By Kate Meakin
September 28 2020
Worker centers are community-based, community-led and community focused organisations that support the expanding workforce of low-wage, contingent workers largely made up of immigrants, people of colour and women. Despite their size, limited resources and low number of staff, worker centers have been able to wield exceptional power in making changes to the US landscape of worker rights on an individual, workplace and sectoral level. The reasons behind their successes have been the focus of much debate, especially in the face of declining union density and a lack of labour market protections, making it much harder to hold employers to account.
One aspect of worker center success can be found in their encouragement of sharing personal stories and integrating these into their popular education workshops and political campaigning. Focusing specifically on the workplace justice campaign and the use of public dramas, low-wage immigrant workers discussing and sharing their personal experiences have been central to attempts to build worker power. Even when these political campaigns lead to limited practical changes on an individual or systemic level, the publication of these stories can constitute a form of discursive victory by shaping and influencing the conversation on worker’s rights. Worker centers play a vital role in raising awareness of deteriorating wages and conditions, and place these concerns within a broader social justice frame.
Grounding the workplace justice campaign in personal experiences
Janice Fine identifies the first part of any worker center organizing and advocacy campaign tends to focus on building a movement of low-wage workers (Fine, 2006: 100). This movement building, however, frequently begins on an individual level before the expansion to fight for necessary systemic change. Community organizing in worker centers often engage in consciousness raising, leadership development and other individual interventions as part of their collective change work. Workers accessing worker centers are often the most vulnerable and marginalised in terms of both the work they are doing and their status as undocumented/non-white groups. In sharing their experiences of precarity, a deep sense of solidarity with those around them is often produced, based on a recognition of their shared suffering. Workers found that they could share their problems with others in the worker center and that any problems “got lighter…when you pour your heart out” (Apostolidis, 2018: 202). Despite a culture that expects workers to compete with others for the scarce job opportunities available, Apostolidis found that workers in worker centers gradually forged a “spirited, caring, and increasingly politicized collectivity from within and from out of the dire situation of precarity” (Apostolidis, 2018: 212). One of the most notable examples of building power based on collective experiences of precarity can be found in workplace justice campaigns.
Arise Chicago Worker Center, originally founded in 2002 as a programme of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, developed their workplace justice campaign as an intervention strategy that applies community organising principles to individual cases of workplace abuse. The workplace justice campaign combines popular education and direct action to achieve redress for workplace abuse. It also focuses on consciousness-raising, building an active member base, developing strong worker-leaders, and laying the groundwork for campaigns to achieve what the Arise Chicago worker center calls “systemic change” (Lesniewski, 2013: 4). The workplace justice campaign is a process that begins with a workers’ rights workshop in which workers share their experiences and learn about their rights in the workplace. Through the process of popular education, participants are invited to share their personal experiences and think critically and collectively about the problems they are facing. The workplace justice campaign therefore lays the groundwork for any plan to take direct action. Although usually based on individual cases of wage theft, the intervention of a workplace justice campaign can be important for achieving social change, social justice, or power for low-wage workers, operationalized by Jacob Lesniewski as “collective benefits” (Lesniewski, 2013: 8-9). Following these workshops, the next stage of any workplace justice campaign relies on gaining broad public support through direct action and engagement with the media.
Media campaigns: public dramas and discursive victories
The second aspect that is integral to any advocacy and organising work, according to Fine, is the publication of issues that low wage workers face to the larger public. This is frequently framed in terms that will win them over: locating the issues within a human rights, anti-sweatshop or social justice framework that is difficult to refute: “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” (Fine, 2006: 100-101). Successful worker center campaigns typically produce compelling narratives that centre the stories and voices of low-wage workers themselves and frame claims in the moral language of social justice (Milkman, Bloom and Narro, 2010). As Fine suggests, dramatic personal stories of hard-working low-wage immigrants help to illustrate the problem and evoke public empathy with their plight (Fine, 2006: 181). These campaigns often consist of revealing particular aspects of poor working conditions or wage theft in the hope that they will gain public sympathy. Bobo and Pabellon describe how the issue that generated people’s outrage during a campaign by Arise Chicago to support laundry workers was when people described that, in hot and sweaty working conditions, they were denied drinking water (Bobo and Pabellon, 2016: 58).
These personal narratives are frequently used to stage “public dramas” to attract media attention. Jennifer Jihye Chun writes of four examples of “public dramas” created by janitors in both the US and South Korea contexts following threats of outsourcing and/or refusal to adhere to living wage ordinances. By publicising particular mistreatment and the lowering or stagnating of wages in a way that creates a dramatic narrative, the crisis is presented to reveal the “true state of affairs” in the center of public life where it “cannot be ignored or wished away” (Turner, 1974: 38-39). Not only is the true state of affairs exposed but demands are made that produce a resolution for the workers – and for the audience. It is in the process of crisis creation and resolution that mundane labor disputes on wages and working conditions are transformed into violations of the norms of society. For USC and Harvard, the university institutions that were targeted by these campaigns, public dramas on campuses were able to condemn the “hypocrisy of wealthy universities that exacerbated the poverty of workers in their own backyards” leading to victories in protections of worker’s rights and pay (Chun, 2005: 499). These public dramas, for Chun, create associational power in which workers transform themselves from a state of “invisibility and marginality to one of explicit recognition as a collective social group” (Chun, 2005: 490). By telling their stories in the public square, workers have been able to attract the empathy of elected officials and the general public, exercising their moral power (Fine, 2015).
Thus, even when demands go unmet or structural issues remain unchanged by individual successes, publicising worker injustices by those directly affected can constitute moral and discursive victories that have sustained effects beyond their enactment. This is the comparative advantage of small-scale organizations with very limited resources, for “the existence of an injustice can be communicated by even a handful of people” (Jenkins, 2002: 64). Sharing these narratives, as Lesniewski (2013: 8) suggests, are vital for any larger-scale confrontation with economic and political powers because they function as “raw materials” for the construction of social movements. Ultimately, by focusing on consciousness-raising, solidarity and the publication of immigrant worker narratives that can gain public sympathy, worker centers are shaping the conversation on worker rights and initiating discursive shifts towards broader worker justice.
Apostolidis, P., (2018) The Fight for Time: Migrant Day Laborers and the Politics of Precarity, New York: Oxford University Press.
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.
Chun, J. J., (2005) ‘Public Dramas and the Politics of Justice: Comparison of Janitors’ Union Struggles in South Korea and the United States’ Work and Occupations, Vol. 32 No. 4, November, pp. 486-503.
Fine, J., (2006) Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, New York: Cornell University Press.
Fine, J., (2011) ‘New Forms to Settle Old Scores: Updating the Worker Centre Story in the United States,’ in Departement des Relations Industrielles, Universite Laval, 66-.4, pp 604-630.
Fine, J., (2015) ‘Alternative Labour Protection Movements in the United States: Reshaping Industrial Relations?’ International Labour Review, Vol. 154, No. 1, pp 15-26.
Jenkins, S., (2002) ‘Organizing, Advocacy, and Member Power: A Critical Reflection’ Journal of Labour and Society, Vol 6, No 2, pp. 56-89.
Lesniewski, J., (2013) ‘Constant contestation: Dilemmas of organizing, advocacy, and individual interventions at a worker center’ Ann Arbor, MI: Pro Quest/UMI Dissertations Publishing.
Milkman, R,, Bloom, J., and Narro, V., (eds.) (2010) Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy, Ithaca and London: ILR Press, Cornell University Press.
Turner, V., (1974) Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University 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 is researching worker centers, focusing on questions of demography, the services they provide and their role in the local economy.