Saket Soni is the Director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice which is a part of the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.
Erica Smiley works with Jobs with Justice which is a national network of community-labor coalitions based around the country. Smiley is the field organizer for the Southern region where she mobilizes workers from the Southern “right to work for less” sectors.
Premilla Nadasen is a writer and a historian who teaches at Queens College. She writes about social policy, race and organizing. She is also an activist and a supporter of the work of the Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Frances Fox Piven teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has written a great deal about social movements from the bottom, including movements of welfare recipients and low-wage workers. She has also worked with many grassroots social movements.
Linda Oalican is an long-time organizer with Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City which is affiliated with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Harmony Goldberg was the moderator of this panel. She is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is a long-time movement educator, and she is one of the editors at Organizing Upgrade.
HARMONY: Let’s get started with Smiley and Saket telling us a little bit about the Excluded Workers Congress: what is it, how did it come into being in the last year or so?
SMILEY: The Excluded Workers Congress came into being when several national networks including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the Alliance of Guestworkers and Jobs with Justice came together at the U.S. Social Forum this past year to pull together a people’s movement assembly to launch a new framework around the “human right to organize.” We recognized that, over the past couple of decades, a lot of independent workers centers had formed to address the basic needs of workers who were trying to organize in the workplace but – for whatever reasons – couldn’t organize under traditional labor law. Some groups were just written out altogether, but – even if they were included in traditional labor law – they were just too many barriers to organizing. So we wanted to try to introduce this as a framework. So we organized the Excluded Workers Congress to bring workers from all these different sectors together to talk about their innovative strategies and how we were trying to organize for dignity and respect and self-determination in our communities and in the workplace, despite these barriers to organizing. The sectors that came together in that first big gathering included: formerly incarcerated workers, restaurant workers, farmworkers, workers from “right to work for less” states in the South, workfare workers, domestic workers, day laborers, taxi workers and guest workers. They came together to talk about barriers but also to talk about the strategies we were using to organize despite the different exclusions. After that gathering, there were a couple of follow-up strategy sessions, and it was clear that there was a need, that excluded workers had to come together to build power to try to expand the human right to organize for the long term. There is a need, even from the standpoint of the traditional U.S. labor movement. This – in many ways – was an innovative approach that the labor movement needed; they the “excluded workers” to be strong and powerful in order for the labor movement to survive in the United States. We officially formed ourselves into a federation in September of last year at the AFL-CIO. It felt like a historic moment because it was brought together allies from the traditional labor movement with groupings from the Excluded Workers Congress. We acknowledged that this is the direction we were going in and that we were going to expand the right to organize – whether it was through the National Labor Relations Act or something brand new.
SAKET: When we started thinking across networks about an Excluded Workers Congress, we were on the heels of the economic crash and the economic meltdown, and it seemed very clear that two things were happening. First of all, millions and millions of people were seeing the real impact of the attack on the labor movement, including the attack on trade unions. Our shared perspective was that the decline in wages was largely a result of the attack on the labor movement in this country. We also saw that we were in an era where workers organizing for dignity was framed as being bad for the economy, which is what happens in times of economic emergency. Similar to a post- 9/11 era where civil liberties are framed as a threat to national security, all of a sudden organizing of workers to lift their conditions became a threat to economic security. When we came together, it was historic but it wasn’t totally new. Sectors came into the Congress building on more than a decade of developing new forms of organizing that aimed to expand the right to organize for workers. The domestic workers talked about using the International Labor Organization as a tool. Day laborers talked about new forms of collective bargaining that they had innovated in day labor centers across the country. Restaurant workers and taxi drivers shared their experiences. What was new was the coming together, and it was both a historic and an exciting afternoon. It was an electrifying experience. Of course, the various sectors had been talking. We had been planning, and we were doing our best. But there was a question of whether it would really work to bring these sectors together. And what we found was that 400 workers were in the room together, and it absolutely worked. It was an electrifying incredible experience where everybody came in with their own experiences, but everybody left bigger than they had come in. Everybody left bigger and deeper. Particularly significant was the presence of welfare workers, formerly incarcerated workers and workers in right to work states from trade unions who were left out of collective bargaining. Most of these sectors primarily represented African American workers. That was important because there has been a false equivalence between worker and immigrant over the last few years in our social movements, and we really broke through that to get to what it really means to be a workers trying to advance into opportunity and inclusion through organizing. It was really a very pure feeling in the room.
HARMONY: I want emphasize the reason for the use this term “excluded worker” and to say it again in its most basic form, it means workers who are excluded either by name or by fact from federal labor protections and from the right to organize. And that happens through a range of exclusions, which we’ll talk about more during this panel. Sometimes certain groups of workers are excluded by name in the law, sometimes workers are defined out of being workers by the law, and so on – for a range of reasons that are specific to different sector. Those are the kinds of exclusions that happen on a technical level. But on a broader level, there are two different sources of exclusion that the Excluded Workers Congress has talked about. The first is that there is a history of racialized exclusion of certain sectors of workers in this country, historically that has primarily been an exclusion of Black workers and it has extended to all workers of color who have faced this history of racialized exclusion. The second source of exclusion is the massive transformations in the global political-economic order that have made historical labor protections relatively irrelevant for the forms of workplaces and the workforces that exist today. Models were developed that reflected the dynamics of the industrial era that do not reflect the conditions of work today. So that’s some of the context that the Excluded Workers Congress is responding to. Now I want to ask Professor Nadasen and Professor Piven to help us explore the history of exclusion and some of the contemporary transformations that have created these issues.
PIVEN: I want to try to stand the word “exclusion” upside down. I think that people we call “excluded workers” are in fact workers. Therefore they are, in a sense, included in the dynamics of labor markets. But they are divided from the groups of workers that gained standing and protection and some rights to bargain in the labor markets. So it isn’t so much their exclusion as much as it is their categorical separation from the bulk of workers. Actually, in certain historical periods, it’s been the great bulk of workers who have not had standing to negotiate, but rather artisans of a particular kind who were organized and had standing. These division of workers into categories get naturalized at particular moments, partly because they are associated with racial or national characteristics and partly because they are associated with certain trades or certain skills. The division of workers into categories is perhaps the fundamental tool through which employers and their allies in government weaken the working class. The reason is self-evident: as Western economies became more complex, more integrated and more far-reaching, the potential power of workers increased. Workers disruptions, worker strikes, when workers walked out and interrupted production, and the insolence and the difficulty in organizing the efforts of laborers who had such far-reaching reverberations – all of these forms of resistance enhanced the collective power of workers. Workers had to be divided. And we are all familiar in the United States with the basket-full of categories through which workers were divided, mainly with race and ethnicity, but that only begins to show us the nature and the tragedy of division. There were also divisions based on race, ethnicity, gender, and skills. I think that, in the United States, the most profound division has always been between the mass of workers who are considered to be the laboring class, the mass of workers who are considered to be independent workers and that other mass of workers who are considered to be “the poor,” as if they didn’t work. And of course, they do work. This is a searing division of working people – and a division which has terrible effects in weakening workers and terrible effects in justifying the subjugation of the people who are called poor.
NADASEN: I am going to build on what Fran is talking about in terms of the important distinctions that have been created the poor and workers and among workers in particular. I want to talk specifically about the New Deal. Many leftists and progressives look at the New Deal as an important step forward, as progressive achievement for working people. We know that the New Deal reforms that were instituted in the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression were a result of worker protest and militancy. The things that we think of as core labor protections – like the minimum wage, like the right to organize and bargain collectively, like Social Security – were a product of worker protest and worker militancy. In that regard, these reforms are a step forward for the rights of workers overall. But these new rights also solidified and created the categories and divisions among workers. The New Deal essentially created a structured inequality among different categories of workers, institutionalizing differences among the working class. It essentially defined some groups as workers, and defined other groups out of the working class. A couple of other problems with the way that the New Deal was structured is that it tied benefits, primarily to full-time employment, so part-time workers are defined out of the category of who is a legitimate worker. And it also tied most labor benefits to particular employers, so your employer would pay your Social Security tax and would pay part of your unemployment compensation. If you had a right to organize, it was through a particular employer or a union based in a specific industry. These divisions, exclusions, and categories were largely racially based. Agricultural workers and domestic workers were the primary occupations for African Americans in this period, and it’s not coincidental that they were denied labor protections. The reason that those categories were excluded is because they were largely African-American. So these categories are based partly on racial divisions within the labor market. It is also partly based on how work was defined. For many of the economists and labor leaders and politicians of the 1930s, work was equated with industrial employment–with factory workers–which was largely white and largely male. Part of what is exciting about the Excluded Workers Congress is the way in which they are attempting to redefine and to broaden that notion of who is a worker, who is a legitimate worker and who can be included in this category.
HARMONY: Saket and Smiley, can you reflect on that history and on the political impact of the racialized exclusion of these categories of workers and the division between workers and the poor, how you think about that history and how that history impacts the work today?
SMILEY: I think both professors made some important points around the historic trajectory of the ways in which the working class has been divided particularly along racial lines. I think that today what we are seeing throughout the country – with the Midwest as the epicenter with the attacks against public sector workers – is actually a very divisive attempt to divide workers again. It’s not just a division between public sector workers and private sector workers, although that’s part of it. For us, we also have to look at the sharp racist edge of that attack. Legitimate work has historically been defined as being in the factories, as being very industrial, very white, very male. But the public sector has been a place where African Americans, in particular, have been able to gain a certain level of economic sustainability.