Monday, July 30, 2012

Jobs! Fair wages! Affordable utilities!

Center for Community Change. Source: FB.
In Hungary human rights campaigns rarely target market actors. We make the state and the authorities responsible for complying with the laws and guaranteeing our rights, but economic actors should not be left out of this process. The initiative of the Helping Hand Women's Forum from Sajókaza was exemplary when they (collectively, on behalf of 89 families) demanded the implementation of prepaid electricity meters from the local government as well as the electric company. Economic actors make profits by using the resources of the region and processing its minerals; they also have an impact on the environment, and may be subsidized by the state, etc. So they have responsibility for the communities in the region of their operation and for the natural environment. There are several examples in the U.S. of how community organizations make economic actors accountable and/or achieve their cooperation in the name of economic justice, which can be instructive in Central Europe. I collected a bunch of good examples.

In 1998 in California a coalition of community organizing groups and service providers achieved their goal that local unemployed people be hired for a public works railway transportation project - the residents of low-income neighborhoods near where the future rail line was planned. The merits and implementation of the initiative are worth looking at even though it was based on an unacceptable implicit compromise: the contractors provided training and jobs for the residents in exchange for the fact that the construction of the rail line may easily harm their health and erode their quality of life. It was a more favorable argument that in case of state-funded (tax-financed) projects part of the money should trickle down to the community. The initiating working group recruited allies during a summer and finally established a coalition of almost 40 community groups by the fall of 1997. The coalition first researched the amount allocated to the project and the demographics of the neighborhoods. The construction of the mid-segment of the rail line, which was supposed to run through the neighborhoods, was estimated to cost $750 million and create more than 3,000 jobs. The outreach took place at different levels: first, the coalition organized lots of community meetings in the neighborhoods and elaborated demands for the implementing authority; second, they made several allies among elected officials, unions, and other key actors.

Following difficulties, legal debates and negotiations, the coalition made an agreement with the authority by the spring of 1998 that 30 percent of the construction work hours would be performed by local hires from affected communities and the authority guaranteed to train 1,000 residents. The contractors had to agree in their bids that they would comply with the terms of the agreement. One guarantee of the success of the campaign was that the coalition was one step ahead of the authorities as it engaged in the issue well before the construction had started and then it took part in the widespread announcement of the jobs program, and in the recruit and selection of the job applicants. An agreement like this is called a community benefits agreement. It is legally binding, setting forth a range of community benefits regarding a development project, and resulting from substantial community involvement. In case somebody is inspired to implement a community-based jobs program like this, the Center For Community Change and the coalition presents its strategy and the nuts and bolts of the implementation in this manual.

There are other interesting examples of how exploited workers organize. Community Voices Heard (whose representative was recently in Hungary) fought in 2011 to make sure that New York State employed 3,000 welfare recipients for a real salary instead of workfare assignments. The concept of the Transitional Jobs Program is that welfare recipients are employed for publicly subsidized jobs (not for unpaid workfare assignments) that combine real work, skill development and supportive services. In case they do not find a job by the time the program phases out, they receive unemployment benefits (instead of welfare).

Another example is the United Workers which demanded economic justice for workers in a district of Baltimore. In the Inner Harbor rebuilt by a publicly subsidized redevelopment project, newly opened restaurants often did not pay a minimum wage to their employees. Workers, who organized successfully in another district for securing a minimum wage, labelled the district a human rights zone and drew attention to the exploitation of workers with different actions.

In addition, the Vermont Workers' Center in 2010 examined the state budget against human rights standards (the percent of the budget allocated to housing, health care, education, job losses, disability services). And the Latino working group of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement organizes against human rights abuses against Latino immigrant workers. The organization helps victims of wage theft in advocating to the company or the authorities. The organization is building its base through the working group and through making connections by representing individuals.

Community organizing groups such as National Peoples' Action, PICO, Virginia Organizing and others became part of a national alliance to get people to take their money out of the "big banks" (cause profit loss) which hold the biggest responsibility for the economic recession. The Move Our Money USA campaign has grown out of the Occupy movement and the target is to get customers of JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo to divest $1 billion from these banks.

Another initiative linked to Occupy is the Save Our Home campaign when organizations demand remodifications of mortgages for homeowners from banks, and try to prevent primarily members of low-income communities or communities of color from evictions.

The last example is from Texas where low-income people and people of color organize for affordable electricity. The Texas Organizing Project identified a budget line from which the state could substantially extend current subsidy for the electricity consumption of families in need.

Campaigning for the reduction of bank fees, for affordable utilities or for jobs and fair wages is part of the realization of economic rights.

Read it in Hungarian.

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