Carmen Rojas’s parents immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers. Her father drove trucks, and her mother filed papers at a bank. Neither had finished middle school. A generation later, their daughter had graduated with a Ph.D. in urban planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and traveled to Venezuela on a Fulbright scholarship. Today, Rojas heads The Workers Lab, a Bay Area accelerator that backs early-stage, labor-focused ventures. When Rojas thinks about her family’s upward mobility, she’s both pleased and disturbed: “It kills me to imagine that I might be part of the last generation in this country to benefit from an economy and a government that saw opportunity as core to its existence,” she says.
“We have a reached a moment where we can no longer deliver on the promise of what work is,” says Rojas over lunch at a Thai restaurant in midtown Manhattan. To live in New York City, for example, even a $15 minimum wage wouldn’t cover the expenses of raising two kids: At minimum, each parent needs to earn $18.97 hourly to adequately support their family. Yet only a tenth of American workers are unionized, about half of what it was in 1983. “The 20th-century labor movement as we imagined it — the labor union, collective bargaining — is no longer in a position to protect and create opportunity for the vast majority of workers.”
Those shortcomings have led people to second-guess traditional institutions, as the rise of Donald Trump suggests. Capitalizing on the hot-button issue of income inequality highlighted by Occupy Wall Street and Fight for 15, The Workers Lab is trying to reimagine what the future could be. “That’s why we exist,” Rojas tells NationSwell, “to jump-start the next-generation workers’ movement.” She shared five current initiatives that illustrate what that future might look like.
1. CLEAN Carwash Campaign, California
Cooperatives place businesses back in the hands of workers, where they share in profits and decision-making. They can be a tool for advancement, nurturing professional skills among blue-collar laborers. The CLEAN Carwash Campaign, which fought legal battles on behalf of Los Angeles’s largely undocumented force of carwasheros, tested whether they could open a worker-owned car wash in South L.A. The model has prompted Rojas to start looking for opportunities elsewhere, including a farm in the Coachella Valley. If that co-op, owned by 7,500 workers, actually gets off the ground, it will be the largest in the country. No small feat for an industry that’s known for some of the worst working conditions in this country, says Rojas. “This farm conversion — and the fact that we’re even talking about cooperatives outside of Vermont or Maine — is awesome.”
2. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Florida
With the rise of the conscious consumer — the person who reads labels and researches brands online — certification has become one of the easiest ways to push businesses into compliance. In South Florida, which produces most of the nation’s tomato supply during winter, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers created a powerful set of standards for tomato-pickers to ensure they get paid on time, have a voice in the workplace, aren’t subjugated to sexual harassment, and can safely submit complaints without retaliation. They then brought these guidelines straight to buyers like McDonald’s and Yum Brands (Taco Bell and Pizza Hut’s owner), rather than the farms’ managers. Fast-food companies and supermarkets agreed to buy tomatoes only from companies that met certifications, forcing the industry as a whole to catch up. “The coalition was so good at creating the standard,” says Rojas.
3. Worker Defense Project, Texas
With just two OSHA inspectors for the entire state, Texas’s construction sites might as well be unregulated, says Rojas. “Employers aren’t required to pay workers’ compensation, and Texas has the highest rate of mortality in construction in the whole country.” For five years, the Worker Defense Project, an immigrant workers’ rights organization, had been advocating for policy change. They won concessions from some high-profile projects, but the sector as a whole wouldn’t budge. So rather than shaming those who wouldn’t get on board, the group launched its Build It Better campaign, which offered incentives instead. “Their idea was to create a certification for developers’ construction projects,” explains Rojas. For adding on-site monitors and training, the Workers Defense Project in turn would work to fast-track permits and reduce the insurance rate. As Rojas points out, “If people aren’t dying on your projects because they’re being trained, then you don’t need as much insurance.”
4. Coworker, District of Columbia
Rojas is still trying to figure out if digital tools are simply an offshoot of old-school worker organizing or something different entirely. But she is clear about which online project is her current favorite: Coworker, which is a petitioning platform that allows disparate workers to make collective grievances about hyper-specific issues known to employers, without the huge undertaking of forming a union. “For instance, they have 25,000 Starbucks baristas who have all signed different types of petitions and that Starbucks has responded to,” Rojas says of Coworker’s impact. “Often, there is no way for you as a barista in one of hundreds of stores in Manhattan to unify your voice with other baristas around scheduling, wages or appearance. Coworker created that way.”
5. Universal Basic Income, California
While the movement toward a universal basic income has yet to be realized (aside from a small pilot project in Oakland), Rojas is intrigued by the idea. Advocating this policy, which guarantees every family a minimum wage regardless of whether they work, might have gotten you laughed out of a room as a “crazy communist” in the past, but it’s now gaining traction. “The appeal of a basic income — a kind of Social Security for everyone — is easy to understand,” The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki wrote this summer. “It’s easy to administer; it avoids the paternalism of social-welfare programs that tell people what they can and cannot buy with the money they’re given; and, if it’s truly universal, it could help destigmatize government assistance.” Adds Rojas, “I’m interested in what it means for somebody who has spent his entire life in the labor movement to imagine non-labor institution solutions for the issues facing workers.”
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