Providing for a Moral Economy: Labor Unions and Worker Centers in Turbulent Times
How can traditional labor unions and worker centers in the U.S. cope with the challenge of representing more low-wage workers after the crisis of 2008, while experiencing a fall in revenue? To answer this question, I collected data through one year of participant observation in a prestigious Chicago worker center. I triangulated my observations through in-depth interviews and documents. The evidence shows that many foundations that formerly provided funds to the worker center could no longer afford to do so after 2008, even though more workers sought the aid of the worker center. Traditional labor unions helped to close some of the center’s budgetary gaps, even when unions also experienced declining member dues caused by drops in membership. The result of this transfer of union resources to the worker center was that the labor movement, holistically viewed, was better able to cope with the demands of tougher economic times. Worker centers, being unbridled by the regulations of collective bargaining and its political fetters, were able to proselytize for workers in harder times in ways that traditional labor unions could not. The actions of the worker center not only helped low-wage workers but also attempted to help traditional labor unions in Chicago by supporting a local "moral economy" where traditional unions could better strive. As such, this case study brings together literatures at odds on the question of whether bureaucratic or social movement activities are more effective to protect workers’ interests. It argues that both strategies can help the labor movement act like Machiavelli's fox and lion, reinforcing each other to survive.