Food workers protest with ROC at Capital Grille in Midtown Manhattan. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/samgracelewis/ Sam Grace Lewis
Back to the future for US unions: “this is how we began”
Tony Burke has already blogged here about how the AFLCIO Convention next month in Los Angeles (bit different from Bournemouth!) will see radical new proposals to expand union membership to cover social movements like the civil rights NAACP and the environmentalist Sierra Club. But the US trade union movement is also expanding among more old-fashioned forms of worker organisations – although they’re so old, they actually look new.
They are known as Worker Centers, and they bring together some of the poorest, the most precarious and the least powerful workers to campaign, lobby and organise for better terms and conditions. They often deal with workers who aren’t in a formal employment relationship, or are formally self-employed or casual workers: taxi drivers, day laborers, domestic workers and the sort of fast food workers who are taking nationwide action on 29 August.
As Victor Narro reports:
“During the summer of 2006, a delegation from the AFL-CIO came to Los Angeles to meet with NDLON, which took them to the Agoura Hills day labor site, where the union officials watched the day laborers deciding whether to increase the minimum wage at the corner from $12 to $15. When eighty-five out of 100 day laborers raised their hands to increase the minimum, the AFL-CIO officials said, ‘That’s how the unions began!'”
These worker organisations are not traditional unions, but they are a response to the increasingly fragmented labour market, and it’s great to see US unions embracing them rather than demanding that they conform to the standard union model or seeing them as a threat. Of course, there are risks involved in these developments, and the Worker Center funding base (unlike unions which are mostly funded by subscriptions) suggests this can only be a temporary solution until what the US call the ‘middle class’ gets back on its feet as it did in the 50s and 60s.
But until then, the US labor movement consists not only of trade unions but also the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, National Guestworker Alliance, Food Chain Workers Alliance and National Taxi Workers Alliance