Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

Sarah Jaffe April 29, 2014

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 for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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