“Billionaires for Bush” take to the streets in support of Bush’s tax cuts. (United for a Fair Economy)

It’s day two of their hunger strike, and the men in red bandannas mill glumly in front of a wrought-iron fence, their shoes sodden from the cold February downpour. Beyond the fence, yellow-uniformed security guards block the way into Taco Bell Corp. headquarters, a sleek steel and glass building ensconced in a corporate park in Irvine, California.

Immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Haiti, and elsewhere, the men spent three days on a bus to get here from Immokalee, Florida, where they pick tomatoes for a living, the very tomatoes used in Taco Bell’s Soft Taco Supreme or Nachos BellGrande. Immokalee is, in the words of one Justice Department official, “ground zero for modern slavery.” Coercion and intimidation, the workers say, are commonplace in the fields; in the past six years, prosecutors there have successfully tried six cases of involuntary servitude.

It’s easy to see why the job isn’t appealing. Contractors pay the pickers a little more than one cent per pound of tomatoes picked — on a good day, a sum of $50 for ten hours of back-breaking work in the sun, among the mosquitoes. Now the workers are fighting rumbling bellies and inclement weather to get Taco Bell’s attention. Their demand: a raise of one penny per pound picked.

Tomás Aguilar, a popular educator for United for a Fair Economy who joined the men when their bus stopped in Los Angeles, is here to give the striking workers a sense of the “big picture” of inequality in America. He has given this talk — on the “Growing Divide” in wealth and income — at countless colleges and workplaces. But this time is different.

As he stands in the rain alongside the tomato pickers, Aguilar decides to ditch his flipcharts, handouts, and “inequality” exercises. Instead of launching into his usual spiel on the World Trade Organization, he begins by asking the men to tell their own stories — what drove them out of their communities, why they came to Florida to pick tomatoes, what brought them here to Irvine.

With his chubby cheeks and boyish looks, Aguilar doesn’t fit the part of the rabble-rousing labor activist, but at forty-one he has worked his share of minimum wage, service-sector jobs. He is also savvy enough to know how to adjust his pitch to the audience. The discussion he led that rainy day in February neatly illustrates the new approach that United for a Fair Economy (UFE) and other activist groups are taking nowadays: attempting to cross lines of culture, race, and class by recognizing rather than ignoring differences.

Explicitly rejecting the traditional “colorblind” approach that shuns potentially divisive issues like race, UFE has encouraged frank discussion among its members about their social divisions. It’s what is sometimes known as the “personal narrative” approach to organizing — a concerted effort to get people to air their own experiences, thoughts, and emotions, in the hope that such dialogue will help build the personal relationships that sustain a social movement.

To connect with the tomato pickers of Immokalee, Aguilar couldn’t do what he did at college campuses. He had to get beyond what he calls the “PowerPoint mentality” — that self-consciously sophisticated toolbox of snazzy computer presentations and carefully collated three-ring binders that the professional activist relies upon. He had to speak in plain Spanish. “I know [that in] Latino culture, people tell stories,” says Aguilar, the son of Mexican migrant workers who immigrated to Texas, where Aguilar was born. “And I had to get used to that. I had to get out of my mindset of saying, ‘But wait, the agenda says we should be here, and we’re only here.’ The important thing is for people to tell their story and get their point out.”

In a 1998 re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party, Republican lawmakers are poised to throw a crate containing the U.S. tax code into Boston Harbor — but then the “Working Family Life Raft” (manned by UFE staffers Chris Hartman and Kristin Barreli) floats into view. (United for a Fair Economy)

Organizing in America’s underbelly

Before he became a popular educator for UFE, Tomás Aguilar spent twenty years in America’s underpaid, underappreciated service sector. He did everything from making deliveries to answering telephones to waiting tables.

Working in the underbelly of the American economy, Aguilar got to see, firsthand, the ways that race — his race — shaped the opportunities available to him. In his native south Texas, Aguilar racked up years of experience waiting tables. But when he moved to Boston in the late eighties, he had trouble finding work. “The restaurants I had worked in before were nice restaurants,” Aguilar says. “But over here, they would just look at me and say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any waiter positions. How ’bout a busboy?’ ”

Eventually, Aguilar found a job at a KFC in a predominantly white suburb. Several Mexican and Central American immigrants worked there, alongside white teenage co-workers who would utter racial slurs to their faces while grumbling about the growing numbers of Asian American customers. “It was interesting,” Aguilar says. “You had the people coming in ‘taking over,’ who were Asian. And, on the other hand, [the white kids] were there serving them, but they were lashing out against the Latinos.”

The same questions Aguilar had back then, as a minimum-wage employee in a racially charged workplace, would later become the focus of his work at UFE. UFE’s team of “popular educators” help people make sense of the larger trends in income and wealth in America — how the gap between rich and poor is growing and what that means for politics, democracy, and workers’ everyday lives. Race is a large, yet often hidden, part of that story. The laborers toiling in the fields for U.S. corporations — including the Florida tomato pickers who waged a hunger strike against Taco Bell last February — tend to be dark-skinned. Likewise, poor people of color and immigrants tend to be among those most affected by the dramatic cuts in social services now occurring in state after state as the costs of war and recession mount.

Given that racial inequality is so tangled up with America’s economic inequality, UFE is trying to make race more central to their educational campaigns. To date, UFE has focused on reaching out to the country’s rapidly growing Latino community. Jeannette Huezo, UFE’s training network coordinator and herself a Salvadoran immigrant, spearheaded the work of making UFE’s resources accessible to Latinos — linguistically and culturally. UFE now offers versions of their educational workshops on economic inequality, progressive taxation, and the local consequences of global trade that are conducted completely in Spanish. And they have partnered with Latino activists across the country — doing workshops for the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (the organizers of the Taco Bell hunger strike); making connections with housing activists in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; and organizing a network of Latino popular educators across New England.

Part of the challenge is learning to tailor UFE’s approach so that it’s culturally accessible to different groups. “You’re working on tax issues. Right away you assume that’s a wonky area that older white men work on,” Aguilar says. He remembers how a Latina woman once came to his workshop with a calculator, thinking that she’d have to do sums because it was supposed to be about “economics.”

Being able to talk to people about these issues in their own language also makes a huge difference, Aguilar says. “It’s a much different vibe than just having interpreters, because you lose all the storytelling, the sharing.”

Using the “personal narrative” approach to let Latino workers “tell their stories” goes beyond creating a pleasant group dynamic, or even dealing with cultural differences. It’s about sensitivity: opening up space at the table for a variety of voices, confronting problems head-on, treating differences as opportunities rather than challenges.

This approach can be seen in another of UFE’s recent projects, a book called The Color of Wealth, co-written by five authors — American Indian, African American, Asian American, Latino, and white. The book tells the stories of different racial and ethnic groups as they tried to “make it” in America, documenting the federal policies that helped whites gain wealth while throwing legal barriers in the way of the advancement of people of color. “We want to counter the argument that affirmative action has created a level playing field — in fact, there is a history of calculated, accumulated disadvantage,” says Meizhu Lui, UFE’s executive director. “Our message is that policies created the inequality, and policies can be changed.” The book will come out in early 2005; in the meantime, UFE is developing a new educational campaign focused on the “racial wealth gap,” and recently hired two African American staffers to work on it.

Three of the writers featured in The Color of Wealth come from UFE’s staff or board — a fact that speaks volumes about the organization’s new direction. In recent years UFE has tried to make its own office culture more welcoming to underrepresented minorities. For instance, it now has an affirmative action policy that takes class into account, and it also has designated staff to handle employee personality conflicts that are racially charged. It now has seven people of color on a staff of eighteen.

Even as they reach out to new communities, Lui and other activists recognize that their movement must appeal to broad segments of the American public — traversing racial and class lines — if it is going to muster any political wherewithal. Along these lines, organizers at UFE talk about the need to organize people of color on issues of economic inequality without alienating the white working class. They talk about creating a strong coalition of low- and middle-income Americans, while leaving room for affluent Americans who buy into the justice of their cause.

“Clearly, people need to organize around identity and fight fights around identity, and that’s a place for tremendous energy and power and self-interest,” says Chuck Collins, UFE’s program director and co-founder. The thing is, organizers for too long have been stuck in an “either-or” mindset, Collins says: Either they focus on class, and treat race as something “invisible,” or they hone in on race, and ignore how their race-based demands turn off the legions of white workers who also think of themselves as underpaid and exploited.

“In the process of doing multiracial, multiclass organizing, we’re kind of realizing that everyone has a piece of the puzzle,” Collins says.

Chuck Collins speaks at a Boston rally immediately following the landmark 1999 protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. (United for a Fair Economy)

Reaching out to the rich …

“Everyone” really does mean “everyone” — even the fabulously rich. In January, Beacon Press published a new book called Wealth and Our Commonwealth, which makes the case for preserving the estate tax, the tax on inherited fortunes that Republicans have been trying to kill for years and managed to strike down — temporarily — in the Bush administration’s tax cuts two years ago. The co-authors of that book? Chuck Collins and William H. Gates, Sr. — father of the richest man in the world.

The book was the brainchild of UFE’s Responsible Wealth project, a network of businesspeople, investors, and affluent Americans lobbying for policies to address the country’s “deepening economic inequality.” Their discontent could be summed up in one statistic: Today, the richest 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of the country’s private wealth — more than the collective wealth of the bottom 95 percent of Americans. (The so-called “Gilded Age” of the late nineteenth century was only slightly worse: The richest 1 percent of families had about half of the wealth.) “Here we are in the second Gilded Age, and we’re dismantling the rungs of the ladder,” Collins says. “The more the political priorities reference the desires of the wealthy, the less friendly that policy will be to low- and middle-income people. It’s just not on the radar screen. [The wealthy] are not sitting around saying, ‘How can we solve the day-care crisis?’ They’re saying, ‘How can we reduce the tax burden on capital?’ ”

Attempting to reverse this trend, Responsible Wealth has recruited some of the nation’s richest businesspeople in a fight to preserve the estate tax, a tax levied on substantial personal fortunes ($1 million and above) upon the death of their owners. Investor Warren Buffett, financier George Soros, and Seattle lawyer William Gates, Sr. — father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates — are some of the big names on UFE’s all-star roster. Their insistence that they want to be taxed even more heavily recently landed UFE on the front page of The New York Times. “Dozens of Rich Americans Join In Fight to Retain the Estate Tax,” the headline read.

To date, Responsible Wealth has racked up the signatures of 1,555 individuals subject to the estate tax who have called for its preservation. In addition to its work on “tax fairness,” the project is also lobbying for corporate reforms (for instance, introducing shareholder resolutions that call for corporate boards to stop rewarding executives with bloated compensation packages) and for the passage of “living wage” ordinances (legislation that puts a floor on salaries based on what families need to survive).

Why would rich Americans support a cause seemingly against their self-interest? UFE’s wealthy allies point to the role that regulated markets, a reliable legal system, and publicly subsidized education and research have played in their own business success. They realize that too much wealth in the hands of too few ultimately threatens democracy and national unity. “These are people who understand good fortune is not entirely of their own making, who understand the role that society plays in their good fortune,” Collins says. “They are also parents and grandparents, and they see where things are heading, and know that there are limits to how tall they can build walls around their own families.”

Collins speaks from personal experience. The great-grandson of hotdog magnate Oscar Mayer, Collins grew up in Detroit amidst privileged surroundings — and extreme segregation. An awareness of inequality struck early, with the Detroit riot of 1967. “My seven-year-old impression was that things weren’t fair,” he says. “My analysis hasn’t changed much.” When he turned twenty-six and inherited half a million dollars, Collins astounded many by deciding to give it away. Most of it went to the Haymarket People’s Fund, a progressive foundation named after the 1886 Chicago riot that was a turning point in the American labor movement.

After spending more than a decade battling inequality — first as an affordable housing advocate, and then in the Central American peace movement — Collins co-founded United for a Fair Economy in 1995. He and other activists felt that the public lacked the information and context to criticize the country’s dramatic polarization of income and wealth in recent years. “People experience the economy in a very individual way,” he says, “kind of like the weather. They don’t look at how their individual circumstances are connected to these larger trends.” To combat this ignorance, it’s not very effective to crusade against specific rich individuals with nasty habits, even if the recent scandals at Enron and WorldCom have made this easy sport. Rather, Collin says, UFE has to show people how the rules themselves are being “hijacked” to favor some people over others.

With this strategy in mind, Collins sees winning over sympathetic billionaires as a smart tactic. “Successful social movements mobilize a base, but also undercut or divide an elite — or more affirmatively, win allies in the governing elite. When the elite is not totally lined up, you have a little room to move. When the elite is lined up, it’s tough to move — you don’t have much social organizing space, or legitimacy.” By getting the Rockefellers and Buffetts of the world on their side, UFE has been able to defend higher tax rates for the rich — that is, “progressive” taxation — by an appeal to “higher principles,” Collins says.

What UFE’s strategy makes clear is that divisions don’t necessarily undermine democracy. In fact, in the right hands, divisions can be harnessed to further democracy by rallying the public against those who would seek to concentrate political power in the hands of a select few. The trick is not to make the divisions too rigid — which would lead to the tired “us” vs. “them” mentality — but to open up space for people to cross categories, if they so choose.

UFE educator Betsy Leondar-Wright conducts a workshop on the growth of economic inequality in America.

… while still wooing the working class

Even as they try to win over new allies, activists for economic justice are coming to the painful realization that the people who have traditionally been their steadfast supporters — those downtrodden proletarians, the white working class — have largely turned away from progressives, the Democratic Party, or any other kind of politics that vaguely smells of liberalism. During the Cold War, conservative politicians stoked fears of communism to turn working- and middle-class Americans against a strong safety net and other social policies that could help equalize opportunities. Nowadays, they simply demonize the (dark-skinned) poor. “Conservatives have used race as a wedge to pull the white working class behind reactionary agendas,” Collins points out.

One of UFE’s goals is to “shift” that wedge — that is, redirect people’s anger away from immigrants and the poor and toward the richest 5 percent. “The right wing has been very successful at driving that wedge between the very poorest of people and everybody else,” says Lui. “So we try to drive the wedge between the very richest and everyone else.”

When Lui took over as UFE’s executive director two years ago, she sought to make race a more visible issue on the organization’s agenda. Much of UFE’s outreach into communities of color has taken place under her watch. But like Collins, she maintains that UFE should not give up its work with whites. “It’s kind of like, you don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, you know? So I see it not so much as bringing down something, but building something else up, so it’s equal,” she says.

A former service worker and union organizer, Lui has spent most of her life working alongside — and later, organizing — this much sought-after voting bloc. Her interactions haven’t always been pretty. In the mid-seventies, as a single mom with a seven-year-old son, she was desperately in need of work. It was the height of the recession, and the only job she could find was at Dunkin Donuts. “When I was hired for the job, the manager said to me, ‘Oh, you Chinese are good workers, aren’t you?’ So I said, ‘Ah-so, velly good!’“ Lui recalls, with a laugh. “Cause I really needed the job.”

Later, when she became a kitchen worker at Boston City Hospital and the first Asian American in the history of Massachusetts to be elected president of a union, she retained her thick skin. “I had to work with whites who were quite racist, but they were working-class whites, and I knew to form a strong union, I had to work with them — I had to win them over, too,” she says. “So it was good practice, because I think many times people of color on the left just say, ‘Okay, they’re racist, we’re going to write them off,’ but in the end we’re not going to win a victory, we’re not going to create the society we want, unless we move people who don’t agree with us to begin with.”

But how to woo people of color without alienating whites? Social policies directed at the poor have historically been seen as burdens on the white community, who believe the money is going only to African Americans and Latinos. UFE organizers have tried to get around the chasm of race politics by carting out their own bogeyman: the greed-crazed corporate CEO. They send political “groupies” dressed in three-piece suits and mink coats onto the campaign trail — “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” — to shine a light on politicians’ corporate influences. They take out irreverent ads ridiculing anti-estate tax activists as a small group of right-wing radicals. And they fire off press releases that illuminate the growing gulf between the salaries of CEOs and those of their worker bees (a ratio that rose from 42 to 1 in 1980 to 282 to 1 in 2002).

Another way that UFE works to defuse racial resentments is by advocating policies that aren’t “race-based,” but that working Americans across the racial spectrum can support. “Tactically, I think that’s a mistake,” says Collins, referring to racially targeted proposals such as slavery reparations. “We need to have a universal wealth-broadening agenda that, by the way, will disproportionately benefit people of color, but isn’t framed as such. Because there’s still a lot of divisions in the white working class, who also want access to home ownership, savings, debt-free college education.” Collins argues in favor of broad-based, universal social policies akin to the G.I. bill — the post-War War II legislation that enabled millions of working-class war veterans to go to college and buy homes.

“Is it possible? Will [these policies] lose political support because they’re seen as benefiting people of color? Will they not really redress the historic inequalities?” Collins doesn’t have a good answer to his questions. But he and Lui both agree that whatever policies ultimately get put forward, organizers need to show genuine sensitivity to all the different groups in their coalition in order to keep people happy and the movement progressing. “We’re fumbling along, trying to figure things out, but at the same time not remaking ourselves into the Center for Third World Organizing,” Collins says, referring to an Oakland-based activist group that organizes communities of color. “Where do we have a piece of the organizing puzzle that no one else is doing? Can we keep talking about the importance of class while ignoring the importance of race? It’s very emotionally charged at times: ‘Which side are you on?’ I hope we can get beyond the either-or politics.”

You can see this complex approach toward organizing in the way that UFE responded to the nationwide protests against the Iraq war. In a new workshop called “The War on the Economy,” the organization made a conscious effort to reach two distinct groups: middle-class whites disgusted with the Bush administration’s foreign adventures, and working-class people of color slammed by drastic cuts in social services. They hired an African American organizer to present the workshop to community organizations and political groups in the Boston area.

“Communities of color have been more focused on the war at home,” Lui says. “[Meanwhile], more progressive whites are thinking, ‘Oh my god, we’re doing this horrible stuff abroad!’ And they’re thinking less about … what’s going on in the neighborhood right next door.” By helping activists in communities of color understand the war abroad and the militarization of the U.S. economy, and helping white peace-and-justice activists appreciate the impact of the war on lower-income people at home, UFE hoped to bridge the two worlds, Lui says.

You could say that it’s the same kind of work that Tomás Aguilar was doing in Irvine, California last February — bridging the gulf between two cultures. The hunger strikers from the Florida tomato fields and the organizer from downtown Boston spoke the same language, but a cultural divide yawned before them. For his part, Aguilar wrestled with the extent of his own privilege — how he could go out and buy new socks, while the strikers walked around in soggy shoes — and wondered what he, the outsider, could contribute to their cause.

In the end, the strike reached a stalemate. Taco Bell only agreed to talks and made no promises. The workers’ campaign goes on.

Yet, the people who went through the concientitazión, or consciousness-raising, so essential to building a larger movement — Aguilar included — came out of it transformed. Aguilar remembers one moment in particular, when the tomato pickers began to get a sense of what all this talk of inequality really meant. Instead of turning to his prepared charts, Aguilar asked his audience to open their eyes and look around them. On one side: security guards, fences, luxury cars, shiny glass buildings. “And then us, sleeping on the sidewalk, rainy — with umbrellas, with little tents — out there, singing, playing guitar, fasting,” Aguilar says. “And educating ourselves. It was just like, wow … Who needs the charts? This is what it looks like.”

STORY INDEX

ORGANIZATIONS >

Center for Third World Organizing
Racial justice organization that seeks to build a “social justice movement led by people of color.” Based in Oakland, California.
URL: http://www.ctwo.org

Coalition of Immokalee Workers
Workers’ rights group that organizes migrant farmworkers. Based in Immokalee, Florida.
URL: http://ciw-online.org

Responsible Wealth
Boston-based network of businesspeople and investors “concerned about deepening economic inequality.”
URL: http://www.responsiblewealth.org

United for a Fair Economy
Boston-based non-profit organization that supports social movements for greater equality.
URL: http://www.faireconomy.org (Spanish version: http://www.economiajusta.org)

TOPICS > ECONOMIC JUSTICE >

“Boycott the Bell!”
An account of the hunger strike by farmworkers outside Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine, California. By the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. February 20-March 5, 2003.
URL: http://www.ciw-online.org/CIW%20hunger_strike_site/hunger_strike_daily_report.html

“Call to Preserve the Estate Tax”
Signers of Responsible Wealth’s “Call to Preserve the Estate Tax” who are subject to that tax. By United for a Fair Economy. September 25, 2003.
URL: http://www.responsiblewealth.org/estatetax/ETCall_Signers.html

“The Triumph of Hope Over Self-Interest”
By David Brooks. Published in The New York Times. January 12, 2003.
URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/12/opinion/12BROO.html

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: victortanchen.com | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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