Organizing workers in the global economy
Jun 1, 2005
30 Min read time
Perched on a bed in an apartment rank with the smell of damp carpeting, Carmen Lelys Maldonado thinks of his wife, who will receive the letter he is about to write, and of his six children gathered around her on the farm in Honduras that he once ran and that his father ran before him. He thinks of the hope they will feel when they receive the envelope, their expectations of money for new shoes, books for school, and a radio; and all this reminds him of his own hope as he set off two years earlier on the grueling eight-week voyage to Long Island, New York. It was all founded on a miserable miscalculation.
As a boy and as a young man, Maldonado, a leader in his small village, saw immigrant after immigrant return from the United States with piles of cash and tales of weekly salaries that surpassed $200—an unthinkable sum that was then a third of the average annual income in Honduras. His mistake, he now knows, was not asking the obvious questions: How many hours a day did you work? How often did you get paid what you were promised? And, most importantly, how much does it cost to live in the United States?
Maldonado considers the string of misfortunes that brought him to this point. There was the job as a dishwasher at a pizzeria that demanded six 14-hour days a week for $250—less than three dollars an hour, and he was paid only sporadically. And the fruitless attempt to cover Long Island prices for housing, food, and transportation. And arriving home the night he was fired only to learn that his father had died. Still, he cannot bring himself to write the sentences he hears in his head. “Dear Nicomedes, I am very sorry. Things are bad. I need you to send money to me.”
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The word “sweatshop” conjures up a very particular image: a hulking garment factory, located reassuringly in the past (perhaps in New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century) or far away (in Vietnam, say, or El Salvador). But after a long hiatus, sweatshops are back, here and now.
Like their predecessors, some of today’s sweatshops can be found in the New York or Los Angeles garment industry. But with American garment production evaporating even as I write, new kinds of sweatshops—with the same long hours, low wages, and high rates of injury—are emerging. They have followed jobs from manufacturing to service, and new immigrants from cities to suburbs. Sweatshops now flourish in restaurants—such as the one that hired Maldonado—which pay far less than the minimum wage; in landscaping, where workers mow 50 or more lawns in a day; in car washes and construction; in home renovation and auto repair; in domestic work.
For obvious reasons, it is hard to give a precise description of the numbers and conditions of these sweatshops. Still, close observers agree about their existence and general characteristics. Some of the new sweatshops may look different than the old ones, but the experience of workers is often devastatingly similar. While stories of spectacular exploitation—Thai stitchers or Guatemalan farm workers held in slavery, teenage girls trafficked for sex—may shock us, we have become numb to the daily grimness and dangers of low-wage immigrant work (and, indeed, low-wage work in general). Most immigrants get paid for their work, but many will at some point in their working lives make less than the minimum wage or be cheated of their wages entirely. Most do not work in conditions of slavery, but many, like Carmen Maldonado, labor 14 or even 16 hours a day to make ends meet.
As for safety, the question is not whether any workers will be hurt but how often, how many, and how badly. Within one two-year period as an advocate for immigrant workers, I worked with a Salvadoran mechanic whose ribs and legs were mangled when he was pinned by a car in an underground auto-repair shop; a Salvadoran woman whose hands were covered with blisters from operating the hot press in a commercial laundry with only thin cotton gloves; a Guatemalan restaurant worker whose boss intentionally burned him with pans of hot oil when he did not chop vegetables and wash dishes fast enough; a Salvadoran day laborer whose arm was crushed by falling scaffolding; and a Honduran who inhaled so much toxic paint while sanding yachts that he would die within months. A 2001 Newsday investigation concluded that “Hispanic immigrants are particularly at risk for getting killed in the workplace,” a conclusion graphically corroborated two years later by a National Academy of Sciences study that estimated that Latino immigrants die on the job at a rate nearly 250 percent higher than do workers, on average, in the United States.
How could this have happened?
In 1938, the same year that Life magazine ran a story trumpeting the end of sweatshops, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, creating a federal minimum wage and requiring overtime pay at a higher rate after 40 hours of work in a week. FLSA was a product of the fight against sweatshop work and an important tool in its success. But while FLSA is still on the books—and it covers all workers, including the undocumented—the law is barely enforced today. In the 1950s, the Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor had one inspector for every 46,000 workers. By the 1990s, the ratio had become one inspector for every 150,000 workers. And political will to change the system is even scarcer than enforcers.
When it comes to ensuring decent conditions, legal standards are only part of the equation. The 1938 Life article traced the rise of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). That “great and good union” played a large role in ending sweatshops, and the current inability of unions to organize the lowest-wage workers is an important factor in their return. The level of union organization among private-sector workers has now fallen below eight percent, and the rate of union representation among the bottom ten percent of wage earners is less than one percent. And large numbers of these lowest-wage workers are immigrants.
Some of the obstacles to organizing immigrant workers now thwart unions in all settings: intense employer resistance to unionization; a sclerotic National Labor Relations Board, now dominated by Bush appointees but long incapacitated by delays of years in rendering final decisions on cases; and a labor law first written in 1935 and not amended in nearly 50 years, despite massive changes in the economy.
But the task of organizing low-wage immigrants also faces special difficulties. Part of the story is the shameful history of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. labor movement, and part of it is immigrants’ own doubts about joining unions. Yet even an organizing effort entirely welcoming to immigrants and a group of immigrants deeply committed to organizing would face a series of hurdles stemming from the nature of work today, particularly in sectors that draw heavily on immigrant workers.
The problems start with global competition. For work that is mobile (a category that has expanded far beyond manufacturing to include customer service, claims processing, accounting, and routine legal work), an organizing effort that increases wages also increases the chance of jobs moving offshore. U.S. law does nothing to prevent business owners from such a move even when it is in direct retaliation for unionization.
Some jobs just can’t move. A worker in Bombay can make a family’s reservations for a hotel room in Miami, but she can’t change their sheets or cook their meals. Yet such locally rooted work has also been shaped by globalization, as workers unable to make a living in their home countries flow across borders to meet other countries’ labor demands.
Although the global economy is most often measured in terms of mobile capital, mobile labor is both its product and its engine. But while capital’s mobility is encouraged by the trade rules governing the global economy, human mobility is not. Since the early 1920s, legal status in the United States has been available to increasingly restricted categories of immigrants.
With greater mobility running up against tighter immigration restrictions, more than ten million people now reside in this country illegally. Because they lack legal status and are fearful of deportation, undocumented immigrants gravitate toward the underground economy, made up of businesses that operate on cash and without regard for government regulations. According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. underground economy more than doubled between 1970 and 2000, from an estimated four percent of gross domestic product to nine percent. In immigrant-heavy areas, the numbers are much higher. A 2002 study by the Economic Roundtable research group estimated that over a quarter of Los Angeles’s workforce was paid in cash.
“Underground economy” suggests a system completely divorced from conventional labor markets. But in fact, the underground and mainstream economies are anything but divided. Immigrant workers and others move in and out of underground work. Furthermore, so-called underground businesses often operate in a relationship with larger and more formal enterprises. A name-brand garment manufacturer may depend on a chain of underground subcontractors to sew its clothing; a national superstore may contract its groundskeeping or roof repair or janitorial work to a local company that operates in the underground economy. And many enterprises are themselves formal in some regards and informal in others, complying with some but not all laws, paying workers in part on the books and in part under the table.
This informality makes unionizing difficult: in the words of one union representative quoted in the Los Angeles Daily News, “It’s hard to organize someone who for all formal appearances doesn’t exist.” But most of the obstacles to organizing immigrant workers in the underground economy arise from factors that cross the formal–informal line: the small size and high mobility of their employers and their own vulnerability as undocumented immigrants regardless of their place of work.
That vulnerability was reinforced by the employer-sanctions laws, passed in 1986 as a part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Under IRCA, employers who hire immigrants without valid working papers risk fines and other penalties. But once those workers are on the job, most government agencies and courts have reached the conclusion that they are technically entitled to the same minimum wages, health and safety protections, and freedom from sexual harassment as other workers. The logic behind this apparent paradox—forbidden from working, yet protected by law if they do—is simple: unless all workers are protected, employers will have incentives to seek out workers without papers.
In practice, however, employer sanctions undermine every workplace protection that undocumented immigrants enjoy—and organizing protections in particular. Employer-sanctions rules require a new worker to show her employer proof of her identity and her authorization to work. In immigrant-heavy sectors, employers may comply with the law minimally, if at all. But a simple request for a bathroom break or for overtime wages, or the first stirrings of a union organizing campaign, produce much greater vigilance. The employer might require all the workers to provide legal papers on the spot, or, if he has them on file, call the Social Security Administration to check on their validity and demand to see new versions of expired documents. Employer sanctions have become the perfect cloak for campaigns of intimidation conveying the clear message that immigrant workers who organize are no longer the kind of immigrant workers who get jobs.
In a sad irony, the labor movement played an important role in securing the passage of employer sanctions in 1986. Only the ILGWU, long a bastion of immigrant workers, dissented from the AFL-CIO’s position at the time, expressed in the Christian Science Monitor, that illegal workers “undermine wages and working conditions.” It took more than a decade for others in the labor movement to understood their terrible mistake. In a dramatic reversal of policy, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution in 2000 not only to fight to repeal sanctions but also to advocate a broad immigrant amnesty that would legalize hundreds of thousands of workers.
But two events soon blunted the impact of that resolution. One, of course, was the surge in anti-immigrant sentiment after September 11, which derailed promising talks between President Bush and President Vicente Fox of Mexico and halted the gathering momentum toward legalization. Conversations have since resumed, but the new Bush proposals are much more restrictive, featuring “guest work” provisions rather than a route to permanent status.
The second event was a 2002 Supreme Court decision in the case of Hoffman Plastics. The Supreme Court had long held that undocumented workers were “employees” within the definition of the National Labor Relations Act and therefore entitled to its protections when they organized. In Hoffman Plastics, the Court ruled that, although the NLRA still technically covers undocumented workers, the usual remedies of reinstatement and back pay need not apply when employers retaliate against undocumented immigrants for their union support. In effect, Hoffman Plastics eviscerated the right of undocumented immigrants to organize: an employer who openly fires an undocumented worker for wearing a “Union Yes” button or for attending a single union meeting will never be fined a penny. Although the Hoffman decision limits its holding to the NLRA, it has chilled undocumented workers’ willingness to come forward on any issue and has emboldened management attorneys, who use it as a pretext for inquiring into legal status whenever an immigrant files a case against a company.
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Some unions have been navigating thisdifficult terrain with great creativity. Since 1985, the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign has organized over 200,000 building-maintenance workers, many of them immigrants. SEIU has also taken the lead in organizing home health aides, bringing tens of thousands into the fold over a series of hard-fought campaigns in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And it is not alone. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 2, for example, has brought a remarkable 80 percent of full-service San Francisco hotels under contract through organizing campaigns involving 9,000 immigrants from over two dozen countries. On a smaller scale, hundreds of union locals around the country are moving forward with campaigns among immigrant meatpackers, bricklayers, phone operators, and asbestos workers, to name just a few.
But it is important to note that not all immigrant work is the same. Many immigrants work in traditionally unionized industries; their unions must figure out how to adapt old strategies to new industry structures and workers with new perspectives and needs. But many others work in industries that have never been organized to any significant extent, or that have changed so significantly because of global competition that they can no longer viably be organized on a domestic basis alone. More dispersed, paid less, often undocumented, employed by small and fly-by-night businesses, doing jobs requiring skills not recognized as such by employers, the immigrants who work in sweatshops are even harder to organize. Few if any unions even try. The price is too high, the likelihood of winning a collective-bargaining agreement discouragingly low.
And yet “even harder” may not mean impossible. As early as the 1980s a few small groups of immigrant workers in sweatshop conditions, frustrated by the lack of organizations able to support them in their efforts to win better working conditions, began to form independent organizing efforts. Three or four such local, immigrant-based centers made some headway in improving working conditions for immigrants where unions had been absent or ineffective. These worker centers were organizing low-wage workers in places as different as New York’s Chinatown (Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association), Oakland (Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates), and El Paso (La Mujer Obrera), to improve wages and working conditions across an ethnic community, rather than in a single industry or workplace. In the early 1990s, perhaps ten new centers emerged, including the Latino Workers Center in New York (initiated by Chinese Staff in 1993 but soon to become independent), Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates—and Long Island’s Workplace Project, which I founded in 1992 and which continues to thrive today under the leadership of Nadia Marín-Molina.
Worker centers emphasize bottom-up organizing. Unlike in traditional unions, workers play primary roles in governing the organizations and running their campaigns. Although they focus on labor, they fight for other social-justice issues as well, including immigration rights, health care, housing, and public transportation. Many offer much-needed services such as legal representation for wage claims, health clinics, and English classes; but rather than seeing themselves as “service organizations,” they seek to make those benefits the first step on a path to active participation in the group’s collective efforts. And while the individual centers are small, with most memberships below 600 workers, the proliferation of new organizations in the past decade has been dramatic. According to a study by the political scientist Janice Fine, there are now 135 worker centers spread throughout the country.
In her forthcoming book, Fine identifies stable funding and scale as two of worker centers’ greatest challenges. But the highest hurdle, she argues, has been to lock in raises in wages and benefits above the legal minimum. The story of the Workplace Project highlights these challenges, as well as some of worker centers’ surprising strengths.
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It is a late spring Saturday in Lido Beach, a town of faded bathing clubs on Long Island’s south shore. Suburban homes face each other across the last road before the oceanfront drive. Twenty immigrant workers march in a loose oval on the sidewalk outside the home of the owner of the Fortune and Frame factory. According to the marchers, he owes a group of ten workers tens of thousands of dollars. They are carrying signs that tell the story and are chanting, “Pay them now! Pay them now!” When the factory owner arrives in a sports car, he nearly clips the group, driving fast and close. The oval becomes a ball, protecting the children who have come with their parents. Then it re-forms, and the chanting begins again. One woman hands out fliers to passing neighbors. The owner walks into his home, and a minute later his lawn sprinklers come on full-force. A few people pull out umbrellas, handing them to the kids. The oval bends in the middle to avoid the wettest spot, and the march continues.
After a few more Saturdays, the owner of Fortune and Frame is tired of being embarrassed in front of his neighbors and pilloried in the press. He brings a check to the Workplace Project for $35,000.
Not far away, ten immigrant workers and staff from the Workplace Project climb out of a motley assortment of cars outside a one-story office building in Rockville Centre and begin looking for the office of New York State Senator Dean Skelos, a powerful Long Island Republican. In the previous two years, Senator Skelos had voted to deny undocumented children the right to attend public school, require that schools investigate and report suspected illegal aliens, prohibit public hospitals from treating undocumented patients, bar undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, and mandate cooperation between local police and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to facilitate immigrant deportations. He also supported the drive to make English the only language of state business. Undaunted, the group is here to ask for Skelos’s sponsorship of the Unpaid Wages Prohibition Act (later labeled the Illegal Workers Protection Act by a New York Post editorial). This bill, created by the Workplace Project together with two other New York–based immigrant-worker centers (the Latino Workers Center and the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association), would raise eightfold the penalties the Department of Labor could bring to bear against employers who failed to pay minimum wage, and would make willful failure to pay a felony.
The senator’s conference table is too small for the group, and people continue to crowd into the office after the seats are taken. Waiting for the senator to arrive, they distribute headphones for simultaneous translation. As Senator Skelos enters the room and begins polite greetings, someone says “Good morning, Senator. Here’s your headphone.” Slightly perplexed, he slips it on and enters a new world, in which immigrants who cannot vote and speak no English talk to him directly, as members of the community he has been elected to represent.
And so the meeting begins. Having rehearsed for several nights beforehand, all members of the group are ready to answer the hard questions they expect the senator to raise. Julio Rocha, a Nicaraguan poet who works here as a day laborer, parries a question from Skelos about how businesses that have supported the senator have reacted to the legislation by pointing out that they are undercut when competitors pay less than minimum wage. Luz Torres, who was a factory worker and union member in Colombia and who is now a domestic worker, responds to Skelos’s concerns about encouraging illegal immigration by emphasizing what an important role the enforcement of basic workplace protections plays in protecting legal immigrants’ access to jobs.
The seeds sown at this meeting bore fruit six months later. Having interested Senator Skelos in the legislation, the group set about creating a political atmosphere in which his support would seem imperative. They won the endorsements of Long Island business associations as well as labor, religious, and community groups, captured media attention for the issue of unpaid wages on Long Island, and visited the capitol in Albany several times. In the spring of 1997, Senator Skelos—and nine of his Republican colleagues—cosponsored the bill in the Senate. In June, the entire New York Senate and Assembly voted unanimously in its favor. When a reluctant but cornered Republican governor signed the bill ten weeks later, he gave New York state the strongest wage-enforcement law in the country.
Since its founding thirteen years ago, the Workplace Project in Hempstead, Long Island, has grown from one desk in a room borrowed from a social-service agency into a vibrant membership organization of immigrant workers with the mission of fighting the low wages, high level of injuries, and pervasive abuses of immigrant workers on Long Island. Against the odds, the group has carried out a series of innovative organizing experiments in the underworld of immigrant work, some of which succeeded far beyond the organization’s expectations.
In its early years, the Workplace Project raised wages by over 30 percent on the Long Island street corners where day laborers wait for work—at least most of the time, in most places. They created a domestic-worker bill of rights and a model contract for domestic employers, and they forced placement agencies to promise to adhere to them—a promise that they sometimes kept. Since then, the organization has founded a very small but successful worker-owned landscaping cooperative and a much larger housecleaning co-op owned and operated by immigrant women. The Workplace Project’s organizing on behalf of unpaid workers has recovered millions of dollars on their behalf through a combination of lawsuits and pickets outside the homes of recalcitrant employers. It has fought to defend the right of day laborers to seek work in Long Island’s Suffolk County even as whole towns erupted in an anti-immigrant maelstrom, with residents firebombing immigrant homes and neo-Nazis attempting to murder two local day laborers. At any one time, too, a handful of smaller organizing projects are in progress—a shop-steward election campaign in a unionized factory to win representation for Latino workers within the existing all-white union structure, a plan to carry out a march to support legalization of undocumented immigrants.
These victories are worthy of celebration. But they also illustrate the large and persistent barriers faced by the Workplace Project and other centers. The group has been successful in getting employers to adhere to wage standards set by law but not so successful in improving those standards or in organizing for wages and workplace conditions that surpass the law’s very minimal requirements. Enforcement of its victories is another sticking point; when the group has achieved initial demands, it has not always had the resources for the ongoing monitoring that sustained implementation requires. Membership size has been a third obstacle. The Workplace Project’s membership hovers in the 500-person range, with perhaps ten to 20 percent of those active in the group at any one time. While the project’s work affects far more immigrants than its membership rolls reflect, the numbers do not begin to approach what’s needed to have significant political power in any industry within Long Island’s large labor market.
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Because sweatshop workers have so little economic power, worker centers such as the Workplace Project rely heavily on legally established rights—rather than on the power of organized numbers—as leverage points to raise wages and working conditions. This is both a source of strength and a potential weakness.
For immigrants working in the informal sector, where abuse runs rampant and legal protections are broadly ignored, the idea that the law promises redress is a powerful one. Language barriers and persistent rumors that undocumented immigrants are not covered by labor laws make accurate and intelligible information particularly valuable. But teaching people their rights is a complicated endeavor in this setting.
Rights education is most often imagined as a group process with individual outcomes: people may come together in one room to learn about the law, but they scatter—often to lawyers’ offices—when the time comes to put their new knowledge to use. In a damp church basement, in a legal-services office’s conference room, in a public-school classroom as the janitors sweep the halls in the evening, a typical presentation about the law goes something like this: An expert stands up and says, These are your rights. People in the audience raise their hands and say, This is my problem. How can I fix my problem? The expert says. This is what you need to do to vindicate your rights; I and others like me can help you.
In some situations, this approach may give people all the information they need, and the very idea that you have rights can be important knowledge. But for immigrant workers seeking to improve their working conditions, the standard presentation poses problems. Community education about rights is often described as a tool for “empowerment.” But its vision of empowerment is focused on individuals. In hearing about their rights on the job, participants may be “empowered” to “stand up for themselves.” But in the underground economy, violations of rights are not anomalies: they are a way of doing business. Individual legal action may result in temporary relief (although it just as likely may not), but it will do little or nothing to keep the problem from quickly recurring.
A second problem is the more subtle suggestion that the political horizon for immigrant workers is limited by the substantive rights already on the books. In the labor context, as in most contexts, there are both substantive and procedural rights. Substantive rights—found in laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act—set basic floors on workplace conditions: naming a minimum wage, requiring payment at time-and-a-half for hours worked over 40, listing a set of standards for a safe workplace. Procedural rights—found in the National Labor Relations Act, among other places—establish the rules of the game that come into play when workers wish to organize to demand higher wages, more benefits, and stricter safety standards than those the substantive laws require.
Procedural rights are essential to any effort to raise wages and improve working conditions beyond the minimums prescribed by law. Yet most know-your-rights presentations for immigrants (and others) concentrate on the substantive entitlements. The reason is simple: if those laws set the floor, many immigrant workers labor in the basement, their rights honored only in the breach. But the result is a focus on enforcing existing and inadequate minimums. Take, for example, wages. A parent working full-time at the current New York minimum wage of $6 an hour earns a gross annual salary of $12,480. If she puts every penny of that toward fair-market rent of a one-bedroom apartment, she will have $116 left from her gross salary each year to pay taxes, buy food, and pay for health care, clothing, and transportation. A traditional know-your-rights session on minimum wage risks reinforcing the message that workers should see this minimum as an acceptable level of pay—that they should struggle to ensure that they are paid this minimum rather than struggling to raise it.
Some have argued that even when the education takes place within a social movement, the focus on individual rights actively undermines more collective responses to shared problems, because the effort to vindicate a right can atomize movement participants, because a battle for rights channels a movement’s energy from streets to courts, and because a focus on winning new rights can turn members of a movement for social justice into supplicants to the state.
In response to these dilemmas, the Workplace Project developed a method of teaching that proved useful as an entry point to organizing. The Workplace Project workers’ course session on health and safety, as it was taught in the late 1990s, began with a wall covered by blank paper. As participants came in they were asked to draw a picture of the worst safety hazard at their current job, producing a graphic mural of workplace danger: lawnmowers without safety guards, unlabeled chemicals, collapsing scaffolds. They then described their drawings to the class. This exercise created a visual and spoken record of the group’s shared experience: they defined their problems without focusing on which could be remedied within existing law. As the discussion began, the teacher asked, “Does anyone here know about a law covering some of these problems?” Eventually someone would suggest that there was one; the teacher identified and briefly described OSHA, but few in the class had ever seen an OSHA inspector at their workplace. Class discussion then turned to the political and economic question of why such hazards might be common despite existing protections.
At this point, an OSHA official would arrive. Standing in front of the mural, she gave a standard “know-your-rights” presentation that encouraged people to recognize and report violations, and to rely on OSHA to enforce the law. But instead of seeing the official as “the authority who will tell us how to solve our problems,” the participants—fresh from a discussion of their own reality—were often critical of her claims. She was met with a series of thoughtful questions about why OSHA so rarely appeared—and why OSHA rights are so rarely respected—at participants’ workplaces. The lesson was clear: the large problem is unsafe working conditions, and understanding legal rights is just one piece of the remedy.
When the OSHA inspector left, the teacher talked with the class about the gaps in OSHA coverage that the inspector regularly failed to mention—for example, the lack of any right to heat in the workplace. Tracing that hole back to the lobbying influence of the meatpacking industry on Congress, she guided the class to a discussion of the political process out of which laws are born. She then asked participants to imagine that they worked together in an unheated workplace (as some inevitably did), and to create a model campaign for how they would organize together to force their employer to provide heat in winter, a campaign that did not have the law to fall back on.
Rather than starting with the assumption that participants had a problem, then, the project began from the belief that the system had a problem, and that unenforced laws are just one symptom. The course encouraged workers to think about justice rather than legally codified rights, and to ask what a just workplace would look like and what strategies they might use to achieve it.
The fact remains that when worker centers pour tremendous energy into enforcing basic rights, the danger is that they will reinforce them as markers of justice, making battles to go beyond those standards even harder. But strategies that start with minimum-wage enforcement do not have to end there. In this regard, there have been two hopeful developments. One is a sharp upward spike in successful worker-center cases against high-profile employers. In the first three months of 2005 alone, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) won hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages from two big-name Manhattan restaurants. The Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles settled a long-running case with the clothing manufacturer Forever 21 for an undisclosed but presumably substantial amount. Young Workers United in San Francisco pressured the Cheesecake Factory into a $4 million settlement to compensate workers for stolen breaks.
The other is a new trickle of worker-center triumphs that break the minimum-wage barrier. Some are the result of pure organizing moxie. In a tremendous victory, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida’s three-year campaign against Taco Bell ended recently when the fast-food giant promised to pay its suppliers a penny extra per pound of tomatoes, with the extra money to be passed through directly to the workers; the coalition reports that this will double farm workers’ wages in that field. Others began with minimum-wage claims and leveraged them into guarantees of far more than low-wage workers have a right to under law. ROC-NY, Young Workers United, and other worker centers have negotiated settlements of wage cases that guarantee paid sick leave, vacation time, an end to the questioning of the validity of social-security numbers (a big issue for undocumented workers), and promotions. Even more remarkably, they build in ongoing roles for worker-center members and representatives as monitors and grievance processors. How far workers can—or should—go with these quasi-contracts before they adopt a formal union structure is an important question.
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Are the 135 worker centers around the country going to end sweatshops? No. Could even double or triple that number do so? I don’t think so.
A serious attack on the very worst work in this country will require immigration reform to allow undocumented workers to legalize their status, removing the greatest source of their vulnerability to exploitation; a genuine commitment to enforcing the worker-protection laws that currently languish on the books; and a significant investment in new forms of organizing—including worker centers.
Worker centers are unlikely to become collective-bargaining machines in the near future. But as the AFL-CIO strategy debates intensify, worker centers can play a crucial role in the labor movement. They stand as a reminder that however much unions consolidate, broaden their targets, and increase the scale of their collective-bargaining agreements, they must not leave the worst-off workers behind. Worker centers have demonstrated an essential point: although different forms of work pose serious challenges to time-worn organizing approaches, there is no such thing as an “unorganizable” worker. In the process, they are modeling a way to take on sweatshop working conditions that involves the workers themselves instead of relying entirely on consumers and other outsiders. Even more essential, given the high mobility of immigrant workers across the boundary between sweatshops and low-wage union work, they are building the leadership and organizing capacity of women, immigrants, and other workers of color, the key to the future of the labor movement.
Worker centers have also won some important victories. Many of these are in the public-policy arena, as Janice Fine points out, from the Workplace Project’s Unpaid Wages Act to a range of campaigns that seek to raise the social wage. Virginia’s Tenants and Workers Support Committee, for example, has increased immigrant workers’ income by fighting to reduce medical debt, render housing more affordable, and make public transportation cheaper and more efficient, among other campaigns. Then there is the money they have put into workers’ pockets through the one-two punch of litigation and protest.
Ironically, though, worker centers may prove most important of all for their efforts that have not yet produced a victory. Small-scale, close to the ground, informed by an intimate knowledge of the workers and the work, and willing to take risks that larger organizations shun, worker centers have demonstrated a commitment to experimentation. And that commitment is essential in a setting in which we don’t have the right answers, but do know, with ever greater conviction, that the old answers won’t work.
June 01, 2005
30 Min read time