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Panelists discuss strengthening worker voices

September 14 2012

Future of the Workplace

Panelists discuss strengthening worker voices  

A cultural shift in the way we think and talk about work is required for the future, panelists said at the launch of the Worker Institute at Cornell.

The meeting with people from community organizations, unions, academia, business and other sectors was held at the headquarters of SEIU 32BJ in Manhattan.

"We don't know what the future looks like, but worker rights and collective representation will be part of a sustainable society," said panelist Lowell Turner. He is academic director of the institute and an ILR School professor.

Rather than hearkening nostalgically to their histories, unions will have to talk more 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 more workers in the labor movement would strengthen worker rights, she said.

MSNBC political analyst Chris Hayes moderated the discussion, held in front of nearly 300 guests across many sectors.

Hayes prompted panelists with quips and questions on issues such as the Chicago teachers’ strike and the tendency of some to frame union talk in nostalgia for its yesteryear.

He asked about the changing nature of work, and how the true source of power in a workplace hierarchy is often invisible to contemporary workers.

Many in the audiences burst into laughter when Hayes said, "Let's talk about 'the boss.' Or, should we say, 'job creator?'"

"Those with organizing experience 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 magazines "100 Most Influential People in the World."

One of the challenges more and more workers face is knowing who holds the power in their workplaces, she said. As a result, it can be difficult to take collective action.

Panelist Heather McGhee, a director of Demos, said many workers want to know how they can create dignity for the work they produce.

The Worker Institute is helping develop innovative approaches to workplace and related social problems, said Turner, who leads the institute with Marc Bayard, its executive director. Bayard is based in Manhattan; Turner is based in Ithaca.

The work will be done through collaboration with unions, worker centers, non-governmental organizations, agencies, foundations and colleagues at other universities and networks promoting labor research and education, according to the institute.

Its primary initiatives currently cover five areas: Equity at Work, Precarious Workforce, Strategic Leadership, International Collective Action and Labor, Environment and Sustainable Development.

"We live in hard times, but we also have choices," Turner said in his opening remarks Wednesday. "We can gripe and complain or we can seek to understand, and on that understanding we can teach, inspire and lead," he said.

"For the challenges ahead, we need all hands aboard, including yours and ours."