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The blurry line between worker centers and unions

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In this photo from Sept. 4, 2017, members of the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, gather for a Labor Day rally in downtown Los Angeles. The SEIU works with traditional unions, but it also partners with worker centers that operate just outside of federal labor law, allowing them to recruit and organize in a manner that traditional union organizers cannot. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

It is no secret that Big Labor’s relationship with the Obama administration was a cozy one.

A string of policy decisions and political appointments helped advance a decidedly pro-union agenda, tilting the proverbial scales within the National Labor Relations Board heavily in favor of huge union donors, including the Service Employees International Union.

Fortunately, the Trump administration continues to unwind some of the more damaging decisions and regulations enacted by its predecessor, with the NLRB recently undoing the Obama-era ruling on the joint employer standard as well as the Specialty Healthcare decision.

However, as the new administration seeks to address the many anti-workplace policies established over the last eight years, they should focus their attention on a lesser-known but hugely significant vestige of the Obama era: the shape-shifting "worker center."

While not currently considered a labor union under the National Labor Relations Act, worker centers are increasingly starting to look and act like the Big Labor groups with which they frequently partner. Unlike unions, however, worker centers are able to operate seemingly without restraint. With the influence of these groups growing rapidly in recent years, perhaps it’s time for the Department of Labor to explicitly define worker centers as unions, so they are beholden to the same federal laws that govern union-organizing activities.

By operating just outside of federal labor law, worker centers like the SEIU-affiliated Fast Food Workers can partner with Big Labor groups to recruit and organize individuals in a manner that traditional union organizers cannot. They are essentially free from oversight, enabling them to target employees more aggressively and conduct activities, such as limitless picketing and multi-million-dollar public relations campaigns, to advance the formation of collective bargaining units without restraint.

A recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce examines the expanding role of worker centers in union-organizing efforts, noting that “the shift toward worker-center unionism per se may be on the uptick, with more attempts to deal with employers regarding the terms and conditions of employment.” It’s no coincidence that the steady rise of worker centers’ influence has taken place over the same period of time that traditional union membership has continued its steady decline. In fact, that is exactly why union bosses are turning to worker centers to help them recruit and organize workers – because their traditional tactics are no longer enough to convince workers to organize themselves.

While worker centers have been on the radar for those in workforce and labor policy for years, much of their activity is still largely unknown to the general public, even when public policy decisions made at the state and local levels demonstrate a clear bias toward propping up these union-hybrid organizations.

Take New York City, for example. Just this past spring, the City Council passed an ordinance that would require fast-food businesses and employers to forward voluntary deductions from their employees’ paychecks to non-profit, worker-center backed groups like the “Fight for $15” campaign. This so-called “deduction bill” would compel employers to direct funds to politically and ideologically opposed groups bent on undermining and disrupting their industry.

This is a backdoor means for pro-union groups and worker centers to collect what are essentially union dues – money that will be used to organize workers – even from economic sectors and employees that Big Labor has failed to unionize, like the fast food industry.

There is a reason union membership is declining – union bosses are failing to attract workers through their traditional tactics. Workers have grown tired of heavy-handed threats from union organizers that they’ll lose their jobs unless they pay union dues. Union spending is also frustrating workers, with millions of dollars being poured into political campaigns and plush accommodations for labor bosses that they do not support. So now, short of any real reason for workers to unionize, Big Labor is increasingly turning to worker centers to boost their rapidly declining membership base.

The New York City deduction law is nothing more than another way for union bosses to force employers to help fill depleted union coffers. The measure officially went into effect Nov. 26, but it is being challenged in court by the National Restaurant Association for violation of employers’ First Amendment rights.

If recent trends hold, the influence of worker centers over union organizing and fundraising will only continue to rise, helping advance a Big Labor agenda even if it means siphoning funds away from employees who have not chosen to unionize and may not fully understand where their money is going or what political cause it is supporting.

It is well past time for the Trump administration and the Department of Labor to protect workers and classify worker centers as labor organizations under the NLRA and Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. If worker centers are going to continue acting as de facto union organizers, then they should be held accountable to the same set of standards and laws as any other labor organization.

Heather Greenaway is a spokesperson for the Workforce Fairness Institute (WFI).

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