Are Worker Centers "Front Groups" for Unions?

Benjamin Sachs

Benjamin Sachs is the Kestnbaum Professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School and a leading expert in the field of labor law and labor relations. He is also faculty director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy. Professor Sachs teaches courses in labor law, employment law, and law and social change, and his writing focuses on union organizing and unions in American politics. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty in 2008, Professor Sachs was the Joseph Goldstein Fellow at Yale Law School.  From 2002-2006, he served as Assistant General Counsel of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Washington, D.C.  Professor Sachs graduated from Yale Law School in 1998, and served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law Journal, the Columbia Law Review, the New York Times and elsewhere.  Professor Sachs received the Yale Law School teaching award in 2007 and in 2013 received the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence at Harvard Law School.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Stephen Lee at Bloomberg Law has more on the battle over worker centers and whether they qualify as “labor organizations” within the meaning of the LMRDA or the NLRA.  I’ve written about the underlying question here.  A somewhat distinct and newer theme emerging from folks at places like the Center for Union Facts is that worker centers are “front groups” for traditional unions and may be “affiliated” with them.  In support of the claim, a few assertions are offered.  One is that unions helped create the worker centers; a second is that unions are funding worker centers; a third is that worker centers and unions are working together to advance the interests of workers.

As anyone familiar with the birth of the worker center movement can attest, there is more than a little irony in the first assertion.  Irony because worker centers were often started by people who were quite skeptical of the traditional labor movement, and the centers were often greeted with similar skepticism – if not hostility – by unions.  Far from union spinoffs, then, many worker centers understood themselves and were understood by others to be alternatives to unions.  Witness, for example, the early relationship between the Workplace Project on Long Island and the unions there. To be sure, some of these views have changed over time (for the better, in my view).  But the suggestion that worker centers were birthed by the traditional union movement is not quite right.

On the second and third assertions, there is a long history of cooperation between unions and a host of other organizations interested in advancing the socio-economic standing of the memberships and constituencies they hold in common.  But this does not convert the union allies into unions.  For example, at various points in history the NAACP and unions worked together to advance the interests of low-wage African American workers.  Sometimes this involved combining forces in union organizing campaigns.  Some unions even give lots of money to the NAACP.  Does that make the NAACP a “labor organization”?  Hardly.  It makes the NAACP an ally of unions in joint efforts to improve the lot of workers.

Another example: MLK repeatedly stressed the benefits of unionization, marched on picket lines, and urged African Americans to unionize.  He was in Memphis in 1968 to support a sanitation workers’ strike.  And unions gave lots of money to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Does this mean that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the Poor People’s Campaign it led, was a labor organization?  Again, no.

As I’ve said before, the worker center movement is a work in progress, and none of this is axiomatic.  If a worker center were to become a fully integrated part of a labor union – if, say, it were to become for all intents and purposes the union’s organizing department – then it would be right to say that the center is the union and therefore is a “labor organization.”  But, at least for the vast majority of centers today, what we’ve got are not labor organizations, but traditional coalitions – partnerships that are very familiar in the history of the labor movement.

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