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by Chloe Johnson
When Bob Mule left South Carolina for San Francisco in June 2013, he just wanted to get a job and pursue his passions of skateboarding and making short films. Instead, the 24-year-old recent college graduate found himself embroiled in a labor dispute over unpaid wages.
Mule (moo LAY) said the owner of the food truck he worked in paid him less than the San Francisco minimum wage of $10.74 per hour, despite a Craigslist ad promising $12. Employees were denied overtime pay and work breaks, Mule said. Last December, he filed a formal complaint with a group called Young Workers United, which advocates for workers in the food service and retail industries in San Francisco.
Sixty years ago, a young man with Mule’s skills and interests might have had better luck. During the peak of the labor movement, he may have worked in a factory or for another large-scale employer in which the employees were already represented by collective bargaining or were attempting to unionize to improve their working conditions.
Today, union membership is in decline, but groups like Young Workers United are trying to fill the void. These small groups are not traditional labor unions; they call themselves “worker centers,” and are considered a new frontier in the labor movement.
“Worker centers alone are never going to replace labor unions, but they play an important role,” said Gordon Mar, a coordinator with workers’ rights organization Jobs With Justice.
While these groups cannot negotiate on behalf of a whole workplace, they can help settle disputes between individual workers and employers, according to Maria Myotte of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United in New York City. These organizations have worked on behalf of groups of workers who have traditionally been hard to organize, such as restaurant workers, domestic workers and taxi drivers.
In the case of restaurant workers, the Los Angeles-based Food Chain Workers Alliance has found that almost a quarter are paid less than minimum wage.
“We did our own research,” said organizer Joanne Lo, who has also organized Los Angeles garment workers. “We found low wages and wage theft [defined as paying workers less than the legal minimum, not paying overtime, or making employees work off the clock.]. This is an issue for workers and also an issue for the public; these are the people handling our food.”
According to Lo, the Food Chain Workers’ Alliance has helped restaurant workers in individual restaurants get higher wages, paid vacations and paid sick leave, and there is a “growing partnership” with employers.
Worker centers disproportionately serve immigrant workers, including undocumented immigrants, Mar said. Workers who contact San Francisco worker centers like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Chinese Progressive Association are “almost 100 percent” immigrants, mostly from China, the Philippines and Latin America, Mar said.
Immigrants are not only difficult for traditional unions to organize, they also tend to work in industries that are hard to unionize, according to the AFL-CIO. The workers themselves often do not want to join a traditional union because of concerns about being forced to go on strike or falling out with their employers, as well as immigration status.
“Places like Florida are so anti-union, so they have to do a lot of education about workers’ rights,” said Lo, whose organization has helped improve conditions for immigrant farmworkers in that state. “Many workers don’t know what a union is. Some think a union’s not good.”
Worker centers have been able to help by settling disputes, providing training and job placement services, and advocating for causes like a higher minimum wage. The AFL-CIO has recognized worker centers as a legitimate part of the labor movement since 2006, according to their website.
“We’ve put restaurant workers and several issues unique to the restaurant industry on a national level,” said Myotte, who has worked in food service since the age of 14 when she got a job at a Sonic drive-through. According to Myotte, the restaurant industry is one of the fastest-growing employers in the country, and less than one-tenth of one percent of restaurant workers are unionized.
The worker center movement also helps domestic workers, who have traditionally been excluded from the labor movement. The push for a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights was led by worker centers like The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and Mujeres Unidas y Activas.
Sylvia Lopez arrived in Los Angeles from her native Oaxaca, Mexico 25 years ago, and her first job was taking care of two children during the day. Although Lopez worked full time, she spent her evenings selling corn on the street to meet her budget. Today, Lopez works with Mujeres Unidas y Activas to school domestic workers and their employers about their rights as workers.
“The challenges they face are similar across continents,” said Mujeres Unidas y Activas co-director Juana Flores of domestic workers. “Low wages, ill treatment and abuse, and firings without warning or reason. They [worker centers] offer worker rights workshops, help each other, and collaborate to not work at a home where there have been abuses.”
While worker centers can help individual workers, they do not have the same power as unions to ensure fair treatment.
Since he quit his food truck job, Mule has been working closely with Young Workers United to secure unpaid wages, but so far his former employer has neither paid up nor faced sanctions. Meanwhile, Mule has been sleeping on friends’ couches and picking up odd jobs to survive.
“I’m glad I have the support of my friends,” he said.