As union membership continues to decline, worker centers are now taking on much of the role that “traditional” union organizing used to fill. These centers may offer workers free classes, leadership training and legal advice about their jobs. However, many of these seemingly beneficial centers have strong ties to unions. Unions often provide funding to these worker centers, and union organizers can use the established relationships between centers and workers to advocate for union membership.
What Is a Worker Center?
Your local worker center will usually be an office run by an innocent-looking non-union worker advocacy group that provides certain services for non-unionized workers. Each worker center typically focuses on a specific type of worker, an employer, or a particular industry. Some centers may target a particular ethnic group or minority. Most centers are also tied to a specific geographic area – in this sense, they function similarly to a union local.
Worker centers offer legal advocacy and advice to employees who think they are under-compensated or treated unfairly. They try to encourage workers to develop leadership skills and educate themselves to improve their lives. Some centers may offer English language and citizenship classes to help immigrants assimilate.
The Connection Between Worker Centers and Unions
Your local union may partner a worker center, or give the sponsoring advocacy group funding. Union organizers value the established relationships that centers have with non-unionized employees. Worker centers can also help connect unions to large segments of workers who may be eligible to unionize, and these centers already have the trust of the people they serve. Worker centers may also help your workers organize a boycott, file a lawsuit against your company or negotiate for higher wages. Many of these activities mimic union labor tactics.
Worker centers are not unions, so they don’t have to follow the same labor laws that govern unions. Now that the Department of Justice is under new leadership, some experts think that laws may change to limit some of the center-sponsored protest activities. It may also require centers to meet the same financial disclosure requirements that unions must meet.
How You Can Respond to Worker Centers
Some employers have sued worker centers, claiming their local center is simply a cover for a union. But suing a worker center can lead to bad press for your company even if you win. The better option is to strengthen your own relationship with the workers at your company, so they don’t feel the need to organize a union.
Worker centers thrive in areas where workers are underpaid, so it’s important to make sure you’re paying a fair wage to your employees. Centers also appeal to workers who think that management ignores their rights under labor laws. Make sure your management team is always acting in good faith and follows current laws. Post notices that disclose facts about worker rights, and explain how workers can meet with high-level managers if they have concerns.
Ensure your company is also listening to worker concerns. Don’t be afraid to open dialogues about worker benefits and policies with the employees; consider these conversations an opportunity to connect and improve your workplace. If your industry employs many workers whose primary language isn’t English, make sure you’re doing a good job communicating with them. Consider producing websites and videos in your employee’s native language, and even hiring interpreters for important meetings about policy changes. If you also want to connect with family members, be sure to offer written literature in their primary language that discloses what workers and families should know.
Worker centers may offer many useful resources to employees, but they can also incite workers to unionize or demonstrate, damaging the company’s reputation and profitability. If your company wants to remain union-free, you must ensure your employees are treated and compensated fairly. Educate your labor relations team and your managers. Having a strong open-door policy to not only hear but address worker concerns can also make sure your employees won’t turn to a third party for help.