‘Excluded’ workers build unity & fight back

By Dante Strobino

Raleigh-Durham FIST

Workers historically excluded from labor organizing and protections are challenging the mainstream trade union movement in the United States, which is now finding itself in increasing decline with deindustrialization and massive job loss. Domestic workers, public sector workers in the South, farmworkers, day laborers and temporary workers have begun to organize against their exclusion from U.S. labor laws and for rights other workers have won over years of struggle.

Domestic workers contingent in opening march of USSF in Detroit. Photo: FIST

Many of these workers joined an Excluded Workers Congress and workshops at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June to discuss steps toward winning recognition of their rights, dignity and fairness at work.

The National Domestic Worker Alliance, the National Day Labor Organizing Network, the United Electrical Workers (UE), the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, Jobs with Justice and other grassroots workers’ organizations participated in the congress.

The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, excluded domestic workers and farmworkers, but it contained important protections such as enforcement of collective bargaining agreements between workers’ organizations and their bosses. After the NLRA’s passage, many corporations and bosses began to look for ways to erase these protections.

The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, weakened these protections and gave states free rein to regulate public sector workers. This law had the deepest impact in the U.S. South, where the inheritors of the slave-owning class remained in power and the trade union movement had never been able to build a strong base. This allowed for laws such as North Carolina’s general statute 95-98, which was passed by an all-white legislature in 1959. This statute prevents public sector workers from exercising the right to collectively bargain.

At the USSF, workers came together in a workshop titled, “Plant Occupations and Other Strategies for Organizing and Defending Workers’ Rights,” where they shared their organizations’ best practices to defend past gains and win recognition of unprotected workers.

President Armando Robles of Chicago UE Local 1110 described the Republic Windows and Doors factory takeover in December 2008 that galvanized national attention. The pressure forced Bank of America to pay a $1.75 million settlement to the workers for attempting to close the plant without properly warning them. Since then, the factory has reopened under new ownership and the workers’ union contract was upheld.

UE has since started a new effort in Chicago, organizing the low-wage, temporary workers in warehouses — the Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign. Warehouse workers are an important link in the global commodity distribution chain.

Chicago is the only location in the Western Hemisphere where all six Class I railroads meet. Thus Chicago transports half the country’s rail freight. Some estimate that Chicago is now the world’s third-largest container port after Hong Kong and Singapore, handling almost a trillion dollars in goods each year.

Meanwhile, the workers, almost all hired on temporary status, have few to no rights or protections. Workers need to earn at least $16 an hour to sustain a family in Chicago, yet most warehouse jobs pay less than $10 an hour, even to experienced workers. Starting pay is often minimum wage and some workers report pay less than the minimum. Some bosses don’t pay workers at all, stealing their wages. (warehouseworker.org)

Cindy Marble, a warehouse worker fired for trying to organize a union with UE, brought her militant, fightback spirit to Detroit: “We won’t turn back now,” she said. UE’s Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign is now calling on all supporters to boycott Bizzell vacuum cleaners. (See warehouseworker.org.)

Across the country, in the homes of rich people, immigrant domestic workers who are mostly women face a similar fate. Their employers think they can get away with imposing violence, wage theft and slave-like conditions on the workers.

Enma Delgado, a domestic worker and member of Mujeres Activas de San Francisco, spoke on the panel about their decade-long struggle to organize California’s domestic workers. Of the group’s more than 300 members, she says, “We aren’t a union because we don’t have the right, we are excluded but we still fight!”

Another panelist, Saket Soni, of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, spoke of his group’s efforts organizing guest workers across the South. Soni discussed three tactics: hunger strikes, very long walks and citizen’s arrests. They used all three in a recent campaign to win justice for temporary guest workers from India over their job conditions at a marine oil-rig company in Mississippi.

“Workers were forced to pay thousands of dollars for visas, placed in a labor camp and denied basic rights,” said Soni. “Only through membership organizations can we build power to transform working conditions and to transform the labor movement in the U.S.”

There were trade unionists from struggles across the globe, including a leader of the CGT confederation in France. The CGT had just held an important plant occupation to beat back concessions. Also on the panel were Ashim Roy from the New Trade Union Initiative in India, and General Secretary Raúl Pérez Guzmán, of SITEM and Frenta Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT) in Mexico.

On July 1, the New York state Senate approved a version of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and Gov. David Paterson announced he would sign it into law. It calls on domestic workers to get paid time and a half for hours worked beyond 40 hours per week, three paid sick days after a year’s service, and protections under anti-discrimination and worker compensation laws.

“It was an incredible moment of validation,” said Priscilla González, director of Domestic Workers United, the organization behind the bill. “We started six years ago by walking into legislators’ offices and educating them. Now we found ourselves witnessing senator after senator thanking these immigrant women of color who had been invisible for so long.”

However, the new law still omits some of the workers’ core demands, such as the right to sleep five hours uninterrupted by their boss, paid vacation days and advanced notice of termination. The bill also calls on the state’s Department of Labor to study the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers and issue a report by November.

UE Local 150, North Carolina Public Service Workers union, which is mostly African-American, has been fighting for workers in the state Department of Health and Human Services. More than 3,000 of these workers have voted for a Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights and have taken many trips to the state legislature to push for its approval.

Larsene Taylor, a health care technician at Cherry Hospital and chair of UE 150’s Department of Health and Human Services Council, told how North Carolina state mental health workers are forced to work under dangerous conditions with chronic understaffing.

Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Worker Alliance closed the workshop with the words, “Where there is oppression, there will be resistance, leadership and courage.”


1 Comment

  1. […] 'Excluded' workers build unity & fight back « Fight Imperialism … […]

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