Labor Unions look to loopholes for future growth

This Friday, hundreds of union organizers and striking workers will descend upon Bentonville, Arkansas, as Walmart begins its annual shareholder meeting. Organized by union-backed OUR Walmart, the union agitators will protest the retailer’s labor policies.

There’s just one small wrinkle: OUR Walmart walks like a union and talks like a union, but -- due to their attempt to create a loophole in Federal labor law -- isn’t subject to the regulations and the reporting requirements that keep union activities fair and labor leaders honest.

Welcome to the “worker center,” a clever effort to take advantage of this loophole and give union front groups the ability to operate beyond the reach of the law. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has singled them out as a new model of organization and worker representation. Employers and legislators should take note.

With explicit union support, worker centers’ numbers have risen from a meager five organizations in the early 1990s to well over 200 today (the exact number isn’t known because of the murkiness of the laws surrounding these groups). Many of these groups arepresently in the news: Fast Food Forward and its sister organizations have organized large-scale fast food walk outs in at least six major cities; Good Jobs Nation protested the federal government’s use of low-wage employees;  and OUR Walmart previously made news with its “Black Friday” strikes.

Some of these organizations, like OUR Walmart, are subsumed into their parent unions for Labor Department reporting purposes. Others operate as 501(c)(3) nonprofits -- no different than the United Way, the Red Cross, or your local church.

Yet the only major differences separating worker centers from actual labor unions is that worker centers don’t "deal with" the employer through negotiations, or try to organize an entire workplace. Instead, they single out a select group of employees with grievances -- sometimes no more than a few dozen -- and then engage in strikes and make demands of the employer that would apply to the entire workforce (otherwise known as “minority unionism.”)

The ultimate goal, however, is still complete unionization -- the initial actions and demands are merely a stepping stone. Just look at who’s behind the most prominent worker centers.

Fast Food Forward, whose organizers have demanded a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union in quick service restaurants, is run out of the same Brooklyn offices as New York Communities for Change -- a group which the Service Employees International Union funded to the tune of $2.5 million in 2012.

The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) is another New York-based worker center with a national agenda. It was founded by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union in 2002 with the goal of “organizing the 99 percent of the [restaurant] industry that doesn’t have a union.” It has developed a reputation for loud and aggressive “worker” protests directly outside businesses, utilizing bullhorns, an inflatable cockroach, and other forms of direct business disruption.

OUR Walmart has a similar story. Founded and financially supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the group’s existence directly refutes the notion that worker centers and the unions that hatched them are different organizations. While the group claims in a disclaimer on its website that it has “no intent to have Walmart recognize or bargain with UFCW or OUR Walmart,” one of its own organizers admitted in May that the group’s work is nothing more than minority unionism cloaked in the worker center name.

This legal confusion has allowed worker centers to proliferate, even as the unions that spawned them have withered. It remains to be seen whether this model will prove successful in the long-run. Like any start-up, their lack of a revenue stream, combined with their need for funding from traditional labor groups that are losing members and money by the year, means that worker centers are a gamble that may not pay off. Either way however, the worker center is a loophole that shows labor law’s need for reform in the twenty-first century

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