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From the Streets: Organizing informal economy workers: The new frontier for U.S. trade unions

Fri, Jun 22, 2012

Globalization has dramatically reshaped employment relations throughout the world in the early 21st century. In both developed and developing nations, employers desire increased work force flexibility in order to evade employment legislation and regulations. This drive for flexibility has led to a dramatic shrinkage of standard jobs in the labor market’s primary sector, defined as jobs that are well-regulated, that offer a regular wage, and that provide job security. Replacing these standard jobs is work in the economy’s informal sector, which is characterized by employment that provides workers with little if any legal protection. Typical informal economy workers include independent contractors, self-employed workers, day laborers, home health care workers, and temporary workers.

Statistics indicate that the informal economy comprises approximately 8.5 to 10 percent of the US economy with six percent of the labor force being self-employed and another five percent classified as temporary workers, respectively. Furthermore, workers holding these non-standard jobs in the US are more likely to be immigrants, people of color and women. Moreover, the Great Recession of 2007- 2009 increased the number of non-standard workers as many employees lost their primary sector jobs and scrambled to obtain any job they could find.

Throughout most of the 20th century, US trade unions focused their organizing efforts on workers in the primary sector who possessed collective bargaining rights due to the 1935 passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Even though the NLRA fails to protect all informal economy workers, it is crucial that US trade unions target such workers, because the quantity of these workers will undoubtedly increase in the foreseeable future.

Although organizing non-standard workers may not result in signed collective bargaining agreements, unions embarking on such attempts, nevertheless, have achieved benefits for such workers. Organizing by the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Communication Workers of America (CWA) demonstrate the viability of such efforts among informal economy workers.

LIUNA, whose jurisdiction includes unskilled construction workers, has recently partnered with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). NDLON, created in 2001 by 43 community organizations and worker centers, provides services to unskilled day laborers working in construction. LIUNA has experienced falling union density in the construction industry over the past 30 years, but its alliance with NDLON is attempting to unionize day laborers in order to negotiate contracts for them. To attain this objective, LIUNA’s Eastern region charted Local 55 with New Labor, a New Jersey workers center, which has established a floor for pay and has helped day laborers collect unpaid wages from non-union employers. Two remaining major obstacles confronting LIUNA in organizing these workers are the downturn in residential construction that started during the Great Recession and the primarily immigrant composition of the workforce.

The SEIU has successfully organized home healthcare workers who deliver medical care for disabled and elderly people in private residences. Although some of these workers obtain their employment through private agencies, many are hired on an ad hoc basis and are characterized as independent contractors who lack collective bargaining protection. In California, the SEIU conducted a political campaign where it successfully reclassified home healthcare workers as employees and enabled county-run authorities to assume the operation of these home care programs. After the SEIU launched a joint organizing drive with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in California, these two organizations successfully unionized homecare workers in several counties. In addition, the SEIU obtained representation rights in 1999 for 74,000 Los Angeles County employees in the industry.

Finally, longtime temporary and contract workers, referred to as “permatemps” employed by Microsoft, established WashTech in 1998. Shortly after forming, the group affiliated with the CWA and began to fight for overtime payments, which were denied to these employees under Washington state legislation. Active in filing lawsuits against the misclassification of these “permatemps” as independent contractors, WashTech successfully obtained a $97 million settlement for 8,000 employees from Microsoft in 2000. Although WashTech’s primary objective is to negotiate contracts for these workers, it has obtained only four to date. Nevertheless, the CWA continues to actively promote a non-collective bargaining model of trade unionism for these non-traditional professional employees.

With the continued erosion of standard work in the early 21st century, labor market flexibility remains the key watchword for many US companies. In this changing environment, US trade unions also must strive for flexibility, which means that labor will not always be able to develop collective bargaining relationships with employers. Although it is difficult to organize any group of workers early in the 21st century’s second decade, US trade unions must be open to promoting an alternative model of trade unionism for best serving informal economy workers. While not necessarily ideal, such an approach undoubtedly would provide such workers with crucial protection which they sorely lack.

Victor Devinatz, StreetWise Contributor


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