In September 2013, the AFL-CIO, a giant labor federation comprising fifty-six unions and 12.5 million U.S. workers, held its quadrennial convention in Los Angeles. There was plenty of what one might expect from such a gathering: lapel pins and hats with jaunty slogans, rousing speeches, and middle-aged toughs talking working-class politics. There was also a parade of low-wage workers, none of them formally members of the AFL-CIO. Immigrant nannies, Walmart clerks, day laborers, and taxi drivers appeared on stage, cheered by a sincere, if slightly flummoxed, union crowd. The intended message was clear: this is the future of the labor movement. Welcome them and pay attention.
To understand how a once marginal coterie of low-wage immigrant workers came to be courted by mainstream unions, one must go back to the adolescence of our globalized, outsourced, service economy. In the 1990s, a wave of small nonprofits opened, first in New York then across the country. They were called worker centers—community groups that organized underclass laborers, often of the same ethnic background, and with a focus on particular industries or neighborhoods. These groups tended to be far left and non-hierarchical, turned off by the bureaucratic bloat and corruption of large unions.
Worker centers provide clues to the future of organized labor, particularly in this moment of capitalist crisis. They now number in the hundreds, representing Chinese prep cooks and West Indian cleaners as well as African Americans doing drywall. Compared to major unions, worker centers have few members and even smaller budgets, but they are determined. Long before the 2007–09 recession and Occupy Wall Street, they forced inequality into public discourse and told personal stories of migration and hardship. The Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (the first worker center, founded in 1979) led aggressive pickets against restaurants and garment factories in New York’s Chinatown. Community Voices Heard organized unpaid municipal employees exploited by the 1996 welfare reforms. Damayan, a Filipina worker center, exposed the indentured servitude among live-in nannies. And the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops fought for their members—kitchen staff and cleanup workers, respectively—to receive just compensation for the health and economic impacts of 9/11.
These grassroots and immigrant-led campaigns had a visceral appeal. The general public, for whom unions were mostly anathema, could relate to the reasonable, basic demands of low-wage laborers. City-dwellers were stunned to learn that their deliverymen and nail-salon workers were paid less than minimum wage, and surprised to see them wield handmade signs, day after day, yelling in front of their bosses’ homes.
I’ve followed what might now be described as the “worker-center movement” for the past decade of their thirty-year trajectory. As a law student, then lawyer, I worked closely with the groups in New York City, several of which have grown and “gone national.” More recently, as a journalist, I’ve covered their campaigns and traced their relationship to traditional unions. It is impossible not to be impressed by worker centers—or to worry about the trade-offs they currently face.
As many labor watchers have pointed out, worker centers, in concept, are nothing new. Vulnerable workers—immigrants, women, and racial minorities—have always formed their own movements. At the turn of the last century, before laws governing unions were put in place, low-wage workers assembled in alleyways, settlement houses, churches, and synagogues. The earliest unions recognized that every job had the potential to be decent and dignified: a garment worker could sew ninety hours a week for poverty wages, or forty hours and earn an adequate living; a welder could risk losing his arm and his livelihood, or labor under safe conditions with health insurance and a pension.
But there was a long period in which this foundational idea—organize to improve—was abandoned by “big labor.” Complacency set in during the postwar manufacturing boom, when nearly one-third of employees worked under a collective bargaining agreement, and in the subsequent decades of bust, globalization, and deregulation, industrial unions focused on protecting what they’d already achieved. The 1965 immigration reform drew unprecedented numbers of foreigners to fill low-wage jobs; yet, in 1986, the labor movement supported a provision that ultimately criminalized these workers. The “employer sanctions” law, embedded in that Reagan-era immigration reform, aimed to penalize the act of hiring unauthorized labor. In practice, however, it gave bosses carte blanche to threaten employees with deportation, giving rise to countless workplace raids.
Worker centers organized this migrant underclass. Like their late-nineteenth-century counterparts, they began as tiny non-profits: understaffed, poorly funded (by foundations instead of member dues), and in some cases, limited by their members’ exclusion from the labor laws. Taxi drivers are considered independent contractors, for instance, and nannies and farmworkers have no right to collectively bargain. Nevertheless, worker centers—led by charismatic immigrant women and people of color such as Linda Oalican of Damayan, Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, and Lola Smallwood Cuevas, whose Black Worker Center focuses on the construction trade—have organized individuals and small groups of employees, protested loudly, and used wage-and-hour lawsuits and media strategies to get their message across. In contrast to unions, worker-center leaders are not of the rank-and-file. They are predominantly middle-class, highly educated, professional organizers—a consequence, perhaps, of the groups’ dependence on foundation and government grants.
Perils of fundraising aside, the legal structure of worker centers has given them certain advantages over traditional labor: no bureaucratic layers or restrictions on protest; no need to rely on an increasingly feeble National Labor Relations Act. Under current law and practice, unions are extremely hierarchical and depend on a slow, inefficient election process to organize new workplaces. Caselaw prohibits them from conducting “secondary boycotts” (any protest against entities that do business with the employer in question) and, in most contracts, they give up their most valuable weapon: the right to strike. Still, the labor movement claims millions of members, and the collective bargaining agreement remains the most powerful tool for raising industry standards.
What, then, have worker centers accomplished? For thousands of low-wage immigrants, a great deal. At Adhikaar in Queens, New York, Nepali domestic workers gather for lunch, meetings, know-your-rights presentations, and English classes. In Los Angeles, members of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance discuss labor concerns as well as affordable housing and gentrification. And near Baltimore, CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights organization, protests violations of employee rights and lobbies for Dreamers.
It is harder to gauge the wider societal impact of worker centers. Because they generally operate as independent non-profits, they have not yet organized enough members or workplaces to transform industry conditions. (A significant exception is the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, now the de facto bargaining representative of the city’s yellow cabs.) Worker centers have, however, mastered public relations, built relationships with unions and government agencies, won precedent-setting lawsuits, pushed through major pieces of legislation, and trained some very impressive member-leaders. In New York, we can thank Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association for honing picket-line techniques and successfully litigating subcontractor liability. Domestic worker groups in several states have secured industry-specific bills of rights. And the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice routinely advises government agencies on migrant labor issues.
One East Coast union leader I interviewed called these media-heavy tactics spectacle, not movement. “How many dues-paying members do they actually have?” she asked, criticizing the non-profits’ limited reach and reliance on foundations. But even critics cannot deny the groups’ influential style and gravitational pull. Worker centers have posed an implicit challenge to unions: to organize the “unorganizable,” to embrace immigrant workers, and to think beyond the contract.
Some in the traditional labor movement were already doing this. In the late 1980s, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began organizing low-wage home health aides and, most famously, custodians in corporate towers. The Justice for Janitors campaign led marches and sit-ins that froze major intersections; there were police beatings and arrests. And in contrast to the Old Left industrial unions, the SEIU saw the immigrant identity of the majority Latino/a janitors as a rallying point, not a divisive liability.
It is no coincidence that this same SEIU, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005, is the primary backer of the fast food protests launched after Occupy Wall Street. Despite the far-off goal of a McDonald’s contract, the union has spent untold millions on a worker center–style campaign: grassroots organizing, yes, but also litigation to fight retaliation and establish joint-employer status, bills to raise local and state minimum wages, and the public-relations magic of Berlin Rosen. At the same time, SEIU has stayed largely behind the curtain, deferring to worker centers and reconstituted ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) chapters in every participating city. It’s a logical move for the union. Community-based groups enjoy “street cred” that big labor doesn’t, and they cost much less to operate (they pay their staff organizers very little and need not budget for lobbying or member benefits). The SEIU relies on these non-profits to canvass workplaces, host meetings, and plan one-day strikes tailored to local conditions. At protests in Charlotte, for example, the North Carolina NAACP has championed African American fast-food employees, calling Fight for 15 “the new civil rights movement.”
Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has had its own courtship with worker centers. In 2000, the confederation renounced its support of the “employer sanctions” law and, under the leadership of Richard Trumka, has advocated for immigration reform, a higher minimum wage, and other priorities for low-wage laborers. The OUR Walmart campaign, run by the United Food and Commercial Workers, operates under a non-union structure very similar to that of the fast-food movement, and other AFL-CIO entities have donated generously to worker centers, breeding some resentment among dues-paying members. Trumka has proclaimed domestic workers and freelancers an integral part of the labor movement. In 2011 he even granted a charter to the non-union National Taxi Workers Alliance, an outgrowth of the New York worker center.
The AFL-CIO and SEIU are employing the tactics used by immigrant worker centers to organize Burger King fry cooks, Walmart “associates,” and warehouse laborers outside the union framework. It’s at once strategic borrowing and an adaptation to a bleak landscape. Today, every job seems temporary and precarious, half the states are “right to work,” and only 6.7 percent of the private sector is protected by a collective bargaining agreement. Unions want and need new members.
The fast food campaign is in many ways a test case for the future of labor. Since the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, we have seen middle-aged parents resorting to jobs behind the counter; we have seen mass unemployment and the death of “good” jobs. Whereas the first immigrant worker centers made us think, “How, in America, could this be?” the fast food movement highlights what we already know, and what no longer shocks us, about the economy.
It remains to be seen if mass organizing is possible in a dispersed, private industry like fast food. Is a national union feasible? Or will the current structure—a labor-community hybrid; a centralized web of non-profit worker centers—prove sustainable in the long-term?
Just as traditional labor has returned to pre–New Deal methods, worker centers have inched toward the union form. In the last ten or fifteen years, quite a few have formed large coalitions: the National Taxi Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, National Domestic Workers Alliance, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, to name a few. As these nationals mature, they will have to sort out their purpose and relationship to member groups, especially in terms of funding and movement goals. I’ve heard the same frustrations, off the record, from multiple locals: why, they ask, do the nationals get all the funding and acclaim? What about the members and organizers on the ground? Whose campaign should have priority?
In the union context, locals collect dues and send money upstream. But the same types of conflict—political and strategic—frequently arise. A national coalition might agree to an immigration reform package its more radical member groups cannot abide. A local worker center might target a neighborhood cafe with very few employees, to the chagrin of an umbrella organization eyeing a national restaurant chain.
As one union member told me, it was only a matter of time before worker centers started dealing with the same problems as traditional labor. There are risks inherent to going national: corporatization, hierarchy, warring egos, and a lost connection to the rank and file. Worker centers have made it big. What we don’t yet know is if they’ll maintain the spirit of being small.
E. Tammy Kim is an essayist and features staff writer at Al Jazeera America. The views expressed here are hers alone.