Workers Rising! Reflections on the Low-Wage Worker Organizing Conference

Car Wash Workers Organize in NYC, photo: AFL-CIO
Car Wash Workers Organize in NYC    photo: AFL-CIO

Yesterday, I attended an inspiring conference called “Workers Rising: a Symposium on Low-Wage Worker Organizing in NYC” put together by The Center for Popular Democracy and United NY. The conference’s energy was incredible- the main room was packed with folks standing in the back, crouching along the walls.  A wide range of people contributed working in sectors ranging from organizing, law, policy, city government, academics, and of course people working in low-wage jobs.

Here are some of the most important take-aways:

-A new labor movement has sprung up in the past year in which previously uncharted territories of the labor industry are being organized.  Industries such as fast food and retail, for example, are organizing workers who often work for minimum wage ($7.25 in NYC).  These workers are widely thought to be students looking for part time jobs, actors, or those looking to make an extra buck.  Contrary to this assumption, the majority of fast food workers and those in the retail industry are attempting to work in those industries full time, depending on that work to support themselves and their families.

-Successful attempts to organize car wash workers, taxi drivers, and domestic workers are taking place across New York City

-New York City is coordinating organizing its low-wage worker campaigns with other efforts across the country- mostly in LA and Chicago.  Organizers are sharing successful organizing strategies and change the face of the industry nation-wide. This collaboration across job sectors and cities clarifies that these efforts are part of a larger movement rather than isolated events.

-A great deal of organizing taking place in NYC is happening through “worker centers” and in collaboration with community groups rather than through unions.  Groups like Retail Action Project, New York Communities for Change and OUR Walmart are organizing workers outside of the traditional union structures.

-Integrating labor and other issues (notably immigration reform) is crucial to create real change in labor.  Immigration reform will impact millions of low-wage workers across NYC, as well as the way the workplace functions.  Important to note as well is the growing shift from full-time workers to outsourcing and employing temps in all sorts of industries, including fast food. This, according to many of the panelists, will only increase as more immigrants gain rights as legal residents or citizens.  Immigration polices which promote guest-workers and outsourcing create challenges for organizing and regulation of rights in the workplace.

-The Center for Popular Democracy and United NY released a report entitiled “Workers Rising: Organizing Service Jobs for Shared Prosperity in New York City.” The report puts forth 4 sets of actions to improve the lives of low-wage workers in New York City. The actions are that:

  • The city should pass legislation that would ensure at least five days of paid sick leave (Earned Sick Leave Act) and protect workers from erratic scheduling (Predictable Scheduling Act)
  • NY should better regulate high-violation industries, and pass laws like the Car Wash Accountability Act and creating an “enhanced privileged permitting” system at airports
  • The City should create a “Mayor’s Office of Labor Standards” to educate employers, investigate worker complaints, and enforce worker rights
  •  NYC should modify its “home rule” authority in order to set a citywide minimum wage, which would be higher than the current state minimum wage.

As an organizer with UHAB, this conference helped me to connect tenant struggles with their apartments to their struggles in the workplace.  I work with one tenant leader, Ms. D., in Crown Heights who deals with horrible building conditions and a frustrating situation with an absentee landlord. In addition, she works as a home health aid, working hard for little pay.  Not only has Ms. D stepped up as a tenant leader in her building, but she has also begun attending union meetings and standing up for her rights in the workplace. It must be hard and frustrating  but Ms. D is working to create change in several aspects of her life, tackling huge issues through collective action.

Attending this conference reminded me that labor organizers need to work housing organizers who need to work with community organizers.  Everyone has the same goal: to give low-income New Yorkers a bigger voice in how they are treated, as well as to assert and expand their rights.  Keep up the good work!

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