The first-ever workers’ center in Indiana, the Worker Justice Center, officially opened in Indianapolis on November 6, 2013, heralded by a reception that drew a good 200 enthusiastic supporters from unions, community groups, and interested individuals (self-disclosure: including myself, both as supporter and as reporter for examiner.com). This opening also heralded the achieving of a workers center in the largest U.S. city of its size that had been, until then, without one. (The Indianapolis-Carmel, Indiana [Carmel is an adjoining suburb just north of Indianapolis] Metropolitan statistical area, or MSA, ranked 34th in population in 2010 according to the U.S. Census, at 1,756,000 people. Seewww.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0020.pdf.) Organized by Indianapolis’ Community-Faith-Labor Coalition through the active work of its head, Nancy Holle, who’d been working assiduously to build the coalition that brought the Workers Justice Center to fruition since 2012, the coalition that built the center involved the Indiana AFL-CIO and the active participation of its union UNITE HERE, which has been busily attempting to unionize Indianapolis downtown hotel workers; the active participation of a Change to Win union, SEIU Local 1, actively organizing Indianapolis downtown contract janitors and contract security guards at the local public hospital; Central Indiana Jobs with Justice (JwJ) which brings organized labor and community activists and groups together; and the Health and Human Rights Clinic of the Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Indiana University-Indianapolis, where Fran Quigley, Clinical Professor of Law and driving force at the Clinic, had been brought on board by Holle early in the campaign, and was an enthusiastic supporter from the beginning. Also active early on was the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, which had already been involved in issues that are key concerns of the Workers Justice Center, wage theft and the misclassification of employees as independent contractors to deny them overtime and job protection; along with the local Brotherhood of Carpenters in Indianapolis, which was consolidating locals and had a former union hall which it had planned to sell, but instead leased to the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition at a very low rate specifically to house the new Center.
As Kim Bobo, head of Interfaith Worker Justice based in Chicago and keynote speaker at the reception noted, the Worker Justice Center in Indianapolis was from the beginning one of the most effective coalitions and best-organized workers’ center she’d encountered. Workers’ centers were originally promulgated around 2000 as organizations that could aid unorganized workers with their wage and working conditions problems and consisting of about 10 centers nationwide then, there are now about 200 such centers across the country, Bobo said; and while oftentimes the relations between workers’ centers and organized labor are strained, at least initially (as they were set up to work with workers outside the purview of organized labor), in Indianapolis just the opposite was the case. She specifically noted that Indianapolis’ Workers Justice Center coalition had community groups, labor unions and a law clinic involved in key roles from the very beginning, all now working together on what they had each been working separately; and brought together in the Center now housed at 1745 West Washington, just near west of downtown Indianapolis and easily accessible by both public transportation and by car, with ample parking available.
The Center will be open both weekdays into the evening and on weekends, and staffed by a combination of both volunteers and a small paid staff. Holle herself is a former union organizer now working with UAW locals in Indianapolis as well as heading the Community-Faith-Labor Coalition, and is also a member of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), AFL-CIO.
Involvement of labor-oriented Hispanic community organizations and unions such as UNITE HERE and SEIU, with large Hispanic and African American membership, aids significantly in outreach to workers in these communities, many of whom are unorganized, low-wage, and subject to poor working conditions, deliberate misclassification as independent contractors, and wage theft. But as Fran Quigley conceded, more community outreach still needs to be done to make the “mainstream” Hispanic community organizations and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League and the churches more aware of the Center. But Hispanic and African American community and labor activists made up a significant portion of those attending the November 6 opening, and media coverage was fairly extensive.
An Opinion piece by Fran Quigley on the Center appeared in the Indianapolis Star on November 19, 2013 (“Local center helps victims of wage theft,” http://www.indystar.com/story/opinion/2013/11/19/local-center-helps-victims-of-wage-theft/3590209/), while the opening of the Center was the subject of a short article by Gretchen Frazee on November 6, 2013 in Indiana Public Media, newsletter of WFIU and WTIU, public radio and TV stations, respectively, of Indiana University-Bloomington (“Center Opening To Aid Employees In Labor Rights Issues,”indianapublicmedia.org/news/center-opening-aid-employees-workers-rights-issues-58140/), and also mentioned in a story broadcast on Indianapolis public radio station WFYI (“Center To Help Low-Wage Workers Opens In Indianapolis,” http://www.wfyi.org/news/articles/center-to-help-low-wage-workers-opens-in). The South Central Indiana chapter of JwJ, located in the college town of Bloomington, about 50 miles south of Indianapolis and home to the main campus of Indiana University, carried an announcement of the opening as well (http://www.southcentralindianajwj.org/event/opening-ceremony-indianapolis-worker-justice-center). A November 16, 2013 blog on AFL-CIO Now by Pete Meyers and Carl Feuer, “How Can Worker Centers Work with Traditional Unions?” (http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Organizing-Bargaining/How-Can-Worker-Centers-Work-with-Traditional-Unionshttp://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Organizing-Bargaining/How-Can-Worker-Centers-Work-with-Traditional-Unions) relating the experience of the Tompkins County Workers Center (TCWC) of Ithaca, New York, noted the positive and complementary role jointly played through workers’ centers and traditional unions working together. Meyers and Feuer wrote,
In the past few years, TCWC has been critical in two successful union organizing drives. Both drives started after workers came to TCWC with workplace grievances and we connected them with organized labor….TCWC developed, over several months, a strong core of workers interested in unionization…TCWC also has been taking its message about how worker centers' day-to-day connections with unorganized workers can lead to organizing campaigns to a wider audience….While TCWC has worked closely with unions wherever possible, the bulk of its work over the years has been in support of workers who don't have a union on the job. Every year, for example, its Workers Rights Hotline is contacted by 400 or so workers, almost all of whom have no union representation. In addition, there have been numerous campaigns targeting wage theft, unfair labor practices and low-wage employers like Walmart….Through intentional solidarity and joint organizing, TCWC and the labor movement in Ithaca have succeeded in making real strides and building power for working people.
At the November 6 opening, three low-wage workers described their experiences with wage theft, employers mislabeling workers as independent contractors rather than employees, and employer lying about an employee’s employment status to avoid paying unemployment compensation, all issues that the Workers Justice Center is committed to helping workers redress. Nancy Holle also conducted a successful fund-raising drive among the audience members, pointing out that the specially-installed brick wall at the Center would bear the name of each contributor written on one of its bricks. (Self-disclosure: I contributed $5, giving my moniker for the wall as “low-wage worker.”)
Interestingly enough, although labor issues and worker rights are generally considered important by the organized progressive and left communities, almost no one from such organized groups was present at the opening. There were only three members of the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center, for example, present, and although Indianapolis has branches of both the Socialist Party and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), only one member of the Socialist Party was present, a person who has long been a presence at labor demonstrations, rallies and events; and no one was present from DSA. (Self-disclosure: I am a Member-at-Large of national DSA because I send them $20 annually, chiefly to get its magazine, Democratic Left; I am regarded as a pariah by the local DSA chapter, Central Indiana DSA, and I, in turn, regard the local chapter as inept, personally vindictive toward me, and a gaggle of talkers who meet monthly, but do nothing more.) But the establishment of the Workers Justice Center can only be seen as a boon for Indiana and Indianapolis workers, especially the large number of non-union workers who would otherwise have no one to advocate for them, and an important advance for an Indiana labor movement that has recently been asserting itself more, despite its defeat in 2012 by the passage of “Right-to-Work” legislation.