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: Following up on our exploration of historical exclusions, we are now going to explore the impact of neoliberal globalization on worker exclusions. Labor laws were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s to deal with the dynamics of massive industrial production. In this period, workplaces were large and centralized, and workers could exercise power against their bosses through their numbers and their ability to halt production. Labor law was developed to help capital negotiate that reality of workers power, to make sure that workers would not- in fact – continue to disrupt production. That is the framework in which collective bargaining as we know it was developed. Today, workplaces do not follow this industrial form. We have many decentralized workplaces with much lower worker-to-employer ratios. Work is often flexible and part-time, as Linda described. The old labor laws largely protected citizens, and many of the people in the new excluded workforces are not citizens or they are citizens who have been stripped of citizenship rights due to incarceration. Does anyone want to share reflections on the impacts of neoliberalism and globalization on the exclusions of these sectors of workers? How has neoliberal globalization changed the political context and created new exclusions?
Linda: We have been speaking about the history of worker exclusions, exclusions of domestic workers, farmworkers, restaurant workers and others who were not included in the so-called “protections” of U.S. labor laws. I am going to trace how workers like me, who came from poor countries, were affected by globalization and neoliberalization. Through globalization and neoliberalization, that began in the1980s, capitalism was intensifying the plunder of poor economies like the Philippines. This has caused widespread poverty, unemployment and cuts to basic human services. These are the underlying issues that are fueling the uprisings and resistance throughout South Asia and the Middle East. The Philippines has seen mass uprisings on the scale of Egypt twice. The first was “People Power” in 1986 when we toppled the late-dictator Marcos, and the second was “People Power 2” in 2001. And yet, today, 64 – 82% of our 40 million workforce are either unemployed or underemployed. Seventy million of our populations are living under two dollars a day. In search a livelihood, over ten percent of our people – 4,300 every day – leave the country just to send our children to school. So, by deepening poverty and unemployment, neoliberalization has created a pool of cheap surplus labor globally. So – while the U.S. and TNCs [trans-national corporations] are outsourcing living-wage and middle class jobs – they are pushing cheap surplus labor in the global South to fill jobs in the North. And these jobs are mostly service sector jobs, like domestic workers, where workers suffer exclusions from equal protections. While domestic workers’ exclusions has a historic link to slavery – currently the U.S has put in the forefront and instituted immigrations regulations to continue the subjugation of domestic workers and other excluded workers. Despite my college education and 14 years in community development work in the Philippines, I could not get a job other than domestic work when I came here. Many Pilipino domestic workers in the United States are professionals. They are nurses, teachers and others. But our education and our professional training in not accredited here, and that denies us access to jobs other than domestic work. At the federal level and in most states, we are excluded from major labor laws. In New York – despite the passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights and our inclusion in NY human rights law – we are still denied the right to organize and other fundamental rights and protection, including notice of termination and severance pay. The U.S. government still refuses to acknowledge the importance of domestic work to society, continuing to deny us work authorizations and work visas. Why? Because by keeping us undocumented and stripped of basic workers rights, we are not able to access unemployment insurance, Medicare and Social Security. Since the 1980s, neoliberalization has pushed for the liberalization of labor. In the US, labor liberalization has worsened the working conditions of domestic workers. It has promoted the lack of employment contracts and a lack of regulations for our work. Thus, in the privacy of the home, our employers can decide whatever she wants, despite agreed-upon work hours and working conditions. She may even decide when we can eat our meals or when we can go to church or the doctor, even though she doesn’t foot our medical bills. In our workplace, the worker has no control, and – if you do assert your common sense, rights and dignity as a worker – we run the risk of losing our jobs or of being deported if we are undocumented. Domestic workers are also exploited through contingent employment; many of us are forced to let go of our full-time jobs and to accept part-time jobs. We are told to be “flexible,” which sometimes means working for different hours on different days or being on call on our days off or working for the friends or family members of our employers with no extra pay. Neoliberalization has continued to promote the employers’ privileges to hire and fire workers at will. We are not protected; we don’t get notice of termination and no severance pay. For live-in workers, this means that if we lose our jobs we also lose our housing. As Ed Ott, a labor organizer, has said, we – the excluded workers – are now at the intersection of hope and disaster. We are experiencing capital’s most vicious attacks and only we, the workers, together with our allies have the power to decide which way to go: to march towards further disaster or to march towards hope.
Harmony: We have just heard more about how the political-economic context is different today. Over the past several decades, workers and organizers been innovating new strategies to deal with this changed context. Much of this innovation has been done by the independent workers movement, by the workers centers. The Excluded Workers Congress represents the “coming of age” of that independent workers movement. That is the big-picture significance of the Excluded Workers Congress: it is a new workers movement for a new economy. What do you all see as the significance of the work of the Excluded Workers Congress, particularly given the current political climate and the recent attack on public sector workers?
Premilla: One thing to keep in mind is that there is a long history of worker organizing that goes beyond industrial workers. In the 1930s, there were domestic worker organizations that organized and lobbied to have domestic workers included in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act. In the 1960s, there were farm workers who organized to have inclusion into minimum wage laws and other labor protections. So there’s a very long history of even “excluded” workers organizing and mobilizing to have an impact on labor law. I think the landscape is very different now, and I think that part of the reason why the landscape is so different is because of the way in which the industrial sector has shrunk in the U.S. today. Manufacturing workers are about ten percent of all workers in this country, which is a very small proportion. So when we talk about the future of the labor movement, we have to talk about these contingent sectors. We have think about people who are part-time workers, people who are not citizens, people who are in the service sectors and subcontracted workers (who are often in manufacturing as well). So I think that part of what is exciting about the Excluded Workers Congress is the way in which they are beginning to define the issue of “labor rights” outside of even particular employment, the way in which we can think of labor rights not in terms of having a job with a particular employer or in terms of being a citizen. They are saying that we can think about labor rights apart from citizenship, apart from national origin, apart from the particular sector of employment you’re working in.
Frances: I think we have still not addressed the fundamental question of worker power, and the power of these workers specifically. who is it that they have power against? This is a question we can answer for the workers who were not excluded from the labor protections of the 1930s, for industrial workers. They did not – in fact – win those protections from the United States government because they lobbied Congress. They won those protections because they had become a force in the relations of production. That’s where they were organizing, and that’s where they were causing a lot of trouble – with walkouts and expressions of defiance. Employers were trying to reassert their regulation of the workplace, and they did it – in part – by granting collective bargaining rights and ultimately by granting the sorts of protections that we see in the National Labor Relations Act and workplace standards legislation. Domestic Workers United won a great symbolic victory in the New York State Legislature, but I think that – if we are brutally honest – we will see that this was a symbolic victory. Tens of thousands of domestic workers dispersed in private homes in relations with one or maybe two private employers are going to have enormous difficulty in implementing the rights espoused in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. However, domestic workers do have a kind of latent power, more power than domestic workers had in the 1930s. If they don’t come to work, not only do they discomfort many middle class housewives. They would keep home a major section of the workforce. They now have economic strike power on Madison Avenue, on Wall Street, in the banks. That’s because these upper middle class women now perform such important economic roles, and they can’t perform them if they don’t have these domestic workers. So until domestic workers and other categories of excluded workers identify the leverage that they have in the workplace, I’m a little bit skeptical of government proclamation or Bills of Rights yielding significant power to these workers.
Linda: I would agree that the victory for the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is largely symbolic because the latent power of domestic workers in private homes has to be discovered by the worker, individually and collectively. And that takes a lot of work. You have to tackle her culture, her internalized oppression, patriarchy, racism, classism. These forces are all at work in our workplaces. Workers feel isolated unless they are politicized. Unless a worker has an awareness of what is going on with her and of how she got in that condition, she won’t be able to fight for herself. However, with the growth of grassroots organizations like DWU and Damayan and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, we – in the grassroots – see a transformation. Fearful and ashamed workers are now more open, more assertive and more articulate. So we’re hopeful that – one day – that kind of awareness and that kind of power could happen. And I think that the material conditions and the attacks on organized labor will hasten that process.
Saket: There is a question about the role of policy and policy victories in an organizing trajectory that we can talk about creatively. Change is not necessarily sequential; It happens through a kind of simultaneity. Many of us don’t ultimately aspire to change policy, and we don’t build power to change policy. Policy is not the end-all and be-all. But we do aspire to win policy that can be a pathway to organizing. If it helps us, then we’ll build it. Policy change is not the path to power, but it is a helpful in creative in creating conditions for organizing. And if we think of it like that, then we can really use it. The Trafficking Victims Protections Act is a wonderful policy that could not stop 110,000 guest workers from being trafficked into the country, and it doesn’t stop employers from holding them in labor camps. Part of what we’ve seen from the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and other similar policy fights is that you build up to win some policy and – simultaneously – you are doing a whole lot of organizing and leadership development and coalition -building. Hopefully that policy victory can then be used to recruit many, many other workers. Secondly, it gives some leverage when you’re in a dispute with an employer. I think it’s going to take a number of phases to get to the kind of power that you’re talking about, Dr. Piven. But I think that you are absolutely right in your analysis. Your book, Poor Peoples Movements, talks about how poverty relief programs were used