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The UFOs Have Landed and They Are Here to Represent You

What are the union front organizations known as 'worker centers'?

Worker centers, an organizing tool employed by unions to recruit non-union workers, are gaining popularity by labor leaders hoping to stem labor's membership declines nationwide.

These centers, which initially seemed like a potential reform, are being used for politics and intimidation of workers and employers. From Walmart protests and fast food strikes to the AFL-CIO welcoming non-union left wing organizations such as the Sierra Club into their federation, worker centers are fast becoming the new face of organized labor.  

At first, worker centers seemed like a positive development. They could allow workers who wanted to be represented to have representation, while not forcing it on those who did not. It seemed a needed acknowledgement that labor's antiquated, one-size-fits-all business model was a primary culprit for the national decline in union membership.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka even publicly stated that unions "are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through NLRB elections and voluntary recognition by employers" and that "the AFL-CIO's door has to be — and will be — open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace." 

Janice Fine, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, estimates that there were only five worker centers in the United States in 1992. Today there are more than 200. 

In 2006, the AFL-CIO formalized its relationship with worker centers, which were successfully recruiting non-union workers to help with the union's political agenda. According to the AFL-CIO, that year the federation's executive council authorized worker centers to formally affiliate with state labor federations, local labor councils and Working America.

An April 17 Working America press release stated it plans to expand into all 50 states by 2018, primarily by "organizing in neighborhoods." The press release goes on to say, "As Working America expands nationally, it will continue its year-round community organizing and electoral and legislative work, as well as pilot different methods of organizing workers on the job. Those models and tactics include a workplace organizing site launching in May called fixmyjob.com."

The phrase "collective bargaining" is difficult to find anywhere on the website. This diverges from typical labor representation, the goal of which is to represent workers' interests to their respective employers.

The success of these organizations is taking root in the unions' very foundations. 

At its recent convention in September, the AFL-CIO passed the internally controversial Resolution 5, titled, "A Broad, Inclusive and Effective Labor Movement." 

The resolution expanded membership to "any worker who wants to join the labor movement and who is not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement," as well as to "work with existing, progressive, national, state and campus-based student organizations."

Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (a member union of the AFL-CIO), said there is value in partnering with other groups, but not as the primary mission of the AFL-CIO. He told the online publication, The Hill, he was against a formal partnership because, "We are supposed to be representing workers and workers' interests. … We are not going to be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations."

Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, voiced similar concerns about the resolution. He asked, "[d]oes that mean we are going to turn energy policy of the AFL-CIO over to the Sierra Club?"

A main reason labor is reaching out beyond its ranks is that private-sector unionism is particularly in decline, and has been for decades. Private-sector union membership is at the lowest percentage of the American workforce since 1916. After losing 400,000 members in 2012, the percentage of private-sector workers who are union members dropped to only 6.6 percent of the workforce. 

Worker centers are a tool to resurrect membership in another way, too: By focusing union organizing efforts in board rooms. Through a labor tactic called a "corporate campaign," unions can bring public pressure on job creators to capitulate to their demands. A frequent demand involves pressuring the company into a "neutrality" agreement, which among other things takes away the secret ballot from workers via a card check election. 

So how does this evolve?

During a corporate campaign, a union or worker center engages in regulatory pressure or reputational attacks, which in some cases venture into personal attacks on company officers. 

The most famous example of corporate campaign literature came to light in 2011. A Service Employee International Union, or SEIU, "Contract Campaign Manual" instructed workers on how to successfully put pressure on a corporation, saying "outside pressure can involve jeopardizing relationships between the employer and lenders, investors, stockholders, customers, clients, patients, tenants, politicians, or others on whom the employer depends for funds" and using legal and regulatory pressure to "threaten the employer with costly action by government agencies or the courts."

It also recommended personal attacks by digging up "dirt" on the company and individual officers with charges such as "racism, sexism, exploitation of immigrants or proposals that would take money out of the community for the benefits of distant stockholders." 

If these tactics are successful and a neutrality agreement is reached, then a card check election is instituted rather than a normal secret ballot election. During the election itself, cards are signed in the open without affording workers the protection of a secret ballot. This naturally can lead to intimidation and coercion of the vote. Unions prefer card check because it makes unionization easier. 

Of course even with a card check campaign employees still have a choice, although that choice may come with intimidation and coercion. Worker centers allow unions to claim to represent workers without even giving them the opportunity of card check.

Regarding worker centers, Craig Becker, former Obama appointee to the National Labor Relations Board and current AFL-CIO general counsel, told The Nation in April, "We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition [card check]…."

According to Becker, it is too much for employees to have to go through an election or even card check recognition. Instead he hopes that a worker center could represent them without the affirmation of the majority of employees. By that same rational, it could be argued that voters should not have to "endure trial by fire" in an election for president, Congress or state offices. 

Corporate campaigns were in the news this past summer as a key tactic of worker centers such as "Our Wal-Mart," which is heavily supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The worker center and the "Making Change at Wal-Mart" campaign were used to try to force Walmart into signing a neutrality agreement with the UFCW to take away the secret ballot from employees.   

The impact of worker centers was also seen this summer when the Washington, D.C., city council voted on a bill targeting Walmart that would have imposed a "living wage" 50 percent higher than the local minimum wage for big box employees while exempting almost every other business. After the bill passed the council and before the mayor vetoed it, Walmart said it may have needed to leave the city. 

A United Food and Commercial Workers union representative noted sarcastically: "In a scenario many union reps could only dream of, Walmart is threatening to pull out of the Washington, D.C., market due to the city's temerity in passing a living wage law."

Another worker center engaging in corporate campaigns is the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. ROC originally affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, staging protests and filing legal actions against restaurants.

ROC now is generally funded by foundations such as the Tides and Kellogg Foundations and through federal grants. Trey Kovacs, labor policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, estimates that ROC received almost $1 million in grants from the U.S Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.  

Worker centers are the ideal vehicle for conducting corporate campaigns because they are not subject to federal labor laws. Many such laws prohibit picketing of a company's suppliers and other company relationships; they also dictate how long a union can picket a company before filing for an election. Finally, by claiming they are not unions, worker centers can try to bypass federal financial disclosure laws, which are required of labor organizations. 

In short, these worker centers are accomplishing political goals separate from unions' collective bargaining purpose as well as setting themselves up to bully their way into increased membership, and doing it all without the same restrictions from labor law. 

Last October, D.C.-based labor attorneys Stefan Marculewicz and Jennifer Thomas published, "Labor Organizations by Another Name: The Worker Center Movement and its Evolution into Coverage under the NLRA and LMRDA" in the Federalist Society law journal, Engage. The authors categorically link how worker centers act like and should be legally treated as labor organizations with the same prohibitions and guidelines as regular unions. 

They point out that "worker centers are directly engaging employers or groups of employers to effectuate change in the wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment for their members. Indeed, when it comes to such direct engagement, these worker centers act no differently than the traditional labor organization."

If they were to do this and forgo the special privileges afforded to labor unions (one of the reasons unions also have to abide by certain restrictions), then worker centers could be the next evolution in labor: A better, individual-worker-centered, collaborative, nonpolitical future for the labor movement. 

As it stands, however, this is not the case.

Instead they are doubling down on strategies that do not emphasize the needs of workers, but rather the preferences of union leadership. It is no wonder that many workers do not see the value in this particular business model. 

(Editor's note: This column originally appeared in IMPACT magazine, a Mackinac Center for Public Policy publication.)

Mackinac Center for Public Policy Director of Education Policy Audrey Spalding describes her latest study on right-to-work law violations in public school contracts and suggests why districts and unions are ignoring the law.


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