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!


If You Live in Michigan, You Now Have the Right To Work!

right to work

Yesterday, Michigan became a Right to Work state! What does that mean? Does it mean folks in Michigan who have been unemployed for the past year will suddenly be offered a living-wage job because of their state-given right to work?  Does it mean that undocumented immigrants will finally legally be able to work for better wages and support their families, regardless of immigration status?  Does it mean that employment discrimination is finally over in Michigan, and the 23 other “Right to Work” states?!

Well, according to Obama, “Right to Work actually means the right to work for less money.”


Right to Work is born out of the Taft-Hartley Act which makes it illegal for unions to participate in union security agreements.  These agreements are how unions and employers negotiate on union membership for employees — they regulate how unions encourage workers to join.  The act, implemented state by state, prohibits “closed shop” (all employees must be a member of a union) or “agency shop” (all employees must pay union fees whether or not they choose to participate in the union).  According to the Taft-Hartley Act, workplaces must be “open shop”  in which employees can choose whether or not to pay dues, participate in the union, and cannot be fired for it either way.

While this might seems like a fair law at first glance, the reality of how it plays out is not so equitable.  This law encourages  “free riders,” the term for people benefiting from collective bargaining but without paying their dues. It also weakens the overall collective bargaining power of unions which could have negative consequences for workers at all ranges of the pay scale.  According to Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the new bill hurts Michigan families:

“For millions of Michigan workers, this is no ordinary debate. It’s an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”

The really shocking piece of the passage of this bill is how quickly it went through.  Governor Snyder and other republicans announced their intentions to turn Michigan into a “Right to Work” state last Thursday.  According to an article in the Huffington Post,

“Within hours, the bills were hurriedly pushed through the Senate as powerless Democrats objected. After a legally required five-day waiting period, the House approved final passage. The governor said he saw no reason not to sign the bills immediately, especially with demonstrators still hoping to dissuade him.”

As a result of this hurried legislative process, there wasn’t an opportunity for a surge of organized opposition, like there was in Wisconsin or Indiana. Within a week, all was said and done. Unless the bill is successfully shot down in courts, it will come into effect in April.

There is an enormous difference between labor practices in  Right to Work states (there are currently 23) and  labor practices in states with stronger collective bargaining power.  Right to Work states have significantly lower wages, worse work-place conditions, and overall less workers’ rights on the job.  Here is a graphic that illustrates these facts (thank you Wikipedia and the Bureau of Labor Statistics):


Median wages in Right-to-work states

Median wages in Collective-bargaining states


All occupations $15.31/hour $16.89/hour -$1.58/hour (-9.4%)
Middle school teacher $49,306/year $55,863/year -$6557/year (-11.7%)
Computer support specialist $46,306/year $50,641/year -$4335/year (-8.6%)

What does all this mean for us as New Yorkers?  While it seems like something so conservative couldn’t happen here, Michigan has historically been one of the labor strongholds, and it seems like Right to Work could hit anywhere next!  We need to continue fighting for better policy around sick leave, the passage of the living wage bill, to increase minimum wage (especially for fast food workers), support the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, continue to organize our casinos and hotels, work for comprehensive immigration reform, and continue fighting for better labor standards everywhere!  It’s the only way.

Friday News Round-up!

With another week behind us, we enter the last month of the year. With the apocalypse potentially in sight (according to those who wrongly read the Mayan calendar and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” video), I’d like to culminate the events of November.

  1. Under-appreciated fast-food workers are taking a stand! Yesterday, workers from major fast-food restaurants throughout New York, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and Domino’s, went on strike. The workers have two demands: the right to unionize and higher, more sufficient pay.   Workers at the McDonald’s on Madison and 40th were the first to strike. 14 of the store’s 17 employees that were scheduled to work were found outside chanting, “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay!”  This is the largest action against fast-food restaurants in American history.  At UHAB, we stand in solidarity with these workers and hope that their demands are met. Stay tuned for more on this as the fight continues to develop.
  2. For the past nine years, the “fellow grannies” have stood at the curb of Fifth Avenue every Wednesday protesting America’s seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this past Wednesday, they have put down their signs and discontinued their rallying… for now. The group of activists, comprised of women in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, have only missed two Wednesday protests (one of which was the Wednesday after Hurricane Sandy). Now that the Iraq war has ended and the Afghanistan war is dwindling, the activists feel compelled to leave their Fifth Avenue post and engage in different campaigns.  The “fellow grannies” are a testament that if one can withstand the inevitable challenges and, in turn, disillusionments of activism, justice can be a lifelong pursuit.
  3. Not only has Sandy ruined the homes of thousands of New York and New Jersey residents, it has also exposed hazardous and expensive sewage issues.  Most of the region’s sewage plants are located in areas close to sea level, making them vulnerable to flooding. To safeguard against future storms, the plants must raise motor and electrical equipment above water levels, waterproof circuitry, and build more levees and dams. The storm also exposed the insufficient treatment of sewage, which was elucidated by feces spewing from burst pipes. Governor Cuomo estimated that more than $1.06B are needed to fix the problems. As New York and New Jersey continue recuperating from the onslaught of Sandy, we hope that the cities make structural (not band-aid) improvements to those entities that could have lessened the destruction of the storm.
  4. And, South Korea has continued pursuing legal action against our favorite predatory equity group, Lone Star Funds. The goverment accused Lone Star Funds of stock manipulation in 2003. While the Texas-baed company claims that they have been pursuing “an amicable resolution,” South Korea has resisted their offers, causing the corporation billions of euros.  After an eight year battle, Lone Star Funds has begun arbitration. Like the tenants living in buildings where Lone Star Funds holds the debt, we praise South Korea for holding their ground and not succumbing to the group’s manipulative tactics.

Good Friday, good weekend, and good week ahead!

Tomorrow: May Day “General Strike”…No work, No School, No Housework, No Shopping, No Banking….

Tomorrow is May Day, marking the the126th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, turning this traditionally Celtic holiday into a lefty labor rights anarchist immigrant rights prison justice anti-corporate Occupy everything holiday.  This year, there is a nationwide call for a General Strike – “A Day without the 99%” – encouraging people not to go to work, to school, to shop, or to buy anything.  Like in 2006, El Dia Sin Inmigrantes, the general strike will demonstrate just how powerful collective organizing can be. We see the power of collective organizing every day.  Tenants join forces through group lawsuits, building-wide petitions, and even by the simple act of coming together and brainstorming solutions to building problems, tenants improve their buildings and establish community. May Day is not only a time to assert people-power, but to assert labor and immigrant rights.  Tenants we work with are almost exclusively low-income immigrants or people of color, and all are effected by the racial implications of policies like “Stop and Frisk,” “Operation Clean Halls” and the would-be “Secure Communities” program.  Tomorrow is a chance to band together across racial and class lines to assert an anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-sexist agenda.  There will be a plethora of free food, music, art supplies, educational teach-ins allowing for us to live one day in without participating in the system (capitalism) which promotes policies that hurt our communities. Check out Occupy Wall Street’s website for a full list of May Day activities and organizational endorsers. A few events we wanted to highlight:
Tenants and Neighbors:

This May Day, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board (RGB) will be voting on a proposed range of rent adjustments for rent stabilized tenants. Every year since it came into existence, the Rent Guidelines Board has voted to raise rents, usually to levels that are unaffordable to many rent stabilized tenants.  This year, join us in expressing our collective frustration with the Rent Guidelines Board and demanding that it be made to be more accountable to the millions of New Yorkers who want the city to remain affordable to low and moderate income people. The meeting is at 5:30 at 7 East 7th Street; we will be rallying outside at 5:00 PM. For more information or to RSVP for the rally, please contact Sam Stein at or 212-608-4320, ext. 316.

Take Back the Land:

The Free University at Madison Square Park is an open invitation to educators around New York to participate in May Day. Lectures, workshops, skill-shares, and discussions will be held — all open to the public. University professors will bring their classes to the commons. Join Robert Robinson,  representatives from Take Back the Land and from Organizing for Occupation for a teach-in and conversation about the current housing crisis and the growing movement of communities taking positive action to collectively secure the human right to housing.

positive action (direct action) to collectively secure the human right to housing

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice:

2pm – JFREJ joins GOLES to support Public Housing residents taking their struggle to the streets! Meet: NE Corner of Houston and Avenue D, New York Sick and tired of being left out of decisions that affect the future of their homes, Lower East Side residents have decided to take to the streets — marching from Houston to 14th street to raise awareness about the New York City Housing Authority’s proposed policy changes that will affect the future of public housing. The LES has always been a safe haven for immigrant and low-income families – public housing is one of the few affordable housing options left. Protect what we have! March with LES public housing residents to Union Square where we’ll join the masses for the Unity Rally.

For the massive solidarity rally, we will be meeting at 4pm in Union Square, and at 5:30 we’ll be marching to Wall St.! We hope to see you there.