Worker centers have sprung up around the country in a variety of ways but they have all begun with a few basic first steps:
- Develop relationships with the local religious institutions where workers in your community worship.
- Build partnerships with local labor and employment attorneys who can serve on steering committees, advise workers, and donate money to the center.
- Connect with labor enforcement agencies, such as Department of Labor, EEOC and OSHA – organizations that can enforce complaints.
- Find local allies in organized labor who can help organize workers and donate money to the center.
Once these four basic foundations have been laid, decide how and when the center will open. Here are some of the most common models:
Release a Study
Workers and academics partner to produce a study outlining the sweatshop working conditions in that community, workplace or sector of the industry. This study is made public at a press event in which there is also an announcement that a worker center will be opened to address the problems outlined in the study. The study should use scientific methodology, but should primarily be a tool to reach out to workers and build a leadership team for the worker center.
The Community Coalition
Religious leaders, workers and others in the community interested in starting a workers' center create a coalition of organizations on the ground who work with the target population. This coalition might include social service agencies, community organizing groups, religious institutions and employment attorneys. These organizations then create a strategic plan for the creation of the worker center. Key leaders from each of the organizations form a steering committee that leads the creation of the worker center.
The Worker Rights Manual
Community leaders and workers produce a manual (or other education materials) that outlines the rights of all workers in their workplaces. An outreach plan is then devised in which the manual is distributed to the target population.
Worker self-determination is a central principle of the IWJ Worker Center Network, so regardless of which path people in your community choose, the key decision-making body of the worker center should always be composed of workers or at least have a majority of workers.
In this pathbreaking book, Janice Fine identifies 137 worker centers in 31 states. These centers, which attract workers in industries that are difficult to organize, have emerged as especially useful components of any program intended to assist immigrants and low-wage workers of color. Worker centers serve not only as organizing laboratories but also as places where immigrants and other low-wage workers can participate in civil society, tell their stories to the larger community, resist racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, and work to improve their political and economic standing.