Worker Centers can and will work for fair safe workplaces

Stephanie Gharakhanian |

Last week, New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse documented business groups’ escalating efforts to discredit worker centers as “fronts” for organized labor. Led by the National Restaurant Association, these groups argue that worker centers are really unions in disguise and therefore should have to comply with the federal laws that regulate unions’ governance, financial reporting, and advocacy.

Check out the full article, Advocates for Workers Raise the Ire of Business, from the New York Times.

As Rutgers labor relations professor Janice R. Fine explains in the article, the idea perpetuated by big business that worker centers are the “offspring” of organized labor “is just plain wrong.” The notion that worker centers act as the agents of unions for the purpose of evading federal labor laws is debunked first and foremost by the “downright hostility” that has often existed between the labor and worker center movements.

In the last year, there has been much chatter among labor lawyers about what distinguishes worker centers from “labor organizations” as they are defined under federal labor law. (For a great introduction to this conversation, check out this post by OnLabor blogger Benjamin Sachs.) Though Greenhouse mentioned this in the article, it is worth repeating: despite the recent clamor by the NRA and others against worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunity Centers, the National Labor Relations Board stated quite clearly in a memo back in 2006 that ROC-NY does not qualify as a labor organization for the purposes of the National Labor Relations Act. 

And yet, big business groups and their lobbying organizations still insist that worker centers like the Restaurant Opportunities Center are “trying to have it both ways.” In the words of NRA’s executive vice president Scott DeFife, “they’re a union and not a union. They’re organizing workers but not organizing workers. They have a history of tactics unions couldn’t get away with.” By pushing for stricter oversight and regulations of worker centers and launching other smear campaigns like ROCexposed or Worker Center Watch, industry lobbyists like Richard Berman claim they are trying to prevent worker centers from “being a long-term problem.”

What these groups are not stating is that the “problem” they fear is not so much that worker centers are evading laws like the National Labor Relations Act, but rather breathing new life into the statute. Worker centers remind us that workers do not need to belong to a union for their collective activities to protected. Workers can, do, and will organize for fair and safe employment in the workplace, and the National Labor Relations Act was created protect workers when they do so.

As stated by ROC co-founder Saru Jayaraman, “the fact that they’re attacking us is a sign that they feel threatened. That’s what happens when you challenge the industry to do the right thing.”

Learn more about the amazing work that worker centers are doing for non-organized workers in your community and get involved in the work to strengthen worker protections. Interfaith Worker Justice's national network of worker centers are leading the work for better workplaces in communities across the country. Check out this map to find an IWJ worker center near you.