When United Workers began, we had to confront the challenges of how to unite into a powerful and as Dr. King described, “new and unsettling force”. How do you bring workers together when they are day laborers who are contending with being hired and fired everyday, working jobs that may not last more than a day or a week. And when there is no legal framework that upholds the right to organize. And when conditions are so bad that many of these workers are depending on homeless shelters and meal programs to survive.
These are big challenges that in so many ways have only gotten worse since our founding in 2002. We see more and more of the workforce becoming temporary workers and part-time workers so corporations can exploit our labor and reap tremendous profits at our expense. As day laborers you have no job security and you don’t know how many hours you are going to work from week to week.. that must sound familiar to a majority of workers employed at the largest employers in American including Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon; or with rising new comers dispatching work via cell phone such as Lyft andDoor Dash.
How do you build an organization when you are up against Wall Street and Big Tech that have bet big time on corporations that see us as expendable? That create, refine and invest in business models that turn more of us into simple a part of a logistics plan for moving inventory or to be replaced by automation in the very near termed?
Below is a piece Todd Cherkis, wrote when trying to summarize this initial period where we had more questions than answers. We were trying to understand what values have the potential to build community and unite working class people across historic divisions as well as new divisions based on new technological advances making our labor more precarious. Further - we also wanted to best describe what our experiences were and that our struggles were not about small concessions here or there but about our survival. That is how how high we saw the stakes 20 years ago and now after enduring the ongoing Pandemic and seeing even further how vulnerable we all are, we know the stakes are rising for a growing majority.
Why Human Rights?
Written By: Todd Cherkis, Leadership Organizer
United Workers confronted a number of organizing challenges when it set out to improve the working conditions and pay for day laborers in Baltimore. First, as traditional union organizers know, it is extremely difficult to organize temporary workers who are dispersed over multiple and changing work-sites that are characterized by very high turn-over that produce an entirely new workforce every few months. In Baltimore, day laborers work for dozens of labor agencies and dozens of different contractors throughout the city, which makes even identifying and reaching them difficult. Second, day laborers inherently lack leverage vis-à-vis employers. Unlike production-based industries, where employers can suffer economic losses from the withdrawal of skilled labor, day labor agencies can draw from vast pools of unskilled and readily available workers to replace laborers who stop working. In Baltimore specifically, day labor agencies maintain their access to large pools of surplus labor through the homeless shelters and soup kitchens with which they maintain good relationships. Third, the legal framework for traditional labor organizing, based in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Board, provides no redress for day laborers. Among other things, legal prohibitions against “secondary targets” would deprive day laborers of their only leverage. These factors compelled us to look beyond traditional union organizing. Other approaches, however, were rejected either because they implied “charity” or reinforced identity politics. United Workers turned instead to human rights both as an alternative to union-based, charity-based and identity-based models and as a way of overcoming the weaknesses inherent to these approaches.
We found in the human rights framework means for overcoming the challenges of reaching and organize day laborers, as well as for cultivating interest in and mobilizing allies. Embedding day laborers’ grievances and demands in the broader human rights framework, with its emphasis on universality and human dignity, accomplishes the following. First, by its very nature, temporary work is not conducive to workers developing a commitment to a particular workplace or employer. Embedding demands in human rights is providing the possibility of reaching and mobilizing workers irrespective of workplace, duration of employment or employer because the issues transcend place and time. We attribute the strong appeal that human rights has registered with members to the effectiveness that framing our demands in terms of a political struggle for larger principles. The broader framework of universal principles has also helped to penetrate race and ethnic barriers that have exacerbated day laborers’ spatial dispersal.
Second, by calling attention to a living wage and freedom from poverty as inalienable human rights to which all human beings are entitled, including day laborers, United Workers is able to articulate demands that have the potential to reach the public at large. Instead of calling on the public to come out in support of these particular workers’ demands for higher wages, they are calling on the public to support the human rights of all. Indeed, rather than seeking charity to alleviate the dire conditions faced by day laborers, the human rights model spotlights the political and economic cultures that force some to rely on charity instead of ensuring a distribution of resources that upholds the dignity and justice to which all persons have an inalienable right.
Our first major campaign - the Living Wages Campaign at Camden Yards was a human rights campaign calling for work with dignity. It would come to transcend racial lines, gender, and even where people caught temp work to go and clean up Camden Yards as throughout the 4 years of the campaign, many temporary agencies were deployed to disorganize and disunite our campaign.
Through our focus on values - human rights values - that all life is sacred no matter how much you earn, what race or gender you are, your immigration status or whether you had a criminal record.. these values become the sacred center of our work and the fight for our dignity and survival at Camden Yards - at the time the largest employer of day laborers in Baltimore.