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February 20, 2007

Washtenaw County Workers’ Center: A Law-and-Organizing Initiative

By Jennifer Hill

The Washtenaw County Workers’ Center (WCWC), which Michigan Law School students helped found just last year, is celebrating significant accomplishments this month. The WCWC is a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting low-wage workers, mostly immigrants, who are seeking to improve working conditions and develop a strong voice while on their jobs and in their communities. The workers who come to the Center are natives of Washtenaw County as well as immigrants from Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Mali, Algeria, and many other places. The Center is part of a movement that has seen the a small handful of workers’ centers increase to more than 150 across the country in the last 20 years.

This monh, the WCWC received its 501(c)(3) tax status, a milestone for a new nonprofit organization. In addition, the WCWC was awarded a research grant to study conditions in the county’s low-wage industries and, in particular, the relationship between immigrant workers and native-born workers. The WCWC also elected its first formal executive board, a 15-member panel that includes 2L Josh Ludmir.

Other Law School students participate as members of the Steering Committee, which prepares and carries out trainings, and on the Worker Rights Committee, which plans how to respond to problems workers are facing. 1L Mustafa Unlu, a volunteer, got involved “somewhat serendipitously” after attending a Labor Law Roundtable meeting early in the year. “I love the academic work, but that alone does not help us understand our role as forces for societal change,” he said. The workers’ center opened up a new range of activities to Mustafa and fellow law student volunteers. “Going out on house visits, talking with low wage earners who have all sorts of problems at work, and being a part of the process in which the community self-organizes and learns to assert its rights definitely builds a greater understanding of the community. This process has helped me appreciate the value of the rights and liberties which we have been covering on a theoretical level in class.”

Minsu Longiaru, a staff attorney at the Michigan Poverty Law Outreach Program participated in the workers’ center movement while a student at Harvard and later as a Skadden Fellow with the Greater Bosto n Legal Services. “Workers centers combine services, advocacy, and organizing,” she explained. A worker’s first encounter with the WCWC likely takes place at the monthly Worker Rights Committee meeting, where individual counseling is combined with rights education and planning. “When a worker comes in with a problem, he or she makes a plan to address the problem that may involve gathering co-workers together who also are affected, sending a demand letter to the employer, meeting with the employer to try to negotiate a solution, or, if that fails, organizing pickets or other forms of community pressure.”

Right now, WCWC volunteers are working on cases that involve unpaid wages, discrimination, medical leave, unpaid vacation, health and safety, and other issues. The legal approach is not the traditional one. Jennifer Gordon, founder of The Workplace Project and a Fordham University law professor, described two principles underlying the law and organizing model in an article entitled “We Make the Road by Walking” :

[L]egal assistance should go to workers who want to be active participants…, rather than to those who expect to be the passive recipients of a service. Second, once a worker is committed to fighting for better working conditions, problems must be addressed through a team approach [involving] as many workers from the affected workplace as possible, an organizer, and when necessary, a lawyer or supervised legal advocate.

Over the last several years a number of workers’ centers around the country have achieved significant gains for low-wage workers. For example, the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) recently won a victory when two high-end Manhattan restaurants paid $164,000 to 23 workers to settle lawsuits alleging discrimination and failure to pay overtime. ROC-NY organized protests and coordinated legal assistance that included help from students in the CUNY Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic, the Urban Justice Center, and the law firm of Koob and Magoolaghan. As part of the settlement, the restaurants promised to pay legal wages in the future, guaranteed they would not retaliate against the plaintiffs, and, in return, sought a promise from the center not to hold rallies at the restaurants for five years.

The WCWC is reaching out to ROC-NY, the CUNY Immigrant Rights Clinic, and others to discuss how to move forward with worker rights advocacy here in Washtenaw County. Law students can get involved by attending one of the monthly Worker Rights Committee meetings in Ypsilanti or a Labor Law Roundtable meeting at the Law School. Mustafa, among others, highly recommends the activism. “Volunteering for the workers center rates among the most memorable and meaningful experiences I have had at the Law School.”

For more information, contact Mustafa Unlu at munlu@umich.edu or Josh Ludmir at jludmir@umich.edu.