Worker Power Series: Lessons for Building Better Policies for Excluded Workers

Unions have been in the news recently in a way that is exciting and new. Amazon warehouses saw the first successful union effort ever. Individual Starbucks stores are voting one after another to form 223 unions representing 5,919 workers as of September 2022. Retail workers at the outdoor giant REI and tech workers at the New York Times formed a new union and the workers in its product recommendations website, Wirecutter, negotiated their first contract ever. Labor law reform is still urgently needed to reverse the long-term decline in unionization. At the same time, though, union popularity, bolstered by these new organizing efforts, is at a 65-year high. It sometimes feels like a logjam has broken and the union idea is spreading quickly in some sectors of the economy where it has languished for years.

Getting to scale will require a lot more organizing in these sectors, but it will also require building worker power in the country’s most precarious jobs — what one key report called the “gloves-off economy.” Workplaces where people are regularly paid below the minimum wage, not recognized as employees, and sometimes even prohibited by statute from forming unions. These include nail salon workers, farm laborers, delivery service workers, day laborers, taxi drivers, and car wash workers.

In these arenas, workers are trying out a range of different approaches to building worker power. Joining existing unions. Forming workers associations or worker co-ops. Pressuring governments to set wage standards. And more.

Immigrants are a part of all these stories. At Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, for example, more than half of the workers were immigrants, as were many of the organizers who played a role in securing the crucial union victory. In the lowest-wage jobs, workers are disproportionately likely to be women, people of color, and immigrants.

In this new series of posts, Immigration Research Initiative will explore some of the most promising efforts to build worker power, especially in sectors where wages and working conditions are particularly grueling. The models for organizing are creative and varied, and often quite nimble.

At IRI, our particular focus is on immigrant workers. The intersection of broken federal immigration policy and ineffective labor laws or labor law enforcement have left the estimated seven million immigrants without work authorization in the labor force susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. But we recognize, too, that workers who are undocumented are not the only ones subject to employer exploitation. So, too, are many others, both U.S.- and foreign-born. People who have a history with the criminal justice system. People pushed beyond the increasingly punitive limits to social support. LGBTQ people. People with disabilities. Black, Latinx, Asian and Native American workers who often face discriminatory labor markets. Women, who are systematically paid less than men.

Amid a new wave of union support and worker empowerment, it is vital to understand how U.S. workers adapt to a changing social and economic landscape. Posts in this series will explore different organizing models, policy solutions, and unique challenges immigrant workers face in these areas, as well as the challenges common to both immigrants and other workers.

Read the series:

Organizing and Policy Lessons from the National Domestic Workers Alliance