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By: Whitney Hill, NIC, J.D.
In 2012, interpreters working for a video relay service (VRS) provider across the country was facing the increasing corporatization of their industry. VRS providers, despite record profits, were placing stricter demands on interpreter performance; however, a small group of interpreters pushed back, andthey demanded, with a united voice, the right to earning a living wage while free from injury or burnout. (“More Than 225 Sign Language Interpreters Join TNG”, 2012) These interpreters understood that they couldn’t wait for better working conditions to be handed to them, they had to collectively organize, fight, and win. The struggles of interpreters in VRS were not unique. Interpreters in every institution are service workers in an industry that profits off of cutting corners and depressing wages, and unless we get organized to use our collective power to advocate for ourselves and those we serve, things will only get worse.
Here’s how I came to that conclusion. Over my career as an interpreter, I have been involved with numerous advocacy efforts that align with two core values: (1) everyone has the right to timely, equitable, and reliable communication access, and (2) to accomplish number one, we need a sustainable, highly-skilled, and professional workforce of interpreters.
After several small victories and numerous loses over the years, I became frustrated and disillusioned with the limits of advocacy, and I wanted something more than a piecemeal approach. Advocacy can do remarkable things like making new laws to protect individual rights to communication access, but hard fought battles are easily repealed at the whim of the legislature, and compliance is never guaranteed. So, in the search for better tools, I looked to organizing, and I found myself at a lecture given by prominent and successful union organizer, Jane McAlevey. I was inspired by her work, and I wanted to write an article that would apply her union organizing techniques to organizing interpreters - but without actually unionizing!
But as I wrestled with the first draft, I realized that my original vision for this article was sidestepping the obvious conclusion that we need systemic change, and the best way to do that is through an actual interpreter union, organized from the ground up, and working as conscious allies with the Deaf and DeafBlind community. I realize that unionizing interpreters is complex and sometimes controversial (Goodwin, 2012), but accomplishing those two goals mentioned earlier is impossible without the most powerful tool the working people possess: collective action.
Sustainability of Interpreting
In the last few decades, interpreters have seen an increase in the professionalization of the industry without a commensurate increase in wages. In general, inflation-adjusted wages for interpreters are flat or falling. (Sokanu.com, 2017; Hansen, 2015, Calculation of freelance interpreter take-home pay shows a freelance interpreter will earn less than the average salary for a first-year college graduate). Interpreters suffer from high rates of burnout and studies report sign language interpreters are at high risk for ergonomic injuries. (Schwenke, 2012; “Sign Language Interpreters at High Ergonomic Risk,” 2008) In my local community, interpreters are fighting for a living wage or reasonable working conditions in public schools, higher education, VRS, with referral agencies, in the courts, and so on.
At the same time, the consumers of our services are consistently reporting things are getting worse. They report increased frustration in getting trained and credentialed interpreters in a variety of settings across institutions. (Buck, 2016; Miller, 2017; Chang, 2017) While it is difficult to measure the extent of noncompliance, the strong consensus among scholars suggests that ADA noncompliance is widespread. (Steven Stein & Teplin, 2011)
Even with legal protections like the ADA in place, capitalist competition means large businesses and government institutions are going to attempt to cut costs by cutting corners, push down salaries, and skimp on providing services. (Haque, 2009) Moral, ethical, and practical arguments that support high-quality communication access and the ability of interpreters to earn a living wage will never trump an institution’s interest in protecting its bottom line unless those moral arguments are backed up with real social power.
What do we do about the problem?
Historically, workers have been able to shift the balance of power and effect change in permanent and meaningful ways through collective organizing. (Campa, 2014) With this bottom-up approach to power, workers have won decisive victories such as the weekend, an eight-hour work day, prohibition on child labor, widespread employer-based health coverage, a minimum wage, and family medical leave just to name a few.(“Thank a Union,” 2017) Even those who say they don’t like unions will openly applaud the accomplishments of the labor movement by saying, “At least it is illegal for children to work in factories in this country,” or “Thank God it’s Friday.” (McAlevey, 2016)
All of the victories mentioned above were not won through appeals to large institutions to comply with moral and ethical obligations. They were won by workers exercising their collective power. That is why the collective bargaining model has been the most important single influence in determining who makes the rules. (Garbarino, 1984) Despiterollbacks to some victories in the last few decades of the labor movement, current labor victories, and historic successes are all built on a foundation of bottom-up organizing through building worker participation. People only participate to the degree they understand – but they also understand to the degree they participate. (McAlevey, 2016)
Unionization Must Include the Majority
I recognize building solidarity across a field that largely comprisedof independent contractors is more complex and challenging than unionizing employees in one central workplace. However, it is precisely the isolation of most interpreters from one another that makes us more vulnerable. Without a collective organization, we have no power to defend our living standards or working conditions. In my home state of Washington, freelance spoken language interpreters have proven unionization of independent contractors can be done. (“Interpreters United WFSE/AFSCME Local 1671”, 2017) These interpreters fought for and won a contract with the State across languages and geographic regions despite pressure to decrease interpreter costs from the State and the interpreter’s lack of employment status.
Accountability to Consumers
The first objection I hear from Deaf advocates on the topic of unionization is that “unions protect bad interpreters.” I wholeheartedly share this concern. However, I also know that the unionization of service professions can actually improve conditions for those receiving services. For example, teachers’ unions have made substantial improvements to the learning environment of students (Bascia & Osmond, 2012) and health outcomes for patients improve in hospitals where nurses have successfully unionized. (Dube, Kaplan, & Thompson, 2016). An interpreter union will only succeed if it is able to protect the interpreter’s individual rights to due process while simultaneously seeing the fight for Deaf and DeafBlind rights as central to its mission. This kind of solidarity unionism was what built the labor movement historically, and the most successful unions today are returning to that democratic, bottom-up model.
It is not a question of simplyasking for the trust of the Deaf and DeafBlind community. A union can be both democratically controlled by its members and practice effective and systematic accountability. Deaf interpreters will have an essential role to ensuring accountability in a union, but a union can also maintain accountability by electing Deaf leaders onto union decision-making bodies, establishing a Deaf advisory council, partnering with National Association of the Deaf on policy advocacy, and so on. With effective and systematic accountability, Deaf and DeafBlind advocates could take on institutional power with a collective and “woke” body of interpreters backing them up.
Through this process, I am reminded of my favorite Alice Walker quote, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” To build power in the interpreting field, interpreters need to embrace a radical rethink of strategy.
This article was originally written after a personal request for content from the popular sign language interpreter blog, Street Leverage. However, Street Leverage immediately rejected the article after submission citing Street Leverage’s anti-union stance. It is important to know that the director of Street Leverage worked in management for a large VRS provider and he played an important role in discouraging unionization for the sake of corporate profits. (This activity is commonly referred to in the labor movement as “union-busting.”)
After the Street Leverage rejection, this article was sentto Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID is the national professional organization of sign language interpreters) to be published strictly as an opinion piece. RID had the content space to publish the pieceand they were in need of more content, but they rejected the article within minutes upon learning that this was a pro-unionization piece. RID’s reason for not publishing any content on unionization is that they felt their 501(c)(3) status may be compromised. I believe this is a purposeful and flagrant misinterpretation of the tax code and that RID continuously uses the tax code excuse as a tool to suppress voices of dissent from working interpreters while continuing to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from large VRS corporations who actively work to stifle collective organizing in the interpreting field.
This series of events confirmed the original suspicion I had that the pro-unionization opinions expressed in this article are dangerous to the corporatization of interpreting, and all of our professional publications are complicit in this outright censorship of ideas.
About the Author
Whitney Hill is an activist, interpreter, and attorney living and working in Seattle, Washington. She was first exposed to ASL at the age of four when the world-famous Seabeck DeafBlind Retreat moved to her home, Seabeck Conference Center, where her family lived and her dad worked. The Seattle DeafBlind community played an essential role in Whitney’s early political, cultural, and linguistic development.
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