NEW YORK — As America’s labor unions have lost members and clout, new types of worker advocacy groups have sprouted nationwide, and they have started to get on businesses’ nerves — protesting low wages at Capital Grille restaurants, for instance, and demonstrating outside Austin City Hall in Texas against giving Apple tax breaks.
After ignoring these groups for years, national business groups and powerful lobbyists, heavily backed by the restaurant industry, are mounting an aggressive campaign against them, maintaining that they are fronts for organized labor.
Representatives of business assert that these groups often demonize companies unfairly and inaccurately, while the groups question why big corporations have attacked such small, fledgling organizations.
The US Chamber of Commerce issued a detailed report in November criticizing what it calls “progressive activist foundations” that donate millions to these groups, which are often called worker centers. The business-backed Worker Center Watch has asked Florida’s attorney general to investigate the finances of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. That group sponsored a protest in March in which more than 100 workers marched 200 miles to the headquarters of Publix supermarkets to urge it to pay more for tomatoes so farmworkers could be paid more.
A prominent Washington lobbyist, Richard Berman, has run full-page ads attacking the Restaurant Opportunities Center, accusing it of intimidating opponents and being a front for labor unions. He has even set up a separate website, ROCexposed.com, to attack the group.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center is one of the nation’s largest worker centers, sponsoring repeated protests inside Capital Grille restaurants and winning sizable settlements from famous chefs. The group even infiltrated the National Restaurant Association’s lobbying day on Capitol Hill, learning about the association’s goals and strategies.
Business groups contend that worker centers should face the same strictures as labor unions under federal law, including detailed financial disclosure, regular election of leaders, and bans on certain types of picketing. Business groups say worker centers act essentially like unions by targeting specific employers and pushing them to improve wages and conditions.
Regarding the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Scott DeFife, an executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association, said: “They’re trying to have it both ways. They’re a union and not a union. They’re organizing workers but not organizing workers. They want recognition, but they don’t want recognition. They have a history of tactics unions couldn’t get away with.”
Business groups say they have grown far more concerned about these new organizations since Richard L. Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president, announced in March that organized labor would work closely with these groups, pledging to help them grow. Trumka’s calculus is that labor can do more for America’s workers if traditional unions join forces with these emerging groups, many of which were formed to help immigrant workers whom unions had long overlooked.
“For the employer community, it’s a question of what does this grow into,” said Glenn Spencer, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, which commissioned the study on foundation funding. “Judging from Trumka’s remarks, organized labor sees a lot of potential in this model.”
According to the chamber’s report, millions of dollars have flowed to worker centers from 21 foundations. From 2009 to 2012, it found, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation gave $15,000 to the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance and $15,000 to Warehouse Workers for Justice, while the Marguerite Casey Foundation gave $300,000 to the Southwest Workers Union and $300,000 to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The Ford Foundation gave $717,000 to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, $1.15 million to New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, and $2.4 million to the Restaurant Opportunities Center.
Berman, a lobbyist known for his hard-hitting tactics, acknowledges that he is using a hammer to prevent these groups from growing far more powerful and troublesome.
“There’s quite a range of activity among worker centers,” said Berman, whose lobbying firm has spawned numerous spinoff nonprofits, including the Center for Union Facts and Worker Center Watch. “They have yet to reach the point of being a long-term problem. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve. I am quite frankly being preemptive.”