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The Future Of The Workers' Movement


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Non-unionized fast food workers walked off the job in Milwaukee last week, demanding, among other things, a raise to $15 an hour. Their actions follow those of workers in four other cities this spring, part of what some are calling the new face of the labor movement, that is collective action outside of traditional union membership.

Membership in private-sector labor unions has plummeted in recent decades to less than seven percent of workers, but in its place the number of alternative labor groups have exploded, and they're winning victories in a variety of sectors. But can they really fill the void left by big labor?

If you work in a non-unionized sector, how do you advocate for change? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The rise of alt labor, we're joined by Josh Eidelson, who used - he described - has coined the term alt labor. He covers labor as a contributing writer at The Nation, Salon and In These Times and joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

JOSH EIDELSON: Thank you for having me, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: And let's just note, full disclosure up top, you actually used to be a union organizer. Is that right?

EIDELSON: That's correct.

LUDDEN: And quit when?

EIDELSON: I left in 2011, after five years organizing in the hospitality industry. I left to become a journalist covering these issues.

LUDDEN: All right, so you're covering something you have known intimately. Set the scene for us. You've written unions are in a crisis. What's the lay of the landscape?

EIDELSON: That's right, we're at a point where union membership in the private sector is now well below seven percent, where just in the past couple years we've seen the birthplace of industrial private sector unionism, in Michigan, become a so-called right to work state. We've seen the birthplace of public sector unionism in the United States in Wisconsin pass massive restrictions on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.

We see vultures circling around the U.S. labor movement. Unions are increasingly marginal in our economy, as well as in our popular culture. The fastest growing industries are both low wage and overwhelmingly non-union industries, and...

LUDDEN: And is it true that some industries are actually barred from unionizing?

EIDELSON: Yes, we've seen a growth in the sectors of the economy where workers are legally excluded from the New Deal labor laws. So if you are a domestic worker, if you're a farm worker, if you're considered an independent contractor, a category which could be anyone potentially from a taxi driver to a fashion model, then even that promise on paper from the New Deal that if you and your co-workers want to bargain with the company you work with, the company has to bargain collectively with you, that promise doesn't apply to you even on paper.

Now other workers, workers in, for example, Wal-Mart stores or restaurants, have that legal set of collective bargaining rights on paper but have found that that promise is largely empty because of the ease with which companies can intimidate and retaliate against workers for organizing and the fact that even if you win a union election governed by the U.S. government, the labor laws that we have today do not meaningfully compel your boss to actually negotiate with you. And so that's...

LUDDEN: OK, so if you don't have a meaningful union representing you, what - how does this work when these groups that you've called alternative labor, alt labor, what do they do?

EIDELSON: So we've seen a rise from about five to a couple hundred alt labor groups over the past two decades. These are groups that are organizing and mobilizing workers outside of traditional collective bargaining. There's a pallet of tactics that they use, often overlapping, so for example bringing legal pressure or lawsuits against companies, training workers to go on strike or take action in the workplace, confront managers, mobilizing clergy or community activists, supporting consumer boycotts, endorsing high-road companies, encouraging certain companies and celebrating them for taking a different business model and trying to change the law whether at the local level or at the federal level.

These are tactics we've also seen embraced by many unions, as again unions find themselves grappling with a very weak, creaky, craven system of labor laws. But some of these alt labor groups really have led the way in the past couple decades in finding ways to have leverage against management in the absence of strong labor laws in the United States.

And these fast food strikes, while those strikes are organized by workers who are demanding unions and are demanding collective bargaining, those strikes also reflect some of the range of tactics we see from alt labor groups, and they're also significant because while they're significantly funded and supported by unions, much of the face-to-face organizing of those strikes is being done by people who are from community organizing groups or from alt labor organizations.

LUDDEN: And how does that face-to-face organizing work if you don't have a union meeting? I mean, do you approach people on the job, at their homes, at community meetings? How does that happen?

EIDELSON: So in these fast food campaigns, we've seen workers approached initially in the workplace, as well as at home. In one case, I talked for Salon to an organizer from a group who initially went door to door trying to talk about fare hikes with workers, and workers responded well, I don't want the fares to go up, what I really want to do something about is that I don't get paid enough for public transportation to be something I can afford even to get to work each day.

We see in these alt labor groups interesting models. For example you have domestic workers who are trying to organize, despite the fact that you only have one worker on the job, and they're living in their boss' home. They've had to make additional effort to find ways to bring workers together. They've done things like for the American Prospect I followed organizers as they went in the park and found nannies who were out in the park for the afternoon with the kids they were watching and surveyed them.

But in each of these sectors, we see workers concluding that they don't want to live in a situation where the boss has total control over their work at work, control over their lives outside of work, and workers do find ways to get together even though it comes at a significant risk.

LUDDEN: All right, let's bring another voice into the conversation here. Saru Jayaraman is the co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, an alternative labor organization that says it's dedicated to the needs of restaurant workers, and she joins us by phone from her office in Oakland, welcome.

SARU JAYARAMAN: Thank you, nice to be here.

LUDDEN: So your website says the restaurant industry has more than 10 million employees, fewer than one percent of whom are unionized. What does that mean for these workers?

JAYARAMAN: It means that basically you've got the largest and fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy, maybe the second largest, neck and neck with retail, that has the lowest wages with the least benefits. Literally it's been named by the Department of Labor as the employer of the occupations with the lowest wages and the least benefits.

And you've got an incredibly powerful industry lobby on the employers' side, the National Restaurant Association, which has been named the tenth most powerful lobbying group in Congress. And until we came on the scene, absolutely zero voice for restaurant workers on the workers side and so incredible imbalance of power that's resulted in such a huge an incredibly profitable industry paying literally the lowest wages of any industry in the United States.

LUDDEN: And so how do you pick which battles to fight there, and how do you get these employees engaged?

JAYARAMAN: Well, we have a three-pronged strategy that has involved really deep, serious research on the industry, understanding workers' wages and working conditions, understanding what their needs and priorities are based on at this point I think over 8,000 surveyed, the restaurant workers nationwide.

We've, you know, interviewed employers. So it's very deep research that's the basis for our worker-led policy work. We've organized campaigns, organized workers to stand up against employers who are engaged in really exploitative abuses, abusive practices. And we've organized and promoted employers who are doing the right thing, what we call high-road employers.

We have about 100 employer partners around the country. They range from celebrity chefs all the way down to small mom-and-pop restaurant owners. They've partnered with us to advocate for better wages and better working conditions in this industry. We've also actually opened our own worker-owned restaurants, cooperatively owned restaurants, and we train thousands of workers a year to move up the ladder to livable wage jobs.

So we do a combination of things that really is about engaging multiple stakeholders in the industry, workers, employers and consumers to surround the industry from multiple angles and counterbalance the voice of the National Restaurant Association for workers.

LUDDEN: Isn't this really hard, though, if people are so underpaid but obviously in need of money? That's the job they have and don't want to lose it.

JAYARAMAN: It's hard, but any organizing is hard, right? Any time you're asking people to stand up and to fight an existing condition, it's always difficult no matter what. I think right now there's a real hunger, as Josh was saying, there's a real hunger among these workers for change, and we've seen it. I mean, our organization is really gaining momentum and a lot of attention.

We've had, you know, thousands of workers write in to us from all over the country, come into our offices all over the country, and we've grown exponentially over the last decade as a result. We started in New York City with the 200 workers who lost their jobs at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, and we've grown into a national organization with over 10,000 restaurant worker members in 26 cities across the country with 100 employer partners and several thousand consumer members.

So we've grown very, very rapidly over the last 10 years, and it's been entirely due to worker demand. So where you might think that these workers are afraid to come forward, it's been workers coming to us from all over the country saying we need ROC that's led to the expansion of our organization so quickly.

LUDDEN: And can you give us a sense of a couple of successes that you've had in recent years?

JAYARAMAN: Yeah, we've won over 13 campaigns against, you know, exploitation in high-profile restaurants. One of the most recent campaigns was against exploitation and discrimination in Mario Batali restaurants, Mario Batali the celebrity chef. There, workers had approached us about discrimination and exploitation. We won over a million dollars...

LUDDEN: And we should say that he denied all that, but he then did work with you.

JAYARAMAN: He did work with us, yes, to his credit. In the end, workers were paid over a million dollars in misappropriated tips and wages. Real changes were made in the workplace. You know, an abusive chef was removed. There was a new promotions policy put into place. Workers got paid sick days. And he, yes, has agreed to partner with us to promote a different way of doing business, to become one of our high-road employer partners that are really showing that you can be a responsible employer and not just still make a profit but in fact make a profit because you treat your workers well.

So that was a real success. Another more recent success was the formation, actually, of an alternative national restaurant association called RAISE, Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards and Employment, where we brought employers from all over the country to Washington, D.C., to announce the formation of this new national restaurant association, together with the various congress members.

A huge victory for us over the last couple of years has been getting a bill introduced in Congress that finally would raise the wage for tipped workers, that's been stuck for 22 years at $2.13 an hour.

LUDDEN: All right, Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, thank you so very much.

JAYARAMAN: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And we're going to talk more in a moment with Josh Eidelman(ph) about alt labor. We'd like to hear from our listeners. How do you advocate for change if you're not in a unionized industry? 800-989-8255. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Jennifer Ludden. In a recent article for the American Prospect, Josh Eidelson describes how the view of alt labor groups has changed in recent years. Now those worker groups are considered part of the labor movement, and traditional unions, such as the AFL-CIO and SEIU, and they're collaborating with and helping to fund them.

Josh Eidelson is here with us today, and we'd like to hear from our listeners. How do you push for change in your organization if it's not unionized? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ana Avendano is assistant to the president and director of community action with AFL-CIO, and she joins us now from her office here in Washington, D.C., thank you so much.

ANA AVENDANO: Happy to be here.

LUDDEN: So you work with - you're in part of a traditional labor union, but part of your work is collaborating with these other groups. Is this something that you've come to embrace, or how does this relationship work?

AVENDANO: Well, the AFL-CIO has been working very closely with these groups called worker centers, which are essentially unions, but they don't operate in the workplace. They operate in community. And what I mean by unions is that they're about collective power for workers to improve their conditions at work.

As of 2006, the AFL-CIO has a formal policy that really invites these centers to join the AFL-CIO, and we now have 15 centers who are formally affiliated with the AFL-CIO and about three in the pipeline.

LUDDEN: I mean, is it fair to call this the new face of labor? If you aren't getting more union members, is this, you know, a better way to push for change?

AVENDANO: It's really an exciting way for workers to be able to exercise their collective power. Workers who are often disempowered by - because of their immigration status or other characteristics, we are seeing workers organizing with worker center and unions at the same time in Milwaukee, in Los Angeles.

So it really - there's this new energy, and it's worker centers, it's unions, it's other non-organized workers who are coming together to better their conditions at work.

LUDDEN: Josh Eidelson, you write about this phenomenon. What, though, are the limitations if there's not a formal union structure in place, you don't have dues coming in with every paycheck. What are the limitations here?

EIDELSON: Well, the greatest challenge facing these alt labor groups is the same as the challenge facing traditional unions in the United States. How do you get workers to stick together in the face of retaliation and retribution from management, and how do you compel companies to deal with you in good faith and to change rather than trying to hold out and crush you?

But specifically these alt labor groups face a funding challenge in that generally their income comes mostly from foundation grants rather than from dues. That affects the character of the organization. It creates additional challenges in terms of sustaining your work and in terms of being a member-driven organization.

They also face the challenge of even if you win, how do you (unintelligible) that gain? How do you maintain that gain when you can't put it into formal collective bargaining so that you're not refighting the same challenge over and over, the challenge of if you take your conditions from horrible to just mediocre, will your foundation funders, will your political supporters, will your customers stay with you as you fight to go from mediocre to actually good conditions?

They do face certain freedoms, though, that unions don't because our labor laws restrict what we think of as First Amendment rights in particular ways for unions because there's this restriction on so-called secondary picketing. For example, if you work for a company manufacturing a product, there are legal restrictions on your right to picket the company that sells the product or even the company that might really be deciding your work conditions if on paper you work for someone else.

So we've seen alt labor groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which works in the farms, in the fields in Florida, take advantage of those freedoms they have because they're not considered unions under the law.

LUDDEN: Ana Avendano, how about that, that you actually maybe expand your reach this way?

AVENDANO: It's, you know, it's really interesting because it doesn't have to be an either-or situation. I think the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is a perfect example of a worker center that is both a worker center and, for all purposes, it is a union because it is negotiating collectively for better conditions for taxi workers in New York.

The New York taxi workers started out as a worker center more than a decade ago when taxi workers in New York lost collective bargaining rights. Since then, they've become a worker center that morphed into an organizing committee of the AFL-CIO. So the taxi workers retained their own individual identity, they retained their membership base, but at the same time they're formally affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

And the taxi workers are bargaining not in a traditional sense, but they're bargaining for improving their conditions at work. Last summer they were able to negotiate a fare increase with the Taxi and Limousine Commission in New York, and that fare increase is going to result in a new health and welfare fund where taxi workers are going to have health care benefits.

Taxi workers are 85 percent funded by their own dues, and they've formed a really interesting dues structure. So they have a source of money that doesn't depend on philanthropy. They're bargaining, essentially collectively bargaining, to improve their conditions at work, and that's what a union is.

We're seeing similar kinds of experiments in Milwaukee and now in Los Angeles.

LUDDEN: Let's get a caller on the line in here. Van(ph) is in Mankato, Minnesota. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

VAN: Yes, hi, thank you. Yeah, I just am enjoying the conversation here and am involved with an organization that's a Campaign for Mass Party of Labor, the CMPL, and we advocate for breaking with the Democrats since they have seemed to abandon the labor movement, and we advocate for breaking with the Democrats and forming our own political party and running our own candidates, and that's...

LUDDEN: So this is beyond just an industry.

VAN: That's correct, that's correct, and it's - I'm an over-the-road truck driver, and most of us are not unionized. There are some that are, but (unintelligible), there's not that many. And this is - that's right. But it encompasses more than just the trucking industry.

LUDDEN: So you're frustrated there's no voice there with labor. Van, thank you very much for calling.

VAN: You bet, thank you.

LUDDEN: Josh Eidelson, what kind of workers are in this movement?

EIDELSON: So we see workers in alt labor from farm workers to fashion models. These groups in particular have sprung up in areas where workers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. So that includes anyone who's considered an independent contractor, a group that is ever growing right now; people who are domestic workers, a group that some expect to double over the coming years as the baby boomers retire.

It includes farm workers. We've also seen a tremendous growth in alt labor organizing among immigrant workers, and we've seen organizations that started out as immigrant rights groups that were fighting in various arenas of life come over time to put a special focus on organizing in the workplace. And so there are groups that trace their lineage to immigrant rights organizing as much as to labor organizing.

And so as we've seen a larger coming together between organized labor and immigrant rights groups, that's dovetailed with this coming together between the unions that the law recognizes and some of these other formations, where workers are trying to find ways to use collective power to have some counterbalance against management discretion.

LUDDEN: All right, I think we've got someone calling up about that kind of effort in the film industry, is that correct? Hi Casey(ph) in Salem, Arkansas.

CASEY: Yes, that's right. I - well I'm actually sort of recently retired from the film industry. I spent about, oh, 15 or 18 years doing visual effects for film. And it's probably surprising to most people that there is a group of creatives in Hollywood that is not unionized, but we are not, and were not. If you know - if you've ever noticed - if you've ever been dedicated enough to watch film credits, and you'll see all the film credits roll, the drivers and the caterers and the manicurists roll before us because they have a union, and they negotiate with the Directors Guild for the placement in those credits. So we're like the last thing you see before the Panaflex logo.

LUDDEN: So what have you done to try and get a little more leverage there?

CASEY: Well, I've always agitated for unions from the time I came out there. I was involved in forming one of the first unions or helping to form one of the first unions for what were then called technical artists when I was at Disney. There is one union I was in for about seven years that involved Disney and Warner studios and maybe one or two other places, and it's just - it's great because of that I now have this nice little booster for my retirement fund.

But I was involved in that, and now more recently there's a very interesting sort of new interest in unions because of the fiasco with the visual effects winner "The Life of Pi" which was the company called Rhythm and Hues that did those effects actually went bankrupt before they got the Oscar for visual effects, and there's a big movement now on Facebook. You may see lots of people with green blocks for their profile photos. It's - that green block is representative of the green screen, which you would see in an effects movie without the effects people.

LUDDEN: So those Oscar-winning effects people were not unionized. Is - and is that seen as part of the problem there?

CASEY: It's a big problem, yeah. It's a big problem.

LUDDEN: All right. Casey, thanks so much for calling.

CASEY: Sure.

LUDDEN: Ana Avendano, what do you see looking ahead? What is the future if you've got these formal, old traditional unions and then new groups popping up? How do you see things going forward?

AVENDANO: We see things going forward together. I mean we have - what we have here is this really vibrant young movement of worker centers and immigrant rights organizations, the groups that Josh described, really looking for a way to anchor themselves for an institution so that they can preserve the gains that they've made on the ground. And we have the traditional institution of labor trying to find new ways to revitalize, to gain more energy. And so, in essence, we're institutions in search of a movement.

And the two should come together are coming together, and they, you know, this marriage brings great, great hope for workers. We are about to legalize more than 11 million people, and I don't mean soon but fairly soon this year if comprehensive immigration reform passes. That is going to provide an enormous opportunity for workers who have been left out of being able to exercise their rights to really come together and organize. There's incredible potential here, the creativity, the energy of worker centers coming together with the experience and the institution of labor, I would say, is really unstoppable momentum.

LUDDEN: All right. Ana Avendano, assistant to the president and director of community action with AFL-CIO, thank you for joining us from your office here in D.C.

AVENDANO: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And let's get another phone call. Sandy(ph), in Toledo, Ohio, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Oops. I've cut you off. Hang on. There you are, Sandy. Go right ahead.

SANDY: I just wanted to call in and say that, you know, employees having knowledge is power. I was recently hired in a restaurant who tried to pay me $3.80 an hour for two weeks' worth of training where I received no tips. When I complained, they told me that this is what we pay. I explained to them that I was aware of labor laws and what's called the Department of Labor wage and hour board, and I had my pay by the end of the day.

LUDDEN: So if you had not said that, you'd be making a lot less.

SANDY: I would have been - be underpaid, exactly, not paid minimum wage for the work I had done.

LUDDEN: All right.

SANDY: So I informed everybody else in that restaurant so that when they went to other places that they would know their rights.

LUDDEN: So you're your own one person...


LUDDEN: ...this is not part of a larger group. You just spoke for yourself.

SANDY: No, but that's, you know, that's how it has to start, though. People being aware of what their rights are...

LUDDEN: All right.

SANDY: ...or being aware of the Department of Labor and what's available there for them as well.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much for calling, Sandy.

SANDY: Have a good day.

LUDDEN: You too. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Josh Eidelson, has there been any retaliation for - on the part - for any of the workers who are taking part in these new kinds of movements?

EIDELSON: So as I've written about it in The Nation and elsewhere, this is repeatedly a challenge for both workers organizing through unions and for workers organizing outside of unions. The same reasons that employers generally resist unionization lead them to resist other attempts by workers to have a say in what happens at work. So I wrote at the American Prospect about the challenges that rock the group that Saru was talking about has faced, for example, against Darden, this restaurant giant, where one of the key leaders in that campaign, one of the workers there alleged to me that management fired one of the key leaders from the campaign that management tried to fix a couple of problems to improve its image and at the same time intimidate and threaten people who have been involved.

And so whether you're in a union or not, on the one hand, there are federal rights under law for workers to act collectively, a right that the labor board recently found extends even to posting things on Facebook about job, collectively in some cases. But on the ground, the reality is very different. Research shows that when workers organize, there are rampant threats and retaliation in the United States. And one of the things that's striking about the strikes we've seen recently, these historic strikes against Wal-Mart and against the fast food industry, both unprecedented, is that they represent a potent way of resisting alleged retaliation.

At the same time that going on strike represents a real risk for workers and can invite retaliation, though it's often illegal, going on strike has proven a potent way to punish companies for allegedly retaliating against people, even the weakness of the law...

LUDDEN: Well - and because people start paying attention? Is that the idea that you can't do this quiet?

EIDELSON: Strikes have a singular power to engage and transform workers, to engage customers, to engage the media and to embarrass companies. And so even though we've seen this decades-long successful effort through the law to weaken strikes, to make it riskier to go on strike, to make strikes less economically effective against companies, we still see workers taking up strikes and doing it in ways that are carefully designed to minimize, though not eliminate the legal risk, and to maximize the attention and the opportunity to build a larger movement both within the workplace and outside of the workplace to punish these companies.

LUDDEN: But give us a sense, again, as we wrap up here, what concretely has been achieved? I mean, you know, have they won these workers the wages that they want and is there anything that is - it just making employers legal, or are they going above and beyond what the law requires?

EIDELSON: So in some cases, these groups, victories take the form of getting companies to comply with existing law. In other cases, by going after companies that are alleged to have gone below what's legal, they have been able to get companies to agree to something at least somewhat beyond what's legal. We've seen some dramatic victories: the taxi workers, which is worth noting, are one of the few alt labor groups that did go on strike, and an are alt labor group that in some ways has had the advantage of working in a heavily regulated industry where they can use the taxi and licensing commission of New York as a place to have de facto collective bargaining. Once they got that power through striking, they achieved some real victories in terms of health insurance, in terms of wages, in terms of preventing companies from gouging them.

We've seen domestic workers pass a statewide law in New York that provides them some of the benefits, some of the protections that were they not domestic workers they would have under federal law. We've seen guest workers faced with alleged forced labor in Louisiana, forced Wal-Mart to suspend the supplier that they say threatened to have their families beaten in Mexico. And so even in places where workers are particularly vulnerable, some workers have chosen to be particularly courageous.

LUDDEN: All right. Josh Eidelson writes about labor for The Nation, Salon and In These Times. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much.

EIDELSON: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up, despite the success of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, former computer programmer Ellen Ullman argues, in a New York Times op-ed, women today face what she calls a new more virile and virulent sexism. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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