Netroots Nation: Why Alt-Labor is Important

by Jackie Tortora

Netroots-Nation-Why-Alt-Labor-is-Important_mediumIt’s hard to argue with fairness. Pointing out the injustices for dancers in the music video industry is exactly how choreographer and chair of the Dancers’ Alliance Galen Hooks found momentum around gaining basic workplace safety and benefits. Something as simple as a water break during an eight-hour video shoot (sometimes in the desert) and access to chairs were workplace safety and health basics  dancers simply did not have. But that all changed when the power of collective action spread across the dancer community, which often was hard to organize because of the nature of the business: multiple employers, different jobs every day and competition from fellow dancers who’ll take any job (even if it’s unpaid).

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// ]]>Hooks spoke on a panel yesterday at the Netroots Nation 2013 conference in San Jose, Calif., where speakers talked about “Alt-Labor,” a term coined by writer Josh Eidelson in an American Prospect piece earlier this year. Workers are starting to organize outside of traditional unions in worker centers and other community organizations. While the Dancers’ Alliance now has the benefit of support from SAG-AFTRA, the group existed for 20 years before it was able to gain a meaningful collective bargaining agreement for its members with the record companies.

With the rapid rise of worker centers and alternate ways to gain a voice on the job, a traditional union is no longer the only way to organize and bargain for paid sick leave, a raise and other workplace rights. Just look at the Walmart strikers and restaurant workers speaking out about the need for paid sick leave. Worker centers representing domestic and food service workers and groups like the Dancers’ Alliance and Working America, the AFL-CIO’s community affiliate, are expanding the definition of what it means to be part of the labor movement.

Digital organizer and co-founder of Coworker.org Jess Kutch moderated the Alt-Labor discussion. Organizing Director David Wehde of Working America, Jennifer Angarita, who runs the AFL-CIO National Worker Center Partnership program and Gregory Cendana, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement, were also on the panel.

More and more online organizing tools are making it easier for workers without a union on the job to make change at their workplaces. Wehde talked about Working America’s new website, FixMyJob.com, which functions like “WebMD” for diagnosing and finding solutions for common workplace problems. Kutch discussed the current Capital Bikeshare campaign in which workers were able to put together a petition online demanding backpay and getting the benefits they deserve. Hooks and the Dancers’ Alliance embarked on a large-scale social media campaign with YouTube videos highlighting dancers’ voices and flash mobs to get the attention of the record labels. Now, the music video dancers have health care and retirement benefits because of their successful campaign to gain a fair contract.

The importance of worker centers for immigrant communities and low-wage workers was another theme of the discussion. Angarita discussed the innovative partnership between the Workers Defense Project and the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, where largely immigrant workers and the local building trades are working together to make Texas a safer state for construction workers.

Hooks and Cendana highlighted the importance of talking with people “where they live” and knowing your audience. For many years, Hooks said Dancers’ Alliance meetings were poorly attended and considered “uncool.” That changed when Alliance members started to meet with dancers at clubs, parties or happy hours, making organizing fun instead of a weekly obligatory meeting. They also started selling Alliance tank tops.  Cendana uses the acronym ACT, meaning, workers can organize more effectively when they incorporate the arts, culture and technology to bring people together.

When asked if the worker centers are getting the attention of employers, Angarita pointed to the example of the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) and its opposition to the workers involved with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). ROC’s campaigns around paid sick days and raising the minimum wage for tipped workers is gaining such a buzz, the NRA started a new website to try to “expose” ROC.

The energy and excitement around worker centers and organizing in nontraditional workplaces was palpable in the room. Hooks said in her closing remarks that
coming to the panel was an eye-opening experience for her.

Hooks wrote in a tweet:

Wow.  Spoke at Netroots Nation about how @dancersalliance won the music video campaign.  A conference of activists from across the nation who are actual fans of the campaign and are looking to us as a model as they organize everything from immigration reform to construction workers.  It was truly enlightening and inspiring to engage with people who are fighting every day for what they believe in.

A video of the panel will be available on Free Speech TV.

Jackie Tortora is editor for the AFL-CIO Now blog, where this post first appeared.

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