In their efforts to protect the most vulnerable workers from illegal workplace practices and conditions, worker centers have now attracted the million-dollar ire of formidable anti-union forces. And while advocates say it’s a sign of worker centers’ success, it’s still a worrisome trend that’s made it all the way to the halls of Congress.
In late July, a full-page ad ran in the Wall Street Journal accusing worker centers of being fronts for labor unions. The ad was paid for by a group calling itself the Center for Union Facts, a nonprofit with a $3 million-plus budget run by industry lobbyist Richard Berman. In announcing the ad, the center’s blog described worker centers as “organized labor’s latest scheme to unionize workers without having to comply with federal labor laws.” In fact, the Center for Union Facts also unveiled a new website, www.workercenters.com, which calls on employees to report worker centers for harassment.
On top of the media and Internet campaign, some members of Congress have unfortunately jumped on the issue as well. In July, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Committee on Education and Workforce, and U.S. Rep. David Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, wrote to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez asking the agency to investigate whether worker centers should be subject to requirements of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which grants certain rights to union members while requiring regular reporting from their unions. In their letter, the House members specifically name groups such as Korean Worker Immigrant Advocates, the Retail Action Project, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fast Food Forward. They write that “in the last decade, the line between so-called ‘worker centers’ and labor organizations has blurred. Today, many of these ‘worker centers’ are dealing with employers directly on behalf of employees.”
On the surface, the anti-worker tactics seem like just another way to attack labor unions, which are certainly no stranger to confrontations with big business. But worker centers aren’t labor unions — they don’t bargain collectively, they don’t have legal authority to represent workers, they don’t benefit from the legal protections that unions do, and employers aren’t legally compelled to engage with them.
Worker centers are community-based organizations that help low-wage and often immigrant workers fight illegal workplace abuses, such as wage theft or OSHA violations, and organize community actions to hold employers accountable to the law and or call for policy improvements. Many also provide social services, such as language and computer classes.
“We’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing”
To Jeff Newton, membership and communications coordinator at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), the media campaign is the “biggest sign so far that (worker centers) are a force to be reckoned with, that we’re becoming effective to a point that they really had to sit down and get organized to counter our successes.” Newton noted that as union strength has declined so have average wages; however, some worker centers have been launching successful living wage campaigns and “industry is attempting to snip that in the bud.”
Like worker centers around the nation, the MassCOSH worker center helps hundreds of low-wage immigrant workers every year learn about their rights and become leaders in their communities. In just the past eight months, the center has helped workers recoup $45,000 in wages they were owed, Newton reported.
“They only know how to deal with unions and so they think they can attacks us as unions,” Newton told me. “But we’re not a union, and they’ll have a much harder time trying to pigeonhole us to get the public to look negatively on worker centers. …We’re just going to continue to do what we’re doing and through our work show that we’re not a vehicle to line union leaders’ pockets.”
Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH, told me he thinks the anti-worker center campaign will ultimately backfire.
“Far from being high-paid union operatives, the people working at these worker centers are just people dedicated to getting a fair deal, fair wages and safe working conditions for workers, and I don’t think they have anything to fear from having more light shed on them,” O’Connor said. “In fact, I think it might help them.”
In Austin, Texas, at the Workers Defense Project (which was recently highlighted in the New York Times for its success in advocating for low-wage workers), Greg Casar told me he’s not surprised at the new opposition — “there are people vested in keeping working conditions the way they are and in keeping wages low.” Casar, the project’s business liaison, noted that as worker centers are fundamentally different from unions, he doesn’t see how federal union law can be applied. During the past decade, the Workers Defense Project has helped workers recover nearly $900,000 in wages they were owed but not paid and is a critical player in improving working and safety conditions for the city’s construction workers.
“We let the public know who’s breaking the law and who’s not abiding by community standards and values,” Casar said. “Worker centers aren’t a scary thing. They’re just another iteration of communities getting together trying to solve community problems.”
In Chicago, the Arise Worker Center was specifically named on workercenters.com as a union front group. Adam Kader, director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, called it a “pretty unsavory move for industry to take.” In regard to the Arise center being a union, Kader said employers would certainly challenge the center legally if it were engaging in union activities. He noted that the center doesn’t negotiate collective bargaining agreements and doesn’t have the power to enforce the voluntary agreements employers make with individual workers. Like other worker centers, Arise trains workers to confront issues such as wage theft and unsafe working conditions, and has helped low-wage workers recover millions in unpaid wages and compensation for other workplace abuses.
“These are workers that generally don’t wield any power in society…so for powerful industry groups to make allegations, to me it constitutes a form of bullying,” Kader told me.
When I asked Kader if he took the attacks as more of a compliment — a sign of worker center success — he quickly said he didn’t want to be “glib” about the opposition campaign. While it speaks to the fact that worker centers are making a difference, he said it’s still “disrespectful,” and “to see some elected officials willing to sign their names to this is more sad and disappointing than flattering.” Kader also said the opposition “rightly sees us as brothers and sisters of labor unions and we’re unapologetic in supporting low-wage workers in knowing their rights about joining unions.”
“I think the best way to respond and push back is simply to keep doing the work we’re always doing,” he said.
To read more about the anti-worker center campaign, visit www.coshnetwork.org/first-they-came.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.