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Workers’ Committees

Wade Rathke Posted by Wade Rathke.

Wade Rathke is the founder of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) – a nationwide activist network engaged in community organizing.


Workers’ Committees

Little Rock     Sometimes it helps to get a gentle reminder of what we know, but don’t always practice. At our union we live and breathe “majority unionism” by which we mean trying to organize as many workers as we can, in as many ways as we can, with or without demanding direct recognition or collective bargaining, but by trying to organize workers to be union members where they work to protect and advance themselves, act collectively, and build power on the job. Some people call this minority unionism because the union does not have exclusive representation rights on the job which are common in collective bargaining agreements in North America, though this strategy of direct membership recruitment is common in many countries around the world from France to India and beyond.

A piece by Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter and now freelancer for the New York Times, recently detailed the success that Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a 20-year old immigrant rights group was having in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico by assisting in organizing workers’ committees and winning important victories for workers in low wage and service industry jobs that are largely non-union, but desperately need protection and organization. The committee structure allows the workers to trigger the protections for collective action provided by the National Labor Relations Act for workers acting as a group that is not available to individually aggrieved workers. Few civilians realize that the NLRA offers virtually no protection for unions, but lots of protection for workers, especially when they are engaged in concerted activity.

Greenhouse quotes several experts on this score:

“A lot of people thought the National Labor Relations Act could be used only during unionization campaigns,” said Andrew Schrank, a labor relations specialist who recently became a professor at Brown University after teaching at the University of New Mexico. “They’re finding that the National Labor Relations Act is much more expansive than many people thought.” Richard F. Griffin Jr. the labor board’s general counsel, said a 1962 Supreme Court case — involving a spontaneous walkout because a factory was so cold — makes clear that the National Labor Relations Act protects nonunion workers, too. “It’s important that people understand that the law applies to all private sector workplaces and protects activity outside the context of union activity,” Mr. Griffin said.

Somos has put together a good track record using these tools thus far. They have filed charges with the Phoenix office of the NLRB in 12 cases, and 11 complaints of unfair labor practices were won for workers as diverse as carwash attendants, hotel housekeepers, and restaurant workers. Needless to say perhaps, Somos has won reinstatement for many of these workers along with backpay. Not only that but in many cases once the workers have organized they have also realized they were victims of wage theft and other labor violations leading to some six-figure settlements paid out to workers from employers for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act as well.

Supposedly other workers centers in other cities are taking a look at the Somos track record. For our part we’re glad to have fellow travelers after all of these years, and it helps us hew to this path of direct organizing to win power on the job now with or without the employer’s consent but using all the tools we have at our disposal from citizen wealth to direct unionization.

In my organizer’s Spanish I think Somos Un Pueblo Unidos means All the People United. It’s hard to imagine a better slogan for working men and women in any language.