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Fighting the Big Apple’s Big Inequality Problem

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sarah jaffeNew 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 thehighest 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 bookRaising 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.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on April 29, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: 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.


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Workers and Their Unions Key to Economic Turnaround, Election Outcome

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Image: Mike HallMaryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren both say the best way to solve the nation’s economic crisis is to grow the middle class rather than allowing wealth to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Unions, they say, will play a vital role politically and economically in building a strong middle class.

O’Malley and Warren spoke on a conference call with reporters Friday to counter recent attacks by Republican lawmakers on workers and their unions.

O’Malley pointed to Maryland’s top 10 ranking in job creation, its AAA bond rating and the fact it has the highest median income in the nation to show that economic prosperity is “achieved by a partnership with unions, not by scapegoating labor.”

We don’t see unions as an impediment to growth but organized labor helps us grow and maintain balance, invest in skills of the workforce and ensure people receive a decent wage for a decent day’s work.

From the post-war era through 1973, when one in three working people had a voice on the job, said Warren, the nation had the smallest economic gap ever between the rich and the poor, because of the growing middle class with good union jobs.

But as efforts were made to weaken unions and attempts to modernize and strengthen the nation’s labor laws were blocked, the middle class began to shrink, said Warren.

There are consequences to declining union strength and now we have the highest levels of economic injustice ever. Our economy has moved to an hourglass model with jobs at the top end and bottom end, but with the middle hollowed out.

When working people have a “strong collective voice,” said Warren, “we get a stable and strong economy with continued economic growth. Unions still remain the best tool and best route for workers to improve their lives.”

In the face of growing efforts to silence workers and their unions and the explosion of corporate cash and 1%ers’ campaign donations, Warren said:

Unions can challenge the money and power that threatens our democracy’s legitimacy….With union households accounting for about 25 percent of the electorate, union votes will be a major factor and, in battleground states, a decisive factor.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on June 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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Goal of True Equality Still Challenges Us All

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Arlene Holt BakerForty-nine years ago, on June 23, 1963, tens of thousands of people gathered here in Detroit, only weeks before hundreds of thousands went to Washington to march for jobs and freedom.

In the Detroit speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sowed the seeds of his more widely known speech at our nation’s capital. He described his famous vision of a day when the white sons of former slave owners and the black sons of those who had been enslaved would live together as brothers, judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters.

Yet we know King’s dream was not merely a dream about friendship, not some story about two unlikely friends communing across a great economic divide. His dream was about true equality—economic, political and social justice.

And he knew that a chief tool for freedom and progress for all people was collective action—whether in the voting booth, in the workplace organized as a labor union or in the shared spaces of this country as nonviolent civil disobedience. It could be at a lunch counter in Alabama or in a park near Wall Street.

In the decades since King was taken from us, our nation may have made enormous strides in the direction of racial justice, but the tragedy of our time is that economic inequality has increased dramatically over the past half-century. All but the richest Americans have suffered. Nearly 100 million Americans live in poverty, almost one-third of us.

Indeed, since 1997, American families have suffered the first mass decline since the Great Depression. But it’s not equal opportunity damage. Over the past 30 years, the median wealth for African-American households fell by two-thirds, and nearly half of black children live in poverty. The black unemployment rate last month was nearly 17%, almost twice the national average.

Yet, as in King’s era, we live in a time of tremendous opportunity for change. In 2011, millions of Americans saw and experienced the strength that comes from collective action as people came together in protest in such places as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, New York City and here in Detroit.

Read the full op-ed in the Detroit Free Press here.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now blog on January 16, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Arlene Holt Baker’s experience as a union and grassroots organizer spans more than 30 years. On Sept. 21, 2007, she was approved unanimously as executive vice president by the AFL-CIO Executive Council, becoming the first African American to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices and the highest-ranking African American woman in the union movement. In this position, Holt Baker builds on her legacy of inspiring activism and reaching out to diverse communities to support the needs and aspirations of working people.


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Creating Jobs the First Step to Ending Inequality in America

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adele_stan_140x140In Washington, D.C., as in dozens of other U.S. cities, the 99 percent movement is inescapable, even in the politest of venues, as demonstrated today at a forum titled “Jobs, Inequality, and the Role of  Government,” sponsored at the Georgetown Law School. The movement’s  chant, “We are the 99 percent,” is meant to draw the distinction between the average American and the top 1 percent who possess 42 percent of the nation’s  wealth.

Sponsored by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the forum brought together economists and academics with representatives of labor, the financial community and the Obama administration. The 99 percent movement, as represented by young people working with Occupy D.C. and the October 2011 protests, made its presence felt in  the question-and-answer session that followed opening remarks by  CWA President Larry Cohen, Goldman Sachs Senior Investment Strategist Abby Joseph, Cohen and Jason Furman, White House adviser and deputy director of the National Economic Council.

Cohen presented a series of slides that told a grim tale of the economic fate of the average American who, according to a analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has suffered virtually stagnant wages
while generating a nearly 200-percent growth in productivity. Cohen’s final chart suggested a major reason for the productivity/compensation disparity: compared with other major democracies, the U.S. lags far behind in collective bargaining coverage. Indeed, in a chart showing 10 major democracies – Germany,  Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. — the U.S. ranked dead last.

As the representative of  Goldman Sachs, which has become the poster child for corporate greed on both
the left and the right, Abby Joseph Cohen faced a polite, if skeptical, room.  Nonetheless, she made a
strong case for government investment in education, as well as research and development, and suggested that politicians design some new scheme for enticing corporations to bring back to the U.S. the $1.2 trillion in profits they’re holding overseas. She did concede, however, that the last time this was tried, via a tax holiday,  “it didn’t work out very well.”

The Goldman Sachs strategist expressed special concern for the drop in enrollment in science majors by U.S. college students, and suggested that the government had a role in preparing students  to enter those fields, which field the creation of jobs in manufacturing as  well as the service sectors.

As Jason Furman, one of the president’s economic advisers spoke, the Senate, he said, was scheduled to take up a vote  on the jobs bill proposed by President Barack Obama. The administration, he  said, was “hopeful” that the bill would pass, even as the consensus among political pulse-takers was that the bill would likely not make it out of the Senate.

If you want to do something about inequality, the first thing you want to something about is jobs.

Inequality is a pernicious ill, Furman implied, as it becomes a drag on economic growth and depresses participatory democracy. Even Alan Greenspan, he said, concedes that democratic capitalism is imperiled by
inequality.

Furman suggested that although there are aspects of inequality that cannot be addressed immediately, there are others that can.  Among those things that government should address, he said, were the decline in unionization, allowing the expiration of tax cuts for the wealthy,and implementing the “Buffett rule” — that no one make $1 million or more should pay a lower tax rate than middle-class Americans.

Then came the audience’s turn. Sam Marrero, a young man who identified himself only as the winner of a Boren Fellowship, expressed surprise that no one on the panel had mentioned the Occupy Wall Street
movement, which is part of the 99 percent movement and is present in its Occupy K Street (or Occupy D.C.) at an encampment in McPherson Square Park, just blocks from the White House.
Marrero asked for the comments of Goldman Sachs’ Abby Joseph Cohen, who said all  she knew of
the movement was what she read in the newspapers, and suggested he speak with movement organizers.
Sam was followed at the mic by Allison Johnson, who counts herself as part of the Occupy D.C. movement and works directly with the anti-war October2011 protest, who asked how change could take place with the
Senate hopelessly deadlocked via rules that allow a minority to stop legislation in its tracks.

Cohen didn’t hesitate to take up the challenges issued by the 99-percenters. “It almost takes a new democracy movement” to rectify inequality, he said, adding that  his union is working with members of the Occupy Wall Street  movement.

After the session, Larry Cohen explained why he thought a mass ”new democracy” political movement, as represented by the 99-percenters, was critical to solving the inequality puzzle.

There’s almost no other direction for people to move in. I think we’re blocked [from enacting] any kind of federal legislation, with campaign finance, Senate rules and voter suppression. There’s almost no other direction for people to move in, you know?

He showed me a chart that was distributed  at the most recent CWA board meeting that called for a mass movement of 50 million Americans — enough to represent a majority of the electorate.

That’s what it’sgoing to take.

Both Marrero, whose Boren Fellowship took him to Egypt to study the labor movement there, and Allison
Johnson, who described herself as a Harvard-trained international political economist, are unemployed. Said Johnson:

There are unemployed Ivy League graduates all over this country, as well as unemployed working people. If you don’t have a job, it doesn’t matter that you went to Harvard University or Yale University or you didn’t finish high school…We’re all in the same boat.

This blog post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on October 11, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Adele Stan is a journalist and lifelong member of the labor movement, reports on a timely forum on inequality and jobs at Georgetown University today.


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