CIW, worker organizations from around the country, join President Obama at White House Summit on Worker Voice!

The 18th and 21st centuries collide as the famous Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart welcomes participants to the East Wing and the White House Summit on Worker Voice last Wednesday.

Day-long gathering tackles tough questions facing 21st century worker movement…

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Those were the words of AFSCME President Lee Saunders as quoted by President Obama in his opening remarks at last week’s historic White House Summit on Worker Voice.  The President cited the colorful expression to capture the declining fortunes of organized labor in the US over the past several decades and the resulting demise of good, stable middle class jobs.  The many challenges facing workers today — both workers as represented by traditional unions and those beyond unions’ reach, from farmworkers in the fields to Uber drivers in the new “on demand” economy — were front and center at the day-long gathering.

President Obama set the frame for the day’s conversation in his opening remarks, excerpted here (you can read his remarks in full here):

President Obama is introduced before his remarks by Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker from Missouri and a leader in the national Fight for $15 movement.

So we’ve got to get more working Americans to the table.  But in order to do that, we have to acknowledge that you can’t just keep on doing the same things thinking you’re going to get a different outcome.  

So part of the goal of this summit is to think creatively about how do we have a growing movement around the country to empower workers, to give them a sense of possibility…

… we’ve got to look for new tools to bring people together, because in today’s economy, it’s not always going to be a situation where you just have one plant and one worker and one organizing drive; it’s going to be workers who are not always on a single site.  And we’ve got to find ways to make sure that they can express their solidarity in new ways…  

… we’re here today to think about where do we go next.  We’ve got to ask ourselves:  What does the next generation of American jobs look like?  How do we make sure those jobs reward hard work?  At a time of shrinking union membership, but a growing number of digital tools for organizing, how do we make sure everyone who works hard has a chance to get ahead?…

… So that’s why you’re all here today to come up with some answers.  I’ve got ideas, but this is a hard problem and it’s going to require creativity and effort from all of us.  And we’ve got leaders from labor, business, and government; we got some of the brightest minds in organizing and economics…  So you are in charge for the day.  I’m eager to hear your ideas and your solutions.  I know there are going to be some breakout sessions.  I’m going to come back and have a town hall and hopefully be able to hear some of the discussion that’s been taking place.

Before leaving, however, the President outlined what he called “a set of common-sense principles for what it means to work in America”:

white_house_3First — if you work hard in America, you should earn enough money to support your family.   And if you’re working two jobs, like Terrence, then your family should never have to go to bed hungry.  

Second — if you work hard in America, you should earn decent benefits.  And that means access to the two bedrock sources of lifelong security, and that is affordable health coverage and retirement savings.  

Third — if you work hard in America, you have the right to a safe workplace.  And if you get hurt on the job, or become disabled or unemployed, you should still be able to keep food on the table.  

Fourth — if you work hard in America, you should be able to take care of those you love, which means having sick leave and parental leave and affordable child care, and predictable schedules that give your family some stability. 

Fifth — if you work hard in America, you should have a pathway to the education and training you need to grow your skills and earn raises and promotions and the chance to get ahead.  

And finally, if you work hard in America, you should have the freedom to decide for yourself — without fear or interference — if you want to join with others to advocate for yourself in the workplace, whether that’s through a union or any other means.  And these are core principles that helped build this country.

The CIW was part of the day-long summit, of course, and the CIW’s Greg Asbed spoke in one of the afternoon panels.  Here below is a brief excerpt from his prepared remarks, which drew an analogy between the Fair Food Program’s market-based enforcement mechanisms and successful food safety programs, and closed with a reference to last month’s EEOC judgment in an horrific sexual assault case on an Immokalee area farm:

… A fresh horror story from Florida’s fields underscores the urgency of expanding the model to workers desperate for the power to protect themselves on the job. Just last month, the EEOC announced a landmark, $17 million judgment against Moreno Farms — a farm near Immokalee but not under the protections of the Fair Food Program — for sexual assault and retaliation charges where several women were harassed, raped, threatened and ultimately fired for complaining about their abuse at the hands of two sons of the farm owner and another supervisor.  

While the judgment, assuming it proves enforceable, is an excellent example of the results that are possible when courageous workers join forces with skilled legal advocates to defend their rights, it also illustrates an essential weakness of the legal approach to human rights protection. The legal system, by its very nature, is a retrospective mechanism that starts from an assumption that people’s rights have already been violated. A world without victims is infinitely preferable to, and more just than, a world in which victims are forced to suffer preventable crimes and then seek redress through the courts, even if they were able to achieve that redress in every case.

And that is the world — where crimes are prevented, before they can happen, instead of prosecuted after they have — that is being created today on farms from Florida to New Jersey under the protections of the Fair Food Program.

Because growers face the loss of business if abuses are found on their farms — just as they do if food-borne illnesses are traced to their fields — they, in tandem with their workforce, effectively police their own operations. As a result, women on FFP farms no longer have to fear the kind of outrageous sexual exploitation that occurred in the Moreno Farms case. Nor do they have to fear for their jobs if they do complain about a hostile work environment, thanks to the program’s strict prohibition on retaliation.

If we are to end the enslavement of workers present in the Navarrete case and prevent the the kind of disgraceful mistreatment of workers seen in the Moreno Farms case, and in workplaces around the world where low-wage workers endure grinding poverty and exploitation, there is really only one thing to do: give workers the voice and tools they need to monitor and enforce their own rights. For the millions of workers denied the right to organize in the traditional way, Worker-driven Social Responsibility is an all too rare, proven means to secure that voice.

All in all, it was an exciting gathering, a broad cross-section of traditional labor, non-union worker organizations, and new economy labor leaders coming together for a day that Larry Mishel, president of the labor-allied Economic Policy Institute, called “the strongest show of support for labor from a Democratic president in several decades.”  We’ll let The American Prospect sum the day up, from an excellent report on the Summit entitled “Searching for Workers Voices at the White House”:

Obama’s second term has seen far more emphasis on worker rights than his first. In the midst of the Great Recession, the West Wing was more focused on macroeconomics, and his inner circle of economic advisers didn’t see collective bargaining as a central fix to income inequality. As in the Carter and Clinton presidencies, during Obama’s first two years in office, labor law reform, making it easier for workers to join unions, was passed in the House but narrowly failed to clear the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle, and, like Carter and Clinton, Obama didn’t go all out to ensure its enactment. Now, with the rise of the Fight for 15 bringing the struggle of low-wage workers—and all workers more generally—to the forefront of political discourse, the administration seems to have stirred.

“We expected our political leaders to lead on labor, but what we learned is that they follow,” Geevarghese (deputy director of the Change to Win labor federation) says. “They’re directly responding to workers.”