Worker Centers are multipurpose, hybrid organizations designed to address the growing needs of low-wage, immigrant workers in the U.S. The number of worker centers in the U.S. has grown over the last fifteen years and is now estimated at close to 200. While drawing on previous modes of organization (i.e., labor unions, ethnic agencies, Settlement Houses, and mutual aid societies), today's Worker Centers combine services, advocacy, and organizing to address violations of workers' rights and create safe spaces for workers to organize for improvements.
This paper explores how these hybrid organizations form and operate in the contemporary social service system. Specifically, it addresses the following questions:
What situations and experiences lead to the creation of these hybrid organizations? What shapes the scope and content of Worker Centers' activities? How do Worker Centers relate to existing institutions and the existing social service system?
This project draws on a qualitative case study of a midwestern Worker Center formed in 2006. The investigator conducted over 18 months of participant observation during worker center meetings and informal activities. In addition, the investigator conducted a comprehensive review of organizational documents and over 15 in-depth interviews with key informants – including staff and volunteers of the worker center, participants/members, and leaders of existing community institutions and social service agencies outside the worker center. Data were analyzed and coded inductively.
Analyses suggest the following:
1) Worker centers are emerging in areas where traditional community institutions are unprepared to meet the unique needs of low-wage immigrant workers in service and manual jobs.
2) Traditional community institutions (social services, ethnic agencies, and labor unions) are responding to changing demographics of their client population by changing their approach to service delivery (e.g., emphasizing cultural and linguistic competence). As hybrid organizations, worker centers go beyond simply combining the activities of their organizational antecedents. My results suggests that by integrating service and action, worker centers are operating as new “free spaces” where disadvantaged (and even formally disenfranchised groups, like undocumented immigrants) come together to practice a form of citizenship that does not depend on legal status or formal membership in the polity. In other words, what distinguishes worker centers is the extent to which members/participants come to see themselves as members of a political community and as “citizen-subjects.”
Conclusions and implications:
Worker Centers are a dynamic new site for community practice, and they provide the opportunity to return to the labor and community organizing traditions of early social work scholars and practitioners. This project responds to the growing need for more research on the new social infrastructure developing in response to demographic changes (increasing immigration to new areas, in particular) and a changing institutional environment for organizing and services. These results suggest a promising new direction for hybrid organizations that integrate workplace and community issues.