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PowerSwitch Action Is Shifting Power from Corporations to Workers

PowerSwitch Action is a national community of organizers, strategists, and leaders forging multi-racial feminist democracy and economies across the U.S.

PowerSwitch Action is a national network of leaders, organizers, and strategists. The network comprises 21 grassroots organizations that weave coalitions for campaigns ranging from labor and housing to racial and environmental justice. Together, they are building people power for a people- and planet-centered economy. 

Their mission is to remake the economy as we know it by shifting power from corporations to working people. They are organizing for good jobs and workplace democracy, renter protections, clean local energy and healthy neighborhoods. Among many strategies, they're building worker power, shaping participatory public budget-making processes, winning innovative public policies, and organizing people to directly confront the corporations harming their communities.

"A lot of the work that we do is about creating infrastructure for the movement. Part of our conviction is that in order to solve long-term problems, we need long-term agendas and strategies. And we need the places where we can come together as power-building organizations to create that shared vision, to have a deep shared analysis of the problems, and to set a transformational agenda that we can all commit to,” said Elly Matsumura, PowerSwitch Action’s California Director. 

To create an economy that is equitable, we must get out of the short-term thinking. The fights our communities really need us to win are the big ones that cannot be won in a single year,” explained Matsumura. That’s why PowerSwitch Action is not only thinking about what legislation or corporate campaign they can drive this year. They are dreaming and strategizing for transformative projects that might take years.

It is one thing to have strong labor laws and standards, and another to have those standards implemented. And for that, workers need to be able to organize.

“California has some of the strongest labor laws in the country. And yet, we continue to have people working multiple jobs to make ends meet. We have warehouse workers flooding clinics in the Inland Empire because of the severe musculoskeletal and stress-related injuries that they're suffering from work,” noted Matsumura.

“You can't just change laws. You have to fundamentally shift power. All of the laws that we pass to create standards in the workplace only matter if workers can say, ‘Hey, I think we actually are supposed to have rest breaks and the ability to use the restroom’ or, ‘Hey, there's money missing from my paycheck,’ without fear of getting fired or moved to a schedule that means that they will never see their children or being transferred to a role that's more dangerous or hurts their body.”

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We want to lead our workplaces. We want to dictate what it's like to be at work. We want to create dignity for ourselves and each other.

Elly Matsumura, PowerSwitch Action

That’s why one of PowerSwitch Action’s strategies is to set up structures—from policies to community allies to know-your-rights trainings—that support workers’ freedom to organize. Among these are strong protections against retaliation by management.

“Unless working people have the power to be the ones to enforce those standards, to demand that their workplaces are safe, that they're paid fairly, that they don't face discrimination, the standards aren't meaningful. We're never going to have enough enforcement without working people being the ones to say, ‘We want to lead our workplaces. We want to dictate what it's like to be at work. We want to create dignity for ourselves and each other.’”

In this recent California budget cycle, the California Coalition for Worker Power, co-anchored by PowerSwitch Action, secured over $71 million to support workers’ freedom to organize. It took months of coalition building, lobbying, budget advocacy meetings, mobilizing, collecting stories, and testifying at hearings to obtain this monumental victory for California workers.

The 2022 state budget dedicates over $21 million in the next four years to augment the Labor Enforcement and Compliance Fund, lifting up the need to increase resources and staffing to resolve backlogs in the Retaliation Complaint Investigation Unit. $50 million was slated to maintain and expand the workers’ rights education programs established under the California COVID-19 Workplace Outreach Project (CWOP)—funds now threatened for elimination in the Governor’s January proposal for the 2023 budget.

“California COVID Workplace Outreach Project (CWOP) funds organizations that organize workers to go into workplaces to educate workers about their rights and protections on the job—COVID-related and beyond. Which is essential and a lot more effective than a poster on a wall. It started with COVID and it’s had an incredible impact. Pandemic or no, this is how we need to be bringing worker protections to life in workplaces” said Matsumura.

“The state approving over $25 million for the Labor Enforcement and Compliance  Fund is a victory for the workers. Over half of California workers who’ve blown the whistle when things weren’t right at their jobs have had their bosses retaliate against them for doing the right thing, but the State office tasked with dealing with these cases has huge backlogs,” explained Matsumura.

For the California Coalition for Worker Power, staffing up the Retaliation Complaint Investigation Unit is just the beginning. Next is SB 497, the Equal Pay and Anti-Retaliation Act, as part of the Coalition’s longer term "Our Voice, Our Jobs" campaign. “We gathered worker organizers from around the state, different industries, different communities of color, and asked them, ‘If you could pick one thing to scale worker organizing, one policy lever that would give workers the freedom to stand together on the job, what would it be?’” Ending retaliation was the resounding answer. “Low-road employers punish people for speaking up about legal violations or organizing with their coworkers. People know that and it stops them from demanding that the laws become real at their jobs. Everything we do to protect workers in California is less meaningful as long as workers live under this constant, unchecked threat,” said Matsumura.

Another example of PowerAction’s worker and community organizing work are the recent walk outs at Amazon’s KSBD air hub in San Bernardino. One of their affiliates, Warehouse Worker Resource Center (WWRC), supported the Inland Empire Amazon Workers United when hundreds of Amazon employees walked off their jobs in September and October 2022. The workers walked off demanding higher pay and better working conditions. They demanded a $5-per-hour pay increase and more robust safety measures.

The big dream for PowerSwitch Action is for all people to experience liberation by working together to achieve a purpose that benefits everybody. For them, that looks like a multi-racial feminist democracy and economies in our cities and towns. And that vision starts in the workplace.

“Our ED likes to say, ‘Workers are people 24/7.’ When you experience the power of coming together with your coworkers to march on the boss, that sets you up to get your neighbors together to march on your landlord and say ‘It’s not fair you’re raising our rent but won’t deal with mold in our walls.’ And to get the parents at your kids’ school to come out to a city council meeting and say ‘No more letting polluting trucks give our kids asthma,'" said Matsumura.

"Working people have to be powerful in society overall in order to be powerful in their workplaces. And working people who are powerful in their workplaces really transform the power dynamic of our communities writ large.”

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