Union Corruption Update several times during the past year has noted the fast-rising profile of ‘worker centers.’ Anyone doubting that these nonprofit groups in certain ways operate as unions all but in name should read a new monograph published by the Workforce Freedom Initiative, a project of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Titled, “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing: A Strategic Assessment” (see pdf), the report explains why these organizations have become crucial to a Left network dedicated to building an alternative model for labor and political organizing. It also identifies many of the tax-exempt foundations that provide funds. The author, Jarol Manheim, a political scientist at George Washington University, is the right person to do the job.
Union membership now accounts for a smaller percentage of the U.S. work force than in many decades. During the mid-1950s, the peak years for organized labor, more than 30 percent of all nonfarm workers belonged to a union. In 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that percentage (or “union density”) for all workers had dipped to 11.3 percent; the private-sector figure was only 6.6 percent. Union leaders are aware of the consequences of falling membership. And they realize that due to various reasons, some related to union governance and others related to the larger economy, these numbers aren’t likely to reverse course anytime soon. That’s why worker centers are emerging as an intermediary between unions and unorganized workers. They aren’t unions, formally speaking. But they are positioned to merge the roles of community organizer and union organizer, mobilizing public opposition to a particular company or industry. A by-product of this may be the addition of new union members. Equally to the point, worker centers aren’t subject to federal laws that limit ways in which unions organize. This, as Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn., noted last summer in a letter to new Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, places these nonprofit organizations in a legal gray area.
Worker centers, whose leaders are versed in community-based political strategizing, link the streets to the suites. They’re not directly involved in collective bargaining, but they do have an arsenal of aggressive tactics to bring reluctant employers to the bargaining table. Even if such activity fails to expand union membership in the short run, unions potentially benefit. A growing number of unions now outsource their worksite picketing and organizing functions to worker center projects. The hospitality and restaurant union UNITE HERE, for example, enables Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) to serve as a formidable front. As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler put it last September at the federation’s quadrennial convention in Los Angeles: “Community is the new density.” Delegates at the convention then proceeded to pass two separate resolutions affirming support of worker centers.
Jarol Manheim, as much as anyone, can explain how this model of organizing is part of a larger program to transform the modern corporation. His earlier full-length treatments on New Left strategizing and action, especially “The Death of a Thousand Cuts” (2000) and “Biz-War and the Out-of-Power Elite” (2004), explained how ‘corporate campaigns,’ far from consisting of spontaneous motley mobs, are highly coordinated operations with a division of labor. Such campaigns usually involve a wide range of political actors including unions, employees, shareholders, community groups, civil rights groups, media and churches, each performing an assigned role to win concessions from the employer. And they can inflict real damage on a company brand name. Worker centers are a relatively new arrival to this style of activism, which experienced its first flush of success in the Seventies. But over the last several years, they have taken center stage. They’re certainly worth a monograph.
Professor Manheim’s report, published last November, points out that while no two worker centers are identical, they can be grouped according to function. One type, still rare, is the evolution of a worker center into a traditional labor union with full membership and representation. The National Taxi Workers Alliance in 2011 became the first instance of this. A second type is the union surrogate, in which the worker center, with strong behind-the-scenes backing by a particular union, handles the union’s organizing and publicity. A third type is a hybrid in which the center maintains ties with a union, but also seeks independence. The above-mentioned ROC is such a case, as is the Fast Food Forward coalition, which is heavily funded by the Service Employees International Union. A fourth type of worker center cooperates with a union in limited ways, but exists mainly to serve its members, especially if they are of a particular immigrant group.
Because worker centers rarely morph into unions, members who conduct onsite pickets and “strikes” against targeted companies tend not to be employees at those places. They can be considered street politicians who prefer the rules of the street to official law. Not only do they perform union functions while skirting federal laws governing unions, they also engage in aggressive trespassing at businesses ostensibly engaged in unfair labor practices or other behavior harmful to the larger society. Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart, a front for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), to name one example, for more than a year has engaged in pickets and other disruptive behavior at selected Walmart outlets across the country on the grounds that Walmart is unfair to its employees. Acts of onsite harassment of customers and sales associates by OUR Walmart demonstrators led to civil suits filed by Walmart management against the group and the UFCW in Florida, Texas and other states.
These community-based organizations, which barely existed some two decades ago, now number well over 200. And their growth is very much a result of financial support from outside sources. While unions spend a good deal of money, the real aid, as Manheim documents, is coming from nonprofit progressive philanthropies, which, like their beneficiaries, constitute a tight network. This is why if one worker center is funded by multiple philanthropies, other centers are likely to be funded by any number of those entities.
Putting together the pieces, Manheim concluded that there is a high overlap here. He notes:
As in other areas of activism, whether on purpose or inadvertently, and there is at least some reason to believe that it is in some measure purposeful, like-minded foundations tend to act in clusters….Now, suppose that there was a high degree of overlap among foundations in the grantees that they chose to support. The open space in the center of the diagram would begin to fill in with more lines, depending on the number of de facto foundation partners and the number of co-funded grantees. At higher and higher densities of effective coordination of effort, or at least of common grant-making outcomes, the diagram would come to resemble nothing so much as a ball of yarn, with less and less visible white space.
To illustrate, the author selected 21 foundations involved in substantial grant-making to worker centers during 2009-12. These foundations included major philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the Open Society Institute, and smaller ones such as the Moriah Fund and the Norman Foundation. He discovered that centers receiving money from multiple sources were the rule, not the exception, and moreover, the overlap was heavy. The lines connecting the foundations, as Figure 3 reveals, really do resemble a ball of yarn.
Here is one example. The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and its various affiliates, which have launched boycotts and strikes against grocery and restaurant chains across the nation, received funding in excess of $5.6 million from nine of the 21 foundations during 2009-12. They were: Open Society Institute ($41,000); Unitarian Universalist Veach Grants ($200,000); Ben & Jerry’s Foundation ($30,000); Marguerite Casey Foundation ($300,000); Hill-Snowden Foundation ($60,000); WK Kellogg Foundation ($1.26 million); Kresge Foundation ($2.57 million); JS Noyes Foundation ($20,000); and Public Welfare Foundation ($1.17 million). During this time frame, Restaurant Opportunities Center United received more than $7 million from 16 of the 21 foundations. Seven of those matched the nine CIW sources: Unitarian Universalist Veach Grants; Ben & Jerry’s Foundation; Hill-Snowden Foundation; WK Kellogg Foundation; Kresge Foundation; JS Noyes Foundation; and Public Welfare Foundation. That’s not a coincidence; that’s a network.
Foundations, the author adds, do more than make grants. They also publish monographs, hold conferences and train activists. Producing a publication alone requires extensive teamwork. As an example, Manheim explains the funding network behind a 2009 study sponsored by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a New York City-based think tank and public-relations operation:
That (NELP) report was funded by the Ford Foundation, the John and Dora Haynes Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation. Represented on its advisory boards were, among others, the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance, LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy), National Day Laborer Organizing Network, National Immigration Law Center, Domestic Workers United, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, ROC-NY, and locals of the SEIU, Teamsters, and UNITE HERE. Publicity associated with the report was handled by the Berlin Rosen public relations firm. Among the organization’s donors in 2012, as an example, were the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Discount Foundation, Ford Foundation, Moriah Fund, Open Society Institute, Public Welfare Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation, while its supporters included, among others, several state-level AFL-CIO central committees, AFSCME, Amalgamated Bank, Brandworkers International, NDWA (National Domestic Workers Alliance), National Immigration Law Center, SEIU and the Teamsters. During the 2009-2012 period, the Ford Foundation alone provided funds totaling more than $10 million to NELP.
Worker centers certainly have come a long way. What we have here is nothing less than a well-funded nationwide infrastructure for anti-corporate activism. The organizations comprising this informal network aren’t creating the kind of moral theater and headlines that Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots did a couple of years ago. Then again, they don’t have to. These people are in it for the long haul. Their goal is a broad transformation of the corporation as an institution. And their money train makes many stops at worker centers. Unions have climbed aboard because they can offer expertise on how to confront employers and deliver tangible benefits for members. Worker centers and their foundation paymasters in turn know an ally when they see one.
Voicing grievances, individually or collectively, is an American tradition. And it would be naïve to believe the Right doesn’t play the game also. But the Left, unlike the Right, is focused on placing corporations under public control. And they have a habitual blind spot when it comes to granting employers the right to resist. Worker centers provide shock troops for union organizing, especially when it comes to reaching unassimilated first-generation Hispanic and Asian immigrants. They don’t necessarily play “fair.” And while their short-run goal may be improvement of pay and working conditions, their long-range goal is bringing capitalism under the management of community and societal stakeholders, as opposed to shareholders. As unions become integrated with these centers, and vice versa, the possibilities for a broad radical populist movement will grow further. The new Chamber of Commerce monograph shows why this development deserves greater attention.