Worker Centers as Labor Organizations? Labor Law’s Quid Without the Quo

Source: Cynthia Estlund, OnLabor blog, June 11, 2015

At last week’s NYU Annual Conference on Labor (an excellent conference, by the way), the most heated exchange during a panel on alternative worker organizations revisited the debate over whether “worker centers” are “labor organizations” subject to the NLRA. What is largely missing from that debate is a recognition of the serious constitutional questions lurking just behind the scenes. …. So let us pull back and ask: What is the justification – the constitutional justification – for imposing the manifold restrictions of labor law on voluntary associations of workers engaged in peaceful advocacy and organizing? Indeed, one might ask: What justifies imposing these restrictions on ordinary unions? I think there is a partial and qualified answer to the second question, but that answer should doom efforts to subject worker centers to the constraints of federal labor law. ….. Here’s the rub: Worker centers do not exercise or seek any of the unusual powers of unions under the labor laws. They do not purport or attempt to exclusively represent a group of employees, including non-members, on the basis of majority rule; they do not claim the legal right to compel employers to bargain with them, or to bargain for the right to collect dues from non-members (as unions in non-right-to-work states can do). Without any of the distinctive legal powers of unions, worker centers are simply voluntary associations of workers pursuing shared interests through peaceful advocacy. ….