Startups and domestic worker campaigns are shaking up the house cleaning business, but only one of them has backing from venture capital

It’s hard to imagine a lot of people saying “No” to a hot new tech startup fresh off a $38 million fundraising round from some of Silicon Valley’s top investors. But that’s the answer Homejoy, an “Uber for house-cleaning” app that has quickly expanded to major cities across the US, got when it reached out to two domestic worker organizations in San Francisco, hoping to recruit workers and craft some kind of pilot partnership. The two organizations are La Colectiva, a worker-run cleaning collective, and Caring Hands, a worker association affiliated with the Latina immigrant organization Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) that provides training and job placement for domestic workers. Their members were not willing to work for Homejoy’s rate of $13 per hour.

Homejoy and the domestic worker groups represent two very different types of the “disruptive” innovation that the San Francisco Bay Area seems to specialize in these days. Domestic worker organizing has defied major structural disadvantages –exclusion from the National Labor Relations Act, isolation in individual homes that prevents workplace organizing, and the fact that most domestic workers are immigrant women and many are undocumented – to mount campaigns like the multi-year fight for a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that was signed into law in California last September. Their movement has played a key role in both energizing and transforming the labor movement, helping to push the AFL-CIO in the direction of representing all workers, not just those in unions.

Homejoy, and a similar startup Handybook, aim to shake up the domestic employer experience by replacing an older generation of cleaning service companies like Merry Maids. The two startups promise easy and reliable online booking of cleaners who have passed extensive screening processes. Homejoy focuses solely on cleaning, while Handybook provides workers who can handle a range of household tasks, including cleaning, repairs, plumbing, and electrical work. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted the fact that the apps can eliminate the “awkward” need to interact with the person cleaning your home. Handybook founder Oisin Hanrahan told the Chronicle: “People prefer to hit the chat box in the lower left hand corner of the site and ask someone who is in the position to influence a booking to put in a special request, rather than ask the person who will be doing the cleaning.”

That article led Salon’s Andrew Leonard to comment, “From a larger social perspective, the absolute last thing the world needs are apps that further isolate the ascendant upper classes from the people who occupy lower economic strata… This is how the arteries of class stratification harden beyond hope of repair. This is how real living human beings become little more than apps, themselves.” For the most part, I agree with Leonard that the attitude toward domestic workers expressed in the Chronicle’s article is classist and dehumanizing. But after interviewing several domestic workers, domestic worker organizers, and the founder of Handybook (Homejoy agreed to answer written questions but failed to respond once the questions were submitted), I came away with a slightly more complicated view of the home-cleaning startups, and what effect they might have on the hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in the United States.

Earlier this year, the California Domestic Workers Coalition launched a statewide campaign called Dignity in Action to promote education and implementation of the new state law advancing domestic worker rights. The coalition is comprised of seven member groups, including MUA and La Colectiva. They plan to train domestic workers to lead “Know Your Rights” workshops and hope to achieve a broad reach to workers beyond their memberships. Together, the member organizations count about 1500 members, but they estimate that there are about 250,000 domestic workers statewide.

The challenge of reaching domestic workers on a larger scale is a key concern for organizing efforts, and part of the reason the National Domestic Workers Alliance has hired Palak Shah to serve as its Social Innovations Director. Shah described her position: “The idea is for us to experiment with additional strategies, such as market-based strategies or public-private partnerships.” Such experiments are in order because, despite the successes that have already been achieved, domestic worker organizing is still only reaching a small fraction of domestic workers in this country.

By contrast, Handybook has achieved scale rapidly. Since its founding in mid-2012, Handybook has expanded to 13 cities. In a phone interview, founder Oisin Hanrahan told me that the majority of Handybook’s business is in housecleaning, and that more than 200,000 workers (Handybook calls them service providers) have applied to work through the start-up so far. Hanrahan says that the acceptance rate is less than 3%.

With so many applicants (Handybook’s service providers are considered independent contractors who are self-employed), Handybook uses a partially-automated, data-driven approach to select workers. Applicants complete online assessments like multiple choice questions on how they would tackle a specific cleaning job. They also go through extensive background checks, social security number matching, and a screening call. Since Handybook collects data on customer satisfaction, it’s able to work backwards to identify markers of workers who received particularly high feedback, and then seek the same attributes in new applicants. Hanrahan told me that one positive marker is whether a person dials in on time for the screening call – a data point that becomes part of a worker’s profile.

Such an approach couldn’t be farther from the organizing models of San Francisco’s domestic worker organizations. At Caring Hands, immigrant women receive training in skills like contract negotiation and ergonomic cleaning techniques. Caring Hands also matches workers to employers. Unlike Handybook or Homejoy, Caring Hands does not require background checks or social security number matching (many domestic workers are undocumented immigrants and both organizations are involved in campaigning for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship). Instead, the organization vouches personally for each member. “We can advocate for workers and say we’ve known them for at least 6 months,” says organizer Dalia Yedidia. “We think the personal connection is more important.”

La Colectiva is a worker-run cleaning collective that was founded in 2001. Guillermina Castellanos, who co-founded the group, told me through a translator that she has worked as a domestic worker since she was 5 years old in Mexico, and since she was 15 years old in the United States. In addition to running the cleaning service, the members of La Colectiva “study the history of domestic work in the United States and on a global scale, discuss fair pay rates for different types of domestic work, and attend empowerment and self-esteem groups,” Castellanos says.

La Colectiva workers charge $70 for a 3-hour minimum job, and $15 for each additional hour. Employers receive $10 off the total bill if they provide non-toxic cleaning supplies. Caring Hands doesn’t prescribe rates, but when I spoke to MUA member and house cleaner Veronica Nieto, she told me that $20/hour is “a living wage that also recognizes that this is hard work.” Homejoy’s rates are lower because it only charges customers $20/hour for cleaning – passing $12-15 on to the worker and keeping the rest for itself. Handybook doesn’t have a fixed rate, but according to Hanrahan, service providers keep about 80% of what customers pay. He says house cleaners receive $17-22/hour.

When I spoke to Hanrahan, he was concerned about the “blowback” Handybook had received after the San Francisco Chronicle’s article. “We’re very conscious of our brand,” he said. “We don’t want to be perceived as someone building a platform for people to stop talking to each other.” Hanrahan said that he was aware of domestic worker organizing, but that Handybook was not involved. “Of course the values around respect and fair labor standards and avoiding exploitation make a lot of sense,” he said, and emphasized that many of Handybook’s workers are single mothers who appreciate the flexibility of the platform. “Our goal is to allow our service providers to earn as they want to earn.”

Daniele DeLeone, a 24-year old New Yorker who cleans homes through Handybook, agreed with Hanrahan that the app is a great way for her to find work that fits her schedule. DeLeone is a full-time student who lives with family and describes herself as “semi-independent.” After working in restaurants, she found Handybook through a Craigslist ad. “You’re able to choose what hours you work,” she says. “The pay is much better than what I would get hostessing.”

DeLeone’s top priority when she’s working in other people’s homes is “safety and security,” so she finds the Handybook system – where the company knows where she is at all times and she can communicate with them while on the job – very helpful. “I watch way too many Law & Orders to put myself at risk,” she says. She described one situation where a customer wanted her to go out on a ledge to clean windows. DeLeone said no, and was able to call Handybook, which backed her up. She also appreciates that customers have to pay ahead of time (with credit cards through the Handybook interface). In an industry where, according to Yedidia, wage theft is rampant, that’s a serious plus.

DeLeone was not aware of domestic worker organizing efforts, like Domestic Workers United which operates in New York City. When I described the efforts of the groups, DeLeone, who is planning to attend veterinary school after graduation, said, “I would imagine that’s more for people who are being abused or if it’s their livelihood forever.”

That is a major distinction and part of the reason why domestic workers like Nieto are as much concerned with dignity and respect for domestic workers as they are with legislation around working conditions. Prior to joining MUA, Nieto worked for a woman who had a team of about four others working for her. “She paid us $10 per house cleaned, no matter how long it took,” Nieto said. After 5 or 6 years working under those conditions, Nieto joined MUA where, she says, “I began realizing that what I’d been paid was not a real wage. I realized that I was part of thousands of domestic workers who have been underpaid.” Now Nieto has a very different attitude toward domestic work. “I deserve respect as a person doing work, just like any other work, like a doctor or an architect. My job is to clean.”

To Nieto, the most important aspect of her relationship with an employer is clear communication and respect, a stance that is echoed by Castellanos, who says “face to face interaction” is “necessary in fostering healthy communication and a good professional relationship.” Castellanos rejects the sense of “awkwardness” raised by the Chronicle article: “Domestic workers take care of the parts of employers’ lives that are most precious to them, be it their home or their family members. Employers also provide domestic workers with something that is also incredibly important to them: work. There should be no shame in this mutually beneficial arrangement, and through improved communication both the lives of the domestic workers and their employers can be transformed through mutual respect and recognition.”

Can these intensely personal values translate to a larger scale? Both Caring Hands and La Colectiva allow potential employers to get in touch through their websites, and Yedidia says, “We’ve seen a big jump in bookings through using online tools.” But how far the groups are willing to go in embracing technology is an open question. Kira Cummins, who provides staff support to La Colectiva, said of Homejoy, “Unless they change their working conditions, we’re not interested in working with them.”

Both Yedidia and Cummins were pleased to hear about Handybook’s higher wages, but Handybook hasn’t expressed any interest in collaboration. And with backing from venture capitalists, it’s unlikely that Handybook, Homejoy, or any for-profit company will ever consider changing societal attitudes toward domestic workers a central goal.

Palak Shah, the social innovations director, says of the start-up companies, “We’re open to partnering with the industry to the extent that they’re providing good jobs, not poverty jobs, and that the jobs foster dignity and respect and allow people to care for their families.”

Nieto is more skeptical. “In the little I know about these apps,” she says, “I worry that it might not work for the workers. Communication is key, and communication through a computer could be a challenge for us, especially because we need to be respected as people, not as robots.”

 

 

School Is In Session: How one history professor is modeling the future of labor education

Sometimes, the greatest ideas and innovations begin unintentionally. So it was with #SaturdaySchool, the weekly Twitter social justice teach-in hosted by Rhonda Ragsdale, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice and Associate Professor of history at Lone Star College:

“On Saturday mornings, my children would be asleep and I decided to make that space a time for myself. But I didn’t want to really get out of bed or do any work, and seeing as I always had a technological device in my hand, I would always do these teaching rants on some article I had read. And some of my followers started calling this ‘Saturday School’, and tweeting ‘Hey look, @profragsdale is doing Saturday School again.’”

#SaturdaySchool has become a weekly get-together for progressive and leftist activists on Twitter to share information and gain a greater understanding of the issues that affect our communities. It is a fun way to engage those who work both in and out of various progressive causes. But as Ragsdale pointed out in my interview with her, she is simply following a long-held tradition in American social movement activism.

Teach-ins are large forums where people can gain understanding about sociopolitical issues. They are mixtures of education and activism where the participants are expected to take the information they learn and use it to engage in direct action. Though teach-ins on topics like lynching had been occurring since the early 20th century, this social movement tactic first entered the public consciousness this week in 1965. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a majority of the faculty had agreed to go on a one-day strike against the war, which earned them the opposition of the Governor (George Romney, not ironically), the Chancellor, and their fellow faculty, who threatened to censure those who refused to teach their classes. At a meeting designed to come up with alternative actions that professors could still use to show their disapproval with the war, a professor in the Anthropology department came up with an idea: the faculty would teach their classes. But instead of letting students out at the normal time, they would continue teaching. All night. And so it was: the teach-ins of March 24-25 drew over 200 faculty and 3,000 students. The teach-in swept through college campuses in 1965, with a teach-in at the University of California at Berkeley being the largest. That one attracted 30,000 students from May 21-23.

Teach-ins, Ragsdale says, are effective because “they have a high potential to mobilize, and you create group solidarity and consciousness through hashtags and linking community groups to one another.” As any organizer can tell you, this is important: so often we see organizations seeking to reinvent the wheel, especially when it is a national progressive organization that is entering a battle that local activists have already been fighting in for a while. When a forum like #SaturdaySchool addresses a topic that gets people discussing the struggles that they have faced in organizing around a particular issue in a particular place, it can act as a signpost to make folks aware of ongoing activism in a particular community. This small bit of information makes movements stronger and builds the sort of intramovemental trust that we see precious little of nowadays. Ragsdale has connected with folks through #SaturdaySchool who have engaged in offline research projects with her; not only is this great for movement-building, it is also beneficial for the research that undergirds progressive activism.

The power of social media as a teaching tool is not limited to hashtags on Twitter, according to Ragsdale. She also singles out Pinterest (yes, that Pinterest) as a medium that social justice-minded folks can use to inform and teach people, discussing how one of the participants in Saturday School has a great social justice collection on the medium. “It’s another digital archive that could be used in classrooms….Sociological Images is another one that has just great collections on Pinterest.”

The effectiveness of digital teach-ins like #SaturdaySchool are so apparent, it is a wonder why the labor movement has not sought to engage in a similar kind of activity. Outside of the AFL-CIO Digital Training Series that took place last summer, I have not seen many efforts to engage the labor community on Twitter in labor education. That is a mistake: Twitter users are likely to be younger and highly educated on the whole, and they are also more mobile. And given that those demographics are more likely to support the labor movement, engaging in accessible labor education with Twitter denizens seems like a no-brainer.

The great thing about utilizing the progressive and social justice networks on Twitter to do digital teach-ins is that there are a lot of people out there with all kinds of specializations in research and praxis. It is no different within the labor community: we have amazing journalists, academics, organizers, strategists, and engaged leadership that are one click away. Ragsdale advises labor to utilize those assets, stating that “…most are willing to participate in online teach-ins for free or little more than a thank you tweet.” Social media gives us unprecedented access to the folks who shape the way the labor movement; we must use that proximity to educate the public about the challenges and struggles workers face on the workplace, as well as what individuals can do about it

Growing up in the South, moving to the Midwest, and then moving back South again has given me a lot of perspective on the ways in which the labor movement is simply invisible down here. That invisibility has consequences. There are people who are genuinely opposed to the labor movement on ideological or personal grounds in places like Alabama; that much is obvious. You will never reach those folks no matter how good your organizing plan or labor education apparatus is.

But there are also a lot of folks who are simply following the prevailing opinion in their community, and have little information on the impact of a labor union. There are also folks who are aware that unions are needed, but not necessarily up on the why or how. It is these groups of people that are most affected when the battle between labor and management is constantly framed from the latter’s point of view, and they can make the difference between a unionized workplace and a company victory.

For them, teach-ins on labor are needed, both offline and on Twitter. Rhonda Ragsdale is modeling the future of labor education for us all to see; we would do well to heed her example.

How Workers Could Get Hijacked On the Digital Highway

by Wyatt Closs

We all know how intertwined the internet is in our lives. And while we surf along merrily until our hearts are content and eyes glaze over, what we may not realize is how easily access for the average working person could get hijacked.  And why the Beastie Boys are taking on AT&T in shareholder meeting rooms. More on that in a second.

“Internet hijacked? No way,” you say? Way. It all has to do with this notion of having ‘net neutrality’ which you may have heard of but like me, didn’t dig that deep into it.

It’s broken down in this video featuring socially responsible investment adviser Farnum Brown.  This man manages millions of dollars for individual investors who want to earn a return with more than just a bottom line but instead with some meaning – people like the Beasties.

What the Beastie Boys Want from AT & T

In a follow-up interview after the video was done, I also liked this explanation he gave: 

“What you’ve had so far is relatively good pricing of the Internet so far by most consumer standards, but what we could be headed towards is something like Cable TV with tiers and gateways and premiums for different levels of services unless the possibilities within the current system are checked.”

Uh-oh. That wouldn’t be good. These days, it’s almost a given that the internet, which was generated by government resources, is like a utility, a vital part of daily life (YouTube cat video watching aside perhaps).

Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of a book with the almost-too-long-for-Twitter title “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” concurred, writing in a NY Times op-ed

“High-speed Internet access isn’t a luxury; it is basic infrastructure, like electricity, clean water and a functioning street grid, that is essential for the free market to function.”

Our private consumptions aside, as the very definition of work place increasingly shifts, be it for telecommuting, working in a virtually-managed company or doing freelance or contract work from home, workers in this digital economy depend on a fully-functioning, high-quality, top-speed internet. A lack of neutrality is like someone having the capacity to dramatically change the fees a taxi driver has to pay to rent their medallion &  vehicle at any moment.

And this kind of work is only continuing to grow as the economy gets reshaped, and moves from the old, traditional, centralized workplace or office.

  • People on average spend 1 day a week telecommuting.
  • The online work platform, Elance, reports hirings have increased 51%
  • England’s trade union federation, the TUC, reports one in five workers aged over 55 are regularly working from home
  • A Brandman University – Forrester Research survey of Fortune 500 hiring managers showed 56% of hiring managers expect that the practice of virtual teaming will steadily or greatly increase in their company

It’s not just digitally-oriented jobs like writers, designers or information technology jobs that a ‘toll booth’ to the internet would impact. Imagine if a home care worker who relies on the internet for medical information or keeping in contact with someone’s doctor, nurse, or pharmacy, sees a sudden spike in their cost to access those functions?

So, what are working families and workers in the digital economy to do? Well, it’s a little complicated, much of it hemmed up by the actions of FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2002. His ruling led to creating a painted corner for the FCC legally that has made attempts to change a definition of what’s called “common carriage” in the telecoms game, a completely jingle-jangled mess. Through a series of rulings and lawsuits the FCC’s principles currently look like the way those curly telephone cords would get all twisted.  The Crawford NY Times op-ed lays this out further.

“The most elegant resolution would be for the FCC to reverse the decision of Michael Powell, who now heads the Cable TV trade association by the way” says Brown. Cha-ching! Why that hasn’t happened yet in six years of the Obama administration is perhaps the subject of another blog.

The other solution, in the mean time, is going straight to the companies and getting them to change their ways and policies and see the greater good in net neutrality for the long-term.

And that brings us back to the Beastie Boys. Who, as the video explains, have taken up a campaign against AT&T, Verizon and others, using their stature as shareholders to get  net neutrality from inside.  They’ve had two votes now, the latest getting 24% of shareholders support or $36 Billion dollars worth of Verizon stock. Not bad.  But not quite enough to drop the mic just yet.

The reality is that the only industry that benefits from not having net neutrality is this handful of companies that dominate your ability to get on the internet.  All other businesses are subjected to the hijacking to give you, say, critical information and content at a fast high-quality speed.  Google, Facebook, Hulu, Netflix, everybody. See how Netflix started duking it out with Comcast not too long ago over these matters.

Oh, and that whole Comcast – Time Warner merger thing isn’t like to reduce this risk, by the way.

Brown observes “We have this era of “Regulatory Capture”, where the entities that are to do the regulating are dominated by people who are part of that industry’s money-making.” He added later  “But as an investor, by and large, you’re investing across universal means, even if its an individual stock.” And so, not having net neutrality is bad for businesses across the entire economy because its anti-competitive and inhibits innovation. “

Yeah, and what he said. And, well, its just not cool.

 

Dig Deeper at:

Why Labor should join the fight for Universal Basic Income

This country is ripe for a conversation about how to adjust our economy to the realities of the digital revolution, but that conversation is barely happening. Just as all workers (not just farmer laborers) were affected by the transition from the Agricultural to Industrial economies, all workers today—whether they are corporate lawyers, fast food workers, or taxi drivers—are facing technological change that impacts (or threatens to utterly destroy) their work.

Nearly 200 years ago, the labor movement developed the demand for an 8-hour work day as part of their response to the Industrial Revolution. In the intervening 200 years, many things have changed—but for the most part, our economic demands haven’t.

Why are we still holding full-time, permanent work as the gold standard of our movement?

We continue to tie our economic demands to particular employers, because that’s how unions have been institutionally successful—by bargaining with specific employers, and then collecting dues from the specific employees of those employers. Employers, in the Industrial Age, were willing to have that relationship because it got them what they wanted—labor peace in specific industries, and for the most part, in specific geographies.

Employers don’t seem to want that anymore.

What they want is to take advantages of the productivity gains that technology produces—more part-time work, more contract labor, more flexible arrangements.

Happily, I think we can also conclude that most workers don’t oppose productivity gains—they like technology that makes their jobs easier, and safer, and faster—but they don’t want to be left out of the wealth that increased productivity creates. Similarly, as we have more and more struggles around “work/life balance” we can conclude that less time at work will not be unwelcome to most of the workforce—as long as it is not accompanied by a huge net loss in income.

We need to build a labor movement that plays to the things employers want—but also makes them see that, without a social safety net that supports a flexible workforce, they will have no labor peace. The union of the future won’t be the one that figures out how to bargain with Facebook over their use of contract labor—it will be the one that figures out how to represent people to fight for benefits outside the workplace, as well as inside. In fact, it might not be a union at all.

We don’t, however, only need a new model of worker organization—we need a new way of talking about work, in our movement. We’ve spent a lot of time promoting the value that all work has dignity, and is deserving of respect. We say things like, “no one who works full-time should live in poverty.” We write articles & opinion pieces, extolling the times when we had something close to full employment as being “the best of times.”

When we make moral statements that only promote the value of work, we lock ourselves into a rhetoric, by extension, that only workers have value—and that makes it hard for us to reframe the demand for full-time work into one for a full-time livelihood, regardless of the number of hours spent at work.

It will take a big leap, in the labor movement, from saying “no one who works full-time should live in poverty,” to “no one should live in poverty.” From saying, “we need full employment” to saying “we need a full livelihood.” But if we want to dream big—if we really believe that technology is transforming work into a wholly different thing, the way that it did during the Industrial Revolution—we need to take that big leap.

Progressives in general—and worker activists in particular—should join the fight for a universal basic income.

Right now, the 1% are the people who are gaining most from the huge increases in productivity that we’ve seen over the past two decades. They are reaping enormous profits, while shedding jobs, destroying communities and disrupting our economy. We need a movement that demands that all of us deserve the benefits of productivity increases—and understands that those benefits may not come in the form of full employment, but in part-time leisure.

 

(Note—if you’re interested in learning more about universal basic income, here are a group of articles that have helped to shape my thinking about it: http://bitly.com/bundles/katisipp/f)

 

Try the Mystery Meat…

Organizing Theory

Try the mystery meat. Want to engage young people in a campaign? Try asking them to upload photos of their school lunch…

Networked Labour is an effort that emerged from a conference in May 2013, to improve the online networking of the international labor community. In this blog post, they talk about the online tools they use to create community & exchange ideas.

Are you running a campaign where you need to find email addresses for many corporate executives? You might wanna talk to this guy.

Here’s a new book that offers how-tos for organizers in the building trades.

Sharing, Solidarity & Sustainability

Ecuador is asking their citizens to help write a new law—about free & open software. Is open-sourcing the opposite of lobbyist-sourcing?

I’m pretty sure that talk of a Grand Unified Global Income Tax will bring the black helicopter-fearing crowd out of the woodwork. Still, from a policy perspective, this new paper is worth reading.

Do you want to make sure that your shopping habits line up with your activist beliefs? Try this app, the next time you’re at the grocery store. Or anywhere, really.

The Singularity Approaches

Do you know how to identify one paper shredder over another? Probably not. The systems at Google do, of course. The weird part is, no one really programmed them to do it. So how did it happen?

If you were hiding under a rock on Sunday night (or still in a tryptophan coma), you may have missed the announcement that Amazon wants to launch (pun intended) drones to deliver packages, as early as 2015. But is delivery dominance their real mission?

Reputation, reputation, reputation

If my life’s going to have a ‘personal dashboard,’ shouldn’t I be able to monetize myself in some way? And no, I’m not talking about Klout Perks. If you’re a programmer, you can have keep your data private—I’m not sure how an amateur user would.

If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that I think Snapchat is the devil. Need more evidence? Turns out those naked selfies don’t really get erased from your phone…

From Partners

ICYMI, TechPresident had a great write-up on coworker.org last week.

LabourStart is holding their annual conference in Berlin, next May. I’ll be kickstarter-ing a ticket any day now…

Geeking Out

Worried that you’re going to regret that drunken tattoo? Try programmable e-ink under your skin, instead.

What’s Going on in the Workforce?

If there’s one thing I wish that people in the economic justice movement would learn from tech folks, it’s how to work asynchronously & in different places, using technology.

Organizing security guards? Say hello to the $6.25/hour robot night watchman.

Is globalization causing a decline in labor standards? These academic researchers say yes. (Non-paywalled, earlier version here.)

Is Silicon Valley really that different from the rest of corporate America? Claims of meritocracy notwithstanding, it looks amazingly similar to the Fortune 500…

Some Thoughts on “The Unbundled Union”

Harvard Law professor Benjamin Sachs has written an article for the latest Yale Law Review, titled “The Unbundled Union: Politics Without Collective Bargaining,”  in which he suggests a reform of U.S. labor law that would allow for the creation of a new kind of “political union,” that does not have the responsibility for collective bargaining.

Sachs argues that the playing field in Congress has turned more and more in the direction of advancing the political interests of the wealthy (and who could argue with that?), and cites a study that shows that “the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators.”

I am in support of efforts that would increase workers’ power in the political establishment, and I am always happy to see academics joining practitioners in promoting innovative ideas in organizing. Expanding the right of the working & middle classes to do more effective political organizing is a social good, and should be celebrated.

The two examples Sachs cites in his paper of unions that have organized workers with explicitly political motives in mind—namely, nursing home workers in California, and home care workers in Illinois—were campaigns carried out by the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU*). They required massive expenditures of traditional dues dollars—it is hard to imagine how a start-up political union would have the resources to launch either. If this kind of organizing is funded by traditional unions, it is likely to be eventually pointed in the direction of organizing workers into a more traditional collective bargaining relationship.

Winning political victories in historically Blue states is by no means easy. But winning back enough ground for working people in Congress will require that we win in swing states, and swing districts, and even some deep Red districts. It is to imagine the sustained effort required to do that being funded by political unions which are supported through voluntary dues, that employers will (at least initially) not even be required to collect. If you’re thinking, “well everything will be better after redistricting,” I’d strongly encourage you to read this piece about the electoral bias created by where we all choose to live.  Gerrymandering is not our only problem.

It is rare, in political organizing, for a single conversation with a total stranger to be transformative. Most of us change our deeply-held political beliefs only through repeated interactions, over long periods of time, with people that we trust. Sachs’ plan relies on the need to build long-term relationships—traditional unions have used worksite access to have those conversations, both by sending organizers to hold them in break rooms, and by training rank-and-file leaders to better communicate with members about the union’s political agenda.

If we want to make political unions a reality, I propose the following, as practical questions that should be considered—and I encourage others to add on, as well:

  • Will it be legally possible for traditional unions to host or sponsor political unions? What about worker-owned co-ops, or other forms of worker-led organizations? Professional associations?
  • Typically, the voluntary contributions made by union members to support political organizing are dwarfed by the amount that members contribute in dues. How will political unions scale up, without the staff support that has traditionally been paid for by dues?
  • Does it make sense to seed the organizing of political unions in places where winning political victories is more likely (ie—cities or “Blue” states)? If so, what are the likely long-term ramifications of building political power in ways that will be perceived to be urban, or left-leaning, when it comes time to organize in worksites that are located in more conservative jurisdictions?
  • (Quoting Sachs) “…some political unions might choose not to advance economic goals at all.” If a political union doesn’t choose to advance economic goals, what makes it a union? Simply the fact that it is organized in a worksite?

It is clear that working-class & poor people in this country have experienced a tremendous decline in political influence, over the past forty years, and that decline has led (in part) to an increase in income inequality. We need out-of-the-box thinking to turn it around. I applaud Sachs for taking a step in that direction, and challenge all of us to move this discussion on.

*disclosure—both Sachs & I have worked for different branches of the SEIU.

Labor Reads for Labor Day

Inspired by Flavorwire’s Labor Day Reading List, I’ve decided to make my own. Here are my top ten Labor Reads for Labor Day (bonus–links, where they exist, go to powells.com, the unionized internet & Oregon bookstore).

1. temp slave Best of Temp Slave by Jeff Kelly. Chronicling nearly ten years of temp work in the 90s. Everything old is new again.

2. xtra tuf Xtra Tuf No. 5 The Strike Issue by Moe Bowstern. Yes, another zine. I’m crazy like that (but these are books of zines). Imagine being a commercial fisherwoman (woman fisherman?) in Alaska. Now go on strike. Big fun.

3. germinal  Germinal by Emile Zola. Life in a mid-19th century French mine certainly was not charmant.

4. The Kid from Hoboken by Bill Bailey. I think I bought this self-published book at an Abraham Lincoln Brigade event in San Francisco sometime in the 90s. It’s the autobiography of a guy from Hoboken (duh) who worked on possibly every U.S. tramp steamer that went to sea in the middle of the 20th century, while organizing for the Communist Party. If I know you offline, you can borrow this book, but if you lose it? I might have to kill you.

5. hey waitress Hey Waitress! The USA from the Other Side of the Tray by Alison Owings. Sort of a Studs Terkel-ish approach to waitresses.

6. The Many and the Few by Henry Kraus. Amazing inside look at the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937.

7. holding the line Holding the Line by Barbara Kingsolver. I’m guessing that few of her fiction fans know that her first book was about women copperminers who struck in Arizona in 1983.

8. black workers remember Black Workers Remember by Michael Honey. Black workers fought segregation on the shop floor and in the union.

9. small trades Irving Penn: Small Trades. Vogue fashion photographer shoots Parisian workers with the tools of their trades. Result? Magnifique!

10. my year of meats My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. You know that feeling you had when you read The Jungle? You’ll have it again.

 

What are your top ten Labor Day Reads? Answer in the comments.

Help build a community for justice.

Do you want to help launch the start-up phase of this effort to build an online community for economic justice in the 21st century?

I’m going to spend the next few months talking to people who are thinking about the future of work, and worker organizing. If you’re in one of the following categories, I’d love to talk to you—if you know someone who is, I’d love an introduction. And if you’re doing work that doesn’t exactly get described here, but still seems relevant—let me know what you’re doing!

*Non-traditional worker organizing (ie—does not seek to go to a union election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board or similar body)

*Inside the labor movement, but doing non-traditional work (Fast Food Forward, Wal-Mart campaign, etc.)

*Folks who are organizing the unemployed around economic demands

People who are organizing worker co-ops, and thinking about how to keep (or bring back) capital in our communities.

*Academic or other thought leader that is studying the 21st century economy

*Funders who are interested in economic justice work

*Tech industry types who are interested in work and change organizing

*Journalists who cover labor- or worker-organizing

For the most part, I’ll be doing interviews via google hangouts or Skype, though I do have a limited travel budget—so I’m also curious to hear about conferences happening over the summer or fall where there might be groups of these folks.