- Chicago Newstips by Community Media Workshop - http://www.newstips.org -

Organizing the ‘Unorganizable’

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In the “new economy,” contingent labor is emerging as a mainstay of the workforce, with clerical, warehouse and factory workers commonly employed as temporaries and even professors, doctors, and managers filling temporary assignments. In recent years the temporary help industry has grown as much as ten times the rate of the workforce as a whole.

In Chicago, truck helpers for the Chicago Tribune, warehouse workers for Marshall Field’s and Chas. Levy Circulating Co., and factory workers at Metal Impact and the cosmetics firm H2O are among many essentially full-time workers hired through temp agencies — what Ariana Glazer at San Lucas Workers’ Center calls “permatemps.” She says in the last year, two area factories fired their entire workforces and hired them back the next day through day labor agencies — with substantial wage cuts.

Here and around the country, a new form of community-based labor organization, the “workers’ center,” has sprung up to organize low-wage immigrant workers and day laborers. Extremely vulnerable to a variety of abuses, these workers seek support from community leaders and public agencies and ultimately rely on direct action, not collective bargaining agreements, to get results.

“These are workers that some labor folks have told us are unorganizable,” said Jessica Aranda of the Latino Union, an organization of street-corner day laborers that recently opened a workers’ center in Albany Park.

The mainstream labor movement has backed the efforts of workers’ centers to win legislative reforms for day laborers, and some workers’ centers have worked with the Chicago Federation of Labor to refer workers to unions.

Day labor agencies

Glazer and day laborers grouped at the San Lucas Workers Center in Humboldt Park organize workers in nearby day labor agencies, a group including whites and Latinos from the neighborhood as well as African-Americas who often travel from far-flung neighborhoods. With passage this year of the Illinois Day Labor Services Act, pushed by day labor groups, mainstream labor, and immigrant advocates, they have a measure of legal protection. (Earlier legislation was too often honored in the breach, Glazer said.)

An important provision establishes client companies as joint employers with day labor agencies, so workers can now file complaints against client companies for nonpayment or shorting of wages, Glazer said. San Lucas workers have tried for several years to reform the agencies themselves, but now they’ll step up recent efforts aimed at the agencies’ clients, she said.

In one case 10 San Lucas workers met with staff at Marshall Field’s, where they said they’d been shorted on their pay. The store got the workers their full pay “within an hour” and agreed to change to a new day labor agency, Glazer said. The group plans public campaigns against other client companies of “abusive agencies,” she said; a drive targeting Chas. Levy Circulating Co., the Melrose Park magazine distributor, is getting under way.

“We feel the only way to get agencies to truly reform is to hurt them in their pocketbooks,” said Glazer. “If we can get ten client companies to switch from abusive agencies, we’ll start to see a shift in the industry.”

The group has also developed a code of conduct, which Glazer said one agency has signed and others are considering. She estimated that over half of about 350 day labor agencies in the state are unlicensed.

Street corner day labor

Up to a hundred workers gather every day at street corners in Albany Park, Logan Square, and the Home Depot parking lot in Cicero where contractors and business owners come to recruit them for construction or landscaping. These day laborers have little or no legal protection.

The Latino Union recently opened a workers’ center in Albany Park to serve as a hiring hall — like the building trades established many decades ago — and community center for these workers. The union’s elected board sets minimum wages and a fair system of distributing work, said Aranda. Classes are held on construction skills, English, and worker and civil rights. Latino Union also organizes out of an office in Pilsen.

The union’s legal clinic has a “wage theft” task force that uses direct action to help workers who have been denied payment for their labor. A contractor “will say ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow, I’ll pay you tommorow,’ and they end up never paying,” Aranda said.

If contractors fail to respond to phone and mail contacts, the workers along with clergy and community supporters visit them at their home or office. “We’re successful 75 percent of the time,” Aranda said. The group estimates it’s helped workers collect over $100,000 in unpaid wages.

Organizing community solidarity is an important component of such efforts, she said, because on their own, day laborers may not have much influence with politicians, officials, and employers.

Multi-industry organizing

The Chicago Interfaith Worker Rights Center, located in Edgewater, takes a multi-industry approach, organizing mainly Latino and Polish workers in manufacturing, construction, restaurants, and housecleaning agencies. They reach workers through word of mouth as well as through basic worker rights workshops held in churches and ESL classes, says organizer Jose Oliva.

The center has trained scores of worker rights advocates who operate out of congregations and community groups. When workers come from a larger workplace where an existing union might be able to organize them, the center coordinates with the CFL and accompanies workers on initial contacts with a union. And the center has pulled together a network including federal and state labor agencies which helps workers file complaints over below-minimum wages or lax health and safety measures.

But most cases don’t involve legal violations, Oliva said. “It’s people who have worked someplace for 20 years with no raises, no health insurance,” he said. Often direct action is the “most effective way of improving wages and working conditions” — and it’s most empowering for workers, he added. The Interfaith Center brings together clergy and community leaders to accompany workers, and will employ prayer vigils, rallies, and boycotts if necessary. “It’s extremely successful,” said Oliva.