Communication Currents

Communicating for Workers’ Rights

April 1, 2012
Organizational Communication

Readers of Communication Currents probably do not need to consult a communication expert to know that finding a secure, well-paying job is hard these days. But you might wonder what you can do in the wake of a layoff to create more job opportunities, job security, and pay. And if not for you, odds are good that someone you live with or know has been laid off recently. There is a good chance that this person has been unemployed for at least six months or has fallen out of the labor force, meaning, they have given up looking for work, and therefore, do not “count” in official US labor statistics on unemployment. Perhaps you or someone close to you is “underemployed,” looking for more work hours to make ends meet.  Whether you are looking for more work or any work, you may have wondered how can you improve your chances of finding sustainable work, work that is stable and that provides enough for you and your family.

Although there are numerous ways that communication experts may advise readers about how to polish their cover letter and interviewing skills, cope with the trauma of job loss or decide what education and training would best prepare students for today’s media environment, my research suggests that given the gravity of unemployment for so many and for so long, it is time to address the root of the problem not through self-improvement but through improvement of the economy.

Drawing on the work of historians as well as cultural and communication scholars, my research suggests that everyone who depends on income from employment for their livelihood –whether or not presently employed-- stands to benefit by embracing what we as “workers” share in common. This is true no matter how we define ourselves through demographic categories of race, ethnicity, gender, income level, and job type. This common ground can provide a starting point for organizing into a political force that can make jobs more secure, plentiful, and well paying, and strengthen the social safety net so that unemployment and underemployment do not spell economic disaster for households.

What practical steps can people take to shape the economy in ways that would benefit them?

Becoming a political force that secures jobs and wages first requires that we are aware of our history so that we do not make the same mistakes people made when they organized for rights as workers and women in the US during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Labor union organizing and working to legalize voting for women, at that time, often drew on racist assumptions that native-born white people were more deserving of employment than were Asian immigrants and newly freed slaves. Although they are centuries-old, these kinds of assumptions have resurfaced more recently in arguments to keep American jobs from going to foreign-born workers, especially those from India through temporary visas and offshore outsourcing (often called “offshoring,” the practice of sending work to another country). My research notes that these arguments took the form of complaints that also hark back hundreds of years, to the days when Protestant Jeremiahs in the new world of America talked of the fall of their shining city and promised redemption by returning to traditional values. In the mid 2000s, laid off workers from the information technology (IT) sector set up websites and took political actions (including lobbying Congress) that claimed to restore what made America great, as a land of economic opportunity. But by arguing for job protections that would prevent middle-class professional jobs from going to Indian and other foreign nationals, these workers shot themselves in the foot for at least two reasons.  

First, because such arguments blame foreign and especially Indian workers for a deteriorating job market, these arguments prevent immigrant workers from becoming allies with native-born workers.  This division weakens the political power of US workers, who could gain clout in numbers if they formed coalitions with immigrant workers. Blaming immigrant and nonwhite workers re-creates the same centuries-old divisions that undercut what could be formidable political power.  Workers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds should stand by and stand up for each other in the face of policies that hurt all but the extremely wealthy.

Second, blaming offshoring and temporary visa work for job loss frustrates efforts to save jobs, improve pay, and boost security because offshoring and temporary visa work do not constitute a significant source of job loss. After seasonal adjustments, most large layoffs are due to decisions to get rid of a position entirely rather than move it, leaving those workers still employed to pick up the slack of laid off co-workers.  Companies are laying off workers everywhere—including in countries that receive work sent “offshore.” Additionally, only 9% of jobs “lost” to layoffs moved elsewhere, and 70% of these relocated jobs stayed within the US.  Thus, “offshore outsourcing” accounts for only 2.5% of mass layoffs, after adjusting for seasonal and vacation-related layoffs.

People may take steps to boost job security or the social safety net for unemployed and underemployed by forming traditional unions or by contributing to the new model of unionism, where unions work more like social movements than contract-negotiating bodies.  They could also join efforts to fortify the social safety net by strengthening the US welfare system and funding it through a tax system that asks wealthy individuals and businesses to contribute their fair share. Taking such actions will require perseverance. Worker intimidation for attempting to unionize in the US, for example, has risen over the past few decades, while work rules and working conditions here and abroad can be so dehumanizing, they pose significant obstacles to securing just working conditions and pay.   

However workers proceed, effecting change in the wider economy requires that such efforts be inclusive. Being inclusive means building coalitions between the employed, unemployed and underemployed in the US across demographic categories of race, ethnicity, gender, political party affiliation, citizenship, and geographic location. Inclusivity also means rejecting philosophies and policies that pit US against foreign workers and challenging those that view only some workers (but not others) as deserving of financial stability and humane working conditions. Additionally, readers may join international labor coalitions and movements aimed at ending exploitative and unhealthy labor conditions in the US and abroad. There have been some successes, in labor-immigrants’ rights coalitions, especially. But more needs to be done. The employed, unemployed, and underemployed should take action to make the economy one that offers sustaining and sustainable means for living.

About the author (s)

Michelle Rodino-Colocino

Penn State University

Assistant Professor