Jobs With Justice at 35: American Rights at Work

In 2003, many of the same labor leaders who formed Jobs With Justice launched American Rights at Work, an organization focused on building broad-based support for labor law reform. Former Congressman David Bonior was Chair of the Board, and MaryBeth Maxwell our first Executive Director. 

American Rights at Work was focused on using research, communications, and partnership strategies to highlight the need to strengthen federal protections for workers when they sought to form a union. The theory of change that guided our work was that in addition to producing new data and telling important stories of workers’ struggles organizing, we needed new messengers to elevate the importance of reforming labor law. From its founding until 2009, when the Democrats lost a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, American Rights at Work was focused on making the case for the Employee Free Choice Act.

American Rights at Work deployed pop culture strategies, promoted academic voices and original research, and attracted a wide table of national partners into the fight for labor law reform.  When Garth Brooks made a record deal with Walmart despite the company’s major unionbusting activities, we released a cartoon video skewering it. We produced new research through statistics and workers’ stories, revealing how the right to organize in the U.S. is unprotected.  

While we were not successful in passing the Employee Free Choice Act, the momentum we helped to create around labor law reform ultimately led the National Labor Relations Board to reform its election process in 2011, limiting the ability of employers to stall voting and further subject workers to anti-union intimidation and harassment between the time of the petition and the vote. The same year, labor leaders and academics collaborated to form the Labor Research and Action Network (LRAN), a project of American Rights at Work, to harness the expertise and credibility of academia to build worker power. LRAN launched with a three-part mission: 

  1. To cultivate a more dynamic and organic relationship between labor academics engaged in cutting edge research and labor activists engaged in cutting edge organizing;
  2. To provide a space for the generation and exchange of new ideas and fresh thinking among labor leaders, activists, scholars, and students. 
  3. To help develop the next generation of labor academics and scholars committed to studying and building a progressive workers’ movement. 

In 2012, members of the boards of American Rights at Work and Jobs With Justice initiated a merger of the two organizations. They could see how the communications and research capacities of American Rights at Work would be a complement to the campaigning capacities and network of Jobs With Justice. LRAN became a project of this newly merged entity, bringing with it a network of over a thousand labor academics and practitioners.

After the merger, and a long stakeholder engaged process, we decided to keep the powerful Jobs With Justice name for the newly merged organization. By 2013, we operated as one organization and immediately dove in together to advance immigration reform efforts, tapping our communications, campaign and policy expertise and activating our local coalitions in lobbying efforts. Though immigration reform eventually stalled, we were successful in elevating the workers’ rights angle on reforms and deepened our connections with a set of union partners that continues to fight for these protections for immigrant workers.

Over the past ten years, the theory of the merger between American Rights at Work and Jobs With Justice has proven to be true. The communications, research, and policy advocacy capacities that American Rights at Work brought to the table have made the campaigns and work of the Jobs With Justice network more effective. LRAN continues to serve as a powerful place of collaboration between unions, worker centers and academia. And these capacities are in turn grounded and shaped by the deep, local relationships and campaigns that Jobs With Justice and its network have built over 35 years.