Worker centers: How unions circumvent federal rules
Imagine a group designed to organize fast food employees, collect financial contributions from its members, and protest for higher wages from their employers.
One might think this group I just described, Fast Food Justice, is a union. After all, the actions in which Fast Food Justice partakes are common union activities, such as collecting dues and making demands upon employers to effect change in the workplace.
Incredibly, however, Fast Food Justice is not considered a union. It is classified as a “worker center.” While this may seem a minor technicality to the casual observer, there are important differences between unions and worker centers. Classifying a group as a “worker center,” rather than a union, allows Big Labor to exploit a legal loophole and victimize workers by evading the rules that unions must follow to ensure accountability and transparency and protect workers from union abuses.
Some worker centers seek to engage in tactics similar to the collective bargaining unions conduct on behalf of their membership, but they are exempt from federal regulations that define the rules associated with collective bargaining. Unions, for example, are required to provide fair representation, have limits on disorderly picketing, and have highly regulated financial transparency to root out corruption. To avoid these rules and to regain the power they have lost amid the decline in union participation, unions have been funneling employees’ dues money into these worker centers, which lack the financial disclosure requirements that are in place to protect the members of the collective bargaining unit.
One particularly egregious example is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, CIW, in Southwest Florida. The CIW actively engages in secondary boycotts, an activity which is prohibited for unions under the National Labor Relations Act, NLRA. Unions work with the CIW to fund the worker center’s protests, seeking to intimidate companies to increase wages and comply with their other demands. Those who refuse are met with boycotts and other disruptive actions.
The CIW has, for example, organized protests around the country to actively disrupt commerce to try to pressure supermarket and fast food chains to join their Fair Food Program. The group has protested Publix locations in Florida and Trader Joe’s stores in Boston and New York as part of their fight. Further, the CIW launched a disruptive boycott of Wendy’s locations in Florida in response to their refusal to abide by the group’s demands. As a result of this “worker center” loophole, their group gets to act like a union and deploy union tactics and spend union members’ money without abiding by longstanding federal laws.
Originally designed to provide workers with services like job training or instruction in English as a Second Language, within the last decade these worker centers have radically mutated into unregulated substitutes for traditional unions. Worker centers permit big labor to ignore rules under the NLRA and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, LMRDA, that protect workers from corrupt union bosses.
Worker centers undermine the worker protections granted by the NLRA and LMRDA. By evading the financial reporting and disclosure requirements, they effectively create secret slush funds for unions, which can outsource organizing efforts to the worker centers in order to hide the finances behind their activities. This leaves the door open for corruption through the misuse of funds by worker center leaders, an activity the LMRDA was passed to combat in labor organizations.
Labor union corruption is not theoretical; in 2016, nearly 20 percent of Department of Labor audits of organized labor led to criminal cases. Further, one can look at how dues are used as political kickbacks, as unions spent $1.7 billion on campaigns and lobbying during the 2016 election.
I recently brought the abusive and dishonest tactics of worker centers to the attention of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. He assured me he would look into this matter, and I look forward to working with him in the future on requiring appropriate and fair transparency related to all labor organizations. To protect employees’ rights, worker centers must be reined in by the Department of Labor and be classified as labor organizations.
Congress must also hold labor organizations accountable to the law of the land. Allowing some unions to knowingly break the law sets a slippery slope moving forward. Union membership has seen a drastic decline in the 21st century. Worker centers are an illegal way for them to regain their power and avoid accountability to the employees they represent.
Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida's 19th Congressional District. He is the vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and serves on the Committee on Education and the Workforce. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.