Are Work Centers Really Unions in Disguise?


Membership in labor unions is at its lowest point in nearly a century. But, that doesn’t mean that workers are not without their champions.  Worker advocacy groups, also known as work centers, have sprung up across the county to aid workers in low-wage industries, such as restaurants, big box retail and agriculture.  Work centers often focus on particular industries or underserved immigrant workers and provide a range of services, including, for example, English as a second language classes.  The Restaurant Opportunities Center (“ROC”), Organization United for Respect at Walmart (“OUR Walmart”), and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (“CIW”) are just a few of the more vocal worker advocacy groups that are out there.

These groups have begun to draw heightened scrutiny from business groups, who argue that worker advocacy groups are doing the same things as unions and therefore should have to comply with rules and regulations applicable to labor organizations under the National Labor Relations Act. The Act defines a union or labor organization as “any organization of any kind, or any agency or employee representation committee or plan, in which employees participate and which exists for the purpose, in whole or in part, of dealing with employers concerning grievances, labor disputes, wages, rates of pay, hours of employment, or conditions of work.”

Worker advocacy groups disagree with the “labor organization” label and claim that they are merely advocating for compliance with existing labor laws.  And yet, the groups are increasingly appealing directly to employers to improve worker pay and working conditions. Indeed, many groups proudly proclaim on their websites their tactics in obtaining wage and hour concessions from employers.  For example, CIW touts its “first-ever farmworker boycott of a major fast-food company – the national boycott of Taco Bell” in 2001 and claims that its efforts led to “Taco Bell agree[ing] to meet all of our demands to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers in its supply chain.” Similarly, ROC reportedly demonstrated outside Mario Batali’s Del Posto restaurant in Manhatten until it obtained a settlement on behalf of workers that called for payment of $1.15 million in unpaid tips and overtime and included new policies on promotions and paid sick days.

Despite activities like those described above, the administration has declined to bring work centers within the regulatory framework of the Act. So, while work centers advocate on behalf of workers for improved pay and work conditions, they do so unfettered by the regulations that level the playing field between labor organizations and employers.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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