Worker Centers: The New Face of Unionization

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Worker Centers: The New Face of Unionization

By Joe Kefauver, Align Public Strategies - 01/09/2012

For the last year, unions have been trying to accomplish through a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) what they couldn't get done through legislation, pushing new regulations making it much easier for them to organize nearly any workplace. Whether it was the NLRB's jaw-dropping arrogance in the infamous Boeing case or its repeated attempts to change organizing rules, at least you have to give the unions and their allies credit for being shameless in the light of day. What is less well known, however, is a different unionization approach being led in the shadows by some of the anti-employer community's most influential leaders.

Desperate to reverse years of declining union membership, the American labor movement has been quietly rolling out a new labor organizing tool over the past few years, the worker center. By operating behind this non-profit model, the anti-employer community is able to circumvent organizing laws while actively recruiting new members and attacking non-unionized industries and employers. The growth of this strategy has been explosive, with about 170 worker centers incorporated as of 2009, compared to just five centers in existence in 1992.

In short, this approach emulates much of what happens in a typical organizing effort whereby a handful of activists approach employees of a particular business and ostensibly offer worker training and other vocational education seminars. They use this sham seminar as a ploy to enter into dialogues with workers and try to determine (or foster) a given level of discontent among the workforce with regard to pay equity, discrimination, promotion history and other factors. If the organizer thinks that there might be a pattern of anti-employee policies, they piece together anecdotal information from employees and present the employer with a "bill" for perceived back wages, overtime, etc., payable of course to the worker center itself. If the employer pays or "settles," the organizers then brand him a "white hat employer" and publicly commend him or her for the responsible business they operate. If sanity prevails and the employer refuses to pay, the group resorts to the standard union playbook of demonstrations, protests, reputation smearing, harassment, lawsuits and other notable public attacks in hopes the employer will eventually succumb. This is reminiscent of the stereotypical mob-run fire insurance scams.

While copying many union tactics, they intentionally differentiate themselves in a couple of important ways. Because they have no standing to pursue a collective bargaining agreement with the employer, they are unburdened by NLRB and U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) requirements that regulate organizing and protest activities. They are incorporated as traditional 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations and as such are only answerable to the IRS. Additionally, they are not funded by dues but by grants -- from unions, other non-profits, charitable foundations and even government at every level.

One of the more sophisticated worker center models is the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC). While targeted on that industry in particular, ROC has opened chapters in nine cities and been successfully harassing notable restaurant operators in all of them. Essentially, they have become an ACORN-style organization with a singular focus on a particular industry. In addition to their employer harassment activities, they have branched out into the public policy advocacy space and have become major players in the paid sick leave (PSL) battles that have sprung up across the country from California to Connecticut and in the cities of Philadelphia, Seattle and Denver. Additionally, their relationships with government at the state and federal level have become particularly alarming. Just last month, ROC stood shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis at a DOL briefing on "Gender Pay Equity Issues for Low-wage Women Restaurant Workers" and two weeks later entered into a formal alliance with OSHA where ROC was essentially deputized by the agency to be its eyes and ears in the workplace and empowered to report violations.

On the public front, ROC recently released its 2012 "National Diners Guide" which graded the 150 most popular restaurant companies on their workplace policies. To no surprise, employers who had succumbed to their pressure were rated highly while the vast majority was rated poorly. Of particular note was the inclusion of a few convenience store companies in this report. This marked the first time that ROC has spread its attention to other types of food retailers and should be a wake-up call for c-store owners to pay attention to not only this entity, but to the development of other organizations utilizing the worker center model.

The worker center is a perfect marriage within the anti-employer community. It leverages the pragmatism of organized labor (its deep financial resources, organizing tactics and pursuit of public policy outcomes) while maximizing the effectiveness of ideologically driven, scorched earth activists like the ACORNs and ROCs of the world. While it has not been cost effective for the SEIU and others to organize the retail community in general and the c-store sector in particular, they are both especially vulnerable to this type of organizing model. It's a battle that is more than likely coming our way as our friends in the restaurant industry can attest.

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

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.