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PORTSIDE  December 2010, Week 3

PORTSIDE December 2010, Week 3

Subject:

Workers' Centers: Is It Organizing?

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Date:

Fri, 17 Dec 2010 22:24:41 -0500

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text/plain (191 lines)

But Is It Organizing?

Posted on December 15, 2010 
by Bob Roman
http://talkingunion.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/but-is-it-organizing/

Union density, the percentage of workers who are a
member of a union, has declined since about the middle
of the 20th century from around 36% to something like
12% today. Unlike then, most of today's members are in
public sector unions. The slight increase in 2009 over
2008, 12.4% from 12.3%, represents something of a dead
cat bounce, even in the context of the Great Recession.
So when the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies
(CCWCS) announced a panel discussion on "Getting
Organized: New Strategies for Tough Times" that
featured Kim Bobo (Executive Director, Interfaith
Worker Justice), Jose Oliva (National Policy
Coordinator of the Restaurant Opportunity Center), and
Lou Weeks (Director of Organizing, UNITE HERE Local 1)
- why, it was something of a must see. Held on Friday,
December 10, at Roosevelt University's Gage Gallery,
the discussion took place amid a photo exhibition that
narrated tales of despair and loss. How appropriate,
but then, maybe not.

Jose Oliva's Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) began
as a direct consequence of the 9/11 crime. There are
few union restaurants these days, but the World Trade
Center's Windows on the World was one of them. After it
was destroyed, UNITE HERE helped the surviving
employees find work at other restaurants, almost
invariably non-union, at a major cut in income often
accompanied by abuse. The ROC was organized to advocate
for these workers. It has since spread to 7 cities and
has enlisted some 6,000 members.

The ROC approaches delinquent employers with a
combination of lawsuits for labor law, wages and hours
violations and direct action. The latter is intended to
pressure the employer through public embarrassment. The
former is not simply a fallback in case direct action
doesn't work. This dual strategy often results in an
invitation to negotiate. If the negotiations end in an
agreement, it is a part of the settlement of the suit.
With the agreement sanctioned by the court, the
employer risks contempt charges if the agreement is
violated. In this way, the workers win something
resembling a union contract, but with potentially
sharper teeth.

The third tine of the ROC's pitchfork is the "Highroad
Round Table." This is a venue that enlists employers
who see the value in a well-treated workforce. They
help with lobbying for fairer laws and regulations. And
they help providing training for prospective employees:
one of the benefits of ROC membership.

Despite negotiated agreements, the ROC is not a union,
but a "worker center." These are non-profit
organizations that provide a combination of service,
advocacy, and if not organizing then at least
mobilization in support of workers: typically low-wage,
sometimes for a specific industry or community. Oliva
felt that the centers most likely to prosper were what
he termed sectoral centers, that is: centers that serve
a particular industry (i.e., restaurants, domestics,
agriculture).

Kim Bobo's Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) has gone
into worker centers in a big way, having organized some
27 of them across the country with several more due to
come online. Unlike Oliva's model, these tend to be
generalist centers, even if a particular industry
predominates in the area. Most are doing well, some are
doing very well indeed, but some others not so much.

IWJ has made fighting wage theft a major priority. Bobo
detailed wage theft this way:

* not paid even minimum wage;
* not paid legally mandated overtime;
* not receiving a final paycheck;
* plant closure without notice;
* misclassifying employees as independent contractors;
* not paying "prevailing wage;"
* last and most lowdown: tip stealing.

IWJ's involvement with these issues came about because
of a major lack of law enforcement. This was
spectacularly true of the Dubya administration with
Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor, but even the major
increase in enforcement personnel in the Obama
administration with Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor
leaves the workplace the equivalent of the wild west.
Worker centers, then, play a role analogous to
community policing. They mobilize community pressure
against lawbreakers and notify authorities about
ongoing crimes.

UNITE HERE`s Lou Weeks was included to answer: But is
this really organizing? He declined to play that role.
He basically recused himself for being too close to the
other panelists.

Perhaps the only controversial thing Weeks said was
that labor laws were no excuse for not organizing. One
is tempted say, "Spoken like a true Director of
Organizing!" Then one might point to the fact that
every "right to work" state under the Taft-Hartley Act
has a lower, often much lower, union density than the
national average, but one: Nevada. Oh, yeah. That's a
UNITE HERE stronghold, isn't it? Still, it's an
arguable assertion. If it were not, there wouldn't be a
need for workers centers, would there?

But is it really organizing? I expect the answer is
both no and yes. To the extent that worker centers
rescue (or attempt to rescue) workers from illegal,
abusive situations without also establishing an ongoing
relationship with the worker(s), such as membership,
it's not organizing. What you have is a legal clinic
with picket signs. You might call it mobilization.
Organizing, I think, demands that relationship. Because
the ROC has a membership base, some of what they do may
very well qualify as organizing.

This isn't simply a matter of dogma. Another critique
of workers center strategies is that the wellspring of
workers' power comes from collective action in the
workplace. Some centers, such as the ROC, do attempt to
intervene in the workplace through its negotiated
lawsuit settlements. But enforcement is not up to the
workers; it's up to the courts. Nothing happens without
the judge.

All the workers center strategies rely to some extent
on the State. Old Sam Gompers made a dogma of it, so
he'd be the first to tell you: the government is not
necessarily your friend. For example, Kim Bobo
complained about how the Department of Labor, even
under Obama's Hilda Solis, had not considered issuing
"U" visas to victims of wage theft so they could remain
in the States to testify at trial. Here's the dirty
little secret.  Dubya's Secretary of Labor, Elaine
Chao, was the one cabinet member to stay through Bush's
entire two terms. By all accounts, she approached her
job intending to not just change policy but to
institutionalize it in ways that would be difficult to
undo. When she finally left office, she had hired two-
thirds of the labor department's career senior
executives. As her assistant secretary Patrick Pizzella
said: "Personnel is policy." When Department of Labor
staff reacted with bovine complacency when confronted
with "U" visas, was it incomprehension or sabotage?

U.S. labor law wouldn't be half so much an obstacle to
organizing if it were not for an almost geological
accumulation of court and NLRB decisions favoring the
interests of employers.

Worker centers are a worthy project, but no substitute,
I think, for a union.

Bob Roman is editor of Chicago DSA`s New Ground. He
shares that Cable subscribers in Chicago will be able
to see the entire discussion, eventually, on CANTV. An
audio recording will eventually be posted on the web by
Chicago Amplified.

[Thanks to Stuart Elliott, moderator of Talking Union,
for submitting this. -- ps moderator]

___________________________________________

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