The following op-ed was written by Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, and was published in The Republican on November 11, 2013. The online version may be found here.
Unions’ ‘worker center’ strategy deserves scrutiny
In Boston and across the country, labor leaders are trying a new approach to unionization: worker centers. Recently, these union-backed groups have initiated demonstrations at fast-food restaurants and retail stores in over 60 cities. And at its annual convention, the AFL-CIO decided to throw its weight behind these controversial organizations by officially resolving to include them in the broader labor movement.
But there’s just one problem: Worker centers aren’t actually labor unions. They walk and talk like unions. They also draw their funding from unions and receive assistance from professional union organizers. But at no point are they actually treated like unions by federal law.
It’s a clever legal loophole that labor leaders hope will revitalize their ailing movement. By registering with the IRS as charities rather than unions, worker centers are freed from the employee and employer protections established by the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, while contributions to them are tax deductible.
Practically speaking, the major difference between worker centers and actual labor unions is that worker centers never make the final call for outright unionization. In fact, they can picket for union recognition indefinitely until they finally develop enough support to call for a unionization election. That contrasts with restrictions on picketing for official labor unions.
This loophole allows worker centers to use professional union organizers to single out a select group of employees with grievances — sometimes no more than a few dozen — and then engage in nuisance “strikes” and make demands of the employer that would apply to the entire workforce.
Many are active in Boston, as well. There’s the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which targets high-profile restaurants and was founded by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. There’s also OUR Walmart, which targets the big-box retailer and was founded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing to seek answers about the relationship between worker centers and the unions that spawned them, while congressmen John Kline and Phil Roe have asked Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez for clarification on why worker centers aren’t subject to labor regulations.
These are questions that need answers. After all, federal labor law is about more than just regulating the relationship between unions and management — it’s also about protecting employees like those in Boston from exploitative union practices.
Richard Berman is executive director of the Center for Union Facts.