Maybe, for once, past is not prologue, and this particular convention may have cause for more optimism and energy. Under the heading of, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the AFL-CIO took the unprecedented step of offering a membership arrangement with similar, smaller labor organizations known as “worker centers.” What is a worker center? It is not a legal term but refers to a subset of community-based organizations usually incorporated as 501c3 non-profit organizations that provide services to certain constituencies of workers, organize those workers and then advocate on their behalf.
Early worker centers, and some that still operate today, focused on providing services such as worker trainings and legal assistance. These centers proved effective in cultivating meaningful relationships with a non-union workforce. With union membership in steep decline, it wasn’t long before seasoned labor organizers recognized the advantages of the model and hijacked it for their own purposes.
As 501c3 charitable organizations, worker centers can operate in a regulatory gray area and because they are not officially recognized as labor organizations, they operate outside the purview of the National Labor Relations Board. This gives them the flexibility to interact with workers and employers in a less formal – read unregulated – manner and conduct activities that traditional labor unions might not be able to legally undertake. One could argue that this robs both the employer and the workers themselves of legal protections traditionally offered by NLRB jurisdiction.
Another important aspect for the AFL-CIO is the constituency of workers traditionally serviced by worker centers. They are disproportionately unskilled, newer Americans and work in large numbers in the service sector establishments such as restaurants, hotels, and other traditional retail businesses. This is a sector of the economy that Big Labor has been coveting for a long time but has been unable to find the right formula to effectively organize it. Service sector jobs tend not to be jobs that many workers are looking at as long-term engagements but as stepping-stones to other careers. The flexible nature of these jobs makes them a good fit for students, senior citizens and those looking to enter the work force for the first time or just work part-time but not a very good fit for labor unions who are looking for long-term stable dues paying members.
Enter the worker center as the perfect panacea for this conundrum. In fact, at organized labor’s last big meeting held in April in Florida, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka held up worker centers as the future of labor organizing and citing as examples worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Warehouse Workers for Justice and OUR Walmart. Well the future seems to be now as worker centers received royal treatment this week at their convention and were formally brought into the AFL-CIO matrix. Now organized labor will officially embrace the union front groups and unregulated organizing tactics that they have been quietly supporting for years.
Williams is an adviser to Worker Center Watch, an organization dedicated to exposing the direct linkages and funding between unions and worker centers. He was formerly a spokesman for the Romney presidential campaign.