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Old Wine in New Bottles: Worker Centers Are the New Face of Union Organizing

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Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

On December 5, fast food restaurants in some 100 cities witnessed protests and strikes as part of a national campaign demanding a substantial boost in the federal minimum wage. While few actual employees of the targeted companies participated, in terms of exposure at least, the walkouts were a success, garnering national headlines and broadcast news coverage.

Less coverage was given to the organizations that orchestrated the "day of action" and their relationship to the larger labor union movement. Referred to as "worker centers," these groups have emerged in recent years as key organizers for labor, often supported by, and even working at the behest of, traditional labor unions.

Worker centers typically claim to be 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations so they can subside on charitable donations. Their organizing efforts focus on industries not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, such as agriculture, or that historically have been hard to organize, such as food service, and retail.

With unapologetically confrontational tactics, worker centers present themselves as the leading edge of a grassroots social movement dedicated to advancing the interests of low-wage workers.

But critics say the controversial organizations are not all that they appear.  There is actually a well-funded, highly organized network of progressive activist foundations and labor unions that fund worker centers, and some are little more than "front groups" for traditional unions--and as such they may be sidestepping the laws and regulations that govern labor practices and negotiations.

A case in point is the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), one of the more high profile worker center groups. A recent New York Times article details how ROC has orchestrated disruptive protests at restaurants while demanding--and receiving--concessions and settlements from chefs and owners. Critics say the tactics echo traditional union strategies, but without any legal and regulatory accountability.

"They're trying to have it both ways," Scott DeFife, an executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association, says in the New York Times piece. "They're a union and not a union. They're organizing workers but not organizing workers. They have a history of tactics unions couldn't get away with."

Sean Redmond of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Workforce Freedom Initiative argues that the line between worker centers and unions has, in some cases, become almost nonexistent.

"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," Redmond writes. "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." 

In a November 2013 working paper for the Workforce Freedom Initiative, "The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing," Jarol B. Mannheim of George Washington University argues that the rise of "worker centers" has occurred just as labor unions were facing rapid decline--a dynamic that may not be coincidental.

The steep decline of the labor movement over the last half-century has been well documented. At the end of 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3% of workers were members of a union--matching the lowest percentage in nearly a century. Private-sector union membership is even bleaker, at just 6.7 percent.

Those unsettling numbers are driving union leaders to pursue other avenues for building their ranks. Among the new tactics are strategic partnerships with worker centers. But there are serious questions about the true relationship between unions and worker centers.

In agreement with other commentators, Mannheim writes that the lines between labor unions and worker centers are blurred, as unions are essentially "outsourcing" their traditional organizing functions to the new organizations. And that relationship raises a question as to what rules govern worker centers and their role in workplace organizing.   

"The answer has implications for labor and management alike, for it will determine the limits and extend of activities in which these centers can legitimately participate, and the ways and extent to which the laws and regulations governing labor-management relations in the U.S. apply to them," Mannheim writes.

Members of Congress have already begun to take note and raise questions about those limits. Last year, the House Education and Workforce Committee questioned the Obama administration as to whether worker centers should be covered under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959. As the centers play a more aggressive and visible role in organizing workers, such questions will likely become more frequent and more pointed.

In the meantime, worker centers continue to press forward, and their sympathizers hope they can breathe new life into the increasingly moribund labor movement, as a recent MSNBC article suggests in a celebratory account.

"We're excited about going into next year," said Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America. "For us, this notion that anyone can join the labor movement, that we can create new forms of worker power, that's one of our very biggest priorities."

Still, a skeptic could be forgiven for questioning just how "new" these forms are. Nussbaum's organization, Working America, characterized by the leftist publication The Nation as a "non-union workers group," is an affiliate of the nation's largest labor union, the AFL-CIO.

 

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