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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014, 12:50 pm

Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

BY Sarah Jaffe

The organizing efforts around precarious employment in New York often focus on combating issues of injustice around race and gender in addition to raising wages, strengthening benefits and improving work environment. (Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York)  

New York City can sometimes feel like ground zero for the battle over inequality.  Up until a few months ago, its mayor was one of the world's richest men; it is home to Wall Street and movie stars, and it seems as though every oligarch from every country in the world has an apartment here.

Here, too, are the millions of working people who make the city run, and all too many of those working people are barely making enough to get by. In her introduction to the new book New Labor in New York, out now from Cornell University Press, sociologist Ruth Milkman points out that while New York has the nation's highest union density, the city also has one of the highest levels of income inequality among large cities.

It is against this background that worker centers and other forms of non-union labor organizing have flourished, won victories, hit setbacks and managed to grow. And it is against that background that Milkman and her colleague Ed Ott, both professors at the City University of New York's Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, decided to teach a course that would ask students at the Murphy Institute and the CUNY Graduate Center to write an in-depth profile of one worker center or labor organization and its innovations. After two semesters of field research, study, and collaborative workshopping, these profiles were collected into the book. Taken together, they make up a valuable resource for evaluating today's labor organizing, its successes and failures. 

The workers spotlighted in New Labor in New York share the common trait of precarity, a term that has become something of a buzzword in recent years, particularly since the financial crisis. Precarious work is unstable, irregular; it is part-time or gig-by-gig; it comes without healthcare or other benefits; and it is usually but not always low-paid. Precarious workers in New York include taxi drivers, street vendors, retail and restaurant workers, grocery store clerks, domestic workers and even graphic designers and TV producers. Many of them are immigrants organizing around an ethnic identity as well as a shared workplace. New York is an attractive place for this kind of organizing, Milkman notes, not only because it is dense and has a large number of immigrant workers, but also because the foundations that provide much of the funding for many of these worker centers are based here as well. 

The book begins with Benjamin Becker's look at a fairly traditional union campaign (a loss) at a Target on Long Island in June 2011. The piece sets the tone for the rest of the book by demonstrating the obstacles unions face when they attempt to win a National Labor Relations Board election, even when a fairly active core group of workers are involved. From there, the book pivots to examine a range of campaigns, only some of which have as a goal (or even a legal possibility) of organizing workers into a collective bargaining unit.

For some groups, like the Retail Action Project and the grocery store organizing campaign partnership between New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and Local 338 UFCW-RWDSU, wage theft lawsuits have been a gateway to pressuring employers to recognize the workers' unions, as happened at the Yellow Rat Bastard retail stores in Manhattan. Ben Shapiro explores the tensions over the campaign's direction and duration between NYCC and Local 338. When the union controls the purse strings but the community group is doing the work, trouble can arise, but this partnership smoothed out when the union backed off its push for quick results in the form of union elections.

For several other groups and coalitions profiled in the book, legislation, rather than union elections, is the goal. Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer and Erin Michaels analyze the campaign from 2010 to 2012 for a living-wage bill in New York and the similar tension there, too, between unions, accustomed to exercising political power as insiders, and community and faith groups more interested in moral framing and direct action. For the New York Civic Participation Project/La Fuente, the goal is not even necessarily particular campaigns—the goal, instead, is to engage union members around their community, and to bridge the gap between non-union community members and their union member neighbors. 

“Many of these groups have been more successful on their sort of 'air wars' than on their 'ground wars,'” says Milkman. In other words, she explains, “All of them have become highly skilled at figuring out how to shine a bright light on abuses and to get public attention sometimes legal attention sometimes media attention to the issues, that turns out to be a lighter lift than actually organizing workers in a sustained way.”

Many of the pieces highlight this tension between advocacy—paid staffers working on behalf of workers—and the kind of organizing where workers are acting on their own behalf. The arguments made by Steve Jenkins, a labor lawyer who has worked in both unions and non-union labor organizations, about the limits of the advocacy model appear in many of these pieces. Jenkins wrote in 2002 that advocacy organizations “mobilize elite institutions ... to help clients achieve the changes they are seeking.” Unions, he contends, are a superior form because they organize workers to use “social power” to make change, rather than persuasion. But in her piece on Make the Road New York, organizer Jane McAlevey, also author of the book Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), writes, “I argue that what matters most is not whether a group is a formal labor union but instead whether the group’s members are directly defining the changes they seek and whether their own exercise of collective action is the basis of their leverage.” Make the Road, in her view, fits this definition of an “organizing organization.”

Meanwhile, Harmony Goldberg's thoughtful look at Domestic Workers United, titled “Prepare to Win,” lays out the next steps for the organization after its major victory: the passage of New York's Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2010. Though domestic workers were integral to the campaign, she notes, implementing the law will require “the deployment of worker power and base-building on a much larger scale than was required to win legislative victories.” To that end, she explores DWU's attempts to train domestic workers to act as something akin to shop stewards for their neighborhoods, and honestly assesses the difficulty of organizing workers whose workplace is behind a private home's door.

For DWU and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), both of which have spread to become national organizations, working with “high road” employers has become a strategy. ROC is having its first-ever “High Road Restaurant Week” this week to encourage conscious consumers to dine at establishments with good labor practices. ROC in particular asks consumers to be a part of the labor movement, to be as aware of the labor that produces their food as they are of its environmental impact. In some ways this has proved to be a useful strategy, but in others it seems like a tacit admission of the limitations of these organizations: As Jenkins noted, when one cannot demand, one must ask nicely.

“Symbolic victories are good, they do help make people aware of the problems,” Milkman says, “but changing the actual pay and working conditions of precarious workers is a much heavier lift.”

Political education is a part of the deal for many of the groups in this volume, from Make the Road to ROC, which makes racial and gender justice central to its campaigns. MinKwon, a Korean-American civil rights organization that does labor organizing, also works to educate and organize the broader Korean immigrant community around workers' rights, even pressing small business owners who are members to do better by their employees.

Organizing the community around the labor battle, it turns out, can be just as important as pushing within a specific workplace. This is important to many of the groups featured here, from MinKwon to NYCC to La Fuente. As Milkman points out, “With an immigrant population, there are often connections, very direct ones, between the community and the workplace, because of the social networks that immigrants rely on both to get housing and jobs.”

United New York represents an effort by a labor union—in this case, SEIU—to build an institution to support social movement organizing. Lynne Turner explores the decision by the union to put money into the “Fight for a Fair Economy”—a fight that took off more than anyone expected when Occupy Wall Street appeared in lower Manhattan soon after the founding of United New York as part of the national campaign. Camille Rivera, leader of United NY, pushed the group and other unions to help support the nascent movement.

Some of the more creative tactics in the repertoire of new labor groups are not new at all. Milkman points out, “Prior to the New Deal and the legislation that came along in the mid-1930s, precarious work was the norm too. It's not surprising that the pre-New Deal forms of labor organizing have some resonance today. Basically we've reverted back to that situation with the unraveling of the New Deal-based labor relations system.”

The Retail Action Project (RAP), launched in 2005 as an independent center with support from RWDSU and community organization Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), draws on some of that history to incorporate what historian Dorothy Sue Cobble has called “occupational unionism:” providing workers with skills training and organizing around an industry, rather than a particular workplace. It's a model that still exists today, within the building trades, though Peter Ikeler in this volume makes clear that RAP is far from being able to have enough power within the industry to control hiring and set wages. Still, Milkman notes, “There's a lot more interest in that model of unionism being revived than there was in the mid-20th century when it seemed like it was this relic of an earlier era—well, that earlier era is back.”

The Taxi Workers Alliance, as Mischa Gaus writes, has in many ways been the most successful of the groups in this book—not only was it affiliated with the AFL-CIO recently, but perhaps more importantly it has pulled off two strikes. Though the taxi workers are technically independent contractors, meaning they can't legally form a union, they are an integral part of New York City's transit infrastructure and as such are highly regulated by the city—which means that the Alliance has been able to insert itself into critical negotiations and win gains for the drivers.

Also important to the Taxi Workers' success has been their ability to mostly self-finance; unlike many other groups in this book, who are dependent on foundation grants or union money to keep the doors open, the Alliance gets some 80 percent of its budget from dues and other income from services to drivers. As foundations (and yes, unions too) can be fickle about their grant-making, self-funding ensures that the Alliance answers to its members first.

Self-funding has also helped the Freelancers' Union, in many ways an anomaly in this group of mostly low-wage worker organizations, survive. In their case, it's health insurance—freelancers can buy insurance from the Freelancers Insurance Company, and this money helps fund advocacy campaigns. The Freelancers do tend to be more affluent and educated than many of the other workers in this book, and more of them are freelance by choice, though that's not a characteristic solely of well-off workers.

Indeed, at the other end of the income spectrum, Kathleen Dunn's study of VAMOS Unidos, a street vendor labor organization, found that many of the vendors, mostly immigrant women who operate in a gray area between legal and illegal work (many of them don't have permits for the selling they do), also chose vending as a better option than other low-wage jobs because of the freedom it offered.

Milkman tells In These Times, “This is not in the book, but a lot of people are talking about basic income policies as a way of making this kind of work more tolerable. If you have some kind of basic economic security then it has many advantages for workers as well as employers.” The street vendors, for example, prefer vending because it allows them flexible hours, to bring their children along, and to meet other responsibilities, as well as to avoid disagreeable conditions in other jobs.

Still, it's not a good idea to over-romanticize precarity; this has repercussions for the people doing the organizing as well. It cannot be stressed enough that too many of these new labor organizations operate on a shoestring budget, relying on organizers who are also precarious workers in their way. Milkman says, “I don't think it's an accident that so many of them are led by women, because unlike the labor movement, which has a lot of resources despite its declining membership, most of these groups operate on a shoestring budget. So guess what? The leaders are women because that's who's willing to work for those minimal salaries.”

New Labor in New York raises many questions about the future of labor organizing, but it also provides many examples of concrete victories for workers long ignored by the conventional labor movement. Those victories are often small, but they are building; the organizations may be siloed, but they are aware that they are part of something bigger. Much more will be needed to really change the conditions of precarious work, yet there is much in this book that could be replicated elsewhere, even in cities vastly different than New York.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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