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Victories in the New Labor Movement

Workers groups fight for the rights of young transient laborers in a radically changed economy.
 
 
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Alicia Hershey is 24 years old and she has had 18 jobs. She has waited tables, served coffee, mixed drinks. She even boxed candy bars. On average, she keeps a job for six months to a year because, "There's just no benefit to staying for a long time in any one position," she says.

Hershey's life is hectic. She juggles marriage, work, volunteering and classes. She attends San Francisco State University full time in the hopes of breaking the cycle of lateral transitions from service position to service position she has been in since entering the work force. But while she works toward graduation and new opportunities, she always has at least one job.

In 2006 she waited tables at a North Beach brewery where she, like her co-workers, worked 16-hour shifts and didn't receive breaks or overtime pay. Her manager grabbed her on the restaurant floor several times and he yelled when she went outside to take smoke breaks. "We all feared him," she says.

She knew that her situation was bad and potentially illegal, but as a veteran of the service industry, she expected little more. She never thought of challenging her employer. Then a co-worker found a labor group, Young Workers United, which was willing to help them. A group of employees, including Hershey, met outside work and formed a committee. Then the committee met with YWU organizers who informed them of California's wage and hour laws. Duly informed, Hershey confronted the man she had feared for the last year. "When people know their rights, it really changes the person," she reflects.

Hershey is part of a growing trend among workers, particularly young blue-collar workers and workers in the service sector, to see employers as interchangeable and job stability as an afterthought. People like Hershey create serious obstacles for labor unions because unions traditionally rely on a static work force during the lengthy process of union recognition and contract negotiation; young, transient workers are part of the reason that unions represent fewer than 6 percent of low-wage workers nationally.

In economic terms, the service sector of the economy produces intangible goods. It includes jobs such as waiting tables, food preparation, retail sales and hospitality. During the 1990s, the service sector increased by 19 million jobs, radically changing the U.S. economy. In cities such as San Francisco, where 73,152 of 427,823 working adults are employed in sales and food service alone, it is a huge part of the economy.

Devising new tactics to organize low-wage and service workers has been a point of contention within labor circles. It added to the crisis that split the AFL-CIO in 2005, when the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters boycotted the AFL-CIO's 50th anniversary convention and announced the creation of a rival labor federation, Change to Win. Now, two years after the split, Change to Win represents seven international unions and is a viable rival for the AFL-CIO.

Changes in the economy, decline of union representation and turmoil within organized labor have allowed new groups with radical organizing strategies to develop and take the place of traditional labor organizing in some areas.

"Unions are designed for a different economy," Sara Flocks says. Flocks is the co-founder of Young Workers United, the group that assisted Hershey. YWU is a workers center, a group designed to organize people like Hershey who work in the service sector, in positions typified by low-wages and high turnover. Workers centers, which include the Restaurant Opportunity Center in New York City and the Garment Workers Center in Los Angeles, are a growing phenomenon.

There were as few as 25 workers centers nationwide in the 1990s and there are more than 140 now, their growing numbers mirroring the growth of the service sector.

Flocks first conceived of a group like YWU in 2000 while working for the United Farm Workers Union. In her off-time, she organized with youth groups against California's Prop. 21, a state proposition that increased criminal penalties for juvenile offenders and lowered the age at which children could be tried as adults for some crimes. The movement against the proposition included dozens of youth and community groups that promoted concerts, held sit-ins at local businesses, organized street protests, phone-banked and canvassed door-to-door.

Though the proposition passed in every voting district outside the Bay Area, Flocks was impressed by the dynamic organizing style and the energy of the youth involved in the campaign.

After leaving the UFW, Flocks worked as a researcher for the UC Berkeley Labor Center. While there, she conducted a survey of students at Laney College in Berkeley and found that many students were also workers. Virtually none of them were union members and most worked in the service sector. The students complained of poor working conditions and wage and hour violations. Flocks became convinced that a new type of organization, one that used the energy of young workers and was designed specifically for their working conditions, was needed to engage them and improve the standards in their industry.

Flocks spent two years applying for grants and lining up donors before raising enough money to start YWU. The first grant, secured in 2002, paid for two employees, Nato Green the groups co-founder, and Sonya Mehta. Flocks worked her first year with the group as a volunteer while she continued as a researcher for the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

Operating out of a closet-sized office on Golden Gate Ave., YWU has grown to four employees and 50 dedicated members. They operate on grant and private-donor money and the free rent they receive from their landlord, Unite Here Local 2. Despite their size and limited means, they have made an imprint on San Francisco in the five years since their founding.

"You look at the economy and you look at the (service) industry - you're not going to organize shop by shop - you need to raise the bar overall," Flocks says. Consequently, the YWU spends much of its time on citywide campaigns. They were integral to passing San Francisco's recent Paid Sick Leave Ordinance, the first of its kind in the country. They were involved in the campaign to raise San Francisco's minimum wage in 2003, making it the highest in the country. They worked in conjunction with other labor and community groups to raise support for 2006's Health Care Security Ordinance, and campaigned against Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed changes to California's meal-break regulations in 2005.

Since its inception YWU has grown steadily, relying on unpaid volunteers to fill the group's four committees: Workers Justice, Policy, Education and Comité de Justicia para Trabajadores, which deals with the grievances of Latino members. They attract new members by pursuing small campaigns, frequently against a single employer.

YWU uses a different set of tactics than labor unions. They don't negotiate contracts between workers and employers. They don't charge dues to members. They invest heavily in political education, so members can become organizers as they shift from job to job. And they are open to any aggrieved worker, unlike unions who only assist members in unionized workplaces.

Unions have recourse through collective bargaining agreements that are negotiated with employers after employees vote to be represented by a union. In order for a union to gain a foothold in any workplace they need a majority of workers to vote for them. YWU, because they do not engage in collective bargaining, does not need a majority of workers, just an active minority. This allows them greater flexibility, which is necessary in workplaces where employees may not stay long enough for a formal election.

"Anyone can walk in the door and say I need help," explains Sonya Mehta, one of the group's organizers. From that point the aggrieved enumerates their complaints against their employer. The complaints may be something solid, like wage and hour violations, or as hard to define as an inimical relationship with a manager. From there the person must find other employees with similar concerns, attend one Policy Committee meeting and assist YWU members on two separate occasions. If they do these things, "We'll figure out a way for them to confront their boss," Mehta says. There are no other membership requirements, dues to pay, or hoops to jump through.

In the past five years the YWU's campaigns against employers have included negotiations with managers and owners, street protest, flyering patrons outside businesses, and lawsuits. The group also informs members about how they can recuperate unpaid wages through the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. Members won claims totaling $150,000 in 2006 alone, the YWU says.

YWU searches for new members outside of the workplace. It has standing agreements with several departments at San Francisco State University and City College of San Francisco to speak during class time about the work it does, and members who are also students hand out material while on campus. YWU also has agreements with Lincoln, Galileo and Thurgood Marshall High Schools to speak to students in class about labor law before, or in the case of some students, as they enter the workforce.

These tactics combine to make YWU "one of the most innovative, multiracial, multilingual organizations in San Francisco," according to Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, an umbrella organization representing 150 unions and 100,000 members.

The Labor Council has worked with YWU on a number of campaigns, and though the YWU is not a member of the council, "they might as well be," according to Paulson. In the summer of 2007 the council presented YWU with a Labor-Community Action Award for work on the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance. And Paulson says that YWU's organizers are "good examples of emerging leaders in the San Francisco labor movement."

In 2006, while looking for a new citywide campaign, YWU surveyed 300 service sector workers about their workplace concerns. A lack of paid sick leave was a top concern and it garnered the most moving stories.

YWU met with one woman who went to work at an Ice Cream parlor unable to speak because of laryngitis. She wrote responses to patron's questions on a pad of paper. Someone else came into work hobbling from a sprained ankle. People applying make-up at cosmetics counters, and cooks and wait staff, reported coming to work with colds or the flu because they couldn't afford to miss a day's pay.

With the results of its survey YWU approached Chris Daly, the supervisor for the office's district. Daly called for a City Hall hearing on the issue and YWU packed it with members. The meeting paved the way for the group to create the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance. It guarantees paid sick time to every working person in San Francisco. Written, "literally on butcher paper on our office walls," according to Mehta, the Ordinance became law after receiving a 61 percent majority in a city-wide vote in November 2006. It is a hallmark of the group's ambition.

The YWU's ambition, tactics and politics - which might put it on the far left anywhere outside of San Francisco - has incited some criticism.

Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, met with representatives of YWU twice before the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance was placed on the ballot. He describes his experience with the group as "good and bad."

The Paid Sick Leave Ordinance "fell out of the blue," according to Lazarus. YWU and Daly, the bill's official sponsor, approached the Chamber of Commerce five days before the deadline to have it placed on the ballot. The groups met twice, once to read through the ordinance and once for the chamber to suggest changes. The second of those meetings was "not very productive," according to Lazarus, who says that more time was needed for negotiation and amendment.

Eventually, with the support of five supervisors: Daly, Ammiano, Maxwell, McGoldrick and Mirkarimi, but without the support of the Chamber of Commerce, the measure was placed on the November 2006 ballot.

The YWU campaign for the proposition was "three months of straight heart attacks," Mehta says. During those three months the group circulated 100,000 pieces of literature, phone-banked twice weekly, canvassed door-to-door and held several press conferences. They constructed a fabric costume that looked like a germ and a member wore it while chasing students on the CCSF campus to highlight the public health aspect of the ordinance. They constructed a wall of Kleenex boxes that they used as a backdrop while holding press conferences, and they visited as many local restaurants as they had members to cover.

Following the ordinance's passage there was criticism of YWU from members of the business community, who felt that the burden of the ordinance and the new minimum wage were onerous. There was also criticism of the ordinance because it did not provide funding for municipal workers to inform employers of their new obligations, or to enforce them. There were also questions about how to enforce some provisions.

The ordinance included a provision allowing the Board of Supervisors to amend it and delay enforcement to clarify some of its provisions, which the board did in February. A grace period approved by the board delayed the enforcement date until June 4, 2007. During this period Lazarus met with the YWU twice to discuss implementation and enforcement issues and push for an exemption for very small businesses. He describes the group as "professional" and says the members were "open to negotiation and stood by what they agreed to."

Following the guidelines of the ordinance and properly calculating the amount of sick pay due an employee is "a little onerous to track," according to Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. He says that after the ordinance was put into effect, "there was a lot of confusion out there," and that his organization received five to six calls per day from restaurateurs asking for clarification. That number is down to one to two per week.

Westlye, like Lazarus, felt that there was not sufficient time allowed for public comment on the ordinance, noting that the GGRA had only one day to suggest changes to YWU before the ordinance was placed on the ballot. The GGRA, unlike the Chamber of Commerce, remained officially neutral during the campaign. Westlye believes that economic impact on San Francisco restaurants is, "not a large issue," noting "our concern was with the process."

Flocks is unperturbed by YWU's critics. She believes that the work YWU does is necessary to make San Francisco livable for thousands of service sector workers. San Francisco is "a city of the poor and the rich, where most working people have low wage and poverty wage jobs that do not allow them to live in the city they work in," she says.

YWU recently celebrated its fifth anniversary with a party in a Mission District bar. Music thudded till closing, while dozens of members and supporters contorted rhythmically on the dance floor and Flocks gave tearful goodbyes. She is leaving the group to attend Harvard. Mehta has taken on many of Flocks' duties and YWU has hired a staff organizer, Dianne Enriquez. On the eve of Flocks' departure, she said that she leaves confident in the group's progress and future. "We're affecting not only people's lives now, but the city in the future," she said. Proudly, she mentions that one member was recently hired as a researcher for the Democratic Party. In the future, she says, "We want our people to run for office."

She might have had Alicia Hershey in mind when she made that comment.

Hershey, who had never been a member of any union or political group, is now a dedicated member of YWU. She describes herself as "a lot more politically aware over the last year," and volunteers her free time to the group. She spends what time she has left after full-time work and school walking into Union Square area restaurants distributing literature about San Francisco's minimum wage and the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance to restaurant workers.

She left her job in North Beach shortly after confronting her manager, but continued to meet with him and her co-workers to discuss money owed them for unpaid overtime and missed breaks. The manager eventually offered $50 to settle her grievance, a sum she considers to be an insult. She didn't accept and now she and four former co-workers have claims pending with the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement. Hers may be worth $5,500.

Hershey, who says she "always wanted to be a waitress when I was younger," has begun the unlikely transformation from service-sector worker to political aspirant. She attends YWU's political education classes religiously and says that she can see herself as a paid organizer, planning and leading future campaigns.

AlterNet is making this material available in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107: This article is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Colin Asher is a San Francisco-based writer.

 
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