This summer, the KI was grateful to have Logan Arkema (COL ’20) with us as our summer research intern. Logan is double majoring in Computer Science and Government, with a focus on information security and privacy. Originally from Michigan, Logan got involved in the labor movement through his mom, a public school teacher and proud member of the Kent County Education Association. On campus, he is involved with Georgetown Solidarity Committee and GUSA’s Student Workers Affairs Team. He was a participant on our Worker Justice DC spring break trip this past spring, and is looking forward to help lead the trip this coming spring break.
Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor will identify, nurture, train and convene a new generation of diverse, female labor leaders in a collaborative effort with Rutgers University.
Funded by the Berger-Marks Foundation, the WILL (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) Empower project will involve both the Georgetown initiative and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
“The Kalmanovitz Initiative is delighted to add this exciting new dimension to its work promoting a more just, sustainable and democratic economy,” says Joseph McCartin, the initiative’s director. “By mobilizing women of all backgrounds to steer a dynamic workers movement, WILL Empower deepens Georgetown’s commitment to advance justice and the common good.”
The project begins this month, with programming in place by the fall of 2017.
Training, Mentoring and More
Georgetown and Rutgers will recruit project practitioners who are in the early stages of their labor-related careers, as well as mid-career executives, to engage in multiple gatherings, trainings, mentoring structures and peer support initiatives.
Participants will be paired with experienced mentors and some will be placed as apprentices in labor unions and social and economic justice organizations.
An Innovative Women Fellowships component will allow select activists time and support to develop new ideas for advancing social and economic justice, including research and promotional support.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler anticipates that Will Empower will become “an indispensable new resource to build women’s leadership for the entire labor movement.”
Women in the WILL Empower project also will benefit from the Future of Labor Interactive Project (FLIP), a multi-media, interactive platform that will offer potential female leaders a host of resources for deepening their fight for economic justice.
FLIP will feature public policy forums, research hubs, community-based projects, and new reports and data. With FLIP, women will stay at the center of their own stories about work, pay, workplace rights and our changing economy.
“Women are half the workforce and nearly half of all union members – they hold the power to trail blaze a stronger future for the labor movement,” says Shuler, who serves in the second-highest position at the federation of unions.
Led by Women, For Women
Lane Windham, a Fellow at the Kalmanovitz Initiative who holds a doctorate in U.S. history and spent nearly 20 years working in the union movement, will serve as project director for WILL Empower at Georgetown.
“Women’s activism and ideas are the hidden advantages for building a broad-based movement for social and economic justice,” says Windham, whose book about union organizing in the 1970s is due out on Labor Day. “WILL Empower will activate and nurture women’s organizational skills, and will be a launching pad for a new generation of female labor leaders.”
At Rutgers WILL Empower will be steered by Sheri Davis-Faulkner, who holds a doctorate in American studies and has experience advancing social justice in the arenas of labor, women’s rights, and the environment.
Davis-Faulkner will work in tandem with Marilyn Sneiderman, the director of Rutgers’ Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. Sneiderman brings with her three decades of experience in the union movement, including 10 years as director of the National AFL-CIO’s Department of Field Mobilization.
McCartin says the focus on building a pipeline of future female labor leaders comes at a time when the labor movement faces unprecedented economic and political challenges.
“Women will be key to the movement’s future because women hold many of the low-wage and contingent jobs that permeate today’s workplaces, and also have already been leading a new generation of workers’ organizations,” McCartin explains. “Analysts expect women to make up a majority of union membership by 2023.”
“It is essential to train and lift up a new generation of powerful and diverse women’s leadership who can chart a path forward for working people,” adds Linda Foley, president of the Berger–Marks Foundation.
The foundation was established in 1997 to honor the memory of Edna Berger, the first female lead organizer for The Newspaper Guild-CWA, and her husband, Tin Pan Alley songwriter GeraldMarks.
Marks, who bequested his fortune to set up the foundation, co-wrote the popular early 1930s song “All of Me.”
Most Americans envision the rural areas where Trump drew most of his support as predominantly white and working class. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Kalmanovitz Initiative research analyst Patrick Dixon spotlights the poultry industry, which is located at the the heart of Trump country but is largely made up by immigrant and refugee workers. Dixon argues that the sector is ripe for organizing that could lead to improved working conditions and help protect the environment, food safety, and immigrant communities.
Since the election of 2016, much has been written about rural working-class voters who helped elect Donald J. Trump to the presidency. Most of those stories have assumed that the rural working class is overwhelmingly white. But if we look at one of the most significant parts of the rural economy – the poultry industry – we get a different picture. Not only do we see more workers of color, we also see more exploitation and greater potential for resistance.
The early leaders of the industrialized poultry trade in the 1950s were eager to avoid the unionized labor model that had developed in the 1930s in pork and beef packing towns like Chicago, Sioux City, and Kansas City. Based in cities like Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Salisbury, Maryland, and Springdale, Arkansas, poultry producers benefited from mild climates that allowed for year-round production, enlisting farmers in the surrounding regions to raise their chicks as part of vertically integrated operations. As of December 2016, 314 of the 426 commercial poultry slaughtering facilities in the United States were located in towns of less than 20,000 people and another 21 are located in unincorporated townships.
These small town poultry workers have received little attention, and recent efforts to explain the rural working class have been problematic at best. In the past few years, for example, McDowell County, West Virginia has consistently been presented as the paradigmatic Appalachian backwater. McDowell was the subject of a hearing by the US Senate Subcommittee on Health and Aging in 2013, as well as detailed profiles in the media before and after the election.
Focusing on places like McDowell perpetuates the image of rural America as populated primarily by people of white Western European origins, a narrative that fit the media’s interest in white rural working-class voters. But while the economic suffering in McDowell might reflect the experiences of many working-class people outside of major metropolitan areas in the Trump era, McDowell’s whiteness is less representative. In the ten U.S. counties with the lowest per capita income as of the 2010 census, whites constitute more than 61 percent of the population in only three. Whites are the minority in four of these counties.
In these rural communities, unemployment has never returned to pre-2008 levels, even though urban employment has grown significantly. In an effort to alleviate continuing high unemployment, governors and state legislatures have offered considerable financial incentives to achieve the dubious boon of luring new poultry plants to their state or to help upgrade and keep existing facilities open.
Yet working conditions remain troubling in the industry. Standard practice at many poultry operators involves cycling through and then discarding injured workers. In 1989, Southern Exposure investigated working conditions at Perdue Farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, making it one of the first publications to raise awareness of the growing epidemic of repetitive motion injuries sweeping through the meat and poultry workforce. Around the same time, Donna Bazemore, a production line worker from Georgia who had left her job with crippling carpal tunnel syndrome, gained notoriety when she testified before Congress about the hazardous and unhygienic production practices at Perdue. Changes in USDA rules in the 1980s allowed for a substantial increase in the line speeds in slaughterhouses, allowing companies to accelerate production from 50 birds per minute in the 1970s to 90 birds per minute. leading to what U.S. Representative Tom Lantos described repetitive motion injuries as “the major occupational epidemic of the 1990s.” Over the past decade, the Charlotte Observer, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Oxfam America have all brought attention back to the industry’s ongoing problems.
At the same time, the workforce in poultry and meatpacking plants has shifted away from its African-American and Central American core in favor of international refugees. Around one-third of the labor force today is foreign born, and even the North American Meat Institute has expressed concern at the Trump Administration’s attempted restrictions upon immigration from Muslim countries.
The poultry business reveals some of the human faces behind the travel ban through its increased employment of Iraqis, Somalis, and Syrians. Displaced foreign workers don’t disembark at a New York City harbor as they did one hundred years ago; they arrive in rural resettlement centers in places like north Georgia and central Virginia.
In some cases, these workers are highly educated. A Perdue production manager in Harrisonburg, Virginia described how a Bosnian worker wrote out the equations for the two cleaning chemicals the company was using and warned the manager that “when they came together [they] could be dangerous.” This same manager had taken it upon himself to learn Spanish several years ago as well as a little Russian and Bosnian. This encounter might be unusual, but it suggests some hope for an industry that is not impervious to pressure and public opprobrium.
Organizing these workers involves some challenges that progressives must overcome if they are to build some semblance of a coalition to defend workers’ rights. This will require translating rhetorical support for immigrants into platforms that can advance common goals while also negotiating sometimes very differing cultural sensibilities. It means listening and learning from immigrant workers and recognizing that their cooperation should be contingent upon them having the ability to shape the agenda and select their own leaders and spokespersons.
The Trump administration’s attempts to translate popular xenophobia into public policy means that the growth of this vital industry in small town America takes on a much greater importance than it appeared to six months ago. Many have objected to the travel ban with the assertion that it goes against their notions of “what America represents.” However, in the absence of a travel ban, would we be content with the status quo whereby immigrants and refugees are not welcomed but merely accepted and consigned to the most difficult and unpleasant jobs? For generations of immigrants, this has been exactly “what America represents.”
Yet undertaking dangerous low-paid labor does not have to be treated as a rite of passage. We can’t go back in time and change the legacy of Gilded Age employers, but by confronting the poultry business, we could disrupt a present course that threatens to reverse nearly a century of legal protections aimed at protecting the safety of industrial workers. We have an opportunity to harness the abilities of rural activists and poultry workers and build connections among immigrant rights, food safety, and environmental organizations. Achieving this would create a bulwark against the poultry companies’ exploitation and a greater movement for economic justice in the heart of “Trump Country.”
Patrick Dixon is a research analyst for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon, who authored this post. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 44 posts that were read over 128,000 times by readers in 189 countries.
On Wednesday, July 13, nearly 150 representatives of community organizations, unions, think tanks, and universities gathered to look closely at the success of the “Fix LA” movement and discuss the state of Bargaining for the Common Good efforts around the country.
The event was hosted by the Kalmanovitz Initiative and the Rutgers SMLR Center for Innovation in Worker Organization. We are grateful to AFSCME, AFT, NEA, SEIU, the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Jobs With Justice, and PICO National Network, whose support made the event possible.
The event also marked the release of the Kalmanovitz Initiative’s report on the groundbreaking “Fix LA” campaign, titled Fixing Los Angeles and Remaking Public Sector Collective Bargaining: A Case Study of “Bargaining for the Common Good. The report chronicles the successful efforts of Los Angeles city workers and community activists to unite under a “Common Good” agenda in order to win back thousands of jobs and restore public services. It explores the many challenges and innovations of the campaign and draws lessons for the labor movement going forward. The report was authored by Patrick Dixon, a research analyst at the Kalmanovitz Initiative.
AFT President Randi Weingarten offerred opening remarks.
Panelists and moderators also included:
- Saqib Bhatti, director of the ReFund America Project (RAP) and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute
- Patrick Dixon, research analyst for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor
- Peter Kuhns, L.A. Director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment
- Joe McCartin, professor of history and director of the Georgetown University Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor
- Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative
- Matthew Polk, lead bargainer and community organizer for the Pasco Association of Educators
- Amy Schur, campaigns director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment
- Pastor William D. Smart, President and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Council of Southern California
- Marilyn Sneiderman, professor and director of the Rutgers SMLR Center for Innovation in Worker Organization
- Gilda Valdez, Chief of Staff of SEIU Local 721 and President of the Fast Food Workers Los Angeles Organizing Committee
- Maurice Weeks, campaign coordinator for housing justice and Wall Street accountability for the Center for Popular Democracy
To connect with this network and find resources that can help your community organization or union plan a Bargaining for the Common Good campaign, visit http://www.
You can catch a glimpse of the event via the photos below.
The most recent Working-Class Perspectives post centers on the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, housed at Georgetown University, and its efforts to educate, agitate, and organize for worker justice. The author is Jessica F. Chilin-Hernández, who serves as the Initiative’s program advisor and administrator.
Earlier this fall, Working-Class Perspectives affiliated with the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. The Initiative reflects one of Georgetown University’s core ideas, as University President John J. DeGioia stated during his 2001 inauguration: “For Georgetown, the service of justice means engaging harsh realities head on.” In order to advance Catholic social teaching as it relates to labor and worker justice, the University launched the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor (KI) in 2009. Under the leadership of labor historian Joseph A. McCartin, we engage questions of workers’ rights and the future of the labor movement. Grounded in Georgetown’s commitment to just employment and Catholic social teaching on the rights of workers, our mission to develop creative strategies and innovative public policy to improve workers’ lives in a changing economy translates into many actions: teaching, mentoring, challenging, building bridges, and incubating projects that forward the respect of labor and dignity of workers.
Our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, brings the renowned Working-Class Perspectives blog to the Kalmanovitz Initiative. The blog is edited by John Russo and Sherry Linkon, a professor of English at Georgetown University. It features several regular and guest contributors.