Ryan Williams

By voting last week to officially bring affiliated nonunion “worker centers” under its tent, the AFL-CIO raised the stakes on Big Labor’s latest campaign to unionize service sector businesses including retailers and restaurants. The close relationship between unions and worker centers is not new; unions have been funding and guiding the worker center movement in recent years as a way to avoid U.S. labor regulations in its quest for new members. But buoyed by summer strikes against big fast food and retail brands, the union is taking its efforts to another level.

It’s easy to understand why labor leaders are so desperate to find a way to unionize private employers. Union membership, and along with the dues that fund their salaries and activities, have been plunging for decades, recently reaching their lowest level in nearly a century. With the nation’s shift to a service economy, partly due to the off shoring of manufacturing jobs thanks to unions, organized labor has steadily lost relevance and influence.

By leveraging community-based worker centers, non-profit organizations that are not subject to well established labor laws, unions have found a back door way to reach the employees it has long coveted. It’s proven a great way for Big Labor to drive its policy and public opinion agenda without getting its hands dirty, and to forward its ultimate mission of, in its own words, “Assisting all workers to bargain collectively through an affiliated union.”

No longer does a union need the required 30 percent participation of employees at a workplace to hold an election. Now, as few as three to five affiliated members can carry their message to coworkers while their worker center wages long-term negative publicity campaigns against their employer. In essence, unions are able to pursue their objectives through worker centers a few employees at a time. It’s like death by a thousand cuts, with the worker centers able to conduct nasty attack campaigns for months or even years against the same establishment.

This is exactly what took place at one of the most notorious worker centers, Restaurant Opportunities Center, when it managed to wear down several New York City restaurants through relentless bully tactics and PR assaults in recent years. OUR Walmart, Fight for 15, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and many others are waging similar wars against brands usually chosen more for their publicity value than labor relations track records.


Ryan Williams

Ryan Williams is a senior vice president at FP1 Strategies, a Washington based public affairs, advertising, grassroots and media relations firm.