Friday, November 21, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why Organize?

When did it all really begin? Where did this fire in my heart for fighting for the rights of low wage workers come from? As I drove down the street one early morning on the way to track practice my sophomore year of college, I passed the local temp agency, it was 4:30 in the morning and I didn't know anyone could possibly wake up that early in the morning unless it was mandated upon them. As I drove past that temp agency on 38th St in Indianapolis and saw the line for jobs wrapped around the side of the building, it was if my brain had been slapped with a vision of the reality, as a newborn would seeing light for the first time. Where had I been for all the time before that, how did I develop such a skewed and simple belief that if we just worked hard enough that the world was at our doorstep, that the factors of races, privilege and poverty did not exist? Was the quest bringing good to this crooked world really for me to do? Like Joah, I didn't want the job at first, after all, there were better paying ways of providing for my life than this, but just as Joah could not escape the belly of the whale, I could not escape my destiny in the struggle for the rights of low wage workers.

With great power comes great responsibility said Spiderman's mentor, God blessed me with an upbringing of privilege, growing up in a family that loved me dearly and had the means to help me get through college. With my education came my liberation, liberation from the confined and overly simplistic understandings that had once been my rock. It seems the structures of power and inequality seemed to only rear their ugly head when examined, this examination is always a choice that we have to make. As I drove by, looking into the glazed; half awoken eyes of the single mother in line hoping that a possible job today would yeald the means to turn the lights back on, I knew this would be my destiny. The only meaning my life that would be worth it would be to be the advocate for that line.

As I graduated from college and followed through with this fire, I knew that the root of justice was fundamentally based on economics, when you don't have a job that gives you enough to put food in your children's mouth, when the hell are you ever going to “save” up the money to go to the doctor? If your working two jobs just to make ends meet, when are you ever gonna have the time to be a parent and make sure the kids don't get involved in gangs. When the economy fails and your job is first to go, how are you going to make it? Do illegal options seem the best choice?

Economic justice is the not simply an aspect of the foundation for fighting for justice, it is the foundation.

The work started at Interfaith Worker Justice with the Labor in the Pulpits program organizing clergy to discuss issues of worker justice as they related to their faith on Labor Day Sunday. In 2007, about 100 congregations in the Milwaukee area talked about the importance of fighting for the rights of low wage workers, parishioners were challenged to think about poor folk in new ways, many these parishioners now are in similar situations now as recession and factory closures lead to more unemployed. Maybe at some point we will realize that were all in this together and that we rise and fall as one...

After that summer with IWJ it happened, the rubber hit the road, I kept the job with Faith Community for Worker Justice for a full year and the situation at Capital Returns crept up, Capital Returns (now Genco Pharmaceuticals) was a pharmaceutical recycling plant on the northwest side of Milwaukee which inventoried and disposed of unused and degrading drugs from places like Walgreen's and CVS. When the stories got out about what was going down at the plant something had to be done, the employees of Capital Returns had a plan and that plan was to organize a union. As I began to meet with the employees of Capital Returns with the United Steelworkers an organizing drive was created.

The situation down at the plant was bad, most of the workers were coming from the Welfare to Work (W2) program, a failed attempt to put people to work; however the jobs that were provided were as horrible as the program that had placed them there in the first place. Workers at Capital Returns were handling all sorts of dangerous drugs, pregnant women were grabbing raw old birth control pills out of boxes with no protection to their hands but food service gloves, an issue that may have lead to a number of miscarriages at the plant, as we heard the stories, the injustices seemed to creep up faster than pestering dandy lions in the middle of spring

Changes needed to be made, that was evident and the workers began to organize, after all this was their workplace, and if they couldn't be the ones to take the power back who would? They talked to their friends, brought back union cards, dug through the trash to find documents needed to detail workplace atrocities, distributed union literature and the in the organizing terms “leaders were developed.” Meanwhile, we worked on organizing the community outside of Capital Returns, we brought the situations that workers faced to churches, universities and local unions, and as the larger community became invested in the campaign workers felt that the power was theres, to win or to lose.

As the United Steelworkers received enough cards to file for an election we had a big vote yes rally. The workers called upon their friends and family, and with it college students, clergy and union fok gathered outside of the plant gates only as Milwaukee winters are, with 4 feet of snow on the ground and 15 degree temperatures, we got 100 people standing outside the gates of that wrenched place; the message was clear “Vote Yes!”

The feeling for the workers was monumental, once folks who had been broken down and beat up for their entire lives actually had a say in what was going on, although attempts to organize Capital Returns eventually broke down as a result of union busters running high dollar campaign, people from the plant began to have a sense of their own power to change the forces that seemed to ultimately govern their lives.

The feeling for me was similar, I once thought an organizer had to be the leader, but in the end it was never about me being the leader, it was about workers taking control of the forces which they at one point thought were unattainable. I am confident that at some point, Capital Returns will have the voice of the workers in charge.

As I continued organizing we worked on the Paid Sick Day referendum, where every worker in the City of Milwaukee would have Paid Sick Days through their employer, in an effort concerted with 9to5, the Working Womens Association, the referendum passed this past November by a landslide, this monumental reform has now made Milwaukee the 3rd city in the country to offer this important benefit.

Finally, I ended up working with AFT Healthcare which is where I stand now, organizing nurses to fight for the very same reasons that the workers at Capital Returns did, to have a voice that could shape the course of their lives, to be the voices of change in their workplace. As we stand now we are working on trying to get a neutrality agreement with the hospital so that nurses can freely and fairly organize their union so that they can be advocates for themselves.

Through faith, optimism and a never ceasing belief that a better world is possible will I continue the work of justice in our world because to not do so would be turning my back on the sanctity of everyday life. So to all the students and young idealists out there keep dreaming and keep fighting because its our world to live for and we rise and fall only as one.  

Monday, November 17, 2008

Balance of Sprituality

I hope that you liked that Carl Lewis youtube video posted below, maybe we can use his words of motivation to go on and fight out the next few years of organizing work that we have to do! 

Anyway, I went to Church yesterday and had some really good reflections.  The sermon that Pastor Tim spoke about was the balance of spirituality and the need for each and every one of us to have encompass two different forms to be truly whole. 

The first being to be in deep communion with God, this means spending time in meditation and prayer. This can come through a number of different ways. The first being the tradition of the Quakers.

The Quaker tradition empathizes being quiet and knowing that God is speaking.  So much of the time that we spend in prayer it is simply us speaking, talking to God, but never keeping our mouths shut enough to listen to God's reply.  The Quaker tradition does this through silent communal meditation  where we allow God to speak to us, whatever is relevant and important in our lives at the moment, the Quaker tradition teaches us the importance of listening as well as speaking.

Furthermore, I believe that deep communion with God can also be found within the tradition of Catholicism and although I have never been Catholic the traditions of ritual and transcendence that are so ever popular in the Catholic traditions allow us to transcend the everyday to a place of holy reverence.  The space that many Catholic churches encompass with elaborate decor and imagery take us out of the everyday as we enter the place of God, there is nowhere in my opinion that allows us to feel in a haven of God more than in a Catholic Church. With this combination of steadfast tradition and time spent in deep prayer as well as the physical space that we enter in a Catholic church, I find that I am able to attend to a sense of yearning for God that doesn't come out of my own tradition.

There however, I think is a balance of spirituality amongst the personal and the social and when it comes to the social context of my faith, I feel that it can be best attained in my own tradition: United Methodist. 

When I enter Memorial United Methodist on any given Sunday I feel the great attention to community that is played out in the space, a deep commitment to others who have attended there for so long and a sense that the Kingdom of God cannot be found within ones self mutually.  The strong commitment to social justice and the poor, our work within our neighborhoods and communities is so ever important in the United Methodist Church.  At Memorial we take time out in the service to spend children's time with the kids so they too feel apart of the community.  When Pastor Tim says its time to peace, we may never know when he'll be able to wrangle everyone back together to get back to the service. 

In order to fulfill the complete commitment to Christ as Christians, we must be able to attend to all aspects of our faith, to the spiritual and to the social.  All of the traditions that I mentioned are all doing degrees of both.

While the Quakers spend time in silent mediation with God on Sundays, they are also highly active in the anti-war movement and anti poverty measures, the commitment that the Friends have to social justice is fantastic.

The Catholics while also having a very deep understanding and commitment to ritual and tradition, they to are active in their communities through the running of one of the largest social outreach programs in the city through the facilitation of food pantries, prison and drug ministries. They also have created one of the largest documents of any faith on social commentary called Catholic Social Teaching. This teaching was largely responsible for the liberation theology that spawned up in Central and South America when the poor realized that God had preferential treatment for the poor which gave them the power to build the uprising against hyper capitalist regimes in the Reagan era.  

The United Methodist Church while also attending to the community of Christ, will also hold breakout sessions on how to walk the Labyrinth, how to understand God more fully and personally, and spends significant time trying to develop the spiritual side of its members. 

For if we are to be Christians that can hold onto our foundations, we must have a solid grounding in both the sacred and secular aspects of our life and live them out in a Christ-like way.  All of our traditions attempt to figure out that negotiation in very positive ways, we just need to be accessible to them.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Just thought I'd post this as well

An Open Letter to the Left; It ain't over yet!

As we watched the election results pour in on that fateful November evening, each and everyone of us must have been thinking something different, all with intense feelings a paradigm shift for our country and our world.  Could this be the end of a disastrous era of an American hegemony that has strangled the world of its children, ideas and resources?  Can we have really after 8 years of struggle really be as King said "free at last!"? 

So much emotion, so much happiness but what does it mean? Could the world that we have been fighting for be at our footsteps with the election of a President that stands for change, one that organized workers on the decaying post-industrial streets of South Chicago?

What Obama and the left needs now is to not be complacent. We know now that our work has only began and we certainly can't count on allowing our elected officials to be the change that President Obama campaigned on.  It is even more important now, as our neighborhoods suffer from economic crisis and fear that we organize.  More than any time now, America is ready for things to be different than the way that they have been, and though this we have the unique opportunity to unite as one people and address the problems that are facing all of us throughout our global communion.

We have an amazing opportunity right now to be the change in which we wish to see in the world, but being the change is a challenge of unprecedented proportions.  A new president will help, but we must not let us become complacent and lazy in our work towards social change.

So lets go out and organize!