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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, June 11, 2016 10:01 pm

Labor leaders go new route

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Ministers don’t traditionally attend union meetings. 

That’s why the Rev. Roger Reece, executive pastor for Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, feels the need to explain why he was a familiar face at meetings of the former Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Reece was there as a guest of the letter carriers union, the same group that gathers cans of tuna and boxes of rice each May for the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive. Items collected are donated to Associated Churches, which distributes the food to local families in need through a network of neighborhood food pantries.

Being in that room, hearing delegates’ monthly reports, sparked an idea for Reece. He wonders whether some of the young recovering addicts in The Landing program might be able to learn job skills from retired skilled trades workers. It’s an idea he plans to pursue.

That’s the kind of synergy local labor leaders have created and expect to continue with the Workers Project Inc.

"We have a broader perspective," said Mike Lauer, a retired carpenter and founding member of the Workers Project, a nonprofit created to address community needs.

Tom Lewandowski, another founding member, said organizing the annual Labor Day picnic will be among the group’s priorities going forward. 

He sees the event as more than a big party in early September, a gathering that attracted an estimated 8,000 people to Headwaters Park last year for free hot dogs, beer and bingo.

For him, it’s a tribute to workers, an opportunity for union members to gather and share their story with their children and grandchildren. The event celebrates immigrant and refugee workers by allowing them to share food from their native countries. 

Workers Project volunteers also offer classes to those foreign-born workers, who can be easily exploited. Volunteers have also surveyed immigrant and refugee workers to learn what issues they face.

Another arm of the Workers Project has started performing research projects for a fee. They hope to further develop that revenue stream and potentially use it to make the organization financially stable.

Mark Crouch, retired Indiana University labor studies professor and former union representative, said the Workers Project has explored multiple approaches to connecting with workers "because experiments needed to happen."

"We always hoped (AFL-CIO national leaders) would be eager to hear about what we were trying to do and the successes we had," he said, adding that the attention never came.

The United Way of Allen County has given the Workers Project official recognition.

Previously, three local United Way board seats were designated for representatives from the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council. At its meeting last week, the board decided to transfer those seats to the Workers Project. 

"It makes sense for United Way to align with the organization that is bringing organized labor together," said David Nicole, United Way’s president and CEO. "Currently, that organization is the Workers Project."