Worker Centers Expand The Labor Movement

A paid sick days rally in New York.                          

By Kim Bobo

Are you discouraged this Labor Day? There’s plenty of bleak news. Wages are stagnant; union representation is declining; Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have all passed right-to-work laws in the last three years; the Supreme Court may soon gut public-sector unions, and Congress refuses to raise the minimum wage or establish earned sick days.

Still, there is hope. States and cities are raising the minimum wage to levels no one could have imagined just a few years ago. Tens of thousands of low-wage workers are rallying for $15 an hour. Earned-sick-day laws are passing in states and cities across the nation at an unprecedented rate. 

A major source of creativity and fresh thinking comes from worker centers. Although as yet uncoordinated nationally, they have enormous potential to revive a labor movement under brutal attack.

No one knows exactly how many worker centers exist, but observers estimate that there are about 250 in the country. Fifteen years ago, there were just a handful. Only about half of the centers are affiliated with one of the worker center networks. Most operate on their own.

No two worker centers have the exact same programs and approach, although most do the following:

Build power and organize for social change. Worker centers have led and won campaigns to get paid sick days for all workers (San Francisco), strengthen enforcement against wage theft (many communities), require drinking water for construction workers (Austin), remove employment barriers for formerly incarcerated workers (Chicago), and enact a bill of rights for domestic workers (New York and California). Worker centers are building power and exercising that power to improve conditions for increasingly larger numbers of workers.

Offer worker rights education and outreach. Most workers without unions have no idea what their rights are in the workplace, let alone what to do if their rights are being violated. Thus, worker centers educate workers about their rights and what they can do to address workplace problems. Worker centers tend to use popular education approaches that engage people based on their lived experiences.

Organize to address workplace problems. Wage theft and health and safety problems are the two most common problems addressed by worker centers. Centers assist workers in filing claims with government agencies, connect workers with lawyers who can file suits for back wages, refer them to unions if they want to organize a union in their workplace, and organize direct action campaigns to get employers to pay workers their owed wages. One long-time worker center organizer described worker centers as operating in the space between organizing and enforcement. The centers demand enforcement of the laws, but they also organize to change and improve the laws.

Train leaders. Worker centers seek to develop a strong cadre of committed and experienced leaders who represent and are connected with the community. Some of these leaders are being hired by the labor movement.

Develop democratic structures for participation. Many workers are already leaders, and so the centers affirm and encourage their leadership. Others have never seen themselves as leaders, but become leaders as they organize campaigns.

In addition to the core functions described above, many worker centers also:

Arrange for jobs at fair wages. Workers (especially day laborers) create systems for negotiating with possible employers, setting and enforcing wage standards, and sharing the work in ways that seem equitable. Many worker centers promote their hiring halls in the community in ways that produce more jobs for workers.

Create worker cooperatives. Worker centers have created cleaning, cooking, and construction co-ops and companies. Workers decide that they want to start and operate their own businesses so they can create better working conditions and keep more of the profits of their labor.

Offer ESL classes and other special educational programs. Because so many centers serve immigrant workers, many offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Casa de Maryland offers financial education classes. Centers affiliated with the Restaurant Opportunities Center United offer training in how to work in the fine-dining industry. Casa Latina in Seattle, which works primarily with day laborers, offers training on how to stay safe on the job, basic green gardening, safe cleaning and safe moving skills. Some centers partner with unions and offer construction trades training.

Advocate immigration reform and fight attacks on immigrants. In many communities, the worker center was started by immigrant leaders or is deeply connected with the immigrant community. Such worker centers tend to be strong advocates for immigration reform and have led efforts to challenge public attacks on immigrants. Some centers assist workers in filing for special immigration programs.

Sponsor social and recreational activities. Some centers sponsor soccer clubs, host dances, and organize activities for youth. Worker centers become a hub of social and communal activities.

Even as organized labor declines in membership, worker centers provide fresh energy. They can help reinvigorate the labor movement by:        

Affiliating with central labor councils. As of June 2015, 25 worker centers had affiliated with central labor councils, and more are requesting affiliation. The AFL-CIO recently published a guide on how centers can affiliate, and the UCLA Labor Center produced a report on how those affiliations are going. Both documents can be downloaded from

Adding creativity, courage, and passion to labor’s ranks. Worker centers take on David-and-Goliath-type fights. They lead hunger strikes, sit-ins, prayer vigils, and delegations to employers. They are masters of direct action tactics. They shake up the “organizing as usual” model of many unions.

Reaching unprotected workers. Worker centers have been organized by workers who are not protected by unions. Mostly they are organized by immigrants, but increasingly centers are formed by or working with African American workers as well. Many of these workers would love to be in unions, but unions are not organizing in their communities or workplaces. These workers are potential union members and allies.

Identifying and training future labor leadership. The labor movement has always been built by strong rank-and-file activists. The leaders who have been formed and trained in worker centers will help shape the labor movement of the future.

Reaching and organizing young people of color. Worker centers are mostly run by young people and mostly led by people of color. Some are even reaching into high schools. Voces de la Frontera, with worker centers in Milwaukee and Racine, attracts high school students through its civic engagement program. Voces worked on four school funding referenda. On Election Day in 2012, 500 student volunteers and adult mentors knocked on 6,300 doors in Racine, Wisconsin.

Worker centers bring new vitality and vision to the labor movement. They engage thousands of workers in fighting for their workplace rights and training new leaders. Worker centers are not a substitute for unions, but they are a part of the labor movement, one that offers great hope for the future of labor.

So, this Labor Day, don’t be discouraged. Connect with a worker center near you. Volunteer. Give money. Be inspired and filled with hope.

Kim Bobo is the founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice and a huge fan of worker centers. Parts of this article are excerpted from a new book she has written with her colleague Marien Casillas Pabellon, forthcoming in 2016.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


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