Centered on Workers vs. Worker Centers

Labor leaders such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations President Richard Trumka have publicly acknowledged that the old model of labor organizing was failing. Referring to traditional union organizing methods, Trumka said:

[Unions] are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through NLRB elections and voluntary recognition by employers ... The AFL-CIO’s door has to be — and will be — open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace.[14]

In expressing a desire to explore new forms of unionization, Trumka may have been alluding to a concept called “worker centers,” which on the surface appear to conform to many of the principles outlined in this paper. They seem to be “members-only” unions where only those who want to join would pay dues.

Although promising in theory, and despite comments from labor leaders such as Trumka, the currently active worker centers are unfortunately doubling down on the union business model of old. They are not independent service organizations, but rather stalking horses to help organize workers into traditional unions. Their goals are to make organizing easier by intimidating employers into taking away the secret ballot from workers and to further the political agenda of traditional union leaders.

Worker centers are gaining in popularity as a tool to stem labor’s membership declines. They are generally non-profit organizations receiving their funding from member dues, government and foundation grants and direct support from unions. Janice Fine, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, estimates that the number of worker centers in the United States grew from 5 in 1992 to over 200 in 2013.[15]

Unfortunately, these centers are often used for political purposes or to intimidate workers and employers into accepting unionization. Worker centers have been used as vehicles to protest employers and facilitate mass strikes.[*]

In 2006, the AFL-CIO formalized its relationship with worker centers and used them to recruit nonunion workers to help with the union’s political agenda.[16] One such worker center is Working America, which states its plan is to expand into all 50 states by 2018, primarily by “organizing in neighborhoods.”[17] An April 17, 2013, press release boasts, “As Working America expands nationally, it will continue its year-round community organizing and electoral and legislative work, as well as pilot different methods of organizing workers on the job.”[18]

Organizing is a central theme on Working America’s website, but it does not appear to center around collective bargaining. Instead, Working America seems to focus on providing members “a chance to be heard in the political debate” and to “challenge the corporate agenda across the nation.”[19] Member benefits seem to only include discounts for products and services such as cell phone plans, car rentals, textbooks and magazine subscriptions.[20]

The growth of these organizations is taking root in the unions’ very foundations. At its convention in September 2013, the AFL-CIO passed the internally controversial Resolution 5, titled "A Broad, Inclusive and Effective Labor Movement." The resolution expanded membership in the Federation to “any worker who wants to join the labor movement and who is not already covered by a collective bargaining agreement.”[21] This opened the door to worker center members becoming part of the AFL-CIO.

Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (a member union of the AFL-CIO), expressed concern that the AFL-CIO may risk moving away from its primary mission by expanding its membership in such a way. He explained his position: “We are supposed to be representing workers and workers’ interests. We are not going to be the American Federation of Progressive and Liberal Organizations.”[22]

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, voiced similar concerns. He asked, “Does that mean we are going to turn energy policy of the AFL-CIO over to the Sierra Club?”[23]

A main reason labor is reaching out beyond its ranks is that private sector unionism is in decline and has been for decades. The percentage of private sector workers who are union members dropped to only 6.6 percent of the workforce in 2012.[†]

Worker centers are a tool to resurrect membership in another way too: By focusing union organizing efforts on employers’ boardrooms. Through a labor tactic called a “corporate campaign,” unions can bring public pressure on job creators to capitulate to their demands.[24] A frequent demand involves pressuring the company into a “neutrality” agreement, which, among other things, takes away the secret ballot from workers via a card check election.

During a corporate campaign, a union or worker center engages in regulatory pressure or reputational attacks, which in some cases venture into personal criticisms of company officers. A 2011 SEIU “Contract Campaign Manual” instructed workers how to successfully put pressure on a business, saying “outside pressure can involve jeopardizing relationships between the employer and lenders, investors, stockholders, customers, clients, patients, tenants, politicians, or others on whom the employer depends for funds.” It suggested legal and regulatory pressure to “threaten the employer with costly action by government agencies or the courts.”[25]

It also recommended personal attacks by digging up “dirt” on the company and individual officers with charges such as “racism, sexism, exploitation of immigrants or proposals that would take money out of the community for the benefits of distant stockholders.”[26]

An example of this is the actions of the worker center Organization United for Respect at Walmart, which is engaged in a corporate campaign against the retailer Wal-Mart and heavily supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.[27] OUR Walmart may be attempting to compel Wal-Mart to sign a neutrality agreement with the UFCW and take away the secret ballot from employees.

A yearly example of a corporate campaign is the “Black Friday” protest, in which OUR Walmart stages demonstrations in front of Wal-Marts around the country.[28] Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar claims this campaign is “an effort to attract media attention to further [union’s] political agenda.”[29]

This campaign almost resulted in the forcing of Wal-Mart out of Washington, D.C. The anti-Wal-Mart effort successfully lobbied for Washington, D.C., City Council to impose a “living wage” for Wal-Mart employees, which was 50 percent higher than the city’s regular minimum wage. After the bill passed the council, Wal-Mart said it may have needed to leave the city. Eventually, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Vincent C. Gray, vetoed the bill.[30]

Another worker center engaging in corporate campaigns is the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. ROC, originally affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, stages protests and files legal actions against restaurants.[31] ROC is now generally funded by foundations such as the Tides Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation and through federal grants.[32] Trey Kovacs, labor policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, estimates that between 2005 and 2009 ROC received almost $1 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services.[33]

Worker centers are becoming common vehicles for conducting corporate campaigns because they are not subject to federal labor laws. Many such laws prohibit picketing of a company’s suppliers and other company relationships; they also dictate how long a union can picket a company before filing for an election. Finally, by claiming they are not unions, worker centers can also bypass federal financial disclosure laws which are required of labor organizations.

Labor attorneys Stefan Marculewicz and Jennifer Thomas argue that worker centers act enough like labor organizations that they should be legally treated as such with the same prohibitions:

[W]orker centers are directly engaging employers or groups of employers to effectuate change in the wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment for their members. Indeed, when it comes to such direct engagement, these worker centers act no differently than the traditional labor organization.[34]

If a worker center’s tactics are successful and the employer agrees to a “neutrality agreement,” then a “card check” election is instituted rather than a normal secret-ballot election. During a card check election, cards are signed in front of co-workers and union organizers, denying workers the protection of a secret ballot. These card check elections can lead to intimidation and coercion during the voting process. Unions presumably prefer card check elections because it supposedly makes obtaining a majority easier.

Of course, even with a card check campaign, employees still have a choice, albeit one that may come with the intimidation and coercion. Worker centers, on the other hand, allow unions to claim to represent workers without even giving them the opportunity of a card check choice.

Craig Becker, a NLRB member appointed by President Obama and current AFL-CIO General Council, said, “We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition [card check].”[35]

According to Becker, it is too much to force employees to vote through an election or card check recognition. Instead, he hopes that a worker center could represent them without the affirmation of the majority of employees. By that same rationale, it could be argued that voters should not have to endure trial by fire in an election for president, Congress or state offices.

If worker centers were to forego the special privileges afforded to labor unions (one of the reasons unions also have to abide by certain restrictions), they could be part of the next evolution in labor: individual, worker-centered, collaborative and nonpolitical. As it stands, however, this is not the case. Instead, worker centers appear to be ignoring the needs of workers, and serving the preferences of union leadership.

[*] For example, see: “Dozens Arrested During Minimum Wage Protest at Detroit McDonald’s” (CBS Detroit, Sept. 4, 2014), (accessed Sept. 18, 2014).

[†] Private and public sector union membership in 2013 did see a small uptick but not enough to change the overall percentage of 11.3% nationwide. Private sector membership moved up to 6.7% while public sector dropped to 35.3% from 35.9% in 2012. “Union Membership (Annual) News Release” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 24, 2014), (accessed July 10, 2014).