Is it the beginning of the end for Big Labor’s henchmen? You’d be forgiven if you think I’m referring to the Hoffas. I’m actually talking about so-called worker centers, which have recently been the labor movement’s bludgeon — all while avoiding federal rules on union transparency and conduct.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) imposes restrictions on outlawed tactics unions have used in labor disputes. The law requires unions to file annual financial transparency reports. Unions have gotten around these rules via the creation of “worker centers.” Worker centers are formed under the same Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code as charities and are not considered labor entities under the NLRA. At a House committee hearing last month, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta signaled that his Department of Labor is looking into how to define worker centers under the National Labor Relations Act.
Worker centers are able do things unions cannot, such as boycotting secondary targets where they have no dispute. Consider the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), one of the older worker centers. CIW claims to represent tomato pickers in South Florida, and wants them to get a raise. So CIW threatens restaurants and supermarkets that are not the employers of the farmworkers.
No matter. They want retailers to cough up money for a farm employee bonus pool. Companies that don’t comply face boycotts and street protests.
The tactics have recently gotten more outrageous. This fall, CIW launched a campaign implying Wendy’s is complicit in “sexual violence” in its supply chain after the restaurant had resisted its pressure tactics.
The idea that a business is responsible for the wages or working conditions of their far-upstream suppliers is illogical. Is a hardware store responsible for the production practices associated with every wrench it sells?
Worker centers have all the nastiness of a union, with none of the accountability. That should change.
The Center for Union Facts (an organization I founded) has filed a complaint with the IRS against CIW, arguing that its activities are for the private benefit of a few, and are not exclusively engaged in tax-exempt activities (extortion is not a charitable or educational function).
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) should also step in. The board has previously punted on the issue of worker centers, ruling that it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis as to whether the groups engage in back-and-forth negotiations.
But with the new post-Obama board, there’s an opportunity to close the loophole.
Worker centers are de facto labor groups. The Service Employees International Union has pumped $14 million into their worker center front group, the Fast Food Workers Committee. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union founded the worker center “OUR Walmart.” And the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union is behind the so-called Restaurant Opportunities Center, which bills itself as a tool for “the 99 percent of the industry that doesn’t have a union.”
Along with harassing secondary targets, worker centers can picket indefinitely. A union would be limited to 30 days unless it filed for representation.
The pickets are manned by labor organizers, community activists, or rent-a-protester groups from homeless shelters. The goal is to drive negative coverage against a target — with the hope of making organizing efforts easier. The unions are stymied under federal law in place since the 1940s. The law requires a union to have a 30 percent “showing of interest” before the government will schedule an election. In 2013, Walmart reported that fewer than 50 of its 1.3 million employees joined worker centers on a strike. Obviously, the unions are stretching into some new strategies as they struggle to survive.
The worker center loopholes allow for business harassment. The centers fill a need, in the words of the head of the AFL-CIO, to “find a way to allow millions of America’s workers to join the labor movement without forcing them to survive trial by fire in a workplace organizing drive.” He admitted, “We are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through NLRB elections.” Translation: We can’t win a fair election but we can force a company to buckle under boycott pressures.
Union membership in the private sector has continuously dropped since 1980 to a new low last year of 6.6 percent. The number of worker centers has increased from five in 1992 to more than 200 today. Memo to the administration: one more opportunity to drain the swamp.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.
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