Worker Justice

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The Roles of Worker Centers

Worker Centers: Strategies and Features

The role of worker centers in our society is a relatively new element of recourse for workers within the broader labor movement. To learn more about the role of worker centers in the labor movement, the distinctions between worker centers and unions, and the diverse services and duties that worker centers have adopted, read on!

This piece is based on the article “How Worker Centers Organize Low-Wage Workers: An Exploration of Targets and Strategies” by Jessica Garrick.

Perhaps to an undiscriminating viewer, worker centers and unions could look the same. From afar, worker centers and unions seem to serve the same broader goal: improving conditions for workers. But in reality, worker centers and unions work in complement, with worker centers involving unions in their proceedings to varying degrees (for example, some worker centers funneling organizing workers to existing locals). To make matters more complicated, worker centers are highly diverse, worker centers play a vital role in raising workplace standards independently of unions, but they do complement one another, which can be explained by the history of worker centers.

As unions lost power throughout the second half of the 20th century, worker centers emerged and began adopting some of the duties that unions and organized labor maintained in decades before. However, worker centers do not exist as a monolith, nor do they exactly replace the services and benefits that unions provide(d) to their members. Many worker centers did not incorporate with the goal of absorbing the role of the union within the labor movement. Worker centers tend to be hybrid organizations, combining direct service provision and organizing support.

One of the primary distinguishing features between worker centers and unions is membership. Worker centers, generally speaking, do not require any sort of membership in order to access their services, nor are they funded by dues in any significant way. Of course, many worker centers do employ a membership system as an organizing strategy. Unlike unions, however, this membership tends to be on the basis of race, immigration status, and/or geographic area. Some worker centers do focus on industries, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Day Labor Organizing Network, and the Restaurant Opportunity Center-United. These worker centers tend to rely heavily upon bargaining; hoping to negotiate agreements with major employers. Frequently, they organize politically on the basis of raising standards across employer networks to address sector-wide issues.

The role of the state in labor is no new debate. Some Progressive-era leaders were critical of the potential for policy and legislation to effect significant, perduring change. The services that some worker centers have adopted is representative of this debate, focusing less on changing policy and more on making measurable, concrete gains within their constituencies. Some of these strategies include targeting workplaces where workers will be likely to mobilize coworkers, providing education on workplace rights and protections, targeting publicity-conscious employers, and/or engaging with major employers to develop contracts, agreements, and standards that benefit workers across the industry or area.

"A rising tide lifts all boats..."

Clearly, there is high diversity in the services offered and strategies employed by worker centers. Like mentioned, the hybrid model allows for balance between service, education, organizing support, policy advocacy, and more. However, worker centers ultimately tend to converge on similar models and issues, particularly wage theft, improving industry standards, and building coalition-based power structures. 

It seems that both policymaking and grassroots campaigns both have a functional role in the struggle to raise workplace standards. For example, consider the political environment of the geographical location of the worker center; policymaking as a strategy may be less effective in red states. Additionally, political wins are slow, bureaucratic, and rarely result in immediate, noticeable change in the day-to-day lives of workers