The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 12, 2016 8:51 am

Local labor council opts closure over expansion

Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

The Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, has imploded after national labor leaders imposed a redistricting plan that would have vastly expanded its territory.

Delegates to the labor council worried that expanding its territory to 26 Indiana counties from nine would diminish their ability to effectively respond to local needs without seeking outside approval.

After numerous conversations over several months, delegates failed to reach a compromise with AFL-CIO officials, who invoked an emergency action to shut down the local Central Labor Council ahead of a late April vote that was expected to reject the redistricting mandate.

Although some expect the Central Labor Council will be resurrected, others doubt it will attract much local support. 

David Nicole, United Way of Allen County’s president and CEO, attended several monthly meetings of the Central Labor Council, which represents thousands of workers. Nicole said local labor leaders debated numerous possibilities and tried to work with the AFL-CIO to find a compromise.

"There is no question this was a thought-out strategy in how to best represent workers in northeast Indiana," Nicole said Friday. "And it was a discussion not only with union leaders but with community leaders as well."

AFL-CIO officials see redistricting as a way to reboot dormant labor councils.

LeRoy Jackson Jr. was an officer in the former Central Labor Council. He participated in monthly board meetings, executive board meetings and meetings with state AFL-CIO leaders.

"The biggest problem we had was we were going to lose the ability to do what we need to do in our community for people who need help," he said.

Jackson is president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s local chapter and a member of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce. Representatives of churches, minority groups and others were welcome to participate in the Central Labor Council.

"They are a very important part of the organization. We didn’t want to lose the ability to include these people," he said Friday.

"My feeling is (the AFL-CIO doesn’t) really understand what we do," Jackson said. "We’re not a usual (central labor council). We don’t want to be a political organization only. We want to help people who need help."

Amaya Smith, a national spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, emailed the following statement Friday:

"At our convention three years ago, the AFL-CIO committed to reorganizing our state and local labor bodies in order to innovate and operate at a higher standard than ever before. The restructuring in Indiana is part of that national effort," Smith said.

"We are confident that in the face of attacks on unions such as Right to Work, the Indiana labor movement will stand ready to face future challenges and to work to expand worker rights in the state," she said.

Looking at ‘localism’

The Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council’s board included delegates elected from unions throughout northeast Indiana. They represented more than 10,000 workers, including hourly employees at BF Goodrich, BAE Systems, Bluffton Motor Works, Dana and Frontier. They also represented building trades including steel workers, carpenters, painters and electricians.

Most – but not all – delegates were unhappy with the AFL-CIO’s decision that the Central Labor Council’s territory should expand to include Indianapolis, Muncie, Marian and Kokomo.

The former Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council was the only one of the five formerly separate councils that employed a full-time staff member. Twenty years ago, delegates voted to raise their dues from 35 cents to 50 cents per member per month to support a more active organization.

It became the highest dues rate in the state.

For example, the hourly workers at BF Goodrich’s Woodburn tire manufacturing plant belong to United Steelworkers Local 715. The local previously sent two delegates to the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council but paid monthly dues of about $650 for more than 1,300 members.

"This is about localism. The people who pay (dues) and vote here are in charge, and that wouldn’t be the case anymore," said Tom Lewan­dowski, who was the Central Labor Council’s president for about 25 years. "The money would go to Indianapolis and be divided up, and local governance would be lost."

Herb Anderson, Local 715’s benefits representative, said hourly Goodrich workers met with AFL-CIO representatives to discuss the future.

Anderson, who was a delegate to the former Central Labor Council, said his organization will participate in future Central Labor Council meetings if they are held for the expanded territory. The local will also pay dues to that organization. He doesn’t worry that local autonomy will be lost.

"There’s a potential to be even stronger because our area will be larger," he said Friday.

Keep carrying on

Lewandowski arguably lost the most in the separation. He hasn’t received a paycheck since March. But the former New Haven City Council member is carrying on.

"I can’t afford to take a vacation even though I’m not getting paid. There’s too much to do," he said. "We have the relationships, the responsibility and the agenda. We still have to get things done. We can’t vacate our community responsibility."

Lewandowski and some of the former council delegates have shifted full attention to the Workers Project Inc., a nonprofit they launched about 20 years ago to go beyond typical union duties that include organizing an annual Labor Day picnic.

The Workers Project is a volunteer effort to address community issues that affect residents – regardless of whether they have jobs.

For example, the nonprofit supports an ongoing effort to bring together local food producers and consumers. Farmers would gain access to a reliable market for their crops, which they would sell at a fair price. And customers would get reliable access to fresh, local produce.

The Workers Project offers classes on how people can improve their workplace without losing their jobs.

"Sometimes it means collective action. Sometimes it means just having a talk with the boss," Lewandowski said, adding that the free classes are aimed at immigrant and refugee populations.

Workers Project members also conduct an annual workers survey, relying on volunteer sociologists to craft the questions in scientifically valid ways. Although it’s not a random sampling of participants, the survey generates useful information about the region’s economy and how it affects family, supporters argue.

"We have to be very intentional about how we hear them and know we are hearing them accurately – what’s in their minds and in their hearts," said Lewan­dow­ski, who consistently ­pauses between syllables when he talks about representing workers. He says he’s unable to present their thoughts if he doesn’t listen carefully to what those thoughts are.

The same people

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," is a longtime advocate for the working poor and a friend of Lewandowski. Ehrenreich said she consults Lewandowski when she’s not sure how to think about an issue.

Ehrenreich plays a similar role for Lewandowski, who sought her advice as the split between local union leaders and the AFL-CIO was playing out.

"The sad thing is the AFL-CIO has kind of withdrawn from active organizing," she said, referring to the organization’s overall agenda, not just in reference to the northeast Indiana situation.

Ehrenreich, the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, is impressed by the Workers Project. She recalled a reporting trip she made to Fort Wayne in 2009 to interview working people for articles printed in the New York Times. At her request, Lewandowski assembled about 50 people of various occupations, ages and races to talk about how they were faring during the Great Recession.

Ehrenreich, who lives outside Washington, D.C., was impressed by the inclusivity.

"I wish I could say there are many groups like this, but the Workers Project is kind of unique," she said Friday. "I have never encountered anything that has the energy, the creativity and the heart of the Workers Project."

Jackson is confident the Workers Project will receive the same level of commitment and energy formerly given to the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council.

"We still have the same people at the table as we had before," he said.

Well, many of the same people.

Anderson, with United Steelworkers Local 715, doesn’t plan to start attending Workers Project meetings and his union won’t pay dues to help support it.

It’s unclear how many other locals will participate in the revised and expanded Central Labor Council when it is relaunched. If officials decide to meet in Fort Wayne, however, they can’t book the same meeting room on the same night they’re used to gathering in.

That space has been booked by the Workers Project. 

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