portrait of Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, MPA ’97

ILR’s Worker Institute Helps Guide a Newly Energized Labor Movement

Led by Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, MPA ’97, it conducts research and outreach on today’s rapidly changing employment landscape

By Joe Wilensky

When workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island voted to unionize earlier this year—a first for the retail giant—it was a surprise win for organized labor. In the months since, similar efforts have flourished at multiple Starbucks cafes, news outlets, even a video game company.

And when media and others needed to make sense of this seeming rebirth of the U.S. labor movement and the factors behind it—including pandemic-related health concerns and a surge in employee activism—they turned to the experts at the ILR Worker Institute.

Created in 2010 to bring the ILR School’s existing research, education, and training programs on contemporary labor issues under one roof, the NYC-based Institute hosts trainings for union and worker-justice leaders and offers workshops and webinars for union members.

“We’re seeing this moment where it is low-wage workers, workers of color, single women who are organizing—all of them in the service and logistics economy,” says Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, MPA ’97, the Institute’s executive director.

Campos-Medina shares a moment with a participant at a recent Institute retreat for union leaders
Campos-Medina (center) with a participant at a recent Institute retreat for union leaders. (Photo provided)

The Institute also serves as a training, research, and policymaking hub and partners with agencies and labor groups nationwide on advancing a clean-energy green job market, employment opportunities tied to infrastructure improvements, and more.

As seasoned voices on labor issues, ILR faculty and staff affiliated with the Institute are regularly quoted in the media; a recent sampling includes a Politico piece on unions and student debt relief and a CNBC story on workers supporting unionization, as well as coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and others.

More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate research fellows train with the Institute each year on research methods and the basics of policymaking. Over the years, thousands of labor leaders and workers have participated in its programs and initiatives.

A few of the Institute’s key offerings target workers in low-wage, non-unionized jobs—like its We Rise Nanny Training certificate program, which has trained more than 400 childcare and domestic workers not only in first aid, nutrition, and early childhood psychology, but also in leadership skills, employment relations, and strategies for negotiating contracts.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Institute has focused much of its effort on essential workers—those who didn’t have the option to work from home and who have risked their lives to keep the healthcare system, grocery stores, and other vital sectors open, often for low wages and with few mechanisms to safeguard their health.

Fareed Michelen, a director of the New York State Nurses Association, speaks at a Worker Institute-hosted leadership session of the National Labor Leadership Initiative
A National Labor Leadership Initiative session hosted by the Institute. (Photo by Clark Jones)

This includes a first-of-its-kind report that examined the harsh conditions and dangers faced by New York City’s app-based delivery drivers and couriers in the unregulated digital platform economy. Another study looked at the low wages and precarious conditions of nail salon workers in New York State, who typically had little say in whether their employers complied with COVID regulations.

Other research has charted racial, gender, and economic disparities in the workplace that have been exacerbated by the pandemic—such as a study of a peer education program addressing sexual harassment and violence in California’s janitorial industry.

Some of the studies looking at today’s quickly changing employment landscape have resulted in policy changes and rights-protection laws targeted to the gig economy, and are driving broader proposals in the New York State Legislature.

For example, the 2021 report on food delivery drivers, published by the Institute and the NYC-based Worker’s Justice Project, helped push through a city law—the first of its kind in the nation—to set minimum pay and work conditions, an initial step in regulating what has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Campos-Medina at a union leadership institute retreat held on Long Island in May
Campos-Medina at a union leadership retreat on Long Island in May. (Photo courtesy of Worker Institute)

And while some unions—which have long been structured toward representing workers in industrial manufacturing, who have historically been white and male—are responding to these evolving needs, Campos-Medina notes that many have not.

“Unions need to change, to allow for different strategies and more innovation at the grassroots level,” she says, “and they need to support the workers who have the courage to organize.”

One of her colleagues at the Institute is also her former teacher: Risa Lieberwitz, its academic director. On the ILR faculty for four decades, the professor of labor and employment law helps tie the school’s research to real-world policy.

“Good practice is based on good theory,” she notes. “And bridging the extension and resident sides of ILR has always been an important goal.”

Bridging the extension and resident sides of ILR has always been an important goal.

Risa Lieberwitz

A focus on those connections has informed the educations of ILR students like master’s candidate Victor Yengle. Having studied economics and political science as an undergrad and worked as a community and labor rights organizer for more than seven years, he came to the Hill to research worker-led initiatives and to design remedies for human and labor rights violations.

Through a graduate fellowship, he has worked closely with Institute faculty and staff to organize events like the school’s Labor Roundtable and annual Union Days.

“In class, we’re learning about labor rights and labor law—and we also see how they interact in the workplace through the Institute,” he says. “It has helped me figure out the intersection between research and impact.”

Inspired by early activism

Campos-Medina returned to her alma mater in 2015 to lead the Institute’s leadership development program, assuming her current role as executive director six years later.

A native of El Salvador—which was riven by civil war during her childhood in the 1980s—she’s the daughter of political refugees who came to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants. They worked low-wage jobs and sent money home, but it took another nine years for them to win political asylum and to bring Campos-Medina, then 14, and her three brothers to the U.S. legally.

The family settled in the Alexandria, VA, area—home to a thriving community of immigrants from Central America, Pakistan, and Iran.

As an undergrad, Campos-Medina also co-founded the dance troupe Sabor Latino, which is still active today
Campos-Medina (center) co-founded the student dance troupe Sabor Latino, which remains active. (Photo provided)

She excelled academically and ultimately followed her older brother (engineering alum Edgar Campos ’93, BS ’94) to Cornell.

Campos-Medina, who had closely watched her parents’ experience and hardships, aimed to study labor rights and employment law.

Her activism on the Hill began on the day she moved into North Campus, when she saw University food service staff and others handing out leaflets in a union organizing drive.

Drawn to the cause, she soon became involved with labor-rights issues on and off campus, joining such organizations as ILR’s Committee on Labor Action, Cornell’s Committee on U.S./Latin America Relations, and the University’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops.

She was part of a group of student protestors—including Eduardo Peñalver ’94, who’d go on to serve as dean of the Law School from 2014–21—who held a four-day takeover of Day Hall in 1993 that led to additional faculty hires in Latino studies and across campus.

Unions need to support the workers who have the courage to organize.

Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, MPA ’97

“These were moments where you had to choose: which side are you on?” she recalls. “Am I in school just for myself? Or am I in school for others—to make sure that others can come behind me?”

After graduation, Campos-Medina went to work for the apparel and textile workers union with whom she had collaborated on the anti-sweatshops campaign, serving as a researcher and community organizer in L.A.

She subsequently worked as political director for the Service Employees International Union and as a state and assistant national director for several unions and labor councils.

Campos-Medina at a 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle she helped organize
In 1999, Campos-Medina (center left) helped organize a protest of the World Trade Organization, held in Seattle. (Photo provided)

After joining the Institute, she earned a PhD in global affairs and political science from Rutgers. As a sideline to her day job, she hosts Activista Rise Up, a podcast devoted to social and economic justice.

At Cornell, Campos-Medina continues to conduct research on immigrant workers’ rights, is a policy adviser to labor unions and worker justice organizations in the service and warehouse industries, and serves as a career liaison to students.

“I have always believed,” she says, “that the future of the labor movement lies in the young people who are passionate about change.”

Top image: Campos-Medina at the ILR School. (Photo by Lindsay France / Cornell University)

Published June 10, 2022


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