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Forging and Sustaining Labor–Community Coalitions: The Workfare Justice Movement in Three Cities

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This article examines the factors shaping the formation and longevity of labor–community coalitions through comparative case studies of campaigns for workfare justice in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and New York. Interviews with organizational staff and leaders reveal that their decisions to form and sustain these coalitions were shaped by their collective identities, especially their commitment to social movement unionism, and their context, particularly the sectoral distribution of workfare workers. We also highlight the role of two factors previously overlooked by labor scholars: (1) ecological processes of niche-formation, which determined if and how inter-organizational competition was overcome, and (2) authorities’ social-control strategies, which shaped coalition endurance.

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Fig. 1.


  1. 1.

    The difficulties of building community–labor coalitions have been especially marked in the history of welfare-rights organizing. Although some unions supported the efforts to organize unemployed workers in the 1930s and supported the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1960s, most ignored these campaigns. Some unions even opposed the NWRO’s demands (Reese and Newcombe, 2003; West, 1981).

  2. 2.

    The figure, 19.18%, is calculated from county and national caseload data presented in Allen and Kirby (2000).

  3. 3.

    These groups were the Fifth Avenue Committee, a tenant rights and community development organization in Brooklyn; Community Voices Heard, a membership-based group composed mainly of women on welfare; and the Urban Justice Center, which had recently become a decentralized base for organizing and legal advocacy projects, having begun in 1984 as the Legal Action Center for the Homeless.

  4. 4.

    Tait (2005:90–94) also details differences between DC 37 and a workfare-organizing project headed by welfare-rights organizer, Gary Delgado, in the 1970s. The crux of the tension lay in whether to integrate workfare participants into existing locals or to create a separate local within the District Council for workfare workers. The latter strategy, which would have maintained workfare worker solidarity, would also have given workfare workers enormous power within the District Council under its election rules, and was therefore resisted by DC 37 leadership.

  5. 5.

    Jobs with Justice is a union-sponsored group whose mission is to build labor–community solidarity.

  6. 6.

    These jobs would pay at least $7.50 an hour with benefits, and with time for skills enhancement, education, and training.

  7. 7.

    The CWA and ACORN were major forces behind a growing third party in New York State, and the speaker of the council was running for governor at the time.

  8. 8.

    He claimed that the City Council did not have the authority to legislate the program under the strong-mayor city charter.

  9. 9.

    These factors included reduced state and federal pressure on the city to increase workfare participation, labor market recovery, and union- and welfare-rights lawsuits.

  10. 10.

    General Relief is the name given to California’s welfare program for adults without dependent children; CalWORKS is the name for the program for families.

  11. 11.

    Reliance on workfare labor—particularly in clerical jobs, parks maintenance, and cleaning—helped to minimize labor costs and compensate for hiring freezes imposed during the county’s worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression (SEIU 660, 2001; Citizens for Workfare Justice, 1998).

  12. 12.

    There was high turnover in New York, too. Stability for organizing, such as there was, depended on the fact that WEP worksites remained WEP worksites for years.

  13. 13.

    As we finished revisions on this article, the National Labor Relations Board was considering regulations that might strip as many as 8 million workers of their right to collectively bargain by redesignating them as “management.” The NLRB has taken up this task while refusing to entertain oral arguments.


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Krinsky, J., Reese, E. Forging and Sustaining Labor–Community Coalitions: The Workfare Justice Movement in Three Cities. Sociol Forum 21, 623–658 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11206-006-9036-0

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  • labor–community coalitions
  • social movement unionism
  • niche-formation
  • inter-organizational relations
  • collective identity