The new face of labor From busboys to taxi drivers,
workers find new ways to organize.
By Daniel Massey
Published: September 19, 2010
Late last month, as Gov. David Paterson signed the
Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law at a Harlem
community center, Barbara Young, a nanny for 17 years,
could barely contain her glee.
"After so many years and so many people depending on
us, we are now recognized as part of the work force,"
the 62-year-old Barbados native recalls thinking.
The signing marked the climax of a six-year campaign by
Domestic Workers United to gain long-denied rights for
nannies and housekeepers. But the 200,000 workers who
stand to gain from the new law are not the only group
whose prospects look brighter. Organizations that
represent workers ranging from busboys to freelance
writers are increasing their clout, winning rights for
low-wage, immigrant and contingent workers who had for
years fallen outside the scope of mainstream labor and
its collective bargaining agreements.
The groups, often referred to as worker centers,
typically represent workers in industries not covered
under existing labor laws or that are difficult to
organize due to workers' immigration status. They
initially focused on workers who had their wages
skimmed or who did not receive minimum wage. But
recently, they've become more sophisticated, forming
strategic partnerships with unions and the state
Department of Labor, establishing health and benefits
programs, flexing political muscle and championing
legislation that bolsters workers' rights. Meanwhile,
they're forcing established unions to embrace them and
prodding employers to engage them. Employers paying
With private-sector unions on the decline, representing
just 16% of workers in New York City, many experts
believe worker centers will play a pivotal role in the
future of the labor movement. Across the state, at
least 26 groups are operating, with those in the city
directly representing more than 150,000 workers and
reaching hundreds of thousands more. Several have
expanded nationwide, and many are headed by women, with
immigrant members playing key roles in decision-making.
"Groups that were considered marginal to the future of
the labor movement are now seen as quite essential to
the future of unions," says Janice Fine, an expert on
worker centers at the Rutgers University School of
Management and Labor Relations. Some traditional unions
have begun reaching out beyond their core membership:
The United Federation of Teachers brought 28,000
home-based child-care providers into its ranks, and
32BJ SEIU has launched an aggressive campaign among
school cafeteria workers.
Increasingly, employers are paying attention. While
some have been forced to deal directly with centers
that have waged legal challenges against them, others
now have to contend with the prospect of new laws--such
as the paid sick leave bill before the City Council and
a bill in Albany that would penalize employers who
stiff freelancers--that challenge their business
practices. In some cases, employers have welcomed the
centers' work as leveling the playing field by forcing
all companies to comply with wage and hour laws.
Worker groups have made significant progress on the
legislative front, through a combination of sheer
perseverance and moral suasion. In addition to the new
domestic worker law and the paid sick leave and
freelancer proposals, a bill championed by immigrant
worker center Make the Road New York that increases
penalties on employers who violate wage and hour laws
won passage in the state Senate and Assembly last
session. And a near-unanimous margin in both houses
passed a measure to increase penalties for assaults
against taxi drivers that the Taxi Workers Alliance
pushed. Pressing for back pay
The groups have also become increasingly adept at
winning big chunks of back pay for their members. For
example, Make the Road secured some $13 million a year
in unpaid wages and benefits, the Restaurant
Opportunities Center of New York has won $5 million for
its members, and the Chinese Staff and Workers'
Association last year secured $550,000 for 25 garment
workers who toiled for 80 hours a week for only $3 an
More and more, battles over lost wages are getting a
boost from the Department of Labor, which placed a new
emphasis on collaborating with worker centers under
former Commissioner M. Patricia Smith.
"We have limited resources, and worker centers can and
do play an important role in referring cases to us,"
says Lorelei Salas, the DOL's director of strategic
The worker centers have also started to play politics.
Last week, 36-year-old freelance writer Ariane Conrad
passed out flyers in support of attorney general
candidate Eric Schneiderman, who was endorsed by the
Freelancers Union, outside a Brooklyn subway station.
The group--which has 90,000 members in the city--set up
an affiliated organization so it could endorse and
donate to candidates. And Make the Road is following
suit. Benefits have increasingly become a rallying cry
for the groups. The Freelancers Insurance Company
provides health insurance rates 75% below market. A
$100 annual membership fee paid by drivers like Victor
Salazar to the Taxi Workers Alliance gets them free
legal advice and $5,000 worth of life insurance. The
15,000-member group's next big campaign is aimed at
taking control of the credit card processing fee for
cab rides and using the funds received to start a
drivers health fund. Long dependent upon foundation
funding, many groups are starting to collect modest
dues from their members.
Traditional unions, which had initially turned their
backs on the worker centers, are now embracing them, as
they recognize that union jobs with decent salaries and
benefits become unsustainable in a labor market stocked
with a multitude of workers with no protections.
Immigrants and low-wage workers make up a growing part
of the work force that cannot be outsourced abroad.
In response, Make the Road has partnered with the
Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to
organize low-wage immigrant retail workers. And the
Laborers' International Union of North America has
joined forces with El Centro del Inmigrante.
Negotiations, of a sort
The worker centers might not be collectively bargaining
in the traditional sense, but taxi workers now sit down
regularly with the city to discuss working conditions,
freelancers now negotiate for their health care, and
domestic workers have rights mandated by law that other
workers have gained only via collective bargaining.
"We're looking at a growing disparity of income with no
end in sight," says Sara Horowitz, executive director
of the Freelancers Union. "Groups are saying, 'We have
to figure out how to create a social safety net. And
we're going to do it in whatever way works.' " Entire
contents (c) 2010
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