With Justice for All?

Labor organizer Jane McAlevey is forcing companies in Connecticut's ultraprosperous Fairfield County to confront a moral challenge that they would prefer to ignore — and, in the process, she is forcing all of us to confront our personal sense of justice.

Name: Jane McAlevey
Occupation: Director of the AFL-CIO's Stamford Organizing Project
Aspiration: "We are asking the deeper questions: What's wrong with an economy that fails to reward people who work as hard as these people do? What do people have to do to earn a living wage in such robust times?"

Step off the 8:07 AM express train from Grand Central station into Stamford, Connecticut, and you enter a big-business utopia. Steel-ribbed monoliths fling acres of tinted glass up toward the sky. Images of cloud formations lie captured in reflecting pools at street level. Nine Fortune 500 companies make their homes here in Fairfield County, along with dozens of other only slightly less sizable companies, employing vast collections of crisply dressed, highly skilled, well-paid knowledge workers. This region has the highest median income in the country. The unemployment rate, less than 2%, is so low that it confounds economists.

It's no wonder that Stamford's leaders are feeling downright giddy about what's happening here. "Stamford is the perfect mixture of urban and suburban, of corporations and residential areas, with Long Island Sound to the south, rural country to the north, and the city in the middle," gushes one city official.

But on a recent morning, just one block from the railroad station, a band of 100 or so workers that represent a very different Stamford has gathered together at a makeshift stage in front of a building on the corner of Tresser and Atlantic Streets. The building, 300 Atlantic, is the local address of Equity Office Properties Trust, the Chicago-based real-estate giant. Equity Office, run by billionaire Sam Zell, is the country's largest publicly held owner of office properties, with interests in more than 380 buildings — including 1.8 million square feet of office space in Stamford alone.

The night before, the janitorial staff at 300 Atlantic, which houses many other well-known companies along with Equity Office, was knocking off after yet another evening shift. Now a stocky gentleman on the stage exhorts the people in the crowd in Spanish: Justicia para los janitors? ("Justice for janitors?") he asks. ¡Sí, se puede! ("Yes, we can do it!") the crowd roars back.

A young blond woman watches intently from the edge of the demonstration. Blue-eyed and handsome, she looks as if she should be strolling along the 16th fairway at one of the posh golf courses that ring Stamford. In fact, she is Jane McAlevey, 35, director of the AFL-CIO's Stamford Organizing Project, a pioneering effort to apply the collective power of organized labor to one of the most troubling realities of the new economy — the widening gap between those who are prospering mightily from the globalization of markets and the Internet boom, and the rank-and-file low-wage workers who are struggling just to make ends meet.

The office tower at 300 Atlantic stands as a symbol of that gap. By day, it is filled with well-educated professionals who manage money, operate computers, and create marketing campaigns. By night, after many of those workers have gone home, the cleaning staff arrives — people who show up on time, work hard, and struggle to get by on minimum wage and with no benefits. These two populations work in the same building, but their lives rarely intersect.

"This is such a bottom-line, family-values issue," says McAlevey. "There are so many people who are working incredibly hard and not getting anywhere. For all of the excitement that comes with the dotcom generation, what good is it if the school systems are crumbling all around you, if there are 25,000 prison beds built around you? We must have a bigger sense of responsibility for how all of society will benefit from the wonders of this moment."

McAlevey is a new breed of union organizer. She can trade jokes in Spanish with Central American immigrant workers or share cocktails with Ivy League — educated power brokers. One evening, she'll be at a meeting with Haitian health-care workers in south Stamford, and the next morning, she'll be in a conference with the senate majority leader of the Connecticut legislature. And while she's quick to criticize the self-centered mind-set of the dotcom crowd, she's happy to use the tools that its companies make. "I love technology," she declares. "I have a pager, and a cell-phone on my hip, and I email every five seconds. And it's absolutely great for me. Now, how do we make it accessible to everyone?"

Indeed, wherever she is, or whatever gadget she uses to communicate, McAlevey is relentless about her message: An economy that showers benefits on a privileged few and ignores the pressing needs of the many is neither just nor sustainable. "We see this movement as the voice for the working poor," says McAlevey. "When we first started here, we knocked on doors every night, talking to workers. That's what we do. And two things struck us. Time and again, we'd go to someone's house at 8 or 9 at night, and we'd find the kids home alone. We'd say, 'Where's Mom?' And they'd say, 'She's at work.' And we'd say, 'Well, doesn't she work from 7 to 3?' And the kids would say, 'She's at the hotel job now.' These are not irresponsible parents. These are communities in which the parents are each working two jobs and sometimes a third, and the kids are home alone."

One city, two worlds. So it goes in Stamford — and across the economy at large. The numbers are so stark, and so consistent, as to be virtually undeniable. In 1998, the top-earning 1% of Americans had as much income as the lowest-earning 100 million Americans. In that same year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates amassed more personal wealth than the poorest 43% of Americans combined. Meanwhile, according to a new economic study released by the Conference Board, the poverty rate among full-time American workers is at its highest level since the early 1980s, when the country was just coming off a recession.

But those are merely bloodless statistics. What's so compelling about McAlevey's organizing work is that every day, she encounters Stamford's two starkly divided worlds. Her job is to force them together, rather than let one continue to ignore the other. "There is less a 'new economy' than there is a 'new morality,'" McAlevey argues.

"There's a new morality that says to everyone, 'Technology is great, money is great, let's retire at 40 and travel the world.' But when we only focus on the top segment of society, we make a huge mistake. We have to be careful with our exuberance about the number of millionaires that are being created. There's another side to this economy. We're talking about two parents with sometimes four or five jobs between them because they can't pay the rent. This is not a life that anyone is choosing. It is a morally bankrupt system. We have to pay attention to what our obligation is — and that is to raise all boats, not just the boats of a privileged segment of society."

Network Effects

The Stamford Organizing Project, which took shape in mid-1998, embraces a set of operating principles that would sound familiar to any new-economy company. It is built around a strategic alliance of four unions that have rarely cooperated so closely in the past: Local 217 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE); Justice for Janitors Local 531 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); District 1199 of the New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU; and Region 9A of the United Auto Workers (UAW). McAlevey and her 16-person crew work with organizers from those unions to swap ideas, coordinate tactics, and draft a common agenda.

Also, the campaign has been fashioned with a keen eye on the competitive environment. The AFL-CIO organizers chose Stamford because of its low unemployment rate (which meant that workers couldn't be replaced easily) and its enormous wage disparity. And McAlevey's team has targeted industries that can't relocate if the unions turn up the heat — such industries as building services, government, health care, and hotels.

Finally, McAlevey and her organizing colleagues have adopted an ambitious strategic vision for their alliance — a definition of success that transcends labor's traditional fixation on wages, hours, and working conditions. Their agenda revolves around the social challenge of affordable housing — and the proposition that people who work hard in a community should be able to live in good conditions in that same community. "One of the biggest issues facing every mayor in the country is the crisis of affordable housing," says McAlevey. "And it's not just a crisis for low-end workers. The housing problem will eventually choke the economy in a place like Stamford."

It's hard to argue the point that McAlevey makes. Real-estate prices in Stamford have bounded out of control, making it the third most expensive place in the country to live, behind San Francisco and San Jose. As a result, service workers, most of whom are black or Hispanic, have been forced to move out of town to live in places like Bridgeport or Port Chester. "You see the trend just by watching the trains," McAlevey notes. "The commuter trains to and from New York City are almost all white, and the local trains are almost all black and brown. Those are our workers."

In less than two years, McAlevey and her colleagues have put the issue of affordable housing front and center on the public agenda in Stamford. They've forced the city to halt the demolition of three housing projects and they have stalled plans to privatize other city-run housing complexes as well as a nursing home. They've been so persuasive, in fact, that George Jepsen, the Democratic state- senate majority leader — a man with one of the most probusiness voting records in the state legislature — went so far as to appoint McAlevey to a position on a state commission on affordable housing.

Her fellow labor leaders say that they admire McAlevey's energy and tactical savvy. "She has great ideas, and she is willing to carry them out herself," says Jerry Brown, president of District 1199. "She doesn't take long lunches or disappear off to Washington, DC."

She is certainly not afraid to stir the pot with 1960s-style demonstrations. A year ago, in a noisy demand for affordable housing and higher wages for city workers, McAlevey brought 250 protesters — including city workers, public-housing tenants, civil-rights activists, and clergy members — to the sidewalk outside Mayor Dannell Malloy's waterfront home. Their message to the mayor: If you won't come to our neighborhoods, we will come to yours.

Sometimes McAlevey uses a different kind of storytelling. In early 1999, she helped Brown organize a large contingent of his health-care workers and send them to Hartford to educate legislators there about the sorry condition of the nursing-home industry. Health-care costs had soared, the workers reported, while service quality had deteriorated. And their wages had remained stagnant — at little more than minimum wage. Feeling the pressure, the state legislature passed a bill that released funds for "wage enhancement" at every nursing home in the state, including the Stamford-run Smith House Health Care Center. But later, when Mayor Malloy tried to use the wording of the bill to earmark the lion's share of the windfall to pay off an old contract, rather than to raise wages, he figured that he'd get support from the Stamford Board of Representatives. Instead, the board voted 39 to 1 to recommend that the bulk of the money be used to fund increases in salaries and in staffing at Smith House.

One of the biggest wins to date for the Organizing Project has been a new contract for the janitors who work at the Stamford office building that houses the U.S. operations of Warburg Dillon Read (now known as UBS Warburg), the London-based financial-services giant. "Warburg is one of the largest financial institutions in the world, and the janitors in this building were getting $6.15 an hour, with no pension or health benefits," McAlevey fumes. Warburg's initial response to the janitors' demands was predictable: "It's not our problem." The company argued that it did not control the salaries of janitors, who are employed by a firm that is contracted to manage the building's operations. As one Warburg executive put it, "We just get the bill at the end of the month and pay it."

McAlevey had heard that response before: "That's the same excuse that companies like Liz Claiborne and the Gap use when they contract with a Korean company for, say, 10,000 sweaters with pink bows. The apparel companies say that they don't have responsibility for what goes on in the factories. That strategy won't work here."

The janitors had one political factor weighing in their favor. As they were making demands on Warburg, the company was in the process of asking the Connecticut legislature for $147 million in tax relief in return for expanding its Stamford workforce from 2,200 to 3,200. So the Organizing Project injected itself into that debate. It brought in Jaime Huaman, who earns $12,792 a year cleaning offices in Warburg's building, to testify before the legislature's finance committee. "Help us get out of poverty," the Guatemalan immigrant pleaded. "There is no reason for us to be living in poverty when we're cleaning the building of one of the richest banks in the world."

With the tax incentives hanging in the balance, Warburg felt it prudent to pressure Colin Service Systems Inc., the contractor that officially employs the janitors, to reach a three-year deal that provided raises of up to 40%, along with pension and health benefits. The new contract was a major victory. But even with the raises, the janitors still can't afford to live in Stamford. A recent study showed that a worker has to earn $44,000 a year ($21.27 an hour) to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in Stamford. That's a far cry from what the new contract pays. Worse, standard pay for janitors in Fairfield County is still $6.15 an hour.

"I don't want to single out Warburg, because the company helped us get a good contract," says McAlevey. "But this is the third bargain that Warburg has made with the State of Connecticut, and each time, Warburg threatens to move to New York City or Chicago. Their game is to pit city against city, state against state, squeezing the taxpayers. They are bargaining down the quality of life."

Origins of an Organizer

Jane McAlevey has made a lot of waves — and has made her mark — since she arrived in Connecticut two years ago. John Cunningham, former head of the Connecticut Carpenters Union Local 210, and something of a legend among the state's labor movement, already rates McAlevey as "one of the three great labor leaders in Connecticut history."

To be sure, there are plenty of people who dismiss McAlevey's ideas as tired rhetoric from a bygone era. McAlevey recalls a housing-commission meeting during which Dennis Hrabchak, a fellow member of the commission, called her proposals nothing more than a "union manifesto." McAlevey chuckled, leaned into the microphone on the table in front of her, and quipped, "I'd say you're dating yourself, Dennis. My generation has never even heard the word 'manifesto.' "

That's classic McAlevey. She refuses to allow herself to be categorized politically, calling herself "a nonsectarian post-Cold War thinker." ("I didn't reach voting age until after Reagan was in office," she points out.) In fact, McAlevey was born to the struggle for poor people's rights. The youngest of nine children, she grew up at the feet of her father — a left-leaning lawyer who was swept into the mayor's office of Sloatsburg, a conservative city in New York State's Rockland County, on the Kennedy wave of 1960. McAlevey's mother died when she was 5 years old, and her father dragged her around from campaign to campaign. She played with crayons under his desk while he fashioned zoning legislation that would maintain open spaces and bring affordable housing to the area.

In 1984, McAlevey was elected president of SASU, a student organization with 220,000 members at the time, while she attended the State University of New York at Buffalo. But even the successful battles with Governor Mario Cuomo over tuition hikes weren't enough to keep her interested in college. "School bored me to tears," she says.

So McAlevey headed off to Central America, taking public trains and studying Spanish in Guatemala, building houses and churches in northern Nicaragua. Her aim was to see firsthand the impact of U.S. economic and foreign policy. In the late 1980s, she took a job as director of the Environmental Project on Central America, a project of the Earth Island Institute, a research-and-policy group. In that job, she shadowed Salvadoran environmental and human-rights leaders so that the death squads would think twice before blowing up their cars or before kidnapping them in front of an American witness. During one of those trips, in the middle of a particularly bloody regional struggle, McAlevey's contacts kept her hidden under the floorboards of an activist's home, while soldiers went from house to house shooting rebel sympathizers.

McAlevey's current battles are decidedly less dangerous — but they do involve serious challenges to established power. Against a stiff antiunion campaign at the Atria Courtland Garden's assisted-living residence (the owners put a tableful of groceries in front of the workers, along with a sign that read, "This is what your union dues will cost"), the Stamford Organizing Project persuaded workers to overcome their fears and ratify the union. "Atria was charging clients up to $6,000 a month and paying their workers $7 an hour," says McAlevey.

When the CEO of Atria came to Stamford to speak with local leaders about keeping the union out of his facility, he ran into staunch support for McAlevey and her team by ministers and politicians. George Jepsen told the CEO, "My personal view is that ... an honest and fair union is the best way for [workers] to improve themselves and their economic position." Within six months, the union had negotiated a contract that provided for a 30% wage increase, a 50% reduction in health-care copayments, and a pension plan. Courtland Garden became the first of several hundred Atria facilities nationwide to be unionized.

Business leaders would likely prefer to keep the needs of McAlevey's constituents off their already crowded to-do lists. But her campaigns are hard to ignore. "I have the greatest job in the world," she says. "I am able to walk into someone's home and say, 'I'm here to help make your life better.'" McAlevey describes the feeling of watching Haitian health-care workers negotiate with lawyers: "There they were, bargaining for their futures, for their children's futures. The first time I saw it, I started to cry."

But the question that remains is, Just how dramatic an impact can McAlevey and her organizing approach have on the people whose lives the new economy has passed by? Jepsen is something of a skeptic. McAlevey's work has "had an effect on local industries," he says, "but I have yet to see much effect on the multinationals."

Then again, maybe the old slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally" is more appropriate than ever. "Part of labor's responsibility is to force lawmakers and business leaders to think long term," McAlevey says. "Society is changing. The systems that provided security to our workers are being eradicated. We have to replace them. We have built a base among clergy, civil-rights organizations, and public-housing groups. We are asking the deeper questions: What's wrong with an economy that fails to reward people who work as hard as these people do? What do people have to do to earn a living wage in such robust times?"

Greg Donaldson (gghadfield@aol.com) is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Vibe. He is the author of The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America (Ticknor & Fields, 1993). Contact Jane McAlevey by email (jmcalevey@hotmail.com).

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