Who’s behind the right-wing attack on worker centers?

The latest attack, Ryan Williams’ op-ed, “AFL-CIO counts on worker centers to reverse their fortunes,” appeared in last week’s Congress Blog. Williams, who works for an organization dedicated to undermining worker centers, repeats several falsehoods that have become standard right-wing talking points.  He wrongly states that unions have “hijacked” worker centers. Worker centers are not unions in disguise, but enjoy the support of a broad base of civil rights, immigrant, religious, community and environmental organizations. Indeed, in many respects, the situation is exactly the opposite to what Williams suggests: rather than worker centers becoming more like traditional unions, by advocating for better conditions for all workers, and not just for the interests of their own members, many unions are increasingly acting more like worker centers.

Williams provides a misleading characterization of the workers who benefit from the activities of worker centers.  He states that fast food and other service jobs that pay poverty wages are a “good fit for students, senior citizens and those looking to enter the work force for the first time or just work part-time.” In reality, the workers who hold these low-wage jobs are older and more educated than Williams would have us believe. In fast food, a majority of workers are adults with high school diplomas and some college education. Most would like full-time work, but cannot get it, and many have dependent children. They are frequently the victims of wage theft, and are sometimes forced to work in unhealthy or unsafe conditions. Worker centers are the only organizations advocating on their behalf.

Unions did not create worker centers, and most worker centers receive little or no funding from unions. Often operating on miniscule budgets, many probably wish they were union funded. Some worker centers receive limited financial and non-financial support from unions, which is unsurprising given that they share the goal of improving job protections for all workers. But the goal of worker centers is not to unionize workers. They do not engage in collective bargaining or negotiate legally binding agreements. Unlike unions, most worker centers have tiny full-time staffs and external advisory boards, not elected officers. They help vulnerable workers retrieve stolen wages, improve dangerous and unhealthy conditions, and educate workers about federal and state labor and employment laws.

Worker centers have won back stolen wages and enhanced safety in construction and other industries. In Texas, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of job-related fatalities in the construction sector, they have provide vulnerable workers with training and education, protective equipment, and guidance with compensation claims.  In the process, worker centers have retrieved over $1 million in unlawfully withheld wages and have advocated for more effective protections for undocumented workers. Without worker centers, those vulnerable immigrants would be entirely on their own and without an advocate.

The real scandal is not, as Williams believes, the activities of non-profit organizations on shoestring budgets attempting to improve the conditions and protect the lives of vulnerable workers.  Rather, it is the activities of their right-wing critics inside and outside of Congress. Instead of protecting the nation’s low-wage workers, Republicans in Congress are protecting its labor law violators. By attacking worker centers, they are effectively standing with rogue employers who steal wages or profit from dangerous workplaces and against workers who are the victims of wage theft or who are forced to risk their lives at work. 

Even worse are the activities of shadowy organizations like the “Center for Union Facts” and “Worker Center Watch” that attack worker centers while refusing to disclose their wealthy donors. Unlike the worker centers they target, these groups are lavishly funded, most likely by the same ultra-conservative individuals and corporations that have waged war on working and middle-class Americans over the past few years.

The next time they speak out on the topic, Kline and Roe might inquire about the identity of the paymasters behind this right-wing assault on the nation’s most vulnerable workers. Then again, they may already know the answer to that question.

Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.