“Solidarity Looks Like You”
A Conversation with CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies’ Rebecca Lurie
Rebecca Lurie is the Program Director of the Community and Worker Ownership Project at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. She is a worker-owner at the City Roots Contractors Guild, a board member of Democracy at Work Institute, board emerita at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, and a long-time member of the New York District Council of Carpenters.
You have a very interesting background, you’re not exactly the typical academic.
Far from it. Now, how do you know that?
It’s right there on your LinkedIn profile! You’ve been in organizing and been a union member for a number of years . . .
Yeah, well, I am a real New Yorker but I call myself an accidental academic. I don’t feel at home there. Just like I wasn’t at home as a female union carpenter in the ‘80s, either.
Yeah, I bet.
So I’m kind of from another planet.
That’s great. When you say you’re a real New Yorker, you were born in the city?
I grew up in Washington Heights, northern Manhattan. Growing up, the George Washington Bridge was outside my window. I’m one of five. And my mother was an activist.
We were a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood, adjoining a strong Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood. And the next neighborhood over was Harlem. So growing up in the 1960s, we were heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement.
I think the important thing to share is that my mother knew to be a good listener. She started as a social worker in East Harlem. She was quoted in Jane Jacobs’ famous book [The Death and Life and Great American Cities] as Mrs. Ellen Lurie, “the social worker in East Harlem.” She told Jane Jacobs, You got to go into the neighborhood and if you’re somebody’s guest, just be a gracious guest and listen. Your responsibility as a social worker is to take what you hear and bring that forward. And that process is what birthed her as an activist.
Great. I see Jacobs quotes her twice in the book!
Right. When she helped, with Evelina Antonetty, to found United Bronx Parents, herself a mother of five, she got involved in the schools. And the issue of the day, if you were a good, progressive liberal, was racial integration. And that got us all attacked, with all kinds of pejoratives, a brick through the window — “How dare you, you ‘n-lovers,’” or whatever.
But my mother continued to be a good listener and realized that the real battle line was not over integrating but instead the issue of community control.
So here I am, ten years old, knowing that integration is good. But we were also supporting community control in the Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, for people to control their own schools.
And I think something very deeply visceral happened to me when I realized it’s not about us all blending. It’s about recognizing the strength and the asset in our individual communities and supporting that.
So before there was politically correct language for me, I understood what solidarity looked like. And solidarity looks like you. No one’s free till everyone’s free, but you’re not going to tell somebody else how to be free.
You’ve got to listen and then use whatever assets you have to support people. So that was my upbringing in many ways.
To bring it closer to the ownership world, I graduated college, my mother had passed away, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. I was involved a bit in the hippie community in the progressive community in upstate New York. And there was an association called the Northeast Federation of Food Co-ops . . .
And this was a big project, right? Is this where you learned to be a carpenter?
It was a big project. They delivered food to the food co-ops in the Northeast. Their board of directors was made up of representatives from those food co-ops. The eight or nine people who worked there were a collective.
They were expanding their warehouse, and they put a contract for some construction work which said whoever gets the job has to train a minority person or a woman. And that’s how I became a carpenter. I became a carpenter because a progressive business, a collective that was associated with co-ops, required that their contractor hire and train a woman or a minority. And I got the gig. So yes, that was my first hammer.
It was a very small company but I learned some skills and then I applied to the Carpenters Union’s apprenticeship program. That was probably 1981 or two in Saugerties, New York. No woman had ever walked in asking to be an apprentice. Their jaws dropped but they had to sign me up.
Eventually I returned to New York to be a carpenter, but those early years in New Paltz and in Ulster County exposed me to the food co-op movement. But in terms of my career choice, I was an activist first. What I loved about being a carpenter was, I could work by the day and my job was with me and my toolbox, not necessarily one particular employer.
It worked very well, because also in the early ’80s, I got involved with the Solidarity movement in Central America. We built out something called the New York-Nicaragua Construction Brigade and we went down to Nicaragua a number of times, building houses and schools.
Fast forward, I ended up teaching for the carpenters union, went back to school to get certified as an adult occupational educator, and started writing grants for the Union. And I ended up basically in workforce development. Not from the social services side, which is often the point of entry for people who do that work.
I came in from the industry and from the union. How do you train apprentices? How do you train up? How do you upgrade people for the industry changes?
And next you wound up at the New School.
Yes, in their organizational change management program. It doesn’t exist anymore. but it’s integrated in a lot of their other policy programs. I tell people it was like a progressive MBA.
The goal is helping people understand how to run businesses in the face of change. Maybe every generation faces that, but I definitely feel like we are in it hard. It’s not just about DEI, and how do you make sure a few people can get those jobs. I’m really into everybody having the ability to have a good job, what does that look like? And that when you own and control your own firm, maybe that’s a lot more enlivening for the human spirit.
And now today you’re at CUNY?
Yes, I ended up at their Murphy Institute, which a few years ago became the School of Labor and Urban Studies. We work with organized labor and community organizations. A lot of public employees who are union members have found their way to us. So we offer two degrees in Labor Studies and Urban Studies, and probably a dozen different certificates.
Sometimes people come for a few courses to upgrade their skills and then they realize, oh, I could actually do college, and they might stay for the full on degree.
When did you get the idea of creating the program you run there today?
It was back in 2016. I pitched this idea which had been in my mind to bring cooperative ownership and community control to the paradigm of labor studies and urban studies. I founded the Community and Worker Ownership Project.
We identified several things we thought we could do. First, we can help with popular, non-credit education out in the world of our community and labor spaces. Next, we work on research as it comes our way or we pursue it, related to degree-bearing programs. We also work with community and labor projects as we are invited, and finally we do public programming.
Today I’m an adjunct teaching in the college master’s program and building out this exciting certificate program, the Workplace Democracy and Community Ownership program.
Let me pause here and say that after a lot of study and looking at what it takes for a good business to run, I want to ask what do we mean by good? We know what good looks like from a union viewpoint, we know what good looks like from community engagement. Good means you get paid on Friday, and you have agency, true agency, not oppressive control.
So when we designed this, I said there’s really four areas of competency that any good business needs. I use four icons, the globe, the heart and two hands. So using those four icons, I’ll explain, the globe is: an understanding of the political economic context in which you exist. You might want to know your municipal government, and know the regulations. Let’s say you’re in the cannabis business — you want to have somebody who is able to pay attention to all that regulatory changes, and understand it.
The heart is really how do you manage all the people. I really like to make sure we are teaching good management practices, which often are taught in a lot of the co-op academies — group process, team building.
And the two hands are the financial matters and the actual skills of the business. So if you don’t have the financial matters covered, people might not get paid on Friday, it’s no longer a good business. All of those things that an accountant can help you look at, but also financial planning and feasibility, loan funds, banks, this is all a world that a lot of us on the left are not very comfortable with.
And then the left hand being the skills, workforce development, and job training.
If you’re training to be a nurse, you can finally say I know how to be a nurse, I got my left hand down, I know all those skills. But you can’t go start a business in nursing without those other three things.
And we have a lot of people who love what they do: a baker, a carpenter — go down the list. But if you don’t have those other competencies in your entity, you’re not doing it.
So what we’ve done in our certificate program is try to teach that in classrooms, but also in popular ed, in professional and workforce skills, where people can learn it wherever they go.
So CWOP works with co-op organizations?
When I first started CWOP, we worked very closely with the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives to start a training collective made up of people who worked in worker co-ops who trained their peers.
And we asked these companies how do you think about the political economy for your sector in your business. Which is a way of bringing up the power of the union movement in collaboration with co-ops, one small business at a time. A partnership with the union movement for your sector can raise the floor for your firm, but also for your competitors.
The best example is Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York, the largest worker co-op in the country. It’s been around almost 40 years, not unionized when they started. From 12 women, they grew to be about 1,000, at which point they decided to approach SEIU 1199 about unionizing. And it was an interesting approach, because it wasn’t like the workers were organizing to unionize. The management, who were also worker-owners, knew that they were so controlled by the flow of public dollars, and the public reimbursement rates were too low to pay good wages. So no matter how good an employer they wanted to be, they’re playing in that global space for the political economy of home health care, with limited public dollars. So they couldn’t raise the floor, and their competitors were lowering it, and they couldn’t make the money work. Going back to the financial, the right hand, their finances said we can’t make this work unless we change policy.
And so they understood where they were gonna have a better play in policy changes, pairing up with the union. And I think that that’s a very, very important way to think about unions and co-ops and their potential for collaboration.
I’m guessing that younger co-op people, not being familiar with how unions work or union history, they might not realize this collaboration could be very beneficial.
Right. And they might think, oh no, the union is gonna come in and control things.
But the union has a different kind of power — in the political economy.
I think your group just created a resource on this very subject, right?
Yes, we just published a report that I’m really excited about called “A Union Toolkit for Cooperative Solutions.” It has seven case studies which describe the tools that unions bring, that access to finance, legislation, regulation, training.
I’m active in the Union Co-ops Council of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Part of my work right now is strengthening a recognition that we’re all in this together. For the co-op movement to understand the strengths and capacities of the union movement, just as the union movement understands their capacity to influence ownership and control inside firms.
What’s coming next for your school at CUNY?
Probably the most important evolution for your readership is our application to the state to take our whole program online, which then means you can attend the City University of New York from anywhere. We’ll have that possibly by next September.
Any final thoughts for us?
There’s a lot of discussion about how you have diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in your business. And I learned this from Jessica Gordon Nembhard, but then I also heard it came out of the co-op movement in Canada. The added initial should be J for justice.
So we should call our goal JEDI: justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. And the justice piece is economic justice. How does justice play into the DEI solution? As workplace democracy and shared or community ownership.
Wonderful. Thanks for your time today.