Why Are Low-Paid Service Workers at the Bottom of Organized Labor's Agenda?

The following is an excerpt from Stanley Aronowitz's new book, The Death and Life of American Labor (Verso, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.


The growth of mass unemployment in the first decades of the twenty-first century has been met by most unions with a deafening silence. Even the most “progressive” unions have ignored the everyday lives of their own members. At best, the unions’ political lobby has concentrated on maintaining unemployment benefits against the persistent attack on them from the right, but there are practically no sustained efforts to organize the unemployed—union or nonunion—as a fighting force in labor struggles. Historically, it must be admitted, established unions have never mounted a real unemployed movement; that task was undertaken by the ideological left, mainly Socialists and Communists. Today, however, apart from small groups, there is no substantial organized left, and so the unemployed have been stranded.

The exclusive workplace orientation of most unions and their rank- and-file activists also contributes to their abandonment of the working class and salaried middle class to the financial institutions that control housing, are bidding to control education in many communities, and constitute the economic basis of a consumer culture that has operated to bankrupt large sections of the population. In the main, today’s unions have conceded housing to the real estate developers, landlords, and other private contractors. And with the almost sole exception of the teachers’ unions, organized labor does not concern itself with the fate of its members’ children in the public schools.

Although the workplace was once the necessary and sufficient condition for the growth and power of the labor movement, unions can no longer afford to ignore workers’ everyday life or their relationship to the institutions that oppress them outside the workplace. For example, in a society in which housing has mainly evolved into single- or two- household units, in a boom-and-bust economy a mortgage crisis becomes inevitable.

Of course, the question now is whether the economy will boom again in the foreseeable future. With good reason, many people have come to doubt that the era of good jobs for people without technical training will return. For these people, schooling, the road to middle- class credentials, is the preferred insurance against economic ups and downs. But this is a dubious bet at a time when job creation is concentrated in the services, especially restaurants and big-box retailers and when full-time employment is either nonexistent or contingent. Retail food services employs a total of more than 9.3 million workers, making it the largest private-sector industry in the country. The 60 million workers in all service sectors now account for about 40 percent of the nation’s workforce. This work typically does not offer full-time hours, and the pay is at or close to minimum wage, except in the higher-end restaurants, which are by definition relatively few in number. There, too, only minimum wage is guaranteed, but tips are mostly generous, and a server’s income may range from $600 to more than $1,000 a week, but only if the server is called in for five full shifts. Entry-level department store labor pays slightly above the federal minimum and offers less than full-time assignments. For most of Walmart’s 1.1 million employees, the workweek is twenty-four hours at $8–$9 an hour. There is no guaranteed shift. Workers are called one to three hours before a shift. Those who receive no call cannot report for work. It is not unusual for a worker to hold two such jobs, one at Walmart or Target, and another at McDonald’s, Burger King, or a similar fast-food restaurant for more or less the minimum wage and few or no tips.

In fall 2012 several thousand Walmart workers—including those in one of the company’s major distribution centers outside Chicago— struck in protest against the store’s labor policies. Some of the inside organizers were political activists, but significantly, most of the strikers were uncredentialed working poor. Among these were single mothers, who joined the picket lines despite worries about being fired and unable to pay their bills.

The strikers did not seek union recognition or expect to win a collective bargaining agreement. Their aim was to call attention to the substandard wages and working conditions in the largest U.S. corporation and to expose a benefits program that required workers to contribute a substantial portion of their meager wages. Their campaign was sponsored and funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), a 1.3 million–member affiliate of the loose federation Change to Win, a breakaway from the AFL-CIO organized principally by the Service Employees. UFCW’s membership includes workers in packing houses, chemical firms, and retail food and department stores. It holds collective bargaining agreements with Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and major West Coast and Northeastern supermarket chains, especially in Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia.

Walmart is the direct and formidable competitor of the union supermarkets and some department stores, and the union’s motive in organizing minority movements against its policies may be to protect the wages and benefits of already unionized workers and the competitive position of their employers. But if the campaign is serious and does not founder on worker fear in our depressed economy, if direct action can succeed in raising wages and improving working conditions at the biggest big box, the impact on the industry could be even more substantial.

The 2012 Walmart actions were followed by parallel strikes at a McDonald’s store in midtown Manhattan and at Wendy’s, Burger King, and KFC. Hundreds demonstrated at Grand Central Station, in protest against poverty wages that rarely exceeded $10 an hour, and demanded a wage of $15 an hour. These actions were coordinated by Communities for Change and did not have visible trade-union backing. Fast food is a more widely dispersed industry than department stores or supermarkets. The typical McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, or Burger King restaurant has fewer than fifteen employees. The strikes were simply for higher wages; they were not a demand for union recognition.

Two of New York’s older worker organizations have taken similar steps without actually seeking union contracts. The 15,000 members of the Taxi Workers’ Alliance have devoted more than a decade to upgrading the drivers’ wages and working and living conditions, without engaging in collective bargaining. They have blocked traffic on Grand Central Parkway and the New York–area airports, picketed the Taxi and Limousine Commission offices, and staged strikes. Domestic Workers United, founded in 2000, has possibly the hardest road of any of the organizations of low-wage contingent workers. Consequently it focuses its efforts on education, such as training in household management and other job skills, and on fighting for protective legislation for its mostly Caribbean members, who often have immigration-status problems, including deportation.

In many cities, workers’ centers are cropping up to fill the vacuum created by the indifference of established unions and political parties to the needs of immigrants and the industrial and service precariat. These centers are community-based and operate outside the system of collective bargaining. In 2010, there were more than 130 workers’ centers, some serving mostly day laborers, some low-wage workers generally, and some the unemployed. By 2013 there were 274. The centers address a wide variety of issues: subminimum wages; unpaid labor, in which the employer fails to pay for regular time worked or else forces employees to work overtime without compensation; sexual harassment; discriminatory discharges; and unattended medical problems. New York’s Restaurant Opportunities Center offers classes to workers seeking to upgrade their skills. Some centers have opened informal hiring halls that supply labor to employers willing to offer standard pay and conditions. Some provide referrals and other services to their constituents. Others, however, have been more militant, supporting strikes and job actions—not for the purpose of gaining recognition or contracts, but to oppose and change oppressive employer behavior. The centers’ relations with the established unions vary from place to place. Their dealings with government agencies usually involve issues of enforcement: of fair wages, reasonable hours, and safety laws for the protection of the working poor.

Recently, some of the established unions have shown sympathy with and support for the idea of organizing the precariat and other working poor; however, the fate of millions of low-paid service workers remains on the margins of organized labor’s agenda. In an era when with few exceptions jobs for the academically and technically unqualified are concentrated in the service industries, labor’s failure to address the needs of low-paid contingent, part-time, and temporary workers goes against labor’s avowed historical mission: to bring the most exploited workers as well as the most skilled to full industrial and social citizenship. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders sometimes invoke “the death of the middle class” when Congress and employers refuse to address poverty and unemployment, yet the unions are not on the front lines for either employed scientists and technical formations or for the growing mass of the working poor.

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