Organized labor's unorganized future
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.