Worker Centers: A Backdoor for Unions

Labor unions don't like that nobody's buying what they're selling.

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The way the country's labor officials tell it, federal labor laws are insufficient for the 21st century. They're absolutely right – but not for the reasons they claim. Labor leaders were actually for the country's labor laws before they were against them. That was when the labor movement boasted 35 percent of the private sector workforce in the 1950s. It's only since then that they've turned on the same laws, which were unable to prevent them from sliding to their current near-century low of 6.6 percent of the workforce.

That decline can't be blamed on labor laws, however. Rather, it's the labor movement itself that no longer appeals to the American employee. Nobody's buying what unions are selling.

Unions have effectively undercut their own brand. What once made them so appealing was their promise of a better workplace. Fast forward to today, when much of what unions once fought for is now regulated by the federal government. From workplace safety to anti-discrimination and health care, the wrongs against which labor has historically fought have almost all been righted.

As a result, unions now have little to offer their members. Their dues are still high, but their value is low. Yet labor leaders are desperate to hang on to power and a well-paying job and to protect their own $24 billion industry. That's why they're trying to hijack employee rights by circumventing labor laws.

[Read Pablo Alvarado: Worker Centers Meet the Needs of Low-Wage and Immigrant Laborers]

Unions have recently exploited a legal loophole in federal law by establishing so-called "worker centers." These are unregulated union front groups that avoid federal labor laws by registering as nonprofits and charities. The most prominent groups are the "Fight for $15," backed by the Service Employees International Union, which has staged nationwide strikes at fast-food restaurants, and "OUR Walmart," which is a thinly-veiled attempt by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union to unionize retailers.

These groups want to unionize their targets, but they're not actually labor unions. Their legal status allows them to dodge all of the financial transparency, governance and organizational regulations established by federal law. There are no officer elections, no annual financial filings with the federal government and no guarantees that they're acting on behalf of the employees they claim to represent.

The irony of worker centers is that they expand union officials' stranglehold on power. They make the already-failing union model even more top-down and undemocratic.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

That's not what the American worker needs. But that doesn't mean that labor laws shouldn't be updated. Instead, those laws should be strengthened in such a way that employees are actually empowered.

The Employee Rights Act, which was introduced during the last Congress, contains many provisions that would accomplish just that. It requires that all employees give written consent before unions can spend their dues for political campaigns. The ERA also would require that all unionization votes and strike votes be conducted via secret ballot and that union members periodically vote on whether they want to keep their union – an important provision, given that only 10 percent of currently unionized employees actually voted for the union that collects their dues.

Predictably, none of these pro-employee policies have the support of labor leaders. They simply don't want to relinquish the power and the money that comes with their jobs.

Richard Berman is executive director of the Center for Union Facts.