By Kate Meakin
September 3 2020
Increasing numbers of people are unable to find steady or reliable work, face eviction, food insecurity and homelessness, and/or are seeking job-seekers allowance or universal credit. A strong case is being made by various outlets for universal basic income, working time reduction and a jobs guarantee, in the hope of addressing this employment precarity exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. Although there has been remarkably widespread recognition that things cannot go back to the way they were before the pandemic, a radical divergence from the DWP’s Jobcentre model has not yet been proposed. Jobcentre Plus has unsurprisingly been hit with record levels of claims during the pandemic. The recent television documentary Yorkshire Jobcentre depicts a fairly celebratory account of job centres, providing a human face to both claimants and staff members. However, despite these representations, Jobcentre Plus has become the embodiment of some of the state’s most punitive practices, with benefit claimants needing to provide endless proof of their applications for jobs before being eligible for financial support, or risk facing sanction. Alternative models are necessary to challenge the punitive treatment of those seeking employment support, bring workers together and find ways to reinvigorate the faltering labour movement. One example, from which there is much to learn, is the immigrant worker center.
Worker centers: supporting the local community
The worker center movement in the United States has grown exponentially since the early 1990s. In 1992, just five worker centers existed; by 2013, there were over two hundred (Apostolidis, 2019). Existing literature suggests that worker centers have grown in response to the deterioration of wages and working conditions that have resulted from de-unionisation, shifting immigration patterns and policies, and the growing informalisation of the workforce (Bernhardt et al. 2009). Worker centers fight at the intersection of extreme precarity and exploitation, uniquely positioned to help those in low-wage industries which are frequently dominated by people of colour, women and immigrants. Largely run by and for immigrant workers, worker centers are community-based and community-led organisations that provide what Janice Fine categorises as three areas of support: services, advocacy and organising (Fine, 2006). Services might include English as a Second Language classes, employment and training programmes, health referrals and legal assistance. Low-wage workers or prospective workers come to their local worker center hoping to challenge any number of limited employment opportunities, unsafe working conditions, wage theft, or occupational health and safety concerns. Unlike trade union organising, worker center support is sourced to those in a certain locality and is not job-site based. As a result, surveying the local community is a particularly important stage in the process of setting up a worker center, entailing that their focus – from the beginning – is catered to the specific needs of the community (Bobo and Pabellón, 2016). This radically departs from the one-size-fits-all approach – driven by individual employability – that drives services in UK job centres.
Worker centers: politicising workers and building capacity
Worker centers are often also far more radical than the government-funded job centre model allows. Worker centers follow the principles of popular education, inspired by the work of Paolo Freire. Freire, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), challenged the “banking” model of teaching in which students are encouraged to merely absorb what they are told, pioneering a liberatory education approach predicated on empowerment and critical thinking. Employment and political training classes are often pivotal to growing a burgeoning worker center; workers come to tackle a workplace issue, learn more about their rights and then get involved in political campaigning. Challenging the neoliberal responsibility framework found in most job centres, in which the claimant is often to blame for their lack of steady employment, worker centers focus many of their resources on organising towards transformative political change, recognising the broader picture affecting workplace concerns. The Garment Worker Center, for example, has been heavily involved in the fight for $15, ending wage theft and making LA sweatshop-free, alongside their support for LA garment workers.
In the face of increasingly restrictive and punitive policies against immigrant and low-wage workers, these organisations have actually expanded their advocacy work. Worker centers have been able to develop both informal resources and more formal relationships with philanthropic institutions and other social support structures, such as trade unions. In recent years, many trade unions and worker centers have affiliated, building strong collaborative relationships, especially when their respective roles are made clear. As low-wage service jobs, traditionally unsupported by unions, continue to increase and expand in the UK, rates of declining unionism could be strengthened by alternative forms of support for workers, especially if this is combined with coalition building. According to Cordero-Guzman, Izvanariu and Narro (2013: 107), worker centers have been able to craft a “coherent message around worker and immigrant rights” alongside “mobilizing and using various forms of media to communicate their message”. In many cases, this advocacy and communications work by worker centers has resulted in increased wages, receipt of back wages, and improved working conditions (Appelbaum and Cuevas, 2011).
Worker centers: providing communal spaces
Most importantly, the worker center provides a space for workers to share their struggles and difficulties with others, developing a sense of community and conviviality. Paul Apostolidis, in his recent study of two worker centers, found that “by candidly recognizing the constancy of suffering for most day laborers,” workers in worker centers were prompted to “offer one another convivial sustenance and mutualist assistance…through routine practices of reciprocity” leading to broader activist calls for migrant worker justice (Apostilidis, 2019: 188-189). It is this sense of community and confrontation with broader injustices that could be crucial to initiatives to re-conceptualise what a job centre could be in the UK. Instead of arriving for a job centre assessment appointment and leaving with no interaction with other workers, what if people were encouraged to socialise and build a sense of community? What if precarious workers were given the space to learn about their rights in the workplace as well as other broader social and economic justice issues? What if they were encouraged to recognise their commonalities and shared situations instead of seeing other prospective workers as their competitors?
The burgeoning worker center movement provides a range of services that support worker development and encourage workers to think for themselves, instead of treating them like drains on the system that need to prove they can be trusted. The opportunities afforded by the worker center model to build community, conviviality and empowerment offer vital lessons for those in the UK trying to envision what place-based tools for empowering workers and communities might look like.
Apostolidis, P., (2019) The Fight for Time: Migrant Day Laborers and the Politics of Precarity, New York: Oxford University Press.
Appelbaum, L. D. and Cuevas, L. S., (2011) ‘A New Sense of Power of the People: Fighting for Equity, Transparency, Accountability and Justice in the 21st Century Labor Market’ Los Angeles Black Worker Center, Research and Policy Brief, UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.
Bernhardt, A. et al. (2009) Broken laws, unprotected workers: Violations of employment and labor laws in American cities, New York, NY: National Employment Law Project.
Bobo, K., and Pabellón, M. C., (2016) The Worker Center Handbook: A Practical Guide to Starting and Building the New Labor Movement, New York: Cornell University Press.
Cordero-Guzman, H. R., Izvanariu, P. A. and Narro, V., (2013) ‘The Development of Sectoral Worker Center Networks’ ANNALS, AAPSS, 647, May.
Fine, J., (2006) Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, New York: Cornell University Press.
Freire, P., (1968) (2007) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, NY: Continuum Press.
Kate Meakin is a doctoral researcher studying Gender Studies at the University of Sussex. Their research considers the ways in which feminist utopian and dystopian fiction is used by UK-based activists. As part of her partnership with Autonomy, Kate will be researching worker centers, focusing on questions of demography, the services they provide and their role in the local economy.