Date: Jul 01, 2014
Magazine:
July 2014: The Doctor Tells All-Link Between Cancer & Nutrition

By Michael Saqui, The Saqui Law Group

 

Foundations of the Worker Center Movement

If you have never heard of worker centers, you are not alone.  However, be advised as worker centers have become a powerful yet unwieldy weapon in organized labor’s arsenal.  Worker centers utilize grass roots methods to disrupt business supply chains, they skirt federal law in doing so, and employers are struggling to adapt.  Unions are also struggling to control their new creations and to transform their guerilla tactics and the ensuing media attention into actual dues paying members.

Worker centers are tax-exempt organizations that offer education, training, employment services, and legal advice to workers, as is appropriate for their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status.  In addition, some worker centers advocate for worker rights through demonstrations, lobbying, and community organizing.  They seek to persuade employers to change wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.

In order to sway public opinion and ultimately force employers to bend to their will, these Union front groups are staging protests in cities around the nation to generate publicity and disrupt businesses in their ongoing public relations campaign against retail employers, fast food operators, growers of agricultural products, and the multi-national agribusiness and food processors that produce the nation’s food supply.  During the initial stages of activity, these highly disruptive actions rarely involve the targeted employer’s actual employees.  The worker center activists and their allies are professional protesters who sing songs, carry signs, and chant through bull horns in protest more focused on generating media attention than helping workers.  “Unions desperate for new dues after decades of declining membership have embraced non-profit worker centers to do their dirty work for them.  Worker centers are labor organizations that clearly fit the definition,” according to Ryan Williams, media director for the Worker Center Watch, a Coalition of Business Owners and concerned citizens dedicated to exposing union’s abuse of the worker center organization model.[1]

Worker centers have been around for decades, but more recently coalesced into a widespread movement.  While these demonstrations appear to be standard union campaigns, the groups behind them legally identify themselves as nonprofits, charities, educational outfits and community organizations.[2]

 

HOW WORKER CENTERS OPERATE

The worker centers perform certain core functions, most notably organizing, that historically has been reserved for the unions themselves, but in social and economic spaces where most traditional unions have not been able to operate successfully.  By reaching out to and through worker centers and their allied community organizations in the hope of capturing the benefit of this community based grass-roots organizing and in some instances by mimicking center-like structures within the traditional union framework, the AFL-CIO and various international unions are hoping to reverse the long term adverse trend in union participation which severely threatens their power.[3]

Janice Fine, who studies the phenomenon, has defined worker centers as “community-based and community-lead organizations that engage in the combination of service, advocacy and organizing to provide support to low wage workers.”[4]  They represent a relatively new approach to organizing workers in low skill and entry level jobs and one that is particularly attuned to immigrant and minority communities because of its roots, not in the labor movements but in community organizing.

Worker centers begin their campaigns by staging periodic protests and prolonged media campaigns alleging widespread mistreatment of employees by targeted employers.  Unlike traditional labor organizations, which are restricted under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to a 30-day picketing, unless they file a petition for representation, worker centers can engage in indefinite picketing.  At no point do worker centers have to petition the NLRB for an election.  The initial goal is to sway public opinion against the employer which will then incite dissent among an ever larger pool of employees.  The final goal, however, remains unionization of the targeted business.  Because of their legal status, worker centers also dodge the standard union financial transparency and governance regulations under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.  There are no officer elections, no annual financial filings with the Department of Labor, and no guarantees that the worker center is acting on behalf of employee interest.  Their legal status is crucial because it allows these groups, in their campaigns to organize the American workplace, and to circumvent the National Labor Relations Act.

 

BAG OF TRICKS

Several egregious practices by unions and their worker center allies have been exposed by the media including:

•  Planning to have certain protesters arrested in major media markets to maximize publicity;

•  Paying the legal bills of anyone arrested and coordinating with local police in advance on specifics of how arrests will take place;

•  Paying protesters to participate;

•  Busing in protesters from out-of-state to create the appearance of numerous workers participating;

•  Intimidating employees on the street through fear and noisy demonstrations;

•  Paying videographers to capture actions for mainstream and social media outlets;

•  Violating labor organizing rules by passing out union flyers to employees working within the businesses being targeted;

•  Crying out “Racism,” “Sexism,” “Exploitation,” “Wage-Theft,” and “Slavery” as common themes pairing them with images meant to conjure up negative images such as Southern plantation slavery, depression-era labor camps and Trayvon Martin;

•  Accusing companies of intimidation, violence, sexual assault, rape and has no boundaries even when children are concerned;

•  Interrupting supply-chain production, transportation, food-safety, and delivery of product;

•  Designing consumer boycott campaigns based on lies and half-truths disparaging companies, family business owners and employees who dare to speak out against such actions as “job killers;”

•  Utilizing social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to sway public opinion, spread misinformation, and bait business leaders into an online dialogue;

•  Engage “Hacktivists”…yes “Hacktivists”— highly educated computer geeks that tear through a company’s food safety and defense systems, operating platforms, traceability protocols…just for kicks or in the name of the cause.

 

FOLLOW THE MONEY

It is clear that none of this activity occurs or at least has any effect without the availability of one critical resource, money.  It takes money to organize, it takes money to communicate effectively and it takes money to grow and sustain even the smallest and most local of associations.[5]  And it is here, in the area of finance, where the worker centers benefit from yet another accelerating historical development: a boom in the number of assertive, sophisticated and wealthy activists dedicated to charitable foundations and “social justice.”  A recent study released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce show that unions and certain foundation allies are funneling millions of dollars through the worker centers to drive political and social agendas.3

 

Agribusiness is Uniquely Susceptible...the Agrarian Rebellion

Within agriculture there is an ever-growing nucleus of community-based worker centers and community lead organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy and organizing to provide support to low wage workers.  They represent a relatively new approach to supporting workers in low skill and entry level jobs are particularly attuned to immigrant and minority communities because of their roots, not in the labor movement, but in community organizing.  Worker centers or worker advocacy organizations are simply established in furtherance of the idea of outsourcing the customary core function of labor unions…organizing.  The most effective worker centers within this segment are innovative in membership education efforts, their coalition building approach, and in their selective targeting of employers and supply chains.  They have a consistent line of attack in picking a clear target, garnering empathy and support for their causes, equating their causes to “worker rights” and “human rights,” and they attract the support of college and high school students who are increasingly considering “social consciousness” in making their purchasing decisions.  These groups also employ old school tactics such as hunger strikes, boycotts, and marches to draw attention to themselves and their causes.[6]  Agricultural employees who may not ordinarily be drawn to traditional labor unions are drawn to worker center type groups due to the groups’ holistic community oriented approach, their pervasive use of social media, and their message being equated to the civil rights movement.  Of course, the unions controlling the worker centers want to convert these employees into dues paying members at the end of the day.

 

Overview of Ag Based Worker Center Conflicts and Resolutions

1.  Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – is a worker based human rights organization.  CIW’s market based campaigns dealing with tomato companies and pressuring fast food corporations such as Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Safeway to participate in its Fair Food Program which enforces its fair food code of conduct which increases wages and provides better working conditions.  CIW built its following on its anti-slavery campaign.  CIW’s most notable conflicts are boycotts against Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King and Whole Foods.

2.  Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) – is both a social movement and a labor union with an immediate constituency consisting of migrant workers in the agricultural industry with heavy involvement in immigrant workers, Latinos, and local communities concerned with justice.  Most notably, they used a corporate campaign to win a seat for farmworkers at the bargaining table along with growers and corporations.  They won a three way labor contract between farmworkers, Campbell’s Soup and the tomato and cucumber growers in Ohio and Michigan.  They won the Mt. Olive Pickle boycott in 2004 and the subsequent signing of a contract with North Carolina Growers Association covering thousands of farmworkers in that state.  Most notable for FLOC was the establishment of the Dunlap Agricultural Commission which functioned as a private labor relations board whose authority was guaranteed in the contractual agreement signed by parties.  This was after FLOC moved on from its worker center core to and including becoming an organizing committee and union affiliated committee for the AFL-CIO.

3.  Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United) (PCUN) – is Oregon’s union of farmworkers, nursery, and reforestation workers and Oregon’s largest Latino organization.  Notable conflicts include Kraemer Farms/NORPAC.  In focusing on Kraemer, they focused a boycott on both Steinfeld’s Pickle Company and NORPAC.  The boycott of NORPAC launched September 1992.  Student and religious groups of the Northwest and around the country joined in support of the boycott of NORPAC.  PCUN’s primary weapon in the boycott development was the utilization of college students and the touring of college campuses.  The Summer 2000 Student Mobilization Campaign pledged support and students at dozens of campuses pressured university administrators to terminate relations with any food service companies that did not honor the boycott.

4.  Community-To-Community (C2C) – Aguila del Norte Immigration Justice Project-Boycott companies and destroy supply chain integrity under the auspices of working collaboratively with immigrant community leaders, local organizations, faith community, elected officials and law enforcement in the development of dignified and effective ways to end the marginalization of immigrants and their families; provide support and solidarity by advocating for humane immigration reform and enforcement policies.  Some of their current targets include Nestle, Häagen-Dazs and Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington.

5.  Familias Unidas por la Justicia – Their boycott includes Häagen-Dazs and others who use strawberries picked from Sakuma Brothers Farms.  This farmworker worker center has made demands ranging from demanding the H-2A worker program be stopped, to demanding that piece rates be negotiated daily, field-by-field.  They represent very few employees, relying instead on outsiders, and focusing on a boycott based on “racism,” “wage theft” and “slavery” images.

 

CAN’T BEAT THEM OR MAKE MONEY FROM THEM??… THEN JOIN THEM!!

Nationally; Labor:  The AFL-CIO reports that there are now 230 worker center groups active around the country.  In 1992, Rutgers Professor, Janice Fine, quoted herein, counted only five such organizations.  With these groups now formally in the AFL-CIO, the labor movement stands to gain credibility among both progressives and the wider public.  For all the publicity these worker centers have generated, it is still unclear whether they will succeed in organizing the workplace.  Labor unions have turned to worker centers precisely because the majority of employees, which is the number necessary for unionization under the NLRA, are not interested in unionization.  It is also a telling fact that the unions are more concerned with convincing the general public of the labor movement’s continued relevancy than convincing the employees they claim to represent.  The simple fact remains that in this new era of social justice and Twitter revolution, companies of all sizes, big and small, are competing in an ever-changing and more highly competitive market with smaller margins than ever.  The consumer base is increasingly sympathetic with social justice causes and they are bombarded with messages from these groups in real-time through technology.

The damage to a brand brought about by social justice campaigns, whether they are true or not, when focusing on human slavery worker exploitation, racism, immigration status, wage-theft, and things of that nature are not tolerable, not even for a second, not in a world where consumers have far more choices than ever before and shop with their social conscious and not with their pocketbooks.  In this age of immediate gratification, these activists are bringing about much greater change through disruptive actions and they are able to contact CEOs directly through twitter feeds: a feat that could not be accomplished by 100 Union bosses.  They have immediate feedback on their efforts as a boycott through social media takes hold and a CEO scrambles to bring its suppliers in line in order to avoid brand damage, which in this age of social media can happen in literally minutes.

Closer To Home: Labor, The UFW, and The Equitable Food Initiative:  Here in California, the UFW’s latest brain child is leveraging this growing trend.  The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) presents, according to their talking points, an opportunity for the produce industry to offer increased assurance to consumers that their fruits and vegetables have been grown and harvested in ways that respect workers and reduce the potential for transmission of food-borne illness.  By engaging farmworkers, growers, food companies and consumers around common interests, EFI is developing innovations that create measurable benefits for all parties in the produce system.  Collaborations among these stakeholders — many of whom were historically at odds-has been vital in success to date.[7]  EFI is co-chaired by Oxfam America and United Farm Workers, and brings together stakeholders across the produce supply chain to guarantee that EFI standards and training meet the diverse needs of the industry.  From the private sector, major food buyers Costco Wholesale and Bon Appetit Management Company have joined EFI’s steering committee along with Calvert Investments and Andrew and Williamson Fresh Produce.

Corporate America…not to be outdone, finds value in partnering with Farm Labor Group:  Wal-Mart announced a partnership with a workers’ rights Coalition of Immokalee workers (CIW) group in Florida in an effort to boost pay and labor standards in the tomato-growing industry.  The Coalition of Immokalee Workers said Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) has signed on to “strengthen and expand” its Fair Food Program, which consists of a commitment from corporate buyers to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes that then gets passed on to workers.  There is also a human rights code of conduct that deals with safety, dispute resolution and other issues.  As part of the partnership, Wal-Mart says it will work to expand the Fair Food Program to other crops besides tomatoes. Florida’s tomato industry has faced allegations of grave worker abuse over the past few decades, but the Fair Food Program has won praise in recent years from the White House and others for its success in promoting labor rights.

What keeps you awake at night?  Is your company prepared to handle any type of extraordinary situation?  What procedures do you have in place if your livelihood is suddenly threatened by the tactics of worker center type groups?  Do you have a formalized communication process in place?  Do your employees know who to call if they learn of something that may be a threat to the company?  If a reporter calls, what is the response to that inquiry?  Could you identify subject matter experts within your company?  Has your company invested in media training?  If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, your company is operating on borrowed time.  Any extraordinary situation has the potential to become a crisis situation.  Given that crisis situations are won or lost in the first few hours, how will you respond?  Learn about the best practices and recommended approaches to manage crisis situations and communicate effectively.

 

Michael C. Saqui is the managing shareholder of The Saqui Law Group.  He has over 20 years of experience in all aspects of employer-employee relations and has fought and prevailed against many of the biggest and best financed labor organizations in the U.S.  In addition to litigation, Mr. Saqui specializes in managing anti-union campaigns on behalf of employers and in developing and implementing preventative measures for companies seeking to avoid unionization and litigation.  Mr. Saqui is a preeminent authority and frequent lecturer on the topics of Union tactics and the Worker Center movement.  He has represented and consulted with large employers against Worker Centers such as CIW, FLOC, and PCUN and is currently representing clients targeted by Familias Unidas por la Justicia and Community-2-Community in Washington State.


[1]   Digital Journal “Union Front Groups Pay Protesters to Maximum Publicity Around Staged Black Friday Protests” Washington, November 29, 2013, Source: Worker Center Watch

 

[2]   “The Labor Movement’s New Blood by Richard Bourbon” September 13, 2013, Wall Street Journal

 

[3]   Manheim, Jarol B. “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing: A Strategic Assessment.” Working paper prepared for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, November 2013

 

[4]   Fine, Janice. “Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream” New York Law School Law Review 50 (2005-2006), p. 419.

 

[5]   Moynihan, Colin “Coming Soon? An Occupy Wall Street Debit Card,” New York Times, September 30, 2013.

 

[6]   Elly Leary “Immokalee Workers Take Down Taco Bell” Monthly Review 57:5 (October 2005), found online at http://monthlyreview.org/2005/10/01/immokale-workers-take-down-taco-bell

 

[7]   The Equitable Food Initiative “Talking Points for Food Buy discussion With Growers”

 

 

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