Congress may have defunded the scandal-plagued ACORN in 2009, but its model of merging taxpayer funding with grants from liberal foundations to drive a partisan, pro-union agenda has been copied by others. Among ACORN's most astute imitators is a labor union front group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which was founded by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union in 2002.
Underwritten by our tax dollars, the Restaurant Opportunities Center is moving beyond attacking restaurants in America's biggest cities and is now setting its sights on Election Day 2014. That's bad news for America's taxpayers and for job creators nationwide.
The center recently posted a job listing for a "national campaign director" to run "4-5 state-based campaigns in advance of congressional midterm campaigns" seeking higher minimum-wage and mandated paid-leave laws. The new hire, in coordination with the center's lobbyist, will supervise "22-23 local organizers around the country" and "oversee a multimillion-dollar budget." Perhaps harassing diners at nonunion restaurants with a giant, inflatable cockroach gets old, even for labor organizers.
That's not to say the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which insists it is not a labor union, has lost its fire for raucous and disruptive union-style protests. Other new job listings for Washington and New Orleans require that the candidate is able to "run a picket or strike line."
Despite this not-so-hidden union agenda, the group is technically registered as a nonprofit charity (it calls itself a "worker center") so that it can accept tax-deductible donations and more easily receive taxpayer and foundation dollars. Tellingly, the duties of its new hire is to ensure that he "[u]nderstands basics of labor law and its [effect] on our work; successfully navigates this in the development of campaign tactics ." This is important, because many of its activities would violate federal labor laws if undertaken openly by a union.
The distinction has also proved lucrative, as the Restaurant Opportunities Center has received some $2 million in taxpayer funds in recent years.
The largest sum comes courtesy of the Department of Labor's "Harwood Grants" program, through which nearly $1 million has been routed into the center's accounts. These grants are ostensibly to promote workplace safety, but some of the training materials the center produced with this public grant read more like a union-recruiting tool and a marketing brochure, with praise for the center and talk of the worker "struggles" that remain.
Beyond the Department of Labor's money, the Restaurant Opportunities Center has also received about $500,000 in taxpayer funding through federal stimulus programs in New York City. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently awarded the center about $200,000 to help "improve the health of the nation's Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations."
The result of that grant? The center went to New Orleans restaurants and urged them to join its D.C.-based lobbying arm.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center was, inexplicably, even named a taxpayer-funded Obamacare "navigator" in New York. The job listing to run that gig said the worker "must have" a "demonstrated commitment to furthering workers' rights and empowerment," but was "not required" to be "knowledgeable about issues concerning health insurance and health care access."
Days after it was reported last month that the contact person for the center's New York navigator program is a self-identified undocumented immigrant, the center withdrew from the government navigator grant, without announcement or explanation. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to New York state to learn that the center had suddenly pulled out of the program. (It is still offering Obamacare enrollment advice on its New York website.)
The House Education and the Workforce Committee wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Nov. 1 seeking more information on the Restaurant Opportunities Center and other worker centers serving as Obamacare navigators. The center is already part of an investigation by the House Oversight Committee for its "history of intimidation toward opponents."
Clearly, the Restaurant Opportunities Center is an inappropriate recipient of federal funds. Congress needs to re-evaluate who merits taxpayer funding and cut off those groups using taxpayer dollars for improper ends. Until then, like a squirrel hides an acorn, labor front groups and other left-wing activists will continue to emulate ACORN while hiding behind their nonprofit status.
Mike Paranzino is communications director for ROC Exposed.