By Kevin Gundlach, SCFL President – What took you so long? We’ve been waiting.” It’s what more than one community member, living in the Madison Southdale neighborhood asked me while we were canvassing. Although I was there to collect signatures, I knew the comment meant so much more than an election.
Months later, that question and comment was being answered in the upstairs hall of the Madison Labor Temple. Over 70 exuberant people representing public and private sector unions and community organizations showed up to be a part of something new and exciting. They were there for a first- time program that had two names: at first, it was called the “Community Outreach Program” and within days, it became known as “Doors Less Knocked.”
Although the “Doors Less Knocked” name connotes an electoral purpose and arose out of the immediate need and desire to reach eligible voters from diverse neighborhoods via canvassing, the “community outreach program” was about building a coalition with neighborhoods and communities, which would not only transcend the electoral process, but actually strengthen it.
A little bit of explanatory history: for years now, residents from diverse areas have rarely been talked to by labor unions during election cycles. There were multiple reasons given for this. The most compelling reason is that labor ran member-to-member campaigns, which legally restricted communications to only union households. We Are Wisconsin changed all of that by conducting outreach to the community at large, and the AFL-CIO might just follow their lead. If so, we will be able to conduct electoral outreach to not only union households, but all workers and community members. Either way, it’s time to build on what we have.
Another reason for the lack of outreach: certain populations, such as those living in apartments, were considered either unreliable, sporadic voters or just the opposite–“low-hanging fruit” who did not need to be reminded. Of course, we know if you never conduct outreach to a community, then it reinforces the fact they are less likely to get involved. Fortunately, we had dedicated volunteers, so we were able to do what should have been done a long time ago, without compromising the traditional program.
There was also a perception by some that locked apartments were too difficult to gain access to and wasted valuable time, especially when in the past, volunteers were not as numerous. As many of us know, a locked door was not able to keep us out of the Capitol building. It sure was not going to keep us from having conversations with our neighbors in Allied, Darbo, Northport, Bayview, Southdale, Lakepoint and elsewhere.
Finally, Madison and Dane County were producing decent results in terms of “voter turnout” and winning enough local elections for school board, city council and county board. To many, there was no apparent urgency to expend the energy, utilize valuable volunteer time or spend the resources in districts deemed to be unreliable. Oh, how things have changed.
Even so, there were legal restrictions on what labor could do in the past: labor was responsible for conducting outreach to labor. Although this strategy has its merits and was effective in the past, it still contributed to a natural disconnect with potential community allies.
A disconnect in one context can be an indicator of a greater dilemma to come. We all know we are certainly facing a greater dilemma.
To address the issues we face, SCFL is initiating a multi-prong approach, from supporting a statewide solidarity strike support network to being a partner with the UW-School for Workers’ very first Labor Leaders Forum. Labor education, workplace actions, community empowerment, a more effective electoral process and communications are imperative to rebuilding the labor movement. SCFL will continue to take an active role in these and other objectives.
One of the critical, fundamental steps we must take is to build new coalitions, lay down a foundation and have a concrete plan in place. “Community First,” the tentative name for our new coalition, is in its infant stages. We are building on the accomplishments of the “Doors Less Knocked” program. Teams of social workers, teachers, trades and plenty of others have developed relationships with neighborhoods throughout the Madison area.
In just our first informal meeting, held the night before the election, an outpouring of creative ideas sprouted forth. One of the first things we’ve done was to meet with and invite neighborhood leaders into the labor coalition, find out what concerns the community has, create ownership within the community, and then build ownership towards making change through an issue-oriented campaign. We will continue to meet with pastors and preachers in the neighborhoods, especially those from the African-American Churches association, Madison Urban Ministry, and the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice. We will reach out to organizations representing Latino, Hmong, African and Tibetan populations, to name just a few.
Any issue-oriented campaign must have buy-in and therefore ownership by the people living in our affected communities. Like the living wage campaign, which was won years ago via a labor-community coalition, our issue-oriented campaign, which will go beyond the November presidential election, must also be attainable. Whether it’s affordable housing, public safety, bringing in a decent grocery store, hosting a job fair, promoting quality jobs, creating community gardens or advocating for TIF projects, the community must have primary ownership and be in control. A victory will go a long way in building trust and strengthening the coalition. At the same time as a specific issue-oriented campaign, an early voter registration program could be implemented on a permanent basis–again, owned and run by community leaders. Labor also has the capacity to be a partner in more specific ways, by producing multi-lingual educational literature, recruiting translators and interpreters from our own ranks and mapping out neighborhoods.
When community organizations, neighborhoods and labor unions come together, we can and will move policies forward and we can and will empower ourselves collectively. A perspective from poor and working people within diverse neighborhoods is paramount to ensuring all voices will be heard, and that concrete results occur. By working together, we will be bringing low and moderate-income people together, thereby creating new organizing opportunities for community members and labor, increased civic engagement, education for the public at large, and improve the livelihoods of our friends and families.
The people are ready. It was heard loud and clear at the Get Out The Vote Concert where Jackson Browne, Tom Morello, Brother Ali, Tim McIlrath, Mike McColgan and the Solidarity Singers along with Sean Michael Dargan performed at the Labor Temple. Attendees wanted more community oriented events. The day after the election, middle-school children asked their teachers to be brought over to the Labor Temple, where SCFL gave the inquisitive and energetic bunch a tour. And a few days later, 150 high school seniors wore the blue fist Solidarity Wisconsin buttons at their graduation ceremony as a statement in support of workers rights.
The recurring theme is the same. There is hope for the future. People from all walks of life are ready for the next step. Labor is ready to take it with them.
When we first knocked on the doors, people who have been disenfranchised were excited to meet us and real conversations were the result. Many volunteers have knocked on the same doors multiple times, going back to the neighborhoods, and creating potentially long lasting relationships. It’s time to take it to the next level. We need to build on what we have before us. When we do, and we form those bonds and build that coalition, I for one, will never forget the people from Southdale who poignantly and philosophically said, “What took you so long? We’ve been waiting.”
Solidarity Sisters and Brothers of our unions and the greater community of which we are all a part. Solidarity!