August 2011, Week 4


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The Excluded Workers Congress: Reimagining the Right to

By Harmony Goldberg and Randy Jackson

*The authors would like to thank the Steering Committee
of the Excluded Workers Congress
(www.excludedworkers.org) for its contributions to this

*The following article is from the Fall 2011 issue of
New Labor Forum (http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu).

Even before the recent assault on the collective
bargaining rights of public sector workers in Wisconsin
and across the Midwest, millions of workers in the
United States were excluded from the basic human right
to organize. Whether it’s due to policy or practice,
they cannot organize without facing retaliation,
bargain collectively to transform their workplace
conditions, or access basic labor protections. In
short, millions of workers have been robbed of their

These “excluded workers” include: more than a million
and a half farm workers; nearly two million domestic
workers; millions of public and private sector workers
in the twenty-two states that have right-to-work laws;
nearly three million tipped workers in the food service
industries; hundreds of thousands of guest workers and
day laborers; hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers;
hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people;
and hundreds of thousands of workfare workers.

The majority of excluded workers are workers of color,
including African-Americans and immigrants from Latin
America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.  These
workers are concentrated in three areas: the low-wage
service industries of the “global cities” across the
United States (i.e., taxi drivers, restaurant workers,
and domestic workers in New York, Los Angeles, and
Chicago); urban communities with high rates of
unemployment; and in regions and industries with
historically weak labor protections (i.e., public
sector workers in the Southern right-to-work states and
farm workers in rural areas across the country).  While
the underground nature of their work makes it difficult
to determine the proportion of excluded workers in the
broader working class, we do know that low-wage service
industries are growing at a faster rate than other
sectors of the labor market, and the labor rights of
workers in many other sectors are coming under attack.

Some of these workers are excluded through explicit
policies—farm workers and domestic workers are cited as
exceptions to the right to organize, while restaurant
workers are defined as “tipped workers” who are
excluded from minimum wage laws. Taxi drivers are
classified as independent contractors. Since they’re
explicitly excluded from the legal definition of
“employee,” they’re also excluded from labor
protections (an exclusion that also impacts workfare
workers who are defined by law as “welfare recipients”
and not as workers with the right to organize).  The
laws in the twenty-two right-to-work states
(concentrated in the South and the Midwest) explicitly
limit the ability of workers—particularly in the public
sector—to organize and collectively bargain.

Many other workers are excluded from labor rights and
protections by practice—either because existing laws
are not enforced or because these workers’ precarious
economic and legal status makes it dangerous for them
to claim even their guaranteed rights. Workers in other
sectors—i.e., those who were once incarcerated—are
often excluded from access to work because of
discriminatory policies.  Whether these exclusions are
explicit or implicit, they undercut workers’ ability to
organize. This leads to exploitative and degrading
working conditions, including poverty-level wages,
frequent wage theft, long hours without the benefit of
overtime pay, racial discrimination and sexual
harassment on the job, and unsafe workplaces, in turn,
lowering the floor for all workers.

Contemporary exclusions developed as a result of two
converged social dynamics: the legacy of racial
exclusions in U.S. labor law (i.e., the exclusion of
farm workers and domestic workers from the National
Labor Relations Act as a concession to 1930s
segregationist Southern senators); and the impact of
globalization, which has rendered much of current labor
law structurally ineffectual in addressing the changed
dynamics of workplaces worldwide.  Fundamental
political and economic power shifts have transformed
working conditions in the United States and around the
world. These shifts—the decline of the U.S.
manufacturing economy, the development of a U.S.
service economy, and the rise of international
migration—have created new and challenging conditions
for workers.

While the traditional labor movement has long reflected
on the severe limitations of collective bargaining
rights—as expressed in the National Labor Relations
Act—the recent assaults on collective bargaining rights
for public sector workers demonstrate that the broader
trajectory of labor law is toward the exclusion of
workers from even these inadequate protections. 
Workers need a new framework for the right to organize.

The Rise of a New Workers’ Movement Over the past two
decades, nearly two hundred independent worker centers
have emerged in these historically excluded sectors. 
At first, these organizations were primarily seen as
hopeful upstarts, but many have now grown and matured
into well-respected organizations with sizable
membership bases and significant victories under their
belts.  Some of these worker centers have affiliated
into national sector-based networks (i.e., the National
Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Day Laborer
Organizing Network).  Others have expanded into
national membership organizations (i.e., Restaurant
Opportunities Centers United).

Independent worker organizations have waged a number of
inspiring campaigns over the past twenty years, and
each provides an inspiring story of triumph against all
odds. These hard-won victories suggest that we’re
inching closer to the emergence of a new,
twenty-first-century framework for labor rights and
worker power. For example:

The successful passage of New York State’s Domestic
Workers Bill of Rights has inspired the introduction of
similar legislation in California and the beginnings of
similar campaigns in other states. This Bill of Rights
not only challenges the decades-long exclusion of
domestic workers from basic labor protections—through
its provision of paid sick days, the Bill of Rights
goes beyond governmental mediation of “collective
bargaining” between workers and employers to suggest a
model of state-mandated “collective standards” for all

The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and
the National Guestworkers’ Alliance waged a dramatic
confrontation with immigration authorities, and they
were able to win full legalization for guest workers
who had been trafficked from India by the Signal
corporation. This victory demonstrates that
contemporary worker struggles should move beyond narrow
workplace battles and civil rights frameworks to
incorporate a broader human rights framework that can
address the full range of international dynamics
impacting workers’ lives.

The HOPE Coalition tenaciously confronted a North
Carolina law that bars public employees from collective
bargaining.  Although it has not been able to defeat
these policies yet, this fight demonstrates that the
labor movement’s long-term battle to end right-to-work
policies in the South is far from over. The multiracial
composition of this latest struggle also confirms that
the vibrancy that’s now mostly attributed to immigrant
worker struggles is alive and well among
African-American and white workers.

These positive developments demonstrate excluded
workers’ potential to help rejuvenate and transform the
broader labor movement. But they also suggest that a
new, transformative labor rights framework must not
only bring an end to explicit exclusions that
intentionally restrict worker rights—labor laws must be
reshaped to reflect twenty-first-century workplace
structures and workforce composition.

The Formation of the Excluded Workers Congress During
the June 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, the
National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice,
and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network brought
together nine sectors of excluded workers—domestic
workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant
workers, day laborers, guest workers, workers from
Southern right-to-work states, workfare workers, and
formerly incarcerated workers—to found the Excluded
Workers Congress. It was formed to bring “the human
right to organize” to life, to win a new era of rights
and policies for workers, and to transform the U.S.
labor movement.

The current frameworks for labor law—collective
bargaining and worker organizing—were developed in the
1920s and 1930s. In response to a changing economy and
changing working conditions, excluded workers are now
leading transformative campaigns and building the
foundation for a new workers’ movement. By coming
together to build the Excluded Workers Congress, these
organizations hope to form a shared basis of power that
will allow them to work with established unions to
strengthen the labor movement, reform federal labor
law, and enable all workers to exercise their human
right to organize.

During the first gathering of the Excluded Workers
Congress, more than four hundred workers engaged in
hours of storytelling to educate each other about
conditions within their respective sectors and their
innovative campaigns to expand labor protections and
build worker power.  Building on the foundation of
unity established in Detroit, representatives from each
of the nine sectors came together in Washington, D.C.
in October 2010 to develop a shared analysis, a vision,
and some collective strategies. During this meeting,
the members of the Excluded Workers Congress formalized
their federation, made a commitment to engage in shared
campaign work, and defined the group’s mission—to bring
about a  modern-day expansion of all workers’ right to
organize (with a recognition that contemporary worker
struggles must be international in character).

In addition to developing an interim structure and
planning for collaborative campaign work, the Excluded
Workers Congress took advantage of its time in the
capital to network with the Department of Labor (DOL),
members of Congress, and national labor leaders. 
Member organizations convened congressional hearings
and held an extended meeting with the DOL to alert
officials about working conditions in their industries,
share strategies for improving those conditions, and
discuss the possibility of establishing an Excluded
Workers Task Force within the DOL. The Excluded Workers
Congress also engaged in strategic dialogue with
high-ranking representatives from the SEIU and the
AFL-CIO, as it began to establish itself as a
meaningful force in national labor politics.

The Excluded Workers Congress met again in May 2011 in
New York City, this time bringing excluded workers
together with U.S. labor leaders and worker organizers
from Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The 2011
conference opened with the AFL-CIO signing two historic
partnership agreements—one with the National Domestic
Workers Alliance and the other with the National
Guestworkers’ Alliance. AFL-CIO President Richard
Trumka heralded the agreements.

Looking Ahead At the D.C. gathering, the Excluded
Workers Congress identified several broad areas for
shared work.

Collaborative Campaign Work Spearheaded by Restaurant
Opportunities Centers United, state and federal
campaigns will seek to raise and index the minimum
wage. These campaigns will include workers who are
currently excluded from minimum wage protections,
including tipped workers, home health care workers, and
agricultural workers.

The POWER Act campaign—initiated by the National
Guestworkers’ Alliance—will lobby for federal
legislation that would grant legal status to victims of
serious labor violations or those who pursue
workplace-based claims. The POWER Act would shield
undocumented workers from the threat of retaliation.

Strengthening and Expanding the Labor Movement Several
of the Excluded Workers Congress’s principal
alliances—including the National Day Laborer Organizing
Network, the National Guestworkers’ Alliance, and the
National Domestic Workers Alliance—have now developed
formal partnerships with the AFL-CIO, demonstrating a
shared commitment to rebuilding the labor movement.
While the specifics of these partnership agreements are
still being worked out, the partnerships provide a
foundation for the development of concrete solidarity
work that will allow the labor movement and the
independent workers’ movement to bring their different
strengths to the table.  The AFL-CIO has already
successfully supported National Domestic Workers
Alliance efforts to develop basic international labor
standards for the domestic work industry in the ILO

Developing Twenty-First-Century Frameworks for the
Right to Organize In March 2011, the Excluded Workers
Congress convened a series of scholar-organizer
roundtables at an International Excluded Workers
Congress to help flesh out what a twenty-first-century
model of worker rights should look like. The
roundtables underscored the insufficiency of developing
a new “right to organize” framework—the Excluded
Workers Congress must simultaneously reconceptualize a
new approach to worker power that reflects current
political-economic conditions. Relationships with labor
movements from around the world—including organizers
working to establish a floor wage for garment workers
throughout Asia, activists from South Africa working to
build an international network of informal workers, and
labor leaders from Latin America working to form
international connections between workers along the
food chain—will enable the Excluded Workers Congress to
learn about innovative organizing models and hone its
vision. More importantly, these relationships help lay
the groundwork for the long-term emergence of an
international worker movement with the power to respond
to the transnational dynamics of the global economy.

Turning Hope Into Reality In an era where a worker’s
right to collectively organize and exercise power in
the workplace is increasingly coming under attack, the
future of a workers’ movement rests on an alliance
between the traditional labor movement and the
organizations representing sectors that have
historically been excluded from labor rights and
protections. The Excluded Workers Congress is
determined to turn that hope into a reality.   


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