Sarita Gupta is the executive director of Jobs With Justice and the co-director of Caring Across Generations.
The key to the left’s resurgence and to reclaiming our democracy is empowering working women and men with entirely new organizing models so they can collectively demand the public policies and corporate practices that allow their families and communities to prosper.
Today, too many workers lack a voice—both on the job and in our democracy. The result is an astonishing concentration of political power in the hands of corporations and the wealthy. Most US workers are on the front lines of this rising inequality, cashing small and erratic paychecks or stuck in unsustainable jobs. Indeed, subcontracted, temporary and part-time work is metastasizing throughout the economy. Nearly one-third of the workforce is now contingent, as employers abandon traditional employment models to rid themselves of union contracts, labor standards, direct liability and employment taxes.
In response, an increasing number of those in contingent, low-wage jobs—notably fast-food, retail, restaurant, domestic and direct-care workers, as well as guest workers—are standing up to demand better wages, working conditions and respect. As these workers, who have largely been excluded from labor-law protections and bypassed by the labor movement, mobilize, we have an opportunity to create innovative and strategic approaches to organizing and bargaining—and, ultimately, to shift the paradigm of work.
Alongside our allies, we at Jobs With Justice are creating a movement to counter the cumulative effects of unchecked globalization, Wall Street bailouts, devastating trade deals, and the cozy relationship between elected officials and big business, all of which have contributed to the disintegration of the middle class and the rise of contingent work. Fundamentally, we must write a new worker-organizing playbook to respond to the myriad ways the world of work has changed.
On the first page of that playbook, we must address how workers can bargain with employers despite seismic shifts in job conditions and diluted labor laws. We can begin by exposing the wealthy individuals and corporations ultimately responsible for the poor conditions of contingent workers. Effective organizing should also criminalize employer abuses such as wage theft and retaliation, improving the climate for workers to take a stand. Our current campaigns are exploring how to combat the government-subsidized business model that low-wage employers are thriving on.
For example, contingent workers often don’t have a relationship with their real boss and therefore aren’t in a position under existing labor laws to bargain for higher wages, better benefits or worker protections. In our playbook, workers will create new forms of leverage through what we’re calling a “Bad Business Fee.” This measure, which we hope to pass at the city, county and state levels across the country, would hold those companies accountable that refuse to respond to worker concerns, pay excessively low wages or rely on taxpayer-subsidized benefits for their workers. The generated revenue would then be funneled directly to low-wage workers and communities.