Addressing Real Problems In the Workplace

Worker centers play a vital role in ensuring fairness on the job.

Maria Marroquin helps find work for unemployed workers at the Day Worker Center of Mountain View on Oct. 2, 2009, in Mountain View, Calif.
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When Superstorm Sandy hit New York and New Jersey last year, day laborers were among the first to lend a hand. They helped home- and business owners find safety during the storm, and they did the rebuilding to get life back to normal. Similarly, when homes in Southern California faced raging fires, day laborer worker centers formed volunteer brigades to do what they could to help.

Whether it is facilitating a recovery from a disaster or the more routine tasks of creating communities, educating workers for a better life, celebrating diverse cultures and helping ensure our nation's bedrock values protecting laborers are upheld, hundreds of worker centers open their doors each day for anyone seeking their services and support. Some focus on specific industries; others are neighborhood-based. Largely funded by charitable donations, we meet the unmet needs of low-wage and immigrant workers. We educate them about their rights. We offer the workforce development they need to gain dignified employment, teach English, and often help them navigate their new country.

Yet corporate interests have recently mounted a concerted effort to smear worker centers as "fronts" for labor unions and, more seriously, as lawbreakers. The Wall Street Journal reported that "The Center for Union Facts, which opposes organized labor and gets much of its funding from corporations, said it is launching an advertising campaign criticizing ties between unions and worker centers."

[Read Richard Berman: Worker Centers are Just a Backdoor for Unions]

The Center accuses these centers of not complying with laws applying to unions. But worker centers are not unions or fronts for them. We have our own independent history as nonprofit organizations. We do not represent or seek to represent employees in collective bargaining. The laws that labor unions are subject to clearly do not apply to worker centers simply because they advocate for workers, just as they don't apply to other organizations that may advocate for employers. The Department of Labor has twice concluded that a worker center is not subject to the special requirements for unions. Why should a group be subject to additional burdensome reporting requirements simply because it advocates for workers?

Corporations and their proxies are making these attacks in the form of faulty legal arguments for only one reason – to try to cut away another one of the few supports available to working people who often find themselves in unsafe jobs and abusive work environments, while making poverty-level wages. Corporations have already invested billions of dollars in a "union avoidance" industry that has reduced workers' access to a say on the job to lower than at nearly any time in history, and now they are turning their guns on worker centers too.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

An attack on these centers can only serve one group's interests, and it's not the hardworking people who make this country run. Over 11 million people are currently on the job in the U.S. who cannot effectively enforce their rights against employers willing to violate U.S. immigration and labor laws because they are undocumented. Wages of workers in America are falling while corporate profits have skyrocketed. And even the wages owed workers are often stolen from them rather than paid by their employers.

These are the real problems in today's workplace. Worker centers are addressing those problems. Attacking brave and dedicated advocates of laborers at the behest of powerful and wealthy interests is anything but noble.

Pablo Alvarado is executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.