Union Officials Find a Way to Get Around Labor Law

Former NLRB member Peter Schaumber discusses union officials’ use of “worker centers” as organizing centers.  Because the centers are not subject to federal law, union officials find they are a useful way to circumvent regulations on union organizing.  Peter Schaumber has the story in the Hill.

Two weeks ago, in a sharply worded decision, a California state judge ordered one of the nation’s largest unions and a worker center to stop trespassing inside Walmart stores. The union is the United Food and Commercial International Workers Union (UFCW), and the worker center is OurWalmart, described by the UFCW in federal filings as a “subsidiary.”

According to the judge, Walmart made “every reasonable effort to settle any legally cognizable labor dispute in question with the defendants.” Nevertheless, the defendants summoned “flash mobs” by text and e-mail, and stormed the Walmart stores, blowing air horns, screaming, and blocking aisles and exits.

Worker centers are not something new; but their current use by unions is.  They provide unions with a vehicle to organize without the restrictions imposed by federal labor law, long considered by Big Labor an impediment to union organizing. Originally, worker centers were community-based non-profits that advocated for workers’ rights – funded by foundations, membership fees, and other donations. Although the structure and function of these centers varied widely, they all provided members a variety of services, such as job training, employment services, English-as-a-second-language and legal advice.

But many worker centers have expanded their activities into areas historically occupied by unions, and beginning in or about 2006, some have affiliated with unions.

That year, in response to the continuing decline of union membership – which recently dipped to 6.6 percent in the private sector – the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) announced a new policy of “extending affiliations to worker centers across the country.” Labor’s asserted aim? To create “new models of worker representation.” [Remarks of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Conference on New Models for Worker Representation, Chicago 2013]  The result is that if you scratch below the surface of many worker centers today you are likely to find a labor union.

Unions are increasingly outsourcing their organizing activities to worker center affiliates which engage in aggressive organizing campaigns to effect changes in the workplace, but consider themselves exempt from the labor laws that bind traditional unions, protect workers’ rights, and balance the interests of labor and management.

The key law is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which gave workers the right to organize and collectively bargain. At first, the act freed employees from the “duress of their employer.” But in 1947, it was amended “to free workers from the duress of the union as well.” [S. Report No. 106, Legislative History of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1947, p. 456] Among its many provisions, the amended law created and defined unfair union labor practices for the first time, prohibited secondary boycotts that vastly expand the scope of industrial conflicts and prohibited  prolonged picketing of employers to gain recognition.