March 25, 2015

Roll Back Low Wages: Nine Stories of New Labor Organizing in the United States

Sarah Jaffe

Precarity. If we were to select one word to best describe the most important current trend in the economy of the United States, “precarity” would be a leading candidate.

It is now widely accepted that America’s middle class is shrinking. Recent polls suggest that possibilities for merit-based advancement are at their lowest point ever. A growing number of people work low-wage jobs under precarious circumstances, often without long-term job security, health care, or possibilities for advancement or retirement. Many quite literally find themselves one sick day away from being fired and replaced by another person desperate to feed her or his family. Increasingly, precarity in our working lives, or in those of our neighbors, our friends, or our loved ones, has become the new norm. With inequality on the rise, the U.S. government largely beholden to corporate interests, and austerity the economic recipe du jour, the implications are grim for the future of working people.

While others talk, it is not surprising that people of color and women—still the longest running and most excluded, ignored, undervalued, and forgotten of workers—are at the forefronts of the actual battles against precarity. Challenging labor institutions that had grown complacent in the postwar era, low-wage workers’ movements across the country are devising new strategies and building new vehicles for struggle, making new friends and engaging old allies along the way.

In this study, labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times and who works as co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, examines this series of low-wage workers’ movements that has gained strength in recent years. Including fast food strikes and the fight for a $15 minimum wage; retail, grocery store, restaurant, and taxi workers; Carwasheros, domestic and home care workers, and those living in the U.S. under guestworker visas; Jaffe explores how these movements overlap and connect. She also analyzes their flaws and setbacks in order to better appreciate and learn how to reproduce their often-unreported victories. While, because of Washington gridlock, it might be a while before these campaigns impact federal legislation, they are already having a notable impact on policy in municipalities across the country: winning minimum wage increases; helping to pass employment-specific regulations and ordinances in cities and states that require businesses to give workers paid sick days; and forming legally recognized collective bargaining units and winning concessions from employers through direct action.

Perhaps more importantly, low-wage workers’ movements are playing a crucial role in revitalizing labor, and indeed much of the left, creating alliances and waging offensive battles at a time when too much of the progressive community has been stuck playing defense. They are doing everything they can to ensure that the defeat of precarity, and not its continuance, will be the most important trend in the U.S economy in the years to come.