Outreach and leadership will strengthen worker rights, but a cultural shift is needed in the way we think and talk about work, panelists said Sept. 12 at the launch of the ILR School's Worker Institute. The event, moderated by MSNBC political analyst Chris Hayes, drew an audience of 300 to hear representatives of community organizations, unions, academia, business and other sectors talk about "Strengthening Worker Voice, Advancing Economic Fairness" at the headquarters of Service Employees International Union 32BJ in Manhattan.
"We live in hard times, but we also have choices," said Lowell Turner, academic director of the Worker Institute and ILR School professor of international and comparative labor and collective bargaining. "We can gripe and complain or we can seek to understand, and on that understanding we can teach, inspire and lead. For the challenges ahead, we need all hands aboard, including yours and ours."
Rather than hearkening nostalgically to their histories, unions will have to talk about what they do now and what they plan for the future, said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Broadened outreach by unions to involve more communities and workers in the labor movement would strengthen worker rights, she said.
Experienced organizers need to take leadership roles in making the workplace a more equitable place, said Ai-Jen Poo, Domestic Workers United founder and one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. One of the challenges more workers face is not knowing the identities of the real decision-makers in their workplaces, she said. As a result, it can be difficult to take collective action.
Panelist Heather McGhee, a director of Demos, a policy and advocacy center, said many middle-class workers want to know how they can create dignity for the work they produce.