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BERMAN: Doing Big Labor’s dirty work

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On Wednesday, several dozen unionized workers assembled at the World War II Memorial in an effort to share the stage with many of our nation's veterans. Notwithstanding the vanity of their brazen act, the protesters — who belong to an organization called Good Jobs Nation — used the opportunity to demand that House Republicans give in to the president's demands and "reopen" the federal government.

While the demonstration had many of the hallmarks of a protest coordinated by a labor union, Good Jobs Nation is merely the latest entrant into the burgeoning movement of so-called "worker centers." These groups, which have stolen national headlines in recent months with nationwide protests at fast-food and retail outlets, are the brainchild of labor leaders who have seen their membership and relevance precipitously decline in recent years.

Labor leaders have turned to worker centers precisely because they can target non-unionized industries in unique ways. Whereas traditional union organizational pickets are restricted to 30 days, at which point they either have to file a petition for unionization or pack up and leave, worker centers can picket indefinitely — so long as they don't actually try to bargain with the targeted employer on behalf of employees.

The National Labor Relations Act specifically prohibits this kind of activity. It unnecessarily creates employer-employee friction in industries where there is nowhere near the 30 percent threshold at which point employees may request unionization. Absent such a restriction, unions are able to bring any business to its knees — with or without employee support.

Worker centers circumvent this prohibition by registering as charities or nonprofits. When they target an employer, they only use a select few disgruntled employees, who then claim to speak on behalf of their co-workers. Then they artificially boost the size of their always-tiny employee contingent by hiring more protesters and bringing in friendly community groups and non-employee union organizers.

The organizers, of course, make sure that the protesters stay on message. In some cases, they even ensure that the media only talk to one or two actual striking employees who have received professional public relations training prior to their debut on the national stage.

Unions have already poured millions of dollars into this strategy. Good Jobs Nation, for instance, is a project of the Service Employees International Union. So are the nationwide fast-food protests, which collectively operated under the umbrella name "Fight for $15," and have received at least $7.5 million from their union backers. Similarly, recent protests at Wal-Mart were led by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's "OUR Walmart" worker center, while the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union helped found the "Restaurant Opportunities Center" to target big-name restaurants in major American cities.

Other worker centers are popping up at an alarming rate. Twenty years ago, there were five or fewer; today, there are at least 230. It's impossible to count the exact number of worker centers precisely because the legal waters surrounding them are so murky.

They haven't fooled everyone, though. Last week, the House of Representatives held a hearing on "The Future of Union Organizing" to seek answers about these groups. Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican, and Rep. Phil Roe, Tennessee Republican, have also asked Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to clarify exactly why they aren't regulated like the labor unions that essentially act as puppet masters of the worker centers.

Labor leaders need to answer those questions, not least for the sake of the employees who are being used in contravention of federal law. Those laws were enacted precisely because employees deserve protection from manipulative practices — either by employers or by union officials.

Richard Berman is the executive director at the Center for Union Facts, which also operates WorkerCenters.com.

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