Chamber turns up heat on worker centers

Washington’s biggest business lobby is ratcheting up its criticism of worker centers that it says are operating as labor unions in disguise.

In a 39-page report released on Wednesday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative digs into the history, funding and tactics of some of the most prominent worker centers while highlighting the groups’ ties to organized labor.

Critics of the centers say they are skirting labor law and avoiding more disclosure by not registering as unions even as they protest for higher wages at retailers and fast-food restaurants.

“Many labor unions have created, or in some cases sought to harness, what they portray as grassroots organizations commonly referred to as worker centers. In spite of their appearance, however, the most well-known of these groups hardly represent grassroots uprisings by workers. Instead, they are, for the most part, formed and incubated by well-established and well-funded labor unions and foundations,” said the Chamber in its report.

The AFL-CIO and others in the labor movement have sought to bolster the nonprofit groups even as traditional union organizing has faltered.

In its report, the Chamber profiles five worker centers: Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), Warehouse Workers United, New York Communities for Change, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha.

OUR Walmart and Warehouse Workers United have been organizing massive protests against the retailer, including ones that took place during last year’s Black Friday sales. The Chamber report notes that some of the worker centers are close to unions, such as OUR Walmart being listed as a “subsidiary” on the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s reports to the Labor Department.

The business group leads its report with an excerpt from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s speech to the 2013 Conference on New Models for Worker Representation in Chicago.

“For the national labor movement to play its part in helping workers organize, we must open up union membership and make the benefits of representation available to all workers. We need to create new models of worker representation. We need to be more strategic and forward-looking,” Trumka said.  

Labor has seen its ranks thin in recent years. The rate of union members has slid year after year, though the overall membership rate remained the same from 2012 to 2013, at 11.3 percent.

The Chamber report follows another study by the business group on worker centers. Released in November, that report tallied up $57 million in funding to worker centers from foundations from 2009 to 2012.

“Contrary to their public façade, union front groups are well-financed, highly-sophisticated labor organizations,” said Glenn Spencer of the Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative in a statement about the November study. “When you pull back the curtain, one finds a river of financial support flowing to these groups from activist foundations.”