Boston Workers Alliance Temp Agency Project

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by Chris Heneghan

Just over a year after the Boston Workers Alliance (BWA) was founded at a convergence of "jobless workers" from Boston's Dorchester, and Roxbury neighborhoods, members of their job creation committee were in New York City at the second national conference of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives discussing plans to establish a temp agency cooperative in the Greater Boston area.

Committed to, "uplifting [the] community by building powerful collective challenges to the crisis unemployment," the BWA envisions creating a network of employers who would work in cooperation to aid ex-offenders being released from prison and other individuals unable to find work because of discriminatory hiring practices in the state of Massachusetts under the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) act. Attending the conference gave them the opportunity to network with people willing to assist them in their efforts.

The BWA currently has 300 members who pay $2.00 a month in dues. Fifty of those 300 members attend regular meetings and participate in projects. They work in partnership with local residents to address the problem that many in their communities have a strong desire to work but 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.

TEMP AGENCY PROJECT

Tanaka, an organizer for the BWA, is working with their job creation committee to gain support from local employers and the community for the temp agency project. "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 that if successful the temp agency could be a powerful mechanism to leverage existing jobs. "The temp agency will allow us to place people into places of employment where they might not ordinarily get hired," he continued.

He admits it may be difficult 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 set up three successful temp agencies. He pointed to a temp agency in Baltimore, M.D. created by the ICA as a working model for the BWA's vision.

"The structure of the temp agency is different than other temp agencies because it is a non-profit temp agency," 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, the BWA's temp agency intends to develop a method to cover its overhead costs but will, "take nothing away from its workers," at the end of each pay period.

"The temp agency will be geared towards negotiating positions for people with criminal records, by breaking down barriers that may exist for such people in their search for employment," Tanaka explained.

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, is optimistic about the future of the temp agency. Ludlow sees the BWA 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."

COPING WITH CRIMINAL RECORDS

According to the BWA, "Blacks with [criminal] records applying for entry level positions have a 5 percent chance of being called back for interview and blacks without [criminal] records have a 14 percent chance. While whites with [criminal] records have a 17 percent chance and whites without [criminal] records have a 34 percent chance. Ludlow hopes the creation of a temp agency and other worker cooperatives would afford all in the area with a desire to work the opportunity to do so.

26 year old 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 became frustrated by his being turned away from or terminated from employment because of the status of his CORI.

A CORI is a record of a person's criminal history in Massachusetts. It includes any time an individual was in court on a criminal charge, no matter what the final outcome of the charge was. Many employers in the state are required to do a CORI check on all job applicants. CORI documents are full of acronyms and other legal jargon which makes them very difficult for the untrained reader to understand. The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute put together a "how to" document called The CORI Reader available at MLRI.org to assist employers in interpreting CORI documents; however state law does not require businesses to use the document at this time.

Anyone who is arraigned in the state generates a CORI even for something as minor as traffic violation. There are over 2.3 million CORIs on file in Massachusetts, and over 10,000 organizations in the state have access to these records. They are frequently used as a tool for denying 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 an individual to access their own CORI and have it sealed, however it 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."

This is a too-familiar reality for Young, who says that during the two years that he was in prison he, "sat back and meditated." He believes that the majority of people who are incarcerated are good people who "deserve a second chance." For himself and 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, "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 feels, "The CORI situation is killing families left and right." His involvement with the BWA has been an uplifting experience that has given him hope for his future. He said, "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."

For more information about the Boston Workers Alliance see: Bostonworkersalliance.org or call (617) 427-8100.