Worker Centers Forge Alliances with Unions


August, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), consisting
of over 140 worker centers that organize mostly immigrant day laborers,
entered into an agreement that would allow worker centers to apply
for membership with local and state federations of the AFL-CIO.
The agreement could signal a new chapter in the way organized labor
relates to low-wage and immigrant workers. 

Long before the AFL-CIO began talks with NDLON, community and labor
organizations like the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA)
were forging alliances with organized labor. In a section of Los
Angeles called Koreatown, KIWA has been fighting for living wage
standards for grocery workers at six major supermarkets. The groceries
are typical of the jobsites that worker centers and community organizations
target—smaller, often locally owned companies that don’t
offer union benefits or wages. 

Building trades unions recently joined KIWA’s campaign to get
grocer California Market to offer a living wage. California Market’s
plan to open in a new strip mall allowed construction unions and
Koreatown community organizers to work together. In addition to
supporting KIWA’s living wage campaign, building trades unions
are demanding prevailing wages for construction workers working
on the new strip mall. 

Mike Sherritt, an organizer with Los Angeles-area Ironworkers Local
416, says, “It makes a good marriage working with KIWA because
they’re a community organization that really knows the area
and has a base. We’re too spread out. When I began working
with contractors in Koreatown, I realized I need help here.” 

KIWA organizer Vy Nguyen agrees that the partnership has benefited
both KIWA and the building trades unions: “We organize our
members and have grassroots power; [the building trades unions]
add a level of political clout and influence that we don’t
necessarily have when we meet with city council members or at hearings.” 

Sherritt says that the model of the Ironworkers building a relationship
with KIWA would work elsewhere, adding, “It’s a problem
of limited resources. We have to share all the knowledge and resources
we can in an area to affect change.” 

Not Isolated Anymore 


the other side of the country, New York City taxi drivers are fighting
for union power. New York’s taxi drivers are unable to bargain
collectively because they are considered independent contractors,
but this winter the 7,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance
(NYTWA) could become the first non-traditional union to officially
affiliate with organized labor when they join the New York Central
Labor Council. 

NYTWA Director Bhairavi Desai says that the partnership with the
New York CLC will add political clout to their organizing. Desai
says, “We’re not isolated anymore. Next time we protest
it won’t just be our leaders and members—it will be New
York labor leaders too.”

Desai notes that CLC membership will also give NYTWA members access
to organized labor’s resources, such as classes and training.
The benefits for New York unions, says Desai, are also clear: “There
are 40,000 taxi drivers in New York, and that’s 40,000 working
families that have joined the labor movement.” 

In Southern California, organizations like the Institute of Popular
Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) that work with day laborers
are hoping to forge similar local agreements, possibly with central
labor councils or state federations. 

IDEPSCA Executive Director Raul Arnove believes that cooperation
between unions and worker centers will move them closer on the contentious
issue of immigration reform. When NDLON and the AFL-CIO began talking,
says Arnove, NDLON folks “were clear that we needed political
help to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes
day laborers. Unions understand now that it’s not fair that
we’re excluded from the discussion.” 

Bridging The Gap 


worker centers and organized labor talking has not been easy. Due
to cultural and political differences, any collaboration involves
overcoming difficult challenges. 

Day laborers and immigrant workers are sometimes regarded as problems
for organized labor, or worse, as scabs. Day laborer organizer Nelson
Motto says IDEPSCA fights this image by supporting union struggles,
including joining recent hotel and grocery worker pickets. 

Motto says, “We’ve been able to change the mentality that
day laborers are scabs. The fact that we get paid lower than union
workers is not because we want to. Employers are in control of the
wages that they pay day laborers.”  

Unions and worker centers also come into conflict over jurisdiction.
Nguyen admits that KIWA has had turf battles with unions, but says
that things are changing. In the past, KIWA tried to organize independent
unions in Koreatown grocery stores. Nguyen says that KIWA changed
its focus “to industry-wide living wage campaigns in part to
help raise the floor of the low-wage, non-union employers that are
undercutting union supermarkets.” This also helped them avoid
conflict with grocery unions. 

Yet another challenge is the perception immigrant workers have of
organized labor. Worker centers report that many of their members
have had negative experiences with unions—from racist or anti-immigrant
unions in the United States to corrupt, dysfunctional unions in
immigrant workers’ home countries. To combat these negative
associations, worker centers educate their members about the U.S.
labor movement. 

In New York many taxi drivers were cautious about joining the Central
Labor Council because they feared they’d lose their autonomy
and independence. Desai says, “We waited eight years to join
the CLC. It was important to us make sure we went in as equals.”
For the taxi drivers, knowing that NYTWA already functions as a
union helps edge out concerns. Says Desai, “It’s backwards
that the labor movement lets the NLRB decide what a union is. You
have to build what you think is best capable of fighting the power
of the bosses, and we’re doing that.” 

Ten Eyck joined the Labor Notes staff  ( in
2005. She covers auto workers, building trades, immigrant workers,
farmworkers, and worker centers.