Five Workplace Reforms to Fight for This Labor Day

More workers than you think don't enjoy the protection of labor laws. A look at their jobs, and the burgeoning movements to get them rights.

By Rinku Sen Sep 03, 2010

The Roosevelt administration passed many enduring economic reforms in the 1930’s, including the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The latter made it easier for workers to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers. Domestic and farmworkers, however, were explicitly excluded from both laws, a deal that allowed Roosevelt to gather the votes of Southern, white congress members, among others. At the time, 95 percent of domestic workers were  Black women in the South. Most agricultural workers were Black, Filipino or Mexican. Today, workers in other job categories are also vulnerable to labor abuses, like day laborers and "workfare" workers. Organizations nationwide are creating and fighting for solutions. Here are some highlights.

Day Laborers

Anti-immigrant rhetoric makes  the lives of day laborers difficult. Although they are eligible for minimum wage and health and safety protections, the formal complaint processes are tough to access, especially if they’re undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, cities and states are creating "loitering" laws to drive day laborers out, although the demand for their work remains strong. The National Day Labor Organizing Network is pushing back.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images


In 1966 farmworkers were included in the Fair Labor Standards Act, but they still aren’t covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Yet agriculture is among the top five most dangerous occupations in the country. Farmworkers risk pesticide exposure and live in chronically bad housing. Nearly 75 percent nationwide earn less than $10,000 a year. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have helped win "fair food agreements" from fast food chains. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Domestic Workers

Domestic workers include nannies, housekeepers and companions to people who are elderly or ill. There are some 200,000 domestic workers in the U.S. The National Domestic Workers Alliance includes organizations working to protect their rights in  CaliforniaMarylandNorth Carolina and many other states. The New York Domestic Workers Coalition, which includes Latinas, South Asians and Carribbean women, and Domestic Workers United recently won the first Bill of Rights in New York state. The International Labor Organization will soon pass a global convention on decent work for domestic workers. (Photo CC/Parvapax)

Tipped Workers

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour, and it hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. Along with servers, some back-of-the-house workers are also tipped. It’s common practice for managers to steal tips from workers in an illegal practice known as "tipping the house", where servers have to share their tips with managers. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is organizing in workplaces nationwide to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. (Photo CC/ Rick Audet)

Workfare workers

The welfare reform law in 1996 created Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF). States expanded their "workfare" programs, in which cash-assistance recipients are required to work for their benefits. Employers who receive subsidies to hire these workers are essentially invited to exploit them, aware that recipients will lose both paychecks and assistance if they resist. In California, the group LIFETIME is organizing women in TANF to demand better.