The Common Good
March-April 2000

Hot Tea and Union Organizing

by Helene Slessarev | March-April 2000

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a faith-based organizing network in Baltimore, won the first municipal living wage ordinance in the country in 1994.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a faith-based organizing network in Baltimore, won the first municipal living wage ordinance in the country in 1994. BUILD has gone on to unionize the workers employed by the city contractors covered by the ordinance. According to Paul Booth, assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), "BUILD is the most complete, compelling story of organizing low-wage workers in the country." What makes BUILD so significant is that the impetus to do workplace organizing came from the community—in particular from BUILD’s black churches—and that BUILD and AFSCME have formed a partnership whose goal is to create fundamental change.

Founded in 1977, BUILD is now the largest mainly black local faith-based organization in the country. The decision to launch an organizing drive for a living wage ordinance came after member churches held one-on-one meetings with clients of their food pantries and discovered that many of them were working, but earned too little to feed their families throughout the month. This angered the churches because they realized that their volunteer services were subsidizing employers.

While living wage campaigns in a number of other cities have consulted with BUILD since their victory, none of the other campaigns have taken the next step beyond securing the ordinance. BUILD successfully organized the workforce of the city’s contractors into a newly created union local. For six months prior to the union organizing drive, BUILD clergy and organizers visited with workers to hear their stories. BUILD’s leaders dedicated one day a month to these visits. Often they would meet the workers at bus stops while they were commuting from one part-time job to another. BUILD served hot tea on winter nights at the bus stops, which proved to be one of the most effective ways of building relationships with the workers.

The creation of this new union has only been possible because BUILD’s strong church base of support has been able to protect the workers as they have organized. According to BUILD organizer Jonathan Lange, "The churches have been able to loan these workers their political clout." At one point during the organizing drive, 60 BUILD clergy and lay leaders prayed in the lobby of a hotel in a visible show of support for the effort—forcing one employer from his anti-union stance to one of neutrality. Says Lange, "Because of their faith, people from the churches saw it as in their interest to bring their power to protect low-wage workers."

HELENE SLESSAREV is the director of urban studies and associate professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois. Her most recent book, The Betrayal of the Urban Poor (Temple University Press, 1997), examines the shortcomings of developing systemic policy solutions for urban poverty.

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