Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

16056 The Boss Is Just a Boss: Workers Centers and the Quest for Radical Social Service

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 10:00 AM
Wilson (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Jacob Lesniewski, AM, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Purpose: This study describes the daily practices, organizational policies, and campaign trajectories of a workers center in Chicago, Illinois. Workers centers emerged fairly recently out of the worker and immigrant rights movements and seek to improve the conditions of work for low-wage workers through workplace justice campaigns, membership building, and policy advocacy. Workers centers represent a unique hybrid of labor, community, and direct practice organizations. (Fine, 2006). The purpose of the ethnographic thick description of this study is two-fold. First, it seeks to add data points to the on-going analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the workers center model for building power for low-wage workers. Secondly, it generates a set of tentative conclusions about what the particular mix of case management, community engagement, advocacy, and direct action organizing of this workers center have for the development of a social service delivery that builds social movements and power for marginalized populations.

Method: This study combines participant-observation ethnography with key informant interviews and focus groups. Participant observation was used to identify organizational practices, understand the general trajectory of a workplace justice campaign, and observe membership building activities. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 worker-members (Latino immigrants, gender diverse) who had participated in a workplace justice campaign. Interviews were also conducted with 3 individual staff members as well as 4 outside government bureaucrats and 2 staffers from the workers center's national network. Finally, two focus groups were conducted, one with workers center staff and another with staff from allied workers rights and immigrant rights organizations.

Results: The analyses yielded descriptive information about the nature of workers center practice, the political and regulatory context facing workers centers, the trajectories, challenges and successes of workplace justice campaigns and reflections by workers center staff, allies, and worker-members on the role of the workers center in building power for low-wage workers. It became clear that the worker center studied a) produces a certain discourse and set of behaviors in worker-members that can translate to movement building activities b) is important in the social construction of workplace law violations as social and policy problems c) is an important community partner and ally for the agencies involved in enforcing labor regulations. It is also clear that the workers center studied was engaged in this kind of “radical social service delivery” because of a) staff and organizational ideology b) an experimental process that produced organizational practices and c) its connection to extant social movements. Finally, the role of the variegated state regulatory apparatus was found to an important contextual factor.

Conclusions and Implications: This study provides a thick description of workers center practice. It describes a set of organization practices useful to social workers attempting to deliver services that empower clients to engage in advocacy and organizing, and assist social movement scholars in their analysis of the workers center movement. It also provides a critical reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of workers center practice for those engaged in attempts to change conditions of work for low-wage workers.

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