Arizona Affiliate Joins the Partnership for Working Families

November 18, 2008 -- Central Arizonans for a Sustainable...

The metropolitan area of Phoenix is experiencing unprecedented change and growth unlike any other point in its history. Since the 1980’s, our population has ballooned in size, with new immigrant families making up much of this growth. Arizona now has the fourth-largest Latino electorate in the country. At an astonishingly high rate of 3% annually, Phoenix will ultimately double in size by the year 2040! There are even predictions that Phoenix and Tucson will merge, forming a “megapolitan” region which raises a host of environmental and economic concerns that will impact working families.

Well aware of this crucial time in Phoenix’s development, community groups and labor leaders are coming together to fight the challenges presented by poverty, the abundance of low-quality jobs, lack of affordable housing, and anti-immigrant legislation. In January of 2008, the Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) was formed to promote strategies to rebuild the middle class in the Phoenix Valley and to share prosperity across the community. CASE spent its first year building relationships with community members and educating them about the challenges working families face locally. We also released a report in coordination with Economic Analysis Research Network and Partnership for Working Families affiliates analyzing data from the Census Bureau on working poverty in the region.

What we uncovered in our report portrays the economic consequences of rampant, unchecked growth in Phoenix:

  • About a third, or over 800,000 people, in the region live at twice the federal poverty level, qualifying them for government anti-poverty programs.
  • One-fifth of Phoenix’s children live in poverty.
  • The majority of families in extreme poverty had a working adult.

We have our work cut out for us! To begin to establish standards in the trades and hospitality industries, where many low-wage jobs are concentrated, CASE has supported two ongoing organizing drives:

Mesa Proving Grounds: The Mesa Proving Grounds is a 5-square-mile development that will take thirty years to complete. We were able to secure hundreds of jobs for union carpenters and block the use of a nonunion rebar company. We also scored a victory for public safety on this project. The developer pledged to build two new firehouses. Without this agreement, residents would have had to vote on a bond in future elections to receive the funds necessary for the stations’ construction.

Sheraton Hotel: CASE is partnering with Unite HERE in their organizing drive at the largest hotel in the state, the Sheraton. Community leaders are investing in this drive to establish a standard for good service jobs in downtown. Through the work of CASE, coalition partners are convinced that a comprehensive campaign approach to this drive will strengthen our collective work and increase campaign success.

“We have been inspired to see how working together has been so successful for us this early in our organization’s history”, says Bryan Jeffries, CASE Board Chair and Mesa Firefighter Local President. “I see great opportunities ahead for us.”

The Southwest’s emerging role in shaping the national political landscape is becoming more apparent every day. Not only have we become a region with unique political perspectives, but the challenges facing our region have become of national concern—including immigration and environmental sustainability. CASE sees this as an opportunity to advance a new model for economic development that builds a healthy economy and increases opportunities where all workers and families can prosper. To meet this goal, CASE plans to release a longer framing report with policy proposals to improve job quality in the region. We are meeting with leaders from the community, the nonprofit sector, and labor organizations to develop a broad organizing platform. This upcoming December, we will bring our leaders together for the first committee meeting. Critical issues raised by our stakeholders include affordable housing, the foreclosure crisis in the Valley, immigration reform, and access to the new light rail system coming to Phoenix.

The time for progressive change in Phoenix is now! We have seen in conversations with community members, coalition allies, and stakeholders that people are ready to challenge economic development practices that create low-wage, no-benefit jobs and organize for better ones. People are ready to push back on the anti-immigrant propositions that disenfranchise large segments of our community. Economic sustainability is something the people of Phoenix can no longer compromise on. Together, we can build a 21st century economy where government, business, and community stakeholders can prosper.

CASE Staff Bios:

Rachel Sulkes, Executive Director
Ms. Sulkes began her career in the labor movement in 1996 as a rank-and-file member of a teachers’ union in New Haven, CT as a German teacher.  Ms. Sulkes went to work for her GESO (Graduate Employees and Students Organization) in 2001.  She began working for UNITE HERE in 2003.    While in Connecticut, Ms. Sulkes worked closely with a federation of unions that included locals from UNITE HERE and SEIU.  She became involved in community organizing at that time. In 2005, Ms. Sulkes left Connecticut to move to Phoenix, Arizona where she continued her work as a union representative, working with members in food service and industrial laundries.  Ms. Sulkes joined CASE in January 2008.

Corinne Widmer, Research Associate
Corinne Widmer grew up in Homewood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. She attended Arizona State University in Tempe, and graduated with dual degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies. During her time at ASU, Corinne was involved in various political, service, and advocacy organizations, and served as the President of Student Government. She then attended graduate school at the University of Chicago, and earned a Masters in Social Service Administration with an emphasis on policy and community organizing. Corinne has worked as a researcher with several
organizations, most recently, America’s Second Harvest, America's Food Bank Network. Ms. Widmer joined CASE in June of 2008.

Joseph Larios, Community Organizer
Joseph Larios is a native to Phoenix, Arizona. As a youth in South Phoenix, Joseph was very active in the local Valley Interfaith Project based out of St. Catherine of Sienna parish. He attended Arizona State University, and graduated with a degree in Political Science. He participated in a number of Student organizations including the Phoenix Union Devils, which promoted higher education within the Phoenix Union High School District. He also worked as a student facilitator, and service planner with the universities Community Service Department. In 2006, Joseph began working as a Community Organizer for the Building Justice Project through the Arizona AFL-CIO. Mr. Larios joined CASE in August of 2008.

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