The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative: A New Organizing Model

By Bill Barclay

“Low wage labor is a subsidy to inefficient capital,” said the Labour Organization economist in Norway to me in 2010, “and that is why we fight against the creation of a low wage sector.” But what do we do in a country, like the U.S., that already has a huge low wage sector? And where eight of the 10 fastest growing occupations require only a high school education – or less? Established unions have made little progress in organizing these workers. But there are new organizing models that offer hope for the future.

The Chicago Workers Collaborative (CWC) embodies one of these new models of organizing.

According to its website, it was founded in 2000 with the goal of “uniting low-wage and temporary workers to bring down barriers for full employment and equality.” The CWC defines itself as part of the labor movement and, like unions everywhere, requires members to pay dues. But the dues are set low: $5/month, enough to insure a commitment to the organizing process but not so much as to exclude the low-wage workers that constitute CWC’s membership. Unlike union membership, however, CWC membership goes with the worker as s/he moves from one job to another. The CWC model thus builds upon both workplace and community.

Members of Chicago DSA’s Greater Oak Park branch have worked with CWC in a variety of campaigns and actions. An early success illuminated the strengths of the CWC model as well as the links to established unions. Beginning in 2011, CWC, Northern Illinois Jobs With Justice (NIJWJ, which has several DSA members on its steering committee) and the Laborers’ Union mobilized to support the almost exclusively Latino workforce at ATMI Precast in Aurora, Illinois, in the Chicago metropolitan area.

ATMI’s CEO had locked out the workers and tried to replace them with new hires from a temp agency. To support the ATMI workers, NIJWJ helped organize and joined marches and rallies, and raised funds to support workers fired for organizing. The capstone of the campaign was a January march to the home of ATMI Precast’s CEO, during which we distributed leaflets to his neighbors. According to local media, the mobilization and march were unlike anything Aurora had seen in decades.

The ATMI temp workers did not have the skills necessary to keep the factory running at capacity. In February 2012, the rehired ATMI Precast workers voted 74-9 to affiliate with the Laborers’ Union. Three months later, the workers obtained a good contract: protection against arbitrary dismissal, ATMI Precast to pay 75 percent of health insurance costs, seniority in job protection and wage increases over each of the next three years.

Recently CWC has concentrated its efforts in two directions. First, building support among the large number of workers at the assembly and fabricating plants that ring the Chicago metropolitan area. These include Sony, Phillips Norelco, Kraft, Weber Grill and others. Second, CWC is part of the larger effort to organize Wal-Mart by focusing on the supply chains and the logistics centers. Wal-Mart’s largest distribution center is in Joliet, 50 miles southwest of Chicago. In the latter campaign, CWC is allied with Warehouse Workers for Justice and the United Electrical Workers.

In their organizing work the CWC has had to recognize that, although it is class that sends some of us into assembly plants and others to Wall Street, there are multiple facets of hierarchy and domination in the U.S. workforce. Employers in the Chicago area frequently seek to pit the African-American and Latino workers against each other in order to suppress demands for a say in the workplace. CWC has responded with a “Building Bridges” initiative that helps workers from both groups understand each other and the commonality of their position and brings them in solidarity with one another’s struggles.

Of course, race and ethnicity are not the only divisions in the U.S. labor force – gender plays a role as well. And here the story of how CWC works is even more complicated. CWC starts with the consciousness of the individual male worker. Some men are ready to see that gender inequality is another part of the larger structure of oppression in U.S. capitalism; others aren’t there yet. But, when a CWC organizer says to them, “Well, you know what your boss is like. Don’t you think your wife/sister/daughter needs protection against that person, against the possibility of sexual abuse?” they begin to get it. 

That’s why CWC has created Women’s Rights committees at two of their worker centers. These committees focus on creating space, support and leadership development for women workers who experience sexual harassment and/or assault. These attacks occur both through the actions of the temp agency males who assign (or deny) jobs and by supervisors in the assembly plants where most CWC members work. Sex is the common currency for too many of these men who control access to jobs. Many Women’s Rights Committee members have experienced sexual exploitation in their workplaces and see the committees as a way to: (1) create safe spaces for women to be supported, learn how to speak out and feel unified and powerful with other women; (2) bring more women into the leadership of the organizing work; and (3) call out the abusers through legal, media and direct action to create a case for the need to adopt Basic Industry Standards Agreements.

The low-wage/temp worker sector in northern Illinois encompasses more than 300,000 workers. The CWC is implementing an organizing approach that can change this sector from one of the super-exploited to one where a living-wage job brings the possibility of upward mobility. These experiments in organizing models are a crucial part of the future of worker power in the US. 

Bill_Barclay.jpgBill Barclay is on the Steering Committee of Chicago DSA and serves as DSA National Member Organizer.




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