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Using Empowerment Zones to My Advantage

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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Looking for new tactics to utilize in an organizers quest to recruit new members is the number one goal of every good organizing department.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

On January 13, 1999, Vice President Al Gore named 20 economicallydistressed communities as Round II Empowerment Zones, making them eligible to share in $3.8 billion in proposed federal grants and tax-exempt bonding authority. This meant that these communities were going to get an influx of companies breaking ground and hiring new workers.

We set up offices in many cities across the country to start infiltrating these communities and to start building support within themfor organizing new members. In the Detroit Empowerment Zone, we had an opportunity to do something a little different. We were already organizing companies that had mostly Hispanic employees. One large tier 1auto supply company was owned by a former Detroit professional baseballplayer with five plants in Michigan, another in Arizona and another in Mexico. This organization had 3,000 employees in Michigan alone

We knew we needed an edge to organize this region of the City andState. The area once flourished with automotive plants but began to look more like a war zone with the closing plants left abandoned to decay.

I hired organizers to only target the empowerment zones and the hundreds of new companies coming into this area. We had connections withthe State employment agencies as well as the companies sprouting in thezone who were hiring new workers. When any activity happened we knew about it in advance.

We had our organizers working with the faith based organizations,Hispanic groups, churches, schools and even giving talks on career day.We sponsored a baseball team through a Local and gave union paraphernalia to anyone who would take it.

There was one particular group that we were in contact with. The workers were community organizers who were paid by the United Farm Workers and assisted the mostly Hispanic neighborhood with any problems they might have had and were unofficial community spokespeople with local politicians. This organization was called the Chicano Development Center.

I had a great idea and decided to hire this group from the Farm Workers and keep the center open as part of a long-term strategy to organize the empowerment zone. We set out to change of one of the main roads to “Cesar Chavez” in honor of the late union leader but in truth we couldn’t have cared less about him or the road. Our plan was to starta petition for the name change which was very popular in the City; we reached out to the churches and community leaders including some State Representatives who we encouraged to get involved. We asked one State Representative to pave the way by calling our targeted companies, askingthem to allow the Chicano Development Center (USWA organizers) workers into their cafeterias to allow them to gather petitions for the Cesar Chavez name change. Unbeknown to either the State Reps or the participating companies we were using these petitions for massive organizing campaigns in the area.

We now had it all together. We had at least one year of communitysupport, contact bases all over the zone, targeted company list’s, signed petition lists for dozens of large companies and great relationships and trust built within the zone. We just needed to bring everything to a grand conclusion.

My plan was to bring a parade to the mostly Hispanic Empowerment Zone. This was an explosion of strength and a showing of support for thepeople of the Zone that we were going to organize. We brought in Cesar Chavez’s brother, Richard, to co-lead the march. We had every Hispanic group in Michigan and surrounding States plus radio, TV (including Telemundo), Low Rider clubs, Woman’s groups, collage students, politicians and marching bands. We had Richard in front with international and regional union leaders letting the community know we were back in force and that we meant business. At the end of the five mile march we had a 3-hour long outdoor party with folkloric Mexican dancers and bands.

At the same time, we had a small army of organizers in town readyto blitz these companies. Our first prize was the former ballplayer’s tier 1 auto supply company. They never knew what hit them! We had over ahundred organizers knocking on doors and within a week we had over 70% of the eligible employees sign cards. It was a quick and fast win but the company put up a fight and got very desperate. They couldn’t believewhat was happening to them. The founder had passed away a few years earlier and they put enlarged pictures of him surrounded by angels at the exit doors of the plants saying “Hank wants you to vote NO”. Well, even Hank and his angels couldn’t stop us from organizing the company. The positive outcome of this strategy reinforced the ‘deception works” mentality to my team. We went on to organize many other companies in thezone.

P.S. An after note: The Company went bankrupt within a year of signing the first contract which didn’t matter either way to me because my only job was to organize and walk away.

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