With a new executive director, the combined Working Washington and Fair Work Center want to spread newly won rights to more workers.
Working Washington and the Fair Work Center, two organizations that have been as effective as any in recent years at expanding and defending the rights of workers in Seattle and beyond, are joining forces under a new executive director.
Rachel Lauter, most recently the deputy chief of staff to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, assumed the role of leading both organizations in late May, a first step in a merger designed to create what she describes as “a one-stop shop for worker organizing, advocacy, outreach and education and legal services.”
That’s necessary, she said, because aggrieved workers or those looking to improve working conditions may not always know what kind of help they need or where to begin.
Working Washington got its start in 2011 organizing low-wage workers to push for the nation’s first $15-an-hour minimum wage, passed by SeaTac voters in 2013, and then by the Seattle City Council in 2014. The labor-backed group has run successful campaigns – often marked by attention-grabbing stunts and protests, online and off — for predictable shift scheduling, expanded sick leave, equal treatment and, most recently, expanded protections for domestic workers.
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The Fair Work Center (FWC), meanwhile, formed in 2016 with a mission of educating workers about their rights in Seattle and beyond, offering legal aid and connections to groups advocating for specific communities such as immigrants and youth. It has been awarded more than $2.5 million from the city of Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards under a grant program designed to “develop awareness and understanding of worker rights, and facilitate resolution of labor standards violations.” According to its 2017 annual report, the legal clinic helped low-wage workers recover more than $350,000 resulting from wage theft, discrimination and harassment, retaliation and other violations.
Lauter said the merger makes sense because the two organizations – which have board members in common, including SEIU Local 775 boss David Rolf, who is president of both — focus on serving the same population of workers. Moreover, she expects the groups to realize some efficiencies by sharing resources, management, their physical locations and other back-office functions.
But those efficiencies also raise questions. One part of the conjoined organization receives the majority of its funding from the city, while the other pays people to lobby city lawmakers on related issues. Lauter said Working Washington will maintain its 501(c)(4) tax status – a designation allowing political spending and lobbying – while FWC is organized as a 501(c)(3), with stricter limits on spending for lobbying and legislative activity.
“We’re very mindful of ensuring that (c)(3) money doesn’t get spent on (c)(4) activities,” Lauter said, adding that it’s a relatively common arrangement for nonprofit groups.
Lauter said the combined organization is focused on expanding newly won worker rights, such as secure scheduling, from Seattle to the rest of the state by pushing legislation in Olympia and possibly opening affiliated worker centers in other cities around Washington.
It’s also looking at whether something like the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, passed last month in Seattle, could be used to improve conditions for contract workers in the gig economy, she said.
One feature of that first-of-its-kind legislation is a “standards board” for workers and employers to come together to decide on minimum standards for pay and working conditions. Lauter said the model represents a potential new avenue to improved conditions for workers who otherwise face legal obstacles to organizing.
Fast-growing Seattle, Lauter said, is an exciting place to do this kind of policy and advocacy work on behalf of marginalized people and low-wage workers.
“Seattle can be an experiment and center for that,” she said.