Despite a strong national economy, it’s still tough for millions of working Americans to pay the bills. A large proportion of the jobs created in the U.S. are in sectors like retail and restaurant work: employment that often comes with low wages, irregular hours, and scant benefits.
Local workforce development and “upskilling” initiatives can offer valuable opportunities for upward mobility to some. But the hard reality is that without a resurgence of effective worker organizing, public policy changes, and shifts in corporate norms, those efforts will likely aid only a small slice of the workforce.
The decline of traditional unions has made it difficult to secure gains for workers over the past several decades. In recent years, though, a new labor movement has been gaining steam—coalescing around calls for a $15 minimum wage and other demands, including paid family leave. The vast majority of donors—even most liberal ones—have shied away from bankrolling this new labor movement. But a select cohort of funders does regularly support worker organizing, and that funding stream has trended upward over the past couple years.
One important locus for this giving is Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a nonprofit organization focused on improving wages and working conditions for waitstaff, culinary workers, and other food service employees. Among ROC’s main aims is to transition the industry away from the tipped base wage, which has been stuck at a minuscule $2.13 for nearly thirty years, toward the federal (or state) minimum wage.
Like its peers in the new labor movement, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Employment Law Project (NELP), ROC relies on grant money from a handful of funders willing to support approaches like worker centers, which increasingly fill in for traditional union organizing, especially for populations like immigrants and women of color. ROC activities take place from a network of local centers, and encompass everything from job training and placement, employer engagement, and a conscious consumer association.
As ROC’s development director Vanessa Huang told me, the organization’s largest core funders have been active in their support for a while. They include the Ford Foundation—the biggest regular funder in this space—and other progressive institutions like Kellogg, Surdna, Nathan Cummings, Marguerite Casey, NoVo, and Solidago.
Other recent ROC supporters include the Open Society Foundations, the California Wellness Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the New York Foundation, the Foundation for a Just Society, Robert Wood Johnson, the McGregor Fund in Michigan, and the San Francisco Foundation in the Bay Area. In 2016, the Irvine Foundation signed on in a big way in California.
There are, of course, variations in how those funders approach the politically sensitive arena of labor organizing. But what unites much of their giving is the sense that, first, tackling the roots of economic inequality will require policy advocacy and movement building, and second, that economic inequality intersects with stubborn disparities along racial, gender, and cultural lines.
For our deep dive into Ford’s economic giving strategy, Xavier de Souza Briggs, the foundation’s vice president of inclusive economies and markets, remarked that “the American economy has been the biggest creator of bad jobs lately,” going on to say that while unions have eroded, “there are sectors that have never been unionized. Often, those workers are low-income women.”
As a major funder for groups like ROC, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, NELP, and the Partnership for Working Families, to name a few, Ford has been a bulwark for a growing movement that has scored some impressive local gains. They include minimum wage hikes via the “Fight for 15” and the implementation of paid family leave in some places. (While Ford has recently shifted funding away from some policy groups working on economic inequality, there’s no sign that it is backing off its support for the new labor movement: all the groups mentioned above received multi-million dollar grants last year as part of Ford’s BUILD program.)
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s support for ROC coincides with its backing of a number of other grantees that are part of the new labor movement, including the Farmworkers Association of Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and National Domestic Workers Alliance. It’s also provided grants to progressive think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), which can provide research heft to grassroots movements.
At the Surdna Foundation, meanwhile, the recent ascent of Don Chen—previously of the Ford Foundation—likely means a continuation or even a broadening of its Strong Local Economies funding, which reflects the diverse strategies of groups like ROC. Surdna’s most recent grants include money for the Economic Policy Institute and PolicyLink, both of which are attempting to build networks to promote economic inclusivity on the local level.
Yet despite support from some pretty big players, funding is still hard to come by for new labor groups. While a number of newer grantmakers on the scene, like the Ballmer Group and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are keen to tackle inequality, these and other philanthropies piloted by living donors who’ve made their fortunes in business tend to steer clear of direct efforts to lift up low-income workers. What that means in practice, though, is that all the problems such donors care about—like children growing up in poverty or lack of access to healthcare—are harder to solve. Historically, strong labor movements in advanced countries haven’t just translated into better wages and benefits; they’ve made possible a range of social supports, like subsidized childcare and paid family leave. Erin Rossitto, ROC United’s Director of Strategy and Planning, noted that "at a time when labor-friendly standards and policies are under attack in legislatures and courtrooms, funding of organizations that build worker power from the ground up is of the utmost importance.”
Rossitto also emphasized the extent to which ROC envisions its work as part of a wider progressive project. “It’s not just about economic justice, but also racial and gender equity,” she said. “And it’s about more than funding, it’s about investing in the very institutions that safeguard democracy.” In the same vein, Huang observed that while female workers and workers of color have organized in their workplaces for a long time (despite being barred from many traditional unions), modern labor organizing offers new windows of visibility to those groups, redefining who’s included in the labor movement as such.
Recent popular movements on the left, including #MeToo and #TimesUp, have been a focal point for ROC’s One Fair Wage organizing as women from other sectors join tipped workers to oppose workplace harassment. Tipped work, ROC argues, increases the likelihood that restaurant staff will experience sexual harassment and limits their options in dealing with it. According to Huang, ROC’s involvement in that segment of movement organizing has led to new relationships, including with Hollywood figures and corporations like Dolce and Gabbana.
As of this writing, seven states have adopted “one fair wage” policies mandating that workers in the service industry receive the standard minimum wage regardless of tips: California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Minnesota, Montana and Nevada. And while ROC United is largely upbeat about the campaign’s long-term prospects, Washington D.C.’s governing body recently dealt a blow to the group’s agenda, overturning a one fair wage policy approved only months ago by voters in the nation’s capital.
That setback reflects how issues like the tipped minimum wage aren’t strictly partisan, especially at the local level. After all, Democrats heavily dominate the D.C. Council. While the national right wing continues its campaign against worker organizing, including through this year’s Supreme Court decision diminishing the funding base for public sector unions, these local fights are more complex. It remains to be seen whether multi-pronged strategies like that of ROC can yield long-term gains for low-wage workers. But for the funders involved, supporting aspects of the new labor movement may be a way to see past old divides and get new voices into the mix.