Nov 21, 2013 - 4:15pm

The Emerging Role of Worker Centers

Executive Director, Labor Policy


A report released today by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI) examines some of the actors, strategies and tactics behind the growing movement of union front groups called worker centers in the United States.  The study, “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing: A Strategic Assessment,” presents information about the complex network of worker centers and various sympathetic organizations acting in concert with them.

With union membership is at its lowest point in over 50 years, labor leaders have struggled to reverse a downward trend, and worker centers are part of the solution. In fact, the AFL-CIO made it an express policy to promote the worker center model of organizing in at least two resolutions (see here and here) passed at its 2013 quadrennial convention in September.

Like their traditional union forebears, worker centers often engage in highly disruptive campaigns against employers, typically targeting a specific industry such as restaurants or retail establishments. They conduct rallies, lead protests, distribute literature, urge boycotts, level charges of racism and sexism, push distorted stories with local media, and even work with government agencies to bring enforcement actions against an employer — all the tactics unions use in a corporate campaign. 

Although they act like unions in some respects, including demanding higher wages and richer benefits, worker centers typically organize as 501(c)(3)s under the Internal Revenue Code.  And, as charitable organizations, they bring an element of credibility to a corporate campaign that a union on its own might not have. Moreover, by forming as charitable organizations, worker centers open the possibility of seeking funding from a variety of foundations as well as from state and federal government sources.

The report’s review of foundation grants from 2009-2012 reveals that selected foundations contributed over $57,000,000 to several worker centers discussed in the report.  A number of large foundations fund these worker centers, including the Ford, General Service, Hill-Snowdon, Kellogg, Kresge, Nathan Cummings, Rockefeller and Tides foundations.  Records demonstrate six and seven-figure donations to groups such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the Miami Workers Center, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), etc.

Foundation giving in 2012 topped $50 billion, and significant sums were devoted to economic, political, and social activism, which can often include labor activism and support for “community groups” that represent a complex activist network, of which worker centers are an increasingly important part.  By leveraging private funding, they bolster the efforts of traditional labor unions, which rely mostly on members’ dues to fund various organizing activity. 

Thus, the worker center movement poses a significant shift in Labor’s approach to recruiting a new, diverse membership, and the network continues to expand.  However, the results of their efforts remain to be seen.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean P. Redmond
Executive Director, Labor Policy

Sean P. Redmond is Executive Director, Labor Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.