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Social Justice Alliance Connects Globally
Louis Head Interviews Michael Leon Guerrero
T his past April a group of organizers and leaders representing grassroots organizations, unions, and student groups met in San Antonio, Texas where they formalized a strategic relationship to help advance their efforts in communities and workplaces throughout the U.S., places many of them have called the “South within the North.”
Michael Leon Guerrero is coordinator of Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), the alliance formed by the 33 organizations represented at the Texas meeting. GGJ seeks to act as a vehicle for organizing a national progressive movement made up of low-income and working people in the U.S.
A summer internship program sent Leon Guerrero, who is Chamoru (of Guamanian descent), away from his home in California in the late 1980s to work with the SouthWest Organizing Project in New Mexico. He stayed on and became a field organizer and a driving force behind many of the organization’s campaigns on environmental and economic justice issues. In 1992 he became co-director. In December 2004 he left the staff of SWOP in order to assume full-time responsibilities at GGJ. I spoke with him during a visit to Albuquerque.
HEAD: Who makes up Grassroots Global Justice?
LEON GUERRERO: GGJ includes U.S.-based national and regional networks like Jobs with Justice, United Students Against Sweatshops, the Indigenous Environmental Network, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Unions and worker organizations such as United Electrical Workers, PACE Local 8-675, Southwest Workers Union, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee are also members, as well as community-based organizations like Community Voices Heard, Environmental Health Coalition, and the SouthWest Organizing Project. So GGJ represents a wide range of constituents—migrant farmworkers from Ohio and North Carolina, industrial workers in Pennsylvania, welfare mothers from New York City, public school workers in San Antonio, members of various indigenous nations, and many others.
A reality often overlooked is that the basis exists for a viable social movement here that can challenge for power. We could go back many years to look at the roots of this movement, but my point of reference is the 1980s. Many of the organizations that make up GGJ were established during that period in response to specific things such as the lack of affordable healthcare, Reagan’s cut-backs of welfare benefits, oppressive labor conditions, and environmental injustice. In spite of, and in response to a hostile political environment in the U.S., we have built strong labor and community institutions for progressive change. They have survived for the better part of three decades and have become more sophisticated with time.
The grassroots environmental justice networks that emerged in the 1990s—several of which presently help make up GGJ—brought together groups around sets of issues. Does GGJ seek to replicate this approach at the national level?
There is certainly room to mount national campaigns focused on specific issues and we view part of our role being the promotion of such work. For example, we have started to coordinate some activities among the members of the alliance. We have formed a few committees and working groups. This is the first time that grassroots organizations and networks have been able to mount such an effort at the national level simultaneously with our counterparts throughout the Americas.
We recognize that there is now an opportunity for us to come together and bring our prior experience to a national formation that transcends the kind of work that we did in the 1990s. As a broad-based alliance GGJ brings together groups not so much around a specific issue or theme, but rather to discuss a national agenda from the grassroots.
The name of the new alliance suggests that you are looking at the international arena. I recall that, from the beginning, organizations such as the Southwest Workers Union, Southerners for Economic Justice, the EJ networks, and others always viewed their work as being related to what is going on in the world.
FLOC has engaged in international organizing campaigns for years. The Southwest Network and others have developed bi-national relations and campaigns. But across the board the levels of contact and practical work have been uneven.
What became GGJ was born out of the World Social Forum experience in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2002. Roughly 50,000 people came from around the world. Seeing the strength of popular movements building national power—calling for social and political agendas based on human rights, sustainable economies and environments, worker rights and indigenous sovereignty—made us realize a few things. One is that our struggles in the U.S. are not isolated and that we are not alone. Second is that it is possible to win and build political power at the national and international levels. Third is that we have a lot of work to do in the U.S.
We also came to understand that it is very important that grassroots efforts taking place within the U.S. obtain more visibility in the international community. It was striking to us that many of our colleagues in other parts of the world have little knowledge of conditions here and that they often do not even know that there are organizations working for social change here.
Why is that?
In part because they are exposed mainly to U.S.-based NGOs that focus exclusively on U.S. foreign policy and its political and economic consequences in the global South or the practices of certain multinational corporations abroad or related labor conditions. The predecessors of these groups were often called solidarity organizations. They do noble and valuable work. But their personnel may spend far more time living and working abroad than in the United States. They rarely have any connection or lines of accountability to U.S.-based social movement organizations and they address international issues as if they were distinct from the problems in their own country. Their perceptions of the work that our organizations do may be ill-informed.
With this in mind, we have sent over 400 community and worker leaders from the United States to the past three Social Forums. In 2004 we developed strategic plans for the coming three years, and we organized a popular education conference on globalization. This past April we held a first membership meeting where 33 organizations formally joined the alliance.
The material conditions of a labor organizer in the U.S. will almost always be noticeably better than those of someone in the same relative social position in a region such as Latin America. This must be thought provoking for organizers and community or workplace leaders who visit a country such as Brazil, for example.
The most important thing is the development of a political movement that understands that the struggles of Mexico, Latin America, or south Asia are inseparable from those of working and community people in the U.S. To do so we must bring workers and communities together rather than promote competition between people, as happens when the whole position on jobs gets pushed during battles over trade agreements, and then gets parroted by the media.
What can organizations in GGJ learn from their counterparts abroad?
One thing we can learn is how people in the global South have built strong organizations and movements with fewer resources than are often available to us here. How have they been able to develop the kind of infrastructure that is reflected by their evident strength? It forces us to look at how we do our organizing work and what it will take to win at a broader level. If we have more at our disposal, then we ought to be able to strengthen our work. The degree to which we do can also have a positive impact in the South.
What role do you believe GGJ can play in developing U.S. policy?
Our role is to begin to provide a real alternative to the neoliberal agenda. There are several burning questions inherent in this. What do we see as the role of government? How do we assure there are adequate resources to provide for social needs such as healthcare, social security, and environmental regulation? How do we tax and spend in a fair and just way? How do we protect the sovereignty and resources of indigenous nations?
This involves a set of more profound discussions that we are just beginning to have. We see the United States Social Forum as one vehicle towards doing this. GGJ is on the planning committee for the USSF and we are staffing the process until the USSF has adequate resources to do so. The forum will take place in the summer of 2006 and we are very excited about it. This will be a much-needed opportunity, a platform from which progressive voices in the U.S. may better express themselves.
How does this movement and specifically Grassroots Global Justice project itself on the international landscape, beyond participation in occasional meetings?
We must be more consistent and strategic in our participation in the international community. We have been sporadic and our participation temporal. For example, when we organize a delegation to the United Nations Conference on Racism little follow-up will take place or adequate planning for the next international event. No connection from one event to the other will occur. Many of our global counterparts participate actively in the United Nations process, yet in the U.S. most people are unaware of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the Millennium Goals, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
One of our tasks is to build more consistency and a greater sense of purpose when we participate at the international level. An important step for us is to join the Operating Secretariat that will organize the Social Forum to be held in Venezuela in January 2006. This will give us an opportunity to learn more about the international landscape and how we can be more involved.
Some GGJ members already have established international exchanges that may bode well for the future. What can you tell us about these?
Jobs with Justice has started an exciting project with the New Trade Union Initiative in India to bring workers from India and the U.S. together to define perspectives and strategies on outsourcing and immigration. Southwest Workers Union and Project South are members of the Convergence of Movements of Peoples of the Americas and, together with mass organizations in Latin America, were doing important work on CAFTA and the FTAA. Community Voices Heard has conducted exchanges with CONGESCO, connecting welfare mothers in New York City to people organizing in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The United Electrical Union is developing joint strategies among General Electric workers in the U.S., Brazil, and other countries. These efforts are essential and it is important that we support them. Their success is an indicator of the degree to which we can build true solidarity. It is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive work, yet we know it must be done.
Louis Head is executive director of the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Cuba Research & Analysis Group. For 16 years he was a staffperson at the SouthWest Organizing Project.
Z Magazine Archive
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Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
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Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
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CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
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PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
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Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
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COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.