Worker Centers Primed to Test “We’re-Not-Unions” Stance in Court

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

An ongoing federal investigation in which regulators believe a Minneapolis nonprofit is a labor union rather than a worker center has created an existential crisis for similar groups across the country.

Some worker centers are changing their tactics to try to avoid government scrutiny. The broader worker center community is preparing for legal action if the Labor Department tries to force the targeted group to comply with federal laws for unions.

The DOL’s two-year probe into the status of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, known as CTUL, led the department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards to determine it “has reason to believe” the group is a labor organization under a 1959 law meant to curb organized labor corruption by ensuring union transparency and democracy.

CTUL and other organizations have grown in influence in recent decades as an alternative to unions in providing low-income, vulnerable workers with training and other tools to improve workplace conditions. CTUL has successfully pressured Target Corp. and other retailers to contract with unionized janitors, part of a trend of company-focused actions that prompted the business community and political conservatives to increase pressure on the Labor Department to review certain worker centers’ operations. Critics believe some worker centers are essentially union fronts.

The stakes are extremely high for CTUL—and, by extension, all worker centers—because federal enforcement of a final determination that the group is a union would subject CTUL to onerous financial reporting and internal governance requirements. Labor organizers and attorneys at worker centers contend the groups are exempt from union-specific disclosure law because they don’t bargain directly with employers. For the business community and Republican lawmakers, the DOL probe represents a breakthrough in a decades-long push for the department to classify certain worker centers as unions.

“I would absolutely say that if the DOL moves ahead with it, the worker center movement is going to push back,” said the National Employment Law Project’s Charlotte Noss, who coordinates legal strategy for worker centers nationwide. She noted that DOL and the National Labor Relations Board have previously held that worker centers aren’t unions. “Any attempts by the DOL to exert coverage would be challenged in court,” she added.

Read the complete article here.