LIBERAL MAYORS & LIBERAL FUNDERS: A CASE OF RACISM, CLASSISM, AND IDEOLOGICAL WARFARE
Written collectively by members of the Board of Directors of the Smalltown, U.S.A. Worker Center
(get the PDF)
THE PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS
This paper explores the dynamics of a struggle between Latin@ day laborers and the radical Latin@ and white community organizers who supported them on one side, and the political power structures and “liberal” funding organizations on the other side. This struggle took place in a community somewhere in the U.S from 2001 to the present. The names of the protagonists (the workers and their supporters) and the antagonists (the politicians, police, the court, and funders) are not given in order to protect the workers, the organizers, and the grassroots organizations that they represent from both economic reprisals from the political power structure and the funders, and from tactical losses in their continued struggle that continues to the present. (Note that the term “workers” refers to Latin@ day laborers, some of whom are “documented” and others who are not.)
The paper also briefly discusses the philosophical and theoretical concepts of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire that form the basis of the particular kind of organizing that took place. The paper was written collectively by members of the board of directors of one of the local grassroots organizations that supported the workers in their struggle.
In order for the reader to understand who the protagonists and the antagonists are in this struggle, this paper will delineate between two coalitions: one consisting of the protagonists in the struggle; the other the antagonists.
THE PROTAGONISTS: THE “WORKERS COALITION”
The protagonists formed a coalition called the Workers Coalition (WC). This coalition consisted of the following organizations, though none of the names reveal the actual identities of these organizations:
1. A union formed by the Latin@ workers called Day Laborers United (DLU)
2. A Latin@-run grassroots organization that advocated for Latin@ immigrants in work-related struggles called, the Worker Support Organization (WSO)
3. A large coalition of over 50 organizations that focused on racism and poverty called the United Against Racism and Poverty (UARP)
4. An organization consisting of Latin@ workers and white and Latin@ organizers that focused on issues involving day laborers called Smalltown Worker Center (SWC) which is affiliated with the day laborers’ organization, Day Laborers United (DLU).
THE ANTAGONISTS: THE “STATE APPARATUS & LIBERAL FUNDERS COALITION”
The antagonists formed a coalition called the State Apparatus & Liberal Funders Coalition (SALFC). This coalition consisted of the following organizations, though again, none of the names reveal the actual identities of these entities and organizations:
1. The Local Government (LG) consisted of the mayor, police, trustees, court, and other government officials in a small town on the northeast coast of the U.S.
2. A funder called the Religious Institution (RI), which was a large, wealthy, and powerful religious-based group that specialized in “charity”.
3. Another funder called the Community Foundation (CF) that funded “liberal causes”.
4. The third funder called the
- Wealthy Private Foundation
(WPF) that also funded liberal causes and focused on immigration issues.
The small town somewhere within the United States (henceforth called Smalltown) was a primarily white community until the 1960s. When racial steering changed the nearby Jewish and Christian village of “Johnson” in the late 50s, and the community became largely African American, Smalltown liberals, including many progressives, organized a gradual change in Smalltown that allowed them to control the influx of African Americans to some extent, to encourage liberal whites to move in, and to enable the political parties and families that dominated Smalltown for years to maintain political control.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as a direct result of capitalist and racist U.S. foreign trade and military polices in Latin America and the Caribbean, growing numbers of immigrants from Central America, Mexico, and Puerto Rico and Jamaica started moving into Smalltown, so that by the 1990s, the racial breakdown there was about 1/3 white, 1/3 African American, and 1/3 Latin@. Today the racial breakdown in Smalltown is 46% Black, 22% white and 24% Latin@ and the rest are Asian, Native American and mixed.
For quite a few years Smalltown had been and still is a family business for the current white mayor’s family. The mayor’s father was a former mayor, and the present mayor was the previous village attorney. The mayor’s brother-in-law, who was the mayor’s former law partner, is currently the Smalltown Village Attorney. This Village Attorney’s firm receives approximately $400,000 a year from the Smalltown taxpayers for his services.
Starting in the 1990s, day laborers from Central America and Mexico, many of whom were “undocumented”, started to gather in the mornings in the parking lot of a large hardware store called Jackpot in Smalltown in order to find work with local contractors. By 2001, the number of workers looking for work in the mornings often exceeded 150. Smalltown police regularly harassed and confronted these men, and this abuse escalated to situations in which the police beat the workers. One of the tactics used by the police was to use police cars to “herd” workers in a threatening way to other areas of a parking lot.
Enter one of the protagonists: the Worker Support Organization (WSO), a grass-roots organization led by Latin@s from a nearby town which was founded to support immigrant workers and day laborers. Ideologically, the WSO covered a range of political perspectives from right of center to radical, though the public image and reputation of the organization was progressive to radical. It should be noted that the political perspective of the day laborers themselves ranged from right of center to radical. The WSO came to the defense of the day laborers and sent their organizer into Smalltown in 2001. The WSO organizer, as a key part of his work, met with workers to determine what they wanted, and he found that they wanted to work with residents in Smalltown who were sympathetic with their cause to, first, stop the police abuse, and second, to start what is called a “shape-up site” where the workers could safely meet with contractors and be provided with needed education and support services. They also wanted to organize a union of workers. In response to the workers’ needs, the WSO organizer reached out to local white and Latin@ radical activists from several local grassroots organizations, including an organization called United Against Racism and Poverty (UARP), and this organization, along with the newly-formed workers union – Day Laborers United (DLU) – joined in a struggle led by the more progressive and radical workers to stop the police abuse and to demand that Smalltown set up a legal shape-up site for the workers. During this struggle, the WSO organizer was arrested on bogus charges while organizing with the workers. The case was immediately thrown out of court because the leading civil rights attorney in the area had taken an interest in the case and represented the WSO organizer. The organizing campaign was successful in stopping the police abuse for a short time. But obtaining a shape-up site proved to be more difficult.
The workers then took the lead in a wider campaign with the Smalltown activists to obtain a shape-up site. Workers and organizers from the WSO, DLU and UARP demanded and got a series of meetings with the Smalltown chief of police and the mayor, but the police and the mayor refused to cooperate in any way. It was clear that the only solution that Smalltown officials considered to be viable was the continued police policy of beating and arresting the day laborers.
What followed was a large demonstration led by the radical workers in early 2002 held at the Smalltown Hall and directed against the Smalltown officials. It took an arrest, a court case, beatings by the police, and a well-publicized demonstration to convince the Smalltown police chief and mayor to consider organizing a shape-up site for the workers. Also, the mayor, police, and the Smalltown government were already under pressure at this time because they were facing an anti-discrimination suit by the State Attorney General for conducting pre-dawn raids on Latin@ homeowners. The police and the mayor needed to find ways to hide their racist policies toward the Latin@ community in Smalltown because the Latin@ community comprised a significant sector of the voters there, and the mayor reasoned that supporting a shape-up site for day laborers might win them votes from some of the Latin@ voters.
Therefore the mayor was forced to compromise, and in early 2002 he agreed to have a shape-up site in Smallville. He accepted a donated and dilapidated trailer to be set up in a vacant parking lot off the beaten track, as a legal day labor shape-up site. But just because he compromised on this issue, it did not mean that he was willing to allow Latin@s to have any decision-making power in regard to the administration of the shape-up site.
The workers and organizers had tried to meet with the mayor after he agreed to the shape-up site to discuss the details of setting up and managing the site, but the liberal white mayor refused to meet with the Latino workers and their comrades – the radical white and Latin@ activists and organizers. The mayor’s choice to organize and oversee the site was a more “respectable” white man who wore blue pin stripe suits just like the mayor did and who shared the liberal politics of the mayor. This white man was an administrator from a very wealthy white-run religious-based organization, called the Religious Institution (RI).
Enter three white-run foundations that funded “good liberal causes” – often giving money to people and organizations in economically poor communities of color. One was the same Religious Institution (RI) that was running the site. The other two funders were the Community Foundation (CF), and the Wealthy Private Foundation (WPF). Though these foundations espoused the jargon of “empowerment of the poor and exploited”, they were really all about giving the poor and hungry fish to eat rather than teaching them how to fish, and they certainly didn’t go to the next important steps of disclosing to them that something smelled in the fishing industry and that they could learn to organize for themselves how to deal with the root causes of this smell. After all, this would put the good religious folks and the funders out of a job. All three were also in close alliance with the mayor and the chief of police.
The shape-up site opened in September 2002, and this arrangement of having the RI run the site was supposed to be temporary. The mayor and the RI kept assuring the workers and the organizers that this was a temporary situation, and they promised that the long-term goal was to have a “local worker-led group” run the site. Therefore the workers and organizers initiated a strategy of worker empowerment with the long-term goal of forming a worker-formed and led not-for-profit organization that could take over administering the site.
For the following two years while the technical work of drafting by-laws and applying for legal status as an incorporated nonprofit organization was taking place, there were continued struggles – now not only with the police and the mayor, but also with the three funders. The State Apparatus & Liberal Funders Coalition (SALFC) treated the Worker’s Coalition with contempt and disrespect all during this time: an ugly display of classist and racist attacks on the workers, and disdain toward the white and Latin@ organizers that stemmed from the inevitable ideological clash when white liberals meet up with radicals.
One of the most memorable incidents that clearly pointed out this ideological clash came during a meeting between the workers/organizers and the staff member of the RI who wore the blue pin stripe suits. It was an angry meeting at which the blue-suited antagonist displayed disgusting disrespect for the people of color and the organizers at the table, and toward the end of the meeting he made clear the philosophical underpinnings of his white, liberal community organizing manifesto when he shouted, “The problem with you radicals is that you don’t practice MATURE ORGANIZING like we do. It’s not the 60s anymore! Grow up!”
The mayor did everything he could to sabotage the site by refusing to listen to the workers when they identified obstacles that prevented the site’s success. For example, the mayor would not open up a gate on the major highway where the site was located in order to allow for easy and convenient access by contractors who wanted to hire workers. He refused to put up signs in the parking lot of Jackpot so that contractors would know that the site existed. He also refused to advertise the site in the local Smalltown-Village published newsletter, or on the Smalltown website. His was a delicate balance: in order to stay in office he had to appease both the Latin@ and the white voters in Smalltown. But if many of the white voters discovered that the mayor was helping the “illegals”, as many of his white racist voters called undocumented immigrants, he would lose their votes. Therefore he needed to have a site for the workers that he could tout to his Latin@ voters in order to get some of their votes, but he needed to keep the site as invisible as possible so that his racist white voters wouldn’t know it existed. The result of his political strategy was that the site didn’t really help the workers very much because most of the contractors who hire the workers didn’t know that the site existed. Therefore many of the workers simply did not go to the site. Instead, most of them continued to gather in the parking lot of Jackpot – right in the middle of a very visible area of Smalltown where the mayor’s white voters would see the non-white workers everyday. This made the mayor and the chief of police very angry.
Then on November 2, 2004, after two years of organizing and hard work on the part of the workers and the organizers, the grassroots organization, called the Smalltown Worker Center (SWC) received its incorporation as a not-for-profit organization. This was a major victory for the workers! The following Mission Statement was written by a committee of workers at the trailer and voted on by all the workers who were coming to the trailer at that time:
Smalltown Worker Center Mission Statement
The main mission of the Worker Center’s trailer is to create a healthy and safe place where the workers can educate and organize
themselves in order to obtain employment with dignity,
achieve self-determination and feel empowered to
manage the trailer to determine its purpose and fate.
The accomplishments of these goals will permit the
• To continue and expand its operation under the
• To be a meeting place for the workers to make
decisions over its operation and over other issues of
• To be a place where the workers can seek help
and offer help to others in matters determined by the
• To be a place where democratic and fair procedures
will be used to resolve conflicts, job distribution,
and any other issue as determined by the workers.
• To be a place where workers will be able to learn
and practice procedures related to its general
administration, to fundraising and to budgetary
• To be a place where relations can be established
with other organizations from which to obtain advice
regarding fundraising and financial administration,
education, immigration issues, democratic procedures,
and other matters of concern to the workers in
relation to the trailer administration.
There had been promises made for two years by the mayor, the police, and the funders. They promised that a “worker-led group” could take over the site from the Religions Institution. The Smalltown Workers Center, working in solidarity with the union organization Day Laborers United (this collaboration will be referred to as SWC/DLU) was supposed to have been that group. The SWC’s by-laws stated that a majority of the Board of Directors would always be held by the workers. This was a worker-formed-and-led grass roots organization – the only worker-led incorporated not-for-profit organization in that part of the country. The time had come for the SWC/DLU to run the site.
But, for nearly one year following the incorporation of the SWC in 2004, the SALFC tried to prevent the workers and their friends from taking over the site, and instead, the SALFC began to look for other organizations to run the site – organizations that would be more “cooperative” than the SWC/DWU; organizations that were easier to “control” – that were more racially and ideologically like the SALFC. They issued a call to organizations to submit grant proposals, but much to the chagrin of the SALFC, only two proposals were submitted – and these both from groups run by Latin@s: 1) a Latin@ fundamentalist church that was run by a right wing Republican fundraiser, closely tied to the chief of Smalltown’s police department, and 2) the SWC/DLU.
The church’s grant proposal was unacceptable even to the funders because it was clear that the church would run the site like a dictatorship, they would refuse to work with other organizations, and that their motive for wanting to run the site was not out of a concern for the workers or for social justice, but instead they were plotting a scheme to force the workers to join the church and donate money to the church in exchange for obtaining work at the shape-up site.
By October 2005, the original RI that was running the site needed to step down because they were losing money and staff time running the operation, and the SWC/DLU had the only acceptable grant proposal. Therefore, with much reluctance, the SALFC agreed to allow the SWC/DLU to administer the site, starting in October of 2005.
The elements of a worker-led shape-up site operating as a “direct democracy” began to take shape. The Latin@ workers themselves directly benefited because they had been empowered to create, lead and manage the site. The workers interviewed people and then hired a coordinator to help staff the site on a daily basis. They wrote and voted to approve their own rules for the operation of the site. They chose to create a healthy and safe place where they could educate and organize themselves in order to obtain employment with dignity, achieve self-determination, and be free to determine the purpose and fate of the site. They created a meeting place where they could make decisions over its operation and over other issues of concern, a place where they could seek help and offer help to others in matters determined by themselves. It was not perfect, but it was a place where democratic and fair procedures were used to resolve conflicts, jobs distribution, and any other issues that they encountered. The workers chose to learn and practice procedures related to general administration, fundraising, and budgetary issues. They organized classes and workshops on specific skills and issues, such as community organizing, conflict resolution, democratic procedures, and immigration and health issues, brick-laying, and carpentry. They began to make necessary repairs to the dilapidated trailer, and they determined how to obtain referrals to human service organizations and how to get emergency assistance. Finally, the workers also studied, discussed, and organized around the social, economic, and political root causes that had forced them to seek work in he United States.
White power and wealth in the hands of liberal whites concedes nothing to people of color – especially people of color who are also economically poor, nor to radical whites who support people of color. The SALFC was no exception. They came up with a plan to maintain their power, a plan that allowed them to have all of the decision-making power at the site while having it appear that the workers were in charge. First, the mayor and the funders set up a committee for the purpose of making all decisions concerning the administration of the site and not allowing the workers to have any decision-making power. This committee was initially referred to as the “Consulting Committee”, but within a few weeks after the workers took over, the name suspiciously evolved into the “Oversight Committee.” The members of this committee consisted of the mayor, the chief of police, the three heads of the three funding organizations, the director of the WSO, a representative from the SWC’s board, and the “coordinator” who staffed the trailer. None of the workers who were on the board of the SWC were permitted to be on the committee to represent the concerns of the workers. Apparently it did not occur to the SALFC that the workers could have ideas of their own or that their interests should be taken into consideration. Though the SWC was a legally incorporated nonprofit corporation, the SALFC saw to it that the SWC’s Board of Directors – consisting of a majority of workers, was not permitted to make major decisions. All of the organizers from the Workers’ Coalition had many years of organizing experience and most were also experienced grant writers who had many interactions with liberal foundations. Never in all of their years of experience had they ever witnessed a foundation that, once money was granted to an organization, set up such an “oversight” committee for the purpose of stripping all of the decision-making power from the organization receiving the grant. Here again was clear evidence of racism, classism, and a clash of ideologies between liberals and radicals. The liberal ideology always focuses much of its power on the goal of separating economically poor people of color from white radical organizers. Many of the workers were politically radical and had participated in revolutionary movements in their home countries. So this group of activists might represent a unity between radical people in the Americas, a potentially dangerous development, even in Smalltown, USA, or so the establishment thought. And after all, if the liberals were to allow radical political philosophies to infiltrate movements of poor people of color, uniting with white radical activists, the liberal project would be endangered. Real change threatened obsolescence for the liberal funders and politicians –and unemployment.
From October 2005 when the SWC/DLU took over the administration of the shape-up site, tensions continued to grow between the SALFC and the SWC. The mayor had done his best to hide the shape up site from the white folks in Smalltown, and as a result, the site had not done well. The mayor blamed the SWC. Many workers chose not to go to the site because the mayor and the police were not putting any pressure on the contractors to go to the site to meet with workers. Therefore, growing numbers of workers continued to gather in Jackpot’s parking lot to find jobs with contractors. The organizer for the WSO and the Board members of the SWC became the scapegoats and falsely received the blame for all of this by the “Oversight Committee” of the SALFC. The Board of Directors of the SWC continued to negotiate in good faith with the mayor about important steps that needed to be taken to make the site viable, such as making the site more visible, opening an entrance on the major highway where the site was located, putting up signs about the site in the Jackpot’s parking lot, having the police ticket the contractors who went to Jackpot in order to pressure them to go to the site instead instead of arresting and turning the workers over to ICE for deportation, as well as other measures, but the mayor refused and responded in anger and contempt.
All of this came to a head in May 2006. Members of the SWC Board, including workers, met with the Oversight Committee of the SALFC, and the solution proposed by the mayor and the chief of police,
- and which was supported by the representatives of the three liberal funding organizations who were present at the meeting
, was to use an iron fist on the workers. The mayor said that he had vigorously persuaded the owners of the property which Jackpot rented to put up “no trespassing ” signs in the lot where the workers gathered. Thus, any day laborers not using the shape-up site would be arrested.
The SWC Board members adamantly opposed this saying that these arrests could and would lead to fines, jail, and deportations – all for the innocent act of trying to find an honest day’s work. The workers presented a petition asking that this not be done. The board members were livid that the funders with all of their language of “empowerment of the oppressed” would cynically support a decision which would result in worker arrests and deportation. The SWC representatives said in that meeting that they were not “agents of the police” and did not believe that the workers should be forced to go to the site if they didn’t want to go.
Shortly after this meeting, the Oversight Committee of the SALFC made another decision: to “fire” the SWC. After only six months since taking over the shape-up site, the only worker-formed and led non-profit corporation in that area of the country was no longer permitted to administer the site. Furthermore, members of the Board of the SWC were banned by the police from entering the site, and the lead organizer of the WSC was banned from doing any organizing with the workers in Smalltown. To add insult to injury, the mayor and the funders once again appointed the RI to take over of the administration of the site. They prevented the remaining workers at the site to choose their own coordinator, and appointed a woman who would prove to be vindictive toward certain workers – specifically members of the workers’ union, Day Laborers United, and members of the Small town Worker Center Board of Directors. This new coordinator, at the bidding of the SALFC, directed revenge upon these specific workers who had come to the site out of fear of being arrested by making it impossible for them and their friends to get work when contractors came to the site. This forced more workers to stop coming to the site and instead to gather at Jackpot. And this in turn stiffened the resolve of the SALFC to crack down further on the workers. It was obvious that the mayor and the police wanted to remove Latin@ day laborers from public view, and indeed, remove them from the U.S. That the white liberal funders went along with this in true lock-step form illuminates the illegitimacy and xenophobia of their liberal project.
The local forces of repression were then joined by national forces of repression. In August, 2006, with the collaboration of the Smalltown Police Department, the Immigration and Customs and Enforcement (ICE) division of U.S. Homeland Security conducted two raids in Smalltown, arresting eight Latin@s who were doing nothing illegal. This raid was part of a series of ICE raids in the area. In one of those raids, ICE handcuffed and removed a Latino father who was home alone with his baby, leaving the baby alone. The SWC/DLU, began to work with Smalltown residents on petitions demanding that the Smalltown Police no longer cooperate with ICE and that the ICE raids would stop. They planned to give the petitions to the Smalltown Trustees at a public meeting in September of 2006, but the meeting was suspiciously closed to public commentary on the day of the meeting. The Smalltown mayor was overheard by one of the SWC board members who was in the mayor’s office before the Trustee meeting saying in response to our request to give the petitions to the Smalltown Trustees, “We can’t let those people do that!”, meaning, of course the Latin@ workers and the radical white and Latin@ organizers.
The repression continued to worsen. On October 16, 2006, a documented worker was talking to other day laborers in the parking lot of Jackpot’s about a leaflet he had received about an upcoming public meeting of the SWC/DLU addressing the ICE raids. He was arrested for trespassing in the parking lot. The Smallville Police also confiscated his car. A few days later a young Latino boy of 18 who was walking through the Jackpot parking lot was grabbed by his neck by the police, manacled, and thrown violently into a police car. The young boy, crying, pleaded with the police to stop hurting him while his father looked on with horror. A third worker was arrested a few days later as he too was crossing the same parking lot on the way to buy a cup of coffee at a nearby deli. Many other Latin@ workers were similarly threatened by the police. The lead organizer for the WSO, who was also on the Board of the SWC, went to the parking lot at the hardware store on October 24, 2006 to investigate these events, and he too was arrested – again for the second time.
Racial profiling and police brutality were daily events. Witnesses reported seeing the police physically pull Latin@s out of white contractor’s trucks while the contractors were allowed to drive away. Workers were beaten and jailed. The workers and organizers fought back by mounting a large demonstration at the Smalltown Muncipal Court to show solidarity for two of the workers who were arrested on the day of their court hearing. The courtroom was invaded by nearly 100 workers and their supporters, and both cases were eventually thrown out.
Then, starting in October, 2006, Smalltown housing officials escalated the oppression by conducting illegal early morning raids on the homes where Latin@s live. At 6:00 A.M. on October 24, 2006, one of the workers who was a leader of the DLU and board member of the SWC was rousted from his bed when two Smallville building inspectors accompanied by four Smallville policemen entered his home without a legal warrant. They demanded to know who lived in the house and they took photos of the house and all of the residents. Numerous other Latin@ houses were raided about the same time. No homes of whites were raided.
These raids were conducted in spite of a “Consent Decree” agreement mentioned earlier that Smalltown was forced to enter into in 2002 by the State Attorney General. This agreement came about because the State Attorney General alleged that Smalltown was violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as violating the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act – all for “racially discriminatory and illegal raids” that targeting only Latin@-owned houses in Smalltown. In the consent order, Smallville officials agreed that they would discontinue their illegal racist raids on Latin@ homes in lieu of going through with a costly court trial that undoubtedly would have led to convictions and heavy fines for Smalltown.
Next the SALFAC turned their energies toward destroying the Worker Support Organization (WSO). This time the forces of destruction were not the police, but the three “liberal” funders: the Religious Institution (RI), the Community Foundation (CF), and the Wealthy Private Foundation (WPF). The WSO had been for many years the undisputed leading Latino@ activist organization in the Smalltown area. It was and continues to be run by Latin@s. It is not a “service” agency that simply gives hungry people fish to eat. The WSO fights to empower Latin@s by not just teaching them how to fish, but by giving them the time and the space to discover for themselves what smells in the fishing industry and how to organize tactically and strategically in order to eliminate the smell. The organization focuses primarily on oppression in the workplace, and has won numerous victories in court. The WSO is an organization that goes to the streets when necessary. And they use diplomacy and direct action to win rights for immigrants. If a contractor fails to pay a worker, the WSO organizes people to stand in front of the contractor’s house banging on drums and holding signs telling his neighbors that he is a crook. Usually the local newspaper and TV stations are also there.
The problem here was that the WSO was an organization that had some very outspoken and “visible-in-the-local-media” staff members who were radical (though other staff and some of the board members ranged from liberal to right of center), and this organization was funded by three liberal funders. It was only a matter of time until a clash of ideologies would take place. The funders, being the liberals that they were, found that their centrist reformist ideology clashed with the WSO’s public image as espousing a radical anti-capitalist ideology. And of course, the funders were the ones with the money. The WSO was caught in a bad situation because they understood that you cannot go to war with your funders because you will lose. What happened was that the funders went to war with the WSO, and the WSO lost. But, there was clearly another reason why the funders waged war on the WSO other than a clash of ideologies, and this important dynamic needs to be explained.
As was stated earlier, back in 2002 when the Religious Institution started to run the shape-up site, the RI said they wanted to administer the site for only short time and then turn it over to a “local group led by the workers”. But between 2002 and 2006 the RI was involved in highly publicized national scandals involving their members of the clergy. These scandals led to many law suits and this hurt the reputation as well as the finances of the RI, and the RI was struggling to improve its reputation and finances by performing “good works”. The RI determined that it would be good if it could be recognized as the undisputed leader of the pro-immigrant movement in the region which included Smalltown. But the only thing standing in their way of receiving this recognition was the WSO – the true undisputed leader of the pro-immigrant movement in that region. In order to achieve their goal, the RI had to destroy the WSO. And it was simple because the RI, and the other two funders in the SALFC provided most of the funding for the WSO. The three funders simply stopped funding the WSO. The other two funders, the CF and the WPF also benefited from this. The two chief funding staff members of these two foundations had been and continue to be involved in organizing around immigrant rights issues. Their organizing, unlike the kind of radical organizing that the organizations of the Workers Coalition were engaged in, was the aforementioned “mature organizing”, i.e. the typical kind of centrist, liberal, “call your senator and write letters” organizing that does not expose and deal with the root issues of the racism and poverty experienced by Latin@day laborers. These two funding officers and their respective foundations, like the RI, stood to benefit from their war on the WSO because they, too, could take more credit for “helping” the immigrant community because their primary competition, the WSO, had lost much of its funding.
The result of this war waged upon the WSO by the SALFAC is that currently the WSO cannot pay their full-time staff their full-time salaries, but the staff continues working full time because they are loyal to the organization and the work is too important to stop. But this situation cannot continue for much longer, and the inevitable demise of the WSO may be close at hand. Those of us radicals who have been doing this work for a long time are outraged at the funders and the Smalltown mayor and police who have dared to perpetuate such a cowardly, ideologically and racially-based act upon this fine organization that has for many years been the lifeline of hundreds of marginalized day laborers.
This is the tragic situation currently with the WSO. As a result, the WSO has not been able to continue organizing in Smalltown for the past two years. This came about because before the three funders had actually stopped funding the WSO, the funders met with the WSO and threatened to stop the funding if the WSO continued to work with the worker’s union (DLU) and the SWC. WSO determined that they had no choice but to comply because if the three funders stopped the funding, this would destroy the WSO. Therefore, the WSO’s board of directors chose to pull out of Smalltown, and even though they complied with the funders and did indeed stop all organizing in Smalltown, the funders still cut off WSO’s funding anyway – which was the the funders’ dishonest plan from the beginning. This has been disastrous for the DLU and SWC. The DLU, which was based in Smalltown and consisted of workers there, was originally organized by the WSO, and staff of the WSO had to pull out. The result is that the union has been severely crippled. The SWC had depended on the larger WSO for help with its various activities, and the lead organizer of the WSO was a key board member of the SWC. As a result, the SWC has had to curtail many of its previous organizing activities.
Also, the site where the trailer sits is failing in every way: many fewer workers go to the site and few contractors go there; there is a lack of pride on the part of those who still go there, and as a result the trailer itself is dirty and people don’t take care of things for they have no vested interest in caring for the site due to the lack of democracy and the disorganization that exists. Because the coordinator of the trailer plays favorites, and workers can buy soda there, the site has adopted the nickname of “The Deli” because workers over at Jackpot don’t believe it is a proper shape-up site. The funders are in reality spending money on a project that they know is doomed to failure, and surely they must know that they themselves, and of course their factotum, the mayor, are the cause of this failure. But neither the SWC nor the DLU has ceased to exist. There are still some projects they are involved in, and the ongoing police brutality and attempts to sweep Latin@ workers off Smalltown’s main streets near Jackpot require that the workers and the SWC continue the struggle. There is a certain amount of demoralization, especially as the economy is shrinking, construction is in the doldrums, and it is clear from various reports that remittances to Latin America are down up to 20% in this difficult economic period.
The protagonists – the Workers Coalition, have suffered losses in their war with the antagonists – the State Apparatus & Liberal Funders Coalition. Day Laborers United has been hurt badly and it is barely functioning. The Worker Support Organization, as was stated previously, has been hit hard financially and may at some point in the future be forced to close its doors. Until then it continues to be in solidarity with Latin@ immigrants and focuses on unfair labor practices, ICE raids, and a women domestic worker cooperative. They also work with local college students to heighten their participation in immigrant rights activities, and come to the rescue of many who find themselves confronting the myriad problems of immigration and work.
United Against Racism and Poverty, the large coalition that assisted in the initial organizing of the SWC, stopped functioning in 2004 because of a lack of funding. The Smalltown Worker Center is still organizing, but without the support of the WSO, and because a number of people have left the group’s board, it is not able to take on many organizing projects. From 2007 to early in 2008 the SWC focused on being in solidarity with the Latin@ families whose homes have been raided by the Smalltown housing inspectors and police, but this organizing campaign ran into difficulties because the increased ICE raids created fear and the desire to lay low in the Latin@ community.
At this time, families whose homes have been raided by the Smalltown housing inspectors are afraid to speak out because of the possibilities of further harassment, fines, and/or possible arrest and deportation. The SWC has had discussions about the importance of organizing around foreclosure issues as these issues cross race and class lines in the region. The SWC has also talked about assisting with the reorganization of UARP as one of the board members of the SWC is the founder of UARP. There were more than 50 organizations that were active in UARP in 2004 before the coalition stopped functioning. Reorganizing UARP could develop enough power to assist the SWC’s organizing. But the most pressing issue which the SWC must continue to address is the racist harassment and arrest of workers in Smalltown.
The antagonists – the State Apparatus & Liberal Funders Coalition, is alive and well funded and strong. The Smalltown mayor is still in office. The Smalltown police continue to oppress, beat, and arrest those workers who don’t choose to go to the shape-up site. The Religious Institution continues to run the shape-up site in their top-down undemocratic manner even though the language of “empowerment of the oppressed” is used in all of their literature. The Community Foundation is financially healthy and continues to fund reformist band-aid projects that don’t challenge the basic presuppositions of capitalism, nor challenge the local or national attacks on the rights of immigrants. The same for the Wealthy Private Foundation. All of this points out why it is called “The Struggle”. But struggle on we will!
Paulo Freire was mentioned earlier, and it is his pedagogical principles that formed the backbone for the organizing done by all of the organizations in the Workers Coalition. It was Freire’s “popular education” that fueled the radical popular resistance movements from the 1960s in South and Central America, Mexico, and South Africa. The WC utilized Freire’s primary principals of popular education from the beginning of the struggle to form a shape-up site. In 2001 when the Worker Support Organization and United Against Racism and Poverty started organizing in Smalltown, the first thing that happened was to determine what the workers wanted and needed. In Smalltown, the workers said that they wanted to lead and manage a not-for-profit organization for the express purpose of overcoming the unique problems they faced in Smalltown and the surrounding region: unsafe, unproductive, and undignified working conditions; racial discrimination; poverty; lack of support services, and a lack of opportunities for worker organizing and empowerment. Making the wants and needs of the workers the starting point of the organizing is central to the vision of social change that goes to the heart of Freire’s philosophy. Freire is clear that there are two principles that must dominate when organizing with an oppressed class such as Latin@ Day Laborers in the United States:
1. It is the WORKERS who have the ability to understand how and why our society causes them to experience problems such as racial discrimination, financial hardship, and other difficulties that they face living in the U.S.
2. It is the WORKERS who are capable of dealing with their problems THEMSELVES. They don’t need outside “experts” to tell them how to deal with their problems.
The organizers “empowered” the workers themselves to build a worker-led not-for-profit organization and used Freire’s principles of popular education to build programs that:
1. empower the workers to act for positive changes in the social, political, and economic structures of Smalltown;
2. are based on democratic practice and therefore create the conditions for full and equal participation in discussion, debate, and decision-making, and that
3. reveal the political power relations in Smalltown.
All of the above principals are what make up true “empowerment” of the oppressed. The organizations of the SWC are not liberal social service organizations. They are “radical empowerment” organizations in the true sense of the word.
A FURTHER NOTE ON LIBERAL FOUNDATIONS
Millions of corporate dollars are funneled through liberal foundations across the country. This money pays modest salaries for decent-hearted people who are devoted to the causes for which they work. When a multi-million dollar foundation gives $20,000 to a social service organization so that it can divvy-out fish to hungry people, this is a great deal for these organizations because staff salaries get paid, the staff themselves end up feel really good about themselves because they are feeding hungry people (hungry people should be fed!). But ultimately this is a band aid non-solution for hunger and poverty that does not address the root causes of hunger and poverty (capitalism’s immoral and unethical distribution of wealth and power), and therefore results in a very convenient and inexpensive way for corporate and governmental and institutional groups (NGOs) to maintain the status quo. All the people who work for these foundations must toe the line, and not go further in organizing or in working for change if such work is unacceptable to the funding sponsors.
Although the story of Smalltown and the attempt to organize a genuine worker-run center should have been just a small development, it was not. When the funding officer of the Wealthy Foundation heard that the SWC was applying to be a member of a national group of activists for day laborers, he spoke to the leader of the national group in California. The WF director threatened the national group with loss of funding from large national foundations if the SWC/DLU was accepted into that group.
The nature of such foundation power and control can be traced to the philanthropic philosophy of “misery reduction,” which is all that social service agencies are really supposed to do. The think-tanks and intellectual justification that guide these foundations don’t go the root of the problem. They abjure questioning the system or organizing people so there could be a chance for real unity or the possibility of real change. As such they are the firmament of the establishment, and may do more harm than outright conservatives and known racists, because they claim to be helping poor people, but their job is only to hold them down and keep them divided, fearful and weak.
Recently one of the Latino worker-organizers who is on the board of the SWC/DLU noted sarcastically that the funding officer of the Community Foundation receives much adulation from the regional press for his “high-minded” work on behalf of immigrants. But this Smalltown worker, the very one who faced the pre-dawn raid last year by the Smalltown housing inspectors, said that this man from CF is the mastermind of the latest anti-worker-led campaign. The worker noted, after a fence was recently built around the parking lot at Jackpot, that the police ramped up their attacks against the workers in coordination with the security guards at Jackpot. Simultaneously, a “sacerdote” (minister, priest) from the Religious Institution posing as a friend of the workers began joining the workers on the street, urging them to all go back to the trailer. The worker said that the mayor was behind this latest fence-building strategy, that the RI sent the priest to lure the workers back to the trailer, but that the brains behind this mean-spirited and ultimately doomed operation was the well-known funding officer of Community Foundation.
This elaborate and expensive strategy of fence-building, increased police brutality, and plots involving a priest did not deter the workers, other than to force them to lay low for a few days, and then to return to the “esquinas”(corners) to seek work as Spring approached and prospects for labor improved.
But neither the workers in Day Laborers United nor the community organizers on the board of the Smalltown Worker Center who are in solidarity with the workers are fooled or daunted. They are still meeting and organizing.