The Future of Work

“It is fundamental to any conception of democracy that workers have freedom at work and a voice in the democratic process. Too many of today’s workers lack both. The result: rising inequality, plummeting wages and working conditions, and a national anxiety that defines our generation.” (from the National Guestworker Alliance)

Several weeks ago, TCWC staffers Carlos Gutierrez and Pete Meyers traveled to the Ford Foundation in NYC for a three-day conference on The Future of Work, looking at issues facing an ever-increasing swath of workers whom could be broadly defined as ‘contingent workers’. It was one of those conferences that was both exciting and tremendously depressing. Exciting because of the players, nationally, that are beginning to organize a new response to where we are going as a society, work-wise. Depressing because we, as a society, are entering into an era of work that threatens to seriously undermine workers rights and any ability to live in dignity.

Spurred on initially by the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), and now joined by Jobs with Justice, and the National People’s Action Network, the Future of Work campaign (under which the TCWC is one of 14 Workers’ Center’s to be participating) endeavors to create a national and international campaign. The proposed campaign addresses the employment issues that are ultimately all interrelated and connected to, as Saket Soni, Executive Director of the NGA says: the “corporate power that is driving this change in employment, which shifts the cost and responsibility to the shoulders of workers.”

We estimate that roughly 50% of the people who contact our Workers’ Rights Hotline are contingent workers in one form or another, and we have built campaigns around some of these cases in the past. Some examples of contingent work, broadly defined, include:

• subcontracted workers; temp workers; part time workers; supply chain workers; unemployed and underemployed workers; adjunct instructors; freelancers; contract lawyers; technology workers ; guest workers; farm workers and day laborers.

At the core of this growing exclusion of workers from democracy is the changing nature of work in the U.S. Three shifts are underway that will define the economy and labor market over the next 40 years:

1) The rise of contingent work. Millions of workers no longer work for the ultimate beneficiary of their labor, but for subcontractors and suppliers. More than 42.6 million U.S. workers are contingent: temporary or part time, or self-employed. In 1989, contingent workers made up only 9 percent of the U.S. workforce; today they’re more than 33 percent.

These include people such as Stanley McPherson and Milton Webb–who work/ed at the Tompkins County recycling facility–and played an incredible role in helping the TCWC to spearhead a campaign this year and last to ensure that all County-contracted workers are paid a Living Wage. Making poverty wages while doing County business at the County’s recycling facility they don’t even know who their boss is! Is their boss the County, which pays a subcontractor, ReCommunity Recycling? Is their boss ReCommunity Recycling who subcontracts out with Kelly Temp Services? Or is their boss now Casella Waste Management, who at the beginning of 2014 took over from ReCommunity. Many workers have no real idea of who their ultimate boss is!

Our successful campaign to ensure that Sodexo Food Service workers at Ithaca College were paid a Living Wage was about leveraging community power with Ithaca College and not Sodexo, believing that IC was the ultimate employer.

2) The linking of local and global labor markets. Employers can now source low-wage workers from any labor market in the world to any labor market in the U.S., effectively erasing the distinction between the local and global labor markets. For example, there are more than 600,000 guestworkers in the U.S.

In Tompkins County we have a ton of farm workers, especially from Mexico and Central America, working all around us on dairy farms. These workers do not have the protections of labor law. (See the story in this newsletter on our upcoming Workers Memorial Day on April 28th which will be featuring dairy farm worker, Jose Canos.)

Did you know that, as you read this article, that there are 13 university students from Thailand and the Philippines working as J-1 visa students at Hotel Ithaca (formerly the Holiday Inn) in downtown Ithaca? Ironically, these students come to America through a program called Cultural Homestays in what Hotel Ithaca calls a ‘work-study’ experience for these students to work full time as Housekeepers! (To read more about our experience three years ago with this issue at the Holiday Inn and the Marietta Corporation in Cortland, go to

3) The rise of long-term and structural unemployment. Workers used to be employed for long periods of time, and faced intermittent, circumstantial unemployment. Today 37% of the unemployed have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more. And we know that the long-term unemployed are being discriminated against when applying for jobs. As well, in the growing phenomenon of guestworkers, such as in Ithaca, we find corporate interests exploiting workers from around the world, while at the same time leaving increasing amounts of local people unemployed.

The above shifts will only accelerate in coming years. Temp staffing is projected to be among the fastest growing industries in America over the next 10 years, adding 637,000 jobs and growing at twice the rate of the economy as a whole. And while 2/3 of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs, the majority of the gains during the recovery have been low-wage jobs.

These shifts have profound implications for our organizing:
• We need to re-invent bargaining to respond to the rise of contingent work, rethinking who we bargain with, what for, and who bargains. We need to think beyond workplace bargaining with direct employers, to experiment with bargaining across industry and labor markets.

o An example of how we at TCWC are doing this is by our work to ensure that County-contracted workers are paid a Living Wage. And, in a sense, our Living Wage Employer Certification Program is about the community bargaining with employers.

• We need to re-imagine the safety net. We need to win a vastly expanded role for the state in protecting workers. Because contingent workers and the long-term unemployed cannot access the social safety net, we will need to win a new safety net that addresses their needs.

o This is a big one, not one that the TCWC has yet to be engaged with. Our experience at the TCWC is that low-wage workers are cycling in and out of low-wage jobs and the welfare system. We have a social safety net in place now, nationwide, but it is woefully inadequate. We have envisioned, with appropriate funding, organizing with people who receive social services and income supports through a similar sort of Hotline, but this one for recipients of various forms of public assistance.

• We need to guarantee full and fair employment. We need to overturn the economic instability that families experience through the rise contingent work and unemployment. Because work is the means to a secure and a dignified life, we will need to win a guaranteed right to fair, fulfilling work.

• We need to broaden the scope of our organizing to respond to the collapse of the walls between labor markets. Because labor migration will always be a reality, we will need to organize across multiple linked labor markets to build worker organization and power.

The TCWC is working tirelessly to figure out how we fit into the Future of Work campaign. We have an incredibly rich tapestry of people who are contacting our Workers’ Rights Hotline and telling us stories of how their experiences clearly fit into The Future of Work.

If you have any ideas of how TCWC might engage more strongly with the issues of contingent work in Tompkins County please contact us at