Working Wonders: The Midwest Workers Association aids the needy and confronts inequality


Last Saturday found Virginia Miller, operations manager of the Midwest Workers Association (MWA), standing outside the door of a low-rise housing complex in Bronzeville accompanied by two college undergraduate members-in-training. A young woman, still in pajamas, comes to the door. After introducing herself and the two undergraduates, Miller begins to talk about the MWA:

“We’re an organizing drive of working people, people who are out of work, people on fixed incomes, joining together to gain the strength to determine our future. More and more of us are working twice as hard for half as much and more of us can’t get access to the things we need, like medical care. We know that there is strength in numbers, and we know that it takes organization to change our conditions.” Miller hands the young woman a pamphlet.

The concerns that Miller voices are just some of the many problems the Midwest Workers Association, an independent, member-based workers’ advocacy organization run out of Chicago’s South Side, was created to address. The MWA is geared towards providing a membership of socially conscious workers with survive-and-get-on-your-feet services and referrals to ensure a minimum quality of life, allowing them time and mental energy to organize to fight these larger problems. “We don’t just treat the symptoms of the problem, but are trying to build ourselves up to address the problems itself,” Miller said.

Back on the street, Miller asks the woman at the door, “Do you work?” The woman answers that she’s a sales associate at Target. Although she works full-time, her wages are far from providing basic sustenance. She wants to move away from home, but relies on health and insurance benefits through her mother’s work, and she makes barely enough to provide her son and herself with food and clothing.

A few houses down, Miller’s team is invited into Harry’s* home. The front room of Harry’s apartment is tidy and modern, furnished with a new leather seat set and rug. His son plays a combat video game on a large flat-screen TV. Another child is chatting on the Internet. The comfort of his home gives a false sense of security.

Harry works as a lineman at an auto parts company in Chicago Heights. Over Harry’s twelve years working at the plant, it has increasingly switched from full-time to temporary workers. Although Harry’s job provides health insurance benefits and pays enough to allow for luxury purchases, he’s a non-union worker, and fears benefit and hour cutbacks, or even a layoff, in the future.

Harry and the Target associate are among six new members added to MWA on Saturday’s canvass. Economic insecurity in post-recession America, with 222 applicants for every living-wage low-skill job available, has made participation in a workers’ advocacy organization like MWA especially appealing to individuals like them. “For many people, it’s about saying: I don’t like the direction where things are going, and I don’t like future prospects for me,” Miller said.

All of MWA’s initiatives–mainly relief programs, including clothes distribution, non-emergency dental and medical care provision, and a job-referral program–are intended to help Chicagoans “meet day-to-day needs, so [they] can survive while [learning] the skills to build the solidarity to fight to determine [their] fate and [their] future,” according to the organization’s outreach literature.

Since its founding in 1996, the MWA has grown to 10,000 members, and has drawn interest from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The association has successfully gained a membership base of South Side and West Side business owners and church, academic, and community leaders who provide broad support to the organization. Because the MWA doesn’t take government and foundation funding, which could influence organization activity, it relies on financial and logistical support from more affluent members. The current MWA location, at 5152 South Halsted Street, was donated by a member upon retirement and rehabilitated into an office space by the University of Chicago’s Habitat for Humanity club over a three-year period. Donations from businesses like Seattle’s Best Coffee, Whole Foods, Angie’s Bakery, and Hyde Park Produce supply the organization’s food pantry, and a number of legal, medical, and dental professionals offer services to members free of charge.

The MWA has also made numerous connections with Chicago’s religious communities. The organization has spoken at numerous Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and just opened a second office, focused on clothes distribution, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bridgeport. Social justice classes at Loyola, DePaul, and Francis Parker High School send students to work with the MWA for service learning projects, and DePaul University Professor Thomas O’Brien volunteers with MWA and has been especially helpful fighting against gas price increases.

Despite the MWA’s broad membership base and current support, the organization is still in the process of building up its numbers, and runs biweekly membership canvasses in low-income South Side and West Side neighborhoods to assess household needs, gain information about working conditions, and spread awareness about the organization.
In addition to providing benefits to members, the MWA also holds weekly Workers Benefits Council Meetings where members determine which issues are most important to address. Although the MWA envisions this council as a place where non-union worker-members can get together, organize, and even form spin-off unions, most meetings have been directed towards organizing campaigns against a package of rate increases and disconnections proposed by Peoples Gas.

In 2008, Peoples Gas, Chicago’s main utilities supplier, sent disconnection notices to 80,000 customers with back bills. The company, despite 61.3 percent profit increases in 2008, also proposed a $160 million rate increase for 2010.
Reacting against the rate increase and disconnection notices, the MWA organized a campaign that included lectures at community centers, churches, and university classrooms, organized a letter-writing campaign, and sent members to speak out against Peoples Gas at Chicago Utilities Council meetings. This campaign has been the MWA’s most successful, and led Chicago to cut the rate increase by $90 million.

An outgrowth of this campaign is the MWA’s Winter Survival Campaign, one of the programs the MWA offers to help low-income and under-employed members meet day-to-day needs. The campaign addresses the problem of unaffordable heating fuel and is intended to prevent cold-related deaths, both by direct aid and by fighting for more affordable utilities services in the future. As a part of the campaign, the MWA distributes high-protein food, electric heaters, and blankets, and provides legal aid to members whose electricity has been shut off.

Five years ago, in June 2005, Virginia Miller was on a leave of absence from the University of Chicago’s evolutionary biology PhD program when she began volunteering with the MWA. Having encountered extreme poverty while conducting research in highly stratified countries like Panama, she began to question the value of her studies.

“As much as I loved research, I realized that I really care about people. And I realized that we don’t need technology and more scientific research to solve the biggest problems facing most people.” Miller said. “Today, there are enough resources so that housing, and getting enough to eat, and getting adequate heating, shouldn’t be a problem. And so I took a leave of absence, and I started talking to fellow students about how to address [issues of inequality and underdevelopment.] A lot of people were like, we can’t change that, that’s too complicated.”

On her way one day to meet a friend over coffee, she ran into two volunteers from the organization doing outreach on the corner of 57th Street and University Avenue. She was immediately attracted to the organization’s method of addressing social problems.

“When I first visited the office, I talked about those things, and no one told me I was crazy. I was looking for answers about why these problems still exist, and I was not just interested in treating the conditions of the problem,” Miller said.
Miller began organizing soon after, and three months later, she had traded her studies at the University of Chicago for a full-time organizing position.

Miller is satisfied by the progress she has seen the MWA make over her five years working with the organization. The MWA still needs further support to achieve its vision; although the organization envisions itself as providing all uninsured clients with adequate non-emergency medical care, the MWA currently works with only one doctor who can only see two MWA members each month. To sufficiently serve its constituency, the MWA desperately requires the time of more health care workers as well as dentists and lawyers. But fourteen years after its founding, says Miller, the MWA is “at an exciting point where we can take on more and more fights.”

*Name has been changed.

3 comments for “Working Wonders: The Midwest Workers Association aids the needy and confronts inequality

  1. Susan Gzesh
    March 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Dear Chicago Weekly writers,
    I have always heard that the MWA had murky origins. I’m surprised your reporter didn’t dig a little deeper into how the organization runs, was started, whether they pay their staff, etc. You might want to check out some of the leads in the Wikipedia article on their parent organization:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Labor_Federation
    I’m not writing this letter for publication – please don’t print it – but I wanted your reporters to check this stuff out for me and your other readers.
    Thanks,
    Susan Gzesh

  2. Glenn Klipp
    December 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    For about 4 years I have volunteered with Midwest Workers Association helping with some of their projects including dental services and food distribution. I’ve been at their center on Halsted often, frequently dropping in unannounced. Nice place, nice atmosphere. Everyone is there voluntarily. I have never heard any comments about harsh treatment for volunteers on any level. Communist? Well, they do work to get fair pay, food, and health care for all. They also work for the poor, especiallyl in Englewood. They sure do canvass. They get to know people, find out what they need, and see if they can help. They provide some fine services. They do expect people who get these services to at least join and pay the annual dues, about $7.00 a year or whatever part of it they may be able to afford at the time. Nice communists, err, I mean people.

  3. A Concerned Observer
    July 1, 2013 at 11:17 pm

    I too volunteered at the Midwest Workers Association. I read the various cautionary tales about NATLFED ahead of time, but tried to keep an open mind. From what I can see, MWA is a highly centralized organization, without grassroots links to other local groups or movements. They seem to be run by a small cadre of young, full-time volunteers, rather than being democratically led by the “members” they are meant to serve. Whether or not you choose to call it a cult, MWA is not very transparent about its history or structure. Moreover, they are very pushy when extracting more volunteer time, and are only willing to engage problems on their own terms. All in all, I’ve decided to stay away. Every time I asked anyone a question about their objectives, affiliations, or methods, I would get the same stock phrases repeated over and over again. It was more than a little creepy.

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