BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
"This is the demise of civilization!" I'm not making that up — it's what Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, said in a conference call last fall.
BERNIE MARCUS: This is the demise of a civilization. This is how a civilization disappears. I'm sitting here as an elder statesman, and I'm watching this happen and I don't believe it.
BILL MOYERS: You might think Mr. Marcus had glimpsed a catastrophe of the first magnitude — a plague, nuclear war, or a Texas-sized asteroid fast approaching earth. But no, his foreboding sprang from the possibility that Congress might enact a bill, a bill known as EFCA. That's the Employee Free Choice Act, which, if passed, will make it easier for labor to organize as many as 60 million new workers.
And that's the specter that has big business quaking in its wingtips, filling the airwaves and cyberspace with gloom and doom over the apocalypse they predict after EFCA.
ADVERTISEMENT: The economists say it will cost jobs and damage the economy.
BILL MOYERS: That organized labor in America should be trying for a resurgence during our current troubles is a swing of the pendulum historians will recognize. The same thing happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s when workers were almost buried by the collapse of capitalism. Just as we're hearing now, workers who complained then about low wages and poor conditions were often told they were lucky to have a job at all.
Much of that changed in 1935, when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, giving workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. Union membership skyrocketed. That's exactly what unions today hope will happen if EFCA is passed. But labor's hopes dimmed this week when Republican Senator Arlen Specter, staring down the barrel of bad polls and a possible primary challenge from the right, withdrew his previous support.
Such rollercoaster battles of organized labor in America are not for the faint of heart. But all across the country people still fan out to preach the gospel of union solidarity: "Don't agonize," they say, "organize." We met one of them recently, a fellow with a fascinating background and a fire in his belly. He works for Jobs with Justice, an organization of activists fighting for fair treatment in the workplace. His name is James Thindwa.
WOMAN: In many respects, this effort today of Chicago grassroots activists and community organizers is a perfect manifestation of the moment.
BILL MOYERS: It's a freezing day here in Chicago, and James Thindwa has come to warm up this crowd.
JAMES THINDWA: How are you? Thanks so much.
BILL MOYERS: He coaches people to take their turn at the mike.
JAMES THINDWA: Are we ready for your testimony? Yeah? Did you write a letter to Senator Burris?
BILL MOYERS: And urges them to turn out for a coming rally despite the winter weather.
JAMES THINDWA: We've got an action at Resurrection next Saturday at 11 o'clock!
BILL MOYERS: All in a day's work for a man who spends his days organizing people to tackle issues they face in the workplace, from low wages and meager benefits, to corporate behavior.
JAMES THINDWA: Everybody's got a right! Everybody's got a right!
You know you spend time organizing an event and the moment comes and then —
MAN: And you're doing the organizing shuffle. Going back and forth.
JAMES THINDWA: The organizing shuffle. Yes!
BILL MOYERS: Organizing is James Thindwa's mission in life, what he considers his calling.
JAMES THINDWA: I'm a community organizer because I believe that people need a voice. They need to have institutions that speak for them.
JAMES THINDWA: Morning.
JAMES THINDWA: Institutions through which their own concerns, their grievances, their interests, can be represented.
JAMES THINDWA: Willy!
JAMES THINDWA [TO WILLY]: What's going on?
JAMES THINDWA: You know, you take folks who live in communities on the South Side of Chicago, West Side of Chicago. Your average person is getting up every day to go to work, and to care for a family, doesn't have a lobbyist in Washington. They don't have a lobbyist in the city council. They don't have a lobbyist at the state legislature. The community organization gathers facts for them. They call meetings. They invite people to come. They invite elected officials to come, attend those meetings, so that they can listen to the community's grievance. It makes for participation. It creates opportunity for individuals to participate in the political process who otherwise might not have the wherewithal to show up at City Hall, or to show up at the doorsteps of Congress to agitate and organize.
WOMAN: Are those going to fit in there?
JAMES THINDWA: Yeah. This is a typical organizer's trunk, you know. We stay ready.
WOMAN: Okay, we'll see you guys there.
JAMES THINDWA: Alright. See you in a minute.
MAN: Mr. James Thindwa!
JAMES THINDWA: Hello! Hello! Hello!
BILL MOYERS: Thindwa's been at it for nearly thirty years.
JAMES THINDWA: Health care now! Health care now!
BILL MOYERS: Organizing takes him all over town — the South Side, the West Wide, City Hall, any place where working people are fighting to get ahead.
DENNIS GANNON, CHICAGO FEDERATION OF LABOR PRESIDENT: We are going to have James Thindwa from Jobs with Justice working — involved in this.
BILL MOYERS: Thindwa heads Chicago's Jobs with Justice, one of over 40 coalitions nationwide, largely funded by labor unions and allied with religious organizations, veterans and other community groups. Here he is at the Teamster's hall, with steel workers, pipe fitters, brick layers, even musicians, planning a rally.
DENNIS GANNON: We don't have 200 million to spend on it, but we have a lot of voices.
BILL MOYERS: They need him to turn out volunteers.
DENNIS GANNON: James Thindwa? Is a hundred good?
JAMES THINDWA: A hundred — one-fifty spread. Let's do that.
DENNIS GANNON: Let's count James for one hundred.
BILL MOYERS: In the end, Thindwa knows organizing is all about inspiring people to stand together.
JAMES THINDWA: It's time to say no!
JAMES THINDWA: No more abuse of workers and this is where we draw the line, folks!
BILL MOYERS: He was in the thick of things recently when local factory workers stood up to a deadbeat employer. The company they worked for, Republic Windows and Doors, suddenly announced it was closing up shop and leaving town. By law, Republic's unionized employees were entitled to 60 days notice and some parting benefits. Instead, the owners gave them three days notice and cut off their health insurance. The angry workers took over their factory. Backed by their union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine workers of America or U.E., they called it a "peaceful occupation" and announced they wouldn't budge until the company did right by them.
REPORTER #1: Developing right now, laid-off workers occupying a Chicago factory —
REPORTER #2: Hundreds of workers are barricaded in a business on Chicago's —
BILL MOYERS: The story caught the nation's attention.
REPUBLIC WINDOWS AND DOORS EMPLOYEE: We've been here since yesterday and we aren't going anywhere. We are committed to this!
BILL MOYERS: As workers stood firm inside the factory, James Thindwa helped rally supporters to raise a ruckus outside.
CROWD: The workers united will never be defeated!
JAMES THINDWA: We were going to use Republic Windows as an example. That if you're thinking about walking away from workers, you know, walking away from your obligation to pay workers wages and their benefits, and that you're going to have a fight on your hands. That we're going to bring the entire community — the wrath of the community was going to come and express itself. Chicago is a union town. And we like to say that here. And so we drew a line in the sand and said — it was snowing outside, we drew a line in the snow — and said that you can't do this in Chicago.
BILL MOYERS: Factory owners blamed the closure on declining home construction. They said they couldn't meet the payroll or pay their bills, because Bank of America had canceled the company's line of credit.
CROWD: Sí, se puede!
BILL MOYERS: So organizers took on the bank. It had just received 25 billion dollars in federal bailout money, money meant to help banks do the very kind of lending companies like Republic Windows and Doors needed.
MAN: You got bailed out!
CROWD: We got sold out!
JAMES THINDWA: Bank of America became a target, and by the way, not just here in Chicago. No. We held rallies here at the bank, two or three major rallies that took place at the bank, to put pressure on it, to say, "Shame on you. You got $25 billion in a taxpayer bailout."
ELCE REDMOND: What we're saying is that there needs to be a people's bailout.
JAMES THINDWA: But across the country, in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the headquarters is of Bank of America, unions there organized rallies.
WOMAN: They got the $25 billion! They don't want to give the workers —
JAMES THINDWA: And so this became a very, very powerful campaign, politically, emotionally. And I think Bank of America wisely decided that this was not a fight that they were going to win.
CROWD: Yes, we did! Yes, we did!
BILL MOYERS: After five days of public pressure, Bank of America caved. It came up with a cash loan to pay the workers what they were owed.
MAN 1: (in Spanish) The occupation has ended! We said we wouldn't leave until we won. And we've done it!
MAN 2: We got it!
JAMES THINDWA: The Republic Windows and Doors struggle here was so momentous, was such an important event, that we don't want to lose that momentum. We really think that this is a story that needs to be told. So Jobs with Justice has mounted — has launched a tour of the workers, to take them around the country to speak to groups, speak to union members and speak to community people.
MALE WORKER 1: You know, we'd just been lied to so much that, you know, we just got tired of it.
FEMALE WORKER: You always want to be under the foot of these people? Or do you want to walk yourself towards a better future?
MALE WORKER 2: We had to do something because something's going to happen over here. I was part of history. We made history and that history is going to remain forever, forever to the people. Thank you so much.
JAMES THINDWA: What happened here is a clear example of the importance and the uniqueness and the power that comes out of organizing. There's just no way, in my mind, that non-union workers would have done something like this. And in fact it's just — it's almost unimaginable.
BILL MOYERS: James Thindwa first saw the power of organizing when he was growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
JAMES THINDWA: Activism, I think, is in my DNA. I don't know too many people who grow up in Zimbabwe or any of those countries that have experienced the, sort of, the rough-and-tumble of our racial politics who emerge out of it without being politically conscious.
This is me, James. This is my twin brother, Geoffrey. This is my dad. My dad was born in the country of Malawi and he actually migrated to Zimbabwe. My parents, you could say, they were clearly middle class by African standards. They just were very serious people, well read. They loved to read, and they taught us how to take education seriously.
NEWS REEL NARRATOR: The wind of change in Africa reaches hurricane force, sweeping from Congo to Southern Rhodesia.
BILL MOYERS: His family joined in Rhodesia's fight against British colonial rule.
JAMES THINDWA: Like a lot of families, they were involved in the struggle. Sometimes there were curfews. I remember that, especially when the state declared a state of emergency, you couldn't — you know, two or three people couldn't assemble. But they had people come to the house and had meetings. And sometimes they closed the shades so nobody can see. It was a pretty diverse group, even back then, that brought their white friends to the house. And so there were political discussions going on, about strategy and how to become involved in shaping the future of the country. One of the most enlightening things, revealing things for me was hearing labor leaders speak in a sophisticated way about issues beyond the bargaining table. Unions, to us, growing up, performed more functions than just negotiating for better wages for workers. They really were seen in society as a legitimate vehicle for transforming society. And so, I think that by the time I came to the United States, I pretty much knew that I wanted to be an activist, somebody who organized people to make a difference in society.
BILL MOYERS: Thindwa won a scholarship to Kentucky's Berea College and went on to a master's degree at Miami University in Ohio, protesting as a student against the Ku Klux Klan and apartheid in South Africa. Soon he moved to Chicago, where he advocated for senior citizens before joining Jobs with Justice.
MALE VOICE: At the back will be postcards on the Employee Free Choice Act...
BILL MOYERS: These days he's deeply involved in organized labor's campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, EFCA, now pending in Congress. He says the bill — simplifying how workers can sign up for a union — will do more than anything to strengthen their collective voice in the workplace.
JAMES THINDWA: Right now the environment for workers is very, very difficult. Workers are facing intimidation when they try to join unions. One out of five workers in the United States is fired for trying to organize a union.
MAN HANDING OUT FLYERS: How you doing? Trying to organize a union here at Resurrection. We've been trying here for three years. The Employee Free Choice Act makes it easier.
JAMES THINDWA: There are rallies planned right here in Chicago. And across the country, Jobs with Justice is collecting cards intended to demonstrate the public support for the Employee Free Choice Act. It's a card that says, "I, as a resident of this country, am in favor of passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and I want Congress to move quickly to pass that law."
BILL MOYERS: Union organizing can be a tough sell, even among workers Thindwa thinks it would help. When he came to America as a student, his classmates equated unions with the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, the mob and corruption.
JAMES THINDWA: I just found this hostility, this antipathy, towards unions. I think what I've tried to, when pushing back in these debates, was to say, "Fine. Certain leaders are corrupt. But you're not suggesting that unions are not relevant in society, are you?" And then so we'd have the debate about the importance of having a counter-weight to what I think clearly has been growing corporate power that really conspired for a long time to demonize and undermine unions.
BILL MOYERS: Now he's making the case that in hard times workers need to stand together more than ever. Over 100 thousand people have lost their jobs in Chicago over the past year. Around town, long lines of people look for work, and Thindwa says a destructive spiral is gathering momentum.
JAMES THINDWA: Last July in 2008 in July, 62 young African-American men were shot dead in their neighborhoods. Now the media can just dismiss this as the acts of individuals who just want to be bad people. But we know, as Julius Wilson has written — the sociologist from Harvard — has written that much of this social instability can be linked to disappearing work. What you're seeing right now are parents who are working, oftentimes, two, three jobs at the minimum wage. One of the consequences is that they're going to be less and less invested in their kids. Not because they're bad parents, but because they've got to get out and work. And someone has to care for those kids. And who's going to do that? They're going to be out on the streets most of the time, and ending up in trouble. So those are some of the connections that we try to make. That the question of good wages, decent wages for workers, isn't just a question of economic justice, isn't just a question of fairness for that worker, that it does have broad implications for social stability.
JAMES THINDWA: What do we want?
CROWD: A living wage!
JAMES THINDWA: When do we want it?
BILL MOYERS: For years now, James Thindwa has been on the front lines in the fight here for better pay for low-end workers, bringing him squarely up against Chicago's formidable political machine and the country's most zealous champion of low wages, the giant Wal-Mart.
ADVERTISEMENT: Why do I love Wal-Mart? They've got this great service.
BILL MOYERS: The huge discount retailer is well known for paying low wages that produce high profits, and their famous "everyday low prices."
ADVERTISEMENT: And that's why I come to Wal-Mart.
BILL MOYERS: In 2003, Wal-Mart announced plans to open its first store in Chicago, in a poor neighborhood on the West Side. The company said it would provide jobs to nearly 250 people, two-thirds of them permanent. Eager for jobs and weary of traveling long distances for bargain prices, many residents cheered. But Wal-Mart's opponents argued the company drives smaller competitors out of business, destroys union jobs and pays too little for people to live on.
JAMES THINDWA: So there's this phenomenon across the country of Wal-Mart family members who are having to be subsidized by public dollars because they work for a corporation that refuses to pay them a decent wage and provide healthcare benefits. So we think that workers like that are kind of forgotten. They're forgotten because their employers have told everyone that they're part of a service sector, and that the service sector somehow doesn't matter. The service sector is inherently low wage. And what we're saying is, "No, we need to focus on them, because there are millions of these folks."
BILL MOYERS: Passions ran high for and against Wal-Mart. But instead of opposing the store outright, Thindwa and other activists asked the city council to pass a living wage ordinance, requiring big box stores like Wal-Mart and target to pay employees at least $10 an hour.
JAMES THINDWA: The idea of a living wage is that people should earn a living above the poverty line.
BILL MOYERS: It didn't seem like such a revolutionary request. Costco, another big box store in town, was already starting its employees at $10 an hour. But from the fight that erupted, you would have thought the Bolsheviks were coming.
LOCAL NEWS REPORTER: It's billed as a battle between rich and poor, corporate America and workers who straddle the poverty line —
LOCAL NEWS ANCHOR: Tensions were high yesterday as dueling groups for and against the measure argued their point at the Thompson Center.
JAMES THINDWA: The opposition to the living wage was based on a couple of things they were saying. One of them was that if we passed a living wage ordinance in Chicago, that we're going to drive businesses away, the Wal-Mart would not build a store in Chicago.
LOCAL NEWS REPORTER: ...would stop plans for new stores if the ordinance passed...
JAMES THINDWA: The second one was that when there is a job, and you're out of work, you don't have the luxury to pick, you don't have the luxury to choose. And so we had to convince people that, no, it wasn't just about a job. The job has to be dignified, has to have meaning, and furthermore, corporations don't have a right to exploit people in a neighborhood just because those people are desperate, just because they're vulnerable, just because they're jobless. And so the task for us was for us to go out and talk to our allies and to convince them, to give them a good reason why this was not an obstructionist proposal. But that in fact this is in the long-term interest of the city and of its communities. So it was a huge battle.
BILL MOYERS: Neighborhood churches lined up on both sides of the living wage fight.
REV. ALFRED TYSON III: What's more important to us is that we have access to jobs!
BILL MOYERS: Then, Thindwa was taken aback when civil rights hero Andrew Young rode into town on Wal-Mart's side. Young had been with Martin Luther King when King was assassinated after marching with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, and had gone on to become mayor of Atlanta, three-term congressman, and ambassador to the United Nations. Now the world's largest discount store had hired him to head a group called Working Families for Wal-Mart, funded by the company and its suppliers. Young's argument was that Wal-Mart's low-paying jobs could put working people on a path up the economic ladder.
JAMES THINDWA: His job was to go across the country rallying the troops, rallying clergy, community leaders, black leaders, to oppose what, in effect, is really a pay hike for workers. You know, in these cities when you're talking about workers with big box stores, you're talking about black workers, Latino workers. These are people of color who work in these stores. So there's very odd enterprise for him. But he came to Chicago and he sponsored a big clergy luncheon on the South Side of Chicago and invited some aldermen, invited clergy members and tried to convince them to oppose the living wage ordinance.
JAMES THINDWA: A few days after that, in fact, one of the pastors on the South Side of Chicago actually held a rally at his church. And a thousand people showed up.
BILL MOYERS: Thindwa was puzzled. Why would a thousand people on the South Side of Chicago turn out to oppose a proposal that would put more money in their pockets? He went looking for an explanation in the neighborhood, and he found it: a flier for what was a pro-Wal-Mart rally, promoted as a Wal-Mart job fair.
JAMES THINDWA: This was the advertisement: If you're looking for work at Wal-Mart, bring an ID. Bring your resume. You would show up too, I would show up, if I was looking for work. When I saw this, I mean, my heart sunk. I was, you know, I was angry. I was just horrified. And really disappointed. It was heartbreaking. And especially for those folks who came here thinking that this is a chance to get work. And so it was part of — so an example of some of the — just how far the opposition was willing to go to sink this thing.
BILL MOYERS: Officials denied there was any funny business behind the rally. Following the event, the church's pastor, Rev. Leon Finney, told a reporter: "We're looking at economic devastation in black communities. We want the jobs." In the months leading up to the city council's vote on the living wage proposal, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune ran editorial after editorial opposing it.
JAMES THINDWA: The opposition to the living wage became so intense that I can concede right now that I had these private moments of doubt. I really doubted whether we were going to pull this off. But we continued. We had done our job. We had — we went out and talked to people. In fact, Jobs with Justice and some of the other organizations, we actually went door to door. We went out and talked to people on the West Side of Chicago about why we needed a living wage. Most people thought it's fair to ask to a corporation that makes $350 billion in sales every year, and makes a profit of $12.5 billion every year, to pay a living wage to the workers.
REPORTER: Supporters of the ordinance that would force big box retailers to pay their workers at least $10 an hour in wages.
BILL MOYERS: The day of judgment came in July of 2006, three years after this round in the fight for a living wage ordinance began. When the votes were counted, organizing carried the day.
REPORTER: Linda, the vote happened within the last few minutes and it was a veto proof 35 to 14 margin in favor of enacting what's been called this living wage ordinance that applies to big box retailers —
JAMES THINDWA: And so we won. It was a huge victory for us. As a matter of fact, we were in the city council when the vote was taken and there was just jubilation. We just — we hugged each other. And just — everybody was just really, really happy. This is it, you know. We have won!
BILL MOYERS: But the victory was short-lived. Chicago's six-term mayor Democrat Richard Daley wanted Wal-Mart in the city and he wasn't about to let the campaign for a living wage keep it out. Behind the scenes he began twisting arms and three aldermen changed their votes, enabling the mayor to veto the measure without fear of being overturned.
MAYOR RICHARD DALEY: Therefore, today, I'm announcing that we'll veto, of course, this ordinance —
JAMES THINDWA: When you are in Chicago, nothing is ever a done deal. But as organizers, we always take the long term.
JAMES THINDWA: What do we want?
CROWD: A living wage!
JAMES THINDWA: When do we want it?
JAMES THINDWA: I can't hear you!
JAMES THINDWA: The interesting thing about the ordinance is that after the Mayor vetoed it, the public actually got to have the last word, because some of the aldermen in the African American community who voted against the ordinance were subsequently voted out of office. Activists just went out in the neighborhoods back into the wards and explained to people what happened, right? That you're sending an alderman to downtown to the city council to represent your interests. "Are your rents going up?" "Yes." "Are your utility rates going up?" "Yes." "Gas prices going up?" "Yes." "Well, your alderman voted against a pay raise for workers. What do you think about that?" And people decided that they were going to go out and vote them out of office. And so several aldermen are now unemployed as a result of that.
BILL MOYERS: The one-two punch paid off. Organizers on the ground, and two and a half million dollars from unions to get out the vote in key races, produced results. Now, with new aldermen on the city council, supporters of the living wage are confident they will prevail, Mayor Daley notwithstanding.
CROWD: What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!
BILL MOYERS: For James Thindwa, the work of community organizing is never done. One battle quickly replaces another.
JAMES THINDWA: I think, for many of us, we just get more and more motivated to get back on the street, to get back in these communities and organize people. Because we know that we're on the right side of this debate. We think people should get work. People should. It's good to get a job, but that job has to pay a decent wage.