New Lynn Coalition
Building solidarity between community and labor to fight for people-centered economic development
The New Lynn Coalition was established in 2010 to unite the region’s working class into a “permanent political and economic force [that] transcends racial, linguistic, ethnic, citizenship, and gender boundaries.”[i] New Lynn was built on years of prior collaboration among core labor and community organizations, including an innovative machinist training program jointly run since 1995 by IUE-CWA Local 201 and the faith-based Essex County Community Organization (ECCO). Jeff Crosby, New Lynn’s executive director and president of the North Shore Labor Council (NSLC), identified Minnesotans for a Fair Economy as one inspiration for the coalition, which does “what we do, but better: joint actions between worker centers and unions, working shoulder to shoulder.”
Lynn is the largest city on Massachusetts’ North Shore (~90,000 residents). It is one of the most racially diverse in the state with over fifty percent people of color and several immigrant communities,[ii] and it has a poverty rate almost twice the state average. [iii] Crosby describes Lynn as having been “abandoned by neoliberalism” and fears the new wave of development in the city will only widen the gap between the well off and the poor. New Lynn sees its coalition-building mission as critical to its vision of a city where “decisions are made by those impacted by them and the development of structures and institutions is based in working class interests and subject to the power of a strong working class movement.”[iv] The coalition founders identified four “fronts” of work: cultural and political education, economic development, political action, and research.
The coalition today consists of twelve core organizations, with several others participating on an issue-by-issue basis. The NSLC has been providing regular funding for the coalition through the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Fund, and provides it space in its own office. There are two part-time staffers, Crosby and Jon Feinberg, with funding recently secured from the Miller Foundation to hire a full-time organizing director. New Lynn also has a steering committee including representatives from each coalition organization.
New Lynn has engaged in several successful efforts on each of its four fronts over the last six years. The coalition created an adult night school at the Lynn Vocational Technical Institute that offered classes based on the needs of coalition member bases, such as a nanny certification course and computer classes held in Spanish. It held a political event to raise awareness about the need for job training that was attended by 140 community members and seven local elected officials. New Lynn also hosted a public event to celebrate Lynn’s cultural diversity with over 300 community members, which according to Crosby, had “political content” and was “very conscious, not just a party.” Almost a hundred people spoke about why they came to Lynn and their vision for the city. “It told us there is a sentiment out there for unity,” Crosby reflected afterward. The coalition has also supported several worker issue ballot initiatives, and lent administrative support to coalition member efforts such as the Lynn Worker Center’s involvement in the Boston Globe delivery workers strike.
One longer-term effort was inspired by a visit to Mondragon. New Lynn sought to start a worker cooperative, Crosby said, to “accumulate capital” and build “substantial economic power,” not just for the sake of starting a cooperative. Feinberg emphasized the significance of “an anti-racist labor and community coalition trying to build a coop.” New Lynn supported development of Freedom Machine, a worker-owned machinists cooperative. Despite the challenge of finding a large enough space for the machine shop, they had confidence in the decades of industry experience of coalition members, their knowledge of the local market, and existing connections with potential clients. Unfortunately, after four years of development, the coalition’s private funder pulled out due to concerns about a lack of business and financial expertise. Crosby felt “they didn’t appreciate the expertise we did have,” and despite the setback the core group of coalition participants remain interested in idea.
Recently the coalition has been “almost 100%” focused, according to Feinberg, on organizing around the ongoing development of Lynn’s 305-acre waterfront. Previously, the coalition had influenced a seventy-one unit residential development on Lower Washington Street. By securing funding from the AFL-CIO’s Housing Investment Trust and a state tax break for the developer, New Lynn negotiated a community benefits agreement including the use of 100% union labor and $100,000 donated to the night school. Now, New Lynn is engaging in an extended democratic visioning process across the coalition to build consensus and power to make even more transformative demands around the new waterfront development.
New Lynn’s efforts to build permanent political and economic solidarity across divisions within the working class starts with a commitment to “social justice unionism”. In contrast to business unionism, social justice unionism, according to Crosby, “starts with the analysis that there is a class struggle and we represent the working class, not just our union members, so we have to deal with all issues that affect working people.” The backing and resources of the labor council have enabled the coalition to achieve meaningful victories. For Feinberg, the stability of the labor organization gives the coalition “a certain credibility that we wouldn’t have just being a scrappy bunch of community organizations.”
A few New Lynn leaders hold well-developed analyses that explicitly identify capitalism as a system that ravaged Lynn and continues to oppress working class Lynners. However, the coalition deliberately refrains from using explicit anti-capitalist language to help “maintain a sense of credibility”, because, as Feinberg says “there are some organizations that might be scared off by that kind of language.” And while other New Lynn leaders and participants may not hold or share such explicit analyses, Feinberg reports common themes that emerge in conversation, such as positions on solidarity and community control: “We talk about community control, community-driven development, we talk about this being our city and our waterfront… language about public and communal ownership is definitely in there.” The coalition has also been cultivating an explicit racial analysis, “White supremacy, white privilege -- those are terms we use in our meetings,” said Crosby.
Crosby has observed differences in the concerns of coalition members: “unions say the avenue to success for any family is a good job… but community organizations are more concerned about housing and eviction.” Jose Palma of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts, a New Lynn member, also noted “there are different analyses and points of view… that’s why it’s hard to say one thing about the coalition.” But, rather than air too many discussions that might come across as “too theoretical”, according to Feinberg, New Lynn is using the imminent waterfront development to frame a collective visioning conversation. This conversation can undergird a coalition-wide vision for the city, and bolster political education and solidarity building for coalition members.
Courtesy of New Lynn Coalition
Developing this broad and united front has its internal challenges. Bridging labor and community is a challenge given historical tensions between typically white organized labor and organizations of people of color, and the disparity in resources and capacity between these of groups. Of the coalition organizations, Crosby found that “a lot of organizations are unstable. And institutional ones like unions, it’s harder to get their attention.” Despite Crosby’s ideological views and the resources NSLC has dedicated, some coalition members have questioned the nature of labor’s commitment to New Lynn. Crosby recalled a New Lynn leader saying to him, “We don’t really have unions, we have you.”
Palma observes that one challenge is that many nonprofits in Lynn “are not power-building organizations” but “service providers” that tend not to engage their communities in political education. New Lynn has also had to navigate the different and sometimes opposing political alliances of member organizations. Lynn’s mayor recently issued a series of statements regarding the city’s immigrant populations that upset many coalition members, but at least one coalition member has a publicly close relationship with the mayor.
Feinberg speculated that “most of the divisiveness that arrives is more racially based, and I think stems from both ignorance and lack of trust. But I think there’s a piece of this where you have to spend the time working together and winning and losing together to be able to see that we’re really on the same side.” Crosby also found there were tensions among immigrant populations, since there are many different immigrant groups in the city and some are not yet represented within the coalition, and between more affluent homeowners and less affluent renters.
Some coalition members have felt that NSLC’s greater ability to contribute capacity to New Lynn activities can lead to uneven leadership and participation in their work. On the community benefits agreement related to the Lower Washington development, Palma observed that “the negotiations were not getting done by mostly community member organizations from New Lynn. That was getting negotiated mostly by Jeff Crosby and Pete Capano (a city councilor and very good friend of ours and a CWA president).”
Courtesy of New Lynn Coalition
New Lynn’s multiple fronts of work cut across the three-dimensions of consciousness, power-building and economic alternatives. The political and cultural education front builds consciousness to drive transformational work. Political action includes both internal power-building activities and engagement with local government, such as running more coalition-friendly candidates in local elections. Coalition members have also been inspired to start building political power at a state level that would be independent from the Democratic Party. Maria Carrasco, on the school board in Lynn and the President of the coalition, pointed out “I’m the only Latina elected in the city... in ten years… Something is wrong in our system that doesn’t let us obtain the political power we need.”
New Lynn’s effort to incubate Freedom Machine worker cooperative was an attempt to build an alternative. But the project exemplifies the difficulty of financing alternative models. Before the coalition settled on the idea of the machinist coop, they had explored an aquaponics cooperative, which was rejected by a funder who felt that project “didn’t meet environmental standards for waste,” according to Crosby. With the machinist cooperative, this same funder pulled out because of concerns over the lack of financial expertise among the prospective worker-owners. Despite lack of a robust network of funders and technical support attuned to the unique needs of cooperative ventures, the desire to build alternatives persists.
Crosby sees New Lynn as “something in motion” with a “constant tension between what I think we need to be and what we are politically...” He describes a dual challenge for the coalition of being “full of contradictions internally, pushing against external things that are difficult.” New Lynn is at a place where members are “thinking grand thoughts but on the ground struggling through.” The New Lynn steering committee considered the idea of expanding their work beyond the borders of Lynn, but the majority felt that they had enough to handle within their own city. Still, leaders see the potential for a broader impact. Feinberg saw it as a first stage: “We’re trying to build something to protect what little we do have, and use that safer space to build out.”
[i] Jonathan Feinberg, Developing Solidarity: Transformative Community Economic Development and the New Lynn Coalition (Master’s Thesis, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning, 2014).
[ii] US Census Bureau Quick Facts. http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/2537490,00 accessed November 27, 2016.
[iii] New Lynn Coalition, 2011. Lynn: A Little City with Big Potential. http://newlynn.org/sites/newlynncoalition.org/files/lynn_health.pdf accessed October 11, 2016.
[iv] Jonathan Feinberg 2014.