You led a successful injured worker group, the Louisiana Injured Worker Union for around 14 years (1990-2004). How did it all start?
It all started when I was injured in the line of duty while working at a sugar refinery. My right shoulder was injured badly and the doctor said that was due to a repetitive motion disorder from lifting heavy objects. My injury developed into a permanent disability. From earning $6000-7000 a month, I was earning $262 a week, nothing else. I qualified for nothing else. And even the comp payments- they might come but might not. Lost my house, my car and my family because of my injury and because of the system. And this is the story of many workers. Getting injured was an immediate eye-opener. The system just does not care about you. I was educated right quick that something is wrong. What did I do wrong? All I was guilty of was going to work one day. But we can’t roll over- we got to fight back. Someone created this unjust system- someone got to tear it down. So a few of us injured workers, including Wilfred Renard, Joey Geraou and myself started an injured worker group together and we built from there. Others were very helpful to our efforts as well, including Ted Quant and Bill Temmink from Loyola University.
Can you describe the journey of the group?
It was very difficult at first and it all took time. It was two to three years before we got anything off the ground really.
Finding Injured Workers: We started out by trying to find injured workers- this was extremely difficult- where do you find them at? We went to the workers’ comp office, to chiropractors, orthopedics and doctors to try and find injured workers. We printed leaflets that said: Have you been injured on the job? Not getting payments? We can help. And on the leaflets we provided a number for them to reach us at. Loyola University was generous to us in terms of providing resources- they gave us office space and a 1-800 number for us to start our outreach. We distributed the leaflets in areas where we knew injured workers would be- supermarkets, parking lots, comp offices, clinics and hospitals.
There were not a lot of us initially, perhaps six or seven of us in New Orleans, two or three in Louisiana and two or three people in Baton Rouge. But we expanded slowly and over time, calls came in and we had over a hundred members across the state. You would be surprised, once injured and ill workers get past their fear; once they realize that whatever you do, you will get attacked anyway; that there would be private investigators tailing them anyways; once they realize they have nothing to lose; they are all in and committed to the fight. At times, injured workers would come to us looking for handouts. We gave them no handouts- what we wanted was to put hammers in their hands so they can go out and fight for their rights.
Learning the System: It took us a few years to really learn the system but that’s an important piece. As part of our efforts to understand the system, we spent a lot of time at the state legislature. It is also important to understand who the players in the game are- to form a core group of allies. There are even people within the system, for example, some social security judges and comp judges or doctors, who are sympathetic to injured workers and willing to help. The learning process took a few years.
The fight: It was important to decide on targets and issues to fight for. We started out by picking key issues. One of the issues many workers faced was that there were just no compensation payments for months and months, if at all. Insurance companies could get away with just about anything. So we started lobbying for legislation that ensured prompt payment of workers’ compensation- we started picketing state offices and picking up people to join the fight. We mobilized and organized and raised awareness and ultimately won that fight. We passed the prompt payment bill through our efforts and with the help of the state AFL-CIO.
We continued our work at the legislature. We worked hard to hold our politicians accountable. We made it clear that if they voted against our interests, we would show up at their neighborhoods and churches to tell their communities how they voted. We were a force to be reckoned with. Politicians were scared of us. Some of them would even come tell us that we can’t vote in your favor but we will take a bathroom break during the voting process so we do not have to vote at all and that at least will help you. Workers were all fired up and there was no stopping them. We passed bills, yes, but we also stopped bad bills and that’s just as important.
For these legislative lobbying efforts, workers came in from all over the state. Sometimes because they were injured and ill and had difficulty travelling, we arranged for transport. We would all meet up for the legislative sessions and also to cook, eat, and pray together.
We also targeted individual actors within the system- for example anti-worker doctors and attorneys. We protested and picketed their offices and homes. When they threatened to sue, we told them to go ahead as we ain’t got nothing.
We also needed to expose the realities of the comp system. Initially there was just no interest or sympathy from local media. But slowly we started getting slots on television including one very popular local television show. This helped raise awareness of the issues we were facing.
Organization Structure, Funding and Scaling up Nationally: When we started out we had no knowledge- we didn’t start out as any 501 (C) (3). All that came later. As the group started growing we formed an injured worker union with well over a hundred members across the state and decided to draft a constitution for the group. We had a participatory process for what should be in the constitution and all our members were engaged. That’s how our statewide organization the Louisiana Injured Worker Union came about. We also had a 501(C)(3) nonprofit, the Louisiana Injured Workers Union Education Fund, where we got our funding to do advocacy work.
As the organization started building up, we knew we had to find funding. We wrote to a lot of foundations and different organizations for financial resources and initially heard nothing. Well if the mountain won’t come to Muhammed, then Muhammed must come to the mountain. So we drove all the way to New York to visit a funder. It was very difficult to track him down but we did and he finally did end up funding us. He also put us in touch with other funders. Things started opening up. We even got money from some foundations in the end. But nothing happens overnight- it takes time.
As we expanded in Louisiana, we started scaling up nationally and created bases in Mississippi, Texas, and North Carolina. We started working with National AFL-CIO and other social justice groups. Our national group was called the National Coalition of Injured Workers.
Building a Support System and Solidarity within the group: It can be hard for injured workers- there are the health issues, the operations, the retaliation- all you want to do is go back to the pre-injury time- to your health, your family and sanity. Losing all that can be devastating. Even within groups it’s important to have a support system in place and be there for each other.
Injured workers suffer a lot and suicide attempts are common. Once when I was at the home of one of our members who had just tried to commit suicide- I asked what she thought she was doing. You need to tell the world your story. Please let the world know what caused your condition; that we won’t be tossed around, that we are humans, not machines, that you’re not crazy, you’re real. Go out and tell the world your story, how you lost your house, your family, your mind. That story must be told.
Our theme song was “Lean on Me”. We use our creativity at work- when you can’t work anymore there is often no outlet for creativity. So we created space for our members to use their creativity- they picked the theme song and artwork for the group. When the chips were down and we were upset and frustrated- we took breaks and supported each other. We would stop and play a game of pool or go fishing. Having that support from each other kept us from making mistakes. We were just human beings taking care of human beings.
Why did you disband the Louisiana Injured Worker Union?
We were going strong but after 9/11 the funding started drying up and then I had several operations and finally as our central base was in Louisiana, once Hurricane Katrina hit, that was it.
What can be done now to improve the failing workers’ compensation system?
What can be done? God only knows. May be the conditions are not yet bad enough. But sooner or later the sleeping john needs to wake up and act. Workers’ compensation is the worst thing that can happen to a human being.
We need to educate the general public on the realities of the system and tell them how this issue affects them as well.
Organizations must work with each other. To win the fight, networking is key. And the big organization must help the little organization. I come from a union background, so reaching out to unions when leading an injured worker group was natural for me. We also reached out to other social justice organizations. We have to think of it this way- we’re farmers, we’re laying seeds and the more seeds you lay, the more crops you have. So we need to develop leaders in the fight and we need to cultivate allies outside our immediate community. Life is more than just your surroundings-we worked a lot with environmental groups for instance. Their fight was our fight. You have to work with others- no one can win it alone.
Allen Bernard currently lives in Dallas Texas and helps Veterans in getting their benefits. Allen was interviewed by NESRI for this post on October 6th 2012.