Worker Center. The term seems fairly straight-forward: a center for workers. But what does that mean?

It could be a location where workers get together for Christmas and other holidays. Or it could be somewhere people go to learn new skills for work. It might even be a place that offers legal assistance with work issues.

They are all of the above, and so much more.

Worker centers are diverse and don’t always use the same strategies or work with the same groups, but there is a common thread tying them together: their quest to bring communities together and empower members to fight wage theft, advocate for better working conditions, legislative reforms such as paid sick days, or other social justice changes to improve people’s lives.

At a time when there are few resources available to help achieve workplace fairness, the organizing and advocacy afforded by worker centers is particularly important for individuals and the broader labor movement.

Worker Centers and the Labor Movement

Worker centers, once relegated to the margins of the labor movement, have now been at the front lines of labor activism for decades. The sharp decline in union membership has triggered a rethinking of traditional organizational models and prompted a new willingness to experiment with alt-labor—workers organizing outside of the traditional union model—and with worker centers in particular.

These centers offer a particularly flexible model of organizing that works well in increasingly fissured workplaces, allowing workers to unite around their shared grievances even when they do not work for the same employer. Worker centers also help organize people who are not eligible to join a traditional union—including agricultural workers, domestic workers, and the millions that make up the ever-expanding ‘patchwork economy’—an issue covered in a report by Century Foundation senior fellow Shayna Strom and contributor Mark Schmitt.

Whether individuals are dealing with workplace challenges such as limited restroom access, unsafe warehouses, or ‘just-in-time’ scheduling, the connected communities fostered by worker centers are crucial and may be the only resource available to fight for certain workers.

Worker Organizing

Because worker centers have neither the size nor administrative capacity of unions to fight for change on their own, their emphasis on community mobilization is particularly important. Worker centers teach individuals strategies for rallying other community members and becoming effective leaders, with the goal of building a network of leaders and activists that can work toward broader reform projects.

Victories like the recent increase of domestic worker wages won by the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers and the expansion of workplace protections to domestic workers in states like New York and California are a result of this organizing strategy.

Another area where worker centers are using their organizing power to push for reforms is immigration. Immigrants often participate in domestic, agricultural, and day labor work that is rife with abuse. Among the reforms supported by the National Domestic Workers Alliance—a network of worker centers and other community organizations—is an initiative to combat human trafficking in the industry.

The National Guestworkers Alliance, organized in response to rampant violation of worker rights during the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, has not only exposed forced labor and trafficking in Gulf industries, it has now become a national leader in the movement to build a new social contract for independent workers.

Some have even credited the California-based National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON)—another coalition of local worker centers and community groups—with playing a role in successfully pressuring President Obama to use executive authority on immigration. The joint programs, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals/Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DACA/DAPA), provided temporary work permits and paused the deportation of eligible applicants—however, these programs will not be moving forward due to the Supreme Court case, United States v. Texas (2016).

Table 1. Tactics of Organizations Protecting Worker Rights
Tactic Legal Services Unions (members-only) Worker Centers
Educate community members on labor rights  Y  Y  Y
Represent non-member workers seeking assistance  Y N  Y
Help workers file complaints with employers  Y  Y  Y
Take employers to court on behalf of workers Y Y Y
Use NLRB protected collective bargaining to negotiate with employers  N Y N
Negotiate and solve workplace problems with employers, without NLRB protections  Y N Y
Pressure employers using the media  M Y Y
Pressure employers using workplace strikes*  N Y Y
Pressure employers using industry-wide ‘solidarity’ or secondary strikes N N Y
Push a legislative agenda M Y Y
*Except for public-sector workers in certain sectors like education and public safety.

Note: “N” represents No, “Y” represents Yes, “M” represents Maybe

Source: Data compiled by the author.

Advocacy Strategies

Unlike unions, which are specific to particular workplaces, and legal aid societies, which do not employ grassroots advocacy or necessarily focus on labor issues, worker centers have greater flexibility to advocate for issues in a range of ways.

Educational outreach and media strategies allowed the Florida agricultural workers making up the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to pressure large corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s to pay a slightly higher price on tomatoes, in order to meaningfully improve wages and working conditions.

In the construction industry, the Workers Defense Project has been successful in imposing liens and using other legal tactics to force employers to pay back wages to workers in Texas. The organization was also able to shame Apple into paying construction workers a higher-than-minimum wage, and provide workers compensation in one of the deadliest and least-protected industries.

Table 2. Membership and Regulation of Organizations Protecting Worker Rights
Legal Services Unions (members-only) Worker Centers
Non-profit organization Y Y  Y
Regulated by the NLRB  N Y N
Negotiate contracts covering a workplace (includes non-members) N Y M
Exclusively represent members in workplace disputes N Y N
Mandatory dues collection N Y* N
Stable funding source M Y N
* Except in right-to-work states.

Note: “N” represents No, “Y” represents Yes, “M” represents Maybe

Source: Data compiled by the author.

Taking a more traditional route of boycotting and striking employers has also paid off for members of the Garment Worker Center in California, which pushed Forever 21 to enforce workplace standards on their subcontractors.

Rose Bookbinder, coordinator of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center (PVWC) in Massachusetts, believes that for some workers the centers also function as ‘stepping stones’ to ultimately increase union membership and expand essential workplace protections to all.

Recently, ‘carwasheros’ in the Bronx received wage raises and union recognition following a three-month strike supported by local labor groups, including Make the Road New York, which began as a worker center but has grown into a larger service and community organizing hub. Similarly, in 2011, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a worker organization characterized by some as a worker center, became an AFL-CIO affiliated union and was recognized as such by the local and state government.

Worker Centers as Service Providers and Community Centers

Without community backing, the organizing and advocacy of worker centers—much less the victories— wouldn’t be possible. Providing services directly or through community partnerships, in some cases even helping enroll individuals in government programs, functions as a gateway to future involvement in the larger social justice mission of the worker center.

By offering job training, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and educational supports to youth as Make the Road New York does, community members form a connection with the worker center and become invested in the work of the organization. Other worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) locals located across the country offer access to free or affordable legal aid, industry-specific job/safety training, and licensing help to create a larger membership.

NDLON, in collaboration with a few trade unions, has developed a free iPhone app called Jornalero (Spanish for day laborer) that allows individuals to track their work hours, pay, employer information, and warn users of wage theft incidents in the area. Individuals do not have to be NDLON members in order to use the app or take advantage of its ability to file wage theft claims with a participating worker center.

In addition to providing services, some worker centers simply offer an open space as another way for workers to meet and get to know their fellow community members. For Pioneer Valley Worker Center’s Bookbinder, “worker centers are natural places where community can be built.” PVWC regularly hosts a variety of cultural events like art exhibits where worker members share their stories and experiences with others to sow the seeds of a politically aware and active community.

Worker Centers Matter

A strong labor movement is crucial to a fair and democratic society, but too often the most vulnerable workers—those who don’t always know their workplace rights or have access to unions—have gone unprotected and fallen victim to a host of issues from unsafe working conditions to wage theft.

Organized labor has recognized this and is beginning to look at the potential of worker centers to revitalize the movement. Not only are there formal affiliations with the AFL-CIO and other unions, these organizations are actually funding worker centers and using them as labs of organizational innovation.

Worker centers have become the last line—but a powerful one—of defense for workers demanding fair treatment and basic workplace rights. The lives and communities of countless construction, agricultural, garment and retail workers, cooks, taxi drivers, and day laborers across the country have unquestionably been improved.

Thanks to the empowerment fostered by worker centers, communities don’t just hope for changes in the workplace, they make them happen.


Cover Photo: National Domestic Workers Alliance Facebook.