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New Labor in New York

New Labor in New York: Precarious Workers and the Future of the Labor Movement

Ruth Milkman
Ed Ott
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press,
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    New Labor in New York
    Book Description:

    New York City boasts a higher rate of unionization than any other major U.S. city-roughly double the national average-but the city's unions have suffered steady and relentless decline, especially in the private sector. With higher levels of income inequality than any other large city in the nation, New York today is home to a large and growing "precariat": workers with little or no employment security who are often excluded from the basic legal protections that unions struggled for and won in the twentieth century.

    Community-based organizations and worker centers have developed the most promising approach to organizing the new precariat and to addressing the crisis facing the labor movement. Home to some of the nation's very first worker centers, New York City today has the single largest concentration of these organizations in the United States, yet until now no one has documented their efforts.

    New Labor in New York includes thirteen fine-grained case studies of recent campaigns by worker centers and unions, each of which is based on original research and participant observation. Some of the campaigns documented here involve taxi drivers, street vendors, and domestic workers, as well as middle-strata freelancers, all of whom are excluded from basic employment laws. Other cases focus on supermarket, retail, and restaurant workers, who are nominally covered by such laws but who often experience wage theft and other legal violations; still other campaigns are not restricted to a single occupation or industry. This book offers a richly detailed portrait of the new labor movement in New York City, as well as several recent efforts to expand that movement from the local to the national scale.

    Contributors: Benjamin Becker, CUNY Graduate Center; Marnie Brady, CUNY Graduate Center; Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer; CUNY Graduate Center; Kathleen Dunn; Loyola University; United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2013; Harmony Goldberg; CUNY Graduate Center; Peter Ikeler, SUNY College at Old Westbury; Martha W. King, CUNY Graduate Center; Jane McAlevey, CUNY Graduate Center; CUNY Graduate Center; Susan McQuade, CUNY Graduate Center and New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health; Erin Michaels, CUNY Graduate Center; Ruth Milkman, CUNY Graduate Center and Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, CUNY School of Professional Studies; Ed Ott, Murphy Institute, CUNY School of Professional Studies; Ben Shapiro, New York Communities for Change; Lynne Turner, Murphy Institute, CUNY School of Professional Studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7075-2
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Ruth Milkman and Ed Ott
  4. INTRODUCTION: Toward a New Labor Movement? Organizing New York City’s Precariat
    (pp. 1-22)
    Ruth Milkman

    “Our basic system of workplace representation is failing to meet the needs of America’s workers,” Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), declared in March 2013, in an unusually candid acknowledgement of the deep crisis facing U.S. unions in the twenty-first century. “The AFL-CIO’s door has to be—and will be—open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace,” he added. “Our institutions, our unions will experiment, will adapt to this new age” (Trumka 2013). Although Trumka used the future tense, the AFL-CIO...


    • 1 TAKING AIM AT TARGET: West Indian Immigrant Workers Confront the Difficulties of Big-Box Organizing
      (pp. 25-48)
      Benjamin Becker

      On June 17, 2011, a Target store in Valley Stream, New York, became the first to go to a union election in over twenty years. There are over seventeen hundred Target stores across the United States, employing 355,000 workers, but none of these stores are unionized. The election in Valley Stream did not alter this record: workers voted 137–85 (out of 260 eligible voters) against union representation. The union vying for the workers’ vote was United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500, which represents nineteen thousand workers—primarily in chain grocery stores—in the New York City metropolitan...

      (pp. 49-69)
      Ben Shapiro

      “Our goal for the Workers’ Committee is not only to get information to the twenty or thirty workers in the group,” Miguel, a Mexican immigrant supermarket worker and an active member of the New York Communities for Change (NYCC) Workers’ Committee, explained.¹ “We want the group to be two hundred or a thousand people that extends into one hundred or two hundred stores. And not just for the sake of making it grow. We want to change the fearful mentality of the Latino worker, so that we as a group can change this exploitative system.”² Miguel got involved in the...

    • 3 FAITH, COMMUNITY, AND LABOR: Challenges and Opportunities in the New York City Living Wage Campaign
      (pp. 70-87)
      Jeffrey D. Broxmeyer and Erin Michaels

      On a cold snowy evening in early 2011, nearly two thousand people gathered in Harlem’s Convent Avenue Baptist Church for a mass meeting in support of the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act (FWNYA). As a church choir sang in the balcony, a video of Martin Luther King Jr. played, invoking the civil rights movement legacy of faith-based organizing. The energized crowd clapped to the beat of the music as the choir leader urged them to sing along; many did. Under a “Living Wage Now!” banner hanging over the pulpit, Convent Avenue’s pastor, Jesse T. Williams Jr., delivered a sermon,...

    • 4 UNITED NEW YORK: Fighting for a Fair Economy in “The Year of the Protester”
      (pp. 88-110)
      Lynne Turner

      The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched a national campaign it called Fight for a Fair Economy (FFE) in early 2011, which included a New York City campaign called United New York (hereinafter United NY).¹ This effort was launched a few years after the results of the 2008 election failed to deliver labor law reform that many hoped would lay the groundwork for a private-sector union resurgence, or to stem the tide of continuing cuts in public services, assaults on unions, and deterioration of workers’ wages and working conditions. SEIU had spent over $67 million on political activities and lobbying...


      (pp. 113-133)
      Peter Ikeler

      On an overcast February afternoon I enter a nondescript office building in midtown Manhattan, head to the fifth floor and into a large room. The far wall has a plaque fixed to it with “RWDSU”¹ projecting out in silver letters. Below this stands Alicia Canary,² middle-aged, speaking animatedly to a crowd of about twenty-five. The Retail Action Project’s two-day “customer service training” has just begun. The crowd seated around six tables is predominantly black and Latino, and most look to be less than thirty years old, though a few are older. Alicia explains the purpose of this ten-hour training session,...

      (pp. 134-149)
      Kathleen Dunn

      Virginia grew up in the Bronx, where both her Mexican-born parents have worked as street vendors for as long as she can remember.¹ As a child, she regularly accompanied them to work in the street. Vending was the only way they could find to earn a living. As Virginia puts it, “Ask my father. He says he’s been looking for a job for twenty-two years.”² Virginia herself began vending as a teenager, selling a range of products depending on the season, from flavored ices in the summer to hot dogs in the winter. Frustrated by numerous tickets and harassment from...

      (pp. 150-170)
      Martha W. King

      Riding the New York City subway, one is likely to see advertisements for the Freelancers Union like this one. Many of its members, indeed, first learned of the organization’s existence in this way. The Freelancers Union (or the union hereafter) issues six different ads each year and places them in six thousand spots in subways and commuter trains. Noteworthy for their provocative calls to action, the ads have sleek abstract designs, created by a freelance design team.

      Sara Horowitz founded the Freelancers Union in 1995; as of 2013 it has grown to include 223,203 members nationwide, with the majority residing...


    • 8 THE HIGH-TOUCH MODEL: Make the Road New York’s Participatory Approach to Immigrant Organizing
      (pp. 173-186)
      Jane McAlevey

      The room went uncharacteristically silent after the two leaders in the front of the room, Amador Rivas and Augusto Fernandez, posed the question, “What do you think it means?” The leaders seemed at ease with the nervous looks and fidgeting that often accompanies silence in a large group. Then, from the back of the room, a commanding voice boomed out, “I think it means us. We are the ones who are an army of the good. Every day we fight to hold politicians and bosses accountable for the wrongs they inflict on our community.” A round of applause and head-bobbing...

    • 9 BRIDGING CITY TRENCHES: The New York Civic Participation Project
      (pp. 187-207)
      Stephen McFarland

      On a brisk and bright Saturday morning in early fall 2011, members of the Washington Heights Neighborhood Committee of the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP) set up for their annual Back-to-School Education Fair. A block is closed to traffic just east of Broadway alongside an elementary school in this mostly Dominican neighborhood, with bright balloons moored to the police saw horses. The event has been a central focus of the group’s monthly committee meetings all summer, and it is finally coming together. NYCPP’s staff organizer for the neighborhood resigned just a few weeks before and has not yet been...

    • 10 CREATING “OPEN SPACE” TO PROMOTE SOCIAL JUSTICE: The MinKwon Center for Community Action
      (pp. 208-226)
      Susan McQuade

      In late December 2010, a group of workers and activists appeared with picket signs in front of Euodo Ishihama, a Korean restaurant located on 32nd Street in midtown Manhattan. The dispute involved four Korean workers, all of whom had been victims of wage and hour violations and were demanding back pay from the restaurant’s owner. The picketing continued for three consecutive days during the busy winter holiday season, and the effort was highly successful: not a single diner entered the establishment during those three days, and the protest was widely reported in the local Korean newspapers. Fearing the loss of...


    • 11 AN APPETITE FOR JUSTICE: The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York
      (pp. 229-245)
      Marnie Brady

      The Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) has a strong record of strategic campaigns, helping make visible the low wages and working conditions of immigrants and other workers of color that would otherwise remain hidden behind the kitchen door or in the cellars below the city’s fashionable eateries. ROC-NY’s direct actions and legal cases have won significant improvements for restaurant workers and imposed large penalties on “low-road” employers who break the law, although this is just one component of the organization’s work. ROC-NY has also developed alternative models of business “best practices,” an approach that sets it apart from...

    • 12 NOT WAITING FOR PERMISSION: The New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Twenty-First-Century Bargaining
      (pp. 246-265)
      Mischa Gaus

      For two days in September 2007 the considerable machinery of New York City’s executive branch spun at full tilt, attempting to counter a strike among the city’s yellow cab drivers. A special contingency plan divided the city into fare zones, attempting to entice some drivers to break the strike by increasing a driver’s take on some fares. The mayor and press declared victory for the beleaguered commuter but had to quietly admit that thousands fewer cabs were trolling the city’s streets—and five-minute airport lines had grown to half-hour waits (Lopez 2007). What fearsome labor organization had they crossed swords...

    • 13 “PREPARE TO WIN”: Domestic Workers United’s Strategic Transition following Passage of the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights
      (pp. 266-288)
      Harmony Goldberg

      On August 31, 2010, Deloris Wright, a dignified middle-aged woman from Barbados who has worked as a nanny for twenty-two years, stood up in a small room in a community center in Harlem that was crowded with elected officials and news cameras. After nervously adjusting her bifocals, she took a deep breath, sighed and smiled broadly, and then began to speak. “I am a proud nanny and a member of Domestic Workers United [DWU]. Domestic workers have toiled for centuries in the shadow of slavery. Seventy-five years ago, when labor laws were written, legislators didn’t think we were worthy of...

  9. AFTERWORD: Lessons from the New Labor Movement for the Old
    (pp. 289-294)
    Ed Ott

    I spent many years in the traditional labor movement. I went to work in an unorganized hospital at age nineteen, and soon became active in organizing a union there. Like many other people who were part of the “old” labor movement, I was often a heretic within. I was keenly aware of the movement’s flaws, and when I had the opportunity I tried to do something about them. When I became political director of the New York Central Labor Council in 1996, I was in a position to not only advance the old labor movement but also to encourage the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 295-318)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 319-340)
  12. About the Contributors
    (pp. 341-344)
  13. Index
    (pp. 345-353)