On July 29, 1987, Jobs with Justice was created in Miami at the AFL-CIO convention. An attempt to bring labor into coalition with other groups for broader social change, Jobs with Justice long has had inconsistent results based on the location and personalities involved, but has also engaged in critical work connecting organized labor to other progressive groups.
The labor movement has not always been the best ally of other groups for social change. That is so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated. But outside of the CIO organizing days of the 1930s through the late 1940s, organized labor has often struggled with ally work. There are a number of reasons for this. The interests of working class Americans do not always go well with the interests of upper class liberals. The labor movement is complicated and filled with unions that often disagree with one another, not to mention other groups. Some unions are quite politically progressive and have long stood with allies in other campaigns. Some unions are quite conservative and have zero interest in other progressive causes. The AFL-CIO leadership is actually quite decentralized since any union can leave at any time and thus it does not have the power to tell the union heads what to do. A few notorious incidents–the 1972 refusal of AFL-CIO head George Meany to endorse George McGovern for president and a few construction worker locals beating up hippies in New York did long-lasting damage to other left-leaning Americans’ opinion of the labor movement, one that lasted a long time. Gary Hart, a top advisor to McGovern and a future leading Democratic neoliberal before his inability to keep his penis in his pants got in the way, counts his skepticism toward unions back to 1972 and so does a generation of other political leaders. I have long criticized this as too simplistic–even in 1972, the unions with the most members almost all endorsed McGovern. But it is a real thing.
Things did not really improve in the 1980s, especially in the environmental realm, where workers and environmentalists battled over “jobs vs. owls” in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, sometimes nearing violence. In 1987, the AFL-CIO finally decided to do some work to build bridges to other movements. The key person behind this was Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of America. Some of this was a response to labor leaders, at least a few of them, realizing that they were going to lose everything if they didn’t change the way the labor movement operated. This had led to the election of John Sweeney as federation head in 1995 and JWJ was definitely central to the new Sweeney moment, even if that proved less revolutionary than many hoped.
The principle behind was the “I’ll Be There” card. This was really a great idea. It committed everyone who signed the card to show up at five solidarity events a year. This really isn’t much. Walking a picket. Protesting a dirty fuel plant. Coming out for an immigrant rights march. It’s only every other month, not even that. That sort of low-level accountability, self-accountability really, could make a big difference in both building up networks and creating connections between activist groups that could spawn longer-lasting coalitions.
The other central part of the idea was to find new ways to organize since the old ways weren’t working anymore. As Cohen tells it, CWA’s interest in such a coalition came out of bargaining in Detroit where it was clear existing labor law was not going to help the union, but that building new coalitions would.
Jobs with Justice became a crucial organization coordinating a lot of the big actions of the 90s and 00. The Student Labor Action Projects were big in building up a new generation of leadership and did a ton to push forward the anti-sweatshop campaigns. JWJ’s work with immigrant rights groups helped turn labor from its traditional antipathy toward immigrants to being one of the most important parts of the immigrant rights movement coalition today. JWJ didn’t just play a big role in Los Angeles and New York and Detroit either. When cafeteria workers at Stephen F. Austin University in deep east Texas organized, JWJ got people to Nacogdoches for a rally.
Long-time labor organizer and one of the real legends of American organizing history, Stewart Acuff, stated “JWJ is probably the most effective national community-Labor coalition over a long period of time in the history of the Labor movement.” Key figures such as the Rev. James Orange, one of the most important civil rights activists ever and a key veteran of the Birmingham campaign in 1963, played leading roles in building the organization. When globalization became a key issue on the left in the late 90s, really from the time of NAFTA’s ratification to 9/11, JWJ was everywhere building those connections, from protests in Portland against Nike’s sweatshop practices to training students to working on the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. In Portland as well, it played a really important role in building local support when the workers at the iconic Powell’s bookstore wanted to organize a union, which succeeded. At times, it also worked on electoral campaigns, especially at the local level in cities such as Buffalo, to elect progressive candidates that challenged entrenched power, even if it was Democratic. In states such as Missouri, JWJ played critical roles in statewide initiatives to raise the minimum wage, which even as it has still stagnated on the national level, is much higher than that even in many red states. And when right-wingers tried to get ballot measures through that repealed statewide affirmative action plans, well, JWJ was on the front lines of defeating those too.
Now, in truth, JWJ at the local level–where this stuff really counts–was a mixed bag. When I was in Knoxville in the late 90s through 2000, JWJ was hugely important to my development. Having leadership, including Highlander Center head Jim Sessions who chaired at the time, being so welcoming and mentoring to young folks really paid off long term, both in the local community (University of Tennessee workers created United Campus Workers, which is a union even though they are in a right-to-work state) and in the larger labor world (myself and what I do, a long time SEIU organizer, etc). But here in Rhode Island, where there was an active JWJ when I got here, the head of it kind of went crazy and just disappeared for a year or something and it has never been revived, at least to my knowledge. The Twitter account hasn’t been used since 2018 at least. But that’s how these things are going to work.
Where things have gone well, such as in Tucson, JWJ has been able to build important community capacity to support a strike in ways that workers and even unions aren’t always very good at doing–getting out information, getting it into the churches and community groups, writing letters to the editor, that kind of thing. Moreover, for a lot of activists who had come of age since the 1970s, well, they might have wanted to keep the labor movement at arms length for some of the reasons discussed above. If you were queer or a strong environmentalist or spoke Spanish as your first language, you might not feel super comfortable in organized labor, JWJ helped build bridges between the labor movement as it was in the 90s and since and these other movements.
Today, Erica Smiley runs JWJ and I think she does a pretty good job considering the limitations of a position like that. She’s certainly in the public spotlight fighting for workers’ rights, broadly conceived. JWJ is on the front lines of not only worker rights campaigns, but immigrant rights as well, promoting gay and trans issues on the job, then Green New Deal, and other ideas to rebuild the American working class and protect our most vulnerable people. You can read last year’s JWJ report here if you want more.
I borrowed from Eric Larson, Jobs with Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices to write this post.