House Hearing Scrutinizes Union Front Groups
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Author: Sean P. Redmond
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US Chamber of Commerce

House Hearing Scrutinizes Union Front Groups

(Moderators Note. The following article is from the US Chamber of Commerce, a group that is not a friend of workers or unions. This is printed because this moderator believes it is important for us to know what our enemies are worried about.)

The House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on September 19 entitled, “The Future of Union Organizing” to examine current trends in union activity, including the increased role of union front groups known as “worker centers.”  As this blog noted nearly a year ago, the use of worker centers as front groups for unions has been a key strategy among certain labor organizations to circumvent federal laws that would otherwise restrict their behavior, so it is a good sign that Congress has started to take more notice.

The hearing came just a week after the quadrennial convention of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), at which the labor federation adopted resolutions that specifically called for an increase in the use of worker centers to bolster Labor’s agenda and boost its flagging membership. Between that and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s earlier announcement that using worker centers would become an explicit part of Labor’s strategy, observers of labor policy have begun to analyze the legal and policy implications of this model.

This new strategy has already been playing out, including last November’s “Black Friday” protests, which the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) orchestrated through its front group OUR Walmart, and several days of action against fast food restaurants led by front groups associated with the SEIU.  These activities have garnered considerable media attention, which has also prompted more scrutiny of the worker center phenomenon.

In July, the House Education and Workforce Committee requested information from Labor Secretary Thomas Perez about the Department of Labor’s (DOL) stance with regard to worker centers.  Specifically, the committee asked DOL to provide “an official determination” about certain worker centers’ compliance with the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), which requires labor organizations to adhere to democratic governance requirements and to file annual financial disclosure information with DOL.

In it response, DOL stated that it would not comment on any ongoing investigations, but that it had previously determined that OUR Walmart and a restaurant industry worker center called the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) were not covered by the LMRDA for various reasons.  While not unexpected, DOL’s response struck the House committee as inadequate to say the least, and it followed up with a request for more documentation explaining how these determinations were made.

At last week’s hearing, the author of a law review article exploring the legality of worker centers testified about the increase in worker center activities that seem to blur, if not outright cross, the line between a “labor organization” covered by labor laws versus a non-profit group that is not.  By engaging with employers about working conditions, these groups act in many ways like unions that seek many of the same objectives using many of the same tactics.

As their protests and activities continue to increase, further scrutiny of worker centers by Congress will help ensure that Labor’s new strategy will at least not include skirting the law.  Surely this is not too much to ask. 


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