While union membership has been declining nationally and the courts are taking a rather harsh look at the tactics they employ to extract money from members, the larger labor unions have had to find ways around the system. One of these tactics has been prominently in use in New York City and it’s spreading outward from there. Some, like the SEIU, have been setting up what are euphemistically called “Worker Centers.” As Forbes reported last week, this has allowed them to skirt the rules and collect what amount to dues from workers without having to follow normal rules for establishing a formal union.
If you can’t win the game, change the rules.
This ignoble sentiment has become a slogan for the modern labor movement, which has struggled to reverse its steady decline in membership. Rather than taking a hard look at the reasons why employees have abandoned unions, some labor organizers have embraced a new brand: Worker centers.
The term sounds innocuous enough, but it’s legally significant. Worker centers aren’t bound by the same behavioral restrictions and transparency requirements as labor unions–allowing them to operate in a similar fashion to a union while dodging rules that were put in place to rein in excesses. Secretary Acosta has said he wants to examine this labor loophole, and the scrutiny couldn’t come soon enough.
When the SEIU was unsuccessful in pushing through the Fight for 15 in the fast food industry in New York, they had their friends on the city council pass a new law which would force fast food outlets to collect contributions (which are simply dues by another name) from the workers. This scheme was sold by claiming that it would allow the employees to form their own non-profit cooperative to do advocacy work for their industry, but it was also made quite clear where those “contributions” were really going. They went to the SEIU worker center. In this way, they were able to skirt the law and still get their hands in the pockets of the workers.
This actually isn’t a new phenomenon, though it’s growing aggressively now. The Federalist Society did a study of these “worker centers” back in 2013 and found that they were growing in power precisely because they were able to avoid the oversight required by the National Labor Relations Act among other laws.
Yet, few, if any of these worker centers are required to comply with the laws that regulate labor organizations—meanwhile some worker centers use these same laws to promote the rights of the workers they represent. Many provisions of these laws were enacted to ensure certain minimum rights of workers vis a vis the organizations that represent them. Statutes like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) contain significant protections with respect to promotion of the principles of organizational democracy, access to basic information and promotion of a duty of fair representation.
It’s those principles of organizational democracy which are missing in worker centers, and that’s presumably just how the unions would like to see it remain. Unions prefer ambush elections in the dark where they can misinform, cajole or even threaten workers to gain their support while shutting employers out of the conversation. When they lose that opportunity, as we saw with VW in Tennesse recently, the unions have been losing out. So keep an eye on this space because we’ll be tracking worker center activity this year and trying to keep workers informed of their actual options as well as respecting their right not to have their money forcibly extracted from their paychecks and used to promote political speech they may not agree with.
If private sector workers jointly decide to organize under a union to engage in collective bargaining with their employer, they should have the right to do so. (Public employees are a different question, but that can wait for another day.) But when they do, they also have the right to be fully informed in terms of what will be expected of them by the union, what it’s going to cost them and where their money is going, not just what they might expect to get in return.