Solidarity networks spread as a new alternative to ‘alternative labor’

425097We caught a break. Most weather reports promised rain, and the outskirts of Portland were getting soaked. But as we arrived at the meeting point there was a pause in the downpour. We were expecting 20 people, 30 if we were lucky. From the crowd that had formed in the parking lot of the pawnshop around the corner, it looks like we had more than 60. We began a march to our target: the gigantic Fubonn Asian grocery store. Upon arrival, we were greeted by private security who let us know where the arbitrary boundary was: Do not step over the white line. That curb is off limits.

This was the first community picket for Portland Solidarity Network’s new campaign, and people were coming out of the woodwork. We could see that the owners and management were watching us from the roof of the store, peeking over the edge to see how many protesters had shown up during their Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the biggest shopping days of their year. This was just a step in a longer escalation campaign, and they knew that there was more to come.

Marisol and Norma, who asked that their last names not be used, have suffered years of abuse by Fubonn. In June 2013 they both approached Portland Solidarity Network, or PDXSol, saying that they had been forced to work off the clock, refused bathroom breaks, subjected to verbal abuse, and forced to do strenuous and dangerous tasks while pregnant. The owners of Fubonn have consistently denied the claims and have threatened legal action if the campaign continues.

“When one of my co-workers made a mistake at work, the manager would yell at them so badly that they would cry,” said Marisol. She and Norma also reported that managers had told them that they “would never hire Latinos again.”

“There was a lot of discrimination there,” said Norma. “Because I was a female I got paid less than the rest.” After working there for eight years, she still only made $9 per hour.

PDXSol, along with Norma and Marisol, calculated what Fubonn owed them for the years of abuse and unpaid work. On June 29, Marisol, Norma and 45 supporters marched into Fubonn to deliver a letter demanding that the store make good on the thousands of dollars that Marisol and Norma are owed, and that it start providing employees with clear overtime documentation. PDXSol gave Fubonn a week to respond, and then the group began developing an escalating direct-action campaign.

‘We would fight with them’

Portland Solidarity Network started in September 2011 with a small group of activists working on labor and community issues who wanted a strategic project that could win tangible demands. PDXSol began looking for winnable campaigns around town. As Alex Snapp, one of the founding members, explains, “We put up posters that communicated to people that if they had had their deposits stolen, wages stolen, or had been suffering from numerous other abuses by their landlord or boss that they had a resource, and that resource was us. We would fight with them to get them what they were deserved.”

Participation in the PDXSol organizing committee is a prerequisite for anyone looking for the network to help with their fight. All members of the organizing committee, including the affected people, have equal say in the decision-making process. At first, calls were sparse, but PDXSol eventually took on some campaigns and began seeing wins. This started with grievances like stolen security deposits and illegitimate rental fees.

Much of the inspiration for this organizing came from the creation of the Seattle Solidarity Network in late 2007. Rik Huhta, one of the founders of both the Seattle Solidarity Network and the Boston Solidarity Network, refers to what the networks do as “direct-action casework.” They attract people who have radical political ideas but little experience building strategic and effective campaigns. “I was hoping it would become a relatively simple idea for a tactical skill-set for talking to people outside your comfort zone and doing some real organizing,” said Huhta. Another goal was to connect campaigns about a variety of issues by weaving them together around their common socio-economic roots.

“When starting SealSol” — short for the Seattle Solidarity Network — “we made a point of defining the scope of it very broadly, and this has proved to be our greatest strength,” explained Huhta. “Last month we were fighting a housing agency over towing fees. Today we are fighting a restaurant owner over unpaid wages. Next month we might be up against a bank, an insurance company or a school administration.”

The approach that these networks have in common is relatively simple. Each network begins with a few experienced organizers, who in turn pull in one or two dozen more people. Together, they reach out to communities that may be having housing and workplace issues. When someone approaches them who is interested in fighting back, they develop a direct-action campaign to meet specific goals.

An alternative to the alternative

The solidarity networks represent yet a further alternative to the union-driven “alternative labor” campaigns emerging in recent months, such as those supporting fast-food and Walmart workers. While the major unions generally seek to conduct negotiations and make deals on behalf of their constituencies, these networks depend on the self-organization of people in an affected area — people who understand that their success depends on the success of everyone involved. Participants in these solidarity networks hope that such bonds will spread throughout communities, making neighborhoods and workers more conscious and confident about their power.

Inspired by the Seattle Solidarity Network, people have started organizing in a number of other cities along similar lines, including in Providence, R.I., and Boston. As the precarious and part-time workplace quickly becomes the norm, few of the traditional labor unions have presented solutions for temporary, part-time or under-the-table workers. This sector, however, is where a solidarity network can shine. The Boston Solidarity Network, for instance, took up the case of a caretaker for a severely disabled child who was owed thousands of dollars in unpaid wages over his 14-year tenure. The campaign began by delivering demands to the trust that was paying him his wages, and it escalated into using direct-action tactics. Solidarity networks have become popular among radical anti-capitalist subcultures, although Rik Huhta insists that this approach might not be the most effective one in all cases — a reality that many participants have been willing to recognize. “The important thing was to see that they were actually thinking strategically about things,” he said, “so if they think some other organizing model makes more sense, then go for it.”

Compared to a conventional labor union, solidarity networks may be difficult to scale up quickly since they rely on strong, local community bonds to function effectively. Also, lacking the legal protections (and hindrances) of the conventional union model, they expose participants to potentially serious risks — such as those posed by the threatened Fubonn lawsuit.

Despite their limitations, solidarity networks can be a piece of the larger alternative labor puzzle — one with a particular emphasis on building connections between working people in similar circumstances. The networks’ bottom-up use of direct democracy and direct action may help foster more democratic practices in larger-scale unions. But first, these networks have to continue to prove to the communities they serve that these radical ideas have practical benefits. Doing so will probably be slow going; while conventional unions tend to fight for collective gains for an entire working staff, the casework model takes on only one situation at a time, with the hope that such victories will have ripple effects.

Marisol and Norma were pleasantly surprised by the turnout at their picket at Fubonn, but they are still in the thick of their campaign, and winning won’t be easy. “It is only going to get more personal from here,” Alex Snapp said about the plans for what’s to come. But as Norma and Marisol help lead the campaign on their own behalf, they’re thinking more and more about the impact it will have on others.

“I want to let my co-workers know that we have rights, that we also have a voice,” Marisol said. “They cannot abuse us as they were doing.”

Originally published at Waging Nonviolence on Octobober 23, 2014.