Love is Labor

As I complete my internship at Massachusetts Interfaith Worker Justice, I find myself more aware of how I want to pursue social change. I always thought I would want to be a community organizer, and IWJ gave me a chance to experience labor organizing from a non-profit perspective.  Throughout the summer, I participated in meetings and actions on issues of economic justice. I helped plan and outreach actions for Not One More Deportation—a week of actions calling for an end to the deportation of undocumented immigrants; a highlight included a rally at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Burlington, VT where I heard passionate pleas from family members of immigrants currently under detention. I also participated in meetings and actions for Raise Up Massachusetts—a campaign to raise the minimum wage and establish an earned sick time standard for all workers in MA. I planned and participated in two rallies at Walmarts in Salem and Lynn. I also frequented pickets and rallies for various other issues, including Le Meridien workers fighting for a fair process to decide upon unionization.

At all of these actions, I was also a primary photographer; my photographs were used for social media and news articles.   I also redesigned the website for Mass. IWJ and helped set up a Facebook presence. In addition, I worked on setting up Labor in the Pulpit—a program Mass. IWJ does every fall where low-wage workers share their personal struggles with congregation. I had to outreach and set up dates for numerous congregations; we are planning to tie in Labor in the Pulpit with the Raise Up Massachusetts campaign as the program coincides with the petition collection period for the campaign.

Honestly, I found myself often frustrated at the internship for a variety of reasons. However, I am extremely grateful because it has focused my ideas of how I want to pursue social justice. I worked every day through frameworks of class and race—important frameworks that validate and resonate with marginalized communities and which are oftentimes lacking in some social movements such as environmentalism.  I am also grateful because I have realized I do not want to be a community organizer in a non-profit environment because it is often filled with bureaucratic work and their style of organizing oftentimes (but not always) is closed-doors in terms of decision-making. I missed the more grassroots, horizontal-style of organizing that I have previously done; I missed the love and community I felt working with friends. In the end, organizing requires love–love for the work and love in the community to sustain engagement because it is grueling and endless; I know now that I thrive in a team environment. In addition, I grew tired of the traditional form of organizing that primarily involved gathering numbers to participate in rallies, pickets, and marches. I want to explore other types of organizing that deal with participatory forms of art and reinventing public spaces as ways of engaging and empowering communities because traditional forms of protests have become somewhat “part of the social script”—that is, not deviating enough from the usual to inspire and move the jaded.

I was able to network and create relationships between my peers in the climate movement and organizers and activists I met in the labor movement. Many of them are interested in intersectional work and I hope to create more concrete collaboration between the two movements. This fall, I am studying abroad in Nepal. When I return to campus in the spring, I plan to get involved with the Brandeis Labor Coalition and see in what ways I can connect BLC with my current work under the Divestment Campaign. I will take my experiences and development of what I believe is a more nuanced understanding of creating social change to facilitate intersectional work; I am extremely excited in pursuing relationships and collaboration on-campus between activist groups, cultural groups, and art/performance groups and individuals to see in what ways we can come together to address social justice issues on-campus—I know there have been countless attempts in the past to unite activist groups but I hope I will be able to push the Brandeis community towards a more actively engaged role on-campus in putting social justice into action.

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

– Andrew Nguyen ’14

Intersectionality and Breaking Classism

The past month working with Interfaith Worker Justice has been a reminder that creating change is slow, grinding, and often unglamorous work.  One of my primary goals has been to explore community organizing from a labor and economic justice perspective, the strengths and weaknesses of labor organizing in Boston in relation to my experience in climate organizing, and building bridges between the two movements.

I think that the climate movement does many things well—it has a lot of energy and momentum around youth right now; the horizontal, democratic nature of a lot of its organizing allows people to take initiative and become leaders; and a shift away from rote protests and rallies towards creative tactics, civil disobediences, and direct actions resonate more powerfully with the public and media. However, for all its innovation and energy, a major critique of climate change activists is that it is a homogenous group—white, upper-middle class—partly because climate change is seen as a “privileged” issue, especially when compared to violence, poverty, mass incarceration, racism, etc. However, climate justice sees the intersections of race, class, and the environment; those most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation are marginalized communities, i.e. low-income, minority groups. And to build a movement strong enough to take on climate change and the fossil fuel industry, we need to make these intersections clear, create cross-connections in struggles for justice, and support communities with the most at stake from climate change.

Photo I took/edited of an action at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office during an action where immigration and labor organizers joined together.
Photo I took/edited at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office during an action where immigration and labor organizers joined together–an example of intersectionality and movements creating synergy.

This is where my time at Interfaith Worker Justice comes into play. Every day is filled with meetings to plan campaigns and actions, as well as participating in actions themselves. My work has narrowed to focusing on the Raise Up Massachusetts campaign—raising the minimum wage and establishing an earned sick time standard for all workers in MA; the Bangladesh Solidarity Network, which is focused on getting apparel companies such as Gap and Walmart to sign a Fire and Safety Agreement that would improve the safety for Bangladesh garment workers, and participating in numerous pickets and rallies in support of various workers trying to unionize with a fair process without fear of retaliation.

My time with IWJ has been useful in seeing and understanding how the labor movement has been successful in building a strong, diverse group. Labor organizers see their work and thus frame their issues around class and race, resonating strongly among the constituents it needs to raise. However, I’ve learned that messaging that focuses on class and race only goes so far in building community support and legitimacy if without an intentionality to incorporate marginalized people into organizing. At work I have picked up on how labor organizers intentionally reach out to a diversity of people to not only attend events but become part of the organizing process. I am starting to pick up on various habits and incorporate them into my organizing in order to be more inclusive. For example, it is important to pick up the phone and not rely solely on the Internet (which many low-income people do not have 24/7 access to). For a week of actions against deportations of undocumented immigrants, I spent hours calling housing authorities, immigration groups, civil rights groups, workers centers—any organization whose constituents could be those impacted and thus would be most passionate about deportations. In addition, we made sure at the week of actions against deportations that almost all of the speakers were those directly affected by deportations. It is useful to establish relationships with other organizations that deal directly with communities not only to collaborate with but also to utilize as a resource when outreaching—I have been discussing with various labor organizers about my own climate work and working to establish contacts that can then be later used for outreach and collaboration. Organizers also make sure to plan meetings and events at times when people are not working and at locations accessible by public transportation and nearby or, better yet, in low-income communities. Going through work every day with an intentionality on classism and racism and picking up nuisances of how the labor movement effectively resonates with marginalized communities will be extremely useful as I continue organizing on Brandeis campus and beyond, irrespective of the issue.


Picket at Le Meridien hotel over the company's failure to allow workers to organize (Cambridge, MA).
Picket at Le Meridien hotel over the company’s failure to allow workers to organize (Cambridge, MA).

I learned from some labor organizers of a carbon tax bill in MA that people were upset with due to the regressive nature of how it distributed tax-cuts. Effectively, this bill would put a divide between many well-intentioned environmentalists and labor activists who would have to spend crucial resources and energy into defeating the carbon tax bill, hurting both movements. I have been discussing with various environmental organizers about the regressive nature of the carbon tax and trying to set up a meeting among environmental and labor organizers to meet with the grassroots organization behind the ballot initiative of the carbon tax bill to see how the bill can be revised to avoid these internal conflicts.

More generally, I have been working on crafting connections between the two movements to avoid scenarios such as the carbon tax bill that could have been avoided if there were communication; currently I am working on getting together a meeting of student organizers across different issues (labor, environmental, immigration) to seek out synergy and unity.  I am excited to see where my connections in the labor movement take me as I continue organizing around climate and environmental justice in the future; I especially hope to create collaborative efforts between the two issues, perhaps first on-campus to help revitalize the activist scene.



Interfaith Worker Justice: Tree-Hugging the Labor Movement


Every night for the past week I’ve come home exhausted, spending all day jumping from meeting to meeting on various labor campaigns. As an organizer of the Brandeis Divestment Campaign and being involved in the climate justice movement, transitioning to working for Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and its Massachusetts branch this summer is an exciting new direction. IWJ is a national network that engages faith communities in issues of worker justice, drawing upon religious values to mobilize community members around efforts to improve working conditions, wages, and benefits.

The Massachusetts IWJ is located in downtown Boston and works closely with Jobs with Justice, another organization dedicated to workers’ rights. In addition, Mass. IWJ works with various local affiliates, unions, and coalitions. There are currently four main campaigns IWJ is supporting. The past week I have been getting an overview of IWJ’s work by attending meetings, trainings, and various actions such as pickets and rallies. While my work plan is still developing, I will most likely be working on a few campaigns. First, I will be working to raise the minimum wage in MA to $11 per hour, as well as advocating for paid sick days. I will also be working on campaigns related to immigration reform and deportation.

In addition, I will be assisting to a lesser degree on a few other campaigns. There is a campaign called “Making Change at Walmart.” The campaign works to educate and organize Walmart associates into OUR Walmart, a group striving to improve working conditions for associates. The campaign is also working with local communities that Walmart is attempting to build new stores in by educating residents and crafting community standards that Walmart will have to uphold if they wish to expand. Tying in with “Making Change at Walmart”, I will also be helping with the Bangladesh Workers Solidarity Network-Boston, which is a group trying to get Gap and Walmart to sign on to Fire Safety Agreements to help prevent further factory deaths of Bangladeshi factory workers. Lastly, I will have various opportunities to meet and participate in actions with local coalitions and unions such as SIEU 615.

After spending last summer participating in Climate Summer, a program that allowed me to do community organizing around climate justice, I knew I wanted to broaden my breadth of experience. I found out about IWJ on the Hiatt Career Center website, as it is a partner organization for the Louis D. Brandeis Social Justice WOW Fellowship. It was a difficult decision to work for IWJ because my passion is climate justice and environmentalism, and I do believe that climate change is the most dire and urgent issue of our generation. However, I decided IWJ would benefit my organizing abilities by giving me new perspectives and experiences that I could take back to climate organizing. In my first week working with the labor movement and the faith community, I have started making connections and begun to try to bring the labor movement more into the Boston-area climate justice movement. I am excited to work on coalition-building, tying in interfaith, labor, and environmental perspectives in order to build a broader, more inclusive movement for transformative change.