Building Community Unions

Janice Fine writes about the organizing work I participated in Stamford Connecticut. Read the full piece on The Nation website.

I write in depth about this project and more in my book Raising Expectations.

These realities made Stamford ripe for an unusual multi-union effort, launched in 1998 by the AFL-CIO, to organize the city’s struggling service-sector work force. “We felt there was a lot of potential in Stamford. It’s in the richest county in the US and has some of the poorest people living in it. There was huge growth going on in the service sector and it was a tale of two cities, so rich on the one hand and on the other so much poverty,” says Merrilee Milstein, deputy regional director of the AFL-CIO for the northeast region. Stamford was chosen in part because it had the highest concentration of unorganized workers in Connecticut, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, had both begun organizing drives there. Moreover, with an array of influential state legislators and top state officials hailing from lower Fairfield County (not to mention the senator who would soon join the Democratic presidential ticket), Stamford also had the highest concentration of political power in the state.

Out of a cramped, nondescript office downtown, four different unions target at least six different industries and organize among at least that many ethnic groups. You can feel the momentum when you walk through the door. It has the air of a movement organization combined with the tight organization of a political campaign. Rather than maintaining separate offices and coming together only around specific activities, organizers from all four unions share the same space, along with the AFL-CIO central staff–encouraging a joint sense of purpose and cameraderie frequently lacking in multi-union organizing efforts. Taped to the walls, alongside the requisite Ralph Fasanella posters and children’s drawings, are elaborate campaign timelines, lists of worksites and picket signs. In the conference room, a ten-foot-long scroll chronicles the Stamford effort’s recent history, with multicolored stars marking campaign benchmarks and victories.