By TONY PECINOVSKY
African American community leaders Shuron Jones and Akeem Shannon have been knocking on doors day-in and day-out for months now.
Jones is the secretary of the Ward 15 Democrats. Shannon is a member of the CWA Local 6300. Both are members of the St. Louis Workers’ Education Society (WES) and are currently staffing the WES Votes voter registration campaign.
With the Missouri August primaries pending, WES is feeling optimistic about voter engagement and registration in its service/concentration communities of St. Louis city Wards 8, 9, 15 and 20.
As a 501(c)3 non-profit, WES cannot endorse candidates, but it can register and educate voters, which lead to the creation of the WES Votes campaign.
IS ANYONE LISTENING?
“Voter engagement and turnout is abysmally low in St. Louis, especially in working class, African American communities,” Jones told the Labor Tribune.
“However,” she added, “this isn’t because people don’t care. It’s because they feel like no one listens. We are trying to challenge the cynicism. We are trying to register, educate and activate, while also building WES’s base.”
Undoubtedly, the Workers’ Education Society wants to see higher turn-out in the up-coming August primary and November general election. But its goals aren’t altruistic. WES also wants to build a network of community leaders willing and ready to fight for working families in St. Louis, and to hold elected officials accountable.
BUILDING ACTIVIST NETWORK WITH UNION’S HELP
In the two-short years since its founding and the purchase of its headquarters (at 2929 s. Jefferson Ave.), WES has built a robust and active network of community partners, collaborated with the Painters District Council 58 sponsored Advanced Skills Workforce Center (ASWC), grown to a membership of over 600, a monthly sustainer base of nearly 100 and has received on-going generous financial support from a number of unions – including IBEW Local 1439, SMART Sheet Metal Workers Local 36, Laborers Local 110, SEIU Local 1, Painters District Council 58 and the Operating Engineers’ Local 148.
“We are entirely self-sustaining. We receive absolutely no grant or foundation money. We are entirely funded by our members, sustainers, supporters and union allies – people and organizations who see a direct benefit from the work that we do.”
Giljum, the former business manager for Operating Engineers Local 148, isn’t a stranger to labor-community collaboration. He led Local 148 for 27 years, while helping to build a number of grassroots labor-community organizations like Jobs with Justice and the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Health Care. WES purchased its headquarters from Local 148 in September, 2014.
AND IT’S WORKING
“People want to be a part of what we are doing because we are strategic, and have tactical, long-term plans for activism in our service communities,” Niles Zee, a Ward 8 leader, said.
For example, last year WES helped increase voter turnout in Ward 20 by nearly 50 percent (compared to prior off-year ward elections). Cara Spencer, the new Alderwomen, has championed increasing the city minimum wage to $11 per-hour, fighting for workers’ rights and reigning-in payday loan companies and their obscene interest rates.
“Voter engagement and registration is a central part of our mission,” Zee added. “On-going adult worker-education is another part of our mission, which is partly why we’ve partnered with the (Painters District Council 58’s) Advanced Skills Workforce Center.”
PAINTERS PLAYING MAJOR ROLE IN CREATING JOBS
Last year the Painters’ sponsored Advanced Skills Workforce Center (ASWC) was created. Their goal is to specifically identify women and people of color from low-income communities for pre-apprenticeship training in the painting industry.
“Last year we graduated 45 African-American men out of our training program,” Steve Wayland, director of business development for District Council 58, said. “Nearly 90 percent of those graduates were placed with union contractors and are now members of the Painters’ union.”
The ASWC program has graduated eight participants so-far this year. The summer program starts in early July. On Tuesday’s and Thursdays, WES facilitates labor history and political education classes with the ASWC participants.
“Part of our curriculum includes connecting union members to elected officials and candidates,” Giljum said. “We want ASWC participants to have a direct link to the folks who represent them.”
DIRECT POLITICAL EXPOSURE
AFL-CIO COPE endorsed candidate Peter Merideth (80th District), as well as Bruce Franks (78th District), both addressed ASWC participants this spring as part of the WES Votes campaign.
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Merideth, a life-long Shaw resident, former neighborhood association president and lawyer, has also been endorsed by the St. Louis Labor Council, IBEW Local 1349, Operating Engineers Local 148, Painters’ District Council 58, Laborers Local 110 and Fire Fighters Local 73, among many others.
“Good paying, union jobs are the backbone of our communities. When unions are strong, our communities thrive,” Merideth told the Labor Tribune. “The Painters’ and WES are confronting the challenge of unemployment, especially among African-Americans, head-on. Their training program is a model that should be duplicated everywhere.”
REDEFINING LABOR-COMMUNITY WORKER EDUCATION
WES Votes will continue registering voters until the July and October deadlines.
Additionally, as a service to our concentration wards WES Votes is also organizing a candidates’ forum with the 78th and 80th District State Rep. candidates; though an exact date has not been confirmed, it will be held in late July.
“We hope to dramatically increase voter registration and engagement in our concentration areas as we head into the August primary and November general election,” Jones said.
“To us, voter registration and engagement, political education, and union training classes are all connected. They are all part of a larger effort to build workers’ power here in St. Louis. WES is so excited to embark on this journey with our members, supporters and union partners. We are trying to redefine labor-community worker-education for the long-haul.
"This is what non-traditional organizing looks like," Jones concluded, as she went off the register more voters. “This is what democracy looks like.”