Today, workers find themselves in a "perfect storm" scenario that is driving down wages and worsening working conditions:
- International trade has destroyed many of the secure, higher paying jobs that once were the backbone of the American middle class.
- New jobs are largely in the service sector and are defined by lower wages and diminished job security.
- Welfare reform has pushed many single mothers into marginal and isolated low-wage jobs.
- Historical levels of immigration have disrupted traditional labor markets and left workers - immigrant and native alike - feeling vulnerable.
- Employers increasingly use temporary, part-time, and contract work strategies to lower their labor costs, to the detriment of their workers' wages, conditions and job security.
These forces conspire to leave workers feeling - and being - very insecure. The only hopeful strategy for workers to protect and improve their job security, working conditions, and wages is to organize and advocate on their own behalf.
Sometimes, workers need good legal help to enforce their workplace and organizing rights. There is a direct connection between how secure a worker feels in being able to enforce her workplace rights without losing her job and how likely it is that she can be organized. Beyond individual grievances, it is important that low-wage workers are able to enforce their rights on matters affecting their collective welfare. The right to be free from retaliation for making complaints or organizing activity affects everyone, not just the injured worker, since it sets the whole climate of the workplace.
Employer retaliation and other illegal practices are a daily reality for many low-wage workers. According to an Oregon legal needs study, approximately one in two of Oregon's homeless, agricultural, and immigrant workers report that they have employment-related legal needs.
These needs, however, are largely unmet. The resources available to publicly funded legal services programs are stretched very thin, and employment cases have not been a significant priority for most legal services offices. Fees for legal counsel are well beyond the reach of most working people, and Oregon's private bar lacks a mechanism for pro bono involvement in these issues. Established unions provide some legal help to their own members, but struggling unions organizing the working poor lack that capacity, and non-union workers are largely shut out.
Indeed, a 2003 Washington study found employment problems to be roughly as common as family law issues; and yet, a person with family law problems is about four times more likely to be able to secure representation by an attorney.
Working people struggling for a reasonable standard of living and a modicum of dignity in the workplace must be able to call upon the best legal help we can muster to support their work.
NWJP was founded to provide this critical legal advice and education to Oregon's low-wage workers as they advocate on their own behalf.