Skip to content
Know Your Rights
Source: Crain's New York Business
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

The New Face of Labor

Late last month, as Gov. David Paterson signed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law at a Harlem community center, Barbara Young, a nanny for 17 years, could barely contain her glee.

“After so many years and so many people depending on us, we are now recognized as part of the work force,” the 62-year-old Barbados native recalls thinking.

The signing marked the climax of a six-year campaign by Domestic Workers United to gain long-denied rights for nannies and housekeepers. But the 200,000 workers who stand to gain from the new law are not the only group whose prospects look brighter. Organizations that represent workers ranging from busboys to freelance writers are increasing their clout, winning rights for low-wage, immigrant and contingent workers who had for years fallen outside the scope of mainstream labor and its collective bargaining agreements.

The groups, often referred to as worker centers, typically represent workers in industries not covered under existing labor laws or that are difficult to organize due to workers’ immigration status. They initially focused on workers who had their wages skimmed or who did not receive minimum wage. But recently, they’ve become more sophisticated, forming strategic partnerships with unions and the state Department of Labor, establishing health and benefits programs, flexing political muscle and championing legislation that bolsters workers’ rights. Meanwhile, they’re forcing established unions to embrace them and prodding employers to engage them.

Employers Paying Attention

With private-sector unions on the decline, representing just 16% of workers in New York City, many experts believe worker centers will play a pivotal role in the future of the labor movement. Across the state, at least 26 groups are operating, with those in the city directly representing more than 150,000 workers and reaching hundreds of thousands more. Several have expanded nationwide, and many are headed by women, with immigrant members playing key roles in decision-making.

“Groups that were considered marginal to the future of the labor movement are now seen as quite essential to the future of unions,” says Janice Fine, an expert on worker centers at the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. Some traditional unions have begun reaching out beyond their core membership: The United Federation of Teachers brought 28,000 home-based child-care providers into its ranks, and 32BJ SEIU has launched an aggressive campaign among school cafeteria workers.

Increasingly, employers are paying attention. While some have been forced to deal directly with centers that have waged legal challenges against them, others now have to contend with the prospect of new laws—such as the paid sick leave bill before the City Council and a bill in Albany that would penalize employers who stiff freelancers—that challenge their business practices. In some cases, employers have welcomed the centers’ work as leveling the playing field by forcing all companies to comply with wage and hour laws.

Worker groups have made significant progress on the legislative front, through a combination of sheer perseverance and moral suasion. In addition to the new domestic worker law and the paid sick leave and freelancer proposals, a bill championed by immigrant worker center Make the Road New York that increases penalties on employers who violate wage and hour laws won passage in the state Senate and Assembly last session. And a near-unanimous margin in both houses passed a measure to increase penalties for assaults against taxi drivers that the Taxi Workers Alliance pushed.

Pressing for Back Pay

The groups have also become increasingly adept at winning big chunks of back pay for their members. For example, Make the Road secured some $13 million a year in unpaid wages and benefits, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York has won $5 million for its members, and the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association last year secured $550,000 for 25 garment workers who toiled for 80 hours a week for only $3 an hour.

More and more, battles over lost wages are getting a boost from the Department of Labor, which placed a new emphasis on collaborating with worker centers under former Commissioner M. Patricia Smith.

“We have limited resources, and worker centers can and do play an important role in referring cases to us,” says Lorelei Salas, the DOL’s director of strategic enforcement.

The worker centers have also started to play politics. Last week, 36-year-old freelance writer Ariane Conrad passed out flyers in support of attorney general candidate Eric Schneiderman, who was endorsed by the Freelancers Union, outside a Brooklyn subway station. The group—which has 90,000 members in the city—set up an affiliated organization so it could endorse and donate to candidates. And Make the Road is following suit. Benefits have increasingly become a rallying cry for the groups. The Freelancers Insurance Company provides health insurance rates 75% below market. A $100 annual membership fee paid by drivers like Victor Salazar to the Taxi Workers Alliance gets them free legal advice and $5,000 worth of life insurance. The 15,000-member group’s next big campaign is aimed at taking control of the credit card processing fee for cab rides and using the funds received to start a drivers health fund. Long dependent upon foundation funding, many groups are starting to collect modest dues from their members.

Traditional unions, which had initially turned their backs on the worker centers, are now embracing them, as they recognize that union jobs with decent salaries and benefits become unsustainable in a labor market stocked with a multitude of workers with no protections. Immigrants and low-wage workers make up a growing part of the work force that cannot be outsourced abroad.

In response, Make the Road has partnered with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to organize low-wage immigrant retail workers. And the Laborers’ International Union of North America has joined forces with El Centro del Inmigrante.

Negotiations, of a Sort

The worker centers might not be collectively bargaining in the traditional sense, but taxi workers now sit down regularly with the city to discuss working conditions, freelancers now negotiate for their health care, and domestic workers have rights mandated by law that other workers have gained only via collective bargaining.

“We’re looking at a growing disparity of income with no end in sight,” says Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. “Groups are saying, ‘We have to figure out how to create a social safety net. And we’re going to do it in whatever way works.’”