Worker centers are non-profit community-based mediating organizations that organize and provide support to communities of low wage workers who are not already members of a collective bargaining organization (such as a trade union) or have been legally excluded from coverage by U.S. labor laws. Many worker centers in the United States focus on immigrant and low-wage workers in sectors such as restaurant, construction, day labor and agriculture.
Worker centers are institutions based in and led by the community, which deliver support to low earning workers. In order to best assist in improving working conditions and necessary wages, many centers include services such as English language instruction, help with unpaid wage claims, access to health care, leadership development, educational activities, advocacy and organization. Many centers also take the role as defender of rights for immigrants in their communities.
The first worker centers were founded in North and South Carolina by Black activists, New York City’s Chinatown by immigrant activists, workers in El Paso, Texas and in San Francisco, California. These centers developed during the late 1970s and early 1980s in order to counter the changes in manufacturing that decreased working conditions and led to many factory closings. The inequalities between African and white workers additionally led to the formation of the first wave of worker centers.
The next wave of worker centers took place between the late 1980s and early to mid 1990’s as a flood of Latino immigrants located to the U.S. along with growing numbers of Asians seeking work. These groups were founded by individuals and institutions such as religious organizations, social service agencies, legal aid agencies, and unions.
From the 2000s to present day, a new wave of centers have risen. Many of the workers making up membership include new streams of migrants from Mexico attracted by the relatively plentiful supply of work available in the states. Most of the centers continue to develop in large metropolitan areas, yet increasingly more centers are being organized in suburban and rural communities and in southern states in response to the large concentrations of immigrants working in the service, poultry, meatpacking, and agricultural sectors in such areas. Additionally, increasing numbers of worker centers are arising amongst African and South Asian immigrants.
The total number of worker centers in the United States has exponentially increased. 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.
Worker centers support employment of day laborers in three primary ways. First, they provide a minimum wage rate. Second, they supply a distribution process for job opportunities, and third, they maintain wage standards through their support to workers victimized through wage withholding from employers.
According to Janice Fine’s study, worker centers developed in three stages.
The first worker centers emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, founded by black worker activists in North Carolina and South Carolina, immigrant activists in New York City’s Chinatown, the Texas-Mexican Border in El Paso, in San Francisco among Chinese immigrants. They grew out of a response to neoliberal policies that resulted in declining working conditions in manufacturing, factory closings and an increase in low wage service sector jobs. Worker centers were also created in reaction to “disparities of pay and treatment between African American and white workers as well as exploitation within ethnic economic enclaves and in the broader economic (including informal sector) were also major catalysts”.
From the late 1980s to early 1990s, the second wave of worker centers appeared as large groups of new Latino immigrants, some fleeing civil wars in Central America, arrived in suburban and urban regions, as well as Southeast Asians immigrants, all searching for economic opportunities. These worker centers were established by numerous individuals and institutions such as “churches and other faith-based organizations, social service and legal aid agencies, immigrant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and unions”.
The last wave of worker centers began in 2000 to the present. Many worker centers are expanding not only in the city, but into the suburbs, rural regions, and southern states where there is a large concentration of Mexican and Central immigrants working in the poultry, service, agriculture, and meat-packing sectors. Not only that, more worker centers are emerging among Korean, Filipino, South Asian and African immigrants, and they have a higher connection to faith-based organizations and unions.
What is unique about worker centers, and makes them unlike unions, is that there is not one specific organizational model, strategy or structure. They emerge as “community-based mediating institutions that provide support to and organize among communities of low wage workers”. As such, they use diverse strategies, tactics and approaches to serve the needs of their individual communities.
Despite diverse strategies, most centers do similar types of work. This includes helping workers combat wage theft through filings claims, collaborating with governmental agencies to assure enforcement of labor laws and wage theft claims, launching “direct action campaigns against specific employers and sometimes across particular industries, and engaging in leadership development and popular education”.
Common features of worker centers include: a hybrid organization, providing necessary services, and engaging in advocacy; they are place-based rather than work-site based such as unions; organized along ethnic, race, and class lines, possess a broad agenda, approach the world with a global perspective, democracy-building, they build coalitions and have small and involved memberships.
It is important to note, however, that worker centers are not unions, though some centers are founded by previous union organizers, or have affiliations with unions. Worker centers exist to meet the demand for services that unions could or would not give immigrants and people of color.
Nationally, there exist at least three networks that link worker centers together:
In August 2006, NDLON announced a new partnership with the AFL-CIO: "The AFL-CIO and NDLON will work together for state and local enforcement of rights as well as the development of new protections in areas including wage and hour laws, health and safety regulations, immigrants’ rights and employee misclassification. They will also work together for comprehensive immigration reform that supports workplace rights and includes a path to citizenship and political equality for immigrant workers – and against punitive, anti-immigrant, anti-worker legislation."
This partnership stems from the AFL-CIO's decision to embrace immigrant workers, a change from the federation's policies in the 1980s and 1990s.