I was sitting in the top floor “Governor’s Lounge” of a hotel just a block away from the Capitol, sipping coffee in between furiously writing notes from the meeting with other SEIU organizers. The view was spectacular, and breakfast and hors d’oeuvres were complementary. That is, if you can find time to get up there in the heat of battle.
I was sitting in a classroom at the School of Public Health in the Near West Side with 30 Spanish-speaking construction workers, mostly day laborers (or jornaleros) who had gathered to learn about how to avoid injury at work and what rights they have with OSHA. We worked in small groups answering questions about specific cases and then gave demonstrations of proper safety equipment. Lunch was typical Mexican fare: rice, beans, salsa.
These are two recent experiences, taken vastly out of context, to explain two branches of the 21st century labor movement. The first took place almost daily in Madison, Wisconsin as my coworkers from IWJ and I worked to organize faith communities around the worker rights struggle there. Because of some connections my one coworker has, we worked primarily with SEIU, or the Service Employee International Union, which is one of the most powerful and strategic labor unions in North America. The international organizers that I worked with were incredibly smart, diligent, and constantly plugged in. For the first time I came to see why a smart phone is useful in the real world. I cannot imagine the amount of money SEIU has spent to support workers in Wisconsin.
The second was a 10-hour OSHA training held at UIC that was sponsored by two Chicago workers’ centers, the Latino Union and Arise Chicago. Latinos disproportionately get injured and die on the job in the United States, usually because they are not properly trained for the job they do, are not given adequate tools and safety equipment, and won’t complain if injured or robbed of wages. The facilitators, who were members of Arise Chicago and were jornaleros themselves, stressed that they were not going to teach the men and women but that they would all teach each other. We wrote answers on pieces of butcher paper and then taped them up on the walls. It was modeled off of the popular education model of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and the funding came from a NIOSH grant.
Now this is not to say that SEIU does not ever use pop ed to educate workers; I know from experience that in trainings for trainers the pop ed model provides the methodology. However, there are marked differences between a workers’ center and a traditional union. First, workers’ centers exist because certain sectors of low-wage earning workers, like day laborers, restaurant workers, domestic workers, and many others, do not have unions. Workers’ centers help to fill that void. Second, workers’ centers usually are not financially self-sufficient like unions, which are allowed to deduct dues directly from workers’ wages (well, at least in some states). Third, workers’ centers neither have the protection nor the regulation of the NLRA, or the National Labor Relations Act.
However the most interesting difference in my experience is that of culture. Workers’ centers often try to espouse leadership by the rank-and-file. I know of a few workers’ centers that have “flat structures” in which members make the important strategic decisions by consensus. While some processes require technical expertise, such as navigating the legal system to claim back wages, workers’ centers often emphasize direct action because it so often is more effective and creates leadership along the way. It is rare that a traditional rank-and-file worker would think of herself as a “foot soldier”—she is a leader working with other leaders to confront unjust systems of power.
As the Workers’ Center Network Assistant at IWJ I primarily interact with workers’ centers and much less labor unions, but it is vitally important that we maintain both models. When members of a workers’ center understand what a union does, they desperately want to be part of one. They would sacrifice like our ancestors did in the last century to gain that sort of power. But we also desperately need workers’ centers to reach into immigrant communities that are so often ruled by fear of the patron and la migra.
I was filled with pride was I looked out over the crowds in Madison, knowing that I had a role in that show of power. And I was filled with pride again when I saw how I had a role in creating that space where oft-despised day laborers could learn and teach each other. Both ways I felt like I was part of a much larger whole, working for justice in a highly oppressive culture.
Maybe it’s what the cornerstone of the Sears’ Tower feels like.