By Fredrick McKissack Jr.
The state of worker justice will be on display this coming weekend in Washington, D.C. at the Jobs with Justice national conference.
The two-day conference that begins Friday in the nation's capital brings together 600 activists, organizers, worker-leaders, and students from around the country and the world. The conference's three plenary sessions are centered on the progressive ideals of building and sustaining movements, innovation and ending racial injustice. The conference brings together high-profile experts in the field of labor and organizing, including Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, who will be a featured speaker in the first plenary on organizing of workers. Organizations, such as the Center for Community Change, will be sending staff to the powerful gathering of workers.
Breakout sessions include workshops on collective bargaining, social media, strategizing against globalization and privatization, organizing immigrant workers, and joining economic and racial justice.
The conference attendees will take to the street with the "Standing Up for Jobs with Just Hours!" march Friday afternoon.
The gathering comes at a crossroads for labor.
Union membership has been cut in half over the last 30 years. Today, 12 percent of workers are represented by a union. Currently, "right-to-work" laws, which prohibit or put severe restrictions on unions, are active in 25 states, including former union strongholds as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
Yet, a Pew Research Center survey conducted last March reported that 48 percent of Americans hold favorable opinions about unions. "Support for the ability of employees to unionize spans both public and private sectors," Pew reported, with 68 percent of respondents believing that supermarket and retail workers ought to be able to unionize. While somewhat smaller, 62 percent says fast-food workers should be able unionize.
Fight for $15 has rallied workers and activists around the country, says Bailey Dick, a media specialist with Jobs for Justice in Washington. The minimum-wage increase in places like New York State, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are visible, tangible signs that what once seemed impossible can be achieved. Workers can demand better pay and working conditions--and win.
Deb Kline agrees. The Cleveland Jobs with Justice director for the past nine years says that the more established unions are "really paying attention." Her executive committee includes the executive secretary of the local AFL-CIO and the executive direct of Organize! Ohio, a Cleveland-based social justice and worker rights organization.
Kline, 59, is attending her ninth conference, and she's traveling to the conference with seven other local activists and leaders. The Cleveland group has been active in social justice and immigrant worker rights, but are particularly active this year in fighting deportations.
Kline, an activist and organizer for 30 years, says the conference helps here connect with others who carry a passion for social and economic justice and learn new ideas on effective strategies. After the conference, "I have a feeling I'll be even working more when I get home."
Melonie Griffiths is looking to be inspired and to inspire. She's also looking to exhale. The organizing director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice has been the logistics point-person on getting 80 people from the state to the conference. On the phone, she sounded energetic about attending her first Jobs with Justice conference.
Griffiths, a Jobs with Justice organizer for two-and-a-half years, will be one of the leaders at the black caucus on Friday and Saturday, which will be about building networks with African American leaders and their allies.
Griffiths, a mother of three adult children in their 20s, became an organizer fighting bank redlining when her home in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood was nearly foreclosed on in 2007. She now lives in Roxbury, where she grew up.
She said a movement of working people is needed to change the course of this country and help people sustain their families. She said the majority of the Massachusetts contingent is "grassroots, rank-and-file, and worker-leaders" who will become the new face of the worker movement. Her job in all of this, she says, is to sustain the movement, not just build campaigns.
"This conference allows folks to embrace a much bigger picture of what's going on in worker justice," she said. "They'll be able to build networks to help sustain and develop them as leaders."
Fredrick McKissack Jr is a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change. He will be attending his first Jobs with Justice conference.