With the number of union workers at an all-time low in this country, it should really come as no surprise that unions have resorted to more drastic, unconventional methods of recruitment. The use of worker centers to help recruit traditionally unorganized sectors of the workforce has caught the attention of not only the media, but also business leaders and even politicians across the country. As a result, the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions has scheduled a hearing titled “The Future of Union Organizing”. The focus of the hearing is to discuss the impact of worker centers on the union movement.
If you haven’t already read one of the more than dozens of national newspaper stories focused on the latest union escapades, it’s good to start with an explanation: Worker centers are non-profit organizations that “provide” services for workers in construction, restaurants, retail, food processing, agricultural, landscaping and domestic professions. Although these worker centers are not officially affiliated with unions and, on the surface, appear to not have a lot in common with them, they have been in the spotlight recently and are credited with focusing attention on workers’ rights through such tactics as the highly publicized national one-day strike in the fast food industry in mid-September.
A primary advantage of worker centers is that they fall outside the scope of the National Labor Relations Act’s provisions that regulate, among other things, how and when unions can picket and can interact with employees and management. Clearly, the move by organized unions to work with worker centers signifies a willingness on the part of unions to utilize bold, new and strategic tactics to re-energize the union movement. However, by reaching out to such non-organized groups, it can also be seen as a last-ditch effort to breathe life into a languishing ideology.
Whether or not the “partnership” of unions and worker centers can truly be successful relies largely on economic realities. Traditionally, worker centers represent the bottom rung of the American labor force—the unskilled and minimum wage earners. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that their employers can absorb the type of wage increases being sought. Take the fast food industry, for example. While it is true that it is difficult, if not impossible, to support a family while making minimum wage, the companies employing these workers do not have the type of margins to support a major wage increase. In response to worker demands to make more money, these companies are more likely to automate their operations which, in the end, will actually decrease the number of workers employed.andnbsp;
Nevertheless, the work center approach is not intended to be just a labor union issue. Rather, it is part of a grander strategy to highlight perceived economic and social inequities in the American work force. The backdrop to this strategy is “raising” social awareness and, therefore, general worker disenchantment with their current working conditions—hence, call your local union organizer for help.
It is worth noting, however, that the union movement first got its start with a group of employees who had issues with their employers and continued to grow until they forced political and business leaders to focus on an underserved population. This, in many ways, is how and why worker centers operate.
Up until this point, however, the impact of the worker centers and their one-day strikes appears to have been minimal (although somewhat disruptive, as is typical for any group trying to start a “revolution”). But it is still very early to try to predict any end results. It is very likely, however, that tactics and initiatives will become less peaceful as time goes on.
While most legal and labor professionals are currently taking a wait-and-see approach, this is a good time to revisit hiring and employment practices and procedures. The best way for keeping the union away from your doors is to hire the right people, treat them fairly, allow them to move forward and, overall, give them dignity.andnbsp;
Without a doubt, these are certainly interesting and unprecedented times for labor.