Not so fast. Worker centers are actually nothing more than labor unions by a different name—and thanks to a loophole in federal labor law, they’re able to employ old strategies using new tactics that would otherwise be illegal.

Worker centers are nothing new; some have been around for decades. The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), for example, has been pestering high-profile restaurants in New York City since 2002, while the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been making demands on restaurants and grocery stores since 2005.


But where worker centers like ROC and CIW were once oddities, they are now becoming commonplace. Overall, the number of worker centers in the United States has skyrocketed from five in the early 1990s to over 230 today. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has singled them out for praise, saying they “open up union membership and make the benefits of representation available to all workers.”

What makes worker centers so attractive to union leaders like Trumka is that they don’t fall under the purview of either the National Labor Relations Act or the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, the two laws designed to balance the competing interests of unions, employees, and businesses.

Worker centers avoid these laws’ requirements by registering as non-profits and charities, just like United Way, the Red Cross, or your local church. As a result, they’re free to picket employers indefinitely without calling for a unionization election—which the NLRA expressly prohibits—and they never have to file financial information with the federal government to demonstrate that they are acting on behalf of the employees they claim to represent.

This legal freedom allows worker centers to target employers and industries that labor unions have long lusted after. It should come as no surprise, then, that the most prominent worker centers are nothing more than the creatures of traditional unions.

ROC, for instance, was founded by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employee International Union. Similarly, OUR Walmart was founded by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and the Fight for $15 and its offshoots draw most of their funding from the Service Employees International Union.

These unions want nothing more than to organize employees whose employers have rejected their traditional romancing time and time again.

The difference is that none of this scheming happens under the “union” name. But this only gives the unions behind the pickets an additional benefit: By appearing to join hands with the worker centers they spawned, unions claim to fight for “social justice” and “worker rights” on a grand scale. This simultaneously boosts the labor movement’s bona fides with progressives and opens up new doors for organizing the American workplace—an equation that labor leaders hope will return them to the political and economic power base they so desperately crave.

All that’s missing in this calculus is a respect for the employees who those labor leaders are manipulating.  At the end of the day, federal labor laws were specifically designed to keep both businesses and unions fair and democratic—and yet those same laws have been the first casualty in the labor movement’s desperate search for new blood.

Berman is the executive director at the Center for Union Facts, which recently launched