Incorporating Community Labor Issues into Social Work Research
Grassroots activists and progressive organizers – including many social workers – are pushing to improve American front line jobs through efforts targeting minimum wages, paid sick and family leave, and employment practices of specific retailers including Wal-Mart and fast food and hotel chains. These efforts, the concerns that underpin them, and their outcomes are reshaping the context in which American economic inequality plays out across systems, and at the individual, community, and policy levels.
Social work researchers are documenting these initiatives and their impacts. Workers’ rights and employment conditions influence individuals’ financial, mental and physical health, the quality of family relationships, and types of community engagement, all core social welfare concerns. But conducting research on labor-related issues is fraught with political complexities, as scholars attempt to balance personal and professional values and constraints including scientific objectivity, social justice frameworks, and competing expectations of diverse stakeholders.
In this roundtable, five scholars with extensive experience in community mobilization around labor issues, both in research and service, discuss the challenges, opportunities, and significance of labor-oriented scholarship.
The first speaker will review how low-wage worker movements around the country impact communities, while also representing advocacy for social welfare policies and programs that are critical for social workers to effectively serve clients. The second speaker will present an agenda for community based participatory research involving socioeconomically marginalized communities aimed at reforming and transforming existing systems. The third speaker will discuss research analyzing social media and digital media storytelling as resources for labor unions to present and inspire action around the employment conditions facing workers in the field of child protective services. Using a focal example, she presents a tale of social workers’ collective action through union involvement, a digital text that reorients our understanding of social work to the perspectives of work and labor, inviting us to consider the effects of work design and work context on workers, clients and the field of social work more generally. The fourth speaker will share her experience consulting with two workers’ rights organizations, an effort that yielded a public report on local restaurant labor practices and ongoing academic research on barriers and supports employers face in creating high quality restaurant jobs. She navigated tensions between pro-labor organizations seeking to identify poor labor practices and business groups challenging what they viewed as “expose” efforts, as the academic portion of this activity depended on employer participation. The final speaker presents her experience being contracted by a municipality to evaluate a new paid sick day ordinance. She will discuss the challenges of responding to multiple evaluation clients and other political stakeholders, and generating a "neutral" assessment in the face of political processes and social work values.
Roundtable presenters will seed a robust, free-flowing discussion of critical contemporary connections between work and labor issues and social work research and practice. By sharing their encounters with community labor activism – as researchers and sometimes participants – these social work faculty will identify strategies, barriers, and supports for integrating labor issues into research.