The Worker Center Boogyman

Lately the Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber) has been complaining loudly that Worker Centers are a kind of front group for unions.  Worker centers are community-based and community-led organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy, and organizing activities to provide support to low-wage workers. The vast majority of the Centers were created primarily to serve immigrant populations, but they have been expanding to other contexts. One odd thing about the Chamber’s claim is that unions are lawful (indeed union activity has been protected since 1932) and do not therefore require a front group to operate.

Furthermore, employees have broad latitude under labor law to select any group they want to represent them.  It should follow that there is nothing especially nefarious about “outside” organizations or individuals funding Worker Centers, just as there would not intrinsically be an impediment to outside contributions to unions.  So on one level the Chamber achieves one of its important objectives by implicitly suggesting to uninitiated consumers of mass media that unions are themselves somehow unlawful. They must be.  Otherwise why would they not just operate out in the open?

However, there is a serious legal claim lurking beneath the Chamber’s tactical public relations hyperbole.  Unions are subject to regulation under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) and, to a lesser extent, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  Thus, what the Chamber is claiming as a legal matter is that unions are operating through Worker Centers to evade obligations they would otherwise have under labor statutes.  But even here the Chamber’s argument misses the mark because the LMRDA and NLRA impose duties not merely on unions but on all “labor organizations,” as intentionally very broadly defined under those statutes.

In fact, in some of my scholarly work I have argued that both Worker Centers and other non-traditional worker organizations are bound to labor law in ways they may not fully appreciate.  For example, under the NLRA, “labor organizations” are forbidden from engaging in a variety of secondary labor activity, typically strikes and picketing directed against an employer with whom union-represented employees do not have an immediate dispute.  Serious penalties can attach to labor organizations violating these provisions.

Under the LMRDA, labor organizations are required to file certain financial information with the Department of Labor and to afford a variety of “due process” rights to their members.  Again, running afoul of these requirements can carry meaningful penalties of the kind that are ironically and conspicuously absent when employers violate labor laws.  So if unions are attempting to evade labor laws they are picking a strange way of doing it.  Why shift potentially crippling liability from the union to some non-traditional labor organization like a worker center, or like groups at the forefront of the Walmart protests and fast food restaurant workers’ strikes?  That hardly seems like an organizing strategy that a sane union would embrace—essentially inflicting harm on possible future members.  Accordingly, this is obviously not the objective of unions in supporting worker centers.

Unions want to mobilize and organize workers in whatever way seems to work.  And worker centers have been increasingly effective in organizing workers.  Even more importantly, the worker center model has been successful in creating solidarity between workers and broader coalitions of community groups.  Historically, this has been an outcome that American corporate tactics have most sought to prevent.

One can understand all of traditional American labor law as 1) a massive effort cloaked in legitimacy designed to frustrate cooperation between workers across workplaces and industries; and 2) a structure meant to prevent dissemination of the details of labor disputes to the general public in way that might garner public support.  Worker centers threaten these objectives, and the Chamber knows it.

The Chamber knows that labor peace only lasts for so long, and it is anxious to snuff out the early glimmerings of resistance that Worker Centers represent.  But even the extraordinary season of strength the Chamber and its allies have enjoyed cannot last. That is simply not the way of things; and perpetual labor peace in the face of injustice is inconsistent with any honest rendering of American history.

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