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.
What is the relationship between the Excluded Workers Congress and the traditional labor movement? What do you think about community-labor alliances, given the contradictions and challenges of the labor movement?
Saket: The community-labor piece is very interesting. As Smiley said, after we founded the Excluded Workers Congress in Detroit, we had our first meeting in the building of the AFL-CIO. That came out of years and years of building of relationships within each sector that scaffolded up to a moment when we could have this kind of multi-sectored conversation. To give some examples of that scaffolding, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is part of the New York City CLC (the Central Labor Council), and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network has had a long-standing partnership with the AFL-CIO. The National Guest-workers Alliance is about to start a signed partnership agreement, as well, as are a number of other EWC alliances. I think it’s extremely important for there to be intentional work to build deeper relationships with the labor movement.
Our experience is that there have been two things that have been very helpful. First, we need to directly confront the real or perceived contradictions between our constituencies and the traditional labor movement. When we look at the guest-workers question, there is theoretically a contradiction with the unions. But, in reality, when the lives and struggles of workers are at stake, everybody will come together to support the workers. As much as people may have different theoretical positions, when workers go on strike, everyone stands behind them. We’ve found that courageous workers can play an incredible and inspiring role in not only standing up for their workplace rights but also in building a broad coalition behind them. For example, in Tennessee, the President of the State Labor Federation has now become an incredible ally of guest-workers. We have been organizing guest workers in Mississippi and Texas over the past three years, and they are now deeply allied with the unions of metal trades workers. It is excluded workers themselves who play the most important role in building an alliance with labor. That alliance-building can’t just be thought of as the role of staff. It has to be workers who challenge the traditional labor movement. The workers themselves can not only inspire the labor movement; they can encourage the labor movement to recall the most noble parts of its own history.
The second factor that has been extremely important has been the presence of Jobs with Justice. It has been really important to have a permanent labor-community coalition that survives beyond single campaigns, that serves as a permanent part of the progressive infrastructure. It was Jobs with Justice that helped us to build relationships with the building trades unions and the State Labor Federation in Tennessee. It was Jobs with Justice that helped us build with the national AFL-CIO on guest-worker issues.
To sum up, it always comes back to how excluded workers can do this kind of intentional alliance-building work. It is not enough for our sectors of excluded workers to just organize ourselves. We also have to organize the rest of the labor movement. And the two ingredients that have been important in building those community-labor alliances have been workers’ leadership and the existence of a progressive organization that plays a bridge role between our sectors and the labor movement.
Premilla: I think that there has been an artificial dichotomy between community organizing and labor organizing, a division in how we think about those two arenas of work. But I think that what we’ve seen over the past twenty years is how these two areas of work are connected. The model of the “workers center” as opposed to a “labor union” based in a certain occupation or a certain industrial sector is one of the best examples of that. Workers centers are organizing centers that are based in a community; they generally aren’t based in a job site. For example, if we look at domestic workers’ organizing here in New York City, the origins of Domestic Workers United was actually in a number of different neighborhood-based and ethnically-based organizations: Pilipino organizations, South Asian organizations and so on. Many of these organizations were rooted in ethnic communities. I think it’s important to recognize that and to reflect on how that impacts the way in which we think about labor organizing. Labor organizing can’t just be about the job site. It needs to be about people’s larger lives and their connections to their communities.
Linda: I want to clarify what Premilla was talking about in terms of the origins of DWU. DWU was founded by an Asian workers organization and a South Asian workers organization – CAAAV and Andolan – but then it became its own separate organization. There is also a domestic workers coalition in New York, called the Domestic Workers Justice Coalition. There are different ethnic community groups in that coalition. There’s Damayan, which organizes Pilipino workers. And Andolan and Adhikar, organizing South Asian workers. And the biggest group in the coalition was Domestic Worker United, which organizes Caribbean and Latina domestic workers. That coalition helped to put together the original Bill of Rights and to build the campaign for its victory. Domestic Workers United was the biggest force in the campaign, but it was a coalition that passed the Bill of Rights. We needed that kind of coalition to win that kind of victory. One thing that came out of that campaign was the building of a movement, a united front. It was not just the domestic workers who won that victory. We also relied on support from religious leaders, students and organized labor.
Frances: I’m worried about all these references to the relationship between the Excluded Workers and the labor movement and the AFL-CIO. I want to see where that ends up when push comes to shove. The labor movement is very defensive right now. They are very worried, and they would like to claim as many supporters as possible. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to invest very much of their capital in supporting those supporters’ demands. So my question is: How are you planning to make the issues of excluded workers part of the fight-back that the unions are now organizing? How are you going to make excluded workers front-and-center in the fight-back rather than just allowing the unions to use your support to enlarge their public image?
Linda: There is so much in what Frances just said. We, domestic workers, have been marginalized. And we will not consent to be used again, for whatever purpose. We believe in unity. That’s why we’re part of the Excluded Workers Congress. But unity needs to be based on solid ground. The workers centers and grassroots organizations have a distinct history and struggle. We have embraced the struggles of displaced workers from poor countries who have come here. There are many components of our struggle that aren’t addressed by the labor movement, like how our lives here have impacted our families who are left back home. So while we stand for the unity of the working class – uniting workers centers and grassroots organizations to the organized labor – we also need to be clear about the vision for the unity that we are trying to build. We can see that organized labor has many problems right now, and it will really help them if community organizations and excluded workers organizations could unite with them and show numbers to support the struggle and vice versa. But I hope that the vision for this collaboration should be clear and strategic. Will it embrace our struggle? It should not only embrace the issues of the white working class in America. It should embrace the struggle of women and migrant workers. And without that vision, I don’t know about the long-term potential for the relationship. Are we talking about tactical relationships or long-term relationships? Because I believe that this relationship has to be long-term and that our strategy and vision has to be clear.
Smiley: Building off of what Linda just said, I think that this is a real healthy tension that the Excluded Workers Congress is dealing with: getting clear about what our relationship should be with traditional labor unions and about the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation. I think that we can’t approach that work as being “in solidarity” with the traditional labor movement or with the current fight to defend collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. It can’t be, “The Excluded Workers Congress supports your fight.” We shouldn’t approach it like it’s a separate fight, and we’re out on someone else’s picket line. We’re in solidarity with that fight-back because it is our fight, too. We came together to expand the human right to organize. It just so happens that the political climate right now is forcing many of our brothers and sisters in traditional labor unions to be in that fight, too. They’re beginning to see their own contradictions. And if they don’t see them, we’re there to help them see.
Members of the Excluded Workers Congress were in Indiana. I was there, and early on it was mostly white building trades folks who were out there. I had to try to mobilize some of the excluded workers as well as Black and Brown service sector workers and public sector workers to mix it up a little bit. The point is that, if we’re not there, then we’re going to lose.
The historical challenges that we have with traditional labor are real. There’s a lot of backstabbing. There’s a lot of self-interest and opportunism, and we can’t be naïve about that. But, at the same time, it’s not an excuse for us to not try to continue to build unity and unify the working class overall. If we take that history as an excuse, then we are going to continue to be weak and marginal. We have to continue to skirt the line of this very tense partnership. We have to figure out when it’s a tactical partnership and when it’s an opportunity to build long-term unity. That’s an important contradiction that we continue to struggle with.
Saket: A lot of excellent points have been raised. This has been a very stimulating discussion. I want to close by talking about: at what level does change happen? It won’t happen first here and then there and then there. I don’t think there is a clear roadmap. It’s all going to happen simultaneously. But, at the end of the day, if there isn’t deep transformation between workers in the same industries or in the same places geographically or in the same sectors of society, then there can’t be institutional transformation. Let me give you an example. We are building a chapter of Jobs with Justice in New Orleans, and we had a really good steering committee meeting a couple of weeks ago. There was a delegate from the Day Laborers Congress there, and there were a bunch of other people, including people from the traditional labor movement. And a gentleman walked into the room who was the Vice-President of the New Orleans Transit Workers Union, which has been a very militant all-black trade union, especially after Katrina. Now this gentleman was the vice president of the Transit Workers Union, an important position. But no one around the table knew him, except for the day laborer delegate who knew him because he rides his bus every morning. And our day laborer delegate said, “Oh I know you. You’re my bus driver.” And the bus driver said, “Yeah. And I’m also the vice president of the Transit Workers Union.” And it opened up the meeting very beautifully. Because that’s really the level at which we need to build coalition. What we’re talking about is building coalitions between working people themselves. That is the basic foundation on which we can rebuild the labor movement and the broader progressive movement in this country.