LABOR/NEIGHBOR New group brings union issues home. by Eric Verhoogen SAN FRANCISCO-As last fall's GOP sweep turns into a steamroller, progressive activists are searching for ways to block its onslaught. Labor/Neighbor, a community organizing effort sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council, offers one promising model. More than 500 Labor/Neighbor volunteers from well over 30 unions pounded the proverbial pavement during the election season, making more than 40,000 phone contacts and knocking on more than 20,000 doors. Their work tipped several key races, according to independent pollster David Binder. Without Labor/Neighbor, Binder stated, gay progressive activist Tom Ammiano might have lost his race for Board of Supervisors, and Kevin Shelly would not have emerged the top vote-getter and new Board president. Part of the impetus for Labor/Neighbor was "the crisis of the offensive by employers in San Francisco, particularly the Committee on JOBS," said Howard Wallace, an organizer for Service Employees Intl. Union Local 250. The three-year- old Committee, representing the City's top 23 corporations, pours money into political contributions and advertising in community papers in an effort to influence public policy. "We realized we couldn't beat them with money," said Wallace, "We would be wiped out if we didn't assemble the troops." The electoral work is part of a larger effort to build a network of working people in the neighborhoods of San Francisco. The campaign has so far focused on union households, trying to connect members of different unions who may have lived down the street from each other for years, but have never worked together on issues in the community. According to Connie Ford, legislative and political chair for the Office and Professional Employees Intl. Union (OPEIU), and one of the three volunteer Labor/Neighbor coordinators in the Western Addition, the primary goal of Labor/Neighbor was simply to get people talking and working together. "We brought some neighbors together who hadn't been brought together on a political basis before," she said, "It's very exciting." Labor/Neighbor has not stopped with the elections. Grassroots activists are working hard to build Labor/Neighbor into an active force in the neighborhoods. Martha Hawthorne, a coordinator in Bernal Heights has "high hopes" for the organization. "We mobilized a lot of new people who expressed interest not just in working on electoral campaigns but being an ongoing club in the neighborhoods," she said. Labor/Neighbor clubs have been established in 13 neighborhoods around the City. Labor/Neighbor coordinators and union delegates are still discussing the goals and activities of the organization, but most agree their work should focus on four main areas: solidarity with striking workers, electoral work, community organizing around neighborhood issues, and organizing non- union workers. In addition, several of the neighborhood clubs are starting to build coalitions with church groups, neighborhood associations, and political activists generally. Labor Council officials and neighborhood coordinators are also discussing how much autonomy the neighborhood clubs should have. The Council came up with the idea for Labor/Neighbor and provides all the funding. On one hand, the Council wants to make sure the organization maintains a coherent program. On the other, people working on the grassroots level in the neighborhoods want to have a say in the running of the organization. Hawthorne described the mood at a recent city-wide coordinators meeting: "The feeling was that people in the neighborhoods wanted to be a lot more involved in decisions, rather than just getting the briefings from the staff or the Labor Council and then carrying them out." One proposal on the table is that the neighborhood clubs, in additional to their neighborhood activities, work only on issues that have been endorsed by a 60 percent vote of the delegates to the Labor Council. Another volatile issue is Labor/Neighbor's relationship with the Democratic Party. In isolated cases, Labor/Neighbor clubs have worked with neighborhood Democratic Party clubs, but for the most part the organizations have remained independent. Democratic Party clubs often have built-in networks and much needed resources, but many people involved with Labor/Neighbor feel that supporting the Democratic Party directly would entail too many compromises. Stan Smith, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building Trades Council, vice-president of the Labor Council, and outspoken advocate for a national labor party, is encouraged by Labor/Neighbor's break with the Democrats. "We made a commitment that we were not going to carry any Democratic Party materials because they supported a couple of issues that were anti-labor," he said. "That was a giant step." Smith hopes Labor/Neighbor might develop into a local chapter of a future labor party. The dream of Labor/Neighbor organizers is to build a strong labor-community alliance as a way of both rejuvenating the labor movement and bucking the rightward trend in national politics. Ford sees a real need for the kind of work that Labor/Neighbor is doing: "The issues out there are so pressing," she says, "and we have to be organized to combat them. [Labor/Neighbor] is one of the best ways to do it...uniting the community with the labor movement, which in the end are one and the same." Volunteers knocking on doors in their neighborhoods have found that non-union workers are often fed up about their jobs but don't know who to talk to. "People would just pour their hearts to me about how terrible things are at work," Hawthorne said. Labor/Neighbor activists have found that often the best people to talk to unorganized workers are people who live next door or down the street. "People really need to get involved whether they're union or not," said Smith, "and maybe we can get some things changed that way."