Big Labor Gave Millions to Worker Centers in 2013

SEIU, AFL-CIO donated nearly $35 million to worker centers

McDonalds protestors picket for higher wages in Detroit / AP
June 13, 2014

 Unions have pumped nearly $35 million into front groups that have skirted federal labor laws and agitated for higher pay and other Big Labor priorities in 2013, according to a new analysis.

The Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI), a project of the Chamber of Commerce, found that prominent labor unions such as the SEIU and AFL-CIO have spent millions on non-profit worker centers, which have helped organize strikes and protests at various businesses over the past year.

The most famous of these groups is the Fast Food Workers Committee, which has overseen protests for pay hikes at McDonalds and other well-known chain restaurants across the country. The Fast Food Workers Committee received more than $1.8 million from the SEIU in 2013, according to the analysis.

"This is not some organic, localized uprising of restaurant workers or some altruistic campaign for higher wages. This is a systematic campaign to organize fast food workers," said WFI’s Glenn Spencer. "You don’t invest millions every year in this type of operation without getting something in return."

Neither the SEIU, nor Fast Food Workers Committee returned request for comment.

Worker centers have existed for decades and traditionally carried out missions focused on workers rights and employment issues. However, in recent years unions have heavily invested in the nonprofits, which have become more active in public demonstrations and mobilization behind unions agendas.

AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka called worker centers the "future of unions" at the labor giant’s annual conference in September. The union spent more than $10 million on Working America, an organization that provides "tools, research, information and assistance that can help make working people’s lives better," in 2013.

Spencer said that worker centers operate as union front groups because they alleviate accountability for traditional labor organizations. Worker centers, for example, are able to stage intermittent strikes and seemingly spontaneous walkouts that federal labor law prevents unions from conducting.

"Working America was founded as an internal worker center so AFL-CIO could use it to bring non-union workers into the fold and transition them into dues paying members," Spencer said. "The idea is they can engage in tactics that traditional unions can’t engage or maybe don’t want to."

Neither the AFL-CIO, nor Working America returned request for comment.

Spencer pointed to the recent protests at fast food restaurants by SEIU front groups, as well as the Walmart protests organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers’ subsidiary OUR Walmart, as evidence of the advantages of worker centers. The protests were presented as worker-driven and media coverage focused on the employees rather than organizers, according to Spencer. That paints a more sympathetic picture than that of a traditional organization drive in which the union’s interest in gaining new dues-paying members plays a role in coverage.

"Worker centers provide a more media-friendly face to organizing campaigns," Spencer said. "When a union gets involved it carries baggage, it may have a reputation."

Ryan Williams, spokesman for Worker Center Watch, said that the big money that unions are investing in worker centers demonstrates the need for additional oversight and regulation. If the groups are going to advance the union agenda on the union’s dime, he said, they should also be forced to abide by the rules that govern labor relations.

"Unions have found a back door way to reach the employees they have long coveted," he said. "This report confirms that worker centers are doing a tremendous amount of dirty work for union bosses and should be required to follow the same rules as traditional labor unions."