Worker centers may be the biggest thing non-union companies never heard of. They are pro-union advocates who organize rallies and protests, try to engage workers into acting collectively, and seek to get companies to discuss wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. If it sounds a lot like unions to you, it should. Unions are generally the founders and moneymen behind worker centers.
Sometimes worker centers are organized around a single company, like Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) which is part of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. Sometimes they encompass an entire industry such as the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) which is affiliated with the UNITE HERE union. They can be national or hyperlocal like the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) that focuses on organizing grocery store and restaurant workers in the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles.
But worker centers are not “labor organizations” – they are 501(c)(3) charities – so they are not regulated as heavily as unions nor do they pay taxes. Worker centers cannot engage in unfair labor practices and do not have to report income/expenses. They do, however, exert tremendous pressure on companies to yield to union demands during bargaining or foregoing secret ballot elections during a union organizing drive. For example, KIWA executed a corporate campaign against Koreatown store owners complete with picketing, parades, and social disobedience – and won.
For another example, ROC protestors used a 12-foot inflatable cockroach to scare off patrons from an eatery, took pictures of diners through the window attempting to intimidate them, and verbally assaulted people as they entered and existed the restaurant. In another case, ROC avoided an NLRB settlement order by calling their protests “prayer vigils” – services that were conveniently led by ROC and took the form of boisterous demonstrations right outside the restaurant’s doors.
When it is not attacking restaurants directly, ROC lobbies every level of government and releases “reports” that savage particular eateries. ROC’s annual “Diners’ Guide” rates restaurants not on food quality and service, but on whether they meet ROC’s arbitrary labor standards. The report heaps failing grades on most national chains while awarding a handful of single-outlet or regional locations a passing grade. ROC’s own NYC based restaurant gets many of the top marks – go figure – even though it has been cited for numerous health and safety violations and sued by its own employees for unpaid wages.
The proliferation of worker centers has caught the eye of Congress. Two Republican Representatives recently asked new Labor Secretary Thomas Perez for an official determination whether worker centers are in fact labor organizations. I won’t hold my breath for an employer-friendly ruling from Secretary Perez who has a reputation of being a pro-union advocate. So it is likely worker centers are here to stay.
I make the following analogy when giving seminars or educating clients about combatting worker centers: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. Meaning, worker centers can lead employees to unions, but they cannot make workers vote in favor of union representation. Companies with strong, consistent union-free philosophies and consistent management training will ride out this rush of worker centers unscathed. Companies with the mentality of “it can never happen to us” or “I’ll deal with it when it comes” will soon face the wrath of unregulated worker centers.
Matt Austin is a Columbus, Ohio lawyer who owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in central and northeast Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can always call Matt at 614.843.3041 or email him at Austin@LaborEmploymentOSHA.com