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Prospects for labor to lead foreclosure fight

Published Sep 1, 2008 12:07 AM

An important meeting in Los Angeles on July 26 launched a Labor/Community Coalition to Stop Foreclosures and Evictions. Does this gathering portend an opportunity for a revival of the labor and working-class struggle in the U.S.?

The meeting was built by an alliance of neighborhood and community organizations with Service Employees Local 721, the second largest SEIU local in California with over 88,000 members. The local’s Latino and African-American caucuses spearheaded the union’s involvement.

An organizer from Michigan with the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures and Evictions was invited to speak. He showed a video of a neighborhood rally which helped stop a foreclosure by Countrywide Bank of a disabled senior in Detroit. He discussed SB 1306, a bill introduced in Michigan for a two-year moratorium or halt on all foreclosures. The organizer explained how this bill was modeled on 1930s legislation that imposed moratoriums on foreclosures in 25 states and was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The meeting adopted the demand for a moratorium on foreclosures as the central program for the Labor/Community Coalition. It called for a Sept. 17 march on the Los Angeles City Council to coincide with the Sept. 17 demonstration scheduled at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich.

Rosie Martinez, a leader of the Latino Caucus who chaired the meeting on behalf of SEIU Local 721, was energized by the strength of the labor/community alliance filling the union hall. She announced, “What we need is a Millions March Against Foreclosures!” Martinez repeated this demand throughout the meeting as she became more inspired by the potential for fightback.

Is Rosie Martinez onto something? Is a Millions March Against Foreclosures, led by the union movement in alliance with community organizations nationwide, just what is needed to revive the labor movement in the current period?

Today the working class as a whole is in crisis. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the official unemployment rate rose to 5.7 percent in July 2008, up a full point from a year ago. Underemployment rose to 10.3 percent.

Over the past year, 1.6 million workers have been added to the jobless rolls, and average work hours dropped to 33.6 hours per week for those still employed. At the same time, with inflation running four to five percent, weekly earnings rose only 2.8 percent before inflation, meaning a significant drop in wages for the working class.

Foreclosures affect all workers

During the first quarter of 2008, one in 11 homeowners faced foreclosure or fell behind in their mortgage payments. (Mortgage Bankers Association, June 2008) The number of all home loans nationwide in foreclosure or past due increased to 4.8 million. Experts state that the foreclosure crisis has yet to peak, and many adjustable rate mortgages are due to reset with higher interest in the next few years.

The foreclosure crisis was initially concentrated in subprime loans, which were a product of the racist, sexist and predatory lending practices of the banks. Now, as a result of the deepening economic decline, the crisis has spread to standard mortgages as well. When workers lose their jobs or suffer a cut in wages, they are increasingly unable to pay their mortgages. Meanwhile, the banks and loan servicers overwhelmingly ignore calls for some relief, and government programs have proven inadequate to provide any meaningful solutions.

It is not just individuals and families facing foreclosure, who are feeling this crisis. The foreclosure epidemic is destroying neighborhoods and driving down the value of homes for all workers, whose main asset diminishes considerably with each passing day.

Even though union membership in the U.S. has declined from 33 percent of the workforce in 1960 to 12.1 percent as of 2007, there are still 15.7 million union members. The unions remain the most powerful organized force within the working class. But they have been stymied in their growth, albeit with some significant recent victories particularly in the health services, by labor laws which make successful organizing in individual worksites or industries extremely difficult. In a period of recession, organizing becomes even more difficult as workers are increasingly afraid of losing their jobs.

During this period of economic attacks on the entire working class, the potential for extending the influence of the labor movement and increasing union membership exists in the broader struggle for gains for the entire working class. The unions can assert leadership in building a movement to stop the foreclosures affecting millions. This struggle can strengthen solidarity in fighting racism and discrimination as it builds alliances to fight back against the banks and financial institutions, the epicenter of capitalism.

Rosie Martinez’s proposal for a Millions March Against Foreclosures could be just the dynamic vehicle necessary to put the union movement at the head of a new working-class coalition which will propel a resurgence of the union movement and win relief for workers around the country.

Goldberg is a UAW 900 retiree and a leader of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition in Detroit.