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Building Coalitions with the White Working Class

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One of the least appealing things to me about liberals during this election has been the gleeful dismissal of the white working class, the open desire to not have to think about them anymore in some sort of new Democratic Party that does not need their votes to win. I do get some of that–after all, the equation in the media where “working Americans = white men” is very annoying. But in the end, racist that many white working class people may be, they are still Americans and not only deserve economic policies that give them the chance for a dignified future, but in fact should be a target of class-based organizing that builds bridges with working people of other races and ethnicity. Sarah Jaffe highlights one example of this, in Indiana.

 Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) had hired a construction company that used some union labor and some non-union, undocumented workers to helm an expansion project. The unions involved reached out for help to the Workers’ Project, at the time an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council (CLC), to represent workers who weren’t formally members of the Council’s member unions. The unions had planned a campaign under the banner of “Local Jobs for Local People,” but Workers’ project co-founders Tom Lewandowski, at the time president of the CLC, and Mike Lauer, director of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, argued against this framing—it would contribute to xenophobia, to us-against-them thinking. Instead, Lewandowski says, “Our operational theme for this campaign was going to be, ‘If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked.’”

Community outreach also paid off when a local Mexican restaurant owner stepped in to help with the campaign, offering lunch receipts from Saturdays as proof that the laborers were working overtime for which they weren’t getting paid. “We ended up eventually developing enough trust among the undocumented workers that they began to come to meetings,” Lewandowski says. “I would have them sign their names on a sheet and I said, ‘What do you want to call yourselves? Because you are a union at this point.’ They said ‘IPFW Construction Workers Association.’” The union workers kept an eye on safety conditions for the undocumented workers, and when the non-union workers held an informational picket outside the job site to protest threats to their jobs, the building trades honored their picket line and refused to work. Eventually, some of the undocumented workers won settlements; some of them also got into the unions.

“If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked” isn’t a TV-ready campaign slogan, but it speaks to the core organizing philosophy of the Workers’ Project: Solidarity, not scapegoating. In Indiana, where Donald Trump won the Republican primary handily and selected his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, trying to rally anger about trade and immigration into a wave he can ride into the White House, such campaigns have special significance. While organized labor has begun only in recent years to reverse course on immigration, to support the rights of undocumented workers and guestworkers and welcome new immigrants into its ranks, in Fort Wayne, organizers were building a bulwark against Trumpism long before Trump hit his first campaign stage. They were doing their best to create a model for the rest of labor as the old model crumbled around them.

The Workers’ Project exists to organize the broader community around issues that matter to working people. It is not a union, but it is supported by union members; it is not a community organization, but it is open to the community. Some of its projects, like the annual Labor Day picnic, draw near 6,000 people; others, like a high school workers’ initiative spearheaded in the 1990s, focus on specific people left out of labor unions. Over the years, its funding and staffing have fluctuated; some projects lasted for years and others wrapped up quickly. But its mission has remained consistent, says Cheryl Hitzemann, who has worked with the Workers’ Project for years: “to help give workers some voice and power in the workplace, the economy and the community.” To act as a counterbalance to business and corporate interests.

She places this in the larger context of the labor movement figuring out what to do with its Central Labor Councils and the community-based unionism it knows it needs to survive, but doesn’t always do a great job of supporting. Moreover, she makes the compelling case that if any movement is going to build cross-racial alliances within the working-class, it is going to be organized labor. There really isn’t anything else that speaks to workers as workers, instead of as whites, as Christians, or whatever. The labor movement is far from perfect, but its politics have improved in the last two decades. It can certainly do better, but supporting what it has done so far is also critical. And projects like the one in Fort Wayne are necessary to fight against the racist politics dominating the white working class in this election.

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