Improving The Working Conditions For Low-Wage Laborers


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November 3, 2008 (NEW YORK) – Two Columbia University professors are collaborating on a project designed to measure the success of new tactics that labor unions and other groups are using to improve the working conditions of low-income laborers in the United States and throughout the world.
The new strategies are replacing more traditional union activity as unions and other worker rights groups try to adapt to changing conditions that make those traditional methods obsolete.

Columbia Law School Professor Mark Barenberg and Columbia University Political Science Professor Dorian Warren have joined forces on The Low-Wage Work Project, sponsored by the Center for Institutional and Social Change. The Center is a collaboration of Columbia Law School, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other organizations focused on advancing inclusion.

“Government and the courts have been less supportive of labor organizing and worker interests in recent years,” Barenberg said. At the same time, a globalized economy brings more products into the United States that are produced in sweatshops around the world, making the working conditions of laborers elsewhere a greater domestic concern. Such concerns can not be addressed by traditional domestic labor efforts, he said.

The Low-Wage Work Project is analyzing the new union strategies to determine how they evolved, who is successfully pushing them and which work better than others. The strategies involve using public pressure to force companies to adopt codes of conduct, getting large developers to sign on to community benefits agreements, and convincing companies to agree to unionizing efforts without resorting to traditional legal cudgels.

“All three methods are private, non-governmental strategies, using the pressure of public shaming and boycotts,” Barenberg said. “It’s the privatization of law.”

“After disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911, protests led to New York reforms, which were then spread nationally through the New Deal,” Barenberg said. “It looked like these problems were solved by the 1960s, but they have returned through the combination of globalization and weaker domestic enforcement of labor standards.

“We’re returning to a second ‘Gilded Age,’ where workers’ wages have not increased, even with large growth in their productivity and in corporate profits,” Barenberg said.

Mark Barenberg can be reached at 212-854-2260 or [email protected]. Dorian Warren at 212-854-4659 or [email protected]. Interviews can also be arranged through Columbia Law School’s Public Affairs office at 212-854-2650. Public Affairs can arrange for TV and radio interviews using the Law School’s studio equipped with IFB and ISDN lines.

“Many of society’s lowest-paid workers are people of color, new immigrants and women,” said Susan Sturm, director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change. “This project strives to harness these new methods of labor unions to address not only the wage issues of their members, but also the wider concerns of these marginalized groups.”

The Low-Wage Work Project has already held two workshops that brought academics and activists together to share information, and another is planned for the fall. The workshops will produce material and analysis that can be discussed more broadly at a larger academic conference slated for the spring of 2009 at Columbia Law School.

In some cases, activists are using public pressure to prod corporations to sign private codes of conduct that are designed to ensure that those corporations maintain a safe and healthy workplace. Farm workers in Florida, for example, have been fighting against documented cases of forced enslavement. Through protests initiated by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, big fast-food companies such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Burger King have agreed to discuss buying food supplies exclusively from farmers who follow codes of conduct that outline safe working conditions for farm laborers.

Barenberg, who has provided legal and strategic advice to the coalition, is also chairman of the Workforce Investor Network (WIN), a group that hopes to implement a similar strategy to protect low-wage service workers, such as janitors and security guards. WIN will provide workplace monitoring services to large banks, insurance companies and private equity firms that promise to use only contractors adhering to workplace codes.

Barenberg is also helping to develop a consortium of governors and mayors interested in purchasing police uniforms, prison sheets and other garment products from companies that agree to provide safe and decent working conditions for their factory workers.

The plan is modeled on an approach that many American universities took – under intense pressure from activist student groups protesting sweatshop labor conditions around the world – to purchase university-logo apparel such as caps and sweatshirts though companies that agree to ensure improved worker conditions. Barenberg is board treasurer of the Worker Rights Consortium, the coalition of more than 180 universities and colleges that follow this practice.

The second new strategy that The Low-Wage Work Project has focused on is the effort by communities to negotiate agreements with large developers planning major construction projects in their neighborhoods. The “community benefits agreements” negotiated by the two sides ensure a certain pay scale and benefits for jobs created by the development. In addition, the agreement might set broad goals to hire some workers from the local community, and to meet certain environmental standards and limit the development’s negative impact on the community’s environment.

The third strategy looks at more traditional union organizing, with a twist:  to avoid working through the slow and complex legal procedure for setting up National Labor Relations Board elections among workers to determine if they want union representation, unions are trying to pressure corporations to allow for a streamlined way for employees to unionize at their facilities.

“There has been recognition among unions that the NLRB process is broken,” Warren said. “The voting process to determine if workers want to unionize is unfair, because employers routinely break the law. In a quarter of cases, the companies fire union activists, and by the time the NLRB rules on the case – often a year to two years later – the only penalty is that the fired worker must be given his or her job back. Meanwhile, the effort to unionize has been derailed.”

Employers have calculated that it costs far less to break the law and be fined or reprimanded than to allow the presence of a union, which would mean higher costs in wages and benefits, Warren said.

To counter, some unions now avoid the NLRB process for holding elections to see if workers want to unionize, and instead conduct campaigns of public embarrassment to get companies to hold fair union elections without company meddling, Warren said. Unions might threaten to publicize a company’s poor working conditions, unfair practices or bad environmental record to convince the company to agree to an alternative process for allowing workers to decide on union representation.

“There has been very little research on how many of these efforts have occurred by unions, or how many have been successful,” Warren said. “That’s what my research is about.”

The Low-Wage Work Project has been mapping these strategies to see how they came about, who propelled them, the logic behind them, the emerging innovation they exhibit and how they overlap.

Through the Center on Institutional and Social Change and its director, Susan Sturm, Warren and Barenberg were able to collaborate on their research. “There are not a lot of places where social scientists can come together with legal scholars,” Warren said. “It has been helpful for me to talk through my research with Mark. It has definitely sharpened my work.”

Warren said it is useful to bring together academics from various fields because they often approach a similar subject from different perspectives. While a legal scholar might look at a trend by building case studies and drilling deeply for facts on a few specific examples, the social scientist might bring the tools of a carefully controlled experiment to the issue, trying to compare and contrast the case studies and put those cases into a broader pattern. By combining forces, the resulting research can be both deep with detail and broad with context.
Barenberg identifies himself as one of a group of “action researchers” whose participation in the movements he studies helps him better understand the dynamics involved on the ground. “I’ve learned a lot I couldn’t have if I hadn’t participated in the strategies themselves,” he said. “You can theorize, but it helps if you have actively experienced these things.”

For instance, Barenberg traveled extensively to factories around the world on behalf of the Worker Rights Consortium to see whether companies were abiding by the terms of the agreements with universities to produce branded apparel in safe and decent environments. In some cases, his presence as a monitor was poorly received. In Indonesia, for example, he said he was threatened by rogue police and military cliques who tried to intimidate him and threatened to take his passport. “It can get dicey,” he said.

The process, however, enabled him to see first-hand what agreements worked and in which instances corporate self-monitoring was inadequate.

The three strategies that unions and labor activists have adopted “are pretty novel responses to the problems of low-wage work,” Barenberg said.

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