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When vulnerable service workers want to fight for better wages, this group helps them organize

From fast-food workers to gig-economy contractors to strippers, Rachel Lauter of Working Washington and Fair Work Center is working for their justice.

When vulnerable service workers want to fight for better wages, this group helps them organize
Rachel Lauter [Photo: courtesy Working Washington]

As a center of the tech world, Seattle is home to both new and old economies, and though it was an early leader in passing a $15 minimum wage, its workers suffer from both new and old problems. Working Washington and the Fair Work Center, two organizations based in the city, have been involved in helping both sets of issues, seeking to set better standards for domestic workers, for example, and calling attention to the poor working conditions of gig economy workers at Door Dash and PostMates.

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Working Washington is focused on advocacy and working to get laws passed, and the Fair Work Center pursues what director Rachel Lauter calls “community-based enforcement”—helping people discover and enforce their rights through education and outreach efforts as well as a legal services clinic. “We are an interesting early national model around this idea,” she says. “You can pass all the worker protection laws in the world, right? You can pass a rest-breaks law, you can pass a secure scheduling law, but if there’s no arm of enforcement or if those arms of enforcement are not particularly well resourced, that doesn’t really mean anything.”

Lauter spoke with Fast Company about the frontiers the organizations are pursuing on behalf of a wide variety of workers beyond elevating wages. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Fast Company: What is your vision for your work with Working Washington?

Rachel Lauter: We were born out of this recognition that something was fraying in the way that we establish work relationships. Our strategic plan is really around the dignity of time. In an economy where people just are trying to just cobble together enough money to survive, flexibility does become an important piece. Flexibility can also be weaponized, as in, “Oh, we don’t want to give you any protections because you have flexibility.”

We are multi-industry, and we see power in that. We also are centering our campaigns around precarity. Working at a fast-food restaurant like McDonald’s, it’s low-wage work, but it’s becoming more precarious because folks’ hours are being reduced, the wages haven’t been tracked or increased in any viable way, and people don’t have say over their schedules. We’re also seeing this really interesting thing happen where workers spend 15 hours a week at a traditional fast-food or retail job. Then they’re doing 15 hours a week on Uber and Lyft. Then they’re caring for a loved one. And they’re trying to cobble together some online schooling.

FC: If one of those things gets thrown out of whack, it cuts into what you had blocked out for those other jobs.

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RL: Totally. That’s why fair workweek, secure scheduling laws are really interesting and exciting. We have a law in Seattle trying to make it, and we’re going to fight for it to be statewide in Washington. I think of fair workweek stuff as the next wave of the package of rights that we see impacting our lives.

FC: How do we respect both people’s time and their pay in proportion to the amount of time that they’re working? It feels like that equation is often off.

RL: You’re either highly compensated, and you’re working all the time. Or you’re undercompensated, and you’re working all the time. A big issue that we’re hearing from retail workers all over the place is that they’re just not getting enough hours. The balance is certainly off. Then, worker organizing is really, really hard. It’s difficult to become a union. There’s a real recognition among progressives and the left and people who care about workers that a lot of traditional unions are not doing innovative, new worker organizing. In the tech worker space, for example—that’s not union organizing. It’s a different kind of worker organizing, and we need to come up with a framework for what that is—and then also give it real power. Right? Then, a Google walkout isn’t just a two-day media hit but a longterm exercise in workers influencing the policy of their employers. It’s not to disparage that effort. But we as a society need to be thinking about expansive ways for work organizing.

FC: How does your organizing work hope to shift the culture at employers?

RL: The power, or at least the opportunity, in, say, our gig-economy organizing has been that we take on corporate targets. We targeted Instacart, Postmates, Doordash to say, you guys need to raise your standards as a company and you need to stop tip theft, and you need to raise your wages while also bringing the workers from across those platforms through a broader campaign that hopefully will pass laws and set standards for gig workers. The primary way that you’re going to have corporate accountability is if you have corporate accountability. And the only way that you do that is if you do some rebalancing and make sure that worker voices are heard. There’s lots of ways to get worker voices heard. And I would argue that the more creative you can be about it, the more lines of attack you’re gonna have to try to shift the balance.

FC: Tell me about your work with domestic workers.

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RL: That was a really amazing effort between us and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, SEIU 775, which is the local union, and then Casa Latina, which is another worker center in Seattle. We [pushed the city to pass a law] that both provides some basic standards for domestic workers—meaning an insured minimum wage for domestic workers and meal and rest breaks—and created the Domestic Workers Standards Board. It’s essentially like a sectoral bargaining model where workers and employers are sitting around a table and figuring out the standards for this industry. They make recommendations to the city council, and it has an obligation to review them and pass laws around them.

FC: Another generally overlooked group you’ve worked with is strippers. How are you starting to make immediate changes in their lives and have an impact in their day-to-day well-being?

RL: A group of strippers came to our legal clinic and were like, “We’re having all these problems in the clubs, can you help us?” My team at the legal clinic said that there’s no legal claim here, because [they’re] independent contractors—and side note, they wanted to remain independent contractors. But what we could provide was organizing support. We brought them to Olympia, and they testified multiple times and basically drafted a bill with local legislators, and then, in record Olympia time, passed an amazing law. It’s modest but it involves panic buttons in the VIP Room, mandatory training when you get your business license, and an advisory committee. They told [lawmakers] what they wanted and basically wrote the law. That has had an immediate impact, because it provides them safety protections, and it’s mandated in state law.

FC: I’ve heard from conservative think tanks bemoaning the national and local efforts to raise the minimum wage and saying that it will reduce the amount of jobs and will overall have an adverse effect on economic well-being. What have been the effects of the minimum wage-raising campaigns and everything that’s come after that?

RL: The vast majority of independently done research—and it’s all happening recently, right?—finds that raising the minimum wage puts more money in people’s pockets and doesn’t destroy jobs. Those are the two big takeaways.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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