Reimagining the Labor Movement
by Neidi Dominguez
March 27, 2021
This interview with Neidi Dominguez, co-founder of Mijente, Executive Director Unemployed Workers United, and a national immigrant and workers rights organizer, was conducted and condensed by franknews and Payday Report.
ND | My introduction to the progressive movement was worker organizing – specifically with undocumented immigrant workers. Growing up, I watched my mom organize day laborers and domestic workers with the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA ), which was one of the founding organizations of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network back in the 90s.
We came to the U.S. in 1997. I was born and raised in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico up until I was nine years old when we came to the U.S. My mom, within the first year, found IDEPSCA and started going to English classes through an ESL program. Once she was there, she learned about all of the other programs that they had, such as organizing immigrant women, domestic workers, and day laborers. She quickly became more engaged and started teaching Spanish literacy classes because a lot of the workers that they were organizing with didn't know how to read and write in Spanish. I was 10 years old when my mom started doing that, and I grew up in that world. I grew up going to bi-yearly retreats about neoliberalism and the “new era late-stage capitalism.”
Neidi Dominguez personal photo.
I grew up learning how you have these sorts of “one-on-one” conversations with people. I have been training for this for a long time and I feel privileged, in a way, to have had that structure and been part of spaces that had that discipline, growing up.
I always knew I was undocumented. I mean, part of watching my mom organize was learning all the intersections of the struggle.
It wasn't just that these folks were exploited, it is that they were being exploited because they were undocumented. So we were doing a lot of organizing as undocumented people, but my mom wasn't a union member and the workers that we were organizing weren't union members. I think the only time when I heard about unions back then was when I would overhear about some local building trades unions in Los Angeles being pissed off that these local community organizations were opening up worker centers, that they thought of as hiring halls. That's what I remember of the union. My second experience with unions was in college fighting alongside all the cafeteria workers and janitors on our campus for their contract, there were all AFSCME union members, the majority Black and immigrant Latino workers.
And what are you working on now?
Right now I am working on a project, Unemployed Workers United, that is anchored by five national organizations: Mijente, The National Black Worker Center Project, Working Families Party, People's Action and United for Respect. The project looks at two major things. One is that we know that many have people lost their jobs because of COVID. So one question is how do we move some of those folks to be more for our progressive agenda instead of becoming more conservative? We know that when bad things happen, folks tend to close up. It is easier for people to find scapegoats for all the bad things that are happening to them. People are more likely to look at a bad situation from the perspective of scarcity and are more likely to be okay with austerity measures because of it.
So the question we are trying to answer is how do we get people, lots of people, millions of people to see the potential for change here in this moment of crisis?
The second part of the project involves putting into practice some of the things that I learned from the Bernie campaign about digital tools, distributed organizing, and how we actually use these tactics to build long-term poor and working people power. I specifically feel like groups in the economic justice sector are way behind in using some of these tools and executing some of these tactics. Most local worker centers or community economic justice organizations, don’t have the resources to have access to some of these digital tools. I feel like part of our problem as a progressive movement is that we have institutions, but we're not growing our bases to scale. The Idea is to have us work together in order to attack these questions and challenges together.
How is the labor movement changing? What do you think the modern labor movement is struggling to understand?
I think the pandemic really accelerated and further demonstrated what everybody knows and feels. It showed us, right in our faces, how there is no safety net in this country for most people. And that there is definitely no safety net for poor people or for working-class people. And that there is absolutely nothing for undocumented people or Black poor folks in this country. I think that this was a big shock in the organizing space. It really pushed us to think about how we are capturing the energy that is coming out of this moment and about how we can use it as a springboard for long-term power building.
At the same time, it really exposed how unprepared we were for it overall. Not just the unions. All of us, as a progressive movement, we were really unprepared for a moment like this.
I think it's really pushed us to have to think about not just modernizing, like our tactics, but also rethinking our reach. Are we thinking big enough, you know?
For as long I can remember, we have been fighting to raise the minimum wage. I feel like this moment has really opened up space so that we can have conversations with folks about universal income for example and further push the conversation about universal healthcare, and debt relief. How do we shift the conversation so that in five years the next campaign is centered around believing in a universal income in this country? Even if you were a person with a job and you were making more than $75,000 a year and you had healthcare and you were doing well for yourself, we saw that in a day, all of that could be gone and there was no answer to what happens after that. So I think the opportunity is tremendous and I feel like we're still catching up to it.
I also think that all of this happened inside a moment of history in this country where we were already reckoning with white supremacy, police brutality, and racism. The pandemic didn't stop Black people from being killed in this country. We just had six Asian women murdered earlier this week. And there's still no reckoning or even recognizing them as workers from anyone in the labor movement.
Again, I think that it shows the limited imagination that exists within the traditional labor movement to meet this moment. I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking like this, but I really do think part of the biggest thing that holds us back is the people at the top of these institutions that are so far removed from the reality from the ground. Who are these decision-makers inside these institutions, unions, and think tanks, the ones that have the attention in the biggest stages for contesting for our future?
To put it into context, the majority of union members are female. And by 2030, the majority of union members will be people of color.
And Black women are the largest minority in unions.
I really feel like it would be different and we would be reckoning with this moment differently if that leadership represented more of what the general workforce looks like in this country.
ln addition to that, we need to reckon with the fact that the relationship between employees and employers is not what it once was. We cannot just think about collective bargaining or concerted activities in their most narrow definitions, we need to expand it else we are going to put ourselves further behind. The gig economy is growing. More and more workers are becoming, “self-employed” through these apps and being massively misclassified as independent contractors what does that even mean? And what else is going to be automated, in the next 20 years? I just feel like we need different ideas and approaches to organizing working people in the 21st century.
Neidi Dominguez personal photo.
Americans have this problem imagining that things could happen to them, even when disaster is happening all around them. COVID really blew that up.
You have a lot of big ideas to capitalize on this moment. How do you see them playing out in reality over the next year? What do your priorities look like?
For us it looks like three ideas.
The first bucket of work is about scale. And the scale question for us is really about can we move people to find a political home locally? In my own organizing experience,sure you want to have a national entity, but ultimately, if we still don't have somebody to call in from and mobilize in Tennessee, or Montana, or Alaska in support of our agenda, then we are not really growing our power.
We want to bring more people into our movement and then help them find a rooted political home so that local worker centers and community organizations can grow; grow to the thousands and hundreds of thousands.
The second bucket of work is really just around finding new spaces to train a new cadre of organizers for the future who knows how to both have a one-on-one conversation with someone and also how to use digital tools to have a broader reach like a CRM (customer relationship management), or know how to set up a peer to peer texting program, look at data and help them with targeting, etc. We want to figure out how to build up organizers who are people of color, and who are women and immigrants that have all of these skills.
I think that this part of our work is also to create more space for BIPOC young people, women, and immigrants that they have a place in the labor organizing movement too. Perhaps this part of our work is reckoning with the idea that we see ourselves as part of the labor movement who want to contest some of these engrained ideas. Whether or not the labor movement thinks of us as part of them is a different question.
The third bucket goes back to organizing with unemployed, underemployed, and people in precarious working conditions. Most people in the traditional labor movement probably think the work we are doing is a joke or won't go anywhere. Their questions are: Why are you trying to organize unemployed people, they don't even have a job? Do they have a capital lever? And in a way, I get that. Most of these people don’t want to stay unemployed, neither do we want them to stay unemployed.
But, when talking to people who have lost their jobs, one of the most obvious things that they all have in common, whether young or old, is debt. They don’t talk about it that way, of course, they name being afraid of losing their home, not being able to pay their utilities, and not having any healthcare coverage. But when we go further, we start hearing about their debt; because of medical bills or because they are months behind paying rent or their mortgages, or having student loan debt or car loan debt.
People always say, well what is the leverage when organizing unemployed people? When you have a job, you go on strike, and that job is the leverage.
Well, what if the debt is their leverage?
What does it look like to have a collective of debtors who say, we're not going to pay our debt, we need to reform this whole system? The capital that they can leverage is actually the debt that they own. This bucket of work is in the very early stages, and we have a lot to learn from others that have taken some of these questions on before us but we are asking ourselves what it looks like to have a debtors union and how that can help grow the political power of poor and working people in this country.
The South is an area where there's a massive history of civil rights movements. How does your work think about that history?
All of our experiments are in the Southwest and Southeast, and that's just a personal commitment I have to continue to support the growth of Southern organizing capacity. But it is also because it is in these Southern cities that some of the most exciting and innovative organizing is already taking place too, and all of us should be supporting it.
Some parts of our projects require a national approach, but we have growing partnerships and campaigns in Houston, Nashville, and Phoenix right now. I think the narrative and the strategy really need to be driven by people in the South. I really hope that the work we're doing really helps prop up those Southern leaders to be able to have their own line on this, that is our strongest intention that guides our everyday. Our success as Unemployed Workers United will be measured by the growth of those local organizations we are partnering with in the South.
One of the main reasons so many local Southern organizations or efforts have not grown is because they have not been funded in the way they need to be to be able to thrive.
I am seeing how the philanthropy world is finally catching up to the grassroots movement there, and that is good but, but that is not sustainable as the only source of income for the Southern organizing.
Most unions are not investing what they need to be into the South. Foundations will not be enough. I really worry about that. But if we do figure out a way to support the growth in a way that creates sustainable models, we could have a really beautiful chance to actually change things in the next five to ten years. But, without the right resources, all of these exciting efforts are just not going to survive.
This is the time to get really creative and think about sustainable models. This is also why I encourage these organizations to think about the for-profit side of things too. If the unions and the foundations aren’t going to do cover the long term then, we the people are going to have to do it. How do we use our skills and gifts to do that? All of this takes money, real resources.