In an Old City, Building a New Common Sense

Ten percent unemployment. Poverty wages for most of those still working. An infant mortality rate nearly twice that of the state. An epidemic of home foreclosures. Thousands of wonderful, hard-working people who want to make their town a better place. This is Lynn, Massachusetts. Maybe it sounds like your town.

Lynn is an old industrial city of 100,000 north of Boston. In response to our problems, our Labor Council formed a coalition of union and community groups whose vision is to create a new progressive local regime in which we are the dominant force in regional economic development.

We borrowed inspiration from a couple of books, Solidarity Divided by Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin and A New New Deal by Amy Dean and Dave Reynolds, and from Right to the City, a national alliance of community organizations.

Lynn was a center of the labor, abolitionist, and women’s movements before the Civil War. Today there are labor militants and neighborhood activists of all races who have dug in to defend their town against post-industrial decline. There are newer Latino activists ranging from Dominicans focused on electoral activity to Guatemalans battling for basic worker and immigrant rights.

We have close political allies who hold elected positions in the town, although they are in a minority. While the city is just about half people of color, there is only a single elected official of color in Lynn.

THE ALLIES

Our aim is to unite the best of our labor history with the energy of the new immigrants. Member unions are SEIU 1199 (hospital workers and personal care attendants); IUE Local 201 at GE; and the labor council. The Lynn Teachers Union is working with us, too.

All the community organizations are membership organizations with active participation. They include the Lynn chapter of Mass Senior Action; the Highland Coalition, from the lowest-income part of the city; Neighbor to Neighbor, which registers voters; and the Essex County Community Organization, a group based mainly in churches that has done job training and summer employment programs for young people

We are creating a New Lynn in four connected ways:

Politics, traditional electoral work. We already run candidates for local office but need a more coherent strategy and proposals, rather than simply supporting progressive individuals—who tend to work hard with few results.

The unions and community groups have started knocking on doors to recruit for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community arm. The AFL-CIO can legally reach out to Working America members, whether they belong to unions or not, to support candidates.

Only 16,000 people voted in Lynn’s last contested mayoral race. Unions have 5,000 to 6,000 voters in the city, and Neighbor to Neighbor estimates that it influences 3,000 voters. Enlisting just another 2,000 people would make New Lynn formidable in local elections.

JOBS, TWO WAYS

Economic development proposals range from influencing large projects to cultivating our own, such as worker-owned cooperatives. There is talk of a huge waterfront development adjacent to the poorest parts of the city. New Lynn will organize to make sure it creates union jobs and benefits those of us already here.

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On the other end of the scale, we are looking at proposals for worker-owned cooperatives in aquaponics (a self-contained system where fish and vegetables are grown side by side) and possibly in landscaping and manufacturing.

We are already working with a Green Development Coalition, which launched an aquaponics prototype. We visited co-ops in Mondragon, Spain, and are scrambling to assemble the business and political expertise to make worker-owned co-ops possible.

The idea is to create jobs for those written off by the neoliberal model—but also to create bases and support for our movement. In between the large-scale development projects and the co-ops, we will be involved in job training.

Most city councilors and neighborhood groups are at the mercy of the developers’ expertise, so we need Research to create convincing and documented proposals for our vision of the city’s future. We have allies in local universities who will help. By summer we should have a baseline study of jobs and demographics in the city. We have commitments to develop business plans for the co-ops, too.

Culture and education ensure that we are not just a do-gooder group but that we create a new common sense about what the city needs. Our first “train the trainer” educational was on the financial crisis and the capitalist economy. The second will be on the history of Lynn. We show movies, like “South of the Border” and “Inside Game” (about the financial crisis). The education is part of the glue that holds the disparate parts of the coalition together.

The plan is to reach many different audiences, from neighborhood groups to unions to churches to schools.

CULTURES, TOO

On the cultural front, at this point we are simply asking, “What brings people together in Lynn?” On Friday nights an African-American lay preacher hosts a basketball league. On Wednesdays mostly white kids bring their songs, poems, and angst to a blue-collar coffee shop’s open mic.

In a roominghouse in another neighborhood, Mayan Guatemalans share traditional corn dishes and hear a talk about their history. At a folk festival, Cambodian children perform dances in traditional dress. What is there in these safe spaces that can be built on to bring working-class Lynners together?

In one sense New Lynn is a culmination of 20 years of organizing by the labor council and many years of work with community allies. In another, it is brand-new. We constantly need to remind ourselves of the big picture of our work rather than getting lost in its various and worthy projects.


Jeff Crosby is president of the North Shore Labor Council. Carly McClain is staff organizer for the New Lynn Project.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #386, May 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.