The Empire Strikes Back To Unify Working Community

They dubbed it "The Empire Strikes Back." But there were no Storm Troopers or Sith Lords in this counteroffensive. Instead they were blue-collar workers, union members, day laborers, immigrant groups, students, advocates and community members.

They gathered in the dimly lit Unitarian Universalist church in downtown Riverside to strike back against the crumbling economy and decimated job market.

Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist who helped set up the meeting, said the goal was to form a community within the Inland Empire that will offer ongoing support for a neighborhood ravaged by unemployment and poor working conditions.

"We hope to get a conversation started about ways to respond to various crises that are hitting Southern California, specifically the Inland Empire," said Ehrenreich. "Try and re-imagine this place, where we are incorporating a more just vision of society."

The just vision Ehrenreich speaks of is giving power back to the blue-collar workers and creating more opportunities for them to benefit from the goods and services produced in the area. He said they needed to start a long-term social movement that connects the day laborers, students and warehouse workers and fights for their rights.

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Ben Ehrenreich discusses the importance of community involvement.

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The economic crisis has hit Riverside County hard the past few years, leaving many people in search of jobs. Others have been forced to take furloughs or pay cuts and many families have lost their homes. The unemployment rate for Riverside County sits just below 15 percent, well above the 9.7 percent national average, and the Inland Empire, along with the Metro-Detroit area of Michigan, now has the highest unemployment rates for areas with populations of 1 million or more.

There have been some positive signs that the economy has begun to turn, as several thousand jobs have become available in the area, and a report published last month, from Northeastern University in Boston predicted that at least 5 million job vacancies could exist within eight years if baby boomers continue to retire "at the same rate and age as current older workers."

However, for Ehrenreich and those gathered to discuss the problems in their community, it isn't just about jobs opening up, but about creating the right kind of jobs that create a stable environment for those living in Riverside and its adjoining counties.

"You can't really separate the collapse from the boom, the kind of unsustainable forms the economy took over the last 5 years are now playing themselves out through the disaster we've been feeling," said Ehrenreich. "We can't exactly look to the recent past for how to rebuild this place and rebuild its economy. We have to really start to think of new ideas that take people—and not just the movement of money and goods—into account."

University of Riverside professor and urban theorist Mike Davis said that the beginning of the Inland Empire's struggles began in the 1980s with the closing of the Kaiser Steel plant. That closure set off what Davis referred to as the "Big Bang" of de-industrialization and de-militarization in the area throughout the mid-1990s and cost around 25,000 working-class and skilled jobs.

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Mike Davis lays out how the Inland Empire's job crisis came about.

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Those jobs were supplanted by the construction and housing boom that took place throughout the next decade and created growth in this area that Davis referred to as one of the "ground zeros of the housing bubble."

The bursting of the housing bubble has been well documented throughout the country and especially within Southern California. Davis and his colleagues are concerned that the goals of decision-makers and their "field of dreams scenario" for bringing science-based jobs to the area wouldn't "create educational and economic mobility for the grandchildren of Kaiser Steel workers or San Bernardino railroad machinists."

For Davis, the solution is a strong labor movement that will fuel its own working class strategies for regional recovery. Those who gathered last week hope this is one step in formulating that movement.

"The solutions are going to come from the various parties here. Their local investment and contact in their communities is more knowledge than anything we could bring from the outside and impose as a model," said Ken Rogers, assistant professor at UCR who helped organize the event.

One of the groups traveling the furthest distance was three representatives from Local 30 in Boron, who have been barred from working in the local mines by employer Rio Tinto Minerals since January 31.

Terri Judd, who has worked in the area for 13 years, said the lockout has caused many to move away from the area to look for other work, which has damaged the local school districts and small businesses.

"We are a very small local, but we have been blessed with support from across the country, across the world," she said. "This isn't just a fight that is going on up in our desert, but starting to appear all across Southern California."

Judd said that it is important for all working groups in the area to make a stand and fight for each other.

"We are standing strong up in the desert," she said to an audience of around 200 people made up mostly of blue-collar and union workers. "We hope you support us just like we are going to be there to support you."

One of those groups hoping to gain support was the Warehouse Workers United, a group trying to gain rights for warehouse workers throughout the Inland Empire. Retail giants Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Lowe's, and K-Mart/Sears all operate warehouses in the area. WWU said there are over 118,000 warehouse workers and about 53,000 of them are part-time workers, hired through temp agencies, who are subjected to poor working conditions.

Sheheryar Kaoosji, a project coordinator for WWU, said because the temp agencies hire the part-time workers, labor law doesn't allow them to form a union in traditional ways. He said because they are generally low-income immigrant workers, the corporations view them as expendable.

"They don't even have to fire them, they just say, 'You aren't coming back tomorrow. Your job position has been terminated,'" said Kaoosji. "So anyone who takes any kind of action is immediately terminated."

He said the working conditions in the warehouses are particularly unstable and without the aid of unions to protect employees from false termination or faulty workers compensation documentation many of them are forced to work with injuries or under poor working conditions.

Kaoosji said with support from other unions in the community his organization hopes in the future that these workers will be able to enjoy a union's stability, but they are far from that point.

"We have had some folks who have been fired because they were involved with us," he said. "They weren't actively organizing in their work place, but they were part of our group, in the newspapers, in the public protesting. But basically it's a culture of fear where the people employed know not to do it."

The loss of jobs and tenuous work environments in the low-paying jobs in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties has begun to galvanize many of the organizations to fight together. But, as Ehrenreich said, it's just the beginning, and it will take time.

"Immediately we're not thinking in terms of short-term practical things that politicians can do," he said. "We're hoping to build something that looks like a social movement or to start to make the connections that might lead towards a long-term social movement in which people see themselves as connected to one other."

With the small group connecting already, those unemployed and underpaid in the Inland Empire hope the movement spawns quickly so they can strike back and move forward with their lives.

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