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Topics: Labor Unions

'Workers centers are just third-wave unions,' says labor activist

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Immigration,Labor,Worker Centers

Jose Oliva, networks director for the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, said so-called "worker centers" like his group were a "new form of unionism" that would replace craft and industrial unions. He made the comments in an interview with the public radio program Global Nation late last month.

Worker centers are nonprofit groups that act as an alternate form of labor organizing. The most prominent of these are backed by traditional Big Labor groups. ROC United's board, for example, includes Paul Schwalb, deputy director of food services for the union UNITE HERE.

Oliva explained the differences and similarities between the two groups and why Big Labor is turning to this model (All emphasis added):

Global Nation: The story you tell new ROC members about [former United Farm Workers leader Cesar] Chavez asking for dues is striking. Has that model of paying for representation endured?

Oliva: That's the puzzle we need to solve in the workers center movement. We're not unions — there's a different legal infrastructure. A union can collect dues from their members' paychecks, but a workers center can't do that. You don't have a steady flow of income, which means most of our money comes from private foundations that can be cancelled at any moment. It is a completely precarious existence for worker centers.

Global Nation: What are the differences between worker centers and unions?

Oliva: There's a huge growth of worker centers, and a sharp decline of unions since Chavez. It's caused by the same phenomena: the global economy, the growth of the informal sector, immigrants, people of color and women in the workforce, the decline of manufacturing. My theory is that workers centers are just third-wave unions. We had craft unions, then industrial unions in the Industrial Revolution, and now we have a new economy. That new economy has given rise to a new form of unionism that we right now call worker centers.

Global Nation: Worker centers don't have the legal right to collect dues from paychecks, but doesn't that mean they also aren't constrained by labor laws?

Oliva: The reason worker centers emerged is because unions were unable to organize workers in some of the growing sectors of the economy. The advantages to workers centers include not being constrained by the National Labor Relations Act, which has become something that is beneficial to employers. It doesn't advantage workers at all. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce charges that worker centers are unions in disguise. I don't believe that, but I do understand why workers would choose to organize themselves differently. Worker centers are not business unions. They're not contract negotiation entities.

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Author:

Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner