Topics: Labor Unions

Big Labor's big gamble on Restaurant Opportunities Center

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Business,Op-Eds,Labor unions,Labor,Analysis

At last week's AFL-CIO quadrennial convention, the labor federation formally accepted into its ranks a new unionization model pioneered by the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

It’s an interesting move since the ROC isn’t actually a labor union. Rather, it’s a union-backed front group that’s exempt from federal labor law. It’s called a “worker center” — and its decade-long history shows exactly why the AFL-CIO is so keen on incorporating the ROC model into its long-term strategy.

The ROC was founded in 2002 by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and it exists to “organize the 99 percent of the [restaurant] industry that doesn’t have a union.”

In service of this goal, the organization has expanded from a single office in New York City to affiliates in nearly a dozen cities, with more affiliates expected to join soon.

Everywhere it goes, the ROC works in conjunction with its labor union parent to map the restaurant industry and identify targets in a specific geographical area.

According to the organization’s co-founder, Saru Jayaraman, a traditional union like HERE “focuses on big, ‘tablecloth’ restaurants,” but “ROC-NY works with any restaurant, no matter how small.” The end goal, however, is the same: “Create a labor-friendly climate in these places, so the union can organize them in a few years.”

Given this purpose, it should come as no surprise that ROC has been on the AFL-CIO's radar for some time. Federation president Richard Trumka has singled out ROC for its work in creating a “new model… of worker representation,” one that “open[s] up union membership… available to all workers.” ROC's co-director even appeared on a labor panel at the AFL-CIO convention.

Yet practically speaking, there’s little difference between ROC and the labor unions that fund and praise it. ROC’s protests and shakedowns come directly from the union playbook.

ROC's harassment of patrons has been so aggressive that in one case, a judge issued a restraining order against the organization. In another case, ROC deftly skirted the National Labor Relations Board by labeling its protests “prayer vigils” -- vigils that were conveniently led by ROC and took the form of boisterous demonstrations.

And some of ROC’s protests of non-union targets have lasted for years — something that is legally prohibited for traditional unions. Thus, ROC is able to skirt most federal labor laws because it is not recognized as a union. Rather, ROC is a tax-exempt “charity” and a “non-profit.”

The ROC vehemently denies its status as a labor union because its appearance of independence from labor unions is critical to its legal existence. While labor union activities are highly regulated under the National Labor Relations Act and other labor laws, the activities of worker centers like ROC remain largely unregulated.

The group's ability to generate negative headlines for the restaurant industry has led to the creation of a host of similar labor-backed organizations. Some, like “Fast Food Forward” and “OUR Walmart,” have obvious targets; others, like “Interfaith Worker Justice” and “Working America” try to politicize workers more broadly, without actually unionizing anyone in the process.

The AFL-CIO sees the benefits that these organizations can bring to labor activism, hence its decision to incorporate them into the union movement. As a result, the ROC will get the recognition for which its labor union founders built it. If only federal labor law would do the same.

Mike Paranzino is communications director for ROC Exposed, which is supported by a coalition of restaurant workers, employers and citizens concerned about the ROC's campaigns against America's restaurants.
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