But Is It Organizing?

by Bob Roman

Union density, the percentage of workers who are a member of a union, has declined since about the middle of the 20th century from around 36% to something like 12% today. Unlike then, most of today’s members are in public sector unions. The slight increase in 2009 over 2008, 12.4% from 12.3%, represents something of a dead cat bounce, even in the context of the Great Recession. So when the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies (CCWCS) announced a panel discussion on “Getting Organized: New Strategies for Tough Times” that featured Kim Bobo (Executive Director, Interfaith Worker Justice), Jose Oliva (National Policy Coordinator of the Restaurant Opportunity Center), and Lou Weeks (Director of Organizing, UNITE HERE Local 1) — why, it was something of a must see. Held on Friday, December 10, at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery, the discussion took place amid a photo exhibition that narrated tales of despair and loss. How appropriate, but then, maybe not.

Jose Oliva’s Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) began as a direct consequence of the 9/11 crime. There are few union restaurants these days, but the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World was one of them. After it was destroyed, UNITE HERE helped the surviving employees find work at other restaurants, almost invariably non-union, at a major cut in income often accompanied by abuse. The ROC was organized to advocate for these workers. It has since spread to 7 cities and has enlisted some 6,000 members.

The ROC approaches delinquent employers with a combination of lawsuits for labor law, wages and hours violations and direct action. The latter is intended to pressure the employer through public embarrassment. The former is not simply a fallback in case direct action doesn’t work. This dual strategy often results in an invitation to negotiate. If the negotiations end in an agreement, it is a part of the settlement of the suit. With the agreement sanctioned by the court, the employer risks contempt charges if the agreement is violated. In this way, the workers win something resembling a union contract, but with potentially sharper teeth.

The third tine of the ROC’s pitchfork is the “Highroad Round Table.” This is a venue that enlists employers who see the value in a well-treated workforce. They help with lobbying for fairer laws and regulations. And they help providing training for prospective employees: one of the benefits of ROC membership.

Despite negotiated agreements, the ROC is not a union, but a “worker center.” These are non-profit organizations that provide a combination of service, advocacy, and if not organizing then at least mobilization in support of workers: typically low-wage, sometimes for a specific industry or community. Oliva felt that the centers most likely to prosper were what he termed sectoral centers, that is: centers that serve a particular industry (i.e., restaurants, domestics, agriculture).

Kim Bobo’s Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) has gone into worker centers in a big way, having organized some 27 of them across the country with several more due to come online. Unlike Oliva’s model, these tend to be generalist centers, even if a particular industry predominates in the area. Most are doing well, some are doing very well indeed, but some others not so much.

IWJ has made fighting wage theft a major priority. Bobo detailed wage theft this way:

  • not paid even minimum wage;
  • not paid legally mandated overtime;
  • not receiving a final paycheck;
  • plant closure without notice;
  • misclassifying employees as independent contractors;
  • not paying “prevailing wage;”
  • last and most lowdown: tip stealing.

IWJ’s involvement with these issues came about because of a major lack of law enforcement. This was spectacularly true of the Dubya administration with Elaine Chao as Secretary of Labor, but even the major increase in enforcement personnel in the Obama administration with Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor leaves the workplace the equivalent of the wild west. Worker centers, then, play a role analogous to community policing. They mobilize community pressure against lawbreakers and notify authorities about ongoing crimes.

UNITE HERE‘s Lou Weeks was included to answer: But is this really organizing? He declined to play that role. He basically recused himself for being too close to the other panelists.

Perhaps the only controversial thing Weeks said was that labor laws were no excuse for not organizing. One is tempted say, “Spoken like a true Director of Organizing!” Then one might point to the fact that every “right to work” state under the Taft-Hartley Act has a lower, often much lower, union density than the national average, but one: Nevada. Oh, yeah. That’s a UNITE HERE stronghold, isn’t it? Still, it’s an arguable assertion. If it were not, there wouldn’t be a need for workers centers, would there?

But is it really organizing? I expect the answer is both no and yes. To the extent that worker centers rescue (or attempt to rescue) workers from illegal, abusive situations without also establishing an ongoing relationship with the worker(s), such as membership, it’s not organizing. What you have is a legal clinic with picket signs. You might call it mobilization. Organizing, I think, demands that relationship. Because the ROC has a membership base, some of what they do may very well qualify as organizing.

This isn’t simply a matter of dogma. Another critique of workers center strategies is that the wellspring of workers’ power comes from collective action in the workplace. Some centers, such as the ROC, do attempt to intervene in the workplace through its negotiated lawsuit settlements. But enforcement is not up to the workers; it’s up to the courts. Nothing happens without the judge.

All the workers center strategies rely to some extent on the State. Old Sam Gompers made a dogma of it, so he’d be the first to tell you: the government is not necessarily your friend. For example, Kim Bobo complained about how the Department of Labor, even under Obama’s Hilda Solis, had not considered issuing “U” visas to victims of wage theft so they could remain in the States to testify at trial. Here’s the dirty little secret.  Dubya’s Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, was the one cabinet member to stay through Bush’s entire two terms. By all accounts, she approached her job intending to not just change policy but to institutionalize it in ways that would be difficult to undo. When she finally left office, she had hired two-thirds of the labor department’s career senior executives. As her assistant secretary Patrick Pizzella said: “Personnel is policy.” When Department of Labor staff reacted with bovine complacency when confronted with “U” visas, was it incomprehension or sabotage?

U.S. labor law wouldn’t be half so much an obstacle to organizing if it were not for an almost geological accumulation of court and NLRB decisions favoring the interests of employers.

Worker centers are a worthy project, but no substitute, I think, for a union.

Bob Roman is editor of Chicago DSA‘s New Ground. He shares that Cable subscribers in Chicago will be able to see the entire discussion, eventually, on CANTV. An audio recording will eventually be posted on the web by Chicago Amplified.

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3 Responses

  1. ROC and Worker Centers are welcome evidence of vitality in the progressive community. They will in the future effect organizing positively. But they are not a substitute for unions.
    The labor laws are terrible. They make organizing more difficult but as Weeks said ” labor laws [are] no excuse for not organizing” This is not just an organizng director cliche. it is true as UNITE HERE has demonstrated in New York Las Vegas San Francisco and LA among other places. UNITE HERE, SEIU and a few other unions have learned to bypass the NLRA through comprehensive campaigns and they are growing. UNITE HERE is not only growing but it has mobilized its membership.

  2. […] all, it seems to make the same mistake that I think Bob Roman also made, but perhaps Roman to a lesser extent: treating unions and union organizing as utterly […]

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