Worker Centers

Worker centers vary in terms of their organizational models, how they think about their mission, and how they carry out their work. However, most share some core characteristics. Centers have a social movement orientation and organize around both economic issues and immigrant rights. They pursue these goals by seeking to impact the labor market through direct economic action, on the one hand, and public policy reform activity, on the other. They are enmeshed in the struggle for federal immigration reform and related issues like access to drivers’ licenses as well as housing, education, healthcare, and criminal justice issues. Many favor alliances with religious institutions and government agencies and seek to work closely with other activist groups in a variety of formal and informal coalitions.

The organizing and advocacy work that immigrant worker centers do is in three general areas:

  • Defending workers’ rights and trying to improve working conditions in low-wage industries;
  • Responding to attacks on immigrants in their communities and fighting for immigration reform;
  • Dealing with issues of immigrant political incorporation, including education, housing, and healthcare.

Centers apply a variety of strategic approaches to their organizing and advocacy work. These include bringing direct economic pressure to bear on employers and industries (pickets, direct actions and boycotts, and much less frequently, job actions) and building political and community support for public policy reforms that require employers and industries to change their behavior.

The vast majority of worker center members are recent immigrants (including large numbers of undocumented workers) who labor in the worst jobs. Worker centers have had unprecedented success in developing leadership among these workers. They now provide a central vehicle through which low-wage immigrant workers are receiving services and education around workplace issues, participating in civil society, telling their stories to the larger community, and organizing to seek economic and political change.


Most of the workers who contact immigrant worker centers are employed in low-wage industries. Immigrant worker centers have developed campaigns and devised some very creative and effective strategies to win lasting improvements for low-wage workers. The greatest accomplishment of these campaigns to date has been compelling individual employers to pay back wages to workers. Other campaigns have sought to hold large corporations responsible for the actions of their sub-contractors. Organizations have also won substantial economic improvements for low-wage workers by moving local and state government to require employers to raise wages and improve conditions of work via administrative action and public policy change.

While they often target particular employers as well as industries within local labor markets, worker centers are not work-site based. Unlike the traditional American union, most do not focus on organizing for majority representation in individual work sites or on negotiating collective bargaining agreements for individual groups of workers. Worker centers are hybrids that combine elements of different types of organizations—from political parties, settlement houses, immigrant civic organizations, community organizations and social movement groups to unions, feminist consciousness-raising organizations, and producer coops. In many centers, ethnicity and language, rather than occupation or industry, are the primary identities through which workers come to know and participate in the organizations. Ethnic identity and the experience of prejudice are central analytical lenses through which experiences in and the organization of the labor market as a whole, are understood by center organizers. Often workers come into a center because they live or work in its geographic area of focus, not because they work in a specific industry or occupation.

Because they are committed to going beyond advocacy to providing a means through which workers can take action on their own behalf, most centers place enormous emphasis on leadership development and democratic decision-making, putting processes in place to involve workers on an ongoing basis, and working to develop the skills of worker leaders, so that they are able to participate meaningfully in guiding the organization. Many identify strongly with the philosophy and teaching methods of Paulo Freire and other popular educators and draw upon literacy circles and other models that originated in Central and South American liberation movements.

Although they may relate to a much larger number of workers, most centers have fewer than a thousand members and they view membership as a privilege that is not automatic but must be earned. They require workers to take courses and/or become involved in the organization in order to qualify.    

Centers demonstrate a deep sense of solidarity with workers in other countries and an ongoing programmatic focus on the global impact of structural adjustment, trade, and labor policies. Some worker center founders and leaders had extensive experience with organizing in their countries of origin and actively draw upon those traditions in their current work. Some centers maintain ongoing ties with popular organizations in the countries from which workers have migrated, share strategies, publicize each other’s work, and support each other as they are able.

The first worker centers were founded by Black worker activists in North and South Carolina, and by immigrant activists in New York City’s Chinatown, along the Texas-Mexican border in El Paso, and in San Francisco. They arose during the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to changes in manufacturing that resulted in worsened conditions, factory closings, and the rise of lower-paying service sector jobs. Disparities of pay and treatment between African American and white workers, as well as exploitation within ethnic economic enclaves and in the broader economy (including the informal sector) were also major catalysts for the creation of the first wave of centers.  

The second wave of centers emerged in the late 1980s and early- to mid-1990s. They appeared as large new groups of Latino immigrants, some in flight from the Central American wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, came to live and work in urban metropolitan areas, as well as the suburbs, and growing numbers of Southeast Asians emigrated to the United States seeking work. Drawing on the first-wave centers for their organizational models, these groups were founded by a diverse set of institutions and individuals, including churches and other faith-based organizations, social service and legal aid agencies, immigrant NGOs, and unions. In fact, as a strategy for organizing in the non-union garment sector, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) opened four worker centers in Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

From 2000 to the present, a new wave of centers has emerged. Many of the workers involved are from new chain migration streams from communities in Mexico who are reacting to the push factors of uneven economic development and hemispheric free trade agreements, and to the pull of plentiful jobs in the United States. Most of the centers continue to arise in the nation’s cities. However, more centers are being organized in suburban and rural areas and in southern states in response to the large concentrations of immigrants working in the service, poultry, meat-packing, and agricultural sectors. Also, more centers are emerging among recent Filipino, African, and South Asian immigrants, and more of them than in past waves are directly connected to faith-based organizations and unions.

The number of worker centers in the United States has increased dramaticall, paralleling the increased flow of specific immigrant groups in large numbers. In 1992, there were fewer than five centers nationwide. As of 2007, there are at least 160 worker centers in over 80 cities, towns, and rural areas.


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The Workplace Project

The Workplace Project was founded in 1992 to help end the exploitation of Latino immigrant workers on Long Island. Working with—and learning from—our members, as well as other worker centers, such as Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association and Tenant and Workers’ Support Committee, we’ve tried many different strategies in our struggle for social justice. In some cases, we learned our lessons from other organizations, while other times our insight was gained through hard experience. This article is about those lessons.


The Workplace Project has participated in various studies documenting workplace abuses. One study we developed and carried out in collaboration with Hofstra University demonstrated the prevalence of abuse against day laborers: Half of the study’s respondents reported wage theft, while one-quarter reported being physically assaulted on the job or while looking for work. The abuse against domestic workers is at least as bad—our survey of over 20 domestic workers revealed an average wage of $4.03 per hour, far below minimum wage.

Given the systemic nature of this abuse, it is impossible to make any real change by fighting cases one by one. On the positive side, there are large numbers of community members who are personally affected and who want to take action. There are also larger numbers of potential allies among students, churches, businesses, and unions that support our work. Through our organizing, we have built committees of factory workers, building maintenance workers, day laborers, and domestic workers, and some of these have generated new, geographically-based committees.

After people join a committee and become associate members of the organization, they can then take a workers’ rights course and become leader members. These members are the driving force for our campaigns and activities. They conduct outreach campaigns; hold educational workshops; engage in direct action against targets; provide legal support for individual cases and legislative work for broader campaigns; produce media for both the Latino, and general North American community; and essentially multiply our ability to accomplish what we could never accomplish with a small staff.

By combining strategic legal action and community organizing, The Workplace Project has won several noteworthy victories, including:

  • Helping pass a 2006 domestic workers Bill of Rights legislation in Nassau County, New York, to better inform domestic workers about their basic rights by requiring placement agencies to provide that information;
  • Stopping a racially discriminatory campaign in Farmingville, New York, which sought to evict 2000 immigrants from their homes in 2005-06;
  • Recovering over $170,000 in unpaid wages in 2006;
  • Convincing the local district attorney’s office in 2006 to begin to arrest employers (largely construction contractors) for non-payment of wages;
  • Achieving various other workplace victories, such as helping workers reduce their workload and oust their abusive supervisor at a luxury hotel.

Immigration Policy Reform

In 2007, the most crucial issue will be whether Congress will pass immigration policy reform that will legalize immigrants, reunite families, and protect workers’ rights. However, no matter what happens, the work of building our movement must include the following:

  • Creating self-sustaining organizations. Funding for worker/community organizing is scarce, which means that as the number of worker centers grow, we must become more creative and self-reliant, and seek to develop our own alternative sources of funding. The Workplace Project is participating in an initiative to develop a “stored value card” that would serve as a long-term benefit for our members, as well as a way to save money that would otherwise be given in fees to large corporations, like Western Union. Using revenue generated from this card, membership dues, and an array of grassroots fundraising events, our intent is to become self sufficient.
  • Convincing non-immigrants that they have much more in common with immigrants than they think. In particular, we have to speak to those who see that life is getting more difficult, wages are being stretched, housing costs are rising, and healthcare is a luxury—and point out who really deserves the blame.  Many of the same Congress-men who are responsible for the devastation of the economy in Mexico, for example, are also responsible for helping financial institutions take money out of the pockets of citizens through exorbitant credit card interest rates and ATM fees.

Planting Seeds for Victory

As the immigrants’ rights protests grew in the spring of 2006, some observers were surprised by how immigrants were able to mobilize so spontaneously and in such great numbers. However, these mobilizations were no more spontaneous than plants sprouting during periods of rain and warm weather. The mobilizations were due in large part to seeds that we had been planting for many years—when we were educating workers about their rights to a minimum wage, and to organize and fight for justice. The future of our movement for justice will depend on diligently increasing the number of organizations and community leaders that continue to plant these seeds of struggle. When the rains come, we will be ready.

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No Justice, No Growth: How L.A. Makes Developers Create Decent Jobs

Community Benefit Agreements, says Cecilia Estolano, the new executive director of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, “work best when there is substantial agency money invested, when they’re big projects, and when they’re in hot markets or emerging markets.” In much of Los Angeles—in much of urban America—none of those conditions pertain. Which compels Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), now the primary architect of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) across Los Angeles, to go project by project, creating an archipelago of decent living standards in a sea of working-class stagnation.

Working often in close partnership with a Los Angeles city council member from Hollywood, Jackie Goldberg, LAANE has steadily enlarged the scope both of CBAs and the living-wage ordinances within Southern California. Its successes have inspired unions and community organizations across the nation to create their own campaigns linking growth to justice. Living wage ordinances have now been enacted in more than 120 municipalities across the country, while CBAs—which now may require developers not merely to provide decent jobs to local residents, but to build affordable housing, parks, health clinics, and other social amenities—have been implemented on at least 48 major projects from Seattle to Miami.

This is, of course, justice by increments, but in the absence of a federal government interested in raising the minimum wage, providing health coverage for all, or enabling workers to join unions, incremental justice is as good as it gets. So it falls to the states to hike the minimum wage, and to more liberal cities to enact living wage ordinances covering employees of city contractors. And for now, even in a city as liberal as Los Angeles, passing an ordinance mandating CBAs for projects that aren’t recipients of city funding or redevelopment district tax abatements is not possible.

Even though they are negotiated on a project-by-project basis, CBAs have become, in less than a decade, the way that major developments get built in Los Angeles. For one thing, while CBAs clearly impose additional costs on the developer, they also help ensure that the project will get green-lighted. “The best way to get our project approved is to join with the community,” says Cliff Goldstein, a partner in J.H. Snyder, one of Southern California’s largest commercial developers. “Once we’ve crafted an agreement, we walk hand-in-hand downtown to the council. We become a formidable foe if someone wants to make us their foe.”

Birth of a CBA

Since Goldberg and LAANE first established the CBA in a project in Hollywood, a distinct process has emerged on subsequent projects. One group—often, but not always, LAANE—organizes residents in the vicinity of the proposed project, and links pre-existing community organizations and institutions with other affected parties: the building trades unions that want to construct it, the building maintenance unions (usually, the SEIU), and the hotel union (UNITE HERE) that may staff the facilities the project will contain, and environmental organizations concerned with the effects of the project on the area. The local council member may serve as a liaison to local institutions—community colleges, for instance—that will be called on to offer job training to local residents hired by the project.


The expanding scope of CBAs is apparent in looking at the agreements crafted for three major projects over the past half-decade. In the late 1990s, two right-wing billionaires—Rupert Murdoch and Denver’s Phil Anschutz—announced that they wished to develop the area surrounding the Staples Center, home to the Lakers, with luxury hotels, condos, stores, office buildings, and theaters. A coalition of 25 community groups from the area—a neighborhood consisting largely of desperately poor immigrants—already had come together to deal with problems of housing relocation, increased traffic, and the like. Separately, Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, entered into negotiations with the developers on behalf of five unions that sought to represent the parking attendants and the hotel, theater, and maintenance workers who would get permanent jobs once the project was completed, and the building trades unions that would construct it. The unions reached an accord with the developer first, but refused to sign it until the community groups reached their own accord, which included a commitment to hire half the permanent employees from the neighborhood, to set aside one-fifth of the new housing units for low-income residents, and to create neighborhood parks. Once these accords were reached, the city council gave the go-ahead for the project, which is under construction today.

LAANE crafted an even larger and more diverse coalition in dealing with the proposed expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, which had been stymied for more than a decade when Mayor James Hahn finally sought council approval for the proposal, shortly after he took office in 2001. In deference to labor’s political clout, Hahn had given Contreras a seat on the Airport Commission, which helped ensure local hiring, living wages, and union contracts for workers at the airport’s many concessions and retail outlets. Also, the city committed $500 million over the next decade to noise abatement improvements in the schools near the airport and to air-quality improvements throughout the area. “The muscle of the labor movement was the linchpin” in broadening the coalition, says LAANE’s Executive Director Madeleine Janis, since it was apparent that Contreras’ commitment to a far-reaching CBA ensured that a deal would be struck. “It convinced the environmental movement—the Environmental Defense Fund, the Coalition for Clean Air, the Natural Resources Defense Council—to switch its approach from suing at the back end, to helping come up with solutions at the front end.”

Raising Wages, Building Power

On the one hand, the range of community benefits continues to grow with the varied needs of the impacted communities. On the other hand, both in Los Angeles and in cities around the country, the vast majority of CBAs contain no genuinely enforceable language covering the wages and benefits of workers in the retail establishments that the project owners lease. Only where the city itself has owned the development—that is, at the airport and at a new mixed-use project slated for development across the street from Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall—have retailers been required to set pay rates in accord with the city’s living wage ordinance. “The problem is, unionized supermarkets and Costco are the only retailers to pay a living wage,” says Roxana Tynan, who is now LAANE’s chief negotiator of CBAs. Most CBAs require the developer to seek out retailers who will pay such wages. The agreement at one North Hollywood project even imposes some manageable financial penalties on the developer, J. H. Snyder, if it fails to have its retailers pay a living wage to a specified percentage of their employees.

But if CBAs have often failed to raise the pay levels of non-supermarket retail workers, they have plainly boosted the wages of the construction workers who build the developments, the janitors who clean them, and the workers who staff the markets, hotels, and theaters (if not clothing stores) therein. Between 2000 and 2006, 104,000 construction jobs and 113,000 permanent jobs were covered under CBAs, according to an estimate from the Partnership for Working Families, the national coalition of local CBA advocacy groups.

Surprisingly perhaps, in cities where the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) mentality has routinely blocked development, many in the business community welcome the emergence of this growth-with-justice political constellation. Economist Jack Kyser, who as vice president of the private Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation is the closest thing the city has to a business community spokesperson, is no fan of living-wage ordinances or, more generally, increased regulations on business. He has kind words, though, for CBAs, which he believes, often “defuse the opposition to very high-profile projects. Purists may say this is not the best way to go. But if you want to get something built, especially in an area as contentious as L.A. can be, it’s a good way to go. You get your project, and everybody benefits.”

The success of CBAs in Los Angeles, and the willingness of LAANE to commit its resources to the development of kindred campaigns in other cities, means that CBAs and the coalitions demanding them have now sprung up in roughly 20 cities across the nation.

To some degree, of course, the scope of a CBA is a function of the power of the forces demanding it. It is hardly an accident that these local strategies first appeared in cities with strong unions, organized neighborhoods, and progressive city councils. CBAs are inherently a second-choice strategy, a narrow attempt to create broadly shared prosperity at a moment when broad attempts that rely on state policy or large-scale unionization are beyond the horizon of the possible. Their limited scope notwithstanding, they represent a considerable achievement—intellectual, organizational, and political—at a time when working-class America is otherwise losing ground. And if more of America were organized, there would be more such local achievements, as well as more complementary national policies.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Harold Meyerson, “No Justice, No Job Growth,” The American Prospect, Vol. 17, No. 11: Nov. 05, 2006. All rights reserved.


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Sweatshops on Wheels: Union-Community Coalition Takes Aim at Port Trucking

The economic development deal usually offered to low-income communities is very much like a bad trade deal: it offers minimal jobs and ignores environmental sustainability. The jobs created tend to be the dirtiest and most dangerous and—especially in the case of retail—jobs without living wages. The result is unchecked degradation that pits unions, environmentalists, and communities against each other. The only winners are the businesses that profit from the divide.

The Coalition for Clean Air and Safe Ports in Oakland, a blue-green partnership of local environmental groups, unions, faith-based organizations, workers, and community groups, has embarked on an innovative campaign to reverse the old development standard and make the port work for all. While the shipping industry booms at the Port of Oakland, neighboring communities and the truck drivers who work there choke on a cloud of smog. Fixing port trucking for workers and the community is one key to unlocking this cycle.

Container trucking at ports is where pollution, low wages, danger, and inefficiency meet. Heavy-duty trucks produce 30-40 percent of the pollution at ports, making them a significant health hazard. Groups such as the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project have long pushed the Port for more accountability on the environmental impacts associated with this industry. Their studies show there is five times more diesel exhaust per person in the communities surrounding the Port of Oakland than in other parts of the city. Residents near the ports are plagued by asthma and bronchitis, and have some of the highest incidences of cancer in the region. Truck drivers also experience the effects of direct exposure to exhaust.


Port trucking is like working in a sweatshop on wheels.1 Because they are misclassified as independent businesses, drivers have no employment protections. Paid by the load instead of the hour, drivers spend up to half their time—with engines idling—waiting at the port to transfer loads. Motor carriers they work with have little incentive to speed up the wait times. At this point, drivers are struggling to pay for fuel and rent, and have little power to improve their conditions. Drivers must purchase their own trucks, so they often buy aged rigs that lack modern safety and clean air technologies.

At the Port of Oakland, over 100 small motor carriers contract with over 2,500 truck drivers. Motor carriers undercut each other in pricing in a race to the bottom with razor-thin margins. The sector is plagued by inefficiency, instability, and a driver shortage.

Drivers have poverty-level earnings with median income of $25,000 after truck expenses.2 The majority of workers are immigrants; many are undocumented.3 Turnover is high, making it nearly impossible to monitor who has access to the port. The Port of Oakland, which handles over one million containers a year, offers truck replacement incentives to reduce pollution, but that only addresses one piece of the puzzle.4 We need a holistic vision in order to serve drivers, community members, and the shippers that use the ports.

The Port ranks among the top four in the nation and top twenty in the world in terms of annual container traffic,5 but the “global gateway from the West Coast to the world” hasn’t been sharing those benefits with the community closest to it.

To move ahead, we need to create new relationships with the Port of Oakland. The Coalition for Clean Air and Safe Ports in Oakland advocates that port trucking must be included in the Port of Oakland’s purview. The Port needs to take responsibility for the trucking operations on its property, just as it does for the concessions which operate on Port property at the Oakland Airport. At the Airport, businesses who win contracts for concessions are expected to meet minimum operating standards. For the trucking industry at the Port, this would mean clean, fuel-efficient trucks, off street parking that frees the neighborhood from unnecessary truck traffic, union scale wages, and clear recognition of the truckers’ employment rights, including of course, their right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

Together, we can create a new model that promotes environmentally and economically sustainable growth. This sort of organizing, to hold a public agency accountable to the standards the community demands, can create stable, quality union jobs, which will create lasting benefits to the economy of the region. Truckers will have employment protections, employers will have incentives to switch to clean technologies, ports will have more checks in place for safety, security, and efficiency, and communities will have cleaner air and quieter streets.


1.    “Clearing the Air: Reducing Diesel Pollution in West Oakland.” A West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project Report by the Pacific Institute, in conjunction with the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, November 2003.

2.     Belzer, Michael H., Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation, 2006.

3.    Monaco, Kristen, “The Labor Market for Port Drivers in Southern California,” California State University at Long Beach, Aug. 30, 2005.

4.    Jordan, Miriam, “Port security plan could slow deliveries, thin ranks of low-wage workers,” Wall Street Journal, Oct 17, 2006.

5., Dec 10, 2006.


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Sewing Alliances: Anti-Sweatshop Activism in the United States

Picketers surround a chainstore clothing outlet and hand out leaflets about labor conditions on the Pacific island of Saipan. A mainline church sponsors a talk on how the world’s largest sneaker companies use Indonesian sweatshop labor. Students at the local college take over a campus building, demanding that the school quit licensing its logo to appear on goods made in sweatshops.

These are just some of the events happening with ever-greater frequency in cities across the United States. Dozens of overlapping activist networks and hundreds of groups—some with paid staffing and thousands of supporters—are mobilizing to improve wages and conditions in sweatshops. Most United States anti-sweatshop groups specialize in one of four areas: generating mainstream media attention, mobilizing activists nationwide, developing a base in a particular community, or supporting workers at a particular company or location.

Picking up steam since the early 1990s, the movement has pushed the sweatshop issue into the national consciousness, forcing corporations to adopt “codes of conduct” for their suppliers, creating organizations to monitor compliance with the codes, and helping workers in at least two overseas sweatshops forge union contracts. “There have been great advances,” says Stephen Coats, executive director of the Chicago-based United States/Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP). “We are light years ahead in terms of the power we can bring to bear on companies.”

But the movement has yet to significantly improve the industry’s wages and labor conditions, either in the United States or abroad. The missing ingredients, leading activists say, include sweat-free alternatives for consumers, resources for workers to organize industrywide, and enforceable laws and international pacts protecting worker rights.

“[Inside] the movement there’s not enough coherence around strategy, vision, or how to move forward,” says Lynda Yanz, director of the Toronto-based Maquila Solidarity Network.

Sweatshop History

United States-based organizing against sweatshops dates back to the 1890s, when progressives helped garment workers organize legislative campaigns. But sweatshops remained widespread until workers formed unions and carried out industry-wide strikes. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, formed in 1900, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, founded in 1914, won labor contracts that dramatically improved wages and working conditions and set up programs for worker healthcare, pensions, and even housing. By mid-century, the two unions and the Textile Workers Union of America, formed in 1939, represented nearly one million workers.

In the 1960s, however, apparel production began relocating from northern cities to the United States South and eventually to Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Factories in more than 60 nations now supply the United States market. And, as unionized factories have closed in the United States, shady garment-assembly shops have made a comeback, especially in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. More than half of the apparel production in this country now happens in illegal sweatshops, according to the United States Labor Department.

All told, about 75 percent of clothing sold in this country is made in sweatshops. The typical worker is a young woman whose wages leave her struggling at less than one-third of her country’s official poverty level. Her work week may extend to 80 hours or more. Her chances of encountering sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and safety hazards are high. She’d likely be fired for trying to form a union.


Mergers among the three apparel and textile unions led to the 1995 creation of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Faced with dwindling resources and a membership of just 150,000, UNITE further merged with the Hotel and Restauraunt Employees union to form UNITE HERE. Working as part of the Change to Win coalition, their current campaign focuses on CINTAS, the largest uniform manufacturing company in the United States.

“Taking on the retail industry requires an international solution,” union organizer Ginny Coughlin says. Toward that end, the United States-based union has strengthened ties with unions and worker organizations in the garment and textile sectors of 10 countries, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, China, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The National Labor Committee did extensive work focusing public attention on sweatshop practices. The committee captured extensive media coverage with a series of exposés, including a 1996 disclosure that Wal-Mart clothing marketed under Kathie Lee Gifford’s name was produced in Honduras by 13-year-old girls working 13-hour shifts for 31 cents an hour. When Gifford cried on TV, the movement was on the national radar.

Global Exchange expanded the awareness with high-profile litigation, including a 1999 lawsuit against United States corporations that held workers in virtual slavery on Saipan, the largest island of the United States “commonwealth” known as the Northern Marianas. Global Exchange backed the suit with demonstrations and picket lines at Gap stores and company headquarters in San Francisco. Most of the retailers eventually settled, agreeing to pay for independent monitoring of the plants.

Mobilizing the Masses

Groups focusing on mass mobilization constitute the movement’s second pillar. Two based in Washington, D.C.—the Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR), founded in 1993, and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), initiated in 1997—have created communication networks to mobilize supporters in dozens of  locations simultaneously. “We work on campaigns that support workers when they’re trying to organize sweatshops,” says Daisy Pitkin, CLR’s national coordinator. “We become involved when a United States retail company is involved, because that’s how grassroots activists can get a handle. We never work on a campaign alone. We always work in coalition with other groups.”

USAS chapters pressure universities across the country to keep school names and logos off sweatshop clothing. “The organization functions like an information clearinghouse,” says Amber Gallup, who became the USAS field coordinator after volunteering for the Indiana University chapter. “We have the strategy of national, coordinated grassroots action that seems to have worked really well in a couple of campaigns. We have built student power on campus to leverage our administrators and then leverage large companies to make real changes in workers’ lives.”

The third type of anti-sweatshop group focuses on a local base, like churches or K–12 schools. The most powerful example is the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, a network of nine affiliates. Last year, the coalition convinced the state legislature and Gov. George Pataki to enact a law permitting schools to reject bids from companies for using sweatshop labor. The coalition now works with teacher unions and child-labor activists on a campaign for sweat-free purchasing policies in the state’s 740 school districts.

The fourth anti-sweatshop pillar—groups focusing on a particular company or location—includes US/LEAP, Educating for Justice, Sweatshop Watch, STITCH, Make the Road by Walking, and many others.

The power all four types of groups can wield when coordinated is evident at Mex Mode, a Korean-owned sweatshop in the central Mexican state of Puebla. The plant, formerly called Kukdong, makes fleece garments for Reebok and Nike. When its workers went on strike for union recognition in January 2001, the AFL-CIO’s Mexico City office relayed the news to United States anti-sweatshop groups.

USAS sent members to investigate the factory and used its involvement in a factory-monitoring organization called the Worker Rights Consortium to pressure university administrations. “We created listservs and conference calls and we started coordinating this campaign together,” Gallup says. “We got 30 schools to send letters to Nike on the same day. Nike was forced by the pressure of these administrators—and the fear of losing this college market and having its public image affected—to get its manufacturer to recognize an independent union, and it was forced to keep the production there.”

CLR, for its part, mobilized religious groups, union locals, and others to visit 40 of Mexico’s 45 consular offices across the United States last July. Others rallying for the Kukdong workers included Global Exchange, US/LEAP, the International Labor Rights Fund, and a myriad of local groups in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The workers won their first union contract in September and another this April. “This is the first time that workers in [Mexico’s] maquiladora zones have been able to create an independent union,” Gallup says.

Corporate Concessions

Under pressure from the movement, some apparel corporations have agreed to “multi-stakeholder arrangements”—standards and enforcement mechanisms set by the company, consumers, and sometimes workers, local NGOs, and other groups. The standards cover the company or a particular assembly plant.

In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the anti-sweatshop movement and worker groups have managed to open some factories to independent monitoring to verify whether the nation’s labor laws and United States apparel company codes are being followed. The most effective monitors are local NGOs or plant workers. “Local groups that understand labor rights in the community can better understand the situation than commercial monitors that come in for two days,” says Yanz, the Maquila Solidarity Network director.

Coordinating the Coalition


The movement’s effect on labor conditions ultimately depends on greater coordination among anti-sweatshop actors: agreeing on which corporations to target and which union organizing to support; joining forces behind pro-worker legislation and treaty proposals; and linking local grassroots bases for nationwide responses when workers are fired for organizing. “We’re often behind in bringing all of our leverage to bear,” Coats says. “By the time people in the north hear about a problem, it’s often too late.”

A large antisweatshop alliance could convince foundations to devote more money to the movement. A national coordinating center, perhaps modeled after Canada’s Maquila Solidarity Network, could enable unions, NGOs, faith-based groups, and students to develop a coherent strategy and increase the movement’s political power. Two initiatives appear to be steps in the right direction. The National Labor Committee is working on an international effort, the Abolish Sweatshops Campaign, modeled after the campaign to abolish land mines. Participants include USAS, the International Labor Rights Fund, TransAfrica, the United Steel Workers of America, and labor and NGO leaders in Nicaragua, Honduras, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, and Mexico.

The other promising initiative is called SweatFree Communities, a network for local actions against sweatshops. “We’re still growing as a movement—growing in both our reach and creativity,” says Larry Weiss, the Resource Center of the Americas organizer. “And we’re more connected than ever with workers in the various places. I believe we’re close to some changes for apparel workers, both in terms of organizing and conditions.”


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Growing Local Food into Quality Green Jobs in Agriculture


"I couldn’t stand; my eyes were watering and my throat hurt from the gas. I would run outside the field to get some air. The boss made me go back, to keep working without a mask. Now I can’t breathe well, and my vision is blurry, cloudy.” Jorge Fernandez pauses to gasp for breath, a result of chronic on-the-job exposure to pesticides. Fernandez is a Salinas, California farmworker who spent 11 years applying fumigants without access to protective equipment. “The inspectors are friends with the bosses. They say, ‘So what if this Mexican dies, there are more.’ They just find other workers.”[1]

Industrial agriculture is notorious for low wages, workplace health hazards, racial discrimination, and dependence on the legal vulnerability of undocumented immigrant labor. This is especially true in California, where twenty-first century agriculture was built on wringing short-term utility from workers, soil, and petrochemicals to minimize costs and maximize profits.

Agricultural labor conditions present a particularly daunting challenge to the green jobs, sustainable agriculture, and local food movements. These three progressive visions share the core concept of production based on adequate income and humane conditions for producers in the context of ecologically sustainable enterprises. One of the driving goals of the local food movement is to support the income of family farmers and the economic viability of sustainable small-scale farms as an alternative to industrial agriculture. Can the local food movement’s vision of sustainable agriculture extend to support the dignity of farmworkers as well?

Struggling Farmworkers, Struggling Farmers

The growth of California’s industrial agriculture has depended on waves of cheap migrant labor since before the 1880s, when the state’s farmers began protesting that restrictions on immigration from China in 1883 would stall planting in the fields. Waves of Japanese immigrants displaced depression-era family farmers, and later, Mexican immigrants took their place. [2] Today, 75 percent of farmworkers in the United States were born in Mexico. Crop workers earn an average of between $10,000 and $12,499 a year. Among the major occupational groupings, only private household employees earn less.[3] Not surprisingly, 30 percent of all farmworker families fall below the federal poverty line, and only 23 percent are covered by health insurance.[4]

The economic picture for small-scale family farms is also%alt dicey. According to United States agricultural census data, commercial family-owned small- and medium-scale farms (on which farming is an occupation instead of a hobby) operate at a loss on average, even when they generate up to $175,000 annually in sales. The owners of the majority of small- and medium-scale farms, which make up roughly 73 percent of United States commercial farms, rely on off-farm income to supplement their household livelihood. In contrast, large family farms and non-family farms on average operate at a 10-15 percent profit.[5]

Due largely to these realities, the sustainable agriculture movement has struggled with how to manifest social and economic equity on farms that operate on slim margins while competing with their industrial counterparts.[6] Labor on family farms is rarely provided just by the family—small-scale farmers are also employers and contractors, who make decisions about how much to pay and how to treat their employees and themselves.

The localization movement increases revenue opportunities for small-scale, local, and sustainable farms by providing opportunities to market directly to customers or institutions, which can offer better prices to farmers than can a highly concentrated food industry, where farmers have little negotiating power. Direct marketing programs include Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organizations, farmers’ markets, and farm-to-institution programs.

Social Equity in Sustainable Agriculture

As employers, sustainable farmers are all over the map in their views regarding labor standards. A survey of certified organic farmers in California regarding adding social criteria to organic certification found that 47 percent of the respondents agreed that certified organic growers should be required to pay their workers living wages. However, roughly the same percentage opposed granting workers even collective bargaining rights, although they are already enshrined in labor law (see Table 1). In one of the more telling results, 67 percent of respondents found that the hypothetical social criteria would create an unacceptable financial burden. According to a representative of a California certified organic farmers foundation, “You go organic and get there and you’re still in a system set up for failure. It’s failing the farms, it’s failing the farmworkers, and it’s failing the farm communities.”[7]

Table 1:  Percentage of certified organic growers in California who believe that certified growers should be required to provide selected labor benefits as part of certification


Collective bargaining rights

Living wage

Health insurance

Paid sick leave

Paid vacation

Strongly agree or agree






Neither agree nor disagree






Strongly disagree or disagree






Organizing for Quality Green Jobs

  Table 2: Conditions Farm Workers Most Appreciate
  • Respectful treatment
  • Slower pace of work
  • Fair compensation
  • Year-round employment
  • Health insurance
  • Personal loans
  • Food from the farm
  • Paid holidays and vacation
  • Flexible work schedule
  • Healthy and safe work environment
  • Housing
  • Opportunities for advancement and training
  • Diversity of tasks
  • Involvement in decision-making processes
  • Clear and effective grievance procedures
Source: Strolich and Hammershlag, 2006.

A pilot survey conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies on job benefits and conditions most appreciated by workers on small-scale, sustainable farms found that “respectful treatment” topped the list. A slower pace of work, fair compensation, year-round employment (for greater income security), and health insurance also ranked highly (see Table 2). [8] Even if direct marketing significantly raises revenue and profitability of small-scale farms, there is no guarantee that economic benefits will be passed on to farmworkers. The example of low farmworker wages in large-scale industrial agriculture, where profit margins range from 10 percent to 15 percent, indicate that employee compensation is typically driven more by the labor market than by what an employer is able to pay. Labor markets are influenced by the demand for and supply of labor, regulations, and the vigor of their enforcement, and the relative negotiating power of workers. For instance, when the federal government ended the bracero agricultural guest worker program in 1964, tighter demand for workers contributed to United Farm Workers union winning a 40 percent one-year wage increase from selected grape growers in 1966. [9]


Addressing Immigration at its Roots

At its root, the steady northward stream of men and women risking their lives crossing the


border for United States agricultural jobs, is driven by economic policies in Mexico. The Mexican government’s own shift from supporting indigenous small-scale subsistence farming to subsidizing intense agricultural industrialization has driven former small-scale farmers north. Economists clearly predicted in the early 1990s that Mexican small-scale corn farmers would shoulder the heaviest impacts of NAFTA due to loss of market share to United States corn production, and indeed, corn imports from the United States rose from 14 percent to 24 percent of total Mexican corn consumption just between 1994 and 2000. [10]

 “It’s time to take on the agricultural agreements in NAFTA—they don’t benefit the people of Mexico, the United States, or Canada,” declared Alberto Gómez Flores, President of the National Union of Autonomous Regional Farmers’ Organizations (UNORCA), Mexico’s largest small-scale farmer organization. UNORCA is calling for a renegotiation or outright cancellation of NAFTA based on its evaluation of the negative impacts on Mexican farmers. [11] UNORCA joins similar farmer organizations from around the world in the Via Campesina movement advocating for food


sovereignty, the idea that “all people have the right to decide what they eat and to ensure that agriculture in their community is fair and healthy for everyone." [12] The food sovereignty movement is building local market access for traditional and sustainable farmers around the globe, so they will not need to migrate to urban areas or other countries to find jobs. In the United States, the National Family Farm Coalition and numerous other sustainable agriculture organizations are engaged in a slow struggle to transform agricultural and food policy by renegotiating the United States Farm Bill, which currently favors industrial production oriented toward national and international consumption.

The Role of Localization
Localization of the food sector can be a powerful tool to shift revenue to sustainable agriculture. Direct relationships between sustainable producers and local markets is one key component. Yet the extent to which the sustainable agriculture movement will succeed in implementing its vision of social equity depends on the extent to which economic gains are distributed to workers. Sustainable farmers’ openness to organizational models that increase worker income and negotiating power is of paramount importance. Enterprising farmers and workers are already researching and experimenting with unionization of small-scale farms, domestic fair trade certification, the addition of social criteria to organic certification, profit-sharing, and worker-owned agricultural cooperatives. Their success will hinge, in large part, on whether urban consumers seek out and support innovative models of sustainable agriculture.


1.    Interview with Jorge Fernandez, Salinas, California, January 16, 2006. Published in
2.    Martin, Philip L. and Taylor, J. Edward, "For California farmworkers, future holds little prospect for change," California Agriculture January-February, 2000.
3.    Runyan, Jack L.,"Hired Farmworkers’ Earnings Increased in 2001 But Still Trail Most Occupations,” Rural America 17:3,2002.
4.    United States Department of Labor, Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2001-2002: A Demographic in Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers, 2005.
5.    Hoppe, Robert A. and Banker, David E., Structure and finances of United States farms: 2005 family farm report. USDA Electronic information bulletin; no. 12.
6.    Inouye, Janel and Warner, Keith Douglass, Plowing Ahead: Working Social Concerns into the Sustainable Agriculture Movement, California Coalition for Food and Farming White Paper, 2001. Accessed 11/23/07 at
7.    Shreck, Aimee, Getz, Christy, and Feenstra, Gail, “Farmworkers in organic agriculture: toward a broader notion of sustainability” in The Newsletter of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2005.
8.    Strolich, Ron and Hammerschlag, Kari,  Best labor practices on 12 California Farms: toward a more sustainable food system. California Institute for Rural Studies, 2006. Accessed 11/23/06 at
9.    Martin and Taylor, 2000.
10.    Ackerman,Frank, Wise, Timothy A., Gallagher, Kevin P. , Ney, Luke , and Flores, Regina, “Free Trade, Corn, and the Environment: Environmental Impacts of United States--Mexico Corn Trade Under NAFTA,” Tufts University Global Development and Environmental Institute Working Paper 03-06, 2003. Accessed 11/23/06 at
11.    Gómez Flores, Alberto, “La agricultura a diez años del TLCAN, una perspectiva desde el movimiento campesino,” 2004. Accessed 11/23/06 at
12.     National Family Farm Coalition, Via Campesina, and Grassroots International, “Food Sovereignty: join the local, national and international movement to regain control of our food and farm system.”  Pamphlet published by the National Family Farm Coalition, Washington, D.C., 2006. 


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