Who are Excluded Workers?
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, millions of workers in the United States are excluded from one of the most basic human rights: the right to organize. Either by policy or by practice, millions of workers cannot organize without facing retaliation. They cannot bargain collectively to transform their workplace conditions, and they cannot access basic labor protections. In short: millions of workers are robbed of dignity.
These workers include more than a million and a half farmworkers, nearly two million domestic workers, millions of public employees in the eleven states and private employees in the twenty-two states that have right-to-work laws, nearly three million tipped workers and hundreds of thousands of guestworkers and day laborers. Some of these workers are excluded through explicit policies: farmworkers and domestic workers are named as exceptions to the right to organize, while restaurant workers are defined as “tipped workers” and excluded from minimum wage laws. Taxi drivers are explicitly excluded from the legal definition of “employee” itself and thus excluded from any labor protections. Other workers are excluded from labor rights and protections through practice – either because existing laws are not enforced or because their precarious economic and legal status make it dangerous for them to claim even their guaranteed rights. But whether these exclusions are explicit or implicit, they undercut workers’ ability to organize. This leads to exploitative and degraded working conditions for excluded workers that, in turn, lower the floor for all workers.
These exclusions developed out of the convergence of two social dynamics: (1) the historical legacy of racial exclusion that has been institutionalized in US labor law (like the exclusion of farmworkers and domestic workers from the National Labor Relations Act as a concession to segregationist Southern senators in the 1930s) and (2) the impact of globalization, which has rendered much of current labor law structurally ineffective in addressing the changed dynamics of workplaces worldwide. Fundamental shifts in the organization of global political and economic power have forever transformed the conditions facing workers in the United States and around the world. These shifts – the decline of the manufacturing economy in the United States and its emergence in Latin America and Asia, the development of a service economy in the United States, the rise of international migration – have creating new and challenging conditions for workers worldwide, conditions that are becoming increasingly similar over time. The problems facing excluded workers are not theirs alone. The struggles that they face – low wages, unstable employment and weak labor protections – are the struggles of increasing numbers of working class people in the United States.
The Rise of a New Workers Movement
Over the past two decades, hundreds of independent workers centers have emerged from these historically excluded sectors. At first, these organizations were seen as hopeful upstarts, but they have grown and matured into well-respected organizations that have built sizable membership bases and won significant and innovative victories. Many of these workers centers have affiliated with national sector-based networks or expanded into national membership organizations: the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network and more.
These independent workers organizations have waged a number of inspiring campaigns over the past twenty years, and each one provides an inspiring story of triumph against all odds and against every prediction of defeat. Given the long-standing challenges facing the labor movement and other progressive movements, these inspiring moments are important in themselves. But – perhaps more importantly – these hard-won victories suggest larger and more significant trajectories for the emergence of a new framework for labor rights and workers’ power for the 21st century.
The successful passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York State has already inspired the introduction of similar legislation in California and the beginnings of similar campaigns in other states around the country. This Bill of Rights is not only significant because it challenges the decades-long exclusion of domestic workers from basic labor protections. Its provision of paid sick days actually extends the reach of government regulation beyond the normal range of labor protections. Going beyond a more hands-off governmental mediation of “collective bargaining” between workers and employers, the Bill of Rights suggests a model of state-mandated “collective standards” for all workers.
The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity waged a dramatic confrontation with immigration authorities, and they were able to win full legalization for guestworkers who had been trafficked from India by a major corporation. This victory is a demonstration of the ways in which contemporary workers’ struggles must necessarily expand beyond narrow workplace battles or “civil rights” frameworks to incorporate a broader “human rights” framework that can address the full range of international dynamics impacting workers’ lives today.
The HOPE Coalition waged a tenacious confrontation against a North Carolina law in that bars public employees from collective bargaining. Their fight demonstrates that the long-term battle waged by the labor movement against right-to-work policies in the South is far from over. The multi-racial nature of their struggle also suggests that the vibrancy that is normally attributed strictly to contemporary immigrant workers’ struggle is actually much broader. They vibrancy extends across racial, sectoral and regional lines.
These positive developments demonstrate the potential for excluded workers to help rejuvenate and transform the broader labor movement. But they also suggest the broad contours of new framework for transformative labor rights and protections for the 21st century. These new frameworks must end the explicit exclusions that intentionally restrict the rights of currently excluded sectors, but they must expand beyond inclusion alone. Labor laws must be reshaped so that they reflect the changes in workplace structures and the composition of the workforce in the 21st century. New frameworks for the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, and other workers’ rights and protections must be rooted in human rights, and they must address the international dynamics of labor in today’s economy. While the specific contours of these policies remain unclear, the formation of the Excluded Workers Congress provides a vehicle for the formation and clarification of new transformative vision.
The Formation of the Excluded Workers Congress
During the June 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Jobs with Justice and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network brought together nine sectors of excluded workers to found the Excluded Workers Congress. The nine sectors of the Excluded Workers Congress include domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day laborers, guestworkers, workers from Southern right- to-work states, workfare workers and formerly incarcerated workers.
These sectors came together around a common dream: to vastly expand the human right to organize in the United States, to win a new era of rights and policies for workers, and to transform the labor movement in this country. The Excluded Workers Congress was formed to bring “the human right to organize” to life. All of these workers need a new era of rights and protections. The current framework for collective bargaining in the United States has not caught up with these shifts. Our framework for organizing and bargaining, and our framework for labor law, was won in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The Excluded Workers Congress is imagining an entirely new framework for organizing. Instead of seeking refuge from antiquated labor law, excluded workers are asserting that they have the human right to organize—and building campaigns to prove it. In response to the transformation of the economy and their own conditions, excluded workers are leading transformative campaigns that bring a human rights frame to life. By coming together to build the Excluded Workers Congress, these organizations hope to build a shared basis of power that will allow them to work together with established unions to rebuild and transform the labor movement, to win expansive reforms in federal labor law, and to create a reality in which all workers can exercise their human right to organize.
During the first gathering of the Excluded Workers Congress, more than four hundred workers engaged in hours of story-telling to educate each other about the conditions in their different sectors and about the innovative campaigns they have developed to expand labor protections and to build worker power.
Building on the foundation of unity established in Detroit, representatives from each of the nine sectors came together in Washington DC in October 2010 to develop shared analysis, vision and collective strategies. During this meeting, the members of the Excluded Workers Congress formalized their federation and committed to engaging in shared campaign work. After reflecting on the history of racialized exclusion from labor protections and on the recent political-economic shifts that have altered the terrain of workers struggles, the members of the Excluded Workers Congress defined their shared mission to be expanding the right to organize for all workers to meet the new conditions of the 21st century. They situated that struggle solidly within a human right framework, recognizing that globalized economies require that contemporary workers struggles must also be international in character.
In addition to developing an interim structure and plans for collaborative campaign work, the Excluded Workers Congress used the opportunity of being in the Capital to network with the Department of Labor, members of Congress and national labor leaders.
Congressional Hearings: Restaurant Opportunities Center United held a congressional hearing on health and safety issues in the restaurant industry, and Community Voices Heard led a congressional hearing on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) during the Congress. Additionally Jobs with Justice and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice led a meeting with Representative Miller.
Department of Labor: Members of the Excluded Workers Congress held an extended meeting with the Department of Labor. The Congress educated Department officials on the conditions of workers in their industries, shared strategies for improving working conditions and discussed the possibility of establishing an Excluded Workers Task Force at the Department of Labor.
Labor Movement: The Excluded Workers Congress also engaged in strategic dialogue with high-ranking representatives from SEIU and the AFL-CIO. The meeting with the AFL-CIO was particularly hopeful, opening the door to ongoing dialogue and meaningful collaboration towards organizing these sectors, which have historically been excluded from the traditional labor movement.
These meetings helped the Excluded Workers Congress to begin to establish itself as a meaningful political force in national labor politics.
During the DC Gathering, the Excluded Workers Congress identified several broad arenas for shared work: (1) Shared campaigns to win immediate improvements in the conditions facing excluded workers; (2) Strengthening and expanding the labor movement; and (3) Long-term efforts to develop a new framework to transform and expand workers rights to organize in the 21st century. The Congress intends to use both of these arenas of work as opportunities to deepen its relationships with the broader labor movement.
(1) Collaborative Campaign Work: The Excluded Workers Congress chose two campaigns around which to focus their collaborative campaign work:
Demanding a meaningful minimum wage,campaigns at both state and federal levelsto raise and index the minimum wage. These campaigns would also work to include workers who are currently excluded from minimum wage protections, including tipped workers, home health care workers and agricultural workers. These campaign efforts are spearheaded by ROC-United.
P.O.W.E.R. Act, federal legislationthat would give legal status to workers who are victims of serious labor violations or are pursuing workplace claims. This would protect undocumented workers who are fighting for their labor rights, shielding them from the threat of retaliation. The POWER Act campaign was initiated by the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity.
(2) Strengthening and Expanding the Labor Movement: The Excluded Workers Congress is working to come together with allies in the trade unions to rejuvenate and transform the broader labor movement. The Excluded Workers Congress hopes to engage in joint practice and strategy with the established labor movement in order to develop and advance a new transformative vision for labor rihts and protections. Specifically, The Excluded Workers Congress hopes to:
Engage in ongoing strategic dialogue across the labor movement – dialogues that bring together excluded worker organizations and trade unions to share lessons about the limitations of current collective bargaining policies and to develop new visions toward an expansion of labor protections and the right to organize.
Promote the inclusion of excluded worker organizations in local labor councils and statewide labor federations in order to ensure that solidarity manifests in concrete shared work.
Build solidarity and mutual support between excluded worker organizations and trade unions by supporting each other’s campaigns at both the local and national levels.
Develop and participate in coll