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Why Low-Wage Worker Organizing Is Our Last, Best Hope

Amy Traub

We’ve been talking a lot this year on PolicyShop about the work of groups like Fast Food Forward, OUR Walmart, the Retail Action Project, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, Hotel Workers Rising, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. These groups and their allies are organizing low-wage workers to speak out for basic respect on the job, better pay, and improved working conditions (including taken-for-granted essentials like paid sick days and schedules they can count on).  The workers they represent are risking their paychecks – and in many cases, their jobs – to stand up for themselves and their co-workers. In the process, they’re also taking a stand for the future of our economy.

In Demos' recent paper on the retail industry,  we describe how boosting retail wages would not just lift workers and their families out of poverty   but also improve the U.S. economy and create jobs.  We think retailers would be smart to act on our study. Yet it’s hard to see how a broad-based retail wage increase will really happen except as a result of worker or government pressure.

That’s a point Eduardo Porter expands on in today’s New York Times, as he considers what kind of economy we’re in for if we don’t see an upsurge in job quality at the bottom of the labor market:

. . . the McJob is hardly a niche of the labor market reserved for the uneducated few. Rather, it might be the biggest job of our future.

The American labor market has been hollowing out for decades — losing many of the middle-skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing that can be performed more cheaply by machines or workers overseas. It has split between a high end of well-educated workers, and a low end of less-educated workers performing jobs, mostly in the service sector, that cannot be outsourced or mechanized.

This process is not expected to reverse any time soon. According to government statistics, personal care aides will make up the fastest-growing occupation this decade. The Economic Policy Institute study found that some 57 percent of them live in poverty…

Porter points out that in the past, labor unions have succeeded in improving jobs that used to be ill-paid and dangerous – turning them into the kind of middle-class positions that could sustain a family. He points to a recent study by the International Labor Organization that shows that jobs paying low wages are scarce in countries where unionization rates are high. Yet he also reminds us that unions today represent just 7 percent of the private sector workforce, and are “fighting long odds —hemmed in by legal decisions limiting how they can organize and protest, while trying to organize workers in industries of low skill and high turnover like fast food.”

One solution, Porter suggests, might look like SEIU’s successful Justice for Janitors campaign in the 1990s, which garnered broad community support and “framed the effort as a broad movement for the economic rights of low-wage workers” not only janitorial staff. It’s clear that the new efforts to organize low-wage workers – many of them outside the bounds of a legally-sanctioned union – are also adopting the broader “social movement” ethos. It is, as Porter argues, what they’ll need to win.