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Lauren Burke

Nationality: American
Living in: Washington DC, USA
Twitter: @LM_Burke

Organizing Consultant, Labor Network for Sustainability

 

As a young person, Lauren volunteered with No More Deaths, a group providing water and humanitarian aid for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border through the Sonoran Desert. These memories shaped her experiences at Yale University, where she ultimately wrote her undergraduate thesis about the US Sanctuary Movement that arose in response to the Central American refugee crisis of the 1980s.

However, it was outside of the classroom where Lauren learned the most important lessons in her political education. In September of 2002, Lauren stood among the 800 people who occupied the intersection of College and Elm Streets - the largest act of civil disobedience in history of New Haven, CT. This location had long marked the historic boundary separating the largely white elite of Yale University from the economically struggling African American and Latino communities of New Haven. Her experience standing shoulder to shoulder with students, professors, janitors, cooks, secretaries, and community residents showed her how interracial, cross-class solidarity can create real social change. That campaign ultimately succeeded in both winning better union contracts for campus workers and pushing Yale towards a more equitable development strategy in New Haven.

Upon graduation, Lauren joined the labour movement as an organiser with UNITE HERE, where she eventually organised and led campaigns that won union recognition for over 1,400 hotel and food service workers. Most of her work with UNITE HERE was focused on getting people to face their fears, believe in themselves, and take the risks necessary to demand from their employers either union recognition or a better labour contract. Lauren has recruited and trained scores of grassroots leaders; she has taught organisers how to replicate this recruitment and training with other workers. She has designed and led campaigns so that these risks actually lead to concrete and defensible improvements in workers' lives.

In 2012, Lauren led the Real Food Real Jobs campaign at five Washington, DC-area universities. This campaign linked the provision of healthy and sustainable food in university cafeterias with access to healthy and affordable food in the communities where university workers lived. The success of Real Food Real Jobs depended upon recognising cooks and food service workers as the authorities on providing healthy sustainable food to their communities. In the end, the campaign translated workers' pride in their jobs into power that they mobilised against the deskilling of their labour.

Most recently, her interest in the centrality of workers' voices to issues of ecological sustainability led Lauren to work with the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), which seeks to challenge the US labour movement to become part of the solution to the climate crisis. With LNS she worked on highlighting worker experiences as part of a national Transit Equity Day. She is currently working on labour-led initiatives on climate jobs.

 

Personal Statement

More than a decade of experience organising service sector workers has given me a unique perspective on how low-income communities of colour are impacted by climate change. As an organiser for UNITE HERE, I have organised hotel and food service workers from all over the world - as economic refugees from Mexico, as political refugees from Iraq, or as climate refugees from Ethiopia - to join an overwhelmingly African-American workforce in the United States. I have witnessed how these workers already bear the brunt of man-made climate change. In the desert of Phoenix, Arizona, where hotel workers often work outside, or in very hot kitchens, shop-floor struggles commonly centre on campaigns relating to their work environment, such as contractually guaranteed access to cold water and air conditioning, or even the right to wear sunglasses. These experiences helped me understand how only an organised workforce could ensure environmental justice in the workplace. I also came to understand that, as places like Phoenix continue to warm, climate change will exacerbate inequality and ultimately make these cities unliveable for all but the most privileged.

The political climate following Trump's victory has challenged me to think more expansively about how to create a just and equitable society beyond my work on union campaigns. I have begun to make connections between issues of workplace democracy, public health, and the environment that had once seemed only indirectly related. As an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity I will deepen my understanding of these connections, learn about approaches to social change very different from the labour organising perspective I know so intimately, and develop new ideas about how to build a better world.

I plan to lead campaigns to engage workers in "just transition" campaigns in the food, transport, and energy industries. If humanity is to survive the next century, these resource-intensive industries are where we must focus our efforts on reducing carbon emissions. Further, given the centrality of each of these industries to the functioning of the global economy, laying a foundation for a "just transition" here will offer a model for the creation of stable, sustainable, and far more equitable economy.