New Study Investigates Agencies' Support for Workers Centers

Apr 16, 2014 - 11:30am

A new report by the U.S. Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI) examines the increasingly important role “worker centers” are playing in union pressure campaigns against employers, and how government agencies are making subtle changes in labor law to empower groups that lack majority representation.

In response to declining membership numbers, traditional labor unions have rushed to promote and embrace so-called worker centers. The worker center model of representation differs significantly from that envisioned under U.S. labor laws, says the WFI report. Specifically, worker centers seek to negotiate with employers on behalf of employees whom they may not actually represent. 

What has been missing, though, is a strategy for organized labor to turn its investment in worker centers into actual union members with an accompanying revenue stream. The solution may lie in a significant paradigm shift in labor law toward a members-only union model, WFI warns.

At the same time worker centers have become an increasingly important part of the union strategy for renewal, the institutions charged with administering the nation’s labor laws have started to subtly accommodate or even promote members-only representation.

According to the WFI report, the principal actors include the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB, or “Board”) and the United States Department of Labor (DOL). These agencies have taken positions and issued decisions that, when viewed as a whole, have advanced a members-only model of representation. For example, the NLRB has issued several decisions that empower small groups of workers and enhance their ability to influence employers. A number of key prosecutorial decisions also appear to favor members-only representation. Similarly, the DOL has taken measures to empower worker centers by funding them with grants and according them a special role as advocates for workers.

This shift toward a members-only model could represent the leading edge of a significant change in labor law — with far-reaching effects, WFI warns. Not only would a members-only system empower and embolden groups that have not been selected by a majority of employees to speak on its behalf, but it would also enable traditional labor unions to organize and begin collecting dues from small pockets of workers recruited through worker centers.

Such a system would be fundamentally at odds with the principles of workplace democracy as employers have known them for decades. It would also undermine the intent of the NLRA, which was to strike a balance between the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the free flow of commerce. Unless Congress changes the law to offer an alternative structure, the agencies responsible for administering that law should stay true to that mandate.

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