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LOCAL Review :: Labor & Class

Book Review: Poor Workers' Unions

real world stories of on the job resistance to exploitation, forcasting a labor movement where every worker is an organizer
poor workers unions.gif
book review by Jason Guard

Poor Workers' Unions:
Rebuilding Labor from Below

by Vanessa Tait, 2005

In July 2005, the AFL-CIO suffered a dramatic split at its 50th anniversary annual convention in Chicago. The most significant event of this change occurred when the organization of service workers, SEIU, unveiled its grassroots-oriented "Change to Win" coalition and severed their ties (and dues) from the historic national labor federation, declaring a departure from the AFL-CIO's emphasis on lobbying in Washington DC. However, below the surface, there has long been a division between organizing workers to demand change and maneuvering lobbyists for clout in the labor movement. The ongoing struggle of workers who have been neglected and often discriminated against by "mainstream" labor movement organizations like the AFL-CIO is the subject of a new book by Vanessa Tait, titled "Poor Workers Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below." She pieces together an inspiring and sometimes revolutionary history of organizing trends among disenfranchised workers in the US. Her research ties together diverse elements from the Civil Rights Movement, women's movements, New Left, community organizations, living wage campaigns, immigrant and migrant workers' efforts, and SEIU's social justice style organizing, optimistically concluding that we are seeing an organizing renaissance from beneath, and yes, within the contemporary labor movement.

The stories that make up our history of workers' rights struggles are quickly
forgotten details in the United States of Amnesia. The eight-hour work day,
weekends off, and child labor laws are just a few of the gains that citizens
have fought and died for in pitched battles with American industry profiteers. However, these major developments in history, when they are recalled, tend to obscure the complex and nuanced tradition of grassroots organizing for justice on the job. In fact, unionism among skilled workers is just one of many important efforts that shapes the relationship between workers and corporations. In Poor Workers' Unions, Vanessa Tait details an American labor history that continues to empower workers, defy political parties, and put big business in check - all in spite of organized labor's desire for political influence, the trade union tendencies toward bigotry and discrimination against women, people of color, and the most economically disenfranchised.

Today, organized labor in the US is popularly viewed as a troublemaking
outsider rather than a protector of the common good and embraced as part of
society's shared culture. Unions carry a stigma of corruption and political
opportunism. For poor workers, the situation is exponentially dire. Tait writes in her introduction, "Labor had become an institution protecting the interests of the organized few, instead of a broad social movement representing the interests of all workers. Many in the traditional labor movement did not believe that poor workers could be organized, either because of their fluctuating job status, or because of prejudices against their race, ethnicity, gender, poverty, or immigration." Organized labor offers little respite for most janitors and unskilled workers. In American society, the suffering of the working poor is a fact of life that is rarely questioned, not even by those who purportedly aspire to represent workers.

A local example might add something to the description of "Poor Workers' Unions." Over the course of it's five year existence, the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage has been pulled in two distinct directions. To accomplish their goal of increasing wages for city workers, members have sought to organize employees of the day labor temp agencies where the City is hiring hundreds of workers at exploitative wages. This strategy would give poor people a voice in changing the labor practices of their employers. However, the only way to achieve a higher standard of pay would be to have Richmond's City Council pass a Living Wage ordinance. This has focused many at RCLW on lobbying, convening delegations of influential supporters including representatives of Unions, clergy, and community leaders - all focused at City Hall. Work done on both of these fronts has produced some victories, although small and generally short lived. Although both strategies may be necessary, the organization was never able to simultaneously fund and support the two aspects of this two pronged approach.

From Tait's view, and perhaps similar to SEIU's tact, RCLW's emphasis should have been exclusively on building a culture of change within the ranks of Richmond's working poor. Real change begins when we come out of our meetings and into the streets where real people live and work every day. Changing the priorities of the labor movement has been a slow build, but Tait builds a convincing case that it is really happening.

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