The Variable Relationships Between Worker Centers And Unions

Above photo: Members of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network show their support for undocumented workers, December 10, 2005, in Glendale, California. Stefano Paltera/AP.

In some cities, the two kinds of worker organizations frequently collaborate.

In other cities, not so much.

This article is part of our series The Alt-Labor Chronicles: America’s Worker Centers.

Like many immigrant workers, Pascual Tapia, a late-night janitor at a Target store in Minneapolis, was a victim of wage theft. He often worked 56 hours a week, but he was hardly ever paid time and a half for overtime. And like many immigrant workers in the Twin Cities, he turned to a highly regarded worker center for help: CTUL, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (the Center of United Workers in Struggle).

Tapia was delighted when CTUL won over $1,000 in back pay for him as part of the more than $1 million in settlements it won from cleaning contractors for Target and other big-box stores. But Tapia, CTUL, and many other Twin Cities janitors agreed that winning back pay wasn’t enough: The janitors wanted to end systemic wage theft, and beyond that, they wanted to somehow become union members.

“A union would be great for us,” said Tapia, a father of four from Puebla, Mexico. “It would help with pay, holidays, and health care.”

But the retail janitors’ market was so dodgy and disorganized that some union leaders considered it unorganizable. The 600 janitors who cleaned big-box stores in the Twin Cities worked for 20 different contractors, many of them fly-by-night operations. But CTUL was undaunted; determined to improve pay and conditions, it organized a 12-day hunger strike by janitors, a half dozen one-day walkouts, and a three-mile protest march. As a result of this persistent pressure, Target, Best Buy, and Macy’s adopted a responsible contractor policy for their Twin Cities cleaning companies. Those retailers jettisoned their crooked contractors and narrowed down the ones they had used to just four “responsible” contractors.

Founded in 2007, CTUL has developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most effective and forward-looking worker centers. There are more than 200 of these nonprofit organizations, established in cities and towns nationwide, largely to help immigrant workers with problems like wage theft and unsafe working conditions.

“Some worker centers have come out of churches and religious groups, some out of immigrant groups, some out of Legal Aid, and some out of the civil rights movement,” said Janice Fine, a labor relations professor at Rutgers and author of Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. “Some were founded by people who were involved in Central American solidarity.”

With far more order brought to the cleaning industry, CTUL’s leaders began thinking that the janitors in large retail establishments might indeed be organizable. So CTUL joined forces with SEIU Local 26, which represented several thousand downtown office building janitors. That was in 2014, and together they plunged into two years of arduous organizing. Oftentimes just one or two janitors worked in a big-box store after midnight, and organizers frequently arranged conference calls in the wee hours with scores of janitors scattered across the Twin Cities. At the time, the downtown unionized janitors earned $15 an hour and had health coverage, while non-union retail janitors usually earned $8 or $9 an hour without health coverage.

In 2016, SEIU Local 26—having benefited from CTUL’s close relationship with the 600 janitors—won union recognition for those janitors. It was the nation’s biggest, most successful effort to unionize retail janitors. “It doesn’t seem revolutionary, but these workers haven’t done anything like this,” said Veronica Mendez Moore, CTUL’s co-director. The next year, Local 26 negotiated the first contract for those janitors, winning an 18 percent raise over three years, including an immediate $1.50-an-hour raise.

Unfortunately, this CTUL-SEIU cooperation is the exception, not the rule—worker centers and unions rarely get along so well. Indeed, there’s a history of often uneasy, even resentful behavior toward each other. Some union leaders complained that worker centers help undocumented workers who undercut labor standards, while some worker centers grumbled that unions often ignored immigrant workers and their problems. Whatever the tensions, many labor experts hailed this CTUL-SEIU joint organizing effort as the nation’s most successful episode of cooperation between a worker center and a union.

Kevin Pranis, a laborers’ union official in Minnesota, read about CTUL’s work to unionize janitors and came away impressed. “If you can organize big-box janitorial, that’s a hell of an accomplishment,” he said. “That’s the first thing that struck me—these are folks who can dig in and get something done.”

Soon the laborers’ and carpenters’ unions reached out to CTUL to explore possible cooperation. They wondered whether CTUL could help lift the floor of the Twin Cities’ construction industry by improving wages and working conditions as it had with cleaning contractors. But some other construction union officials distrusted CTUL. After all, didn’t CTUL go to bat for non-union immigrant workers who those officials believed were undercutting union labor and union wages? Commercial construction in the Twin Cities is heavily unionized, but residential construction is overwhelmingly non-union, with residential contractors relying heavily on immigrant workers.

“Some building trades unions resent workers of color and workers in residential,” said Javier Morillo, who was president of Local 26 when it unionized the big-box janitors. That viewpoint angered Morillo. “You shouldn’t be resentful of workers in residential when you’re not even trying to organize residential,” he said.

For years, CTUL’s Mendez had seen big problems in the Twin Cities’ construction industry. “The majority of people who come to us about wage theft are construction workers. It’s a nightmare of an industry—residential, roofing, remodeling,” she said. “We’ve always had in the back of our mind, what are we going to do about this industry? The bottom rung is like the Wild West.”

Union officials were appalled at what was happening on that bottom rung, and many were alarmed that some bottom-rung contractors were moving up to higher-rung work, like stucco work for hotels and other commercial buildings, which was traditionally union. Building trades officials feared that these bottom-feeding contractors would pull down industry standards.

The story of Ricardo Batres, a Twin Cities housing contractor, crystallized those fears. Batres was sentenced to nine months in prison after pleading guilty to labor trafficking, the first such conviction in Twin Cities history. Several workers said Batres had threatened to kill them if they complained publicly about wage theft, and several said he had threatened to have injured workers deported if they sought medical attention. After immigration officials arrested several of his workers and released one of them, Batres held that worker captive, telling the worker he had paid his bail and legal fees and wouldn’t free him until he had repaid his debt. CTUL had helped expose these outrages.

The building trades unions were eager to get the word out about the worst contractors. “Outside the construction industry, people have no idea how insane it can be, how unsafe,” Pranis said. “We need to document stories and find the evidence of what’s happening. CTUL has done a good job of that.”

When some of the construction unions sought to work with CTUL, they faced some problems early on. Unions and worker centers that agree to cooperate often encounter cultural tensions. The worker center’s staff and members are often Spanish-speaking and conduct their business informally, while unions are often overwhelmingly white, English-speaking, and hierarchical. “We had to take the relationship pretty slow,” said Burt Johnson, general counsel for the carpenters’ union in the Twin Cities. “First it was to try to identify ways that our goals and CTUL’s goals might be similar.”

Johnson said the carpenters, laborers, and CTUL soon realized they shared several goals: They wanted to stop wage theft and unsafe conditions and to expose the worst contractors. They also agreed that it wasn’t yet time to attempt to unionize the residential sector because conditions were so bad, and many contractors so shady.

“In some industries, there is this feeling about stepping on our toes—why don’t they just go union?” Mendez said. “The construction union folks we’re working with are really visionary. They know we can’t do it all at once. Maybe in 20 years, they’ll all be union. Right now, that’s not a reality; we should be thinking about a different vehicle to improve conditions and make sure workers have a voice.”

To which end, CTUL and the carpenters’ and laborers’ unions, with a boost from the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, have created that “different vehicle,” which they call the Building Dignity and Respect Standards Council. Their plan is to pressure Twin Cities real estate developers and building contractors to join that council, a move that would require their contractors and subcontractors to comply with specific standards on pay, benefits, safety, training, and more. A third-party monitor would assure compliance, and there’d be a 24-hour hotline for worker complaints. They borrowed from two models developed by worker centers in other states: the Fair Food Standards Council that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers developed to improve conditions for Florida tomato workers, and the Better Builder Program developed by the Workers Defense Project in Austin, Texas.

Woodrow Piner, a business representative with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters in Minnesota, said, “The big picture is that unions have been losing, and we have to think differently. That means thinking outside the box with a worker-driven organization like this.”

Worker centers and unions in other cities are already looking to this Twin Cities effort as a potential model to follow, even though CTUL and its union partners are still hammering out final details for the council they’re creating. Workers’ Dignity, a worker center in Nashville, is talking with that city’s painters’ union about setting up a similar council.

CTUL’s Mendez is excited by the prospect of creating a standards council to lift the construction industry’s floor. “This is somewhere between total unaccountability and having a union,” she said. “Having a union is the ideal. It creates the highest standard.”

PABLO ALVARADO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), remembers when relations were far worse between worker centers and construction unions. In the mid-1990s, he sought to open a storefront for immigrant day laborers in Pasadena, but two construction unions hostile to those workers—the operating engineers and the electrical workers—blocked the storefront from opening by persuading city officials not to grant it a permit.

“In the beginning,” Fine said, “there was either no relationship between worker centers and unions or there was a mistrustful one where some unions thought, ‘Who are these guys? They’re on our turf. They should stay out of our way.’” A decade later, in 2005, several building trades unions on Long Island pushed their local congressman, Peter King, to include several anti–day laborer provisions in Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner’s harsh immigration bill. Those provisions included employment verification requirements for day laborers and criminalizing day labor centers at Home Depot and elsewhere.

If enacted, those provisions would have essentially put day laborers out of business nationwide. NDLON sought to block those provisions, and some intermediaries arranged for Alvarado to meet with aides to Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader. Pelosi’s aides told him that they sympathized with his concerns, but if NDLON wanted those provisions struck from the bill, it needed organized labor to weigh in on its behalf.

Around that time, the AFL-CIO had suffered a historic schism, with several major unions—the SEIU, Teamsters, hotel workers, and food and commercial workers—quitting the federation. Those unions had been leading the labor movement’s efforts to organize immigrant workers and to win a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. With those unions gone, the AFL-CIO’s president, John Sweeney, was eager to make sure the federation continued battling on behalf of immigrant workers—his parents had been immigrants from Ireland. Some of Sweeney’s top aides had heard of NDLON’s need for labor’s help on Capitol Hill.

All this led to a groundbreaking partnership between the AFL-CIO and NDLON, which in turn paved the way for a wave of cooperation between worker centers and national unions, union locals and state and city labor federations. “Ironically, our partnership with the AFL-CIO was born out of building trades unions’ hostility toward day labor centers,” said Chris Newman, NDLON’s general counsel.

The AFL-CIO/NDLON partnership began with a dialogue. “The first thing you do when you want to build a partnership with other groups of workers is you get to know each other,” Alvarado said. As part of getting to know each other, many union officials visited day labor centers, while day laborers visited union hiring halls. In the summer of 2006, two dozen union officials went to Agoura Hills, an affluent community 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where local day laborers had managed to set a minimum wage for their work. When the union leaders were in Agoura Hills, they witnessed an outdoor meeting where day laborers voted 85 to 15 to raise their minimum rate to $15 an hour, from $12. Later, the union leaders saw day laborers decline to work for people who drove up and offered them just $10 or $12 an hour.

“When the union leaders came to Agoura Hills,” Alvarado said, “they saw 100 day laborers gathering in the streets, talking about improving wages and working conditions. That’s how unions started—in the streets.”

Jon Hiatt, the AFL-CIO’s general counsel at the time, joined the visit to Agoura Hills. “We told ourselves: This is what the building trades unions were 100 years ago. I came away with the strong belief that we, organized labor, had the experience, expertise, and resources to help, and that these worker centers had this new creativity and energy. Shame on all of us if we couldn’t figure out a way to do a better job working together.”

Out of this partnership, the AFL-CIO persuaded Congress to delete the anti–day labor provisions from the Sensenbrenner bill. Another result: The AFL-CIO and many unions worked closely with NDLON and other worker centers and immigrant groups to set up the immense May 1, 2006, nationwide marches for immigration reform. Soon the AFL-CIO established the AFL-CIO National Worker Center Partnership, and in the subsequent six years, 16 worker centers affiliated with labor councils in 11 cities.

“I’ve talked about the worker center world and the union world as parallel labor movements, but they’re actually two different arms of the same labor movement,” Hiatt said. Many worker centers and immigrant workers, he said, “would be happy to have collective bargaining.” Under American law, worker groups can’t have collective bargaining unless they first demonstrate majority support at a particular workplace or company.

In the wake of the AFL-CIO/NDLON partnership, many examples of labor–worker center cooperation have sprouted up. Labor unions worked with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, and other worker centers to persuade the L.A. City Council to enact a $15 minimum wage. The SEIU advised and helped finance the Awood Center, a Minnesota group that advocates for East African immigrant workers—it organized the first-ever walkout against Amazon in North America, at a warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota. Interfaith Worker Justice, a clergy group that supports low-wage workers, set up several worker centers across the country that partnered with unions representing meatpacking and other workers. The United Steelworkers joined with various L.A. worker centers and community groups to create the CLEAN Carwash Campaign, an effort to end all the egregious wage theft in the L.A. industry and to win better conditions. This campaign trained a spotlight on many instances of wage theft and persuaded the California state legislature to enact a law that increased penalties against car washes that cheated their workers. This Steelworker–worker center campaign ultimately unionized more than 20 car washes that employed 300 workers.

“This effort changed the law forever and raised the floor for every car wash in the state,” said Neidi Dominguez, an organizer with the Carwash Campaign. “I think it was a success, but where it fell short was figuring out how to make that a model for other industries.”

In another outgrowth of the labor federation’s partnership with NDLON, in 2011 the AFL-CIO joined with several foundations to found the Labor Innovations for the 21st Century (LIFT) Fund. That fund has given more than $1 million in grants (financed by the AFL-CIO and foundations) to worker centers across the country to help them grow and to encourage alliances between worker centers and unions.

One recipient of LIFT funding was the Workers Defense Project in Austin, which has become one of the nation’s most successful worker centers. At first, the Workers Defense Project had an uneasy relationship with unions, which resented its help to undocumented construction workers. But when the group joined with several University of Texas researchers to produce a much-publicized report about how terrible working conditions were for many immigrant Texas construction workers, and when it organized a large protest about the 142 Texas construction workers who had died on the job that year (2007), the state’s building trades unions realized that the Workers Defense Project was fighting for many of the exact same things they were.

The unions and Workers Defense Project soon became allies, and together they sponsored paid sick leave ballot initiatives in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, winning in all three cities. Their alliance was also pivotal in persuading the Texas state legislature not to enact a preemption law to erase such pro-worker local measures.

“We’ve always realized in Texas we need strong partners, and we’re not going to be able to do this work alone,” said Emily Timm, the Workers Defense Project’s co-executive director. “Texas is a big state, and it’s critical for us to work with partners like unions and the AFL-CIO.”

Unions also supported the Workers Defense Project’s Better Builder Program, an eight-year-old initiative that—like the hoped-for standards council in Minnesota—gets contractors to agree to meet certain standards: paying a prevailing wage, providing safety training, providing workers compensation (which is not required in Texas), and allowing independent monitoring.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, co-founder of the Workers Defense Project, said, “We tried to figure out where we had commonalities with unions and to advocate for both groups of workers. We tried to bring up the floor for the most poorly treated workers in the industry while maintaining the hard-won and well-deserved rights and wages of labor unions. Usually, you get pitted against each other. We didn’t allow that to happen.”

In 2013, the AFL-CIO took a further step to highlight the importance of worker centers. For the first time, the head of a worker center, Bhairavi Desai, founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, was elected to the AFL-CIO’s executive council. There was much fanfare about union and worker center cooperation reaching new heights, but before long, Desai was complaining that the machinists’ union in New York was raiding the taxi alliance’s campaign to organize Uber drivers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was raiding its effort to unionize taxi drivers in Chicago. (Those unions said they had jurisdiction to organize those workers.) If the Taxi Workers Alliance were a regular AFL-CIO union, it would be protected from raiding by other unions in the federation.

Desai said, “I believe that we, as worker centers, were more vulnerable to raiding, and there were few allies willing to stand up for us” to defend us against raiding by traditional unions. (Several researchers have documented that even when major efforts are made to promote union–worker center cooperation, some frictions will endure.)

“It’s gone in waves,” said Ana Avendaño, who was the AFL-CIO’s associate general counsel and also served as assistant to the AFL-CIO president for immigration and community action from 2009 to 2014. “It has in my view depended entirely on how much energy and resources the labor movement has put into building these relationships.” Avendaño, who played a major role in establishing the AFL-CIO/NDLON partnership, added that “one thing we were very conscious of from the beginning in creating these partnerships … was to recognize the power differential between unions and worker centers.”

In 2014, Neidi Dominguez left the Carwash Campaign in California to become the AFL-CIO’s liaison with worker centers. She tried to bring worker centers and unions together in a “Southern strategy,” because unions and worker power generally are so weak in the region. As one example of the success of union–worker center cooperation, she cited the success in helping oust Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.

Dominguez said that Donald Trump’s rise slowed union–worker center cooperation, with the AFL-CIO becoming less vigorous and out front on immigrant matters after Trump became president. “I think they made a big mistake to basically downsize and deprioritize the work they had been doing around the [worker center] issue,” Dominguez said. Another problem, said Dominguez, who left the AFL-CIO in 2017, was that some worker centers became more reticent to work with unions because the Trump administration and business groups threatened to accuse worker centers of bargaining with employers and in effect being unions. That could lead to costly litigation, and if those charges were proven, that would have forced worker centers to comply with a burdensome web of federal regulations.

Nik Theodore, a labor expert and professor of urban policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has followed the worker center movement for nearly two decades. “I don’t know if we have many real shining examples of worker center–union cooperation,” he admits. “Even though it feels that there is so much relationship-building and broader experimentation, it feels like we’re still in the beginning, not even in the middle.”

AQUILINA SORIANO VERSOZA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Pilipino Workers Center, an advocacy group for Filipinos in Southern California, is pushing hard to create a shining new example of worker center–union cooperation. Her Los Angeles–based group has 3,000 members, many of them in-home health care workers, often for private-pay patients. These workers characteristically receive low pay, and fear that the patients they work for will run out of money and that they’ll lose their jobs.

The Pilipino Workers Center has allied itself with United Domestic Workers, a local of AFSCME, with the goal of persuading the state of California to establish an ambitious program to assure adequate funding for private-pay patients not in the Medicaid system. Soriano Versoza hopes this new program not only will make sure in-home care jobs are steady, good-paying jobs, but will also create a path to unionization for potentially 330,000 of these care workers in California. The Pilipino Workers Center and United Domestic Workers, which represents 100,000 home care workers in California, have been working with AARP, disability rights groups, the SEIU, and other groups to persuade Gov. Gavin Newsom to embrace their plan to transform the private-pay industry, perhaps through a payroll tax, so that private-pay patients could be assured enough funding for care.

“We’re working together on an overall strategy to transform this industry to result in more worker power,” said Soriano Versoza, who also serves as chair of the national board of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She admits, however, “Right now, we don’t have a clear view of how unionization would take place.”

Amanda Ream, strategic campaigns director for United Domestic Workers, said the Pilipino Workers Center is a good group to partner with. “The majority of workers in our industry are unorganized, and many are undocumented,” Ream said. “Most are women of color, and no one is offering them the opportunity to join the labor movement. There is no difference between their members and ours. We’re both committed to building power for workers.”

The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) also has a robust partnership with unions. In its early years, the collaborative clashed frequently with Chicago unions as it helped rank-and-file workers at some workplaces fight to decertify their corrupt independent unions, which frequently made sweetheart deals with management.

But over the past 15 years, the CWC has focused on helping temporary workers and in doing so, has increasingly cooperated with unions. Tim Bell, the group’s executive director, said many Illinois companies seek to keep unions out of their factories, warehouses, and hotels by “temping out workers.”

“We’re in the space of organizing workers outside organized labor,” Bell said. “We’re trying to regulate the industry so the floor can be raised, so that it becomes expensive to hire temps. Ultimately the goal for the workers themselves is to be union members.”

Some unions resent temp workers because employers sometimes use them to cross picket lines. But as part of its partnership with organized labor, the CWC organized temps at an Illinois paper bag factory to make sure they didn’t cross a Teamsters strike line there. The CWC also got temps to join an SEIU picket line at a nursing home.

Many companies use temps as a strategy to reduce the number of unionized positions, as well as the amount they have to pay for union benefits. Bell says that to achieve this goal, many companies violate the terms of their union contracts.

Barry Rose, who works at Gold Standard Bakery on Chicago’s South Side, was a temp worker who felt cheated. He said that after he had worked 90 days, the bakery wanted to fire him and then rehire him after 30 days as a temp. That would have prevented him from becoming a union member and receiving benefits under the union contract. The CWC objected to such chicanery, and Rose led a worker protest against the bakery. The result: The company agreed to hire Rose as a regular worker, and he thus became a union member of Workers United. His pay jumped by $1.75 an hour, and he received health coverage. Ultimately, the CWC and Workers United got 200 more temps added to Gold Standard’s union rolls by making sure the bakery complied with the provision in the union contract that said temps are to move into the union after 90 days of work.

“In shops where there is a union and a lot of temps, we’ve worked with the union to get them into the bargaining unit,” Bell said. “We brought the issue of temp workers to the consciousness of local unions so they see that temps are not the enemy. We’ve been able to raise the idea that we can organize them together.”

The Chicago Federation of Labor has even formed a Temp Worker Union Alliance Project; it includes the CWC and a half dozen other worker centers. “A lot of our locals are busy doing collective bargaining and defending their contracts, and organizing is the last thing on their agenda,” Don Villar, the federation’s secretary-treasurer, admitted. “A lot of these industries are heavily temped out. By building these bridges with worker centers, it helps us to organize.”

Bell says the “secret” of worker center–union cooperation is “building trust” and “raising innovative ideas on how things can be done. It’s not a whole lot different from when the CIO was organizing low-wage workers in the Chicago stockyards,” Bell said. “These were folks who were thought to be unorganizable.”

Morillo, the former head of the SEIU Local 26 in Minneapolis, said it was encouraging to see more examples of union–worker center cooperation spring up since his local and CTUL partnered to unionize janitors. “Generally, we are in a much more positive place than we were even a few years ago on the question of unions and worker centers,” said Morillo. “The worker center movement definitely considers itself a part of the bigger-picture labor movement. I think worker centers have to be a center of experimentation on how we can work to improve working standards.”


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