Your taxi driver, the wait staff at the restaurant you like, the person doing your manicure—they all have something important in common: all have been excluded, in some way, from traditional labor protections.
Over the years, these protections have been what safeguards the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, health and safety protections, and the right to form a union. Without them, low-wage workers—the very people on whom we rely on a daily basis—are disempowered and often trapped in poverty.
These excluded sectors have banded together to create worker centers—non-profit, community organizations representing specific occupational sectors—mostly made up of “immigrant workers and African-Americans who labor in jobs that do not pay a livable wage.” The first crop of worker centers emerged over two decades ago in response to the waning power of traditional labor organizing and the unique needs of laborers of color. They provided a critical community touch point in advocating and organizing for just workplace practices. Since then, they have grown to create national bodies representing all major sectors, and include: the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Guestworker Alliance, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, among others. By one estimate, there are now over 200 worker centers across the United States fighting for fair wages, paid leave, and other workplace protections.
Today, low-wage industries employ 1.85 million more workers than at the beginning of the 2008 recession and represent some of the fastest growing sectors in the economy. These industries include restaurant work, retail, and caregiving, all of which have high volumes of immigrants, people of color, and women in the workforce. When we see that these same people also make up a disproportionate amount of working Americans living in poverty—earning a fraction of the wages of their white, male counterparts—we should look to their employers for answers.
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The $600 billion restaurant industry, specifically, is the largest employer of people of color in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of all workers making the minimum wage or below work in this industry, making it the largest low-wage employer. Simply raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would increase the combined incomes of people of color by $16.1 billion—nearly 300,000 of those affected would be workers of color in the restaurant industry. Additionally, 2 in 3 tipped workers are women, and the tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 per hour since 1991. All of this points to the fact that at the frontlines of the gender and racial wage gap, workers making poverty wages are bravely taking on giant, moneyed interests like the restaurant industry. This is truly the David and Goliath story of our time.
In some cases, workers are winning. Last year, ROC United was instrumental in securing paid sick days for tipped workers in Washington, D.C. The National Domestic Workers Alliance also successfully fought to provide minimum wage and overtime protections for homecare workers.
In many ways, worker centers are a contemporary economic necessity. Since people of color are the rising majority, it is imperative that we improve job quality in sectors that currently employ these workers at high rates. Worker centers become even more needed as traditional labor organizations and workers’ rights are threatened in Congress, in individual states, and in the Supreme Court with the recent Harris v Quinn decision.
Nearly 51 years ago, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, activists called for not only desegregation, but also dignified jobs and decent wages. And tomorrow at 10:00am ET, the Center for American Progress marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act—which included historic protections at the workplace—with an event: “Passing the Baton: The Next 50 Years of Civil Rights and Economic Justice”. Watch live as an intergenerational group of civil rights activists offers ideas about how to renew and invigorate a movement focused on civil rights and economic security.
Many low-wage workers are already leading the way. This is an opportunity to find new ways to get involved.