May 21, 2022
San Jose I’ve known Sarita Gupta as a friend and comrade for decades now, dating back to her time in Chicago and then nationally as head of Jobs With Justice. JWJ has been a coalition of some unions at the local and national level and a lot of labor activists for some time. Their work at the level of central body union federations where some of their folks became key leaders laid the groundwork for the Union Cities focus after John J. Sweeney became head of the AFL-CIO. Sarita has now gone on to work at the giant Ford Foundation in New York City, first as Director of their Future of Work(ers) program and more recently, she told me, as Vice-President for US Domestic programs there. Her successor is Erica Smiley at Jobs With Justice, and both of them came together in 2017 to write a book about where they thought labor should go that accelerated with the pandemic. The book is The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, which gave us a good excuse to talk about that and other topics on a recent Wade’s World.
The book includes a number of interviews with local, grassroots leaders, rather than the people at the top of institutional labor, which is refreshing. This is all part of the tradition of JWJ, as Sarita reminded, in putting the “movement back in the labor movement.” It wasn’t exactly in the book, but Sarita also reminded me of one of our last conversations about work in India that we were both doing. She wanted to tell me about a recent victory the coalition of women garment workers they had assembled in Southeast Asia had won by putting pressure on the H&M brand to stop harassment and bad conditions in the plants. These campaigns take time, so it was good to hear about some success.
We ended up spending a bit of time on the throughline discussed in the book where community-labor coalitions have pushed authorities and corporations for community benefit agreements on major developments and something that she and Smiley referred to as “bargaining for the common good.” Despite the critique they continue to have for institutional labor, they still firmly believe in collective bargaining. They see some hope on this often very uneven battlefield between workers and their employers in some struggles like those of the Chicago teachers and others that have been able to successfully introduce key community and social issues into collective bargaining even when they are not mandatory subjects.
The fact that we are in a “movement moment” for workers right now made the conversation with Sarita timely and exciting. She and Smiley are right. This kind of moment makes even very hard ground easy to break to create new leaders, new initiatives, and new prospects for change.