Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man
I confess that I feel a little like Mr. Jones when I try to comprehend the new worker organizing. Much more has been going on than I had imagined. It deserves attention, understanding and careful assessment. In this article, I hope to begin a sketch of just what “is happening here.” My hope is that it prompts additional articles, especially from participants in the centers, about their experiences.
On January 25 of this year, Michael Paarlberg published an article in The Guardian entitled “US unions’ continued decline masks new forms of worker activism.” Paarlberg is a volunteer at the DC Employment Justice Center. He highlighted two instances of the new activism—one-day “flash” strikes at fast food places in New York City and at Walmart stores around the country. He suggested their special significance was that both actions “were coordinated by groups that are not traditional unions: New York Communities for Change and OUR Walmart.”
New York Communities for Change is the re-constituted ACORN chapter in New York. OUR Walmart is an organization of Walmart “Associates” that “works to ensure that every Associate, regardless of his or her title, age, race or sex, is respected at Walmart.” It was founded in 2011 with the strong support of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
Paarlberg went on to talk about networks of grassroots workers’ centers, including the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the National Domestic Worker Alliance. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 1992, there were five worker centers; in 2005, there were 139; in 2012, the number was up to 214. Authoritative membership numbers are somewhat hard to come by. An IWJ Worker Center Network Survey conducted in 2011 reported that more than 32 percent of the 26 centers in that network had more than 400 members. Extrapolating from that report would suggest that there are perhaps about 200,000 members all told. In addition, however, many centers provide services and assistance to workers who do not become members.
Perhaps no struggle has come to represent the potential of the new worker organizing more than the recent strike and subsequent union recognition of the Hot and Crusty Workers in New York. Twenty-three immigrant workers, employed in a branch of a chain food company on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, engaged in an eleven-month campaign that included petitioning for NLRB recognition as an independent workers’ association, a successful legal case to secure back pay, a brief workplace occupation when the workers learned that the store was going to be closed, and a two-month long daily picket line. In October 2012, they won—the store would re-open; the association would be recognized for collective bargaining; the first agreement included paid vacation and sick days, wage increases, a formal grievance procedure and a union hiring hall.
It’s evident that the workers involved demonstrated an extraordinary level of determination and sacrifice and that there was a genuine bottom-up character to the workers’ activity. Nonetheless, it is also evident that a key role in the organization of the campaign was played by staff and volunteers from the relatively new Laundry Workers Center. That Center was modeled in part on the experience of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, an organization that’s more than ten years old.
The campaign of the Hot and Crusty Workers is emblematic of an array of other struggles in New York City and elsewhere being conducted by worker centers. In New York, they include a sustained effort to organize car wash employees and workers who work at green markets, such as those at Golden Farm in Brooklyn. Another quite recent victory came in Chicago where workers in an embroidery factory secured union representation (in this case, they chose the United Workers, an SEIU affiliate).
Many, perhaps most, of these worker center–based organizing projects focused on workers in low-wage jobs, are conducted with the active support and, often enough, leadership provided by a variety of community-based organizations—with support from one or more unions. In New York, among the most important of active groups are New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, originally an organization focused on immigrant issues. In Chicago, an especially prominent group is the ARISE Coalition. The community groups often have strong connections with some union leaders and with forces in or close to the Democratic Party—such as the Working Families Party in New York State and, indeed, as will be seen below, the possibility of alliances with elected officials or candidates for office is seen as a key organizing resource.
Although organizational models vary quite a bit, it is often the case that the members elect a board which has decision-making authority but that the organizational work is conducted by paid staff. While some centers collect dues, most are reliant on outside funding—from unions, foundations or donations from sympathetic individuals. Most of the groups share either historical connections and/or political affinities with the Alinskyite tradition of organizing—focused on the possibility of achieving short-term goals in the cause of sustaining participation and involvement and, more or less specifically, foregoing any embrace of fundamental social change—thus, “social justice” is perhaps the most frequently cited overarching goal. There is also a very strong religious dimension to the overall similarities and remarkable cohesiveness among organizations in different places. And perhaps most important, much of the activity is taking place in immigrant communities, including those with large numbers of undocumented individuals.
One of the major forces contributing to a common focus and a common set of organizing principles is the Interfaith Worker Justice Center (IWJ)—which supports worker centers across a broad range of industries. The Center, now located in Washington, DC, has embraced five core issues for organizing and advocacy purposes—wage theft, immigration reform, unemployment (or more precisely, jobs), the right to organize, the enforcement of workplace standards (such as minimum wage and paid sick days), and occupational safety and health (OSH). Its Workers’ Center Network provides support and advice to worker center start-ups as well as those already established in several key areas—1) conducting studies of local conditions; 2) building a community coalition; and 3) producing a worker rights manual. Its advocacy efforts are focused on involving individuals who are not directly affected by the issues in support of policy and legislative changes. IWJ also maintains close relationships with the federal Department of Labor.
Where did the Worker Centers come from?
Clearly, the worker centers are grounded in the working lives of many thousands of workers on the margins of what might be considered the mainstream economy. And, as well, they reflect the commitment of many social justice advocates from various traditions (liberation theology, members of Catholic Worker, adherents to various strands of non-violent thought, etc.). The roles and views of those individuals deserve to be looked at. But, first, I’d like to take a detour to examine what might be considered the strategic conceptualization of worker centers.
In 2003, Thomas Kochan, the co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Relations, put forward an argument about what would be needed to “restore workers’ voice at work and in American society.” He began with an acknowledgement that a reliance on what might be considered traditional models of labor organizing would not reverse the decline in union representation of workers (a decline has only become worse since). He wrote, “Simply putting new energy and resources into these efforts will not fill the void.” The key elements of his proposal were the following:
- A positive, forward looking, and distinctive vision that speaks to the aspirations of workers and working families across the full spectrum of the labor force and that is presented in highly visible fashion to the public, media professionals, and political leaders;
- A strategy that recruits members outside as well as at their workplaces and that provides a range of services and benefits workers need as they move across jobs and through the different stages of their career and family lives;
- A networked structure capable of maintaining membership and working in coalition with other progressive groups, and;
- Creative use of a variety of sources of power that complement the traditional sources of union power in collective bargaining. These include extensive use of information and modern communications media, exit and mobility as well as voice at work, coalition building, and a focus on state and local level public policy initiatives as test beds for the more fundamental changes needed in national policies.
Two years later, Janice Fine, a Labor Studies professor at Rutgers University, authored a report on worker centers for the Economic Policy Institute, titled “Organizing communities at the edge of the dream.” She described the common features of the then existing worker centers:
- Rather than being worksite-based, most centers focus their work geographically, working in a particular metropolitan area, city, or neighborhood. Unlike unions, their focus is not organizing for majority representation in individual worksites or for contracts for individual groups of workers.
- Sometimes ethnicity, rather than occupation or industry, is the primary identity through which workers come into relationship with centers. In other cases, ethnicity marches hand in hand with occupation. Discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity is a central analytic lens through which economic and social issues are viewed by the centers. In addition, a growing number of centers are working at the intersection between race, gender, and low-wage work.
- Centers place enormous emphasis on leadership development and democratic decision-making. They focus on putting processes in place to involve workers on an ongoing basis and strive to develop the skills of worker leaders so that they are able to participate meaningfully in guiding the organizations.
- They view education as integral to organizing. Workshops, courses, and training sessions are structured to emphasize the development of critical thinking skills that workers can apply to all aspects of their public lives, including work, education, neighborhood interaction, and health care.
- Centers demonstrate a deep sense of solidarity with workers in other countries and an ongoing programmatic focus on the global impact of labor and trade policies. Many centers maintain ongoing ties with popular organizations in the countries from which workers have migrated, share strategies, publicize each other’s work, and support international partners as they are able.
- As work is the primary focus of life for many newly arrived immigrants, it is also the locus of many of the problems they experience. For this reason, the centers focus on work, but also have a broad orientation and respond to the variety of issues faced by recent immigrants to the United States.
- Centers favor alliances with religious institutions and government agencies and seek to work closely with other worker centers, nonprofit agencies, community organizations, and activist groups by participating in both formal and informal coalitions.
- Most centers view membership as a privilege that is not automatic but must be earned. They require workers to take courses and/or become involved in the organization in order to qualify. Most centers have small but very involved memberships.
Although I’m sure that this is abstracting from a more complex reality, those principles and characteristics seem to be quite consistent with the actual form and content of the existing worker centers. Let’s take a look at some of the self-descriptions of various worker centers.
Restaurant Opportunities Center
Initially founded to provide support to restaurant workers displaced after September 11, 2001, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) is dedicated to winning improved wages and working conditions for restaurant workers and raising public recognition of restaurant workers’ contributions to the city.
The Workplace Project
The Workplace Project/Centro de Derechos Laborales on Long Island (in New York State)—founded in 1992—is a membership-based organization that unites immigrant workers and their families for better working and living conditions. It was founded on the belief that while providing services might alleviate some of the pain of exploitation, it would do nothing to fix the problems in the long run. Instead, it has chosen to build a grassroots movement and to strengthen the immigrant community through a cycle of education, leadership training, membership building, and organizing for change in the labor context.
New Labor in New Brunswick, New Jersey
For a different kind of self-description, here’s a performance of The New Labor Hymn by members of New Labor, a group in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Connections with Unions
In her 2005 paper, Fine had recommended greater contact and cooperation between worker centers and unions and reported that the Center for Community Change had initiated conversations with the AFL-CIO about its involvement.
Some eight years later, the contact and cooperation appears to have become quite extensive at both the national and local levels and it includes Change to Win, the other union confederation (SEIU, the Teamsters, UFCW and the United Farm Workers), as well as the AFL-CIO. Currently, the AFL-CIO has formal partnerships with the National Day Worker Organizing Network, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Guestworkers Alliance. Of special interest is its support for the Excluded Workers Congress, now called the United Workers Congress (which brings together organizations of farmworkers, restaurant workers, workers in southern right-to-work states, workfare workers, taxi workers employed as independent contractors, formerly incarcerated workers, domestic workers, day laborers and guest workers).
As mentioned above, the UFCW, a Change to Win union, actively supports OUR Walmart. In addition, the confederation has initiated campaigns for: 1) the fair treatment of farmworkers in California; 2) clean and safe ports on both coasts (that was involved in the recent organization of Los Angeles truckers into the Teamsters); and 3) Warehouse Workers United (which sponsors the Warehouse Workers Resource Center in southern California). It does not appear that any of the former animosity which existed between the two confederations gets in the way of their cooperation on many fronts—although it’s likely that they each have their own priorities. It bears emphasis that while some campaigns do result in unionization, many do not seem to have that goal—as in the case of OUR Walmart—at least immediately.
The Role of Spanish Speaking Labor
In 2010, Will Barnes, a brilliant thinker and committed revolutionary, produced an ambitious survey of what he thought was a mostly dismal state of affairs, entitled “The Working Class, World Composition and Crisis, A General Perspective.” He found one possible bright spot in the US:
… Spanish speaking labor is, however, different.
By the early 1990s, Spanish speaking labor was at once a phenomenon of the borderlands economy, the dominant proletarian element in migratory labor in the fields of corporate agriculture, and a component in the retail service sector in the great cities of America.
But what distinguishes Spanish speaking today in the United States, and this may be unique to immigrant labor as it exists in the world today, is its centrality in the productive processes in the United States as a whole: Spanish speaking labor has penetrated every major sector of the United States economy; demographically, it has become the largest minority in American society (between fifteen and twenty percent of the entire population); and, geographically, no longer confined to the Southwest, the San Fernando Valley of central California or the large metropolises, it can be found in large numbers in every corner of the continent: Geographically and demographically, Spanish speakers are now the largest social group, in Arizona, New Mexico, in the southern cities of Texas, in Southern California and close to the largest social group in the entire state as well as in Nevada. By 2006, Spanish speaking labor had become the largest growing minority in South Dakota (having outpaced the growth of the rest of the population of the state by 20:1) and in South Carolina (where a growth ratio of 10:1 existed over the previous six years).
Productively, Spanish speaking workers are overwhelming (better than ninety percent) proletarian. They make up seventy-five percent of all wildfire fighters in the Pacific Northwest; almost exclusively, they do the factory labor of butchering hogs in southwestern Minnesota, and in slaughtering chickens in central Iowa. Spanish speaking workers form the largest, most militant component of the trucking industry in Southern California. They dominate in the less skilled trades in the mass production of resident housing and commercial office construction, not merely in the major cities but in cities with a population of 100,000 or more across the country; and they continue to work in textile and apparel in the South, in the high tech sweat shops of Silicon Valley, and in the service sector as cooks in restaurants and hotels, as janitors everywhere and as domestics in the homes of the well-to-do throughout the country and in the large urban areas of southern Canada.
Spanish speaking labor is still engaged in low paying, but better paid, unorganized but better organized work. The fractured traditions of community constituted in its homelands (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.), its linguistic commonality in the midst of difference (Spanish as opposed to English), its Indian as well as specific “foreign” “national” heritages, and its lowly proletarian status all render this proletariat oppressed and exploited with slim chances for integration into the fictitious community of capital as it exists in America today, and, in self-making under these “conditions,” vastly more capable of self-organization for self-defense and qualitatively more militant than their white and Anglo counterparts.
In this light, it is perhaps not so surprising that so much of the worker center activity has been occurring within Spanish-speaking communities.
What to do and what not to do?
Last year, I wrote to an acquaintance who’s an activist in South Africa and asked him about the relationship between the left and the popular movements in that country, including the shackdwellers’ and landless people’s movements—as compared to the situation in this country. He wrote back:
Much of the organised left has often been very much alienated from popular struggles and at times has actively sought to delegitimate them via the mobilisation of slander and so forth, sometimes in complicity with the discourses of state repression. There has also been a tendency to co-opt individuals from popular struggles into the networks of the organised left rather than developing a mutually transformative dialogue. In both cases the essential assumption is that the role of the popular struggles is simply to provide a base for The Left. For these reasons, and others, some of the popular organisations and struggles are deeply suspicious of and refuse to work with some of the key figures and organisations in the organised left.
One of the reasons why the popular organisations are clearly much more attractive to most people than what you have called the organised left is that they are much closer to the lives, experiences and immediate challenges of the oppressed. But this is not a simple question of immediate material interest. It is also about being able to meet people’s needs for validation, support and so on. The organised left may have important ideas about macro issues but they usually struggle to connect them to lived experience leaving them with negligible popular support. But on the other hand the popular struggles are often much more local in their reach and this limits their ability to achieve system change. Clearly a synthesis of the two would be able to take us forward but here anyway the primary barrier to that possibility is the most of the organised left is unwilling to give up its assumption of a right to dominance—both at the level of ideas and organisation.
I wrote back:
Once again, it’s a question of balance—how best to express popular anger and hope in ways that connect them to the possibility of larger social transformation without gutting them of what might be considered their authenticity. Are you familiar with the novels of Barry Unsworth? In what I think that many agree is his greatest work, Sacred Hunger, a novel of sailor/slave revolt and utopian yearning, the young artist, Delblanc, embarks on a campaign to persuade the miserable sailors of the miserable slave ship, the Liverpool Merchant, that they could change the miserable world they inhabited:
Anyone at all—the weasel-faced Tapley, swabbing down the decks, a disgruntled Billy Blair coming up from scraping the slaves’ quarters, Morgan in his galley trying to find some new disguise for the rotten beef—might find himself addressed by Delbalnc and asked whether he did not agree that the state of society was artificial and the power of one man over another merely derived from convention. Delblanc’s manner was the same with all, friendly and open. At first, tactics lagging behind conviction, he made no concessions to any imperfections of understanding in his audience. “By nature, we are equal,” he said on one occasion to a vacantly smiling Calley. “Does it not therefore follow that government must always depend on the consent of the governed?” He even spoke to McGann, asking him whether he did not think it true that the character of man originated in external circumstances and could be changed as these were changed.
The men listened, or appeared to listen, out of deference, because he was a gentleman, because he was paying for his passage. Delblanc saw soon enough that he was using the wrong language with them and was beginning to try out a different one until warned by Thurso [the captain] that if he persisted in distracting the crew, he would be confined to his quarters for the rest of the voyage. … One look at the captain’s face was enough to convince Delblanc. It was in his reaction to this threat that he showed the quick grasp of realities that later came to distinguish him. A man can do no good locked up in his cabin. He went more circumspectly thereafter.
I bring Unsworth up because I don’t think that the left has yet developed much of an effective approach to engaging with workers, either when they are or are not engaged in struggles. Indeed, I’d suggest that the organizers who are playing key roles in the worker center movement are doing much better in that regard. Now, it may be that the reason why they are doing better is that the political visions that guide their practice are closer to the hopes and dreams of the workers they organize. Or it may be that they have done a better job of convincing those workers of the wisdom of their political visions. In either case, all too often, what the left has to say when it shows up on the picket line does not go very deep and its impact is all too limited. One reason why is that we often underestimate the time and effort needed to acquire real knowledge of the circumstances that workers are facing and of the all but certainly contradictory views they hold about those circumstances.
In the meantime, I think it would be especially helpful to develop better understandings of what the political perspectives at play really are. By way of example, the Center for Popular Democracy is a new entity that is co-chaired by the co-director of Make the Road New York and the President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU, a UFCW affiliate). It has recently published a report on service worker organizing, titled Workers Rising, that includes a set of proposals regarding matters such as an increase in New York State’s minimum wage, a new minimum wage just for New York City, policies (regarding such things as paid sick leave and stricter enforcement of local labor standards) that it hopes a new Mayor and a new City Council will implement starting next year. It’s quite easy to see all of its limitations but the more important task is to understand what the workers who are intended to benefit from the proposals make of it all. Have they seen the report? Were they able to read it? (There does not appear to be a Spanish-language version available.) Do they understand it? Were they asked about the proposals? How much difference do they think it will make if they’re adopted? What else would they have wanted to propose?
As we listen, perhaps we might discover ways in which the workers articulate their concerns that open up new possibilities. In 1985, Neville Alexander wrote in Azania Worker: “What has to be stressed, however, is the vital political and social importance of creating a new discourse, the urgent need to recognize that language is much more than a passive reflection of a pre-existent, autonomous reality, that, indeed, the language we use, by virtue of the fact that it is the medium through which the historical subject is constructed, helps to construct the reality within which we act and to which we react. While we have to guard against all idealist temptations and test everything we do against the non-discursive practices and possibilities of the working class, we….” must pay “attention to this formative role of language…”
Perhaps then we can find some new things to say.
-  In a fascinating recent development, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and OUR Walmart have signed a consent decree wherein they commit themselves to not organizing Walmart workers into a union. See “Letter and notice regarding disposition of Walmart picketing charge.” ↩
-  See Laura Gottesdiener, “A New Face of the Labor Movement,” December 2, 2012, on Common Dreams. ↩
-  For information about the two centers, see Restaurant Opportunities Center United and Laundry Workers Center. ↩
-  Cited verbatim. Thomas Kochan, “Restoring Workers’ Voice: A Call for Action,” April 2003; revised August 15, 2003. ↩
-  Cited verbatim. Janice Fine, “Worker centers: Organizing communities at the edge of the dream,” Economic Policy Institute, December 15, 2005. A book by Fine, with the same title, was published by Cornell University Press in 2006. ↩
-  Cited mostly verbatim. ↩
-  See Harmony Goldberg and Randy Jackson, “The Excluded Worker Congress: Reimagining the Right to Organize,” New Labor Forum, volume 20, number 3, pp. 54–59, fall 2011. ↩
-  Will died, way too early, last year. His death cut short the contributions of a remarkably distinctive voice in the American revolutionary movement. His writings can be found here. ↩
-  See “The Working Class, World Composition and Crisis, A General Perspective.” ↩
-  For the moment, I am not addressing a very important other issue—the existence of divided labor markets and specifically the ways in which urban labor markets are divided between black and Spanish-speaking workers. For two very detailed, and quite excruciating, accounts of how this works in Chicago, see two articles by Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore, “Contingent Chicago: Restructuring the Spaces of Temporary Labor,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, volume 25, issue 3, September 2001; and “Carceral Chicago: Making the Ex-offender Employability Crisis,” same journal, volume 32, issue 2, June 2008. ↩