LIFT Fund Builds Greater Alignment Between Community Organizing and the Union Movement

As the landscape of the American workforce changes, the union movement is continuously finding ways to evolve and meet the demands of working families in the 21st century. The Labor Innovation Fund for the Twenty-First Century (LIFT) seeks to create a space to do just that. A true product of the intersection of collaboration and innovation, LIFT brings philanthropic resources to building greater alignment and synergy between the union movement and community organizing. As a collaborative project of the AFL-CIO with the Ford Foundation, the Solidago Foundation and the New World Foundation, through grants to partnership projects, conversations around common agendas between foundations that support worker issues, the union movement and worker centers are made possible.

LIFT was recently highlighted as part of a special lunchtime panel during the two-day meeting of the Worker Center Advisory Council. Three worker center alliances: the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice and the CLEAN Carwash Campaign in Los Angeles, which are a testament to the great work that can be achieved through The Fund were featured.

New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Established in 1998, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance received its AFL-CIO charter about 14 months ago. Despite not being considered a union under law, members of NYTWA have always seen themselves as just that. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of NYTWA and the National Taxi Workers Alliance, said:

We’ve never approached it from the perspective of where we fit in where the law is concerned. But we’ve actually always called ourselves a union when we started out in the mid-90s. It wasn’t just a legal term for us, it was a political spirit; it was workers coming together to stand up for themselves and to collectively bargain and win a sense of justice within their economy.

Regardless of their classification, the NYTWA has always worked to show that taxi drivers are workers just like everyone else, and through LIFT, they continue to gain legitimacy in that fight. Now they are working with the AFL-CIO Organizing Department to think about a strategy to reach their long-term goal of consolidating 30 chapters throughout the country. LIFT has allowed NYTWA to further partnerships with their local central labor council and as a chartered affiliate of the national AFL-CIO, and to more easily get the attention of their mayor and labor negotiators, something that was nearly impossible in the past. This led to the passage of a regulation to establish the first health and disability fund for taxi drivers and an increase of $10,000 to $15,000 in annual income, which will truly assist people who are near minimum wage into New York City’s living wage standard.

LIFT has been an important resource for NYTWA, as it allows them to maintain their identity and autonomy while gain the legitimacy of the labor movement. Desai added:

And so if as a movement, even if all you do is stand up with worker centers, with the workers they have organized—that gives a certain legitimacy, it sends a message of unity and strength for us as a movement and for that particular local drive….Let us go forward as a broader movement, which is the reality of our existence, because NYTWA believes that solidarity has to be for the working class as a whole.

New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice

The New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance were created after Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans “turned into the world’s largest construction site.” The worker center was built on the premise that a response based on more than just policy and services was needed. The founders realized the importance of an active grassroots base and worked to bargain with anyone who came to them looking for quality jobs in the construction industry. Saket Soni, executive director, said:

We decided to think about strategies that would address the problems of structural unemployment and examine the way that people get dealt out of the labor movement completely. This was the basis of our partnership with LIUNA and so we built a citywide campaign with the housing boards and used all the various tools of persuasion to win a new policy with the housing authority.

LIFT has allowed for this collaboration with LIUNA and the subsequent new policy that says any financed construction in New Orleans would come with a collective bargaining agreement. Today, people in New Orleans are able to campaign and win quality jobs in a traditionally fragmented industry.

Furthermore, LIFT has created the space for new conversation between different groups with joint apprenticeship coordinators. They are constantly thinking of more creative and bold ways that would give people access to the training program and create a pipeline to not only jobs, but quality jobs in the construction industry. Soni said:

We’re thinking of ways to spend our collective capital. Unions aren’t just the end; they are a means to an end, a vehicle. And so our collaboration with LIUNA [through LIFT] is valued because now we sit down together and figure out how to organize in the community, to create a multi-pronged strategy to drive the kind of industry wide change that will increase union density and improve our communities.

CLEAN Carwash Campaign

The CLEAN Carwash Campaign is an initiative in Los Angeles that has been working to transform the industry, and LIFT has been creating a space for community partners that share this goal. Labor groups have been involved from the beginning, and members from the United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 sit on the Carwash Worker Organizing Committee (CWOC) along with workers, community members, organizations and even academics.

CWOC is a place where organized workers can get IDs and benefits and participate in their own meeting and think about strategies, while figuring out where they’re going next with campaigns. CWOC recently won a partnership with the St. Johns Community Clinic in southern Los Angeles. Neidi Dominguez, an organizer on the campaign, explains:

Our relationship with CWOC has shown me that community partnerships can mean many things. We sometimes only think in terms of community partnerships with worker centers and with labor, but we still have to think beyond that. For us that was a very unique moment and we realized that because we were working heavily in that area of south L.A., we were able to transcend as a campaign and really deepen our roots in that community, because our workers wanted to continue organizing. Now there are families who continue to be engaged and empowered beyond becoming union members, even though we have seen that as the ultimate goal for these workers.

LIFT is playing an important role in supporting and highlighting these initiatives and success stories, for labor and foundation partners. LIFT is about sparking conversation, providing resources and shining a spotlight on the importance of this work for the future of the labor movement, foundation, labor partners and worker centers. Ultimately LIFT speaks to the intertwined destinies of unions and worker centers and hopes to continue expanding the base, deepen leadership and providing the national infrastructure that will result in innovative organizing strategies for workers now and in the future.