Partner Spotlight: Rev. Kirk LaubensteinBack >
August 18, 2015
The Rev. Kirk Laubenstein, Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, speaks to a crowd of supporters at a Buffalo Fight for $15 rally on Tax Day 2015.
By Adrienne C. Hill
Scribe, Open Buffalo
When the Rev. Kirk Laubenstein took the helm of the Coalition for Economic Justice (CEJ) in September 2014, one of his first acts as Executive Director was to don a king costume and picket a local Burger King in the sweltering late summer heat. Less than a year later, that action — an early local effort in the national Fight for $15 — has borne fruit: on July 22, the New York State Wage Board recommended a gradual increase in fast food worker wages to $15/hour over the next six years.
Rev. Laubenstein’s costume-wearing days may be over, but the fight for economic justice is not. Recently, he sat down with Open Buffalo to discuss his path to activism, the Fight for $15, and next steps for CEJ and the Open Buffalo network.
What was your path to activism and to CEJ?
KL: After I graduated college, I was living at the Nickel City Housing Cooperative. I lived there about four years and was working with people with developmental disabilities out in Depew at Southeast Works for six or seven years. A friend of mine there got really involved with a community garden around the corner of West and Hudson. The (Common) Councilman at the time wanted to build a HOPE VI house there. And we were like, there’s city-owned property all over the place, why build it on this community garden? We led a petition drive around that neighborhood, tried to go talk to the Councilmember — he was like, “nope” — and talked to the Majority Leader at City Hall. We eventually got the project stopped, and the garden is still there.
After that, I got really involved with community gardening. I was the board president of Grassroots Gardens, a community gardening organization that has about 120 community gardens throughout the city. Did that for about four years, and just was like, “Okay, I love the city; why am I working out in the ’burbs?” So, around 2008, Councilmember David Rivera had an opening. He’d just gotten elected. I interviewed for the position, and started to work for him as one of his legislative assistants.
Working with Councilmember Rivera, I really got involved with housing. I helped start PUSH. And in my job working with the Councilmember, I was often in housing court because at that time, there was a ton of out-of-town investors who bought a house for ten grand, on the promise that you could rent it out.
I bought a house over on the West Side from this church. (My life is interesting with church. For 15 years, I was like, “I’m not into church.” And I started going back to this church at West Utica Street and Richmond Avenue. I bought a house from that same church to live on the West Side, over on Vermont Street.)
One of the guys that owned a lot of houses on the West Side moved to Florida. One of his houses burned — I mean, just terrible. There was a house in the neighborhood that was still occupied, and in pretty bad disrepair. And in housing court, we got the rent money set aside to take care of housing code violations. The person that was collecting the rent was very angry about that because that was some of his source of income, and so he threatened my life.
During that time, I’d been going to the Abbey of the Genesee, a Trappist monastery, for silent retreat. During that scary time, I was living with my sister, and the guy lived around the corner; the West Side is small. I went back to the Abbey of the Genesee and reread Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love, and was like, “If he can point people towards peace, even in this whirlwind that is his life, maybe I can do the same thing.” And so, I really started going back to church, started talking to Rev. Dr. Bruce McKay (director of Gamaliel of Western New York), and became convinced that seminary was the thing to do.
So I went back to seminary in Chicago, and, in seminary, organized hotel workers with Unite Here, around the Hyatt Hotel boycotts. We won that fight with Hyatt, and I became more convinced that when you join together with other workers, you can actually move the boss to do things that they would never otherwise do. And I got increasingly convinced that Jesus was a labor organizer, and that the Exodus story is all about organizing labor, and that God cares about the material world, just as God cares about the spiritual world. And that we’re all created with an inherent dignity and worth, in the image of God.
I came back to Buffalo in May 2014; didn’t have a job. I interviewed with the Coalition for Economic Justice, and Sept. 1 was my first day on the job.
And the Fight for $15 was the first project you worked on at CEJ?
KL: Yeah. Fight for $15 has been one of our bigger projects: organizing primarily fast food workers, but also adjuncts and home care workers, to get $15 an hour and the right to form a union.
To see the workers’ struggles is really eye-opening, and pretty freaking brutal. One of our workers who went on strike with us back in December in the Fight for $15 — after that, he got his hours cut. The management says, “It’s not because you went on strike,” but, if it feels like a duck, quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. And he’d rented a bed from Aaron’s, and they call on a pretty regular basis to repo his bed. I mean, you literally don’t know if you’re going to be sleeping on your own bed that night.
What was it like to make the national Fight for 15 campaign local? What are Buffalo’s assets and liabilities for organizing such a campaign?
KL: Uh, the weather. (Laughs.) Having a strike in December sucks.
Buffalo used to have industry. Actually, CEJ was founded in ’86, when the Trico plant was in the process of being shipped to Mexico. And it was founded by labor and religious folks that said: “We’ve already lost our steel plants. We’ve already lost everything else. At least let’s try to keep this.” And they held it for a little while, but globalization is a hell of a thing.
So, especially since 2008 — since the recession — it’s forced more and more people into service jobs. And since that’s been happening, you’ve got older and older people working at Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonald’s. It’s not a job only for high school kids that are just trying to make money for pocket change. It’s people trying to make rent, take care of their kids.
Buffalo isn’t necessarily unique. There’s a ton of Rust Belt cities. But as transnational companies have more and more influence, there’s got to be a local response. You’ve got to hit them throughout the nation and even internationally, which is part of the whole effort around Fight for $15.
What are the implications of the recent successes in the Fight for $15 campaign for fast food workers, and for the larger work force?
KL: I think the next step is to broaden it out, to make sure that everybody, not just fast food workers, gets fifteen. And that’s what we were trying to do in the last strike, where we had adjuncts and health care workers joining us out on the strike line.
We’re also getting our workers involved with the Open Buffalo Emerging Leaders program, starting in September, which I think will be good to keep them involved. I’m excited about the leadership program, because I think it will give them some history, give them more organizing skills than they already have, to be able to take the fight bigger.
As a member of Open Buffalo’s Advisory Board and the executive director of one of its partner organizations, what is your vision for how Open Buffalo and CEJ can help each other?
KL: The hope is that we can get beyond our own mission-centric stuff, and that Open Buffalo can help us do that. The intersections of the work together are the places where Open Buffalo can be a real help.
What does the phrase “Open Buffalo” mean to you?
KL: To have an Open Buffalo would mean the people that are most affected by injustice are the ones that are making the decisions to change the policy, to change their lives for the better. If it’s workers, if it’s people of color, if it’s LGBTQ folks, if it’s bus riders on the NFTA, if it’s parents of children in the Buffalo Public Schools, if it’s the tenants at BMHA housing, they’re the ones that should make the decisions.
That takes a ton of work. It’s organizing, it’s leadership development, it’s a ton of different components that need to happen in order to make change. But that’s the work.