Worker Centers: Where Causes Cohere, And Forge Power

Above photo: Marie Steele works as a picker at Amazon’s Shakopee, Minnesota, fulfillment center, October 8, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Leila Navidi/Star Tribune via AP.

At the crossroads of diverse social movements and worker representation, many centers have become models of intersectionality.

In October 2020, on what Amazon calls “Prime Day,” Fadumo Mohamed and her co-workers at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Minneapolis stood in the whipping wind alongside a handmade banner that read “Amazon: Hear Our Voice.” As the wind howled, Mohamed, bundled in hijab, a face mask, a long black skirt, and track jacket, approached a microphone and shouted to be heard over the storm, “We are human, we are not robots! We have to speak up! We have a voice! We are risking our health!”

In February, Mohamed’s two-and-a-half-year-old son took sick, and she had to take him to the hospital for emergency surgery. She’s a single mother, an immigrant with no family in the area—so caring for her son was all on her. Amazon, she said, told her that she could use her “UPT,” unpaid time off. When she called in to talk to HR about absence beyond her allotted leave time, she said, she was fired. When she spoke to me, she reiterated a common theme among Amazon workers: The company doesn’t treat them like humans, with lives and needs that persist into the workday. Her son’s illness wasn’t important to the company, and she also wondered if the company had taken the opportunity to let her go because she’d been outspoken about problems at the fulfillment center.

Mohamed is just one of many East African immigrant workers who have organized with the help of the Awood Center, a small worker center based in Minneapolis’s Somali community. “Awood,” its website explains, is the Somali word for power. It’s a relatively new—founded in 2017—entrant into the network of unions and worker centers in the Twin Cities that have quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) built one of the country’s strongest urban labor movements.

In recent years, as union density has plummeted and workers’ conditions worsened, worker centers have popped up around the country to fill in the gaps. Worker centers like Awood bring a social-movement energy to organizing, as well as a willingness to experiment and an understanding that the specific needs and desires of the workers they serve can be sources of power, not weaknesses. They are often rooted deeply in a particular community and know that the issues that motivate their members go beyond simple “bread and butter” concerns. In Awood’s case, that awareness has helped them to be one of the first organizations to successfully bring Amazon to the bargaining table.

Workers like Mohamed have long been considered “unorganizable” in union conventional wisdom, and organizing around culturally specific demands—like prayer time and accommodations for fasting for Muslim workers, issues on which Awood has focused—has been deemed ill-advised and insufficiently universal. Yet the victories Awood has won and the near-constant struggle the Amazon workers it supports have been waging on the shop floor remind us of the value of treating workers as whole persons, not as cogs with interchangeable needs. As Mohamed and her co-workers declared, “We are human!”

Mohamed Mire is also from Somalia and an Amazon worker since 2017, when he first moved to Minnesota. “The human body and the system at Amazon, they don’t fit,” Mire said. “We are running after machines. The human body works on energy, it needs food, water. I don’t know how people can compete with electric systems with a human body and human energy. If you were standing in front of an 18-wheeler and holding your hand on the front, if the truck started accelerating, do you think you could hold it?” Basic needs like a bathroom break, Mire explained, leave workers under cascading pressures when they return to their station. The scanning technology keeps track of the worker’s pace, but if a bathroom break takes 20 minutes, the worker has to scramble to get back on track or face a write-up for low productivity. “It’s like when you have credit card debt and you can’t pay it, so the interest is going up and up and up,” he explained.

The constant speedup, the ratcheting up of expectations at the warehouse, said Tyler Hamilton, another Amazon employee, led the workers to reach out to Awood. It was the beginning of 2019, and the facility had announced a series of changes. “Of all the things announced, none of them were actually good for us workers.”

Telling the managers that it wasn’t working didn’t seem to matter. “We had a big chunk of our team that wanted to try and fix this, but we didn’t know how,” Hamilton said. “When you go through our school system, they don’t teach you anything about your labor rights. You learn about the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, petition, assembly, but not that you actually have a protected right to discuss your compensation and your working conditions with your co-workers. You can pass out flyers. You can make petitions at work. You can walk out. You can have strikes.”

Hamilton and his fellow workers had heard about the Awood Center’s work with Amazon employees, so they reached out and learned that, indeed, walkouts were legally protected. “A couple days after we talked with them, we just did it. We walked out,” Hamilton said. “Since we first had our walkout two years ago, we’ve continuously been organizing in different ways.” Workers got their productivity targets lowered, and have helped workers at risk of losing their jobs avoid firing.

The labor rights training that the Awood Center provides, as Hamilton noted, isn’t necessary only for immigrants like Mire and Mohamed, but it is especially helpful to the Somali migrants who have been heavily recruited by Amazon. New immigrants can be easily exploited, and before Awood, there was no organization in the area supporting Somali and East African migrants as workers. To Mire, Awood’s place at the intersection of justice movements—struggles for immigrant rights, workers’ rights, and justice for Black Americans—makes it more powerful.

The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the workers’ fight against Amazon, as walkouts occurred across the country and workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, facility filed for a union election. “The work is still dangerous for all of the reasons it was dangerous before, but also now we have coronavirus to deal with,” Hamilton said. He was one of thousands of Amazon workers who got the virus, but, he noted, the conditions might have been even worse if the workers hadn’t been pressing for safety measures. “The people who are directly impacted by problems and issues will usually have some of the best insight for how to mitigate those, how to fix them,” he said.

But the pandemic also brought home the personal impact of the work for Mire. He choked up as he talked about leaving home before his children wake up in the morning, and then having to tell them not to hug him when he gets home, until he’s had a chance to shower and change clothes, in case he’s brought home the virus from work. “Imagine your daughters, they want to give you hugs, and you have to tell them ‘no.’ They’re going to say, ‘I hate Amazon.’”

But social-distancing protocols in the warehouse have also been used, Hamilton and Mire said, to tamp down organizing. Workers, Mire said, get written up for not socially distancing, even as the managers have meetings together every day. Before the pandemic, Hamilton added, there were state-mandated labor-management safety committee meetings, which the workers had used as another organizing opportunity, bringing as many employees as they could to those meetings. When COVID hit, though, the meetings were canceled, even though safety was obviously more of an issue than ever.

Recently uncovered data, Hamilton noted, backs up the workers’ assertions that the robotics-filled warehouses like the one where he works are more dangerous than the others, and Amazon’s facilities in general tend to have more injuries than the average in the warehousing industry. The robots just speed up the pace at which the workers have to go. And the speedup, Mire said, is draining the life out of the workers. “It’s like [they’re] putting a needle into your arm and sucking your blood. At the end of the day I have zero blood in my body. I’m empty. Ten hours lifting was sucking my blood.”

Last spring, when protests erupted after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, the headquarters of Centro de Trabajadores Unidas en la Lucha (CTUL) became a hub of protest. CTUL has been organizing low-wage workers of color in the Twin Cities for over a decade, and well before last year’s protests had spread to every corner of the U.S., its members had been involved in fighting racism and police violence. Henry Scott, who came into CTUL through its work on the Fight for $15 and is now a leader in its new Black worker group, Future Fighters, had spoken at the city’s budget hearings about redistributing money from policing into housing and homeless services. He called the work at CTUL’s headquarters, just a block from where Floyd was killed, “beautiful.”

During the protests, Scott explained, “We had places where we set up tables and brought out different products to make sure that people had things like deodorant and soap and toilet paper and Pampers and milk and groceries. Because I live on the north side of Minneapolis, that gave me the opportunity to do things like go up on Broadway and help the older people in my community who actually can’t get out, to be able to deliver things to them.” To him, it felt like a moment when Minneapolis could change, really tackle systemic inequality.

A single father, Scott had moved to Minneapolis from Chicago, and CTUL backed him up when the McDonald’s where he worked was underpaying its staff, ignoring the newly increased minimum wage. “I had been calling my job trying to get paid for a couple of days and one of the people that was at my job had told me, ‘If you call one more time asking about your paycheck, you’re going to be fired!’ and hung up in my face.” CTUL organizers joined him in going to the store to demand his pay, and the store eventually had to pay its workers $20,000 in back wages and penalties. (The franchise called it an “inadvertent error.”)

CTUL’s work began with janitors who worked for third-party contractors cleaning major retail chains like Target and Home Depot. As the organization’s name indicates, those early workers were primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America, and through organizing and strategic strikes, they brought the chains to the table, winning responsible contractor policies at Target and elsewhere, and even the right to a union. CTUL and Awood have both received support from and partnered with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26. Generally, however, worker centers’ projects are less about winning collective bargaining than about using direct action and community pressure to wring concessions—in CTUL’s case, from major corporations, which tend to be more image-conscious than the subcontractors they rely on.

CTUL has also focused on improving public policy. Scott recently spoke alongside Congressmember Ilhan Omar at a press conference calling for a national $15-an-hour minimum wage, telling the audience that his need to work when he’d been a teenager had affected his schoolwork. “If parents are making better wages, it takes a lot of weight off of the parents and gives them time to spend with their kids, which … that’s our future,” he told the Prospect. In Minneapolis, CTUL and other advocates won an increased minimum wage and also “sick and safe pay,” or paid sick leave, in 2016.

Scott is looking forward to building out Future Fighters, continuing to press on the crises of policing and homelessness and other issues facing Black low-wage workers. He also continues to work on the enforcement of the minimum wage and sick and safe laws. Echoing Tyler Hamilton, he noted that the schools don’t teach people about their labor rights. “Especially Black kids, they believe that when it comes to politics, they really don’t have a lot of say in what’s going on. So, I’m not only telling my kids, I’m telling everybody’s kids,” he laughed. He’s on the board of directors now at CTUL, and said, “When you get to hold a position like that, it makes you feel like you’re somebody and gives you the courage to open your mouth and stand up for yourself.”

Worker centers are not unions; they are something else. And that “something else” has allowed them to connect dots that unions that engage in collective bargaining often miss. They root themselves in a community rather than a given workplace, though often they run campaigns pressing for change at a specific company, like CTUL at Target and Awood at Amazon. Other times, as with the Miami Workers Center’s focus on caring workers or Voces de la Frontera’s organizing with dairy farm workers in Wisconsin, their community base allows them to bring together members who might be atomized, isolated from one another in workplaces that might be someone’s home or farm.

Ruth Milkman, a professor of sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY and at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, and the author of many books and articles looking at worker centers, unions, and immigrant and women’s movements, explained that worker centers arose to organize workers who were too often being ignored by traditional unions. Some of that was sectoral: Day laborers and domestic workers, for instance, were scattered across the landscape rather than clustered together in a traditional workplace. Some of that was legal: Farm and domestic workers were excluded from the right to bargain collectively under the National Labor Relations Act. (Fearing African American empowerment, Southern senators conditioned their support for the act on those exclusions when it came up for a vote in 1935.) But some of that was based on who those workers are: immigrants, mostly, many undocumented, and thus written off as unorganizable. But Milkman’s research has shown that those immigrant workers often brought traditions of militancy that Americans missed out on—as anyone watching the Awood workers singing a Somali solidarity song alongside Omar could attest. The worker centers introduced such traditions back into an American labor movement that had lost much of its power.

Ellen Bravo, a longtime organizer now with Family Values @ Work, cut her teeth with 9to5, an organization of women office workers best known perhaps for inspiring the film and Dolly Parton song, but which embodied many social-movement principles and strategies in the 1970s. She shared a story of infiltrating a management group holding a seminar titled “9to5: Not just a movie: How to keep them out of your office.” “A secretary opened a mailing [promoting] this seminar by a union-busting management firm that always held these ‘union-free’ seminars. And she sent it to us,” Bravo laughed, “Who do they think opens the mail?” Bravo sneaked into the seminar, and heard the union busters describe her group as particularly perilous because it was a new kind of hybrid: “[9to5] combines the militancy of the trade union movement with the personal approach of the women’s movement. That’s why they’re so dangerous.”

Much like 9to5, today’s worker centers, Bravo continued, understand that “what happens in [workers’] lives, what happens to their kids, what happens in their homes is all part of who they are—and if we didn’t take into account the whole picture, the whole self, we’d never succeed.” For 9to5, that meant structuring an organization that valued caregiving, where the organizers, too, had flexible schedules and realistic work hours. “We knew that to be successful, the movement had to be broad and engage lots of women workers. We could only do that if we found activities and ways to make them able to be part of a movement that honored the other responsibilities in their lives,” she added. “One of my mottos was ‘We’re all special and none of us are indispensable.’ That’s the only way you can really build a lasting movement.”

That also meant bringing all those issues of workers’ lives into the room, even when those issues might initially be remote to or even opposed by other members. “When you build an organization or a coalition where people meet folks who are a category that they’ve been taught to hate or be afraid of, someone who is LGBTQ or someone who is from an immigrant family,” Bravo said, “but when you’re also in the struggle together and your kids play with each other at meetings and you know each other’s lives, then you don’t have to convince people that these are issues ‘we’ should take up.”

There’s another reason that worker centers have often highlighted the conditions of whoever gets left out of rights or protections: Those will end up being the conditions of everyone else. Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance has noted many times that the rapidly spreading working conditions of the gig economy aren’t new; they’re the conditions domestic workers have long labored under. Domestic workers, of course, were carved out of New Deal–era labor protections as much because the majority of them were Black women as because the men in charge couldn’t fathom the home being a workplace. Racism and sexism shaped those conditions, which continue to creep into other excluded quarters of the labor market.

But worker centers, Milkman said, “tend to be more adaptable and flexible and have a broader sense of what counts as serious organizing.” They don’t write off organizing around police violence or prayer time because those are issues that might affect some of the workers more than others. Workers like Tyler Hamilton step up for their Muslim co-workers because they understand that improving conditions for the more marginalized workers in turn helps improve their own.

Which is why worker centers tend to understand that organizations must be led by the people who are most affected. The generation that launched the worker centers, Milkman continued, came of age when issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia were central, and many of its leaders are women of color. “These are new organizations that don’t have a patriarchal tradition in the way unions mostly do,” she said.

And those worker centers have helped fuel movement energy. The massive “Day Without an Immigrant” marches in 2006, in response to a bill in Congress that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants, changed how much of organized labor saw immigrant workers: “The people that were still skeptical that you could do anything with immigrant workers saw how organizable they actually were,” Milkman said.

Worker centers helped build those marches (as did SEIU, which had a large immigrant membership), and continue to do similar work. Bravo pointed to Voces de la Frontera in Wisconsin, which brought an estimated 60,000 people to the streets in February 2017 as Trump ramped up his deportation machine. Another massive march went off later that spring against Milwaukee’s Trump-besotted Sheriff David Clarke. Those work stoppages, explained Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the director of Voces, were able to beat back the planned local expansion of the 287(g) program, which enlisted local law enforcement to act as immigration enforcers. “These are strikes,” Neumann-Ortiz noted, yet they still often get left out of the conversation about striking, and are missed in official strike counts.

During the 2011 battle against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which stripped public-sector workers of many fundamental union rights, Voces members, particularly youth members, came out alongside their teachers, who in turn had supported their fights for rights as immigrants. Voces sent buses to the occupation of the State Capitol, and immigrant youth spoke at the rallies, linking the issues of justice for migrant families to justice for public workers.

During the pandemic, Voces has organized an essential workers’ rights network. Many of their members are farmworkers in dairies or in meatpacking, and it helped, Neumann-Ortiz said, to have that existing trust as workers’ conditions rapidly grew more dangerous. “We really elevated their voice in public, and with elected officials,” she explained. “We’re pushing back to say worker lives matter, and worker lives come first. [Since the meatpacking companies] were making huge profits, certainly it wasn’t a question about money.”

Neumann-Ortiz pointed to meatpacking workers’ self-organized work refusals, which forced companies to implement some safety procedures. “We think beyond what the law provides, and we always have,” Neumann-Ortiz said.

Organizing those immigrant workers around their immediate needs helped Voces build out a powerful network that wields power in a variety of ways. “It’s part of the racial-justice movement, it’s part of the rights of working people,” Neumann-Ortiz said. Members do electoral work through Voceros por el Voto, which Neumann-Ortiz described as “one of the largest relational voting programs in the country.” It’s built through people like Eduardo Perea, a Voces member and essential worker. “He’s been here working in construction for 15 years, lived in Milwaukee for 30 years,” Neumann-Ortiz said. “He’s undocumented. All of his children are U.S. citizens. His two oldest children just voted. It’s about building that progressive, pro-immigrant voting bloc, [where members are] intimately connected to one another and care about one another.”

This is what worker centers do at their best: They build a multifaceted movement. Organizations like Voces, Bravo said, “do really nitty-gritty. They teach people English. They do citizenship classes. They help when people need—literally—to fight to prevent a deportation or when someone needs food. They do things that someone might call social services, but they are as focused on organizing and engaging people in the fight for systemic change.”

The kinds of services that organizations like Voces provide can be essential for organizing, but also provide a challenge, Ruth Milkman noted. Existing outside of the labor laws that govern (and hamper) unions, the centers have experimented with ways to reach the workers they wanted to organize, but, Milkman said, “they could easily be overwhelmed by the demand for services, and then just be swamped by that to the point where it was hard to do anything else.”

Yet adept organizations also learn from the demands placed upon them and incorporate workers’ varied needs into their analysis. Something like the way the Femme Agenda, developed by the Miami Workers Center from its work among care workers, most of them women of color, winds up informing every facet of the organization’s work. “We don’t live single-issue lives as domestic workers, so the work that we do cannot just be around my rights as a domestic worker,” explained June Barrett, an organizer and board member at the center.

Barrett, who uses they/them pronouns, used to be a home care worker, but last year received a Dorothy Bolden Fellowship from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, of which MWC is an affiliate, to become a full-time organizer. Their work has revolved around building out We Dream in Black, a network for Black domestic workers within the broader alliance, and work on a research project on Black domestic workers with the Institute for Policy Studies.

Barrett also helped to distribute emergency funds from NDWA’s coronavirus care fund. “The Miami Workers Center was getting calls [from] workers saying, ‘My boss told me not to come in because they are afraid of this virus.’ My own twin sister, she lost all her cleaning jobs,” Barrett explained. “We’re not a service organization, but yes, in the middle of a crisis, the Miami Workers Center was a very vital force in terms of community aid.”

Losing work left many domestic workers unable to pay rent, and as the national eviction moratorium expires soon, the center has turned its attention to housing. Bereatha Howard is a member of the Center, and has involved herself in the housing organizing. “I saw housing inequality and they were addressing it,” she said. She joined canvasses of the neighborhood to share information on resources for tenants—once again, the kind of public-education work that supports the community as a whole and brings new members into the organization.

As Santra Denis, the organization’s director, explained, “eviction defense work reinforces that as we think about race, as we think about gender, if you are at those intersections, you are often the ones who are most impacted by the situation. That is how we frame our Femme Agenda. We talk about ‘Who is the most impacted? Who is getting the worst of it?’ That means we have to elevate the narrative and the leadership and the experience of those folks.”

It’s not just evictions that require that intersectional analysis. In the course of the pandemic—which has disproportionately killed Black and brown people—many care workers are immigrants and have fears about interacting with a health care system that might require them to share information in order to be vaccinated. Domestic workers who work in someone’s home are unlikely to have health insurance or other benefits. And deportations continue under the Biden administration.

If a client’s income takes a hit, Denis noted, “the first thing to go is the care workers.” The Center assumed that those workers would be the ones hit hardest by housing insecurity, and the eviction information from the courts proved them right. So they built up safe door-knocking practices to distribute information about the national eviction moratorium, and the county moratorium, and spread the news that only a sheriff has the right to evict them. They held a tenant town hall to hear from renters, and learned that landlords were cutting electricity or changing locks despite the official eviction bans. They helped connect tenants to legal partners.

MWC has also had to figure out new ways to organize virtually, which means, of course, a lot of Zoom calls. Howard found herself more comfortable speaking up in virtual meetings than in traditional ones. The “loving encouragement” of MWC staff, she said, helped her step out of her comfort zone and learn to facilitate calls. The Zoom meetings, Barrett added, can be more accessible for domestic workers, who can be on a Zoom call from their phone while they work.

During the pandemic in particular, Barrett said, depression and anxiety have become widespread among members. “People say they’re unsure of their future, of what tomorrow looks like.” The Center, Denis explained, had created the Women’s Circle to provide a monthly healing space and time for members; it’s been ongoing for years but has grown during COVID. It’s a space where members listen to and support one another, and learn techniques and exercises for managing and facing their emotions.

Through all of this, Howard said, it matters to her to see people who look like her in the leadership of the organization. It matters that they understand the culture she comes from. “They have their finger on the pulse of this community,” she said. “They’ve been consistent over 20 years and they have earned their trust.”

Despite their notable achievements, worker centers face daunting challenges. Where unions are funded by members, Milkman noted, worker centers often rely on foundation funding, which constrains them in a different way. While worker center staff and board members may come from the communities they serve, the funders, well, usually don’t. And that can lead to clashes over tactics and over the demand for “deliverables.”

There’s no surefire way to avoid such clashes, Bravo noted, but it matters that members are the ones doing the organizing and leading the charge, rather than staff, in many effective worker centers. The shoestring budgets they often operate on, Milkman noted, means that workers have to step up because there simply aren’t staff to do all the work.

That kind of leadership also means that those workers’ demands are ever front and center. While some organizations might have been inclined to cut the Biden administration some slack early on, Christine Neumann-Ortiz and Voces’s members were gearing up for actions to get immigrants included in the pandemic relief bills as they meandered through Congress. People say, Neumann-Ortiz noted, that “we’re thankful for essential workers,” but Voces aims to make sure that they put that into law by giving those immigrant essential workers the rights to which they’re entitled.

And on the ground in Minnesota, the Awood Center members keep up the daily fight—for causes like Fadumo Mohamed’s jobs, and for an expansive view of worker justice. Tyler Hamilton pointed to the long struggle to unionize U.S. Steel for a comparison. “These jobs are basically like the industrial jobs that we used to have. Amazon is just the industrialization of retail,” he said. “But these aren’t jobs that you can outsource. The only way you can be affordable and cheap is if it’s right here.” That means that opposing worker organizing “is just a part of [Amazon’s] business model,” he concluded. “Until we can get them to change it.”