Non-union groups known as "worker centers" are on the rise, helped by their ability to avoid limits placed on labor unions, says Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts.
On Monday the AFL-CIO voted to have worker centers join the organization. Worker centers have recently "coalesced into a widespread movement," Berman writes in The Wall Street Journal
"They attracted public attention this summer by staging nationwide "strikes" at fast-food restaurants and big-box retailers. While the demonstrations appeared to be standard union campaigns, the groups behind them legally identify themselves as non-profits, charities, educational outfits and community organizations."
The worker centers are able to get around the National Labor Relations Act in their efforts to organize workers, Berman says. That's because the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that they aren't subject to the regulations that apply to unions as long as they limit themselves to making demands on an employer without trying to engage in back-and-forth negotiations.
Worker centers begin by organizing protests and media campaigns claiming mistreatment of employees, Berman says. Unlike traditional unions, worker centers can conduct indefinite pickets.
"At no point do they have to petition the NLRB for an election," he says. "This end-run around federal law helps unions in industries that have historically kept organized labor at arm's length."
Initially, worker-center "strikes" include few employees, such as the recent actions at Wal-Mart and fast-food restaurants
, Berman says. "Yet the strikes appear larger because they are swelled by professional union organizers and other labor-backed community groups," he says.
"The initial goal is to sway public opinion against an employer, which will then incite dissent among an ever-larger pool of employees. The final goal, though, is still unionization. The most prominent worker centers have been established by major labor unions."
Worker centers structure membership in different ways, Berman says. Some have dues-paying members who are either employees or just community members. Others consist of former union officials and organizers along with a few employees.
"Because of their legal status, worker centers also dodge the standard union financial transparency and governance regulations under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act," Berman says.
"There are no officer elections, no annual financial filings with the Department of Labor, and no guarantees that the worker center is acting on behalf of employees' interests."
There are now 230 worker centers active nationwide, according to the AFL-CIO. That compares to the five counted in 1992 by Rutgers Professor Janice Fine.
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