NYC panel looks at the future of the workplace

Heather McGhee
Mary Catt/ILR School
From left, Heather McGhee of Demos; Lowell Turner and Marc Bayard, institute directors; and Liz Shuler of the AFL-CIO.

Outreach and leadership will strengthen worker rights, but a cultural shift is needed in the way we think and talk about work, panelists said Sept. 12 at the launch of the ILR School's Worker Institute. The event, moderated by MSNBC political analyst Chris Hayes, drew an audience of 300 to hear representatives of community organizations, unions, academia, business and other sectors talk about "Strengthening Worker Voice, Advancing Economic Fairness" at the headquarters of Service Employees International Union 32BJ in Manhattan.

"We live in hard times, but we also have choices," said Lowell Turner, academic director of the Worker Institute and ILR School professor of international and comparative labor and collective bargaining. "We can gripe and complain or we can seek to understand, and on that understanding we can teach, inspire and lead. For the challenges ahead, we need all hands aboard, including yours and ours."

Rather than hearkening nostalgically to their histories, unions will have to talk about what they do now and what they plan for the future, said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Broadened outreach by unions to involve more communities and workers in the labor movement would strengthen worker rights, she said.

Experienced organizers need to take leadership roles in making the workplace a more equitable place, said Ai-Jen Poo, Domestic Workers United founder and one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World. One of the challenges more workers face is not knowing the identities of the real decision-makers in their workplaces, she said. As a result, it can be difficult to take collective action.

Panelist Heather McGhee, a director of Demos, a policy and advocacy center, said many middle-class workers want to know how they can create dignity for the work they produce.

The Worker Institute aims to advance collective representation and worker rights with five initiatives: equity at work; precarious workers; sustainability and the economy; strategic leadership; and international collective action. Its goal is to develop innovative approaches to workplace and related social problems, said Turner, who leads the institute with New York-based senior extension associate Marc Bayard, its executive director.

The institute will do this work through collaboration with unions, worker centers, nongovernmental organizations, agencies, foundations, and colleagues at other universities and networks promoting labor research and education, according to the Worker Institute.

"We don't know what the future looks like, but worker rights and collective representation will be part of a sustainable society," Turner said.

Mary Catt is assistant director of communications at the ILR School.


Media Contact

Joe Schwartz