is the union movement’s equivalent of a beat cop.
fast-talking woman from Puebla, Mexico, she’s spent two years walking the
99-cent stores, fruit stands and sneaker shops of Brooklyn’s
immigrant Knickerbocker Ave.
She made her rounds recently, hugging the woman selling tamales from a cart,
pointing to the car wash, which she says is usually staffed by underage kids,
and clucking that the combination laundromat-Post Office was robbed in the
middle of the day.
you are on the street all day, you know everything that happens," she
said, shivering in her down parka. "Everything."
Tapia is an
organizer for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Only two of the
roughly 170 stores on Knickerbocker are unionized, but organizing workers is
her secondary goal. Her immediate task is investigating working conditions,
injuries and wage and hour violations involving the stores’ shelf stockers, cashiers
of seven organizers working a neighborhood for the union. Their efforts, part
of a small but growing push by organized labor to battle for workers who may
never join a union, are as much social engineering as organizing.
membership has declined for 25 years in part because unions have "lost
connections to communities," said Jonathan Tasini, executive director of
the labor-funded Labor Research Association. Union halls, once the community
centers of the urban working class, the place to find a job, a card game or a
date, have all but disappeared.
way of thinking about how we connect to communities is thinking about doing so
at the street, block and neighborhood level, as opposed to just in the
workplace," said Tasini.
Knickerbocker, where half the stores were union in the 1950s, "harkens
back to the old days when labor unions were the centers of community
vibrance," he said.
union advocates say small-scale community efforts aren’t worth the effort;
after all, unions would have to organize hundreds of thousands of workers to
return to the membership numbers of the 1980s.
the current climate, the labor movement cannot afford to be extending resources
for one or two workers at a time," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor
studies professor at Cornell
unions around the country, often working in partnership with community groups,
are reaching out to nonunion workers.
national organization, the Partnership for Working Families, pairs union
research departments with community groups trying to win jobs for neighborhood
workers affected by urban redevelopment projects. California unions, working with clergy, have
pushed for better wages for the working poor. New York unions have assisted a campaign for
better pay for nonunion restaurant delivery men.
have had victories. Working with a community group in Brooklyn
called Make the Road,
the retail workers union has helped with civil cases and settlements resulting
in more than $600,000 in back wages for workers on Knickerbocker.
fastest-growing union in the country, the Service Employees International
Union, has grown by championing the rights of underpaid janitors, security
guards and hotel housekeepers. SEIU gained more than 200,000 members in two
years, growing to 1.9 million as it negotiated contracts that, in some cases,
doubled workers’ wages. One of the union’s biggest successes in 2007 was when
22,000 home care workers paid through Massachusetts’
Medicaid program voted to organize. In other recent organizing drives, more
than 8,000 home-based day-care workers in New York joined the American Federation of
Eichler, coordinator of the 100,000-worker retail union’s organizing project,
said most union efforts are about increasing membership and then fighting for a
contract for the members. The union’s work on Knickerbocker is instead about
identifying the union with a community.
a small group of folks fight for contracts," he said. "A much greater
group is highly exploited. We have to be seen as a participant with the needs
and desires of the entire work force. That leads to contract fights."
came to Knickerbocker after Make the Road began its back wages effort and a friend of Eichler’s
introduced him to the director of Make the Road.
got her start as an organizer seven years ago, after she led the union drive at
the garment factory where she worked because she felt the owners were treating
the elderly seamstresses poorly. She was assigned to Knickerbocker, which she
walks daily from Make the Road’s offices, asking every worker who will talk to her
about wages and injuries.
victories are small. Of the two union stores on the street, one, Duane Reade,
is part of a unionized chain. The union organized shoe store Footco, where some
workers had been making $4.75 an hour; they now earn at least $8 hourly, with
victories are larger: A 2005 settlement helped three workers win $70,000 in
back wages from Big Boss Discount Inc. Joel Flores, 50, one of the workers
involved in the settlement, said he had been making $300 for a 40-hour week
stocking shelves outside the store in all weather.
exploit us," he said. "They were paying so little money."
Flores is still working at the store, which is nonunion. With the
settlement, he said he built a house for his family in Mexico. Asked
if he would join a union if he could, he answered, "Of course."
the work is a calling. "My hope is that in the future, any person who
comes for work doesn’t have to think or worry about their salary. They know
they will be well paid. It’s a human thing to get days off, personal days, sick
days, benefits. It’s a right."