The Spread of Worker Centers
After years of declining membership and influence, particularly at the local level, the labor movement is being revitalized through alliances with a growing activist network and a new organizing entity known as the worker center.
As I’ve mentioned before in my columns, worker centers operate outside of the parameters of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and enjoy mainstream support from groups unaware that behind the curtain, these centers are being funded and guided by seasoned labor organizers. This arrangement allows unions easy access to activists, and potentially new members, while providing a relatively bulletproof apparatus from which to focus their attacks on non-unionized industries and companies.
Worker centers began organically as a local response to immigrants’ needs, but professional labor organizers quickly recognized the utility of this model as a potential way to increase membership. In 1992, five worker centers were incorporated. By 2009, there were more than 170 worker centers operating in the United States, and many more are operating today. By embracing this model, unions are regaining traction at the grassroots level while evading the regulations governing traditional union organizing.
Although restaurants have received much of the high-profile attention of worker centers, that focus appears to be expanding to the broader food supply chain and retail industry. A recent spate of brand-destruction protests and employee walkouts – from New York and Washington, D.C., to St. Louis and Chicago – were the result of tight coordination between worker centers, major unions and social justice activist groups. These events, which are expected to continue, are taking place under the banner of “Fight for 15” and “Fast Food Forward,” even though their demands for a $15 per hour minimum wage and paid sick leave go well beyond the restaurant industry.
An April 24 Chicago protest, in particular, brought convenience store and other retail brands into the debate. An aspect that has received some – if insufficient – media attention is the corporate structure of c-store, retail and restaurant brands, with individually owned franchisees being targeted for protest actions due to the well-known brands into which they have invested. One media account estimated that some Chicago-area convenience store franchisees do not necessarily make the $15 per hour wage being pursued by activists.
The increasing popularity of worker centers and the broadening geographic spread of their protest actions should serve as a warning to c-store operators who have heretofore assumed the threat posed by unions would present itself in the form of an internal organizing effort by its own employees. That threat is now more likely to appear on a storefront sidewalk, with dozens if not hundreds of social justice activists making brand-damaging accusations of labor and health code violations.
In a recent speech, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka discussed the future of labor organizing, rhetorically asking, “Will the Taxi Workers Alliance prove to be the model? Will Working America? Or Walmart? Warehouse Workers for Justice? The Restaurant Opportunity Center?” By calling out these worker centers that are already pursuing traditional Big Labor goals such as higher wages and more generous benefits, Trumka’s point was to emphasize for his audience the new path union leaders are taking to achieve their goals.
Union organizer turned journalist Josh Eidelson summed up the threat employers will face in a May 20 National Public Radio interview. “There's a pallet of tactics that [worker centers] use, often overlapping -- for example, bringing legal pressure or lawsuits against companies; training workers to go on strike or take action in the workplace; confronting managers; mobilizing clergy or community activists; supporting consumer boycotts; endorsing high-road companies; encouraging certain companies and celebrating them for taking a different business model; and trying to change the law whether at the local level or at the federal level,” he explained.
That said, if worker centers were classified by their behavioral actions as labor organizations -- and as such, subject to reporting requirements as well as the code of conduct guidelines established in the NLRA -- their advantages would diminish and the model could lose relevance. Similarly, if the Internal Revenue Service were to tighten lobbying restrictions and reporting requirements on worker centers, their influence would decrease as well.
For the time being, labor leaders may have found a holy grail to reverse steadily declining membership numbers and broaden their appeal to the American public. If you operate a business in a major metropolitan area, expect to see a worker center active in your city soon.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.