Worker Centers: Union Corporate Campaigns Reinvented

Friday, March 31, 2017 - 11:30am

In Brief:

The Trump administration, Congress, and U.S. Department of Labor can ensure that union front groups known as “worker centers” are subjected to the same laws that regulate union activities and conduct, and provide financial transparency and democratic protections for workers.      


As their ranks have declined, unions have turned to alternative approaches to organizing.  One of their newer tactics is the Worker Center.  The worker center movement is gaining both momentum and sophistication and may help organized labor find entry into facilities where workers have previously declined to embrace unions. 

Worker centers are usually organized as nonprofit, “charitable” organizations, claiming to provide education or training services.  While they act like unions in many respects, their §501(c)(3) status allows them to harass employers while avoiding the restrictions on picketing and boycotts established by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the disclosure and democracy requirements of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA).  Their “charitable” status also brings an element of creditability — in the eyes of both employees and the public — to a corporate campaign that a union would typically not have. 

To exist, worker centers do not need substantial support within a workplace — they only need to enlist a few disgruntled workers to launch a campaign against an employer.  Worker center activities include negotiating directly for higher wages and benefits, raising grievances on behalf of particular employees, conducting publicity-driven smear campaigns, engaging in secondary boycotts, filing lawsuits against employers, and encouraging government agencies to investigate baseless charges of discrimination and workplace safety violations.  

Some of the most active worker centers are Fight for $15, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and OUR Wal-Mart.  These groups are active in multiple states.

Traditional labor unions have been increasingly utilizing these alternative groups, and Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, declared that worker centers would be a new tool in expanding union membership.  In fact, unions are already leveraging worker centers for direct economic campaigns against employers and for opportunities to enact public policy changes.  For example, the Black Friday campaign against Wal-Mart, “strikes” at fast food restaurants, and demands that supermarkets and restaurants in Florida and other states observe “codes of conduct” are all led by worker centers associated with unions.

Worker centers are striving for mainstream acceptance and increased influence.  Many receive philanthropic funding.  However, if these groups are going to claim to represent workers and make demands of employers, they need to be governed by laws that regulate union behavior and provide democratic protections for workers.    

To raise awareness of this issue, the Workforce Freedom Initiative published The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing in 2013, and The New Model of Representation: An Overview of Leading Worker Centers in 2014.

The U.S. Department of Labor should:

  • Subject worker centers to the same laws that regulate union behavior, and provide financial transparency and democratic protections for workers.      
  • Reevaluate its formal partnerships with worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

Related Resources


Federalist Society Report – November 19, 2012
The labor union, the primary collective advocate for workers’ rights in the United States for more than a century, has experienced a significant decline in membership.  In 2011, only 6.9% of American workers in private industry were union members, compared to 9% in 2000 and 16.8% in 1983.  As a result of this decline, workers’ rights advocates, whether part of a traditional labor union or not, have sought new and innovative means to effectuate change in the workplace...  
Read more: Labor Organizations by Another Name: The Worker Center Movement and its Evolution into Coverage under the NLRA and LMRDA
Organization Management Report -- October 28, 2013
Worker centers are typically non-profit organizations funded by membership fees, grants from government and foundations, and unions. Worker centers engage in a variety of activities, including education and research, legal services, advocacy (including lobbying), training, hiring halls, collective action such as public demonstrations, and dealing with employers over wages and working conditions. While some worker centers engage in activities similar to that of Section 501(c)(3) organizations, others are actively engaged in what would seem to be traditional labor union activities...
Read more:  Worker Centers: Charities or Labor Organizations Masquerading as Charities, and the Impact of an IRS Decision on the Question


Form LM-2

Every organization subject to the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) must file a financial report, Form LM-2, LM-3 or LM-4, each year with the U.S. Department of Labor.  The LMRDA covers labor organizations that represent employees who work in private industry and most federal government employees.  This reporting requirement ensures transparency of labor organization internal practices and financial records for union members and the public.  
Click below to read LM-2 forms for the worker center umbrella groups below.  Apparently even these groups are starting to figure out the law applies to them, but many other worker centers need to follow their example.

Carolina Workers Organizing Committee

East Bay Organizing Committee

Fast Food Workers Organizing Committee

Los Angeles Workers Organizing Committee

Michigan Workers Organizing Committee

Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee

St. Louis Organizing Committee

Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago


Congressional Activity

U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee Asks DOL for Determination on the Legal Obligations of Worker Centers

U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee Asks DOL for Determination on the Legal Obligations of Worker Centers

- July 23, 2013

DOL Worker Centers Response

DOL Worker Centers Response (630.64 KB)

- August 26, 2013

Follow Up Letter From U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee

Follow Up Letter From U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee

U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee Expands Inquiry to DOL on the Legal Obligations of Worker Centers

U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee Expands Inquiry to DOL on the Legal Obligations of Worker Centers (930.77 KB)

- October 28, 2016


Worker Center Watch Calls on Florida Attorney General to Investigate the Coalition of Immokalee Workers