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New Lynn Coalition’s Road to Local Power – Part 1

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May Day, Lynn MA: Crowd of people marching behind a banner in a worn-down small city.

In a small city “at the easternmost tip of the Rust Belt,” labor and community groups have invested 10 years in building a vehicle for independent political power—and working-class identity.

On May Day in Lynn, Massachusetts, unions and working-class community groups turn out to celebrate solidarity and uplift their struggles. The theme of the event varies by the year. Las Marias, an organization of Spanish-speaking women immigrants, lay roses at City Hall, symbolizing COVID deaths in our city, or the local teachers’ union marches to support their contract demand and their students. GE workers stop at the big plant fighting for investment and jobs. Banners and posters call for affordable housing, more ESOL classes, and an end to wage theft. The march or car caravan stops at the Post Office to support postal workers, or the Lynn Police station to support an unarmed crisis response team and protest police brutality. We tape our demands to City Hall like Martin Luther. In an election year sympathetic candidates join the rally. We bring our voices, our struggles, and our demands to those in power in the city.

Ten years ago, a few Lynn union and community leaders came together to move beyond transitory cooperation around individual issues. We formed the coalition to “organize all sectors of working-class people in our region into a unified, permanent, political, and economic force,” as our mission statement put it. Since that time, we have grown from eight to 15 organizations. These range from ECCO, a coalition of faith groups, to a food insecurity and health disparity advocacy organization  like the Highlands Coalition, to immigrant advocacy groups and affordable housing fighters like Lynn United for Change, to the North Shore Labor Council, which initiated New Lynn. We’ve built programs and campaigns from affordable housing to improving the schools to pandemic relief. Through it all we’ve navigated endless contradictions among our own peoples and with various city authorities, and built an independent working-class presence in the city, a sense of identity and common interests we call “an upward spiral of political consciousness.”  

The easternmost tip of the Rust Belt

Lynn, Massachusetts, a city of about 100,000, sits on the Atlantic Ocean 20 miles north of Boston at what our former Organizing Director Jon Feinberg calls “the Easternmost point of the Rust Belt.” Like other post-industrial “Gateway Cities” in the state, it has been transformed by the destruction of its manufacturing base and abandoned by capital investment for some 40 years. Once the world center of the women’s shoe industry, by the 1980s the last shoe factories were gone. The labor republican consciousness led to the great shoe strike in 1860 and was the occasion for Abraham Lincoln’s famous statement supporting the right to strike: “I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he wants to. I would to God that such a system prevailed all over the world.” This brand of unionism migrated to the GE plant, which may be the single longest-lasting site of large-scale manufacturing in the United States. The complex was founded even before GE existed, in 1882; there are families with five generations in the plant.

Starting in the 1970s and picking up steam in the 1990s, an influx of Latinx immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and other central and South American countries as well as Cambodia and the far-flung African diaspora added to its earlier European immigrant population, and to the Black community which pre-dated the Civil War. Today Lynn is about two-thirds peoples of color. Downtown Union Street, long abandoned by its thriving theaters and bowling alleys and department stores, was rejuvenated by immigrant small businesses from dress shops and restaurants to stores supplying religious items. Children in our schools speak 65 languages, including a dozen African tongues.

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Ten years ago, New Lynn began an initial study of our city. As you would expect from neoliberal disinvestment and austerity, Lynn suffered from negative indicators in public health, wages and employment, housing, and an impoverished public sector. Poverty was twice the state average and household income had fallen over the last 20 years, while it had grown in surrounding communities. The median income was 60% of the surrounding county and state. The infant mortality is about 40% higher than the state average. Infections and deaths from HIV/AIDS, cancer, tuberculosis and drug and alcohol related causes are 30-100% higher than the state average. Twenty-three percent of Lynners do not have a high school diploma.

My own interest in our project was inspired in part by the concept of “Working People’s Assemblies” described in Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin’s Solidarity Divided, particularly the call for labor councils to “open their doors to other working-class organizations.” With national private sector union density headed towards 6%, and our city a post-industrial wasteland, this seemed obvious. The unionists who helped found New Lynn believed that if we wanted to build working-class power in our city, we had to build a strategic alliance between the labor movement and the movements of the communities of color, often organized in what Jon Liss and others have called “New Working-class Organizations.”

Ten years later we are a recognized community power. Successes give us concrete projects to point to as examples of what community-labor working-class power can achieve. We initiated a 71-unit affordable housing development with the Housing Authority and the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Fund, built with union labor. We launched a night school with adult classes from ESOL to welding to yoga for some 250 people annually. With the school superintendent and the teachers’ union we helped create a bi-lingual Family and Community Coordinator position at each school. We deliver Food Aid to 750 families. Led by an AME pastor and a leader from the Black Lives Matter uprising, our partners are fighting for a Community Care Team that will send unarmed professionals, replacing police, to deal with non-violent issues (PTSD, noise complaints, and homelessness) that have in the past resulted in deaths or assaults in our communities of color. We celebrate May Day annually.

Elected officials read and react to our monthly newsletter. We get appointed to commissions and boards. Our municipal election forums are the final and largest of the season. Members of our partner groups feel our positive impact, from Food Delivery to the night school to housing. We contend for governing power in a variety of ways.

Most important in the long run, we welcome and develop new leaders. We brought leadership development practices from Ella Baker of SNCC into our union work, and then back to community-labor organizing. We delegate leadership work and speaking roles, hire from within our affiliates for projects, have weekly staff meetings to build collectivity; even new part-timers take a turn at leading discussions. Annual strategic planning is detailed and focused on our key collective political direction and challenges. Women of color are increasingly in leadership, and new leaders find ways to contribute and gain new skills.

Needless to say, we hardly run the city. The fight to build the unarmed crisis community care team is on very contested ground. Developers, eying cheap land near Boston, continue to construct luxury ocean units that only a handful of Lynners will ever set foot in. Powerful department heads in city government are, by and large, unchanged. We struggle to keep up with challenges, let alone build power to deliver thoughtful and effective solutions.

The rest of this two-part article will examine some of our challenges, successes and failures.

Member-based or a coalition?

New Lynn began as a coalition of existing organizations, some of whom had coordinated occasionally in the previous 20 years. Perhaps unlike other areas, Lynn has a density of community-based organizations that needed to be brought together, so there was no need for a new member-based organization that might compete with existing efforts.  Community groups had been fighting for many years around housing, health care, and voter empowerment, based in neighborhood or faith organizations or around a particular fight. We have grown as immigrant groups and new waves of struggle found a voice, including from the Black Lives Matter upsurge.

We believe this was the necessary way to start. But it presents its own challenges. The vast majority of working-class folks are of course not in any organization. What do we do with them when we come across potential fighters in our work? We have encouraged them to join our partner organizations. Some of our activists have moved from one group to another. In a few cases leaders become primarily committed to New Lynn instead of a partner group.

For now we have settled on a hybrid approach: a coalition which also does direct base-building. Individuals may join our projects, whether or not they are members of partner organizations.

The Coalition model can include competition for foundation funds and credit for accomplishments, and of course differences on strategy and tactics. We work hard to resolve these through straightforward discussion and continuing political education, and some bias training. So far we have avoided any disasters and are instead building what we call “an upward spiral of political consciousness,” about which more later.

The 501(c)(3) conundrum

After 33 years in the labor movement, seeking funding from foundations was a shock for me. Community based coalitions typically do not have a base in dues-paying members like unions. We have found some supportive foundations, but had negative experiences as well. And grant-writing is a grinding, time-consuming task. The challenge is to find support for the things that need to be done without letting foundations dictate your politics or program.

We built the board of our 501(c )(3), which doubles as the board of the Coalition, without any fund-raisers or outside attorneys or connected local players—against the advice of practically everyone. Our Board consists only of leaders of affiliated organizations, and those need to have an active working-class base and be responsible in some way to their members. Leaders may be elected, as in unions, or chosen in some other way. This is not applied narrowly, since a small neighborhood group functions very differently than a labor council or a church, but we have stuck to that. Advocacy or service non-profits can be supporting members, without a governance role.

Funding for specific projects is easier to come by than funding for the Coalition itself. The Food Aid delivery attracts funding since it is a proven program that provides direct help to our people. As you might guess, fewer foundations are eager to fund a political effort to create a self-conscious working-class presence to contend for power. To defend our financial and therefore political independence, we also hold fund-raising events and a raffle. We won some pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act through a campaign of respectful engagement and street demonstrations. We collect nominal dues from our partners, and are now starting to build an individual sustainers network.

Although we want to meet the direct needs of our people, we are not a service provider, so we work hard to tie programs like Food Aid to our power-building effort. We build examples of what we can do through our own effort and institutions. We stuff the bags of our grocery delivery program, for example, with fliers about our own and our partners’ programs, and we call through the list to find activists and survey respondents. We recently did in-depth interviews with 300 of our Food Aid folks, looking for activists and identifying needs. The results will be released to support our housing organizing. We are phone-banking our Food Aid recipients for May Day turnout. This has had some positive results, but is still a work in progress. It’s not a Serve the People program of the Black Panther Party, to be sure.

The Food Aid program and the affordable housing development we initiated have become our calling cards, giving us credibility in the community and among political leaders.

We are in fact and perception an independent political force in the city, beholden to no one but our member groups, our peoples and our class. Part 2 of this article will talk more about how we’re building that power, and the consciousness that we hope will make it last, grow, and prevail.

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