Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice on this blog rebuked Kline and Roe by soft peddling worker centers’ goals and tactics.  In her words, “these centers, like the United Methodist Church, seek to empower and protect vulnerable workers in low-wage jobs.”  Unfortunately for Bobo, the public record on worker centers’ conduct is well established.

A case in point is the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which was one of the worker centers mentioned in the letter to Secretary Perez.  Quite simply, ROC is one of the most obvious labor union front groups—and it has also been one of the most successful when it comes to masquerading as an innocuous non-profit.

ROC was founded in 2002 by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union and exists to “organize the 99 percent of the [restaurant] industry that doesn’t have a union.”  ROC works in conjunction with what its co-founder has called its “fiscal sponsor” to map the restaurant industry and identify targets.  According to her, “While HERE focuses on big, ‘tablecloth’ restaurants, ROC-NY works with any restaurants, no matter how small. The goal is to create a labor-friendly climate in these places, so the union can organize them in a few years.”  She has also said, “we want the industry to feel threatened by the union or by us.”

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It’s no surprise then that ROC’s protests and shakedowns come directly from the union playbook.  Just ask the restaurant where ROC protesters used a 12-foot inflatable cockroach to scare off patrons, or the eatery where they verbally assaulted patrons and took pictures of diners through the window in an attempt to scare them from ever returning.  ROC’s harassment of patrons has been so aggressive that in one case, a judge issued a restraining order against the organization.  In another case, ROC deftly skirted the NLRB by labeling their protests “prayer vigils”—vigils that were conveniently led by ROC and took the form of boisterous demonstrations.  Some of ROC’s protests of non-union targets have lasted for years.  Unions, of course, are not permitted to picket endlessly.

ROC also lobbies the union agenda with little to no oversight. Since at least 2006, ROC has publicly boasted of its political prowess and actively lobbied for wage and benefits mandates at the local, state, and federal levels. Until recently, its lobbying campaigns took place without the federal government’s notice because ROC failed to report its lobbying activities to the IRS, as required by federal law.  If ROC and other worker centers were properly recognized and regulated as labor unions, it’s unlikely they would have been able to lobby for so long without public scrutiny.

ROC’s unabashed conduct has emboldened union bosses to launch similar efforts. The SEIU’s “Fast Food Forward” campaign, based in New York City, has staged numerous unionization campaigns at some of the Big Apple’s quick service restaurants. A similar campaign, “Fight for $15,” has led to the creation of multiple organizations in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Seattle, and St. Louis.

These organizations are growing in number because they can walk and talk like unions without any of the regulatory burden. Until the Department of Labor or NLRB recognizes worker centers for what they really are—labor unions attempting to unionize industries through non-traditional means—they will continue to proliferate.

To Bobo’s point: when the United Methodist Church is founded by a union, funded by a union, coordinating corporate smear campaigns with unions and lobbying the union agenda, then it too should be subject to union reporting requirements. In the meantime, Congress is right to question unions’ desperate attempt to stave off irrelevancy by sidestepping the laws and regulations that have governed their operation for the better part of a century.

Paranzino is communications director for ROC Exposed, which is supported by a coalition of restaurant workers, employers and citizens concerned about ROC’s campaigns against America’s restaurants.