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May 1, 2015

UNIONS 2.0: How Big Labor Is Using Worker Centers to Bypass Legal Regulations and Destroy Brands

By Michael C. Saqui of The Saqui Law Group, Roseville, CA

 

In July 2014 we tackled the foundations of the Worker Center Movement. In short, “Worker Centers” are Union surrogates that have become a powerful weapon in organized labor’s arsenal.  An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

 

Revival of Syndicalism? Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time.  Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.  It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production.  This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

 

Agribusiness is uniquely susceptible…The Agrarian Rebellion

Within agriculture there is an ever-growing nucleus of community-based worker centers and community lead organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy and organizing to provide support to low wage workers.  They represent a relatively new approach to supporting workers in low skill and entry level jobs, and are particularly attuned to immigrant and minority communities because of their roots, not in the labor movement, but in community organizing.  Worker centers are established in furtherance of the idea of outsourcing the customary core function of labor unions—organizing.  The most effective worker centers within this segment are innovative in membership education efforts, their coalition-building approach, and in their selective targeting of employers and supply chains.  Their consistent line of attack consists of picking a clear target, garnering empathy and support for their causes, equating their causes to “worker rights” and “human rights” and recruiting high school and college students who are increasingly considering “social consciousness” in making their purchasing decisions.

 

The “Here and Now”

Thousands of farmworkers in the San Quintín Valley of Baja California, just 185 miles south of the U.S. border, struck some 230 farms, including the 12 largest that dominate production in the region, on March 17, 2015, interrupting the picking, packing and shipping of zucchini, tomatoes, berries and other products to stores and restaurants in the United States.  The strikers, acting at the peak of the harvest, demanded higher wages and other benefits to which they are legally entitled such as membership in the Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS) and the public health system.  Most returned to the fields after accepting generous wage hikes, or after negotiations fell apart, depending on who you talk to.  While there have been several large scale protests by workers in San Quintín over the last two decades, usually riots over the employers’ failure to pay their employees on time, this is the first attempt by workers to carry out such a strategic strike.

 

All Too Familiar Tactics and Common Ties

Before worker center leaders led protests this year against growers in Baja California, many of them had experiences with Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Pineras y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Tree Planters and Farmworkers United [PCUN]) and The United Farm Workers of America (UFW).  Once fragmented along extreme lines reflecting different indigenous groups—Mexico, Triqui, Zapoteco—they united to demand better terms and conditions last year.

California and other western growers, especially in strawberry and grape production, rely on this worker demographic almost exclusively, especially in H-2A recruitment.  The workers are being trained in strikes, boycotts and public demonstrations.  Already in California they have established a platform for change; The Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) unites indigenous leaders and allies to strengthen the Mixtec and indigenous immigrant community of Ventura County, estimated to be 20,000 people.  Most are strawberry farmworkers, and many primarily speak their indigenous language.  MICOP’s majority-indigenous staff builds community leadership and self-sufficiency through education and training programs, language interpretation, health outreach, humanitarian support and cultural promotion.  This has now poured over the border and hit home in Oxnard where people have been intermittently marching in support of this Baja labor movement and plan to continue to bring attention to the plight of the indigenous immigrant worker cause.

 

California: The Real Target

For all the publicity these worker centers have generated, it is still unclear whether they will succeed in organizing the workplace.  Labor unions have turned to worker centers precisely because the majority of employees, which is the number necessary for unionization under the NLRA, are not interested in unionization.  It is also a telling fact that the unions are more concerned with convincing the general public of the labor movement’s continued relevancy than convincing the employees they claim to represent.  They are less concerned with organizing than they are in creating the perception to the public and to your customers that they are the lead dog and part of the fight.  The simple fact remains that in this new era of social justice and Twitter revolution, companies of all sizes, big and small, are competing in an ever-changing and more highly competitive market with smaller margins than ever.  The consumer base is increasingly sympathetic with social justice causes and they are bombarded with messages from these groups in real-time through technology.

The damage to a brand brought about by social justice campaigns, whether they are true or not, when focusing on human slavery worker exploitation, racism, immigration status, wage-theft, and things of that nature are not tolerable, not even for a second, not in a world where consumers have far more choices than ever before and shop with their social conscious and not with their pocketbooks.  They have immediate feedback on their efforts as a boycott through social media takes hold and a CEO scrambles to bring his suppliers in line in order to avoid brand damage, which in this age of social media can happen in literally minutes.