By Doug Porter
The manifestations of union activism are changing in San Diego and around the country, and it’s time this story got some attention. One of the biggest non-corporate interest groups—organized labor—is undergoing a fundamental reassessment of their role in society.
On the national level, the upcoming quadrennial AFL-CIO convention, set for Los Angeles next month, will most likely approve starting a process that will bring community, ethnic and environmental groups closer (and possibly in) to the fold.
Discussions with groups like the NAACP, La Raza and the Sierra Club are already ongoing about their role in such an umbrella grouping, including the possibility of granting grass roots organizations “decision making power” within the AFLCIO, according to a July 27th Wall Street Journal article.
AFLCIO President, Richard Trumka’s remarks in a recent Huffington Post article are illustrative about just how seriously big labor is looking at such an partnership:
“People who aren’t part of a union and don’t have a collective bargaining agreement will be able to come and join us,” he said. “Progressive groups that we talk to who we were allied with in the past will be part of us and we’ll talk together, we’ll plan together, we’ll strategize together, we’ll educate together and we’ll execute together.”
“It used to be your issues and my issues,” he added. “We want it to be our issues, whether it’s a civil rights issue, a human rights issue, a women’s issue, a race issue or a collective bargaining issue.”
My understanding of the strategy at the heart of this discussion is that the collaboration will build from the local levels upward, meaning grass roots organizations could see a significant increase in political support for community and statewide issues.
From USA Today:
The changes, some of which will require amending the AFL-CIO’s bylaws, are part of a strategy aimed at reviving the labor movement’s falling clout and recasting it as a champion for American workers generally, not just for the declining ranks of dues-paying union members.
The biggest paybacks for the AFL-CIO will come with increased influence on national elections and a new sense of purpose beyond traditional bread and butter economic issues.
Locally we’ve seen increasing engagement from the local labor council over past few years on issues, ranging from education to Occupy. A change in leadership at the top (Lorena Gonzalez ran off to Sacramento) and mucho angst over Filner’s bad behavior have pretty much closed the lines of communication. So we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds in San Diego.
Alternative Labor Strategies
The role of organized labor in the workforce is also undergoing serious changes, with the rise of what Josh Edelson, writing in the American Prospect, calls “alt-labor”.
Protests and press conferences are the favored tools of these new wave organizers, and strikes, when they occur, are short and sweet, often involving a mixture of employees and activists.
Mega-retailer WalMart has seen protests at retail locations and suppliers’ warehouses. Activists from around the country came to Arkansas to protest at the company’s annual board of directors meeting.
Fast food chains in cities across the country have seen targeted actions, many of which are not asking for union recognition. Instead, wages and working conditions are being talked about outside the usual collective bargaining environment.
Writing about New York’s Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which has mounted protests aimed at chain restaurants owned by Darden, Inc (Red Lobster, Olive Garden & others) along with celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Del Posto, Edelson says:
The ROC is a labor group. But it’s not a union. It represents a new face of the U.S. labor movement—an often-ignored, little-understood array of groups organizing workers without the union label. As unions face declining membership these workers’ groups—like the mostly union-free job sectors they organize—are on the rise, particularly in New York. Because of their efforts, more restaurant workers in the city get paid sick days, domestic workers receive overtime pay, and taxi drivers will soon have health insurance.
Twenty years ago, when Rutgers labor professor Janice Fine first set out to count the nonunion groups that were organizing and mobilizing workers, she found just five in the entire country. Today, her tally stands at 214. These groups organize farmworkers and fashion models. They go by names like “workers’ centers” and “workers’ alliances.” Some are rooted in the immigrant-rights movement as much as the labor movement. Lacking the ability to engage in collective bargaining or enforce union contracts, these alternative labor groups rely on an overlapping set of other tactics to reform their industries. The ROC teaches workers their rights and also restaurant skills; advises and publicizes model employers; and helps organize protests like the ones at Capital Grille, making customers aware of what goes on behind the dining room. The ROC also lobbies state and local lawmakers for reforms and helps workers take legal action when all else fails.
The ROC now has affiliates in ten major US cities.
Other Non Traditional Labor Groups
Faith and community based labor activist groups have emerged from anti-poverty organizing projects in major cities over the past couple of decades. One of their prime vehicles for change are worker centers, which offer counseling, legal support and other assistance for employees in traditionally low wage non-union industries.
These non-traditional organizing efforts have attracted some support from organized labor in recent years and attacks from corporate sponsored front groups, like the Center for Union Facts (CUF), which recently ran a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal ‘exposing’ alt-labor.
Micah Uetricht, who is a former organizer for a worker center run by Arise Chicago, a faith-based worker rights organization, discussed these groups in a recent article at In These Times.
Worker centers and alt-labor groups interact with unions in widely different ways. Some, like Working America, are direct projects of unions or labor federations; others, like Voces de la Frontera (VDLF) in Milwaukee who helped lead the Palermo’s pizza strike, are independent of unions but sometimes work closely with them; others view unions with near-open hostility. This range seems to escape the CUF, whose ad lumps all worker centers into the same broad category as fronts for unions.
Janice Fine, an associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers, says the accusation leveled in CUF’s ad that worker centers are actually stealth unions is “ahistorical.” For her 2006 book, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, Fine conducted surveys and in-depth case studies of multiple worker centers. “Only a very tiny percentage grew from [unions],” she says, describing the “completely different DNA” of organizations that grew from ethnic institutions, nonprofits, legal services, and religious institutions.
San Diego Domestic Workers Organizing Around AB241
Last year the California legislature passed a bill, AB 889, extending protections and basic rights to the state’s domestic workers. Gov. Brown vetoed it, citing concerns that its protections went too far.
This year Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has offered up a revised domestic workers bill, AB 241, taking into account those objections. Should it be enacted, California would become the second state in the US (after New York) to offer domestic workers such basic labor protections as overtime and meal breaks.
According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, almost 70 percent of California’s domestic workers are Latina, and an overwhelming 93 percent are women,.
A 2012 study by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago demonstrates the need for such legislation:
- Nearly 67% of live-in workers are paid below the state minimum wage, with the median hourly wage being $6.15.
- Health insurance is provided for a meager 4% of the workers; 65% have no insurance at all.
- 85% said they’d encountered problems with working conditions in the prior year but did not complain because they were afraid they would lose their job or their immigration status would be used against them.
Campaigns for domestic workers rights are also active in Illinois and Massachusetts.
The California Domestic Workers’ Coalition has promised monthly actions in support of AB241, and here in San Diego an event is scheduled for Monday, August 12th at 10am outside the County Administrative Center at 1600 Pacific Highway.
Local Taxi Drivers
Another local example of a non-traditional labor organizing program is the United Taxi Workers Campaign, which is seeking to have an impact on the working conditions for local drivers, many of whom are recent immigrants.
Jim Miller just wrote about the campaign here at SDFP (do read the article). Here’s the money quote:
The heart of the problem in the taxi industry has to do with a system of regulations that specifically denies the standardization of fundamental business practices like written receipts for lease payments, basic protections from retaliation, and a minimum wage for taxi drivers. Not only are the working conditions of taxi drivers unconscionable but the current system puts public safety at risk. Therefore United Taxi Workers calls on the City of San Diego to explore viable alternatives—many of which have been implemented in other major U.S. cities.
Learning About Labor at City College
The modern day public perception of organized labor —it had its place but is no longer useful, is a common meme—is shaped by a lack of understanding of the historical significance these groups have played in shaping our country.
After all, if you rely on the UT-San Diego for information, the most positive spin you’ll hear about unions is a story lamenting the loss of jobs when an unsafe nuclear facility is closed.
If you’re curious or interested, I highly recommend the relevant courses at San Diego City College. And I hear there are openings for this fall’s classes in Labor and Politics, taught by our own Jim Miller, and Labor Law taught by Dovie King, with the Ochoa Legal Group. For info email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Follow Up: Sea World’s Now Safe from the NRA
My recent column about the NRA targeting Sea World needs updating: they’ve pulled the plug on the project, which included ‘exposing’ the local water park for now.
From Media Matters:
The NRA’s newly launched campaign to oppose a California legislative proposal to ban lead ammunition for hunting, Hunt for Truth, has already been pulled from the Internet along with an accompanying NRA press release announcing the initiative.
On This Day: 1936 – Jesse Owens won his fourth gold medal at the Berlin Olympics. He was the first American to win four medals in one Olympics. 1945 – The U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The bombing came three days after the bombing of Hiroshima. About 74,000 people were killed. 1974 – President Richard Nixon formally resigned.
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Anna Daniels says
Timely article Doug–very pertinent to our neighborhood focus on City Heights. The elements you describe–taxi cab drivers, domestic workers, fast food workers and the faith based community’s efforts are all here in City Heights. We have also talked about forming a renter’s union and a public transit/bus rider’s union.
I hope that individuals and organizations who are working in these areas in City Heights will get in touch with us or submit an article.
bob dorn says
What could be better for this political moment than an in-place network — with national and local HQs and experienced organizers — opening its doors to just about anybody? The old guild model long ago became just another club you needed an invitation to get into. Yale’s a lot like that (those members include George I and II, Bill Clinton, three other Presidents, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas) and, now, the governance of the United States has been removed almost completely from the influence of normal people’s hands.
Down here on the ground any institution that puts a lot of people together is what is needed. Media won’t pay any attention to labor and the poor until the politicians call Richard Trumka a problem for America freedom and might. If you’ve heard Richard Trumka during the few seasons he was allowed on NPR and CBS back in the early Obama years you know he’s going to be trouble for plutocrats and their messenger pigeons.
Very glad to see this article, as it’s so important to get the workers involved and the public seeing what’s going on. It’s a crime and a shame to see how so many of our workers don’t have decent benefits.
The minimum wage needs to be raised. The gap between the rich and poor has never been as high as it is now.
Thanks for your wonderful articles, Doug. I don’t know how you do it.
Brian Brady says
“We have also talked about forming a renter’s union”
What would be the stated goal of a “renter’s union”?
doug porter says
You can start here learning about what renter’s unions can do. Google can be a wonderful thing.
Anna Daniels says
And here’s some information on L A’s Bus Rider Union.