Left Out of Labor Law Protections, Excluded Workers Want In—And More

What if workers excluded from today’s labor laws and unions’ organizing campaigns were able to collectively bargain? What if we were able to overturn historically racist exclusions and see a whole new group of workers “stand in the doorway to a new labor movement,” as one organizer put it? Workers grappling with these questions met as the Excluded Workers Congress during the Social Forum.

Ai Jen Poo, an organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, opened the congress with a history lesson. She tied the exclusion of domestic workers from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act to our country’s history of slavery—Southern lawmakers wouldn’t let the NLRA pass if it covered their domestic help.

But 75 years later, the 300-plus participants proved excluded workers haven’t been twiddling their thumbs while federal law failed to protect them and organized labor ignored their industries. Farm workers, taxi drivers, day laborers, workers in right-to-work states, the formerly incarcerated, household workers, restaurant workers, and guest workers shared stories about how they are organizing.

Some workers at the congress aren’t technically excluded from organizing but face a variety of barriers: lack of interest by organized labor, informal work arrangements, racial discrimination (restaurant workers reported that people of color make $4 an hour less than white workers in their industry), and high numbers of immigrants.


They cheered loudly for their victories: domestic workers were just a week away from securing time-and-half pay for overtime and a day off each week in New York state, while farm workers in Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are finally seeing changes to working conditions in the fields—like umbrellas for shade and a place to sit down. Both organizations have been at it since the early 2000s.

The Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity, from New Orleans, reported taking on employers—from shipyards to hotels—that hire guest workers from recruiters who offer false promises of green cards and then force workers into indentured servitude. The Alliance is backing the POWER Act, which would unlink work visas from specific employers and protect workers from deportation during organizing campaigns.

“If you can’t leave your employer, you’re talking about a state of servitude, of slavery,” explained an organizer.



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Several speakers said the congress’s goal isn’t just to bring excluded workers under existing labor law, noting its glaring weaknesses. José Oliva of Restaurant Opportunities Center-United noted that “technically, restaurant workers are included. But they’re excluded in essence by practicality.”


Members of the Chinese Progressive Association, a large organization based in San Francisco’s Chinese working-class community, reported their work to build a “labor council for people who don’t have unions.” Along with other low-income worker groups, they hope to pass a worker bill of rights and a wage theft ordinance in the city this fall.

“It’s not enough to sign petitions and go to each other’s protests,” explained CPA member Rong Wen Lan.

“We know that when you don’t have rights, you don’t wait for someone to give them to you,” said Tom Smith, an organizer with campus workers in Tennessee who are not allowed to bargain but have built a non-majority union. Invoking the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, he exclaimed, “You fight for it!”

It was clear that many in the room see themselves as part of the revitalization of the labor movement.

Saket Soni of the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity told the crowd: “They said we were unorganizable. We organized. They said we couldn’t strike. We struck. They said we couldn’t have living wages, human rights, or a labor movement. Did we build them?”

“Yes!” roared the crowd.

The AFL-CIO was also on hand, in the person of Eddie Acosta, the federation’s connection to worker centers. Acosta said the room was “like the AFL-CIO” and pledged the federation’s support for future endeavors.

A smaller group of core activists met July 13 to discuss next steps. Jill Shenker of the National Domestic Workers Alliance said the coalition will fight to bring excluded workers under occupational health and safety laws and will pressure the Department of Labor, which enforces wage and hour laws, to extend its reach in states where the agency is weakest.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #377, August 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.