The New Standard — ‘Worker Centers’ Pick Up Where Unions, Govt Leave Off

An emerging form of unconventional labor organizing is taking root in immigrant communities, providing services, networks and hope where mainstream unions and state protections have fallen short.

Dec. 30, 2005 – The workers did not understand what the papers said – just that they had to sign them and leave.

Their managers at the Lee Mah electronics factory in San Francisco, California had just told the roughly 200 Chinese immigrants that they were losing their jobs, and ordered them to sign a contract, written in English, before collecting their final wages.

Chen Fei Yi, a former Lee Mah employee, recalled that a few who were able to read English realized the contract said the workers were not being laid off but were resigning – making them ineligible for unemployment compensation guaranteed to laid-off workers under federal law. Chen said they warned their co-workers not to sign and demanded the boss come and explain. The boss never showed up, but the police did, threatening to arrest workers who refused to leave.

Without a union, silenced by a language barrier, and barred from their factory floor, the workers had only themselves. But that was enough to plunge them into a tide of grassroots labor advocacy that is rapidly picking up where the government and traditional organized labor leave off.

The Lee Mah workers soon partnered with a group of recently laid-off Chinese garment-factory workers to launch two parallel workers’ rights campaigns. Large protests against the employers and government labor authorities culminated in the founding of an organizing center for local Chinese immigrant workers.

Whatever the arena, organizers with familiar faces and stories help dissolve the fears that deter many immigrants from challenging labor abuses.

Today, Chen, who came to America in the late 1990s, helps lead the organization and recruit other workers. “We tell them what rights they have, and that they have to come out to advocate for themselves,” she said. “If you don’t come forward, no one can help you.”

The idea of workers helping themselves – especially when no one else will – is resonating with a growing number of immigrant communities across the country. The number of “worker centers” serving low-income immigrants has grown from a handful in the early 1990s to over 120 today, according to a new study from the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute.

Diverse in tactics, scope and constituency, these centers are developing into a major collective voice for workers in industries that capitalize on immigrant labor, like domestic services, agriculture, and the food sector.

The federal government reports that nearly 15 percent of the country’s workforce is foreign-born, accounting for about half of the growth in the labor force from 2002 to 2004. Yet in 2004, the median weekly earnings of foreign-born workers were roughly 25-percent below that of native-born workers. Overall, Latino immigrants brought home just 57 percent of the weekly income of their white, native-born counterparts, a slight drop from the previous year.

While continuing to confront these inequalities through the direct activism of protests and picket lines, worker-center organizing tactics are expanding to include political education trainings, drafting legislation, and developing independent business models. Whatever the arena, organizers with familiar faces and stories help dissolve the fears that deter many immigrants from challenging labor abuses.

The Chinatown-based center now provides a central space for workers to meet, strategize, and access legal help and training programs.

Normita Lago, a home healthcare worker and single mother in California, would not have dared take action on her own against her boss, who was withholding wages and forcing employees to work without breaks. But in 2002, the Pilipino Workers’ Center, a local advocate for workers’ and immigrants’ rights, stepped in to help Lago and her co-workers file a formal complaint and is now supporting a pending class-action lawsuit. With the organization’s backing, Lago said, “We got some courage with ourselves.… We have to continue, fight for our rights.”

Similarly, when reaching out to other workers, Chen leads by example. “I tell them what I did and experienced before, that I was a victim once, too,” she said. “That’s how I build their confidence.”

New School

According to Amy Sugimori, staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, which provides legal assistance to worker centers, the grassroots orientation of the organizations enables them to “focus at a scale — and with a level of attention to communities, and issues, and groups — that unions might not be able to.”

During the San Francisco campaigns, an anemic union presence in the Chinese community left a void eventually filled by the formation of the Worker Organizing Center, a project of the local civic group Chinese Progressive Association. The Chinatown-based center now provides a central space for workers to meet, strategize, and access legal help and training programs.

Early next year, ROC plans to launch its own restaurant — a cooperative enterprise founded on the organization’s principles of fair labor and collective ownership.

The Association’s executive director, Gordon Mar, remarked, “The existing labor unions and the labor movement haven’t really been able to address the employment and labor needs of low-wage Chinese and other immigrant workers.”

Largely unfettered by federal labor-relations laws, worker centers can take direct action at workplaces that are not formally unionized. This tactical flexibility enables some groups to take their activism beyond traditional collective bargaining.

In Florida, for instance, years of protests, boycotts and litigation led by the migrant farm-labor group Coalition of Immokalee Workers helped set a precedent for an entire industry. Yum Brands, the corporation that controls Taco Bell, caved to public pressure in March and agreed to ensure higher wages for tomato-pickers and to implement a comprehensive code of conduct governing the company’s agricultural sub-contractors.

Domestic Workers United, which organizes immigrants throughout New York City, campaigned successfully in 2003 for a citywide “Bill of Rights” for domestic workers not covered by federal labor standards. The legislation mandates standard contracts committing employers to basic labor regulations. This year, the group has gone on to lobby on the state level for legislation to provide a living wage and other protections for domestic laborers.

Similarly, immigrant workers in the city’s food-service industry have gained political traction through the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which emerged out of New York’s post-9/11 economic turmoil. In an industry with union representation of less than 2 percent, the organization has developed a multi-ethnic membership of more than 1,000 members.

ROC lobbied to ensure that tipped workers were included in New York State’s recent minimum-wage legislation, and is currently pushing for stronger labor regulations for undocumented immigrants toiling in New York’s restaurants.

The group’s litigation and protests have gained workers monetary compensation for workplace violations as well as improvements in working conditions. ROC co-founder and Assistant Director Fekkak Mamdouh, who has worked in the restaurant industry since immigrating to the US from Morocco in 1988, said that managers tend to respond quickly to public pressure.

“People aren’t going to eat where they see people protesting outside,” Mamdouh said. He added that ROC picks its fights carefully, targeting high-profile restaurant conglomerates. That way, he said, “if we change something in one, we make changes in all the big places.”

Early next year, ROC plans to launch its own restaurant — a cooperative enterprise founded on the organization’s principles of fair labor and collective ownership. With this model, Mamdouh said, the group hopes “to show all the owners that, yes, you can pay workers good, you can treat them nice, you can have healthcare, you can have all that stuff — and [at] the end of the year, you make a profit.”

Holistic Organizing

In Virginia, the Tenants and Workers Support Committee juggles workers’ rights activism with a variety of community-based projects. On top of campaigns for better public health care and education, the group recently declared a local “eviction-free zone” to ward off developers looking to gentrify the area. And the group is establishing an organizing center for Latino day laborers, to both facilitate and monitor the hiring process, despite local hostility from anti-immigrant factions.

Jon Liss, director of the Committee, said that compared to traditional unions, the group has “a much more holistic view of the human condition and the changes that it necessitates… There’s a whole bunch of things outside the realm of labor.”

In some cases, unions and grassroots groups have collaborated to compliment each other’s strengths.

In Nebraska, a network of community-based organizations called the Omaha Together One Community, has engaged Latino immigrant meatpacking workers in political training programs designed to help them organize and eventually assume leadership positions in the local union, United Food and Commercial Workers.

Yet organizer Tom Holler noted that workers can apply political know-how even without a union. At one plant, he recalled, a team of non-union workers wanted to implement a job rotation system. “They went up to management, and they got them to buy it … because they were trained and [had] learned how to be effective through these [educational] sessions,” said Holler.

The Poultry Worker Justice Project, a worker-led initiative for Latino poultry-plant employees in the Southern states, helps unions and immigrants bridge cultural divides. Organizers educate union leaders about the economic circumstances and interests of immigrant communities, while simultaneously encouraging workers to unionize to improve the industry’s grueling working conditions.

Project coordinator Anita Grabowski commented, “We’ve been able to help sort of translate, figuratively and literally, between the labor unions and the workforce.”

Serving the Organizing

As worker centers expand, they approach the looming question of long-term funding and growth. Janice Fine, a political scientist and author of the Economic Policy Institute study, predicted that since many groups currently rely on short-term foundation funding, achieving self-sufficiency will eventually require centers to set up independent income streams, such as formal membership dues or even the development of small-scale businesses.

Fine warned that unless worker centers devise concrete development strategies, responding ad-hoc to peoples’ immediate needs “might bring them into [the centers’] orbit, but… the question is whether it actually brings them into your membership base.”

With that in mind, some groups view their services as a platform for cultivating and mobilizing their memberships.

Although ROC offers members cooking classes, job-placement assistance, and other perks, Mamdouh stressed: “We don’t call them ‘services.’ We call them privileges to our members. Because we don’t want to do services. We want to organize.”

Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers’ Center, said that when helping people find housing, legal advice and other resources, the group also makes important connections. For example, through a local food distribution project, she recalled, “we were able to go door-to-door in all those apartment buildings and talk to all of them.”

Having built trust with its neighbors, the group has rallied opposition to the deportation of Filipino immigrants and linked the community to broader campaigns for national immigration reform. “The services also serve the organizing,” Soriano-Versoza said, “because they… help to meet urgent needs that people are facing, so that they can think about more long-term issues.”

To exploited domestic workers, services delivered by activists from similar backgrounds can be a comfort and a call to action.

“They have so much fear when they escape from that situation,” said Nahar Alam, founder of Andolan, a New York City-based organization for South Asian domestic workers. As the group helps workers recover, she said, “they feel they have courage and they can also survive. So, it’s advocacy, and also organizing and empowering the people.”

To strengthen Andolan’s core membership, active members must attend regular meetings, and the group maintains a 3-to-1 ratio of members to non-worker volunteers.

Violet Anthony, who was lured from India with the promise of a stable job in America, endured beatings and forced labor as a housekeeper for an immigrant family. Her hardships continued until Alam, herself a former domestic worker from Bangladesh, helped her escape, obtain legal immigrant status and find a new job. Anthony now returns the help in kind, volunteering to support other survivors who find their way to Andolan.

“Whenever a new member come, you know,” she said, “I feel like it is me.”

by Michelle Chen (The New Standard)