While in upstate New York for the holidays, my wife and I visited Autumn Leaves Used Books in Ithaca, a favorite haunt of mine due to its labor section, where I quickly found a fantastic collection of books available for purchase.

On the way out, my wife alerted me to the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC) located in the upstairs section of the bookstore.

What I happened upon was not much in terms of physical presence: just a wide-open room with a large meeting table in the middle, festooned with leftist posters and little nooks for various organizations and causes with which the TCWC operates in coalition.

But whatever the TCWC lacks in luxurious accommodations, it more than makes up for in effectiveness and engagement with the community.

With the workers’ advocacy center garnering headlines in 2013 such as “City of Ithaca Becomes Living Wage Employer” and “Tompkins County Taxpayers to Kick in 100K for Living Wage Subsidy,” it is clear the TCWC is having an impact on the lives of workers in Central New York.

While these victories have undoubtedly been aided by the general progressivism of Ithaca and surrounding Tompkins County, and the presence of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at nearby Cornell University, there can be no doubt the TCWC has played a major role in getting 93 places of employment in Tompkins County to pay their workers the county’s living wage.

But it’s not just success that makes the workers’ center a fantastic model in labor-community relations; it is also the infrastructure they have set up which makes these wins possible.

Laying Out the Movement

Two aspects of the TCWC might be of interest to those hoping to see an expansion of their model to areas where the labor movement has met a good deal of hostility: community union organizers (CUOs) and the coalition with area faith groups that the TCWC engages in. I have written about both of these concepts in the past, and the TCWC provides an example of what happens when they are deployed effectively.

With the last AFL-CIO convention passing resolutions that called for building a more inclusive and diverse labor movement, building more labor-community partnerships, as well as putting more investment into organizing Southern workers, the expansion of the worker center concept to the South could act as a localized catalyst for worker empowerment.

Building Community Organizers

I asked Pete Meyers, director of the TCWC, about the community union organizer concept.

“Initially, the idea for us came from a piece that Janice Fine wrote on ‘community unions’. We then tweaked what she was talking about into our own vision of it — i.e. TCWC is a ‘community union,’ transposing ideas of what a traditional labor union is onto the larger community. So thusly, the base of workers and consumers play an important role in creating a new social contract that is favorable to workers.”

Meyers stated the CUOs came from various service and retail sectors in the area, and are able to bring in people who work better in a less structured organization:

“The way we structure it is not really all that structured, as we have found that many of our 'target population' is not amenable to meetings for various reasons….So they're the front lines of workers who're willing, on whatever small or large level, to play a role in raising consciousness and taking action for a new labor vision.”

On the role CUOs have played in the organizing success of the TCWC, Meyers left no doubt:

“A great role. For instance, the guy who's been a veritable leader, Stanley McPherson, in our campaign to ensure that all county-contracted workers are paid a living wage, is/was a worker at the county's solid waste facility.” 

Merging with Faith Coalitions

The coalition with faith communities in the region has also been beneficial, with Meyers stating they have “played a very important role in everything we do, bringing the obvious moral component. In fact, we have a bumper sticker that many people in Tompkins have on their car: 'A Living Wage is a Moral Value.'”

Meyers also notes the TCWC’s participation in the Labor-Religious Coalition of the Finger Lakes has increased the saliency of labor issues amongst churchgoers in the area, even if the coalition partners tend to be the usual suspects (Quakers, Unitarians, etc.).

Foundation of the Working Class

Worker centers’ advocacy on behalf of the working class has even delivered results in regions where there has been sizable hostility to union organizing, like the South. Organizations such as Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Texas’ Worker Defense Project have been successful at getting increased pay, better working conditions, and seeking justice for workers who have been victims of wage and work violations.

In the case of the Immokalee Workers, they have signed agreements with some of America’s biggest food servicers and restaurants to ensure workers who produce America’s fast food are paid a fair wage. They also started a radio station that broadcasts music and labor news to the workers of southwest Florida in the several languages those workers speak.

Following the Map

Meyers encourages those who seek to imitate the TCWC in their area to both network with those who have already started worker centers, as well as find linkages within the local progressive/labor community that can lend credibility to the effort.

With regards to engaging in this work in regions like the South, he suggests kickstarting organizing efforts around particularly egregious issues, such as wage theft, to draw support from all sides.

When it comes to labor media’s reporting on Southern organizing, the possibility of works councils at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee has gotten the lion’s share of attention.

This is understandable; the foreign auto industry has long been seen as a stronghold of anti-labor activity.

But while it remains to be seen if the works council model will be an effective tool of independent worker representation in America, the successes that organizations like the Tompkins County Workers’ Center have gained already show the great strides that pro-worker organizations can make when community engagement is a priority.

If the labor movement is ever going to become a truly national social movement, it must learn lessons from their activism.