Labor Secretary Perez Asked to Decide if ‘Worker Centers’ Are Unions

Secretary of Labor Thomas PerezThomas Perez is the nation’s newest Secretary of Labor. And given his track record of political radicalism, this ought to be more than a little troubling. Perez insists he will be even-handed in his enforcement of the law. That commitment is getting an early test. On July 23, the day of Perez’s swearing-in ceremony, two key House Republicans, John Kline (Minn.) and Phil Roe (Tenn.), wrote Perez a letter asking him to clarify the legal status of nonprofit ‘worker centers‘ that are proliferating throughout the country. Because these nonunion organizations mimic the behavior of unions, the letter stated, they ought to be subject to laws that govern unions, especially with respect to financial disclosure. Perez has yet to respond. Given that worker centers often operate as union fronts, a response would seem all the more imperative.

Union Corruption Update this past March explained in detail why Thomas Perez is about the last person one would want as secretary of labor or indeed head of any cabinet-level agency. At the time, President Obama had just nominated him for the position. His predecessor, Hilda Solis, had vacated in January. A native of Buffalo and a longtime resident of Takoma Park, Md., Perez, 51, immediately previous to his new job served for nearly four years as the U.S. Department of Justice’s assistant attorney general for civil rights. During his tenure at DOJ, he discouraged states from combating vote fraud and pressured them into drawing congressional districts to maximize the chances of blacks winning elections; filed unwarranted charges of ethnic “profiling” against Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio; intimidated the City of St. Paul, Minn. out of appealing a federal court decision triggered by a spurious complaint about racial discrimination in housing code enforcement; extracted large out-of-court settlements from major banks based on likewise suspect charges of racial discrimination in mortgage lending; and pushed into the background two former Justice Department attorneys who had investigated attempts, caught on videotape, by Black Panther street thugs in Philadelphia on Election Day 2008 to intimidate white voters. All these actions stemmed from his conviction that nonwhites are victims of rampant illegal discrimination. Perez actually has gone on record as saying that bank officials who reject mortgage applications by members of racial minority groups are no better than Klansmen, the difference being that they keep people of color down with “a smile” and “fine print.” Even Jesse Jackson might find it hard to top that one.

These and other aspects of Perez’s career raised serious doubts among a number of lawmakers as to his fitness to become labor secretary. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, back in March called Perez “an unfortunate and needlessly divisive nomination.” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking minority member on the committee, likewise expressed alarm in his floor statement against the nomination. The nomination appeared stalled. But last month, on July 16, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., rode to the rescue. He negotiated a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to put Perez up for a full floor vote, along with various other cabinet nominees, plus all five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board. In return, Reid promised to drop his vow to change Senate rules to inhibit filibustering. On July 18, the Senate confirmed Perez by 54-46 along party lines. Sen. McConnell, at least, didn’t go quietly. Prior to the vote, he urged his colleagues to reject the nomination. “Tom Perez is more than just some left-wing ideologue,” he said. “He’s a left-wing ideologue who appears perfectly willing to bend the rules to achieve his ends.”

Thomas Perez, as labor secretary, has a tailor-made opportunity to prove he prefers adhering to rules rather than bending them. On July 23, his first day in office, Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and David “Phil” Roe, R-Tenn., wrote him a letter requesting a determination of the filing status of the rapidly-growing “worker centers.” These nonprofit groups, now estimated at about 200 across the nation, effectively combine union and community organizing on behalf of low-wage, unskilled workers. Typically, these workers are drawn from unassimilated immigrant communities. Central to the growth of these organizations is that they behave like unions, especially in direct confrontation with employers, yet are not subject to laws governing unions. Kline and Roe believe that these groups should be subject to federal labor laws, especially the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959. They wrote:

In the last decade, the line between so-called “worker centers” and labor organizations has blurred. Today, many of these “worker centers” are dealing with employers directly on behalf of employees. Given these activities, a case has been made that at least some “worker centers” are labor organizations as defined by the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), which would make them subject to annual filing requirements. We therefore respectfully request an official determination as to the LMRDA filing requirements of “worker centers” and all documents and communications used to reach such determination.

Congressmen Kline and Roe, respectively, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and chairman of that committee’s Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, used the example of a Los Angeles-based Korean ethnic organization called Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates:

(A)fter a four-year campaign that began in 1996, the Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates (KIWA), via industry-wide organizing, successfully increased payment of the minimum wage in restaurants in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles. During the course of its campaign, KIWA picketed and boycotted more than a dozen restaurants. KIWA has also attempted to organize an independent workers union specifically for low-wage workers in Koreatown.

Under Section 2(i) of the LMRDA, a labor organization “means a labor organization engaged in an industry affecting commerce and includes any organization of any kind, any agency, or employee representation committee, group association, or plan so engaged 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 or other terms or condition of employment.”

Under this definition, a case can be made that KIWA is a labor organization, and therefore subject to the LMRDA’s filing requirements. The restaurants in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and KIWA are engaged in an industry affecting commerce; employees are picketing and boycotting Korean restaurants; and KIWA exists, at least in part, for the purpose of dealing with employers concerning the terms and conditions of employment, including rates of pay and wages.

By any reasonable definition, KIWA is a labor union, though it does not identify itself as such. As such, it ought to be subject to annual financial transparency requirements of LMRDA. Congressmen Kline and Roe argued this point, mentioning a few other labor organizations operating on the edge of legality:

Under Section 201(b) of LMRDA, “Every labor organization shall file annually with the Secretary [of Labor] a financial report signed by its president and treasurer or corresponding principal officers containing…information in such detail as may be necessary accurately to disclose its financial condition and operations for its preceding fiscal year,” including assets and liabilities at the beginning and end of the fiscal year. These reports are essential to transparency and accountability.

As such, we request an official determination as to the LMRDA filing requirements of “worker centers,” including KIWA, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, the Retail Action Project, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and Fast Food Forward, and all documents and communications used to reach such determination no later than August 6, 2013. Additionally, we request committee staff be contacted to arrange a briefing on this matter.

Worker centers, in effect, enjoy the freedom to operate in ways which, if practiced by unions, likely would result in decertification or even criminal charges. Consider some key ways in which unions are subject to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the foundation of labor law in this country. NLRA bars unions from: picketing an employer for more than 30 days unless they have filed for recognition as a collective bargaining agent; picketing or otherwise pressuring a supplier or other third party (“secondary picketing”) in a labor dispute; favoring certain types of employees over others at hiring halls; ignoring a duty of fair representation in a bargaining unit; and receiving funds or loans from an employer. Unions can’t do any of these things. Equally to the point, worker centers can.

Beyond legal leeway, there is a good reason why worker centers make ideal fronts for unions. It’s a win-win arrangement. Worker centers get expertise; unions get access to potential members. Most of the groups cited in the Kline-Roe letter are part of this arrangement. The Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and the Retail Action Project each are extensions of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); Fast Food Forward is a project of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); and the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) is an adjunct to UNITE HERE. There are other examples. Arise Chicago, though formally a church-based organization, recently has begun to work with the United Steelworkers to organize car wash employees. And Working America, co-founded a decade ago and headed by veteran SEIU activist Karen Nussbaum, is a front for the AFL-CIO; the group now has more than 2.5 million members.

Worker centers will win some and lose some, as Union Corruption Update has pointed out. The Organization United for Respect at Walmart and the UFCW lost out in a settlement in January following a National Labor Relations Board determination. Walmart had filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB charging that the worker center and the union were planning a highly disruptive and possibly illegal nationwide protest campaign against the retailer just prior to “Black Friday” (i.e., the day after Thanksgiving) last year. But there have been victories as well. The Retail Action Project, a project of the UFCW-affiliated Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, extracted a $1.4 million settlement in 2008 against a New York City-based clothing retailer. And the UNITE HERE-affiliated ROC by the end of 2011 had won a combined $5 million in settlement money. The group stands to win a lot more if its lawsuit last year alleging wage and hour violations against Darden Restaurants, the parent company of the Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other restaurant chains, succeeds.

Reps. Kline and Rose have made a reasonable request for transparency. In Thomas Perez, however, they have a labor secretary who is unlikely to respond favorably. A spokesman for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce was unable to ascertain to National Legal and Policy Center whether Secretary Perez had responded to the request by the deadline, if at all. As of this writing, there is no published evidence that he has.

Thomas Perez, one must understand, is an ethnic politician as well as a labor activist. The first role cannot be underestimated. The son of Dominican immigrants, Perez long has worked closely with a nonprofit group, CASA de Maryland, which for nearly 30 years has served as a social services umbrella group for Hispanic immigrants, regardless of legal status, living in Maryland. He began as a volunteer and worked his way up the organization to become, for a while during the last decade, its president. The nearly 40,000-member group, which relocated a few years ago from Takoma Park, Md. (not coincidentally, where Perez lives) to nearby Langley Park, has received extensive government and private funding. CASA de Maryland Executive Director Gustavo Torres was effusive in his praise of Perez’s appointment as DOL secretary last month. “Tom’s capacity to match organizational mission with high-performing structure is legendary locally and nationally,” Torres remarked. “Workers in America are lucky to have an advocate and change-maker like Tom as Secretary of Labor.”

All this is crucial to understanding the labor issue at hand. Worker centers are forming primarily as a means of representing low-skilled, limited English language-proficiency immigrants in the work force; i.e., the sorts of employees whom unions normally have trouble organizing. Third World immigrants, especially those from Hispanic countries, are Tom Perez’s kind of people. He believes, passionately, that they have a right to be here, and in as large numbers as possible. He sees people who are future Americans and future union members. By exempting worker centers from NLRA, LMRDA and other federal labor laws, he would be able to kill two birds with one stone, promoting Hispanic immigration and unionism. The recently-passed Senate amnesty/immigration surge bill, should it (or something like it) become law, would accelerate both processes.

Thomas Perez knows all this. That’s why he’s not likely to give anything more than polite lip service to Congressmen Kline, Roe and their allies when it comes to  financial transparency for worker centers. Like the “Gang of Eight” senators who during the first several months of this year drafted an immigration amnesty/surge bill without holding any public hearings or debate, unions and worker centers dislike public transparency when it applies to their favored causes – most of all, mass immigration and mass unionization. They are going to be an especially potent coalition now that one of their main men, Thomas Perez, has become Secretary of Labor.