Workers Centers and Unions

Last August, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), a network of over 140 worker centers that organize mostly immigrant day laborers, entered into an agreement that would allow worker centers to apply for membership with local and state federations of the AFL-CIO. The agreement could signal a new chapter in the way organized labor relates to low-wage and immigrant workers.

Over the past several years, unions have debated how to organize immigrant workers and create coalitions with worker centers that have strong ties to immigrant worker communities. However, the AFL-CIO/NDLON partnership marks the first step towards including either worker centers or day laborers in a systematic way.

Long before the AFL-CIO began talks with NDLON, community and labor organizations like Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) were forging alliances with organized labor. In a section of Los Angeles called Koreatown, KIWA has been fighting for living wage standards for grocery workers at six major supermarkets. The groceries are typical of the jobsites that worker centers and community organizations target-smaller, often locally owned companies that don’t offer union benefits or wages.

Building trades unions recently joined KIWA’s campaign to get grocer California Market to offer a living wage. California Market’s plan to open in a new strip mall allowed construction unions and Koreatown community organizers to work together.

In addition to supporting KIWA’s living wage campaign, building trades unions are demanding prevailing wages for construction workers working on the new strip mall.

Mike Sherritt, an organizer with Los Angeles-area Ironworkers Local 416, says, “It makes a good marriage working with KIWA because they’re a community organization that really knows the area and has a base. We’re too spread out. When I began working with contractors in Koreatown, I realized I need help here.”

KIWA organizer Vy Nguyen agrees that the partnership has benefited both KIWA and the building trades unions. Says Nguyen, “We organize our members and have grassroots power; [the building trades unions] add a level of political clout and influence that we don’t necessarily have when we meet with city council members or at hearings.”

Sherritt says that the model of the Ironworkers building a relationship with KIWA would work elsewhere, adding, “It’s a problem of limited resources. We have to share all the knowledge and resources we can in an area to affect change.”

Across the country, New York City taxi drivers are fighting for union power. New York’s taxi drivers are unable to bargain collectively because they are considered independent contractors, but this winter the 7,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) could become the first non-traditional union to officially affiliate with organized labor when they join the New York Central Labor Council.

NYTWA Director Bhairavi Desai says that the partnership with the New York CLC will add political clout to their organizing. Desai says, “We’re not isolated anymore. Next time we protest it won’t just be our leaders and members-it will be New York labor leaders too.

Desai notes that CLC membership will also give NYTWA members access to organized labor’s resources, such as classes and trainings. The benefits for New York unions, says Desai, are also clear: “There are 40,000 taxi drivers in New York, and that’s 40,000 working families that have joined the labor movement.”

In Southern California, organizations like the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) that work with day laborers are hoping to forge similar local agreements, possibly with central labor councils or state federations.

IDEPSCA Executive Director Raul Arnove believes that cooperation between unions and workers centers will move them closer on the contentious issue of immigration reform. When NDLON and the AFL-CIO began talking, says Arnove, NDLON folks “were clear that we needed political help to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes day laborers. Unions understand now that it’s not fair that we’re excluded from the discussion.”

Getting worker centers and organized labor talking has not been easy. Due to cultural and political differences, any collaboration involves overcoming difficult challenges.

Day laborers and immigrant workers are sometimes regarded as problems for organized labor, or worse, as scabs. Day laborer organizer Nelson Motto says IDEPSCA fights this image by supporting union struggles, including joining recent hotel and grocery worker pickets.

Motto says, “We’ve been able to change the mentality that day laborers are scabs. The fact that we get paid lower than union workers is not because we want to. Employers are in control of the wages that they pay day laborers.”

Unions and workers centers also come into conflict over jurisdiction. Nguyen admits that KIWA has had turf battles with unions, but says that things are changing.

In the past, KIWA tried to organize independent unions in Koreatown grocery stores. Nguyen says that KIWA changed its focus “to industry-wide living wage campaigns in part to help raise the floor of the low-wage, non-union employers that are undercutting union supermarkets.” This also helped them avoid conflict with grocery unions.

Yet another challenge is the perception immigrant workers have of organized labor. Worker centers report that many of their members have had negative experiences with unions-from racist or anti-immigrant unions in the United States to corrupt, dysfunctional unions in immigrant workers’ home countries.

To combat these negative associations, worker centers educate their members about the U.S. labor movement.

In New York, many taxi drivers were cautious about joining the Central Labor Council because they feared they’d lose their autonomy and independence. Desai says, “We waited eight years to join the CLC. It was important to us make sure we went in as equals.”

For the taxi drivers, knowing that NYTWA already functions as a union helps edge out concerns. Says Desai, “It’s backwards that the labor movement lets the NLRB decide what a union is. You have to build what you think is best capable of fighting the power of the bosses, and we’re doing that.”

TIFFANY TEN EYCK joined the staff of Labor Notes in 2005 after working in Immokalee, Florida with the Student/Farmworker Alliance on its successful Taco Bell Boycott campaign. She covers the auto workers, building trades, immigrant workers, farmworkers, and workers centers.