If workers are protesting or picketing in Rhode Island, there is a good chance you'll find Mike Araujo nearby, and if he is given an opportunity to speak, you can count on him being articulate and on point, cutting to the heart of the matter and then stepping back to reveal the big picture. He's the kind of person you just know has a unique back story.

When he was recently named executive director for Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, that was all the excuse I needed to pin him down and find out what led Mike, and Jobs with Justice, to where they are today.

Family

My family, on my father's side -- he's Cape Verdean -- has been active in the labor movement in Rhode Island since the 1910's. They were one of the organizing families of the longshoreman's union initially. When my dad was a prizefighter, he tried to organize the boxers into a collective bargaining agreement in the 50's. So he's always been committed to that.

My aunt on my mother's side was an early organizer with the teachers' union in the 50's, in Rhode Island. She was NEA, I want to say '55, '56. She lived over on Benefit Street. She loved it. She was one of the first modern special ed teachers in Rhode Island. She felt very strongly about it.

My uncles were machinists who worked at Brown and Sharpe. There was a strike in the early 80's that was the longest strike in the country's history. It was a violent strike. My uncle is very proud of being a member of the machinists union and has maintained his activist status. So I grew up in a labor family. When I took a job at a restaurant, I got yelled at because it was unorganized. "How dare you!" But you do what you have to do.

Growing up, organizing

I went to Hope High School and Our Lady of Providence, and then I traveled around in the 90's, working with the IWW (International Workers of the World), trying to organize. Also with the UAW, trying to organize auto workers in Texas.

I worked with the Texas Prisoners Labor Union as well -- and the Texas Physicians Union. Because they have the same initials, we kept getting their mail, and we realized there is actually a link here that we could use. When you're doing prisoner organizing, you organize the family. You do some work inside the prison, but for the most part, it is building up the support outside the walls, for the people behind the walls. One of the things we found out, because we kept getting the physicians mail, is that a lot of people didn't have adequate health care, or they weren't sure about it or there were language barriers, and the physicians realized they didn't have adequate translation service or good outreach, so they ended up working together for a very long time. So you never know. You never know what path things are going to take.

Mike's dad

My dad (George Araujo) worked as a janitor at Brown, with SEIU. Worked as an organizer with them in the late 70's, early 80's. He was a janitor, worked at the Rockefeller Library, which he loved more than anything in the entire world. The overnight shift at a library is like a dream come true.

A bunch of thing happened with my dad, who grew up in the 30's in Fox Point, he had polio. They used to ship people who had polio to a quarantine island. When he was five he was sent to this quarantine island, and swam off when he was seven. He started boxing and became a very young pro; I think he turned pro at 15. But there were always medical problems associated with the polio, the boxing, the malnutrition.

So (he had) Parkinsons and complications from boxing. He needed more help, so I came home to try to help, take care of my dad. I remember very clearly that he wasn't able to do his overnight shifts because he was too sick. Parkinson's has a lot of problems. There is the dementia aspect, incontinence, there is a lot.

The union helped fill his shifts, they'd work his shifts so we'd still get the checks. They were really looking out and making sure there was always food in my fridge, that the rent was paid. The union really took care of us. Which was huge. When something like that happens, your family, no matter how much you can prepare for it or how slow moving it is, the kids end up bearing a huge burden, and the union filled the gap. I realized that I was going to have to commit myself to more seriously to organizing from that moment. And that brings me here.

IATSE and working in theater

There aren't a lot of truly itinerant jobs besides farming, but if you travel, if you do theater work you can work almost anywhere. There's always a show, you can build something, clean out the seats, there's always work and the rates are pretty high for those jobs. I worked construction at Trinity, but I also took load in and load out jobs with IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts) Local 23 in Providence.

Became a member, ran for business agent, was elected in 2011, also became a member of IATSE Local 481. (Running for business agent) was a very specific thing. I was always very skeptical of union leadership, so I made a very big statement that I was only going to do specific things, and then I'm going to leave, which I tried to do... But that's hard to do, and I didn't. I tried to run for a different office, and I lost, which is fine.

Jobs with Justice

I started to work with ROC United organizing restaurant workers to win better wages and decided to take the executive director job with Jobs with Justice, which takes us to today.

CG: Is this the first time you're full time...

Sitting down? It is my first sittin' down job, and it is great. It is a great coalition. Almost 50 labor and community organizations that are all really committed to on the ground activism, but always being consciously anti-racist, anti-xenophobic, anti-bias.

It is easily one of the most progressive labor organizations that you can find, with the support of the AFL, and Rhode Island's AFL-CIO is easily one of the most progressive in the country, their commitment to organizing the organized. We have a very close partnership.

The history (of Jobs with Justice) goes back to the mid-80's, when a group of workers for United Airlines weren't getting recognized for a contract. There were several different unions inside the company, so they came together, and they realized that there needed to be better cross-union and community organization. Like, if folks lose their jobs, they can't pay rent, they can't pay bills, it has a cascading effect on everybody, so you can't look at anything as just a labor issue. It is going to affect the churches, it is going to affect how the workers interact with everybody. There was an acceptance that there had to be a better way to do it.

So (Jobs with Justice) involved itself with campaigns that were more social movement oriented. Justice for Janitors being the most obvious example, in Los Angeles and here, particularly because immigrants' rights were a central issue for Jobs with Justice, just as a civil rights issue and a labor issue. Making sure those two things were seen as inextricable.

Jobs with Justice was established in Rhode Island in 1996. The first director was Matt Jerzyk, who was an incredibly effective, smart, dedicated and brave executive director. He did things that I don't think any other executive director would do. He got arrested a lot. But he was fearless, and that is a good model to have. He set the tone for how the organization is going to be. It is going to be explicitly anti-racist and not afraid of confronting power.

CG:From my perspective it seems like when a union has an issue, and they feel like "OK, we need to have a public face for this, we need to get some people out in the streets," they ring up Jobs with Justice.

Ideally, that's exactly how it is supposed to work. A union is an organization that has to defend the workers in the job that they're doing. That's a full time job. That takes about all the capacity of the leadership of those unions. It's not just servicing the contracts and it is not just talking to folks. They have to be there when folks get born, for funerals, to answer the phone to answer questions from stewards and workers, that is a lot of burden to put on people.

To then ask them to do a big community outreach at the same time is often outside of what they are able to do, even though the message needs to get said. Because unions have to be so inwardly focused, there needs to be a way to tell the story, and Jobs with Justice can do that.

In Rhode Island, a whole bunch of union leaders come from Our Lady of Providence. For some reason, Our Lady of Providence High School produced a lot of folks in the labor movement. This was a pretty rigorous Jesuit, all boys, preparatory seminary school. So I think there's always a proselytizing aspect in the heart of every union leader, there's the idea that more people need to hear the story. Everyone's a unionist, they just don't know it yet. It is a very Catholic idea. But they don't always have the time to do it. They have to take care of their "church." So that's what Jobs with Justice can do, we can be the louder voice, the street corner preacher to carry that message further.

Being able to provide a safe space for both community and church groups to speak to labor because there are concerns. No organization is ever perfect, and some organizations have histories that are less than beautiful. They've evolved from that, but those stories need to be told.

Memories are long inside some communities, as they should be. We live in Rhode Island, where Irish people remember the sins of the British from 600 years ago. You're definitely going to remember the crimes a union committed 50 years ago. Reconciling that becomes an important part of the work Jobs with Justice does, especially because we're explicitly anti-racist and have a goal of making a labor movement that is fully representative. Just about every labor union in Rhode Island agrees with that principle, it is just getting there. Finding a safe space to be able to talk to each other is a central issue.