First, a little background on worker centers:
Juan Campis was sweating in the 90-plus degree heat as he whipped a white towel across a gleaming black Chevy TrailBlazer at a carwash here—one of six in the city that was unionized in recent months with help from two nonprofit community groups.
“They’re the ones that kept us all together and showed us the steps we needed to take,” Mr. Campis, 20 years old, said of the community groups. Workers probably wouldn’t have joined the union without daily contact from the two groups, he said.
The community groups, called worker centers, are often backed by unions. But they aren’t considered “labor organizations” by law because they don’t have continuing bargaining relationships with employers. That gives them more freedom in their use of picketing and other tactics than unions, which are constrained by national labor laws.
The new approach is sparking a backlash from some businesses, who call it an end-run around labor laws that can be used to help unionize new groups of workers.
“It’s a more potent strategy than unions have used in the past,” said J. Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts. Worker centers are “winning hearts and minds with positive things like language classes, while worker centers create strife and conflict within a company.”
Workers who are first organized by worker centers can be later organized by unions. That is what happened with nearly 200 carwash workers in Los Angeles and New York, organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the United Steelworkers. The steelworkers union also is trying organize several hundred pizza factory workers in Wisconsin who joined a worker center.
Some worker centers target immigrants, organizing taxi drivers, day laborers and domestic workers who can’t join unions because they are independent contractors.
Business and labor are going to war over the nonprofit worker centers that union officials increasingly see as the future of their movement. The organizing groups are thriving amid the decline in traditional unions, and campaigns, like Fast Food Forward, have made a splash by staging walkouts of fast-food workers who are demanding $15 per hour in wages and the right to unionize.
“They have morphed into groups that harass employers, shame companies and hurt business across the country,” said Ryan Williams, an adviser to Worker Center Watch. “They are essentially getting away with skirting labor laws.”
Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a consultant at FP1 Strategies, said Worker Center Watch is gearing up for a national campaign against the worker centers. It launched a website this week that will closely track the organizing activities.
House Republicans are beginning to scrutinize the worker centers as well.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on the future of union organizing where the worker centers are expected to be a prominent focus.
Spencer said he is briefing Chamber members across the country on worker centers and talking to lawmakers about the groups.
Williams with Worker Center Watch said his group would be writing op-eds, running ads and mobilizing activists on the ground to provide “a counter-effort” to worker centers.
The group has support from businesses, but Williams refused to disclose its donors.
Amid the heightened scrutiny, the worker centers are vowing to get more aggressive with protests and strikes.
Murray with OUR Walmart said her group is planning action on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Last year, the group helped organized hundreds of Walmart workers who walked off the job on the biggest shopping day of the year.
I think the fast food strikes were enormously successful in finally getting a discussion on wages going. It’s just a completely different dialogue when we’re talking about actual companies and specific workers rather than holding yet another roundtable on the Earned Income Tax Credit and whether we prefer “transfer payments” to raising the minimum wage. To me it was like they said “Hey! Over here! We’re the people you’re all talking about! This is what WE want”
I’m always amazed at the absolutely ferocious response on the part of Republicans and their business backers to ANY public show of strength by real live workers. Last week conservatives were quoting the Bible on the majesty and dignity of work. This week they’re pulling out all the stops to smear people who work at a McDonalds in Milwaukee. Yes, that’s who pull the levers of powers in America. Minimum wage workers. I know I was terrified during their reign of terror for those 4 hours in select cities.
You have to love this carefully crafted victimization language, too:
harass employers, shame companies and hurt business
Harass, shame and hurt. When will minimum wage workers stop being so mean to conservative lobbyists and their clients?