I’d heard mention of the Washtenaw Community Action Team over the past several months or so, but I never really took the time to figure out how they fit into the local ecosystem of left-leaning political organizations, or what their objectives were. Fortunately, however, I had the occasion this past weekend to exchange a few emails with WCAT’s Adam Warner, and I was able to ask him a few questions for the blog. Here’s out interview.
MARK: So, what exactly is the Washtenaw Community Action Team?
ADAM: The Washtenaw Community Action Team (WCAT) is part of an AFL-CIO and We Are The People initiative to bridge local labor, community groups and individuals to organize coordinated action against state legislation that threatens a decent standard of life for Michigan workers and families.
The WCAT held its first meetings in March and organized the April 4th We Are One Rally on Ingalls Mall to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King. We have since organized the Stand Against Snyder commencement day demonstration that drew 1,500 people; hosted a pair of town halls in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor to educate about Public Act 4 and mobilize for the citizen’s referendum campaign; and more recently we’ve stood alongside the UM Graduate Research Assistants trying to organize with the Graduate Employees Organization and the UMHS nurses fighting for a fair contract.
We came together in response to the wave of anti-worker and anti-people legislation that passed and continues to pass through the state legislature. The group started with around 5 to 7 core members and has since expanded to around 20 core members. We represent student groups, local unions, social justice organizations, community organizations, and our neighborhoods.
We meet every week on Thursday at 330 E. Liberty (3rd Floor) at 7pm. We operate with democratic and consensus decision-making process. The initiatives and actions we get behind are proposed by individual members typically. There is a real sense that the movement is what we make of it and I think that is clear at each of our meetings.
In short, if there is a labor struggle in the area or a group of people fighting for social and economic justice – the WCAT will be there to support it. We are always looking for new members and organizations to join.
MARK: I’d like to know more about the role the AFL-CIO plays within your organization, but first I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement, and how, if at all, you see people from Ypsi-Arbor contributing.
ADAM: I am very happy that both the message and actions of the Occupy Wall Street movement has resonated so strongly with so many different people. One of my WCAT colleagues shared with us the enthusiasm for the movement a group of seniors expressed. I think in general people that retreated into a gloomy defeatism the last four years are energized again.
The major accomplishment of OWS has been the identification of the banks as the perpetrators and benefactors of the economic crisis as well as drawing attention to the role the political class has played in promoting, protecting and advancing the interest of the banks and big business to the exclusion of the many.
What’s invigorating about this message is the way OWS has gone about making this clear – occupation. I think the idea of the occupation – the direct collective action it involves, the active suspension of the normal functioning of things, and engagement in good old fashioned civil disobedience – captures the urgency many, many people feel that the political class has not adequately addressed. The people of Michigan have a long, proud history with occupations, most notably the Great Flint Sit Down Strike of 1936-7.
If the political class is interested in continuing with business as usual, then we’re no longer interested in working with them – We’re people of great need and we’ll meet those needs if it means going into the streets, shutting down our places of work, walking out of our classes, taking back our homes, and so on.
I think the thing that people of Ypsi-Arbor sympathetic to OWS can do is to meet regularly and work tirelessly to share information about our struggles and coordinate effective actions to respond to those struggles. The Occupy Ann Arbor general assembly last Thursday and the work the WCAT has done this past year is a great start. It is very powerful to meet regularly with a group of people to hear and understand how this piece or that piece of legislation is going to affect them, or how this boss or that boss is asking them to work more for less, and so on. You begin to piece together just how coordinated the efforts of the powerful are.
The other thing Ypsi-Arbor people can do is turn out big at the other planned occupations in Michigan. Occupy Detroit, for instance, just kicked off Friday with a march from The Spirit of Detroit to the Grand Circus.
In short, the message of the OWS movement provides a backdrop against which local struggles that were once perceived to be unrelated show up now as intimately connected. We should take this opportunity to take the difficult step of honestly and openly talking about how we can advance our interests collectively. It is exhausting and it is hard work, but it is clear that the conditions demand nothing less and that it is the only way we can respond to an increasingly hostile business and political elite.
MARK: Just so I’m clear… The Washtenaw Community Action Team is funded by the AFL-CIO and We Are the People Michigan, which, according to their website, is an entity of the America Votes Labor Unity Fund, which, in turn, is also part of the AFL-CIO, right? And, if you don’t mind my asking, is it just Washtenaw County that has an “action team” through this arrangement, or are there teams like yours in every Michigan county? How about other states? Sorry for all of the questions, but I’m trying to get a handle on what it is that the AFL-CIO is hoping to accomplish through this undertaking. Would it be safe to say that you’re attempting to build a grass roots organization that shares an interest in protecting the right to collectively bargain, maintaining workplace safety, etc? I should add that I don’t think there’s a damned thing wrong with that. And I don’t mean to suggest that you’re hoping to construct an astroturf organization, like the Koch brothers, that can be manipulated for your personal gain. I just think it helps to know everyone’s motivations. Personally, I think it’s a great strategy on the part of the AFL-CIO to get people talking about things like this now, before we get into a situation like the folks in Wisconsin just faced. It probably should have been done years ago… Which brings me to one of my main criticisms of organized labor in the United States. I think they’ve failed to remind people of their historic contributions. People don’t remember what life was like before the 40 hour work week, when kids were still working in coal mines. Now, when people think of unions, they think of the isolated cases where TV news crews go out and find auto workers getting high and drunk in the middle of the day, which, I suspect, is exactly the image that America’s captains of industry want for people to have when they think “union.” They don’t want unions to be seen as the guardians of the American middle class, but as the enablers of sloth and vice.
ADAM: Here is what I know about the CAT model –
It is a statewide initiative started by AFL-CIO and adopted by We Are The People – the idea is to have a CAT in every county.
To date, the WCAT has been funded by the participant locals and individual members.
“Would it be safe to say that you’re attempting to build a grass roots organization that shares an interest in protecting the right to collectively bargain, maintaining workplace safety, etc?”
While we work with AFL-CIO and WATP, our initiatives are developed from the WCAT membership – bottom-up decision-making, in other words. This has been a source of strength and motivation for the group.
MARK: I wasn’t aware that you were a membership organization.
ADAM: Just to be clear – We’re not a membership organization in any formal way; it has just worked out that way. At the end of the day, we are 20 or so core members that come to meetings regularly, propose events, work on the other members’ proposals, and contribute money personally or persuading their other representation to contribute money.
So, yeah, I would hesitate to say we are a membership organization in the technical sense.
MARK: And, I see that you’re launching a film series. Can you tell me about why you’ve chosen to do that, and what films you have lined up?
ADAM: At the end of the summer various members of the WCAT expressed interest in hosting events that provided an opportunity to learn more about the history of unions and the reasons that organized labor and working people are the target for Wall Street. There was a sense that fighting back not only required successfully fending off anti-worker legislation, but a vision of an alternative.
I think the developments of Occupy Wall Street and now Occupy Ann Arbor and Detroit show that the people themselves were ready to do this. We hope that this film series and social forum can compliment that movement and provide a specific focus on labor and labor rights.
The two films we decided to screen are With Babies and Banners: A Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade and Inside Job. Babies and Banners is a good piece of Michigan history (Flint Sit Down Strike of 1936) that I think most Michiganders don’t know about. The film consists of interviews with the women that organized outside the walls of the factory occupation to fight (sometimes with their lives) for the rights that are being taken away from us today. Inside Job discusses the policies and practices of Wall Street that led to crisis of 2008, which is being used as a justification for the attacks on working people.
On Tuesday, November 15th @ 7pm in the Kalamazoo Room at the Michigan League on U of M’s campus we’ll host a social forum that further discusses how to rebuild working people’s power. Our invited speakers are Jane Slaughter (Labor Notes journalist), Maureen Taylor (Welfare Rights activist & US Social Forum 2010 organizer) and Tom Weisskopf (Political Economist). It will also feature reports from people, unions and organizations engaged in struggles in our community.
Like I said before, the most important thing people can do who are either sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, part of a union, interested in progressive political change, and so on, is to meet regularly and get serious about how to fight back. It isn’t a very exciting message, but it these conversations and the discussion of an alternative that will serve us well in the actions we take to advance our interests.
MARK: When and where will the films be shown?
ADAM: Here’s a link our webpage with the event information and Facebook rsvp information.
MARK: What might we expect from WCAT in the future? Might there be lectures on the history of the labor movement in America, panel discussions on what, over time, has proven effective and ineffective when it comes to protest movements, etc? And what do you see your role being with regard to Occupy Ann Arbor?
ADAM: That is a really good idea, Mark. You should come to our meetings.
The WCAT has typically put energy into mobilizing people around certain issues (e.g. PA-4). I think this will continue to be our main focus. I think whether we continue to host more events like the film series and social forum depends on its success and how many resources we’ll have to make it happen. The screening of With Babies and Banners last week went very well, I hear. So this is encouraging.
Future work for the WCAT will be continued support of the UMHS nurses and the UM graduate student research assistants in their struggles, fighting back against the Right to Work and Right to Teach legislation, adopt-a-store campaign to show solidarity with CWA and Verizon workers out east, and hopefully continued work on the PA-4 referendum.
This week the WCAT and We Are The People MI are turning out people to a rally at the Stadium Bridge from 5:00 – 6:30 PM on Wednesday. The bridge is a disaster and the promised funding for it has disappeared (many times). This rally is both a demand to fix the bridge and a way to draw attention to collapsing infrastructure in Michigan and the rest of the country.
The success of past mass social movements has been linking labor with other movements and organizations. The members of the WCAT know this. We have been attending the OAA general assemblies and supporting the occupations around the state. I don’t think the WCAT will have much of a formal role beyond keeping the ties between local labor and the OAA tight and supporting their work.
MARK: Is there anything else that you’d like for people to know?
ADAM:Two things… Solidarity forever, and WCAT meetings are held at 330 E. Liberty (Floor 3) at 7pm on Thursdays. All are welcome. If you can’t make the meeting and are interested in working with us write firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, With Babies and Banners will be playing this Sunday in Ann Arbor at Cafe Ambrosia (3:00-5:30 PM), and we’ll be joined by U-M Sociology Lecturer Ian Robinson, who will be helping lead the discussion.
Then, on Monday, October 24, from 7:00-9:00 PM, we’ll be screening the film at EMU with Professor of Criminology and Sociology Gregg Barak, Professor of Labor Economics Mehmet Yaya, and Howard Bunsis of the AAUP’s Collective Bargaining Congress.
If you have additional questions for Adam, please leave a comment. I suspect he’ll stop by and respond.