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February 2017

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Detroit's 'Wobbly' Kitchen:
Serving Up a Healthy Dose of Community Spirit

For many, Sunday morning starts with a lazy cup of coffee, maybe the sports page or readying the kids for church. But twice a month for nearly a dozen members of Detroit Local 58, Sunday starts at the union hall with 120 pounds of raw chicken.

For more than four years, the small but dedicated group gathers on the second and fourth Sundays of each month to help feed homeless and working poor Detroiters at Cass Park, a little more than a mile from the hall.

It's a bi-monthly bit of volunteerism that has its roots in the protracted Detroit newspaper strike in the mid-1990s, said Local 58 Business Manager Michael Richard. Local 58's own Kevin Mackey was one of the leaders of the Friends of Labor Kitchen, which fed striking workers during the infamous 19-month showdown between 2,500 members of six unions and the city's two primary newspapers. After the strike, the group continued to offer its services to labor allies in the decades that followed.

It was out of that operation that the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies as members of the small activist union are often known, started feeding the homeless and downtrodden at Cass Park in 2012.

Founded to promote class solidarity in the early 20th century, one of the IWW's most well-known leaders was Eugene Debs, who ran for president five times on the Socialist Party of America's ticket. Today, the general union represents workers at fewer than a dozen manufacturing shops around greater Detroit, but its history in the city and across the U.S. runs deep. Its membership is open to members of other unions, so the Wobblies' unapologetic progressive activism attracts members from all over the Detroit labor community.

At the Wobbly Kitchen, Local 58's dispatcher Mike Conflitti, along with business representative Paul VanOss and former head of the local's community service committee Joe Pyszynski, form the core of the IBEW's contribution, though the number of volunteers varies depending on who is available.

Anywhere from 100 to 300 needy individuals show up at Cass Park on a regular basis for Sunday meals. They're always met by 30 or so volunteers from the Wobblies, the IBEW, UAW, and other members of Detroit's labor community.

"It's a humbling experience, being out there, knowing these people count on us for a hot meal every couple of weeks," Pyszynski said. Sundays are among the most difficult times for the homeless to find food when other social service organizations are closed.

For Conflitti, the opportunity to give back has kept him coming back year after year. "In just a few hours every other week, we're able to make a real difference for some of these people, whether it's a meal or helping them with extra clothes or toiletries or just reminding them that there are people who care. It's a rewarding way to spend a Sunday morning."

In addition to cooking vast quantities of chicken — donated by a local butcher — the Local 58 volunteers also provide the tables and chairs so that recipients don't have to sit on the ground. Richard said that four years ago, when he first put the call out for help, several of Detroit's electrical contractors stepped up. One, Superior Electric, sent an entire truck filled with folding picnic tables.

That same winter, Local 58 volunteers helped to wire up warming stations for the homeless in downtown Detroit after a spate of shelter closures due to urban development projects.

"This work is a huge part of how we stay active and involved in our community," Richard said, "and I'm extremely proud of this group for keeping that going. They bring their families to help, and it's a nice way to pass on that sense of community from one generation to the next."



IBEW members join Detroit's "Wobbly Kitchen" every other Sunday to feed the needy in Cass Park, often including volunteers from Local 58's RENEW and Women's committees as well as members of their own families.