Labor/Neighbor: New group brings union issues home
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."