The Domestic Economy

WORKER CENTERS: Entering a New Stage of Growth and Development

Worker centers—community-based organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy, and organizing to provide support to low-wage workers—play an indispensable role in helping low-wage immigrant workers navigate the world of work. They are vehicles for collective reflection, voice, and action, and the vast majority of these centers serve predominantly or exclusively immigrant populations. However, there are a few centers that serve primarily African-American populations or bring immigrants together with African-Americans. In the largely nonunion service economy—lowend construction, meatpacking, light industry, and what’s left of the garment trade—worker centers are calling attention to exploitative industry practices and pioneering creative strategies, especially in the context of widespread subcontracting. Hyper-competitive labor market conditions—once thought to be confined to industries like agriculture—are characteristic of many other sectors, thus the strategies worker centers are using to target sub-contractors, joint employers, and independent contracting arrangements have much broader application.

In their monitoring and enforcement of federal and state labor standards regulations, worker centers attempt to fill the void created by an ineffectual and disengaged state. Their labor market interventions—through direct economic action and public policy reform—are pioneering new strategies for protecting low wage workers. Their local advocacy builds bridges between immigrant workers and the larger communities in which immigrants live and work, often effectively reframing the way these workers are perceived and transforming hostility and fear into empathy. Worker centers have also been building organizations, developing leaders, and launching campaigns in the “too-difficult-to-organize” sectors unions gave up on long ago.

Along with their considerable strengths, I have argued in previous work that worker centers possessed certain limitations. Most had small membership bases, or in many cases, no formal membership structures at all. Many resisted charging dues because they feared workers could not afford to pay and they did not view dues as an important way for workers to demonstrate organizational commitment. Even many of those who did believe in the importance of formal membership had not made it a day to day priority.

Worker centers are almost entirely reliant upon foundation funding. I have argued that the unpredictability of the foundations’ backing and the lack of funding-source diversification made these centers financially vulnerable and unstable. Until fairly recently, immigrant worker centers were also under-networked. At the local, state, and regional levels, organizations might have come together on specific campaigns, but they were not working together on an ongoing basis. The limited networking was problematic because centers were unable to coordinate strategy and project a national presence. Coordination also matters for fundraising purposes—many national funders hesitate to fund at the local level, preferring to go through regional or national intermediaries.

As labor market institutions, many centers were not engaged in detailed industrial or labor market research and analysis. Finally, despite mounting some extremely innovative campaigns to intervene in labor markets through direct economic action against employers, most centers have had a limited impact this way. Worker centers have made their greatest impact on labor markets and industries by catalyzing government action and initiating local and state public policy initiatives. Today, worker centers and their national organizations are overcoming some of these limitations I posited while others, such as the extensive foundation funding, may (with the benefit of hindsight) have actually been strengths.

Some of worker centers’ strategic shortcomings are indicative of a broader challenge faced by all worker organizations, including unions, as they confront twenty-first-century global capitalism. But, in the past five years, worker centers and their networks have significantly evolved and matured, institutionalizing themselves and substantially expanding their strategic capacities.

Targeting the State

Despite a 1995 AFL-CIO leadership change—that presaged a renewed focus on organizing—and the federation’s 2005 split (which proponents hoped would catalyze membership growth), union density has continued to decline. This is not solely a consequence of globalization and the decline of manufacturing. Table 1 shows that U.S. union density in the private sector’s non-footloose industries has been flat or declining as well.

As with worker centers, many of labor’s most significant organizing successes have come through targeting the state through politics and public policy. Much of its membership growth is due to political clout that has enabled the organizing of workers whose positions are paid through government funding streams. For example, the home care, nursing home, and child care workforces have gained collective bargaining rights through unions’ political interventions. This is also true for the building trades, whose most reliable work involves public construction tied to prevailing wage laws. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of unions’ political—versus economic—strength can be seen in the stark contrast between public and private union membership rates. In the aggregate, government workers are five times more likely to belong to a union than today’s private sector employees.

Until the recession and the assault on the public sector workforce, both unions and worker centers—faced with the challenges of twenty-first-century capitalism—have been looking to the state as their most viable option for securing improvements. What will it take to see a renewal of private sector organizing?

Altering the Climate

Since private sector unionism has declined so drastically and public sector unionism has come under vicious attack, it would seem that altering the larger climate is a prerequisite for winning policy remedies or union organizing campaigns. This is precisely what worker centers—and their close research and policy allies—have been able to do regarding the enforcement of labor standards and basic rights for low-wage immigrant workers.

A 2009 study carried out by Annette Bernhardt, Ruth Milkman, and Nik Theodore found that 26 percent of low-wage workers in the nation’s three largest cities suffered minimum wage violations, and over 76 percent of low-wage workers who labored more than forty hours in the prior week were not paid according to overtime laws. In some regions, the Department of Labor itself has recorded Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) noncompliance levels at above 50 percent in the nursing home, poultry processing, day care, and restaurant industries. By weaving low-wage immigrant workers’ stories into a collective narrative about work in America, and connecting these stories to statistics that demonstrate the shockingly widespread nature of workplace violations, worker centers have successfully cast workers’ struggles in moral terms. While moral power is certainly not equivalent to labor market power, since it has been so tough to build economic power, reframing worker issues expands the space through which workers can make their case and may be a prerequisite for engaging in other, more contentious forms of action.

Beginning in 2009, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), an organization with a vibrant network of worker centers, popularized the phrase “wage theft” and launched a national movement to pass state and local ordinances. According to IWJ, anti-wage theft legislation— and laws that strengthen protections against workers’ misclassification as independent contractors—has been passed in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, and Washington State. A county wage theft ordinance was passed in Miami-Dade County, Florida and there are municipal ordinances underway in Little Rock, Arkansas, Central Falls, Rhode Island, Kalamazoo, Michigan, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and other cities. IWJ has also worked with Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) to draft the federal Wage Theft Prevention Act. Labor standards enforcement work has been dismissed as an inferior alternative to union organizing—“it only enforces existing laws, it doesn’t raise standards,” was a predictable refrain. But given the dearth of union presence at the bottom of the wage scale and the high incidence of wage theft, this work has moved out of the margins—in addition to winning some measure of recompense for workers, it’s now a powerful means of casting low-wage-worker organizing in a sympathetic light and placing the need for stronger regulation of decent work on the public policy table. By publicizing widespread non-compliance with basic wage and overtime laws and targeting the government to enact reforms, worker centers have mounted a compelling case for a rejuvenated state role in governing the labor market

Federation and Capacity Building 

In 2007, the flagship New York Taxi Workers Alliance brought taxi workers together across eighteen U.S. cities and from cities around the world to form the International Taxi Workers Alliance. The organization has affiliates in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, Providence, San Antonio, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Spokane, Northern Virginia, and West Virginia as well as Montreal, Nepal, the Punjab region of India, Sydney, and Toronto. The opening convention featured statements of solidarity from transportation worker unions across the globe and a keynote address by then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Likewise, over the course of the past few years, the movement for domestic worker organizing—in the United States and globally—has expanded. In 2010, after many years of publicizing the abuses suffered by nannies and domestic workers, Domestic Workers United (DWU) won the passage of the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the first bill of its kind in the U.S. DWU helped bring organizations together to found the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) in 2007. By early 2011, NDWA had thirtythree affiliate organizations in seventeen cities and eleven states, and a staff of nine people. The organization has entered into a strategic alliance with the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, Jewish Funds for Justice, National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, and National People’s Action, along with many other prominent national organizations and scores of local community organizing groups to launch a campaign to transform the caregiver industry through the establishment of labor standards, career ladders, pathways to legalization, and a new tax credit to support the cost of caring for others’ families.

On the restaurant workers front, the founders and leaders of Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY)—who have established rigorous requirements for affiliation—formed ROC-United in 2007. According to ROC-NY co-founder Saru Jayaraman, in 2008 the organization set up a national organizing committee and opened four affiliates. From the outset, the organization’s goal has been to establish affiliates in the top ten U.S. restaurant markets. By 2011, ROC-United expanded to a total of eight cities (New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.), had a ten-person national staff, and sponsored its first national lobbying day in the nation’s capital on the same day the National Restaurant Association was lobbying. ROC-United trains the groups in accordance with its three-pronged organizational model: a worker-led approach to organizing for workplace justice; labormanagement partnership to promote the high-road approach, which includes training programs and research; and policy work to highlight problems in the industry and set forth solutions.

Strategic Alliances and Institutional Partnerships

Whereas unions looking to mount large-scale industry-based leverage campaigns had seldom viewed worker centers as an effective means to that end, there is now a growing trend among worker centers, unions, and the government to forge institutional partnerships. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON)— which was founded in 2001 and now has twenty-nine affiliates—was the first worker center network to form a national partnership with the AFL-CIO (in August 2006). In a formal resolution passed by its Executive Council that year, the AFL-CIO explicitly recognized the role of worker centers and made a commitment to help defeat anti-day laborer center bills in Congress and support immigration reform that includes legalization and a pathway to citizenship. The AFL-CIO president was also authorized to issue certificates of affiliation to worker centers interested in joining state federations and central labor councils. A short time later, very similar national agreements were signed with IWJ and ENLACE. In May 2011, the AFL-CIO entered into partnership agreements with the NDWA and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance.

The most extensive organizational partnership thus far is the one between NDLON and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). A landmark February 2008 partnership document drafted by LIUNA made clear that it understood and valued the worker centers’ dual mission of establishing a minimum set of wages and other employment conditions, and forcefully advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. The union also sent an equally clear signal that it understood the large-scale immigrant organizing implications for its own leaders and members:

LIUNA’s interest in organizing construction workers in the immigrant community is not limited to improving the bargaining leverage of its current members. LIUNA understands that successfully organizing immigrant workers will fundamentally change the composition of its membership. That, in turn, will have far-reaching ramifications for what the union [will] look like ten, twenty, or thirty years down the road. But the union has a long history of undergoing dramatic shifts in the composition of its membership.

Senior officials at LIUNA held a series of meetings with regional networks of worker centers to discuss various approaches for how the union and the worker centers might work together. The group’s Eastern Region (covering New Jersey, Delaware, New York City, and Long Island) has been a national trailblazer in supporting immigrant worker organizing. In June 2008, it reached a historic agreement with a set of worker centers—including New Labor, a ten-year-old worker center based in New Jersey—to work together on organizing efforts, principally in the residential construction sector. The Laborers’ regional leadership worried that bringing newly organized residential construction workers into existing locals would prove contentious—new workers would have to wait their turn at the bottom of a long hiring list, forcing them to acclimate themselves to locals’ strongly established cultural norms and procedures. There was also the very real possibility that some existing members would be hostile toward Latino immigrants joining in large numbers. To avoid these potential pitfalls, the Laborers established two new union locals—Local 55 in New Jersey and Local 10 in New York City—and appointed worker center leaders to the board and staff.

It is also important to recognize the innovative work of New York City’s Make the Road by Walking organization and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). They have jointly launched path-breaking, community-based organizing campaigns, targeting stores and chains that have been systematically underpaying their workers. They have won significant back-pay awards and, in some cases, collective bargaining agreements.

Partnerships are also evolving between worker centers and government agencies. In 2006, California’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) established the Janitorial Enforcement Team (JET). JET has a close working relationship with the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund (MCTF), a janitorial watchdog organization—established in 1999 by Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union and its signatory contractors—that functions as a worker center for nonunion workers in the industry.

The MCTF provides state inspectors with specialized knowledge of industry structures and sub-contracting arrangements, and plays a critical role in helping to assemble the documentation necessary for the state to bring cases. Understanding that few workers will come to them or to the government, MCTF inspectors routinely go to worksites at night, during janitors’ peak working hours. They build cases through systematic “reconstruction” when workers lack pay stubs, identifying and interviewing each worker, determining which contractor employed them, and establishing the dates and hours worked. State investigators now accept cases and documentation from the MCTF. This is a significant departure from tradition—government investigators are typically discouraged from accepting information from organizations or working closely with them.

At the national level, President Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has given particular attention to Latino workers, knowing they are at very high risk of injury on the job. Working in the state with the highest rate of construction fatalities, the Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral (PDL)—a worker center in Austin, Texas—signed a formal agreement with OSHA and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD). The agreement allows PDL to submit complaints directly to OSHA and WHD on behalf of workers, ensures these complaints are given priority, and requires their investigation within forty-eight hours. OSHA and WHD engage in more targeted and proactive investigations, in partnership with PDL, rather than simply responding to complaints.

Movement Building

In the past five years, worker centers and their networks have been at the forefront in a variety of new national formations around global worker justice, immigrant rights, the right to organize workers that have been historically excluded from collective bargaining rights, food justice, and the right to decent working and living conditions in America’s cities. Here are a few examples:

1. The Excluded Workers Congress (EWC) was established at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum by the Inter-Alliance Dialogue, Jobs with Justice, and others. The EWC represents worker organizations historically excluded from the right to organize across nine sectors: domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day laborers, guest workers, workers from states with so-called “right-to-work” laws, workfare workers, and formerly incarcerated workers. (See “The Excluded Workers Congress: Reimagining the Right to Organize” in this issue of New Labor Forum.)

2. The Food Chain Workers Alliance was created in 2009 with the goal of creating a crossindustry network throughout the food system, including agricultural, meatpacking, poultry, food-processing, warehouse, food service, and grocery workers. According to Joann Lo, the national coordinator, the vision of the organization is to elevate food worker issues to the national level, through research and policy work and the launching of a national campaign that would cover most—if not all—of the food system’s sectors (along with inter-connected targets). The Alliance is developing fair trade government procurement policies for food, building off the anti-sweatshop movement’s efforts to win sweat-free procurement for uniforms.

3. Alto Arizona! is a national campaign that was created in response to the passage of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which allowed the police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and required immigration documents to be carried at all times. “My organization doesn’t have a choice. We have become the public face of this debate because we are highly visible. If that is the case, then our fight has to be the example as well,” said NDLON Executive Director Pablo Alvarado. “When cops are given the power to enforce immigration law the first place they go is day labor corners, so this is a matter of life and death for us.”

NDLON strategists realized early on that anti-immigration campaigners would use Arizona as a testing ground for strategies that would then be exported to other states. In response, they developed a national list of fifty thousand activists and established a rapid response text messaging system with more than ten thousand people living in the Phoenix area. They also created a vibrant web presence, launched a national boycott effort, and likened this struggle to the civil rights movement, inviting longtime African-American activists to come to Arizona and advise them on strategy.

A Growing Force for Worker Justice

Worker centers have been able to develop as free spaces of experimentation in part because they have been unencumbered by the strictures of American labor law. It’s also arguable that their incorporation as tax exempt organizations has provided new avenues for organizational development. By learning to write grants, solicit foundation support, and build individual donor programs, centers have established a new financial infrastructure for immigrant worker organizing at the community level. Nevertheless, it is still worth contemplating what kind of capacity is lost when a low-wage worker organization relies upon external sources rather than internal sources (dues) for its core support; fundraising that requires constantly talking to workers creates a different type of culture, capacity, and accountability than fundraising that focuses on external sources.

Strikingly, almost all of the networks that are growing and federating within the worker center world are occupation- or industry-specific. Although common ethnicity or language are important constitutive elements that have paved the way for recruitment, it seems that sector and occupation have still been instrumental to the durability of organizations and the growth of larger federations and networks. The sectorally-specific nature of the federations also seems to have aided some national unions in reaching an understanding and acceptance of worker centers. Additionally, these industry-specific networks—i.e., taxi drivers and domestic workers—are demonstrating a growing interest in acquiring collective bargaining rights.

While the national AFL-CIO has provided strong legal, policy, and political support, only a small number of worker centers have been granted certificates of affiliation with local central labor councils and—with the exception of the Car Wash Worker Campaign in Los Angeles, and the RWDSU’s and LIUNA’s efforts—there are few joint organizing campaigns on the ground. Hopefully, with the inauguration of a joint home care policy and organizing campaign between the NDWA, SEIU, and AFSCME, this is about to change. But to organize enduring forms of representation at the local labor market level, worker centers need new laws and administrative procedures retrofitted to the realities of the new economy—subcontracting, joint employers, misclassification, contingent and temporary employment arrangements—as well as new organizational structures within the labor movement that ease organizing across multiple small workplaces and among workers who lack long-term attachments to employers. Successful organizing of these work forces will require a longer-term view on the part of national unions and their local affiliates.

Many labor scholars have forcefully argued that no single culprit has been more responsible for American labor’s decline than unions’ collective purge of the left in the wake of 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act, which involved them in bloody fratricide and divested them of some of their most talented and committed organizers. The national labor movement’s embrace of worker centers, especially in light of that painful history, is extraordinarily encouraging.