Poor Workers' UnionsNew Unionism Network member Richard Leitch reviews “Poor Workers’ Unions” by Vanessa Tait – a comprehensive survey of the alternative labour movement in the US over the last four decades.

We have here an unusual and very valuable book. Combining her skills as journalist, labour activist and librarian, Vanessa Tait has compiled a comprehensive survey of the alternative labour movement in the US over the last four decades. Her concern is to show how groups situated outside the AFL-CIO mainstream have struggled and organised themselves to achieve economic justice through the creation of ‘poor workers’ unions’ (PWUs). In so doing these independent organs have shown the wider labour movement a more expansive, democratic option that represents “the best possibility for the future” (229), a ‘social justice’ unionism which has now established a foothold in the mainstream. Within the hidden history she reconstructs Tait also points to the misunderstandings in our views of relations between labour and other social movements.

The birth of this alternative ‘second front’ in US labour lay in the 1960s social movements for civil, women’s’ and welfare rights. Each of these struggles had central economic justice demands that encouraged the subsequent formation of new organisations for those excluded by the narrow agenda of AFL-CIO – its neglect of racial and gender equality, and for bringing contingent workers, the unemployed and welfare recipients into its fold. As Tait documents, the civil rights campaign foregrounded issues of fair hiring practices and equal pay in employment, setting up ‘freedom unions’ on a community basis to press its demands. Meanwhile the women’s movement was struggling for recognition for waged and unwaged domestic labour, establishing an array of organisations directly concerned with their marginal position in the workplace. Welfare rights activists similarly set up national bodies to argue for guaranteed minimum incomes for those with caring responsibilities and a just welfare system. These initial efforts are described by Tait as labour organising within the social movements.

From these beginnings Tait tracks the development of PWUs over the next three decades, focusing upon the efforts of those seeking to unite waged and unwaged workers; the community based ‘United Labor Unions’ set up by ACORN; and the wave of independent Worker Centres emerging in immigrant communities.

The overlap between welfare and waged work was a central concern for the PWUs, reflecting the shifting trajectory of low wage workers between these two worlds, and the explosion of mandatory ‘workfare’ programmes. Organisations such as ACORN (the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) thus addressed workers rights in both spheres. In the hands of the Rhode Island Unemployed Workers Union (later the Rhode Island Workers Association) this approach involved directly recruiting members from the welfare lines and becoming a bargaining agent with its officials, before moving on to successfully organise low-wage workforces in the healthcare, jewellery and office sectors. So prominent did it become that the SEIU union later offered it affiliation as an autonomous local, which it agreed to.

As workfare programmes took off PWUs undertook many organising projects amongst these captive workforces tens of thousands strong, though here the efforts of the United WREP Workers and ACORN in New York and San Francisco’s POWER were often blocked by mainstream union opposition.

By way of contrast ACORN’s ‘United Labor Unions’ set pout to organise the growing numbers of poor workers across whole industries, utilising social movement style tactics of one-to-one recruitment, often outside the workplace, and building strong links with other community groups. Major advances in the homecare workers sector and their ‘living wage’ campaigns in the 1980s led to their affiliation to SEIU too.

As for the independent Worker Centres, they developed an innovative response to the multi-layered oppression faced by immigrant communities, acting both as labour and community advocates. Relying upon direct action and educational activities to build rank and file participation, centres such as New York’s ‘Workplace Project’ and ‘Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association’ pursued improvements in pay and conditions amongst hitherto unorganised workforces (day labourers, garment workers, restaurant staff). Their ‘Black Workers for Justice’ counterparts in North Carolina used a similar approach to link labour and civil rights struggles of black communities in the South. Strongly rooted in ethnic solidarities, these centres had significant success in building alliances between Asian, Afro-American and Latino workforces. That achievement is vital for building wider solidarities in today’s diverse labour movement.

Tait’s historical narrative reveals PWU relations with mainstream unions to be uneven and at times problematic. Reaching out to previously unorganised workforces through unorthodox tactics, and combining labour with community struggles over social amenities (housing, healthcare, education, transport, sanitation) and social inclusion (discrimination, citizenship status) the PWUs clearly stood at some remove from the AFL-CIO norm. It has only been more recently that their ‘social justice’ campaigning style has been widely recognised and applied by some progressive mainstream unions in the face of a multi-faceted challenge to union power – membership decline, the growth of new low-wage service industries, increasing numbers of migrant workers and of contingent working patterns immune to traditional union approaches. This cross-fertilisation has also been powered through the gradual entry of PWU activists and organisations into the mainstream.

The mid 1990s’ reform movement within AFL-CIO, turning it towards a more expansive organising agenda, furthered the scope for collaboration with the PWUs. But as Tait notes, despite some promising developments (the multi-union backed ‘Jobs with Justice’ campaign for instance) AFL-CIO still resisted the rank and file activism and democratic participation the PWUs embodied.

As a new entity within the US labour movement Tait suggests the fundamental significance of the PWUs lies in their broadening of the institutional forms, participants, tactics and agendas available to it. In place of the well established bureaucracies and routines of business unionism, PWUs deploy direct action tactics, community-based organising and rank and file participation to build vibrant, democratic organs. This organising style and form is one especially well suited to the atypical and contingent working patterns of marginal workforces and the combination of labour and community issues they confront in their daily lives.

The PWUs have dramatically expanded our conception of who can be defined as a ‘worker’ – to cover welfare recipients, workfare participants, unwaged domestic labour, and those performing a proliferating range of service tasks in the informal economy. Their potential participation in expansive organising projects gives a voice and role to hitherto excluded groups.

Simultaneously the PWUs have pursued a much wider agenda of issues, spanning both workplace and community, which these groups of workers are concerned with. This has led them to recognise the centrality of social amenity provision and social inequalities (gender, cultural, racial oppressions; the struggle for citizenship rights) in the struggle for economic justice. Here it is relevant to note that the typical workforce a PWU addresses is composed of peoples of colour, immigrants and women.

Tait argues that such a shift has crucially enabled the PWUs to make the leap from workplace struggles into broader arenas, “moving beyond the bargaining table and into the community and political life of the nation” (229). They have come to appreciate how class conflicts are played out in many aspects of everyday life and are inextricably linked to other forms of inequality and oppression. The historic 2004 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a national campaign for immigrant rights and an amnesty for the undocumented, one uniting mainstream unions and PWUs, stands as a classic example of this dynamic.

One point worth taking up here is how the PWU history challenges contemporary views of the relationship between labour and other social movements. Instead of a clear division between the two, and an accompanying shift to ‘identity politics’ beyond class, Tait’s work reveals the centrality of struggles around ethnicity, gender and citizenship to today’s labour movement. It is comprised of diverse cultural communities having to address labour and community concerns and build solidarity with each other, both within and beyond the workplace. PWU tactics, agents and agendas illustrate that given views of social movements as extra-class, and of who belongs in the category of worker, are fundamentally mistaken. That is a crucial insight for us to take on board.

In her concluding chapter Tait argues that although the PWUs hold the key to labour movement renewal, they are not a sufficient condition of this. Small in scale, still marginal to much union activity and financially vulnerable, it is only through a deeper collaboration with the mainstream that the future can be built. To shift US labour in the direction of a more expansive, inclusive and democratic mode of organising will not be easy. There is however no other, or better, road to renewal.