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By Rev. Walter Tilleman

Chairperson of Worcester Interfaith

Editor's note:  Worcester Interfaith (WI) is one of about 150 "faith-based" community organizing projects around the country.  It is affiliated with Organizing Leadership & Training Center (OLTC), which is a regional training center for the support of this kind of organizing.

    Welfare Reform isn’t working! While it’s objective is laudable, the solution brings more social problems than it solves. Now that we have single parents working at low paying jobs, who will be paying for child-care? How many jobs does that single parent need in order to support her (his) family? What about the future social problems that are currently hidden when someone other than the parent is the principal child care provider? Even the Living Wage campaign falls short of solving the poverty cycle facing many Americans. With the cost of housing in most American markets, the rising cost of health care as well as transportation costs the living wage does not ensure that people will be able to get off welfare. Often those people removed from the welfare rolls and forced into low-paying jobs or those with living wages still need subsidized housing, public health assistance, food stamps and other forms of welfare. What is needed is a program that would ensure that people can live self-sufficient lives and yet be responsible to the community. I call this building autonomy within community.

    On April 25, 1999, the Worcester Resident, Minority and Female Jobs Coalition signed a historic agreement ensuring that the Worcester/Fitchburg Building & Construction Trades Council would give preference to minorities and women for fifty percent of the available slots in each trade’s apprenticeship program during the years 1999, 2000 and 2001.

    I participated in this Jobs Coalition as the Worcester Interfaith representative. Initially I was quite nervous. The Building Trades did not have a history of being open to minorities and women in their job ranks. I wondered, "Would they be open now?" Furthermore, like many evangelical Christians, I was not a union advocate. In fact, if the truth were told, I was anti-union. Now, as I reflect on this agreement and our Coalition, I have come to realize the power of working together with other community groups and the unions to improve the economic life of a significant segment of Worcester’s population.

    Worcester, like many midsize cities, has a public persona and a hidden one. What is seen is the high employment in our city, the large numbers of people coming off welfare to enter the workforce, and a median income that is quite high. What is not seen is the growing underclass, the low income of those forced off the welfare rolls, and the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. For Worcester, that distinction is usually determined by gender and/or ethnicity. In our local newspaper the Worcester Telegram and Gazette Edward McHugh writing in our local newspaper writes, "A section of the report titled ‘Voices from the Edge’ tells of a conversation with a ‘single mother of three’ from Worcester had with [a] representative of the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance. The woman is quoted as saying: ‘When I told my welfare case worker I got a job as a nurse’s aide she congratulated me and said she wished more women were like me…. I get $8.96 an hour. I work the night shift…. I still have my job but I got a 48-hour notice from the sheriff for not paying all my rent…. My employer referred me to you…. I need shelter but I don’t want to leave my kids in then shelter at night and I don’t want to quit my job…. I don’t have a car. The apartment I’m leaving is near where I work." This woman’s experience reflects a very common experience of those leaving the welfare rolls for the work place – poverty without a safety net.

    Another factor in the need for our jobs coalition is the disparity in income between the wealthy and the poor.  According to united for a fair economy, the real family income from 1979-1998 for the bottom 20% of American families declined 5% while the top 1% great 106%.  The relatively high median income in the Worcester area ($45,900) disguises the fact that there are substantial numbers of people who aren’t making ends meet.

    A further factor contributing to the significance of our Jobs Coalition is Worcester’s cost of living. Massachusetts has a very high cost of living especially for housing and health care. Here are figures for a single parent with two children (one in preschool).
The predicament for low income people in our community is clear.  The federal poverty level is $13,330.  Working full-time at a minimum wage job and making use of the earned income credit brings in $14,107.  But:  according to John Monahan in Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette, self-sufficiency for this family would require $35,460.  And the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union sets the figure even higher—at $39,000.

    It was within this context that the Worcester Resident, Minority and Female Jobs Coalition came together. This Coalition consisted of the Minority Business Council (now the Business Inclusion Council), Worcester Interfaith, the City Manager’s Commission on the Status of Women, and the Worcester/Fitchburg Building & Construction Trades Council. Our stated purpose is to move women and minorities into better paying jobs. Our goal was to enable our target group to become truly self-sufficient that is to gain autonomy within community.

    Each member of the Coalition joined according to self-interest. The Business Inclusion Council’s self-interest was jobs for its members; Worcester Interfaith’s goal was to gain jobs for the members of their constituent churches and for those in the church’s neighborhoods; the City Manager’s Commission on the status of Women was to improve the lot of women by gaining women access to high paying jobs that historically have been a male domain. The Building Trades also entered the coalition according to self-interest. In recent decades more construction jobs were going to non-union contractors, and the unions were losing membership. Their membership needed to grow and reflect the changing face of our community. In our relationship building as a coalition each member also reflected larger values from the faith base values of the religious community to the democratic principles of the union.

    The immediate context of our coalition was the fact that in the mid 90s Worcester was in a building boom. $1,000,000,000 worth of projects were on line. Construction projects ranged from a brand new medical city to a restored railroad station to new schools as Worcester was rebuilding its infrastructure. Even at this date more major construction projects are coming online.

    The first major project was the reestablishment of St. Vincent Hospital from its Vernon Street location to a brand new downtown location that came to be called Medical City. Worcester Interfaith along with the Business Inclusion Council had been seeking to get the Building Trades Council more active in hiring minorities and women in their apprenticeship program but with little success. The Building Trades Council president did not want to negotiate with community groups. At this time a number of events occurred that made this coalition possible. As St. Vincent Hospital was negotiating with the City for a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) agreement the City required the hospital to meet the resident requirement (50% Worcester residents) for major construction projects and to accept the federal guidelines of hiring 20% minority and 6.9% females. Robert Maher, the Chief Economic Officer for St. Vincent Hospital, decided to accept these standards for the building of Medical City.

    Maher then negotiated with the Union for a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) which guarantees that jobs will go to union members. The Hospital took the City’s suggestions one step further. Maher insisted that the union work-force have 50% Worcester resident, 20% minority and 6.9% female per craft if the hospital would grant a PLA. The Building Trades Council agreed and our coalition had the necessary groundwork laid. The Hospital also hired James Bonds from the Business Inclusion Council as the Compliance officer. It was Bonds’ responsibility to see that these goals were met.

    It was at this time that the Worcester/Fitchburg Building & Construction Trades Council had a change in presidency. Michael Coonan took over the helm of the Trades Council and has taken a very active role in building our Coalition Team.

    Because of the success of the agreement with St. Vincent Hospital and the rapid increase of minority and female representation in the workplace, our initial goal as a Coalition was to amend our current City Ordinance to require each publicly financed construction project over $100,000 to have 50% Worcester residents, 20% minority and 10% female workers per craft. The City refused because it would be impossible to meet those goals and grant Project Labor Agreements. Because the unions did not have enough female and minorities in its ranks, contractors would constantly be receiving waivers. The City Manager basically told us that he would not support an amendment to the current ordinance to change the stated goals (20% minority & 6.9% female) to an ordinance requiring those percentages. Not being satisfied with this, Worcester Interfaith encouraged our Coalition to meet with the mayor and City Councilors to see if there was a political will to bypass the City Manager. There was not! However, one positive result came from these political meetings: we were able to persuade the City Compliance Department to do its job better in enforcing the current ordinance. Before a waiver was granted the contractor would be required to go to the union to see if there were residents, minorities or females that could be hired.

    Because there was not the political will to change our city ordinance, our coalition decided to pursue how we could build up the union membership with minorities and females. Worcester Interfaith took the lead here to meet with the Building Trades Council at their monthly meetings. We wanted to meet with each craft to excite them about the possibilities that lay before them. While most were interested in pursuing the conversation, some were not. Trust needed to be established and positive relationships needed to be developed. Mike Coonan the Council president was able to persuade the Council that this coalition was good for the Building Trades. It was our goal to have the Building Trades Council proactively open their Apprenticeship Program to females and minorities.

    One of the major hurdles was the lack of qualified workers. We could do everything right but recruiting minorities and females in large quantities would not be easy. Many within the minority community did not have high school diplomas (or G.E.D.s) and did not have a strong work ethic. The Building Inclusion Council won a state grant for Construction Transportation Industries Training Assistance Program (CTAP) monies. In 1999, Massachusetts earmarked $2,000,000 for statewide training which included mentoring and job placement. This training program was able to identify a number of people to enter the apprenticeship programs. Further work needs to be done here. The CTAP program is designed to help unemployables become employable. People who don’t have basic skills or a strong work ethic are given both through this program. Unfortunately, the jump from living on the streets to working in a disciplined environment is too great and many of these initial recruits dropped out of the program. Our target audience needs to be mainly from the female and minority populations that are underemployed. To move into a construction job is just the next step in becoming autonomous within community.

    The female portion of our target audience is even more illusive. Many of these women who would enjoy a career job in the construction field are single mothers. To be in an apprenticeship program requires a 40-hour workweek, classes three nights a week, and transportation to work and school. These hurdles appear to them as insurmountable. Our coalition recognizes that this is one area we need to address if we will ever have enough female recruits.

    Below is a copy of the Mission Statement that was signed April 25, 1999 at a Worcester Interfaith Action held at Emmanuel Baptist Church.

Mission Statement

    The Worcester Resident, Minority and Female Jobs Coalition is comprised of Worcester Interfaith, the Business Inclusion Council, the City Manager’s Committee on the Status of Women and the Worcester/Fitchburg Building and Construction Trades Council. Its mission is to increase the minority and female participation in the construction industry through apprenticeship training and political and community activity.

    To this end, the Building and Construction Trades Council agrees to give preference to minorities and women for fifty (50%) of the available slots in each trade’s apprenticeship program over the next three (3) years – 1999, 2000, and 2001. They will endeavor to do so to the greatest extent possible based on their geographical jurisdiction. The unions will also actively participate in community information and orientation meetings, and submit their minimum requirements for apprentices, the dates, times, and locations for making applications, and for any fees and charges for apprentices.

The Business Inclusion Council, Worcester Interfaith and the City managers Committee on the Status of Women agree to recruit and prepare minority and female applicants by organizing and conducting community information and orientation meetings in order to identify qualified minority and female candidates, organize and conduct a Pre-apprentice Preparation Program and Job Readiness Training for at least fifty (50) individuals seeking to access the building trades, and monitor all city-funded construction projects for compliance with the City of Worcester’s’ Residency and responsible Employer Ordinances.

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    In our deliberations the minority and female coalition anticipated that there would be 100 apprenticeship slots open per year, which meant our allocation, would be not less than 50 per year for a total of 150 new workers. Worcester Interfaith also believed that this was a systemic change to a major national problem – certain groups being left behind in the economic field. Because of our personal relationships we could have recommended specific people to these apprenticeship slots, but that would not have changed the way the union did business. We wanted to move from the networking for jobs to a systemic change in the way women and minorities could enter the construction field. By changing the system of hiring we were able to change the lives of numerous people in the foreseeable future.

    What about results? In a press release dated March 8, 2001, Michael Coonan writes, "In 1999, a historic agreement was signed between the local building trades and community groups that opened new doors of opportunity for minority residents. For the past two years under this agreement, member unions of the Worcester/Fitchburg Building Trades Council have set aside 250 of their annual apprenticeship openings, representing half of their apprenticeship program enrollment for minority candidates." No one could be a better advocate for our Mission Statement than Mike Coonan. He is proud of the increase of minority representation in the Plumbers’ Union for which he is the Business Agent. Because Mike sits on a number of Boards he is always telling our story.

    If our experience can be replicated it will probably be for a number of factors coming together. There needs to be both the need and the opportunity for change to take place. Key people also need to be engaged in making change happen. Finally, there needs to be perseverance to push through some major hurdles and a great amount of goodwill to trust each other. Worcester Interfaith’s professional organizer Frank Kartheiser was invaluable to the process. He kept our feet to the fire and kept pushing us to action. It was not enough to talk and build good relationships; we needed to act, and Frank was good at enabling us to work towards this agreement.

    So where do we go from here? Mike Coonan says we need to use our strength. Four groups are better than one. We should be getting together and working toward using our power around the country. We need to communicate our cooperation and strengthen our base. We need to spread the word. In the fall of 2001 our Coalition will gather once more to answer that question, how can we spread the word?

    The Business Inclusion Council recognizes that we need to provide more pre-training for females and minorities. The State provides training monies for the welfare-to-work individual and CTAP monies for the unemployables, but it does not have training money for the underemployed. In August 2001 Worcester Interfaith along with the Business Inclusion Council will be organizing a meeting with two of our State legislators to begin the process of identifying some training monies. On a parallel track Worcester Interfaith’s statewide network Organizing Leadership Training Center is working with State legislators and the Governor on providing training monies for all fields in our changing economy.

    I close with what brought this unlikely coalition together. Earlier I said self-interest and, of course, that is true, but that is not the whole answer. As a union representative Mike Coonan spoke about family values, which include: the ability to support our families on a single income, to have health insurance, and to provide a good education for our children. He also spoke about gratitude: "The City has been good to us by giving us the Responsible Employer Ordinance. Therefore, we should focus our gratitude on the city." He encouraged the Building Trades to work with Worcester State College to remodel a house for Latinos for assistance with tutoring, computer literacy, etc. The Building Trades also have Project Remember where the Council seeks to work with the city to identify abandoned 3 deckers and renovate them for low income housing, first time home-buyers.

    James Bonds from the Business Inclusion Council spoke about community (working together) and self-sufficiency. It is his desire to break the welfare, dependency mindset. Here is where I get my cliché, Autonomy within Community.

    The Faith Community not only wants their members to have jobs and thus be able to support their families and their churches, but we also emphasize our Biblical/work values. We believe that being human includes the right to be creative and that work is the major expression of human creativity.  We also believe people’s earnings from their work should be sufficient for one income to provide for their families and to contribute to their communities. As part of a City family we believe that public money should be spent for the public welfare.

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