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Policy: Labor

Big Labor has a new ROC to throw at Walmart

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Matt Patterson,Op-Eds,Labor unions,Labor,Walmart

Big Labor has been losing the public relations war for decades, as witnessed by dwindling union membership.

In 1983, 20 percent of the workforce was unionized; last year just 11.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the midst of this existential crisis, the union bosses and their allies have been forced to get creative in recruiting new members.

In Washington, D.C., they convinced the city council to approve the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have required corporations that have $1 billion or more in sales and operate retail stores of at least 75,000 square feet in the District to pay a so-called “living wage” of $12.50 per hour (wages and benefits). Large, unionized retailers would be exempt.

Fortunately, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed what may as well have been called the “Give Walmart a Bloody Nose Act,” designed as it was to hurt public enemy No. 1 of organized labor.

Had it passed, the law would have accomplished one of two things: scaring Walmart away from the D.C. area, thereby closing off a huge market to the retail giant, or forcing the company into accepting unionization of its D.C. facilities.

Also creative is Big Labor’s recent pushback against a large non-unionized sector it has been salivating over for years: the fast food industry.

Last August, fast food workers in cities across the country walked off the job at popular restaurant chains like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Wendy’s to demand the doubling of the existing federal minimum wage, a coordinated effort supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and labor-backed Fast Food Forward campaign.

And here in D.C., the union-friendly city council has considered bills that would, to varying degrees, increase the minimum wage for restaurant workers.

Such laws are unabashedly championed by one of Big Labor’s loudest allies, the Restaurant Opportunities Center United.

Originally established in New York City in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks to assist displaced workers from the famous World Trade Center eatery Windows on the World, ROC has become a nationwide labor agitation organization with the goal of unionizing the food service industry.

ROC itself is not a union, at least as the word is defined under U.S. labor law. By classifying itself under the rubric of “worker training centers,” ROC can operate largely unregulated and claim 501(c)(3) charitable organization status.

As Julia Tavlas wrote for the Capital Research Center, the result is that “…not only is ROC exempt from the financial and legal obligations [like financial disclosure requirements], which bind a typical labor organization, but its activities are actually subsidized by generous grants from state and federal agencies.”

In other words, ROC looks like a union and agitates like a union, but isn’t treated as a union in the eyes of the law. Clever.

But maybe not clever enough. ROC has recently found itself under congressional scrutiny. For example, the House Education and the Workforce Committee sent a letter earlier this summer to Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez questioning whether worker training centers like ROC should be governed by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959.

Additionally, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has taken notice of ROC and has examined the federal funding associated with it and its affiliates.

As organized labor desperately seeks new ways to increase its waning influence, it will continue to work through and with campaigns like Fast Food Forward and organizations like ROC to advance shared goals like minimum wage increases.

And it will continue doing so even if those increases hurt the very workers they are designed to help, as happened with the first such hike, which resulted in up to 50,000 people losing their jobs in 1938, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In other words, ROC and its union allies want a higher minimum wage even if that means there will be fewer jobs available for young and low-skilled workers, and even if that means your Big Mac will now cost $10.

Clearly Economics 101 is not a prerequisite for Union Agitation 101.

Matt Patterson is executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom at Americans for Tax Reform.
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