Topics: Labor Unions

Are 'worker centers' the future of labor organizing?

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Congress,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Barack Obama,Labor,NLRB,Analysis,AFL-CIO

For both Big Business and Big Labor, the latest front in their eternal struggle are so-called "worker centers." Labor hopes, and business fears, that they are the future of workplace organizing.

"Worker center" is a catch-all term for nontraditional labor organizing methods and related efforts at worker representation. Big Labor is redirecting resources to these “alt-labor” groups, hoping they will reverse its decades-long slide in membership.

Big Business trying to counter the move, arguing that these groups represent little more than unions attempting to skirt, or even circumvent, the rules. They want them classified as labor groups under federal law.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee is scheduled to examine them in a hearing Thursday called “The Future of Union Organizing.”

What, specifically, are worker centers? Essentially, they are nonprofit groups that act like unions. Some are local organizations that provide union-like services – job placement, training, legal help and so forth – to people who aren’t union members.

Others are strident activist groups that push for union goals. For example, OUR Walmart is ostensibly a bunch of dissatisfied employees of the nonunion retail giant rallying for their rights. In fact, the United Food and Commercial Workers backs it and provides most of its staffers. It even lists it as a “subsidiary” on its tax forms.

Other similar union-backed groups include the Service Employees International Union-backed Fast Food Forward, which has been behind the effort to push for higher wages in that industry, and Working America, an AFL-CIO-backed group.

Labor’s hope is that these groups can reach people in ways that traditional organizing has largely failed. Union membership is now down to just 11.3 percent of the workforce.

Labor’s turn towards these groups also reflects a realization that their hopes that President Obama could shift the legal landscape for organizing in their favor haven’t worked out either.

Obama’s only been able to help them at the margins by changing federal regulations. The bigger items unions wanted – like “card check” organizing – are dead in Congress. So they have to look elsewhere.

At its national convention in Los Angeles last week, AFL-CIO delegates approved a resolution that said: “The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions must continue to innovate and experiment with new forms of membership and representation to achieve the ultimate objective of assisting all workers to bargain collectively through an affiliated union.”

Another document, “Final Report on AFL-CIO Pre-Convention Outreach and Development”, said: “Especially noteworthy are organizations that are helping workers achieve justice through community organizing, legislative, legal and regulatory campaigns--everything except collective bargaining. These efforts are viewed by many as a key element of a revitalized and successful labor movement.” (Emphasis added.)

Working America and OUR Walmart, for example, were involved in an effort to get the Washington, D.C., city council to pass a bill that would have forced the nonunion Walmart to pay its employees $2.25 more that the minimum wage other D.C. businesses must pay. (The bill passed the council in July, but Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed it last week.)

Business groups created a website, workercenterwatch.com, to make the case that these groups should be classified as labor organizations under federal law.

“Hiding behind these non-profits, unions mask their true motivations, circumvent operational requirements and skirt reporting and disclosure obligations,” the website states.

Ironically, workercenterwatch.com declines to identify its own sponsors. Spokesman Ryan Williams would only say that it is backed by “business owners, hard-working Americans and (concerned) citizens.”

“We don’t identify our supporters because disclosing their names will undoubtedly result in harassment and intimidation by unions and their affiliates. That’s their playbook,” Williams told the Washington Examiner.

The main complaint is that groups are set up to avoid the restrictions placed on union under the National Labor Relations Act. Indeed, that appears to be the whole purpose behind OUR Walmart.

The NLRA says that a union cannot protest a business for more than 30 days without seeking to represent their workers, a process that then halts the protesting. But nonunion groups can continue so long as they affirm that they are not trying to organize.

Walmart actually sued UFCW last year after it began organizing walkouts at the retailer's stores after Thanksgiving. The National Labor Relations Board declined to issue a formal ruling in the case after OUR Walmart claimed it was not trying to organize the retailer.

Since then, both the union and its worker center have maintained a steady drumbeat of protests and other PR efforts against Walmart.

Press releases come complete with the disclaimer: “UFCW and OUR Walmart have the purpose of helping Wal-Mart employees as individuals or groups in their dealings with Wal-Mart … UFCW and OUR Walmart have no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart as the representative of Walmart employees.”

That’s clearly bogus. UFCW would like few things more than getting Walmart’s 1.3 million US employees organized. OUR Walmart’s tactics are a classic “top-down” union organizing strategy meant to get management to agree to organizing its workers in exchange for an end to the PR campaign.

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