Field Observations – USSF 2007, Atlanta, GA

Gary Coyne



Title: Living Wage Campaign: Building the Movement for Economic Justice

Presentor: ACORN
Time/Place: Thursday, 10:30-1:00   Westin (Room 1403)

Language: English only

Event Description from Program:

The U. S. Living Wage movement - now over a decade old - has delivered concrete benefits to millions of our country's lowest wage workers and is widely recognized as one of the most successful grassroots offensives in modern memory. But the real legacy of the Living Wage movement is not a policy victory - but a political and organizing one. From the more than 150 local living wage ordinances - to the sweeping minimum wage ballot initiative wins in the last election - the community, labor and faith coalitions that have come together across the country to fight for higher wages at the local, state and national level have changed the public debate about work and wages, transformed the electorate (by motivating low income and minority communities to vote), and built the capacity of the orgs that make up the larger movement for economic justice.


Particpants will get an overview of the living wage movement since 1994 - including toughest challenges and new directions in labor standards organizing (such as "big box" living wage campaigns, communiy benefits agreements, and fighting for paid sick days). Participants will also hear directly from organzers of both local and state efforts (both ballot and legislative). Participants will be asked to share their own expriences in living wage campaigns - but also to think about how to capitalize on the gains of the movement so far and take organizing around labor standards to the next level.



Introductions: After a brief introduction by the session organizers, Jen Kern (ACRON) and Cindia Cameron (Atlanta Living Wage Campaign), the chairs in the room were rearranged into a circle and then we moved around the circle introducing ourselves (name, where we were from, movement affiliations and reasons for attending).

            -25 to 35 people, although for the first half hour people continued to filter

in and there was a lot of coming and going throughout.

-Ages seemed to range from 20s to 60s with most people being (roughly)

30 to 50. That is to say there was no age group that was clearly

over represented or visibly absent.

-Most (50-60%) people were involved with some organization that was actively engaged in a living wage campaign or had been in the very recent past. Almost everyone else was involved in group with broadly similar interests, such as extension of health care, workers rights, unions and so on.

-Jen Kern mentioned that if people came to get information about a particular topic or had a specific question they would like answered we sould have time to deal with them specifically towards the end of the session. Cindia Cameron wrote a few of these down on a sheet of paper posted to the front wall of the room. However as I mentioned above quite a few people came in after the session had started and with the increased number of participants we never returned to these questions.



Overview of Living Wage Successes: Jen Kern spent about 40 minutes on an overview of the movement, although there were a few brief question answer exchanges in this section they were generally very short and focused on clarification and points of information.

            -First living wage laws created in 1994 Baltimore in a partnership between

AFSME and various local religious groups

-Since then something like 150 living wage laws have been created,

although of varying scope. Often they only cover workers who are employed directly by city and municipal governments, but more commonly they cover all contractors (and sometime subcontractors) that receive funds from the city governments in question.

-17 states have passed statewide minimum wage laws higher than the national minimum wage, although these still often fall short of a true living wage.

-There have been a few cities that have passed living wage laws specifying that all businesses in the city must pay a certain basic hourly wage.

-A fairly common feature of these laws is a two-tiered system that allows businesses that provide health care benefits to pay a lower wage, while those that do not provide such benefits must pay a higher wage


Open Discussion Session: Toward the end of the overview section there were several more substantive questions that other participants wanted to comment on, and after maybe the second or third such exchange the facilitator open up the floor to a general discussion.

-Several people commented on the increasing cost of living and reasons for that. A participant who came in late, almost literally sat down and then raised his hand. He began speaking to the increased cost of health care and reasons for that. The session facilitator did acknowledge his comments but said health care was another topic and that we did not need to talk about it. Other participants agreed, and a few commented that it was strange somebody would have joined our conversation with such an authoritative voice so quickly.

-A person from a group working to implement a living wage in Tennessee spoke to problems they had in organizing campaigns in that state, and several other participants agreed on the point.

-One of the women who spoke several times generally framed her comments in terms of economic injustice being at the heart of all other forms of injustice, and other participants generally agreed. (She was sitting next to me so we had spoken before the session began and she was with an interfaith group organized around economic justice.)

-Other group commented on successes in organizing a citywide minimum wage in Santa Fe that was pretty close to what the group estimated the living wage was.

-Several people commented that they were part of a coalition of movements that had formed around living wage issues, and the fact that living wage campaigns were really good issues to organized coalitions around for several reasons.


Atlanta Living Wage Campaign: Cindia Cameron had come to share a specific

story about attempts to organize a living wage for workers at the  Atlanta airport.

            -Several groups came together to try and organized a living wage campaign for workers at the Atlanta airport. They decided to chose the airport because it employed a lot of low wage workers and seemed to be a project big enough to be worth taking on and yet small enough that it was manageable. Also they thought that in doing this they would only be taking on one of the big power players in Georgia politics (Delta) and thus might be able to “divide and conquer”

            -The group had received a good deal of support from both the Atlanta City council and the mayor and things seemed to be going very well. (The city of Atlanta apparently owns the airport and in such a way that a living wage law would take only a majority of city councilors to endorse it to come into effect.)

            -The woman presenting was not really sure what happened next, although she thought it seemed likely Delta simply realized how much paying all their subcontracted employees a living wage would cost. There was a major organization of big business in Georgia and these interests have an especially close relation with state lawmakers through the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Within 30 days an amendment to the state constitution was passed that essentially undermined any future attempts by any city or county to increase wages beyond the federal minimum wage.


Legislative Setback and Potential Problems: Form this story the facilitators

transitioned the group conversation to problems and set backs groups had


-Several people shared stories of defeated proposals and setbacks. Supporting proposals with devious wording and unenforceable provisions

seemed the most common ways for groups opposed to living wage

proposals to defeat them.



Networking and Future Plans: The topic of collaboration or networking did come up briefly and people agreed to talk after the session. I hung around for a few minutes to finish writing up my notes and almost no one left the room. There was a lot of talking and several people were exchanging cards.


Title: Globalization, Mechanization, Farmworkers and Communities

Presentor: Farmworkers Association of Florida, Inc.
Time/Place: Thursday, 3:30-5:30 at the Westin (International room, D)

Language: English and Spanish with simultaneous translation. There were only two or three people who could only speak Spanish, maybe 10-15 who could speak English only. (See notes below for comments about the Korean group)


Introduction: The session presenters introduced themselves briefly in English and Spanish and then talked about the simultaneous translation and asked all those who would like to use the service to go speak with the translators in the corner. (The presenters had also spoken about this as people came in so most of the setup was already taken care of.)

            -Most people were involved in some sort of immigrant rights campaigns

and a few were involved with unions. Also there were a half-dozen or so

farm workers at the session. I would estimate 80% of people were connected to the general topic of the session by movement affiliations or life histories. By and large the attendees were from States with large immigrant populations involved in agricultural work.

-Of those that took advantage of translation options, about a dozen seemed to be using it because they could not follow the Spanish speakers. There seemed to be only one person who was using the translation service because they could not follow those speaking in English.

-The session was pretty well attended with an average of about 40 people in the room, although there was a lot of coming and going as people arrived late and left early. (I would estimate 60 plus people were there for at least some portion of the session.)



Major Speakers: Five people on this topic the first was an movement organizer, the second a current farm workers, the third appeared to be an academic affiliated with a university (although there did seem to be some very careful wording choices made as to exactly what his occupation was), the fourth and firth were again movement organizers.

            1) The speaker had been involved in agricultural labor for 30 years,

although he was now involved in organizing with the Farmworkers

Association of Florida. Some of the major themes of his comments were:

            -mechanization obviously lowers the number of employees needed

            to work a field, but those employees retained are often forced

to work in marginal fields ( that is not productive enough to justify

reorganizing for mechanization) or through other changes forced to accept wages lower than the premechanization levels

-The Florida group had connections with a citrus pickers union in Brazil and the Brazilians had recently hosted them in an educational exchange. While wages in Brazil were less in absolute terms the Brazilian workers were able to secure several major concessions from employers that made them relatively better off. For example, the Brazilian workers were tasked with filling smaller bags, had a paid lunch and coffee breaks as a well as shorter work days (which had the additional advantage of making the season long enough that it could be a year round occupation).

-Later the Florida group hosted a similar exchange and the Brazilians were generally shocked at the poor standard of living, long working hours and conditions in the American citrus industry.

            2) This gentleman had been working picking tomatoes and apples for

many years and shared some personal experiences. Most often mentioned was a general speed up of work. This meant that in many places the same amount of work could be done by fewer people, but also that those left could barley keep up with the pace set by the machines (ie:  sorting tomatoes). Also the increased pace of work meant shorter working days and shorter seasons, both of which meant lost wages.

3) The speaker appeared to be affiliated with a university, but as mentioned above words were chosen very carefully (my guess would be he was a sympathetic adjunct, or an involved community college professor). More or less equated both globalization and neoliberalism with the pressure to produce below the cost of production, and that the squeeze for profits generally worked downward, being felt most strongly by employees and workers. Also commented on the following themes:

-Plants usually have to be modified for mechanical harvesting or weeding or whatever. In the case of oranges this meant getting the fruit to grow much higher in the tree so that it could be harvested from above by machines instead of from below by people.

-Fields generally have to be set up especially for mechanical harvesting, which often means moving production to new locations that maybe ecologically problematic. Additionally these new fields are often far from established communities and thus can prove disruptive of established patterns.

            4) This speaker repeated a lot of what had already been said by the first

and third speaker, but did contribute a few new ideas. Most importantly

she touched on the fact that very often the research programs backing up both the mechanical engineering of new machines and genetic modification of plants occur within the state university system. Thus tax money is being spent in ways that studies indicate most taxpayers disapprove of. In the few cases this has been challenged, the research programs ultimately moved to the private sector where they were free from any form of public oversight.

5) Again this speaker touched on a lot of what had already been said. His unique contributions were really limited to mentioning the very limited economic base of small communities located near major citrus producing areas of Florida. As many jobs are seasonal or part time, some of these communities are poised to lose almost as many jobs as they currently have residents.


Audience Participation: There were several question from the audience, and even a few productive sidebar conversations but by and large the session was taken up by the five speakers (more than once two or three of them would give fairly long winded, but almost identical answers to questions from participants).


Networking and Future Plans: The topic of collaboration or networking did not really come up during the session itself. Afterwards several of the participants did hang around and talk with the presenters and/or each other, so there was some informal networking going on.


Title: The II Great American Boycott, Immigrant Rights and May Day 2007

Presentor: National Network on Cuba
Time/Place: Friday, 1:30-3:30 at the Westin (Room 1405)

Language: English mostly. Leaders spoke in English but a couple of the of the participants felt more comfortable speaking in Spanish and one of the leaders translated for a couple of them, while people who appeared to be friends of the other speakers translated for them.

Event Description from Program:

We'll discuss the latest proposed immigrant legislation at the Congress and the current anti-immigrant movements. How it'll affect the immigrant communities, we will also exchange ideas with the main organizers

the successful mobilizations of The II Great American Boycott, Immigrant Rights and May Day 2007 "A Day Without Immigrants" Future work in defense of immigrant rights.


Presenters: Javier Rodriguez. leader of the March 25th Coalition, Los Angeles, California  Ruben Solis, Director of the Southwest Workers Organization, San Antonio, Texas Ema Lozano Centro sin fronteras/Familia Latina Unida- Elvira Arellano National Sanctuary Rosendo Delgado Latinos Unidos de Michigan Teresa Gutierrez, Co-Organizers of the May 1 Coalition, New York City


Introductions: Moved chairs into a circle and then moved around the circle with introductions.

-Almost everybody in the room was associated with an immigrants rights movements or a labor union. Also the Mexican Senatorial Representative from Mexico City was present (he was one of the people that spoke in Spanish and seemed well informed on the issues being discussed).

-There were about 20 people present. Unlike the other sessions I attended most people were present when the session started and stayed for the duration, with just a few people coming in late.

-About two thirds of the audience and all of the presenters were people of color, about a third of attendees where white.

-There were slightly more men than women.

-The group seemed a little older than the Forum as a whole. I would guess I was the only person under 30, and most attendees seemed to be in the 40 to 60 range.


History of Michigan Boycott: Javier Rodriguez talked for almost half an hour, and did talk over a couple of people that tried to ask questions. The major theme was the Michigan May Day boycott of 2006. (Although he repeatedly mentioned that Michigan was the only state that saw an increase in size of the protest from 2005, nothing was said of the 2007 boycott, or lack thereof.)

-The decision was made within the United Michigan Latino organization to begin organizing for a boycott and march on May 1st in early January.

-The group had close ties with a couple of local radio stations that were helpful in spreading the word about the boycott early on, as well as frequent announcements in the weeks leading up to the boycott. In the final days before the boycott, and on the day of as well, the stations mentioned the event very often and also dedicated several of hours of airtime on the day before and day of as well.

-Leaders worked to spread the word throughout the community using various local organizations. One of the most important of which was the Catholic Deices, which was very supportive of the movement and arraigned time for organizers to come and speak during masses throughout the state. The work with the church was carried out with the caveat that the event could not be called a boycott in so many words. They did agree to “no work, no school, no business” and United Michigan Latinos seemed happy with the rewording if it meant the cooperation of the Church.

-The boycott went of very well and several businesses that did open for were either talked into closing during the course of the day. In some cases it sounds like strong-arm tactics may have been used.


Opinions on Immigration and Reform: Although the session leaders framed the transition to this topic in terms of starting a discussion on the failure of the most recently proposed immigration bill, the four leaders dominated the discussion by speaking at length at the start of this section, and in other ways detailed below.

            -The first speaker (the same who commented on the May Day boycott

above) framed immigration from Mexico to America as a “scientifically

proven inevitability”, although never spoke to any body of science that

justified that claim. He also commented on the obsolete and harmful

nature of current laws.

-Second speaker spoke about the ways that NAFTA favors large business. In particular agribusiness has been pushing small producers out in Mexico and the creation of machiladoras along the border, only to be moved to Asia later. He also shared the personal story of a woman his family knew who had initially built TVs in a plant along the border. When the plant closed she took work as live in domestic help in the States. The second job was not seen as good as the first because it involved being so far from home and, in a rather ironic twist the family she worked for owned a TV set of the brand and type she had made in her previous job.

            -The speaker also spoke about a Schedule Four under the WTO as

a program that would basically set up a system for monitoring migrant workers worldwide and provide almost no benefits to the workers themselves.

                        -He also mentioned several bilateral trade agreements the United

States had made with small Central American countries that

provided those workers with even less security and fewer rights than those from Mexico as part of the NAFTA framework.

            -The fourth speaker, in something of a nonsequitor, spoke at length about

organizing May Day in New York. The movement was initially started by the old labor unions representing industrial workers who were by and large white. Overtime the movement as a day of solidarity for labor fell of in America, but it has stayed strong in other parts of the globe and recently been revived as movement involving large numbers of people of color.

-The fifth speaker focused his comments on the most recent developments in the immigration reform. He asserted that Regan admitted he made a mistake in setting up a program that allowed amnesty after just one year. The ruling classes were determined not to repeat the mistake and the most recent bill would have meant almost 20 years between application for citizenship and voting rights. Furthermore the proposed “touchback” was unrealistic, could potentially separate families and he felt was more of “dirty trick” than anything else (namely workers would by and large be refused re-entry). The proposed bill was employer focused and he felt the nation needed a worker-focused bill. He did see the defeat of the bill as a measured victory because it would mean that immigration would be an important issue to organize around as Presidential elections drew near. He suggested that no matter who wins “Senora Reforma Immigracion” would be on the ballot everywhere.


Audience Participation: There were about 20 people in the room at this point and the lead presenter was something of a moderator and moved around the circle allowing those who whished to make comments, although by and large the other presenters commented on each new speakers thoughts in turn and in ways that largely highlighted their own opinions and did not engage with the new opinions just offered.

            -An older anglo man from a communist organization expressed the view

that if capital should have no borders, why should workers

-A woman of color who edited a bi-lingual publication spoke to the some

successes they had in reframing the issue of immigrant rights as a basic moral issue of fair pay for hard work.

-One man asked if the presenters had any ideas on how his group

might organize and target a boycott. They did not answer his question.

-A young white male spoke to how a socialist third party might be an

effective way to address some of the concerns brought up in the session.


Networking and Future Plans: No plans were made for the future, other than some general comments about making the next May Day boycott more effective than previous years. As the comments above should make fairly clear, most of the session was taken up by the presenters speaking to their own experiences and opinions.