Worker centers help low-income workers unite

Low-income workers often are immigrants, experts say
Protesters picket at Palermo's Pizza in Milwaukee, Wis.MCT

In Los Angeles, the CLEAN Carwash Campaign last year won a union contract, the first of its kind, for the largely Latino workers at Bonus Car Wash.

In Boston, taxi drivers who were mostly Haitian formed an association to get help in dealing with a variety of workplace issues, such as rate increases, licensing fees and hours.

And in Milwaukee, a 5-month-old strike was started by workers at Palermo's, a frozen pizza manufacturer where efforts to form a union have clashed with immigration enforcement and drawn national attention along with a boycott campaign. The workers received organizational support from Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant and worker rights center.

While the three efforts differ, they are all part of the worker center movement, a relatively new and growing model for organizing, advocating and giving voice to low-income workers who often are immigrants.

Five worker centers existed nationally in 1992, said Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, who has written the book "Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream." Today there are an estimated 214 centers, she said during a telephone interview.

The worker centers often, but not always, collaborate with unions, such as the carwash workers who teamed up with the United Steelworkers and the Palermo's workers who got help from Voces.

But not all worker centers are the same. "I see them as a social movement with lots of expressions," Fine said.

Some are very large nonprofits that may have an organizing arm, while others work on public policy issues such as language access in the courts, hospitals and schools.

Fine believes many factors led to the rise of the workers centers.

"There was the uptick in undocumented immigration and the rise of immigration in general between 1990 and 2000, along with the decline in unionization," she said. "It got harder for unions to organize."

But workers started experiencing issues such as problems getting paid, health and safety, racism and ethnic harassment, she said. Companies also restructured, adding subcontractors and independent contractors outside of the firm's workforce, which presented more uncertainties in the workplace.

The earliest worker centers developed along the Mexican border around El Paso, Texas, among female factory workers on both sides of the border in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Fine said.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz started Voces in 2001 while she was coordinator of a GED program for migrants at Milwaukee Area Technical College. In 2006, she moved to Voces full time to develop the center.

One of its biggest efforts has been organizing some of the state's largest marches for comprehensive immigration reform. The organization offers citizenship classes and runs voter registration drives. "Worker centers are absolutely the new wave of organizing workers that developed organically by and for low-wage workers and immigrants," Neumann-Ortiz said. "We're the watchdog who lets them know their rights."

In 2011, Voces filed a complaint with the NLRB against Esperanza Unida on behalf of two workers who said they were fired in retaliation for complaining to Voces about not getting paid by the job training agency. A settlement resulted in which the two workers received 100 percent back pay.


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