Do­ing Big La­bor’s dirty work

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Richard Ber­man

On Wed­nes­day, sev­eral dozen union­ized work­ers as­sem­bled at the World War II Me­mo­rial in an ef­fort to share the stage with many of our na­tion’s vet­er­ans. Not­with­stand­ing the van­ity of their brazen act, the pro­test­ers — who be­long to an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Good Jobs Na­tion — used the op­por­tu­nity to de­mand that House Repub­li­cans give in to the pres­i­dent’s de­mands and “re­open” the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

While the demon­stra­tion had many of the hall­marks of a protest co­or­di­nated by a la­bor union, Good Jobs Na­tion is merely the lat­est en­trant into the bur­geon­ing move­ment of so-called “worker cen­ters.” Th­ese groups, which have stolen na­tional head­lines in re­cent months with na­tion­wide protests at fast-food and re­tail out­lets, are the brain­child of la­bor lead­ers who have seen their mem­ber­ship and rel­e­vance pre­cip­i­tously de­cline in re­cent years.

La­bor lead­ers have turned to worker cen­ters pre­cisely be­cause they can tar­get non-union­ized in­dus­tries in unique ways. Whereas tra­di­tional union or­ga­ni­za­tional pick­ets are re­stricted to 30 days, at which point they ei­ther have to file a pe­ti­tion for union­iza­tion or pack up and leave, worker cen­ters can picket in­def­i­nitely — so long as they don’t ac­tu­ally try to bar­gain with the tar­geted em­ployer on be­half of em­ploy­ees.

The Na­tional La­bor Re­la­tions Act specif­i­cally pro­hibits this kind of ac­tiv­ity. It un­nec­es­sar­ily cre­ates em­ployer-em­ployee fric­tion in in­dus­tries where there is nowhere near the 30 per­cent thresh­old at which point em­ploy­ees may re­quest union­iza­tion. Ab­sent such a re­stric­tion, unions are able to bring any busi­ness to its knees — with or with­out em­ployee sup­port.

Worker cen­ters cir­cum­vent this pro­hi­bi­tion by reg­is­ter­ing as char­i­ties or non­prof­its. When they tar­get an em­ployer, they only use a se­lect few dis­grun­tled em­ploy­ees, who then claim to speak on be­half of their co-work­ers. Then they ar­ti­fi­cially boost the size of their al­ways-tiny em­ployee con­tin­gent by hir­ing more pro­test­ers and bring­ing in friendly com­mu­nity groups and non-em­ployee union or­ga­niz­ers.

The or­ga­niz­ers, of course, make sure that the pro­test­ers stay on mes­sage. In some cases, they even en­sure that the me­dia only talk to one or two ac­tual strik­ing em­ploy­ees who have re­ceived pro­fes­sional pub­lic re­la­tions train­ing prior to their de­but on the na­tional stage.

Unions have al­ready poured mil­lions of dol­lars into this strat­egy. Good Jobs Na­tion, for in­stance, is a project of the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union. So are the na­tion­wide fast-food protests, which col­lec­tively op­er­ated un­der the um­brella name “Fight for $15,” and have re­ceived at least $7.5 mil­lion from their union back­ers. Sim­i­larly, re­cent protests at Wal-Mart were led by the United Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers In­ter­na­tional Union’s “OUR Wal­mart” worker center, while the Ho­tel Em­ploy­ees and Restau­rant Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union helped found the “Restau­rant Op­por­tu­ni­ties Center” to tar­get big-name restau­rants in ma­jor Amer­i­can cities.

Other worker cen­ters are pop­ping up at an alarm­ing rate. Twenty years ago, there were five or fewer; to­day, there are at least 230. It’s im­pos­si­ble to count the ex­act num­ber of worker cen­ters pre­cisely be­cause the le­gal waters sur­round­ing them are so murky.

They haven’t fooled ev­ery­one, though. Last week, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives held a hear­ing on “The Fu­ture of Union Or­ga­niz­ing” to seek an­swers about th­ese groups. Rep. John Kline, Min­nesota Repub­li­can, and Rep. Phil Roe, Ten­nessee Repub­li­can, have also asked Sec­re­tary of La­bor Thomas Perez to clar­ify ex­actly why they aren’t reg­u­lated like the la­bor unions that essen­tially act as pup­pet mas­ters of the worker cen­ters.

La­bor lead­ers need to an­swer those ques­tions, not least for the sake of the em­ploy­ees who are be­ing used in con­tra­ven­tion of fed­eral law. Those laws were en­acted pre­cisely be­cause em­ploy­ees de­serve pro­tec­tion from ma­nip­u­la­tive prac­tices — ei­ther by em­ploy­ers or by union of­fi­cials. Richard Ber­man is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Center for Union Facts, which also op­er­ates Work­erCen­ters.com.

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