Z Magazine Online

February 2007 Volume 20 Number 2

Collective Challenges
Boston Workers Alliance

By Chris Heneghan

Members of the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA) met last October in New York City for the second national conference of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. They were there to discuss plans for a temp agency cooperative and to network with people willing to assist their efforts.

The BWA was founded in 2005 at a convergence of “jobless workers” from Boston’s low-income Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. Committed to “uplifting [the] community by building powerful collective challenges to the crisis of unemployment,” BWA envisioned creating a network that would work cooperatively to aid ex-offenders being released from prison and other individuals unable to find work in Massachusetts due to discriminatory hiring practices under the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) Act.

The BWA currently has 300 members who pay $2 a month in dues, 50 of whom attend regular meetings and participate in projects. They work in partnership with local residents who are unable to access the job market. Projects they are involved in include everything from community outreach and CORI reform advocacy to developing and implementing job creation strategies as well as legislative lobbying and media work.

Aaron Tanaka, an organizer for the BWA, works with the job creation committee to gain support from local employers and the community for the temp agency. “The temp agency is our first economic development project. The reason we decided to do this is because we want to use worker co-ops as a job creation strategy,” he said. Tanaka believes “the temp agency will allow us to place people where they might not ordinarily get hired.” He admits it may be difficult to run a cooperative temp agency due to the high rate of employee turnover, but feels it is not impossible.

The BWA is working in partnership with the Industrial Cooperative Association (ICA), which has already set up three successful temp agencies. Tanaka points to an ICA-created temp agency in Baltimore as a working model for BWA. “The structure…is different than other temp agencies because it is non-profit,” Tanaka said. Though it may not be a worker owned cooperative by textbook definition, he explained that being a non-profit “will allow workers to have full control over their wages.” Unlike for-profit temp agencies that take a certain percentage of each of their clients earnings, BWA’s agency intends to cover its overhead costs, but will “take nothing away from its workers” at the end of each pay period. In order for BWA to be successful in establishing worker cooperatives, Tanaka feels the group must first meet people’s “immediate financial needs.” The goal of the temp agency is to provide those in need with a greater sense of economic mobility. Creating a stable environment by working with the residents of Greater Boston’s marginal communities to meet their needs will allow those in the neighborhoods who wish to devote time to organizing for social change the opportunity to do so without having to worry about how they are going to pay their rent or feed their families.

David Ludlow, a volunteer and support member with the BWA, sees the group starting “an alternative economy for communities of color in the greater Boston area, through creating worker cooperatives in which people can sell their services to each other rather than relying on large corporations.”

According to the BWA, “Blacks with [criminal] records applying for entry level positions have a 5 percent chance of being called back for interviews and blacks without [criminal] records have a 14 percent chance. Whites with records have a 17 percent chance and whites without records have a 34 percent chance.”

Greg Young is an active BWA member to whom the temp agency project would be beneficial. Following his release from a Massachusetts State Correctional facility after serving a two-year sentence, Young was turned away or terminated from employment because of his CORI status. A CORI is a record of a person’s criminal history. This record includes any time an individual was in court on a criminal charge, no matter what the final outcome of the charge. Many employers are required to run a CORI check on all job applicants even though CORI documents are full of  legal jargon, making the documents very difficult for the untrained reader to understand.

There are over 2.3 million CORIs on file in Massachusetts and over 10,000 organizations in the state have access to these records. CORIs are frequently used to deny people housing, employment, and access to student loans. CORIs from misdemeanors remain open for 10 years and felonies for 15 years, even if the individual is found not guilty. It is possible for individuals to access their CORI and have it sealed—but that requires time and processing fees, which are often hard to come by in low income communities. According to the BWA, “many businesses will not hire anyone with a CORI regardless of their qualifications or commitment.”

Young believes that the majority of people who are incarcerated are good people who “deserve a second chance.” For most people, he explained, “time in prison is lonely. Guys are in a cell all by themselves with nothing but walls and guards. All we ever think about is freedom and how we want to work because we screwed up.” Upon his release, he felt he “had already been corrupted by all the violence” he witnessed in jail and was “looking for some peace and humbleness,” along with the opportunity to “have a job to take care of [his] kids and be a good role model.”

Young’s involvement with the BWA has been an uplifting experience that has given him hope for his future. “Getting in touch with this organization really touches me because though I am not working temporarily I feel as if it is really going to take me to a different place. What we need to do is focus on the CORI situation. Guys just want to turn their lives around and do the right things.”

Chris Heneghan is an independent journalist who reports on social justice issues. His work appears in Grass Roots Economic Organizer and the Uconn Free Press. He is also the founder of the Wrench in the Works Collective, a radical lending library in Connecticut.