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March 27, 2009

BILL MOYERS JOURNAL profiles a community organizer in Chicago — James Thindwa of Jobs with Justice:

I'm a community organizer because I believe that people need a voice. They need to have institutions that speak for them — institutions through which their own concerns, their grievances, their interests, can be represented. Your average person is getting up every day to go to work and to care for a family — doesn't have a lobbyist in Washington. They don't have a lobbyist in the city council. They don't have a lobbyist at the state legislature.

James Thindwa heads Chicago Jobs with Justice — one of over 40 coalitions nationwide dedicated to worker's issues like the living wage and the right to organize. The Chicago group made headlines recently as it took on the case of Republic Windows and Doors, a potent symbol of the economic downturn's drastic effect on working Americans.

Republic Windows and Doors

Workers at the Chicago company staged a sit-in in December 2008, when the company suddenly announced it was closing up shop and leaving town. By law, Republic's unionized employees were entitled to 60 days notice and some parting benefits. Instead, the owners gave them three days notice and cut off their health insurance. When Republic declared itself insolvent the organizers turned their attention to the company's bank — Bank of America — which had just received 25 billion dollars in federal bailout money. After five days in the spotlight, Bank of America came up with a cash loan to pay the workers what they were owed. But the story doesn't end there. In late February 2009 the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES announced that a new green-oriented windows maker would be taking over Republic's assets and that they planned to re-open the plant with labor from Republic's former staff.


Thindwa's Jobs with Justice was also in the forefront of a living wage battle against Wal-Mart. When the corporation announced plans to open a store in Chicago, Jobs for Justice and other groups decided to forestall Wal-Mart's well-known low wage-floor with a local living wage law, putting the starting salary at $10 per hour — the salary being paid at another big box store in Chicago, COSTCO. The campaign went on for three years until 2006 when the city council passed the living wage ordinance. Victory was brief. Chicago's six-term Mayor Democrat Richard M. Daley lobbied enough council members to change their vote to enable a mayoral veto. Wal-Mart did arrive in Chicago but not initially as a Supercenter which would compete with local grocers.

However, Chicago's Wal-Mart wars are not over. In March 2009, a city alderman announced a plan to allow Wal-Mart to build a second store in Chicago. In the meantime, Citigroup downgraded Wal-Mart's rating because of worries that unionization might cut into Wal-Mart's profits.


James Thindwa was born and raised in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. His family took part in Rhodesia's fight against British colonial rule. There he learned the power of organized labor and organized protest. "Unions to us, growing up, performed more functions than just negotiating for better wages for workers. They really were seen in society as a legitimate vehicle for transforming society." Thindwa won a scholarship to Kentucky's Berea College and went on to a masters degree at Miami University of Ohio. As a student he protested against the Ku Klux Klan and apartheid in South Africa. He moved to Chicago, where he advocated for senior citizens before joining Jobs with Justice.

>Find out more about Living Wage and the Employee Free Choice Act

Published March 27, 2009.

Related Media:
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Andy Stern
The president of Service Employees International Union, the fastest growing union in the nation, weighs in on the growing economic gap between average families and the wealthiest Americans. (June 15, 2007)

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Holly Sklar, co-author of RAISE THE FLOOR: WAGES AND POLICIES THAT WORK FOR ALL OF US, discusses what current economic conditions say about the state of the American dream. (June 13, 2008)

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References and Reading:

Jobs with Justice
Jobs with Justice was founded in 1987 under the operating principle that workers' rights struggles as part of a larger campaign for economic and social justice. Jobs with Justice sees community involvement and coalitions as crucial to union progress. Campaigns range from corporate accountability to health care to bargaining rights.

Read articles by James Thindwa from IN THESE TIMES. James Thindwa
View an interview with James Thindwa conducted by the Human Rights Network in April 2008.

BBC News In Depth: Zimbabwe
Historical background and current news and analysis from Zimbabwe.

Republic Windows and Doors

"In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide," Monica Davey, THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 7, 2008.

"Firm buys Chicago plant where workers had sit-in," Michael Tarm, THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, February 26, 2009.


"Alderman's push for 2nd Wal-Mart could renew big box fight," Fran Spielman, THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, March 24, 2009.
"It looks like the City Council might have to relive the political donnybrook that gave birth to the big box minimum wage ordinance snuffed out by Mayor Daley's only veto."

"Wal-Mart Supercenters ring Chicago, grab share from Jewel, Dominick's," Mike Hughlett, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, March 22, 2009.

"Wal-Mart cut by Citigroup on unionization worries"
Andria Cheng, MarketWatch, March 10, 2009

Good Works
Good Works is Wal-Mart's foundation for charitable giving. The foundation focuses its efforts on community education and scholarships; family health and welfare needs; economic and workforce development programs; environmental issues; volunteerism; and community-based non-profit organizations. The Good Works Web site allows users to view Wal-Mart's various charitable contributions under four broad categories: community, education, children, and the environment.

The official corporate Web site, provides an extensive list of Wal-Mart products with the option to purchase online. Customers can also track the status of purchases online, find a store near them, and sign up for the Wal-Mart wire, which e-mails customers information on upcoming sales and values at Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart Watch
Wal-Mart Watch documents Wal-Mart's alleged corporate abuses with news reports and articles, information sheets, and the "Wal of Shame," an archive of Wal-Mart's misdeeds categorized under five headings: worker mistreatment; discrimination; harassment; endangering consumers and employees; and poor treatment of employees. The Web site also includes some short documentaries.

FRONTLINE: Is Wal-Mart Good for America?
FRONTLINE explores the relationship between U.S. job losses and the American consumer's insatiable desire for bargains in "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" Through interviews with retail executives, product manufacturers, economists, and trade experts, correspondent Hedrick Smith examines the growing controversy over the Wal-Mart way of doing business and asks whether a single retail giant has changed the American economy.

Guest photos by Robin Holland

Published March 27, 2009.

Also This Week:

For years best-selling author William Greider sounded the alarm about Washington's unholy alliance with Wall Street and the failure of the Federal Reserve and other regulators to take preventive measures to avoid disaster. Now, he offers some suggestions to the question everyone is asking: "What do we do now?"

Is Geithner's plan a 'triumph' or a 'flop?' Who wins and who loses?

James Thindwa, whose campaign for economic fairness for working people in Chicago has brought him up against the city's powerful political establishment and corporate giant Wal-Mart.

The Living Wage, Employee Free Choice Act and the state of the unions.

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