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"Race, Class, And Union Summer,"

by Andy Levin November/December 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

In October 1995, John Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO in the first contested election in the labor federation's history. Sweeney and his running mates, Secretary-Treasurer Rich Truinka and Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, won a mandate to advance the interests not only of the 13.1 million current members of AFL-CIO unions, but of all working people. They vowed to increase massively efforts to organize the 85% of workers who don't have the power of a union, and to open up the labor movement to voices too long muted — those of women, people of color, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and the young.

The labor movement, as champion of working-class interests in a racially diverse and divided society, has long occupied a special (and sometimes troubled) place at the intersection of issues of class and race. Suddenly, the movement had new leadership that affirmed as never before the inseparability of the struggles for racial and economic justice. But what would it do to build bridges to those struggling against racism, sexism and homophobia?

Among the new leadership's initiatives in its first year in office, perhaps none embodied the combined focus on organizing and openness more clearly than Union Summer, a program designed to get a new generation of activists involved in the labor movement by putting over 1,000 of them at sites sprinkled across the country.


The idea of the Union Summer program was simple: Work with unions and community organizations to set up sites where good organizing was going on, from Seattle to Puerto Rico. At each site, gather a diverse group of 20-40 mostly young people with a social conscience. (While there was no upper age limit to participation, and some interns were in their sixties, most were in their twenties.) Put them through a very intense, three-week internship emphasizing hands-on experience on the front lines of real live organizing campaigns. Give them a stipend of $210 per week and provide housing in a dorm, convent or hostel to enhance group-building. Work them hard, but don't make the internship all work. Include educational sessions about the labor movement, the political economy and so forth, as well as cultural and social events.

Union Summer had several goals. First, and most important, we hoped to begin transforming the politics of a generation by putting many of its activists on the front lines of working people's struggles for dignity and justice on the job. Three decades ago, young progressives had deep ties to the labor movement, as symbolized by the founding of Students for a Democratic Society at a UAW retreat center in Port Huron in 1964. But ever since the New Left and the leadership of the labor movement parted ways over the Vietnam War, being a young progressive has not necessarily meant supporting unions or even understanding their role in society. In initiating Union Summer, the AFL-CIO hoped to refocus young people's attention on injustice at work and imbue them with pro-worker views deep enough to shape their political outlook throughout their adult lives, wherever their own careers lead them.

A second goal was to find some small number of new union organizers, and to make recruiting organizers easier by creating a good buzz on campus and in working-class communities. The life of a union organizer is hard, but it is the best job in the world. An organizer gets to make a decent living while fighting to redistribute power in the most immediate way possible. There's nothing more exciting than becoming deeply involved with a particular group of workers and helping them find their voice in the face of corporate power. But if the labor movement is to organize the "new work force" on the massive scale necessary to rebuild working-class power, we will need hundreds of organizers from all communities. We hoped Union Summer would help us reach new groups of potential rabble rousers.

Finally, and least important, we hoped the activists would get some work done. Yes, Union Summer was mostly about the interns rather than getting the labor movement's job done in the short term. However, the goals of providing the interns with a transformative experience and getting our work done seemed in the end to be inseparable rather than at odds. We felt clearly that the only thing sure to move the interns (beyond bringing them together in an intense, politically self-aware group experience) was deep involvement in the work. Unions had to be willing and able to give them real responsibility on the front lines of the most exciting labor struggles of the moment.


While it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about the results of Union Summer. preliminary indications suggest that it was a smashing success, even beyond the widespread and overwhelmingly positive coverage it received in the mainstream and left press. At a time when most young people are anxious about their own economic prospects and affirmative action and discrimination at work are hot issues, the interns took to the fight for economic justice like fish to water. They particularly liked one-on-one contact with workers through house visits and organizing and participating in confrontational direct actions. Many experienced the type of political transformation we hoped for. On the participants' anonymous evaluations of the program, "it changed my life" was a constant refrain.
As a corollary of this overall transformative effect, plenty of Union Summer activists (USA's) seem headed for careers in the labor movement. By the end of the summer, over 50 had been hired directly by unions for temporary or permanent organizing positions, and more volunteered for the rest of the summer at the end of their three-week stint. The number of Union Summer alumni who will go through the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute's training course for full-time organizers remains to be seen, but many have already started, and the outlook is promising.

In addition, the USA's accomplished more work than we imagined they might. While they were extremely uneven in their abilities and commitment to the work, as a group they raised the energy and creativity level of virtually every situation they entered. Perhaps the bottom line is the simple fact that they put in well over 100,000 hours of work in a short period of time. As a result, they put some impressive numbers on the board:

- They got 2,385 workers to sign union authorization cards and 1,625 people to join community organizations.

- They conducted 23,778 house visits with workers and spoke one-on-one with 15,809 workers during worksite visits.

- They handed out over 200,000 flyers and leaflets.

- They collected 71,551 signatures on petitions on various campaigns, e.g., to get living wage referendums and other pro-worker measures on the November ballot.

- They made 79,457 phone calls and got 3,386 workers to fill out surveys and questionnaires.

- They organized or attended 1,014 rallies, demonstrations and other direct actions and turned out 16,641 workers to participate in them.

- They registered 4,009 voters.

- They conducted 514 delegation visits to stores and other establishments on behalf of farm workers, garment workers, janitors and others.

- They organized workers in over 10 languages, including Cantonese, English, French, Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Spanish, Tagalog and Viemamese.

In addition to these aggregate numbers, the USA's made the difference in a significant number of organizing campaigns. Here are a few examples:

In August, Atlanta USA's distributed leaflets and conducted house visits with folks who work at a Roadmaster plant. UNITE won a representation election for 500 workers at the facility by a 2-1 margin.

UFCW Local 876 credited USA's for applying the final and decisive pressure on the management of Rite Aid stores to negotiate a master contract for its workers in Michigan. The USA's blitzed about 70 Rite Aid stores in Metropolitan Detroit.

In New York City, persistent Union Summer actions at 19 Red Apple grocery stores convinced the chain's management to sign a city-wide pledge of support for decent conditions for strawberry workers in California. Previously, store management had been unwilling even to meet with UFW officials to discuss the strawberry workers' plight.

After nine weeks of creative pressure from three waves of USA's, the Melrose Resort near Hilton Head signed a first contract with the International Union of Operating Engineers covering over 100 service workers — the first contract of its kind in the region.

In Denver, seven janitorial service contractors agreed not to oppose their employees' efforts to join with SEIU Local 105, as a result of pressure exerted by USA's working in the Justice for Janitors campaign there.

Finally, Union Summer helped open up the labor movement in a number of ways. It built bridges to community organizations such as ACORN, Californians for Justice and the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment. These groups helped plan the program from early on, and many USA's worked for them. Union Summer helped reestablish links between labor and student and youth organizations. And it helped many local unions across the country begin the long process of opening up as well. Plenty were surprised by what the young activists could accomplish. The process made many union leaders see the need to build organizing programs, to activate their own rank and file, to involve students and to build coalitions with community groups.


Union Summer's approach to recruitment was twofold. First, we wanted to get as many rank-and-file union members, sons and daughters of union members and young workers as we could. So we put articles, advertisements and actual applications in scores of national and local union publications. Second, we wanted to attract a diverse group of socially committed college students. Our philosophy was that if you want to attract a rainbow of participants, you have to send a message of inclusion and concern with issues important to activists of color every step of the way. We started by creating a recruitment video that emphasized Union Summer's roots in Mississippi Freedom Summer and the civil rights movement and featuring young Latino, African American and Asian American organizers saying why helping workers form unions is important to them. The video served the dual purpose of reaching out to students of color and sending a message to the labor movement that inclusiveness would be central to Union Summer's approach.

Actual recruiting efforts on campus were handled by the outreach staff of the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute, whose primary mission is to find and train career organizers. These recruiters, many of whom went on to help run Union Summer sites in the field, were mostly women and persons of color. As important as their own diversity was their choice of targets. While they did recruit at elite schools like Yale and Swarthmore, they spent even more time at historically black colleges and universities, state schools with large concentrations of people of color and immigrants (e.g., the University of Arizona and the University of California system), and at community colleges.

We had no idea what fruit these recruitment efforts would bear. By mid-April, we still weren't sure we would get enough applicants to fill our slots. But then over 400 applications came into the office in one week — and the same thing happened the next week. In the end, over 3,500 people applied to Union Summer, far exceeding our expectations.

The Participants and Their Mentors

From this large pool, we placed over 1,500 applicants in one of 43 three week intemships we set up. Just over 1,000 actually ended up participating in the program (the rest decided to do something else or simply didn't show up). Just over half of all participants were persons of color:
20% African American, 7% Asian American, 22% Latino, and 2% Native American and bi-racial. Fifty-eight percent were women.

Needless to say, sending these groups of diverse, mostly college-age activists out into the streets across the U.S. caused plenty of tension. A group of activists working a suburban Maryland mall in support of a ballot measure was met with racist epithets from shoppers. In Michigan, a union official said she wanted only white activists on a particular organizing campaign, because the workers she was organizing were racist. In South Carolina. a union that was organizing a facility with mostly African American workers wanted only black activists, but didn't want them to say much — it seems they were to go along on house calls with the union's all-white organizing staff for appearance's sake.

But such incidents were few and far between, and the internship field staff was instructed to use them to explore race issues in the labor movement and the larger society. Indeed, confronting racism and its effects was just as important to the openness of Union Summer as gathering a diverse crew in the first place. In general, spending three weeks learning to organize with a diverse but politically committed group was what made Union Summer a positive experience for the vast majority of its participants and, for an astonishing number of them, a transformative one.

The Union Summer site coordinators played an important role in dealing with race issues. Above all, they served as role models. Among the 50-person field staff, a majority were young union organizers who had struggled with race issues in their own careers. Sixty-six percent of the Union Summer field staff were women, 54% were persons of color, and the vast majority were in their twenties or early thirties. Many formed lasting bonds with their interns.

The Curriculum

In addition to being role models, the staff was charged with creating a safe environment in which to air difficult issues concerning race and its relationship to class. They sought to accomplish this principally through use of an interactive educational component that was integral to the Union Summer experience. Every internship began with a two-day orientation, in which the participants learned not only about how to do a house visit or organize a noisy demonstration, but also about each other and about the connection between labor struggles and the civil rights and other movements. Then, each site coordinator was required to incorporate into the schedule for the rest of the internship five or more educational modules from among a dozen provided by the program. Several of these modules broached the difficult subject of the labor movement's own mixed history on race and gender issues. There was a module on diversity training. And the several modules on labor history each focused on the need to organize in a different community that has often been excluded in the past.

This curriculum and the overall politically charged atmosphere of most internships led to divergent results at different sites, depending on a complex of factors. In some cases, people had difficulty tackling race issues head-on in a group setting, and a handful of people who were intolerant of peers from other backgrounds left the program. But in the vast majority of sites, the feeling of exploration and a certain unity-in-diversity solidarity were at the heart of what made the internship memorable and what moved the participants to a new place politically. More than a few lesbian and gay participants came out, for the first time, to their Union Summer groups, and scores of young people active in identity politics grappled constructively with the fact that we're all getting the shaft at work, and that we can only beat the boss if we all stick together.

The Work

While having a diverse group of interns and a diverse staff were important to the Union Summer program's modeling of a new day in the labor movement, the work itself was also a crucial component in helping the participants understand how race and class issues are intertwined. The interns' principal task was to help on organizing campaigns — class struggle. But they were organizing Haitian nursing home workers in Miami; Chicano farm workers in the strawberry fields; Latino hotel workers, parking lot attendants and janitors in Denver, DC, Los Angeles and elsewhere; Asian American grocery workers and garment workers in New York and San Jose; African American service workers, public employees and home care workers from Hilton Head to rural Georgia to Chicago.

Suddenly, the fact that workers in this country don't have an effective right to organize unions became an issue important not only to "union bosses," but also to young activists of color as activists of color. Union Summer spawned a large group of Mechistas and other identity politics activists who went back to their communities and campuses not only pro-union, but with sophisticated analyses of why union elections through the National Labor Relations Board are often a waste of time for workers, and how they should instead demand recognition from the boss through direct action, as exemplified by the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign.

While USA's focused principally on organizing campaigns — and this fact is a testament to the new AFL-CIO officers' commitment to the primacy of organizing the unorganized, even in an election year — they also participated in some political work. Here, too, the program sent a message to interns and the larger community that the struggles of people of color are working people's struggles. This was nowhere more evident than in our five California sites, where most activists spent some of their time campaigning against anti-affirmative action and anti-immigrant ballot initiatives.

Links With Past Struggles

Union Summer had a strong link to the civil rights movement from the beginning. It was inspired by Freedom Summer, the 1964 campaign that brought about 1,000 college students to Mississippi to empower African American citizens by conducting "freedom schools" and registering voters amidst violent white opposition to black enfranchisement. Union Summer sought to send a message that if the right to vote and participate in society was the burning question in the early 1960s, the question today is economic justice: an obscene and growing gap in wages and wealth; too few good jobs for all but the best educated; no security for those who have jobs; the lack of an effective right to organize a union for self-advancement.

One of the 43 Union Summer internships was set up almost entirely as an elaboration of this theme. The Union Summer Southern Bus Tour began in Memphis, where Martin Luther King died fighting for city sanitation workers as part of his Poor People's Campaign. After a kickoff with Jesse Jackson at the Civil Rights Museum, the activists traveled through Mississippi and Alabama in a combined civil rights history tour and nursing home worker organizing campaign with the United Food and Commercial Workers. The message to the larger community was clear: for the mostly African American and female workforce of nursing homes in the Deep South, the economic justice Dr. King was fighting for at the end of his life will only come when they win power in their own lives by forming a union.

While Union Summer was inspired by Freedom Summer, it is worth pointing out that the former was not "modeled after" the latter, as so much of the press lazily reported. The idea of Freedom Summer was to bring hundreds of elite college students — mostly white, and mostly from the North - into Mississippi to stand on the front lines of the struggle, because when local African Americans were imprisoned, beaten or lynched, the establishment paid virtually no attention. The strategy worked. The racist media suddenly cared a great deal if it was a Harvard student getting water-hosed.

The conditions that led to Union Summer were different, and so was its strategy. Rather than focusing on elite college students, Union Summer sought to bring together a group that was diverse both in terms of class and race. The new leadership of the AFL-CIO saw Union Summer as its most concrete opportunity to make the labor movement's programs and future leadership better reflect both its current members and the workers it needs to organize. While the civil rights movement needed elite kids to make the country take notice of racial oppression, the labor movement needed to recruit young organizers of color to organize workers in their communities. What the labor movement aspired to replicate from Freedom Summer, at least to some extent, was the ability to give people such an intense experience with a struggle for justice that (1) it would permanently change their politics, (2) many of them would be steered into socially useful careers, and (3) some would even stay with the labor movement as union organizers.

The Future — New Hope For a Progressive Youth Movement

Union Summer only scratched the surface of the potential for activism among young people of color on workers' issues. Now that the summer is over and they are back on campus or in their community, Union Summer alumni are spreading the word about what they learned and starting to organize. We get calls daily from USA's who are organizing student labor action groups or using their new-found organizing skills in struggles for environmental, racial and gender justice, to name a few.

Now the labor movement must create an ongoing program to engage young people. We can weave a web of opportunity for young activists to plug into workers' struggles by supporting campus organizing, running internships and alternative spring break programs, offering training and disseminating information about organizing jobs. The challenge will be to create a program that keeps alive the openness Union Summer attempted to achieve. The experience of Union Summer makes clear that young activists are eager to fight for justice — under the right circumstances. We must reach out to them where they are. And we must take a chance on them, by giving them a significant role to play on the front lines of our struggles.

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