OPINION: A New Organizing Approach for Workers in the New Economy

by Sidney Chun

Non-unionized workers, laborers, sex workers, freelancers, nannies, house cleaners, workers living with disabilities, and baristas: the economy is not working for you. Neither are the current labor laws.

We at LevelUp Washington think it should. LevelUp Washington is the newest worker center in Washington State providing advocacy and seeking to provide benefits to non-unionized workers.

You, as workers, are the backbone of our economy and deserve fair treatment, respect, a living wage, benefits, and a voice at work, regardless of how employers classify you or how you’re regarded by labor law.

The founders of LevelUp Washington managed and organized the historic domestic workers’ bill of rights in Seattle that passed in July of 2018. Our legislation won a long-overdue victory of creating a bargaining unit for nannies, house cleaners, and other domestic workers to work with their employer on creating industry-wide standards.

However, we had a painful realization that the old ways of organizing don’t work with this new economy — that is largely made up of women, people of color, LGBTQ, and workers with disabilities. It actually hurt the progress we sought.

This bill became law without giving sufficient voice to workers to shape it. As a result, many workers protested the passage of the bill. By leveling up how we conduct our outreach, we are making sure that never happens again.

At LevelUp Washington, we are meeting the needs of new economy workers. We’re a first-of-its-kind worker center that will provide union-backed benefits to non-unionized workers. We will soon be operating out of a coffee shop, so workers finally have a place of their own in Seattle.

Historically, unions have met these needs of workers in the 20th-century employment model. However, that workplace is evolving but the policies that helped millions to unionize in the 20th century no longer provide that kind of protection to you in today’s economy. The new economy is operated by contract work, zero employer-supplied benefits, and a remote workplace. One in 10 workers are contract workers. With a majority of workers predicted to be contract workers by 2027, the workers rights movement needs to update with the times and start meeting your needs. If we’re not, demand it.

LevelUp Washington believes that unions should invest in worker centers to organize the new workforce and provide union-backed benefits and training. While worker centers have been an alternative to organizing non-union workers, none have offered union-backed benefits and proven to be financially sustainable on their own. They’ve depended on the old non-profit fundraising model of looking to donors, grants, and membership models as the only sources of funding.

That’s all changing.

We’re creating a coffee bar space where workers can have a space to share ideas and grievances, and build community. A portion of our profits from membership-coffee prices, alcoholic drinks, and food will go towards our programmatic work.

Here’s how you can get labor unions and worker centers to work for you as non-unionized workers.

Get representation.

  • Level up your workplace by becoming a member of worker centers like LevelUp Washington, where your monthly membership goes directly into advocating for you.
  • Hold unions and worker centers accountable if we’re not meeting your needs. LevelUp Washington will help you.

Become an advocate.

  • Urge unions invest money in new organizing models like worker centers. If you’re a union member, demand that your union’s organizing budget invests in organizing non-unionized workers. We are only stronger together.
  • We in worker centers grow the labor movement by utilizing some of the resources they provide like administering benefits to members.

Lobby.

  • Advocate and fight for legislation that creates wage boards in your industry.
  • Wage boards create sectoral bargaining power for workers and their employers to develop industry-wide minimum standards, wages, and benefits versus individual workplaces setting them.

Lead.

  • Become a leader or a member of the organization. If your voice doesn’t impact the vision and strategy of a campaign directly, you don’t have a real voice at the table.
  • You know your industry better than any organizer, so hold worker centers accountable to you. Join worker centers that let you lead on policies that directly impact you on a day-to-day basis.

Non-unionized workers, laborers, sex workers, freelancers, nannies, house cleaners, workers living with disabilities, and baristas: It’s time to level up your workplace so that you can earn a living wage, benefits, extra spending money, and social mobility to pursue your passions.

It’s also time to level up the labor movement so that it’s more innovative and organizes with intention and equity, giving you a voice in your workplace and beyond.


Sidney Chun is a co-founder & Executive Director of LevelUp Washington.

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