Share This Page

Organized labor's unorganized future

| Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The AFL-CIO, by its own admission, entered its annual September convention in a state of crisis. Union membership has been declining for decades, and not even the pro-labor policies of the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Labor and the current administration have been able to save it.

But that doesn't mean that labor leaders are giving up. On Sept. 9, the labor federation approved its last-ditch plan to stave off irrelevancy: incorporate into the movement labor-union front groups that are exempt from federal labor law, otherwise known as “worker centers.”

Labor leaders have succeeded in portraying worker centers as nonunion community groups that advocate for low-wage workers. Many of them are registered as charities, nonprofits and other tax-exempt entities. This legal loophole is the key to their existence: It frees them from many of the employee protections established by the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.

But you wouldn't know worker centers weren't unions by looking at what they do. In practice, they organize paid pickets who protest and advocate in lockstep with their labor union parents for policies like living-wage laws, mandatory paid leave and more.

In fact, the only major practical difference between worker centers and actual labor unions is that worker centers don't “deal with” the employer through negotiations. Instead, they 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.

The ultimate goal, however, is still complete unionization — even when these protests start as a Potemkin village of strikers masterminded by union organizers.

Given these institutional advantages, worker centers have been created at an astonishing rate. Starting with fewer than five in the early 1990s, the AFL-CIO now estimates that there are 230 such groups, with more added every year.

These groups are active at both the national and local levels. The headline-grabbing fast-food strikes, for instance, are organized by “Fast Food Forward,” “Fight for 15” and a host of similarly named organizations, most of which were founded and are funded by the Service Employees International Union.

There's also “OUR Walmart,” which was hatched by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to target the big-box retailer. Elsewhere, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union helped found the Restaurant Opportunities Center to target high-profile eateries in major American cities.

Despite its long-standing ties to and its millions of dollars in funding for these groups, the AFL-CIO is only just now willing to admit its paternity. It's no surprise why: Organized labor's Great Depression-era structure is crumbling and its precipitous decline in members — including the 400,000 it lost last year alone — has driven labor leaders to explore new paths to survival.

Whether this “Hail Mary pass” will succeed remains to be seen. But while we wait to find out, the labor leaders behind these worker centers need to answer an important question: Why does organized labor's brave new world need to be exempt from the regulations and the reporting requirements that were specifically designed to keep union activities fair and labor leaders honest?

Richard Berman is the executive director of the Center for Union Facts.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.