to help advance their
efforts in communities and workplaces throughout the U.S., places
many of them have called the “South within the North.”
Leon Guerrero is coordinator of Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ),
the alliance formed by the 33 organizations represented at the Texas
meeting. GGJ seeks to act as a vehicle for organizing a national
progressive movement made up of low-income and working people in
summer internship program sent Leon Guerrero, who is Chamoru (of
Guamanian descent), away from his home in California in the late
1980s to work with the SouthWest Organizing Project in New Mexico.
He stayed on and became a field organizer and a driving force behind
many of the organization’s campaigns on environmental and economic
justice issues. In 1992 he became co-director. In December 2004
he left the staff of SWOP in order to assume full-time responsibilities
at GGJ. I spoke with him during a visit to Albuquerque.
Who makes up Grassroots Global Justice?
GUERRERO: GGJ includes U.S.-based national and regional networks
like Jobs with Justice, United Students Against Sweatshops, the
Indigenous Environmental Network, National Network for Immigrant
and Refugee Rights, and the Southwest Network for Environmental
and Economic Justice. Unions and worker organizations such as United
Electrical Workers, PACE Local 8-675, Southwest Workers Union, and
the Farm Labor Organizing Committee are also members, as well as
community-based organizations like Community Voices Heard, Environmental
Health Coalition, and the SouthWest Organizing Project. So GGJ represents
a wide range of constituents—migrant farmworkers from Ohio
and North Carolina, industrial workers in Pennsylvania, welfare
mothers from New York City, public school workers in San Antonio,
members of various indigenous nations, and many others.
reality often overlooked is that the basis exists for a viable social
movement here that can challenge for power. We could go back many
years to look at the roots of this movement, but my point of reference
is the 1980s. Many of the organizations that make up GGJ were established
during that period in response to specific things such as the lack
of affordable healthcare, Reagan’s cut-backs of welfare benefits,
oppressive labor conditions, and environmental injustice. In spite
of, and in response to a hostile political environment in the U.S.,
we have built strong labor and community institutions for progressive
change. They have survived for the better part of three decades
and have become more sophisticated with time.
grassroots environmental justice networks that emerged in the 1990s—several
of which presently help make up GGJ—brought together groups
around sets of issues. Does GGJ seek to replicate this approach
at the national level?
is certainly room to mount national campaigns focused on specific
issues and we view part of our role being the promotion of such
work. For example, we have started to coordinate some activities
among the members of the alliance. We have formed a few committees
and working groups. This is the first time that grassroots organizations
and networks have been able to mount such an effort at the national
level simultaneously with our counterparts throughout the Americas.
recognize that there is now an opportunity for us to come together
and bring our prior experience to a national formation that transcends
the kind of work that we did in the 1990s. As a broad-based alliance
GGJ brings together groups not so much around a specific issue or
theme, but rather to discuss a national agenda from the grassroots.
name of the new alliance suggests that you are looking at the international
arena. I recall that, from the beginning, organizations such as
the Southwest Workers Union, Southerners for Economic Justice, the
EJ networks, and others always viewed their work as being related
to what is going on in the world.
has engaged in international organizing campaigns for years. The
Southwest Network and others have developed bi-national relations
and campaigns. But across the board the levels of contact and practical
work have been uneven.
became GGJ was born out of the World Social Forum experience in
Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2002. Roughly 50,000 people came from around
the world. Seeing the strength of popular movements building national
power—calling for social and political agendas based on human
rights, sustainable economies and environments, worker rights and
indigenous sovereignty—made us realize a few things. One is
that our struggles in the U.S. are not isolated and that we are
not alone. Second is that it is possible to win and build political
power at the national and international levels. Third is that we
have a lot of work to do in the U.S.
also came to understand that it is very important that grassroots
efforts taking place within the U.S. obtain more visibility in the
international community. It was striking to us that many of our
colleagues in other parts of the world have little knowledge of
conditions here and that they often do not even know that there
are organizations working for social change here.
part because they are exposed mainly to U.S.-based NGOs that focus
exclusively on U.S. foreign policy and its political and economic
consequences in the global South or the practices of certain multinational
corporations abroad or related labor conditions. The predecessors
of these groups were often called solidarity organizations. They
do noble and valuable work. But their personnel may spend far more
time living and working abroad than in the United States. They rarely
have any connection or lines of accountability to U.S.-based social
movement organizations and they address international issues as
if they were distinct from the problems in their own country.
Their perceptions of the work that our organizations do may be ill-informed.
this in mind, we have sent over 400 community and worker leaders
from the United States to the past three Social Forums. In 2004
we developed strategic plans for the coming three years, and we
organized a popular education conference on globalization. This
past April we held a first membership meeting where 33 organizations
formally joined the alliance.
material conditions of a labor organizer in the U.S. will almost
always be noticeably better than those of someone in the same relative
social position in a region such as Latin America. This must be
thought provoking for organizers and community or workplace leaders
who visit a country such as Brazil, for example.
most important thing is the development of a political movement
that understands that the struggles of Mexico, Latin America, or
south Asia are inseparable from those of working and community people
in the U.S. To do so we must bring workers and communities together
rather than promote competition between people, as happens when
the whole position on jobs gets pushed during battles over trade
agreements, and then gets parroted by the media.
can organizations in GGJ learn from their counterparts abroad?
thing we can learn is how people in the global South have built
strong organizations and movements with fewer resources than are
often available to us here. How have they been able to develop the
kind of infrastructure that is reflected by their evident strength?
It forces us to look at how we do our organizing work and what it
will take to win at a broader level. If we have more at our disposal,
then we ought to be able to strengthen our work. The degree to which
we do can also have a positive impact in the South.
role do you believe GGJ can play in developing U.S. policy?
role is to begin to provide a real alternative to the neoliberal
agenda. There are several burning questions inherent in this. What
do we see as the role of government? How do we assure there are
adequate resources to provide for social needs such as healthcare,
social security, and environmental regulation? How do we tax and
spend in a fair and just way? How do we protect the sovereignty
and resources of indigenous nations?
involves a set of more profound discussions that we are just beginning
to have. We see the United States Social Forum as one vehicle towards
doing this. GGJ is on the planning committee for the USSF and we
are staffing the process until the USSF has adequate resources to
do so. The forum will take place in the summer of 2006 and we are
very excited about it. This will be a much-needed opportunity, a
platform from which progressive voices in the U.S. may better express
does this movement and specifically Grassroots Global Justice project
itself on the international landscape, beyond participation in occasional
must be more consistent and strategic in our participation in the
international community. We have been sporadic and our participation
temporal. For example, when we organize a delegation to the United
Nations Conference on Racism little follow-up will take place or
adequate planning for the next international event. No connection
from one event to the other will occur. Many of our global counterparts
participate actively in the United Nations process, yet in the U.S.
most people are unaware of the UN Conference on Trade and Development,
the Millennium Goals, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
of our tasks is to build more consistency and a greater sense of
purpose when we participate at the international level. An important
step for us is to join the Operating Secretariat that will organize
the Social Forum to be held in Venezuela in January 2006. This will
give us an opportunity to learn more about the international landscape
and how we can be more involved.
GGJ members already have established international exchanges that
may bode well for the future. What can you tell us about these?
with Justice has started an exciting project with the New Trade
Union Initiative in India to bring workers from India and the U.S.
together to define perspectives and strategies on outsourcing and
immigration. Southwest Workers Union and Project South are members
of the Convergence of Movements of Peoples of the Americas and,
together with mass organizations in Latin America, were doing important
work on CAFTA and the FTAA. Community Voices Heard has conducted
exchanges with CONGESCO, connecting welfare mothers in New York
City to people organizing in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The United
Electrical Union is developing joint strategies among General Electric
workers in the U.S., Brazil, and other countries. These efforts
are essential and it is important that we support them. Their success
is an indicator of the degree to which we can build true solidarity.
It is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive work, yet we know
it must be done.
Louis Head is
executive director of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Cuba Research
& Analysis Group. For 16 years he was a staffperson at the SouthWest