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JWJ at 25


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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Trumka also told a conference of the Labor Research and Action Network in June that “we must rethink what it means for working people to have a collective voice and real power.” He urged the assembled academics and activists to provide him with some “fresh thinking and new ideas for a dynamic labor movement.” He announced that the federation would collect “a lot of ideas, try them, experiment with them and see which ones work.”

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Jobs With Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices
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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Reading this book, one wonders if Trumka and others at AFL-CIO headquarters are not missing one key element of JwJ’s success? (If so, it wouldn’t be the first time, as noted below.) As the best case studies in this volume demonstrate, it takes direct networking among local insurgents to enhance individual union effectiveness and revitalize labor in any city or region. Roping together the walking wounded of institutional liberalism, inside the Beltway, is an entirely different project. It’s also far less likely to produce any discernible results, nationally or locally, other than a few convention-related newspaper headlines.

 JwJ was created at a time when a far more conservative AFL-CIO dominated any “letterhead coalitions” of national organizations that it deigned to participate in. Too often, local central labor councils were, as Rosen puts it, “pretty moribund” and certainly more wary of left-wing “outsiders” (including Rosen’s own unaffiliated United Electrical Workers). Worse yet, many CLCs proved unable or unwilling to generate real solidarity in major strikes, organizing campaigns, and contract fights. When JwJ emerged to fill that void, it often had “an uneven, rocky start,” according to Acuff. In Atlanta, where he was a local leader of the Service Employees International Union, JwJ was initially “crushed and suppressed by the State Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Council.”

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bold”>“Jobs with Justice allowed for smart, energetic incredible women and people of color to be leaders of the coalition at a time when they were shut out of the labor federation, which we later changed. Now, there’s a much more diverse labor federation. Today, it is headed up a by a big supporter of Jobs with Justice, our first woman leader after I left.”

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Eventually, some (but not all) Jobs with Justice-affiliated unions contributed to the national AFL-CIO’s own political upheaval in the mid-1990s. SEIU’s John Sweeney was elected president of the federation on a “New Voice” slate. Trumka, an early JWJ backer when he led the United Mine Workers, became Sweeney’s secretary-treasurer. JwJ’s initial reward for their victory was to be informed by Trumka (and New Voice backer Jerry McEntee, then president of AFSCME) that the only community-labor coalitions needed in the future were those created by the “new” AFL-CIO.

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>With the AFL-CIO poised to “invest” more in formations allied with labor, one would think that JwJ would be at the top of its grantee list? After all, as Cohen notes in his introduction: “Jobs with Justice brings to the table 25 years of practice building unity, bringing diverse groups together, balancing interests, seeking commonalities, and aligning campaigns and movements. That experience and those skills will be crucial in the coming period.”

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>If there’s a weakness in 25 Years, 25 Voices, it’s the amount of ink devoted to mutual back-scratching by past or present national staff members (who are all fine folks). Inside the Beltway, such self-congratulatory “discourse” may be standard fare, at labor and political testimonial dinners. But it doesn’t reflect what built JwJ at its best, over the years, at the grassroots level. There, the group was often defined by its rebel spirit, rank-and-file orientation, and bottom-up initiatives. JwJ’s leaders were widely known and respected for being self-effacing and self-sacrificing. Among them are formidable organizers like ex-GE machinist Russ Davis in Massachusetts or former Pac Bell worker Margaret Butler in Oregon. Both have toiled for much of their career on “movement” salaries far below the pay of the full-time union functionaries whose faltering campaigns their JwJ affiliates have rescued on innumerable occasions.

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bold”>Steve Early worked on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. During that time, he was an active supporter of Jobs with Justice in Boston and its predecessor, the Massachusetts Labor Support Project. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress, forthcoming in November from Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at [email protected]
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