5 Ways PRA Exposed the Corporate Right in 2015

What would our democracy look like without the influence of corporations and industrialists? It has become more and more difficult in recent decades to imagine an answer to this question. As the late political scientist and PRA’s founder Jean Hardisty wrote in 2014, neoliberalism—or deregulated market capitalism—”seeks to replace democracy with oligarchy.” Indeed, corporate money and influence are remaking our democratic institutions, from the dark-money lobbying groups and think tanks pushing limitless deregulation, to individual wealthy donors putting their thumbs on the scales of public policy in state legislatures and using new Voter ID laws to suppress the vote. As progressives contemplate how to build a movement for justice that can effectively counter such forces, it is necessary to understand how the Corporate Right—what Hardisty termed the Chamber of Commerce wing of the conservative movement—is collaborating with others on the Right to advance its agenda.

PRA has written much in the past about the Right’s attacks on the most vulnerable groups of working people: women, people of color, LGBTQ people. During 2015, we launched the new PRA Economic Justice Research Project to identify some of the current trends and to develop a fuller analysis of who exactly is behind the ongoing transformation of our democratic infrastructure.  Our research has fueled some of the most effective recent campaigns for economic justice, including: the fight for domestic workers’ rights, the fight for paid family leave laws, and the fight for fair wages for restaurant workers. Here are five ways our work exposed the Corporate Right’s shenanigans in 2015.

  1. Rick Perry NFIBIn January and February, we looked into the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) spearheading of a lawsuit that tried to halt, and then delay, the implementation of a new Department of Labor rule that will allow home care workers to be covered by the same minimum wage and overtime protections that other workers enjoy under U.S. labor law. I also wrote an article about the IFA’s involvement in this fight that was published by In These Times.
  1. fun-at-red-lobserFrom January through March, we examined how restaurant owners, through their own corporate lobbying group – the National Restaurant Association, are fighting against paid sick days and better pay for employees. We also discussed how Walmart’s announced pay raises were little more than PR stunt to change its anti-worker image.
  1. AitkenIn March, we began seriously investigating the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), a professional association claiming to represent 275,000 HR professionals worldwide. SHRM is headquartered in Alexandria, VA, and pulls in about $143 million per year. It has a 501c3 charitable foundation (the SHRM Foundation) whose activities are still a mystery to us; and it also has an immigration policy advocacy arm, the Council for Global Immigration, which has its own separate structure. Mostly, however, SHRM acts as a lobbying organization for the corporate side of the HR equation. It hosts lavish conferences to which members are invited, and it does train members in how to comply with workplace law. But it also uses its policy and advocacy departments to actively lobby for employer-side changes in workplace law. For example, SHRM opposes the USDOL’s expansion of the overtime rules, the NLRB’s expedited elections rule, mandatory paid leave laws, and much more. Despite SHRM’s strong dedication to curtailing worker rights and workplace protections, SHRM presents to the public, the media, and often to its own membership, a studiously neutral political facade, and attempts to appear not to take sides in employer-employee relations. I attended SHRM’s legal and legislative conference in March 2015, and reported out my findings in a series of blog posts.
  1. Arthur BrooksIn May and June, we examined how the Christian Right may or may not be informing and involving itself with corporate lobbying groups, think tanks and other vehicles funded by industrialists to remake our political economy. We turned toward the narratives around poverty that began to come out of right-wing think tanks and Christian conservative groups this year—both secular groups like the American Enterprise Institute, and religious groups like the Acton Institute, as well as quasi-Christian groups such as the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics. Based on this research, I wrote a piece for The Public Eye magazine on Faith-Washing Right Wing Economics, or how the Corporate Right uses Christian Right organizations and messaging to advance its agenda. Also, during the national debate surrounding the confederate flag, we discussed how the neo-confederate South lost to (ironically) free market neoliberalism.
  1. devos familyFinally, in December, we looked even more closely at the DeVos family as an example of one wealthy Christian Right family that is involving itself deeply in political work. Although they work primarily in Michigan, this Koch-like family is branching out to other states on some key issues: education privatization, promulgation of RFRA laws, and so-called “right to work.” We think they are not alone; that other wealthy donors are becoming bolder and more willing to call the shots politically in their joint Christian/Corporate Right projects.

As we ring in 2016, I am sad to say I will no longer be heading up PRA’s Economic Justice research work. I look forward to seeing what the team is able to accomplish in the future based on this important groundwork. Special thanks to Kelsey Howe, Jacey Rubinstein, Jaime Longoria, Eli Lee, Doug Gilbert, and Jonathon Orta for their assistance.

Ed. note. PRA would like to thank our outgoing Corporate Right researcher, Mariya Strauss, whose work over the last year has been invaluable. We wish her the best in her new adventures!

GOP Lawmaker Reveals ALEC-style Group Pushing Model Anti-Worker Bills

Co-authored by Eli Lee

Even as ALEC, the infamous bill-mill that produces right-wing model legislation for state lawmakers, hemorrhages corporate members and is discredited as a neutral voice in politics, other groups are adopting its tactics. PRA interviewed one conservative California lawmaker who said that SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, has begun using ALEC’s playbook to court lawmakers and push anti-worker policies.

Pictured left to right: CalSHRM Director-elect Patti Blosser, California Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), SHRM A-team Captain Hector Moncada and Mike Letizia, CalSHRM’s state director.

Pictured left to right: CalSHRM Director-elect Patti Blosser, California Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee), SHRM A-team Captain Hector Moncada and Mike Letizia, CalSHRM’s state director.

SHRM, which PRA has reported on in recent months, has spent several years building a lobbying infrastructure on the state level, and—especially in California—it is seeing those efforts bear fruit in the form of close relationships with lawmakers and legislative victories over organized labor and workers’ rights.

SHRM deploys its full-time lobbyists and nationwide network of member lobbyists to push back against any expansion of the overtime laws that would ensure workers putting in more than 40 hours actually receive their due overtime pay. They’re also fighting against paid sick days laws (which have repeatedly been shown to have a low-cost public health benefit to employers, workers and communities), and against any expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). For example, in 2013, SHRM testified against a proposal in Pennsylvania that would have allowed workers to use unpaid FMLA leave to care for their ailing siblings as well as parents or children.

Now, it appears that SHRM is not only opposing workers’ rights, but it is also taking a page out of the ALEC playbook and beginning to use model bills.

California Assemblymember Brian Jones, a Republican from eastern San Diego County, spoke with us about how SHRM’s lobbyists are not only advocating for employer-friendly policies, but are actually offering legislation to lawmakers to change workplace rules to give employers more control over their employees. According to Jones, the association for human resources professionals engages in intense lobbying to try to tilt the public policy playing field more in employers’ favor.

“The first step is they contact my office, and they ask if I would be interested in sponsoring the legislation, and if I say yes, then we introduce the legislation,” says Jones.

“We change the language a little bit … we really tried to package it as an employee bill, so that it benefits employees, whereas previously it had been packaged as an employer bill.” -CA Assemblymember Brian Jones

According to Jones, in recent years these efforts have included working on a bill that would relax the overtime rules to allow for an”employee-selected” schedule of ten hours a day, four days per week instead of five eight-hour days.

Workers’ rights advocates have pointed to two types of problems that could arise from such legislation.The National Partnership for Women and Families cautioned that workers might be coerced into adopting this schedule, explaining that “employers would be able to implement this schedule without any obligation to pay overtime.” Teamsters Joint Council 7 of California agreed in a statement, saying that “This would allow an employer to circumvent the 8-hour day as long as an individual employee ‘voluntarily’ agrees to work more than 8 hours without overtime pay. We know how this would go in workplaces where workers are routinely exploited … everybody would be forced to work extra hours and nobody would be paid overtime.”

Another potential problem with AB 1038 was that it could introduce confusion about which workers are eligible to receive overtime pay, potentially undermining the more stringent federal laws governing the right to receive overtime. “We opposed it and so did the California Labor Federation and other unions,” said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work & Family Coalition. “It is what we in the work-family world call ‘bad flex’ because it is designed to chip away at overtime rights. A lot of employer groups support ‘flex’ that benefits employers more than workers.”

But with the help of Corporate Right lawmakers such as Jones, SHRM managed to spin this bill, deceptively called the Workplace Flexibility Act, as a boon to workers. Jones introduced the bill in its present form in 2012 and 2013, but it has yet to pass. Jones said that even before 2012, he and SHRM already had support from “the different pro-business associations” for the bill. “CalChamber—California Chamber of Commerce, they’re the big one, CMTA, the manufacturer’s association… a lot of the associations are helping out with it.”

Jones described how SHRM and lawmakers market such bills to Democrats and others in the CA legislature who may be more labor-friendly. “We change the language a little bit,” Jones says. “The main thing that we did in 2012, compared to prior attempts at the legislation, is we really tried to package it as an employee bill, so that it benefits employees, whereas previously it had been packaged as an employer bill. So that’s kind of how we were able to get more press this time and more notice from interest groups who hadn’t taken a look at it before.”

SHRM has recently taken a lead role nationally on other workplace policy issues, siding firmly with the employer community against workers’ right to unionize and earn overtime. As PRA reported in July, SHRM has pressured the Department of Labor to stop promulgating its new rule expanding overtime protections to a greater number of workers. And in California, according to Jones (who says he is a member of ALEC himself), SHRM is actively working the statehouse, promoting bills that would restrict workers’ rights and leave them open to employer abuses. “There’s lots of conversations that take place between their legislative director and my legislative director, on tactics and how we’re going to get it publicized, how we’re going to get it noticed by the members, who’s going to talk to which members about getting votes, and that sort of thing,” Jones said.

One may not think of a professional association for human resources specialists as having ALEC’s level of access to, and influence over, lawmakers. But, if California is indicative of how SHRM lobbies nationwide, SHRM does appear to be moving in that direction.


Eli Lee is a junior at Harvard University, currently studying history. He was a PRA research intern during the summer of 2015, investigating labor rights and economic justice.

HR Lobbying Group Leading the Charge Against Labor Department’s Overtime Expansion

With few exceptions, it’s been decades since U.S. employers have had to sit across the bargaining table with their employees’ unions. Now that workers have less ability to protect their own interests, they are more vulnerable to the tricks businesses use to extract ever-greater profits from them, such as wage theft, forced overtime, and other abuses.

Meanwhile, employers and their corporate lobbying groups such as the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), have grown used to squeezing the most productivity out of the lowest-paid workers—without much interference. They have, either by stacking the regulatory agencies and Congressional committees with corporate insiders (such as former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao), or by presenting themselves as neutral experts on policy instead of industry shills, so successfully managed to kill any new rules or regulations on industry that they profess shock and bewilderment when one manages to get proposed.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

When the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule on June 30th to expand the pool of workers eligible to receive overtime pay, the Partnership to Protect Workplace Opportunity(PPWO), an ad-hoc (or Astroturf) coalition of employers’ lobby groups chaired by SHRM (pronounced Sherm), had its lawyers draft a letter of shock and dismay, requesting that the DOL extend the comment period for the rule to give employers more time to respond to it.

It was almost a believable performance.

SHRM: Not just a professional association

SHRM, which PRA profiled back in March, is part of the nexus of dark-money corporate lobbying groups blanketing Washington, D.C. and statehouses with talking points and testimony to kill almost every proposed workplace regulations. Though the PPWO doesn’t list any leadership on its website, SHRM revealed in a memo to its members dated November 10, 2014, “SHRM is chairing the Partnership to Protect Workplace Opportunity.”

So far, SHRM has hesitated to publicly take the lead on many anti-worker measures, preferring to allow more overt union-busting groups (such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association) to come to the fore on public policy. But, with its claim of a membership base of 275,000 human resource professionals, and a multi-million dollar lobbying operation since 2007, SHRM has invested eight years and millions of dollars carefully positioning itself as a neutral, expert authority on workplace-related policies. Yet it uses its influence in Congress to push for measures that may are so blatantly anti-worker, it might even surprise its own human resources members, such as using the appropriations process to defund the National Labor Relations Board—a fight that is indeed coming to pass as of this writing.

They are also actively lobbying to halt such basic protections as the Labor Department’s new rule to raise the threshold for who is considered “exempt” from making overtime pay. (The new rule would extend overtime protections to nearly 5 million workers, who for years have been stuck in an exception meant for high-paid executives and working 50-60 hours every week without any overtime pay.)

In anticipation of such an expansion under the regulate-and-enforce watch of Wage and Hour Division chief David Weil, SHRM has been door-knocking around Capitol Hill and in statehouses, pitching its own legislation to address American workers’ chronic overwork problem—but worker advocates say SHRM’s bill would actually drive down wages.

Replace overtime with “comp time?”

The “comp time” legislation that SHRM supports would benefit employers at the direct expense of workers. In 2012, members of SHRM’s Alabama chapter visited D.C. to meet with members of their state’s Congressional delegation. The following year, Republican Alabama Congresswoman Martha Roby introduced the Working Families Flexibility Act—a bill that would allow employers to offer workers comp time credit (where workers who put in over 40 hours per week earn credit hours to later use as leave) instead of overtime pay. The bill has no enforcement provision to ensure that workers would get anything for working over 40 hours in a week. (Similar bills were previously submitted by Republicans in 1997 and 2003.)

Congresswoman Roby specifically mentioned SHRM’s support has having been “instrumental” in the effort to pass the bill. And although the bill died in the Senate that year, Roby once again reintroduced it in early 2015 with SHRM’s support.

SHRM knew that the DOL was likely going to begin cracking down on this abuse of workers sooner or later. In November 2014, SHRM expressed its worry that the DOL might revise the overtime exemption rule in favor of paying workers more, couching its concern about how complex the law might become when it said in a statement:

“The current FLSA regulations present practical challenges when classifying positions…Rigid FLSA regulations also make it difficult for employers to provide workplace flexibility to nonexempt employees. Substantial changes to the overtime regulations could further limit workplace flexibility for employees.”

But the DOL’s new rule couldn’t be simpler, even for the smallest employers.  Employees may not be considered exempt from overtime unless they make at or above the 40th percentile of all full-time salaried employees ($921 per week, or $47,892 for a full-year worker, in 2013). If an employee makes less than that,  you will have to pay them overtime for working more than 40 hours per week. What is more, you have to pay them overtime even if they make above the 40th percentile unless they are executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, or computer employees.  Application of these criteria for exempting workers from overtime is called the “duties test.”

The new rule will serve to remedy the current situation, with workers making only $455 per week, or about $23,000 per year, being considered salaried and exempted from overtime eligibility. The fact that the exempt salary level has been stuck at this amount since 2004 means that a huge number of people are being expected to work more than 40 hours per week without any additional pay. Under the new rule, employers might be less cavalier about assigning people to come in to work on weekends or stay after hours. (While the salary threshold is definitely being raised, the DOL says it wants input from the public on whether it should change the duties test; it has opened a public comment period that will remain open until Sept. 4 of this year.)

The “regulated community” strikes back? 

SHRM’s astroturf group PPWO’s July 13 request for an extension of the comment period is transparent in its outrage at the Labor Department for having the gall to require that employers pay overtime.  What is clear in the letter is that PPWO interprets the term “workplace flexibility” to mean “flexibility in the law for employers to do as they please.”

“The Partnership’s members believe that employees and employers alike are best served with a system that promotes maximum flexibility in structuring employee hours, career advancement opportunities for employees, and clarity for employers when classifying employees. The DOL’s proposed regulation…would dramatically impact the ability of the Partnership’s members to maintain that flexibility and clarity.

“The proposed massive increase to the salary level—more than doubling the current level—is far higher than the Partnership anticipated…”

Several times in the letter, the PPWO refers to itself as “the regulated community”. This is an interesting lens through which to view the DOL’s action, which was done to update the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act in favor of giving overtime pay to more workers—not to put employers’ priorities in the foreground.

Yet having their priorities pulled into the spotlight appears to be exactly what the SHRM-led coalition expected from the DOL. The letter angrily concludes:

“The Department could have used the substantial input it received during the 15 months it spent considering the President’s directive to develop a…proposal that was…reflective of the input it received. Instead, it issued a proposed rule that it could have just as easily issued 14 months ago.”

Such posturing shows that employers have grown unaccustomed to government enforcing and updating labor law to protect workers. But given the crisis in U.S. employment, with unions in decline, wages stagnating, and workers being expected to grow the economy by working ever longer hours and increasing their productivity, it is past time for government to do just that.

Eli Lee contributed research to this article.

Neo-Confederate South Loses Again – This Time to Free-Market Neoliberalism

After nine Black churchgoers were gunned down in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag is driving a wedge between neo-Confederates and free-market neoliberals.

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

A worker removes a Confederate flag from the Alabama Capitol grounds on June 24, 2015. image via AL.com

The Confederate battle flag became the banner of the White supremacist South during the desegregation of the 1960s, has since been flown on several Southern state capitols, and has become an emotionally-charged White Southern cultural icon.  In recent weeks, it has become the target of much of the country’s revulsion at the June 17 assassinations of South Carolina state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other Black citizens in a Charleston, South Carolina church.  The removal of the flag from state capitols, and its image from retail store shelves, has sparked some anger among neo-Confederates who want the symbol displayed prominently in civic and popular culture.

Bad for business

Walmart announced June 22 that it would move to take Confederate flag-themed merchandise off shelves, making it the first major retailer to do so. Other retailers, including Sears, eBay, Etsy and Amazon have since followed suit. Yet Walmart is a company based in the South, and has built its corporate culture around conservative Christian values. One could be forgiven for being a bit perplexed by the retail giant’s rush to be first to ban the Confederate battle flag from its supply chain.

In a similar move, albeit with less fanfare, Alabama’s Republican Governor Robert Bentley ordered June 24 that all Confederate flags—including the battle flag—be removed from the state capitol grounds in Montgomery, where they had been flown over a Civil War memorial since 19941. The AL.com news site quoted Bentley’s low-key public statement June 24 after the flags came down:

“Asked his reasons for taking it down and if it included what happened in Charleston last week, the governor said, ‘Yes, partially this is about that. This is the right thing to do. We are facing some major issues in this state regarding the budget and other matters that we need to deal with. This had the potential to become a major distraction as we go forward. I have taxes to raise, we have work to do. And it was my decision that the flag needed to come down.’”

It is interesting that Bentley mentioned taxes and economics in his statement, rather than simply condemning the flag as a symbol of the South’s violently racist past.

In the case of Walmart, one might well ask what economic or political benefit the company gets from making such a move. In recent years, Walmart has repeatedly done the symbolic “right thing” as long as it can find another way to benefit financially. For example, Walmart announced in February that it would raise the wages of its lowest-paid U.S.-based employees to $9 per hour – a move that turned out to be mostly a symbolic gesture to counteract its anti-worker image. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, vendors are telling the press that the sales of flag merchandise were never enough to justify angering customers who have been outraged by the South Carolina massacre

What is Neoliberalism? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy. - See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM? “Neoliberalism is the economic, social, and political analysis that best describes the startlingly unequal distribution of wealth and power in the U.S. today. Neoliberalism, and the policies it undergirds, results from the triumph of capitalism and is sometimes called ‘late-stage capitalism’ or ‘super-capitalism.’” … “Neoliberalism [is] characterized by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squelch regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatize public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. As U.S.-backed policies and puppet politicians were labelled ‘neoliberal’ by scholars, the term became widely-recognized shorthand for rule by the rich and the imposition of limits on democracy.” – See more at: http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/07/from-the-new-right-to-neoliberalism-the-threat-to-democracy-has-grown

With Governor Bentley’s move to take the flag down, and his remarks about having “taxes to raise,” we see that neoliberal politicians in the South are coming to the same conclusion. Alabama is becoming more of a player on the global economic stage, and a threat to that ascendancy has to be taken seriously. Foreign-owned corporations such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, and Airbus all have factories in the state. The Montgomery Advertiser reported recently that such foreign investments in Alabama might not have happened at all if not for the 1993 removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building. “At the groundbreaking for the plant in May 1994, Mercedes-Benz executives told [then Governor] Folsom that it would have been difficult for them to come to Alabama if the Confederate flag still flew over the Capitol.”

Governor Bentley is well aware of the optics.  In fact, travelers on United Airlines in July will find a 32-page supplement in their in-flight Hemispheres magazine titled “Dossier”, which the magazine promises will “examine Alabama’s diverse businesses and industries, and showcase the economies of the state’s major metropolitan regions.” Featured are Alabama business leaders, economic development boosters, and politicians—including Governor Bentley.

Neo-Confederates respond

Neo-Confederates, and others who have nostalgia for the vanquished Confederacy, are unhappy with this targeting of their battle flag. They have rallied in South Carolina, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida. One Alabama demonstrator, Ronnie Simmons, called Governor Bentley a “scallywag” – a Civil War-era term for a Southerner who collaborated with Northern forces.

Others condemn the recent killings in Charleston, but say they feel the Confederate battle flag is being unfairly scapegoated. The New York Times reported:

“Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Walmart would no longer carry them.

‘We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?’ he said.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is using the flag controversy as an opportunity to fundraise and to grow its ranks; in recent weeks, it posted a video on its website offering discounted memberships.

Dr. Michael Hill, president of the neo-Confederate, White nationalist, and theocratic League of the South, goes further in a blog post, laying the blame for the flag’s desecration at the feet of “Southern ‘conservatives’ who blindly follow the Republican Party.” Hill continues, claiming that the GOP “take sincere Southern conservatives (and others) and lead them down blind alleys to render them harmless to the Establishment, of which the GOP is part. Their time, energy, and money is siphoned off into nothing. If this were not so, America would not be a post-Christian cultural sewer and the South’s symbols would not be under attack, largely by Republicans!” Hill’s League of the South has created an armed paramilitary unit, and he has previously called for the formation of death squads.

The disavowal of the Confederate battle flag by Republican politicians such as Governor Bentley or South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley could present an opening, or signal a positive coming trend, wherein the mainstream conservative movement breaks its pattern of silence around, and implicit support of, White nationalist violence.  As Naomi Braine, assistant professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, points out in her recent Public Eye article, Terror Network or Lone Wolf?, “Right-wing militants…benefit from the power of mainstream conservatives.”  More specifically, Braine refers to “the conservative politicians and writers who see discussions of right-wing political violence as a threat to their own constituency, downplaying the severity of the threat from the Far Right.”

The Confederacy stood for the preservation of slavery, a violent, dehumanizing economic institution that treated human beings who had been kidnapped from Africa—as well as their descendants—as chattel property. In advocating a return to either a Confederate or segregationist South, neo-Confederates distort the facts about slavery and Jim Crow and, as Braine explains, the perspective they promote helps to create the conditions for a massacre such as the one in Charleston.

But neither let us applaud Bentley and Walmart too vigorously. They acted out of economic self-interest, not out of concern for Black people.  As PRA’s late founder, Jean Hardisty, noted in her 2014 essay in The Public Eye, the neoliberal project of deregulating corporations so they can compete in a free-market race to the bottom on wages has undermined democracy, and produced a present-day underclass of workers around the globe. These workers are paid next-to-nothing, forced to live in squalid and unsafe workcamps, and frequently even forced to leave their home countries in search of work. In its global enterprises, neoliberal capital discards working people, not even registering their human needs in its accounting of overhead costs.

As violent as the neoliberal free-market project is, however, its rejection of the symbols of White supremacist violence could make conservative politicians less comfortable about remaining silent in the face of neo-Confederate and other White nationalist movements.  If this happens, it could be a beneficial side effect of the scorched-earth policies of global unregulated capitalism.

PRA researcher L. Cole Parke contributed to this report.


[1] According to the Montgomery Advertiser, several different Confederate flags have been flown over the actual state capitol since the early 1960s: “Former Governor John Patterson ordered the first national Confederate flag, known as the Stars and Bars, to fly over the Alabama State Capitol in 1961, as part of the Civil War centennial. Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederacy from February to May 1861.”  Two years later, militant segregationist Governor George Wallace ordered the iconic and controversial Confederate battle flag to be raised over the state capitol as well, where the flags remained until 1993, when they were moved to the war memorial.

Chain Restaurants Post Record Profits While Lobbying to Pay Workers Less

Restaurants have shifted labor costs onto the backs of tipped workers and their customers—and some big chain restaurants are lobbying state lawmakers to keep it that way.

Tipped workers are hurting in America. In the restaurant industry, where the majority of the nation’s six million tipped employees work, over 20 percent of those workers live in poverty. According to an analysis by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, of the tipped restaurant workers who are parents, 40 percent say they must rely on free public school lunches to feed their kids. This, and other types of public assistance tipped workers rely on, costs taxpayers $9.4 billion per year according to a report released today from ROC United.

Yet merely raising the minimum wage won’t help many of these workers. In the states where it is legal, their employers only pay them a sub-minimum hourly wage of $2.13 per hour. Their customers, through tips, pay the remainder of their salary. Restaurants have shifted nearly the entire cost of servers’ labor onto the backs of the workers and their customers—and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is lobbying in some statehouses to keep it that way.

Employees at Darden-owned Red Lobster. Image via glassdoor

Employees at Red Lobster. Image via glassdoor

Large chain restaurant owners and their hired lobbyists have recently swarmed state legislatures such as Minnesota and Rhode Island. Why? They want to prevent any new laws that would require restaurants to pay their tipped workers a base hourly wage greater than the sub-minimum wage currently allowable.

The NRA (led by former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, past presidential hopeful, and Religious Right darling Herman Cain) negotiated the sub-minimum wage with Congress on behalf of the restaurant industry in the mid-1990s, and it has been stuck at $2.13 ever since. A handful of states, including Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Washington, have passed laws to bring the tipped wage up to match the minimum wage paid to other workers. Other states have raised the tipped minimum wage by tiny amounts—in Arkansas, for example, it’s $2.63. But now the NRA and its lobbyists are trying various legislative maneuvers to stop more states from doing the same.

Employers are required to pay the difference—but many don’t

Technically, if a worker didn’t make enough in tips to equal the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, their employer is required under the Fair Labor Standards Act to pay the employee the difference. But evidence suggests this almost never happens.

ROC United published a report last year showing an 84 percent noncompliance rate among 9000 cases investigated by the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor. Again, 84 percent of the restaurants investigated did not pay what they were required to pay, so many of those workers likely made less than minimum wage.

What is more, anyone who has spent years waiting tables in diners and family-style restaurants, as I have, can corroborate that it is rare for an employer to pay them the difference–called the tip credit– if they failed to get enough tips to equal $7.25 per hour. Server Tiffany Kirk recently told CNN Money that she can barely make ends meet on her income–and she’s one of the lucky ones whose employer does pay the tip credit. “Kirk said she is fortunate that the owner of “Howl at the Moon” follows the law and pays her at least the Texas minimum wage of $7.25 if her tips don’t add up. Many businesses don’t.”

Ondre Anderson, a server at a “casual fine dining” establishment in New York City, spoke to the New York Times about this in February. “When you’re working for $5 an hour, that’s basically just food money for the month,” said Mr. Anderson, 33, who added that he hoped to earn enough to move from a homeless shelter in Queens into an apartment. “We never know where our tips are coming from. Some people tip and some people don’t.”

Business owners and lawyers defend the current system of tipped wages with either fairy tales about highly-paid servers, or with straight denial. NRA spokesman Scott DeFife recently told NPR that “Tipped employees at restaurants are among the highest-paid employees in the establishment, regularly earning $16 to $22 an hour…Nobody is making $2.13 an hour.” Other defenders of big business, such as employer-side labor law blogger John E. Thompson, maintain that “there is no such thing” as a tipped wage, because employers must make up the difference between the minimum wage and the $2.13 subminimum. As we’ve seen, in practice this rarely occurs.

Restaurants can afford to compensate workers fairly

Tipped employees such as servers do earn vast, ever-increasing profits, but those profits go almost exclusively to the restaurant owners—with little to none of the increase benefitting the workers and their families. The industry projects that it will make a record-high $709 billion in sales in 2015. This number has steadily increased for six years running. One can reasonably conclude that the restaurant industry overall has recovered from the 2008 recession.

The biggest of these employers, chain restaurant owners such as Darden (which owns Olive Garden and several other brands) and Disney, take the money their tipped (and other) workers have made for them and use it to lobby against better wages for those same workers. They donate to the political campaigns of lawmakers who will vote against a fair wage and other worker-friendly policies such as paid sick days. They pay into the National Restaurant Association’s coffers, and the NRA then pays millions to lobby Congress and in the states to do various things to block the rights of restaurant workers. For example, one NRA-funded GOP lawmaker proposed a bill a few weeks back in Minnesota, that would re-set the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to $8 per hour and—but would cap it there. What sort of position is that to take on behalf of a wildly profitable industry?

The industry is flush with the cash its employees earn. Restaurant owners can certainly afford to pay a living wage. One might ask why they are using the money their workers have made for them to lobby so hard—and so publicly—against them.

Meet SHRM – the HR Association Lobbying & Suing to Roll Back Worker Rights

“If it happens that you don’t agree with one of SHRM’s positions, we ask that if you disagree you please refrain from that discussion.” –Kathleen Coulombe, SHRM Senior Associate for Government Relations, speaking to dues-paying SHRM members at its recent legal and legislative conference on how to lobby members of Congress


Human Resources doesn’t usually conjure up images of adversarial political activism. Yet contrary to its politically neutral image, the innocuously-named Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM, pronounced “sherm”) campaigns for public policies and mounts legal efforts to block workers’ rights. The group, which claims to have grown from 130,000 members in 2000 to now having 275,000 members globally, purports to represent individual human resources professionals across all industries. And indeed, it produces HR resources such as tip sheets and reports on how to comply with the law, workshops and trainings to earn professional certification, a trade magazine, and statistical analyses about the HR industry and the job market.

But lobbying to change the regulatory climate for business is one of its major unspoken goals.

Back in 2000, union-busting lawyer and then chair of SHRM Michael Lotito (from whom we will hear again later), said “If we had a market penetration—let’s say SHRM had 500,000 members, and 250,000 of them were in grassroots networks—we would be heard not because we shouted, but because we threatened to whisper.”  SHRM has quietly and steadily grown its lobbying operation to include a half-dozen staffers, a nationwide member lobbying network, a major legal and legislative conference, and even a satellite office in Sacramento, whose sole purpose appears to be lobbying at the California statehouse.

Though its stated mission is to “serve the needs of HR professionals and advance the professional practice of human resource management,” SHRM’s legislative agenda is instead aligned with that of big corporations such as McDonalds, and major GOP donors such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. Openly working in concert with dark-money business lobbying groups such as the International Franchise Association, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Federation of Independent Business, SHRM has been speaking out in the press, filing lawsuits, and pushing state and national bills. These efforts are aimed at blocking the rights of workers to do everything from forming unions, to having guaranteed paid sick days, to getting health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Undercover at SHRM’s legislative conference

So how does SHRM speak to its own members about the need to block workers’ rights? I went undercover for Political Research Associates to SHRM’s annual gathering, the Legal and Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. March 22-24 to find out. More than 650 people attended the conference from all 50 states and D.C., each having paid between $1200 and $1500 for the ticket.

“We’re not going to see successful efforts to mandate paid leave at the federal level,” Mike Aitken, SHRM’s Vice President for Government Affairs, told the assembled members at the conference.  Aitken briefly outlined a sophisticated, multi-state strategy for fighting paid leave and higher wages, and not only defunding the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – but suing in court to block its decisions. Aitken also alluded to SHRM’s use of member focus groups and questionnaires to form its policy positions. Though we were unable to locate any focus group or questionnaire results regarding policy positions, SHRM did this past week publish the results of a survey of its state legislative directors with questions about how engaged they are with SHRM. However, no actual SHRM members we spoke with said they have ever been contacted for their input on actual policy—and Aitken acknowledged that  “our Board is what shapes our policy positions.”1

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Mike Aitken, SHRM VP for Government Affairs.

Other presenters at the conference included employer-side labor lawyers and HR consultants, each delivering a message of “we’re not an anti-union organization, but…” with confidence and uniform consistency. Unlike organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce and the International Franchise Association(IFA) who co-sign and help to push SHRM’s anti-workers’ rights positions (who explicitly exist only to represent business interests), SHRM brings a grassroots base of HR professionals—people who are used to being peacemakers and finding compromises. In their regular professional practice, they are charged with complying with the law, rather than changing it to restrict the rights of employees. But SHRM tells members that it is also their job to pressure members of Congress and federal agencies to change the regulatory regime in favor of the largest employers.

The Chicken Little approach to “grassroots” anti-worker lobbying

How is SHRM selling its members the case for blocking employees’ rights, such as the right to earn paid sick leave and the right to choose a union? By telling them the sky is falling.

Lotito is now a shareholder in the employer-side labor law firm Littler Mendelson.  He gave a session at the conference entitled “The NLRB: New Relevance and New Challenges.”  During the session, his voice rising from a conspiratorial whisper to a roar of outrage, sermonizing on how a recent decision from the NLRB’s general counsel to treat McDonald’s franchisees as jointly liable with the headquarters could damage other businesses. He suggested that the joint-liability decision threatens the business-to-business relationships many companies have with their cleaning services, gardeners, and so forth, suggesting that any company could be viewed as somehow liable for the treatment of its subcontractors’ employees.

But the NLRB general counsel’s decision on joint liability narrowly applies only to cases brought by McDonald’s employees against the hamburger chain. As Steven Greenhouse recently reported in The New York Times, “’The Golden Arches is an employer, plain and simple,’ said Micah Wissinger, a lawyer who filed complaints on behalf of several McDonald’s employees in New York. ‘The reality is that McDonald’s requires franchisees to adhere to such regimented rules and regulations that there’s no doubt who’s really in charge.’”

Lotito, who co-chairs his law firm’s “Workplace Policy” subdivision, also criticized the NLRB’s recent decision to significantly shorten the 25-day window of time between when a union files for an election and when the election takes place. The new rule, which SHRM (echoing a US Chamber of Commerce talking point) dubs the “Ambush elections rule” in its printed policy statements and Powerpoint slides throughout the conference, goes into effect April 14.

Lotito’s old firm, Jackson Lewis, has made a lot of money advising employers on how to run an anti-union campaign during the existing 25 day window. As journalist David Bacon wrote in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2008:

“Campaign tactics include: In the weeks before these tainted elections, 51 percent of employers threaten to close if the union wins; and 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors. This conduct is effectively unpunishable, making a mockery of free elections. Signing cards is a safer, calmer process that workers control themselves, and workers keep the option of using either the cards or the election – their choice, not their employer’s.”

SHRM is one of a handful of business lobby groups that is suing in federal court to block the rule’s implementation.2

Lotito explained that his firm also provided members of Congress with questions to use in a House Appropriations committee hearing the following day, March 24, on the NLRB’s budget. (You can watch that hearing here. Though we don’t know specifically which questions were provided by Littler, SHRM VP Mike Aitken told those at the conference that SHRM may attempt to fight the NLRB by adding a “rider to defund them through the appropriations process.” )

Having framed SHRM’s participation in the assault on workers’ rights as a matter of defending employers from onerous government regulations, Lotito was ready to unveil the Goliath that he says HR professionals should fear: unions. (He conveniently omitted the fact that unions now only represent just over 6% of the private sector workforce.) Again referring to the McDonald’s joint employer finding, Lotito explicitly named the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as the enemy:

“What I think is going to happen, what I would do if I were the SEIU, is on April 14th I would file 100 petitions in 20 different states against a whole bunch of franchisees alleging that there is a joint employment relationship between those franchisees and McDonald’s. I will win at least 50 percent of those elections and then I will demand… all kinds of information from McDonald’s Corp with respect to the underlying economics because they are the ones who are really controlling the purse strings with respect to the franchisee, so in order to have meaningful collective bargaining in theory I gotta have the franchisor with me, and I would use that as additional attack points. Or if I was really really really really tricky, on April 11th or 12th I’d go to McDonalds and say that on April 14th I’m going to file for elections, and as a result of that I’m going to bring your organization to a standstill. I’ve got an out for you though. I can be your best friend. I can tell everybody how great you are. All you have to do is agree to neutrality and card check…This is all about increasing union market share.”

Despite its studiously politically neutral and “we’re not anti-union” claims, SHRM has entered the public policy ring unmistakably on the side of big business and against workers’ rights. Whether its members accept its characterization of who the enemy is—and how many of them will unquestioningly sally forth to help block workers’ rights in the ongoing state and federal policy battles—remains to be seen.

End Notes

[1] SHRM’s website explains its process for determining policy positions thusly: “SHRM’s Government Affairs team partners with our Research Department to develop survey questions to take the pulse of the membership on what it feels about the issue.  Our Research Department may utilize the full SHRM Survey Report or a shorter Question of the Week format to obtain input from our members. In addition, Government Affairs staff gathers information by convening a series of public policy focus groups at the various SHRM national conferences, regional conferences and chapter meetings.

Once this input is gathered, staff develops a proposed public policy statement that is then subject to review by several SHRM Special Expertise panels who have jurisdiction over the subject area for their comment and review. The proposed public policy statement is then presented to the Board of Directors for its review and approval.” http://www.shrm.org/advocacy/publicpolicystatusreports/federal/pages/default.aspx#sthash.rXJAGapV.dpuf

[2] As economist Ross Eisenbrey noted in the Economic Policy Institute’s blog earlier this month, “The NLRB’s rule does away with an automatic 25-day delay between when employees file an election petition and the election occurs. The National Labor Relations Act does not mandate any such delay, but the anti-union lawyers treated it as a God-given right and claimed its elimination was ‘blowing up the election process’ and a denial of employer free speech rights. You’d think they were kidding, but they at least pretended to be serious.” In actual practice, the old rule has given employers enough time to harass, intimidate, and illegally fire workers involved in a unionization campaign, effectively lowering the number of union elections in US workplaces to 1453 in FY 2014– approximately two one-hundredths of a percent of all US workplaces.

The Religious Right Has Been Pushing Anti-Union Right to Work Laws for A Century

“I have enjoyed seeing the unions shrink,” crowed Christian Reconstructionist Gary North on his blog, “Tea Party Economist,” on February 27. The following week, the Wisconsin state legislature rammed through a bill that weakens unions by allowing workers to benefit from union-bargained wages and working conditions without being required to pay any dues or agency fees. A triumphant Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the new law March 9. The Wisconsin law is not unique, but part of a long-term trend of Religious Right support for Corporate Right actors and robber barons like the Koch Brothers.

 

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the "right to work" law

Wisconsin Teamsters protest the “right to work” law

Such laws, dubbed “right to work” laws in the 1940s by anti-unionists within the Christian Right, were passed long ago in states throughout the anti-union South and West. Now, we are witnessing their resurgence in formerly union-friendly states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. As even North admits, the spin is a ruse: “There is no right to work…But the phrase, “right to work,” has been a political winner for a generation.”

In a New York Times op-ed this last week, scholar and observer of the Right Kevin Kruse shared a bit of history on how Christian Right leaders have long helped business leaders whittle away at the economic freedoms granted to working Americans since the New Deal. Kruse mentioned Billy Graham, who in 1952 listed “union dues” and “labor leaders” among the ills that could not have existed in the Garden of Eden. Graham was throwing fuel on the flames of business leaders’ angst over the profits they were losing to their workers in union collective bargaining agreements. By then, too, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 had opened the way for states to begin passing legislation designed to weaken unions. All that was needed was the right pitch to sell these new bills.

Enter the label “right to work”, which cynically refers to state bills that remove the requirement for workers in a given workplace to actually pay for the representation and benefits the union provides for them. It is a label that has nothing to do with the right to work or the right to a job (as the name seems to imply).  The likely origin of the label can be seen in a research document from 1962 on the National Right to Work Committee, dug up by our friends at the Center for Media and Democracy, suggesting that the term “right to work” was coined by Vance Muse, a Christian Right activist who “was a protégé of John Henry Kirby, oil and lumberman and one-time President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).” The business leaders of the day recognized the public relations value of the term, and the pitch worked in Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, and so on. “By 1954,” writes historian Bethany Moreton in her 2010 book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart, “the entire South had enacted such legislation.”

On CMD’s blog, PRWatch, Jonas Persson also notes that the ultra-conservative, anti-communist Christian Right group the John Birch Society has been involved with the National Right to Work Committee almost since the inception of both groups. “The leadership of the two groups overlapped heavily,” writes Persson, citing the same 1962 research document that shows the NRTWC was part of a coalition with Birchers—including Fred Koch–and segregationist preachers. The connection with segregationists, Moreton notes, is significant: “segregationist Democrats broke the back of the labor and civil rights Left in the years immediately following the war,” she writes.  Just as industrial unions emphasized organizing across racial lines and unifying blacks and whites in a class struggle, right-to-work was a big part of the Southern business leaders’ political strategy to keep these unions out. (Watch for a forthcoming article by Peter Montgomery in The Public Eye magazine that shows how Christian evangelists such as Billy Graham, and later Jerry Falwell, helped to achieve this.)

Now, with nearly unlimited funding available from the Koch brothers (and other billionaires, such as Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner) for political campaigns focused on finishing unions off, new states are in play on the right to work map. As before, part of the battle is still being fought on religious grounds. As Josh Harkinson reported in Mother Jones in 2011, groups such as Focus on the Family and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council have been dutifully rallying the evangelical base to side over and over again with business leaders over unions. Already, this public relations war has paid dividends for Walker in Wisconsin, where state employees who once could rely on strong unions to give them a voice with which to bargain find themselves adrift.

But it is not over yet. While Walker cites scripture to rationalize his pre-emptive strikes against organized labor in Wisconsin, at least one Catholic group (the Wisconsin Catholic Conference) testified on the other side in Madison during the debate over right to work, citing scripture in favor of unions. And while that effort ultimately failed, in Missouri the results have been quite different. There, last March, the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis brought the state’s labor leaders a letter saying that the coalition of religious leaders does not support right to work and would help labor fight it. To the embarrassment of Missouri Republicans, right to work failed in 2014, and though it was re-introduced in February 2015, the state GOP does not have the votes to override the promised veto by Gov. Jay Nixon (D).

Given Walker’s popularity among evangelicals, though, coupled with the Corporate Right’s commitment to bringing down unions, we are likely to see more battles over right to work in the next two years. One need only look at long-term right to work states such as Florida and North Carolina to see what happens when the gains made by unions and collective bargaining are eroded: depressed wages, longer work hours, unchecked racial and anti-LGBTQ discrimination and sexual harassment, and failure to follow health and safety protocols. Yet the Religious Right leaders who are shilling for anti-union policies—the same ones who also say that hardworking Americans deserve government assistance—have never taken any responsibility for such consequences.

About Those Raises: Walmart’s Latest PR Stunt to Change its Anti-Worker Image While Resisting Regulation

Depending on whom you ask, up to half a million Walmart associates got a raise yesterday. The raise was won for them by a brave rebel alliance of hundreds of Walmart workers who are interested in the continued survival of Walmart workers. Calling themselves OUR Walmart, these workers have put their own jobs on the line since 2012 by staging sit-ins, strikes, disruptions at Walmart shareholder meetings, press conferences, and other demonstrations to call attention to the company’s abysmal pay and working conditions.

Walmart3.jpg

The raise announced yesterday in a company press release will ensure that 40 percent of the company’s U.S.-based workforce will make at least $9 per hour starting in April, with another raise up to $10 per hour by next February.  (The Daily Beast’s Michael Maiello disputes the idea that Walmart is really giving half a million people a raise, correctly noting that in states such as Rhode Island and California, where the minimum wage is already $9, workers won’t see a bump.)

The company can certainly afford to do it, as the New York Times pointed out: the nation’s largest retailer had a more-lucrative-than-expected holiday season, with its workers earning it 4th quarter revenues of about $131 billion. (Paying 500,000 people a buck more per hour will cost an additional $20 million per week, or a billion and change per year, by my calculator—or less than 1 percent of revenue.)

OUR Walmart protesters demand livable wages and better hours

OUR Walmart protesters demand livable wages and better hours

As labor reporter Josh Eidelson and others have noted, Walmart is doing this because it has to. It has taken serious public relations hits for years now, thanks to low-wage employer shenanigans such as stores hosting holiday food drives for its own employees,  and dropping 30,000 employees from its healthcare plan (in October 2014) without offering them any more money to make up for the lost compensation. The OUR Walmart campaign, backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, has also publicly and successfully shamed the company for its dehumanizing treatment of workers in the areas of pay, benefits, health and safety, and morale. Finally, and significantly, 29 states (plus Washington DC) have passed minimum wage increases that mean Walmart already has to pay those workers more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour anyway.

If you zoom out on the timeline of Walmart behavior in the face of worker unrest, though, a clear pattern emerges—and within that pattern the raise for the 500,000 falls neatly into place. When something bad happens for Walmart workers (like a deadly fire killing 117 workers in a Bangladesh garment factory making Walmart clothing, or news breaking of a pregnant associate being forced to take unpaid leave and lose half her family’s income and drop out of nursing school, or a warehouse owner who packs and ships goods bound for Walmart stores discovered to be paying sub-minimum wages and forcing workers to live in tents in the woods), Walmart responds to the public outcry with a tactical policy shift designed to evade both scrutiny and accountability.

In the case of the 2012 Tazreen factory fire in Dhaka (and the hideous Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1129 workers at a garment factory outside Dhaka less than a year later), the international outcry became so intense that over 190 apparel brands signed the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, establishing an independent inspections, retrofitting, and monitoring system for the industry’s 1600-plus factories there.  Walmart also took credit appearing as if it was positively taking steps to prevent such accidents from happening again. But instead of signing the Accord, it continued its resistance toward any mandatory government or independent regulatory oversight of its practices, and set up its own (voluntary) self-inspection system—which most advocates agree is virtually meaningless in ensuring worker safety.

In the case of the pregnant worker losing her income in retaliation for asking for reasonable accommodations on the job for her pregnancy, some OUR Walmart members set up a pregnant workers’ rights campaign called Respect the Bump, publicizing the atrocious treatment of this worker. As a result, the company created a new accommodations policy for pregnant associates—attempting to pre-empt any regulatory oversight that could come from a protracted public fight over its lack of a policy. (This fight over additional regulatory oversight may be coming anyway, as Congress debates the Pregnant Workers’ Fairness Act, introduced in the last Congress and in an array of states—it will be interesting to see if Walmart plays a role there.)

Finally, in case after case involving abusive working conditions for warehouse workers in its supply chain, Walmart has denied culpability and either quietly dropped the warehouse contractor, or adopted better workplace practices in certain warehouses without saying why.  Three separate grassroots workers’ advocacy campaigns have sprouted up around the country to push for better wages and working conditions in warehouses: Warehouse Workers United, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and the National Guestworkers’ Alliance. All of them focus heavily on how Walmart’s abusive practices push down wages and suppress worker organizing across the supply chain.

The pattern of responding to a workers’ crisis by implementing bare-minimum changes, which can reasonably be described as little more than PR efforts, tells you a lot about Walmart’s attitude toward its workers. Contrast this with the behavior of similar companies—such as Costco, which uses higher wages, a willingness to work with unions, and other similar pro-worker policies to position itself as a leader in big-box retail employment practices—and it becomes clear that Walmart’s anti-worker efforts are not the result of business or economic requisites, but rather an internal culture that ultimately values profit revenues for executives far more than the quality of life for those whose work has made the Walton family the richest heirs on Earth.

What is perhaps most chilling here is that Walmart’s announced slight pay raises for some of its employees will likely succeed in somewhat improving the image of Walmart and its treatment of workers. Yet at the same moment that it is announcing the raise for the 500,000, according to that New York Times report, it is also announcing its intent to shrink its workforce and close stores. How many stores? How many layoffs? Sadly, we won’t know until it happens. The heroes of OUR Walmart and other worker organizing groups who have created the pressure forcing the modest raises deserve praise.  But the company still has much to answer for, and a long way to go.

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Crushing the Dream: The Business Lobby Groups Blocking Your Paid Leave

Since President Obama mentioned paid sick leave and paid “maternity” leave in his State of the Union address, an ever-louder chorus of experts and pundits has echoed the need for such family-friendly workplace policies. But despite ironclad evidence of the economic and ethical soundness of these policies, workers are still lacking these protectionsthanks to a coordinated effort to stop them by the Corporate Right

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) speaks to a gathering of National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) lobbyists in 2013.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) speaks to a gathering of National Federation of Independent Business(NFIB) lobbyists in 2013.

Nearly every other developed country provides these forms of paid leave without damage to their economies; in states and cities that already have paid sick days or paid family leave, the effect on businesses has been either positive or neutral; allowing for paid leave helps close the gender pay gap by keeping women continuously employed as they have children or take time to care for ill relatives (The New York Times reported that “Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages”). Finally, these policies are so popular that even the House GOP leadership has quietly allowed one congressmember to introduce a paid-leave-lite bill that “would permit all workers to use their overtime toward paid time off,” according to a report in The Hill.

Most GOP lawmakers, though, when asked about passing real paid family leave or paid sick days, either say it is a non-starter (Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently called it “one more government mandate”) or laugh at the reporter asking the question. Indeed, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama there has been zero movement toward federally mandated paid leave. As Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker recently, “The FMLA had all the hallmarks of a first step; the problem was that there was never a second or third one.” Why, despite the evidence for such policies, would the Republicans continue to block them?

The answer is that they—and many Democrats as well—are under constant pressure from an array of business lobby groups and trade associations that are dead set against government mandating any new employment policies that favor workers’ rights. Who are these groups, and why are they working to stop us from having any paid leave?

Working Against Workers

It has nothing to do with business being afraid of having to pay workers more. Workers earn their own sick days in states and cities that have passed paid sick days laws, and research has established that it doesn’t hurt the business’ bottom lines. In California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, the states where paid family leave is already law, the state pays workers who are on leave out of a small additional payroll deduction. Again, this additional $1 or so per week is coming out of workers’ own wallets, not business owners’ pockets. Business lobby groups, then, oppose these policies out of an ideological, not a pragmatic, commitment to stopping all new workplace regulations that give workers additional rights. We need to understand who they are.

The business association that has gone on record most frequently against paid leave policies in recent months is the National Federation of Independent Business, or the NFIB. Though its branding makes it appear to represent small “independent” business owners, it consistently tacks hard to the right on just about every workplace policy issue that comes before Congress. Want to raise the minimum wage for retail and fast food workers? The NFIB hates that idea. Et cetera. What is more, even though it tells the IRS it is politically neutral, the NFIB accepts major donations from the right-wing Koch Brothers’ Freedom Partners fund. NFIB spokesman Jack Mozloom recently tried to confuse businesses into thinking they would have to pay for paid family leave, telling a reporter from The Hill that “You’re paying twice for the same labor” if business owners must hire a temp worker and also pay the worker who is out on leave.

In the states, the Chamber of Commerce is playing the role of moderate in this debate over paid leave. New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce initially opposed the state’s policy, which was passed in 2009; that policy has proven to be a boon to workers and cost businesses almost nothing. Still, the New Jersey Chamber recently said it “remains opposed to any government mandate of an arrangement “usually negotiated between an employer and employee.” In Rhode Island, USA Today reports that the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce is “assessing the impact” of the state’s new paid leave policy.

Finally, the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM, which claims to represent the views of the 250,000 HR professionals on its membership rolls, has come out against mandatory paid family leave laws in the press. SHRM spokesperson Lisa Horn recently told USA Today that “Her organization supports companies offering paid leave generally, but prefers incentives for employers to offer it, rather than require it.” Although this may sound moderate, SHRM’s opposition to paid family leave is puzzling. SHRM does not explain how exactly paid family leave policies would harm HR professionals. Wouldn’t a policy that reduces employee turnover, results in more equitable pay for women, and keeps employee morale high be a boon for HR professionals as well? And, of course, HR professionals are employees too; they are just as likely as anyone else to welcome a new baby or need to take time off to care for an ill family member.

With both houses of Congress controlled by the GOP, we are unlikely to see movement on national paid sick or family leave policies any time soon. But a handful of states will be considering them this year. As these bills make their way through your state legislature, close observers will note the NFIB, Chamber of Commerce, SHRM, and others weighing in on the debate. Stay tuned to this space for more on these business lobby groups and their anti-worker shenanigans.

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Dark Money, Dirty War: The Corporate Crusade Against Low-Wage Workers

PE Cover Spring 2014 NO DATEThis article appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

Corporate interests have taken credit for reducing private-sector unions to afraction of their former strength, and for eroding public-sector collective bargaining, especially since the  2010 “Tea Party midterms.” A resurgence in low-wage worker organizing, sparked by growing inequality in the United States, promises to help defend the rights—and paychecks—of vulnerable workers. But corporations and their paid shills aim to snuff out the movement before it catches fire. 

 

During an April 16 event at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Joe Kefauver—a lobbyist and PR man for the National Restaurant Association and the Convenience Store Association—warned the audience of business leaders about an emerging challenge to their corporate dominance. The threat comes, he said, from groups that “have the ability to leverage infrastructure to bring a multi-pronged attack, and force internal corporate changes [that] they wouldn’t have been able to get through [union] collective bargaining.”Though the organizing efforts the Chamber warns about take many forms, corporate PR lumps them together under the label “worker centers.”

At the same Chamber event, Kefauver gloated about industry’s recent successes in weakening “the union movement,” which, he said, “has hit a lot of roadblocks, in large part due to the good work of a lot of folks in this room.”1 Building on their victories, over unions, corporations are now deploying their firepower against a resurgence in low-wage worker organizing prompted by the worst economic inequality in a century.

The stakes are high. For too many working Americans, chronic debt and economic insecurity have become inescapable facts of life. Institutions that once offered refuge and the hope of escape from poverty have been hollowed out by decades of policies that concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Labor unions have been decimated by business interests’ relentless anti-unionization campaigns, and by their successful lobbying in Congress and state legislatures for laws and regulations that favor employers.

As workers face intimidation and legal challenges to their right to join unions (including a case that would damage public sector unions, Harris v. Quinn, on which the Supreme Court is about to rule2), the United States has gained a reputation for lousy treatment of workers. In a new report, the International Trade Union Confederation used a five-point scale to rank countries on their commitment to workers’ rights, with five being the worst. The United States received a ranking of four, meaning there are systematic violations.3 Only about 11 percent of U.S. workers are now represented by unions, down from a peak in the private sector of around 35 percent in the 1950s.4 Today, most union members are public-sector employees such as police officers, teachers, and government workers.

Without unions to advocate for workers’ rights at the local level, employers are able to keep wages low and suppress worker self-organization with impunity. Workers’ rights advocates have documented abuses—such as wage theft, intimidation, and sexual harassment—being committed against immigrant and low-wage workers without fear of prosecution. Inequality is at its highest level since 19285, and studies show that 95 percent of the financial gains made during the current recovery have gone to the top one percent of income earners.6

Into this breach has stepped small but vibrant constellation of low-wage and immigrant-worker organizations. This organizing resurgence features a variety of structures and approaches striving to ensure that workers’ voices are heard in public-policy debates on wages and employment practices. According to a recent briefing paper by United Workers Congress, a federation of such groups, Worker centers [and other low-wage and immigrant worker advocates] have won changes in local policies and practices, built vocal and active membership, and raised public awareness of workers’ issues. These efforts have laid the groundwork for the recent spread of legislative efforts to protect the rights of workers not covered under existing labor law, and to raise the minimum wage for all workers.”7

Such organizing efforts have also drawn the attention of corporate wolves—PR flacks and conservative-leaning think tanks answering to the same business interests that are responsible for the decline of unions and other anti-poverty institutions. While some new worker organizations have endured and even thrived in the face of relentless attacks, their antagonists have generally hailed from the particular industry (restaurant, agribusiness, big box retail, etc.) or social sector (e.g. anti-immigrant movement) that they challenge.

In the court of public opinion, low-wage and immigrant worker organizing campaigns are gaining a reputation for being scrappy underdogs, standing up for the little guys. (More often than not, these “little guys” are actually women; a recent study from the National Women’s Law Center found that women represent almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers.8) But the business lobby is trying to use its megaphone to reverse that momentum. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association are taking advantage of low public awareness of new worker organizations to frame these loosely connected groups as part of the union “Goliath”—a familiar frame that allows corporations to repurpose decades of anti-union messages and tactics.9

Although the attacks are well-coordinated, there are opportunities for low-wage and immigrant worker organizing to respond strategically. The business community is trying to hit a field of small, moving targets with independent leadership. The strength of the field lies partly in its diversity—its networked strength rather than its deep pockets. The opposition is trying to homogenize a heterogeneous field of grassroots organizing in order to simplify, vilify, and attack it. The experienced operatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce refer to their chosen targets as “worker centers,” using the term to merge all organizing efforts—union and non-union, immigrant rights’ groups, domestic workers, food service and retail workers, day laborers, supply chain workers, and more— together into one single, seemingly formidable enemy.10

Wage Thieves

OUR Walmart challenges poor working conditions outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Marc F. Henning.

OUR Walmart challenges poor working conditions outside the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Marc F. Henning.

Attacks on worker organizing are taking place against a backdrop of an economy in crisis. A 2013 New York Times article, quoting a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that the “median income for working-age households (headed by someone under age 65) slid 12.4 percent from 2000 to 2011, to $55,640. During that time the American economy grew more than 18 percent.”11

As real wages stagnate or fall, consumers have less money to spend. In response, big corporations seek to preserve their profits in ways that further squeeze workers and their disposable income. This squeezing takes many forms: scheduling workers for fewer hours on the shop floor, spreading fear and anti-union propaganda, cutting back on benefits packages, and, perhaps most shockingly, committing outright wage theft.

Imagine being hired as a cashier at a big-box retailer and being told that you’ll make $8.81 per hour, the average wage of a Walmart cashier.12 Imagine getting your meager paycheck and finding that it’s even less than you expected. Now imagine learning that the missing money isn’t being withheld by mistake. It’s being stolen by your employer. Such wage theft is pervasive across all U.S. industries, and the sums involved amount to much more than petty larceny.

“When we measure it,” Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education & Research Center, recently told Moyers & Company, “the total amount of money stolen out of American workers’ paychecks every year is far bigger than the total amount stolen in all the bank robberies, gas station robberies, and convenience store robberies combined.”13

“It really has become for many industries the way they do business,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, lead attorney in the Workplace Justice division at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “By not paying overtime or paying less than the minimum wage, they are eroding the bedrock of labor protections in this country.”14

As real wages stagnate or fall, big corporations seek to preserve profits by further squeezing workers and their disposable income: scheduling workers for fewer hours on the shop floor, spreading fear and anti-union propaganda, cutting back on benefits packages, and, perhaps most shockingly, committing outright wage theft.

The phenomenon of wage theft is especially cynical given the amount of money that low-wage employees already produce for their employers: McDonald’s, for instance, makes an average per-employee revenue of $65,000, according to a report from the business blog “24/7 WallStreet,” derisively titled “The Companies with the Least Valuable Employees.”15

In an article for Alternet in 2013, Paul Buchheit wrote that “McDonald’s employs 440,000 workers worldwide, most of them food servers making the median hourly wage of $9.10 an hour or less, for a maximum of about $18,200 per year.”16 That $9.10 per hour McDonald’s employee is being paid less than one-third of what she earns for her employer in a year. Now she is also having those meager wages stolen, as the Labor Department found in at least two recent cases in New York and Pennsylvania.17

Wage theft is just one of a variety of weapons that private-sector businesses have deployed in order to cheat workers and maximize profits. Other tools include public policy instruments like so-called right to work laws that hamper union organizing; threats of deportation to keep unauthorized immigrant workers from asserting their rights; and lobbying to carve out loopholes in new worker-protection laws, among other devices.

For the past few years, in metro regions and states, workers and their communities have galvanized around the problem of wage theft, standing together to sue and win back money that rightfully belongs to the workers who earned it and the local communities where they spend their paychecks. Additionally, low-wage and immigrant workers are seeking relief from abusive and exploitative working conditions by expanding the laws that defend their interests—raising the minimum wage, creating stiffer penalties for wage theft, and instituting paid sick days and other basic workplace protections. Their grassroots organizing—sometimes, but not always, conducted in partnership with unions—has been effective, and a growing number of cities and states are passing these new laws.

Corporate interests are striking back with bills to pre-empt cities from passing their own minimum wage increases or to mandate paid sick days. These pre-emption bills are produced by right-wing bill mills like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and pushed by state lawmakers who are often groomed for office by corporate lobby groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.18

The legislative attack is well underway. Eleven states, including Wisconsin, Florida, and Oklahoma have already passed state-level “pre-emption” laws banning cities and counties from mandating employer-provided paid sick days. At least six other states, according to the watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, are currently considering similar pre-emption bills that would prohibit local governments from raising the minimum wage.19

Chamber of Horrors

When the Los Angeles-based Koreatown Immigrant Workers’ Alliance (KIWA) began urging city voters in 2012 to support a state bill that would allow workers to place a temporary lien on the business owner’s property if the business owner committed wage theft, KIWA’s members were excited. The bill would have allowed workers whose employers had stiffed them to place a lien—that is, a transfer of possession— on the employer’s property until workers received the back pay they were owed. A lien is a red flag for lenders and can become a PR problem for employers. “We see this lien as a tool to bring employers who are committing wage theft to the table,” said Alexandra Suh, KIWA’s executive director. “If there’s a lien on the table, they’re going to pay attention.”20 One state—Maryland—passed a similar lien law that went into effect in October 2013.

Dworak-Fisher of the Public Justice Center said she expects that Maryland’s law will deter employers from committing wage theft. “We’re just getting it up and running,” she said. “We’ll be bringing wage lien claims over the summer and into the fall. The unscrupulous employers will be on notice.”21

As the California campaign gained steam, however, local politicians and business owners—some of whom were involved with KIWA projects in the community—started getting notifications from the California Chamber of Commerce. These Facebook ads, blog posts, and other advertising materials claimed that the anti-wage theft bill posed a danger to homeowners.

In one ad shared with PRA, the California Chamber falsely claimed that if the bill passed, it would mean that a third-party homeowner who had a contractor or cleaning service work in the home could wind up with a lien on the home. “Despite the fact that the third party homeowner had absolutely no control over the employee’s work or the wages he/she was paid,” read the statement from the California Chamber, “that homeowner could have his/her property leveraged for unpaid wages of the company’s employees.”22

In reality, the bill explicitly prevents third-party liens, or liens from one company’s workers on a third party’s, or homeowner’s, property. Yet the Cal Chamber’s lie confused and frightened California homeowners. The anti-wage theft measure died in the state Senate in January 2014. When it was brought up again for a vote in the State Assembly on May 28 of this year, it passed by a vote of 43-27. It now moves back to the California Senate for a potential vote later this year.

The corporate smokescreen also obscures the widespread nature of the problem, which continues to be “very, very serious,” as Suh said.23 Indeed, a 2010 UCLA-sponsored survey showed that the vast majority of workers are experiencing some type of wage-related violation on the job in Los Angeles County. “Low-wage workers in L.A. County frequently are paid below the minimum wage, not paid for overtime, work off the clock without pay, and have their meal breaks denied, interrupted, or shortened,” according to the report. “In fact, 88.5 per­cent of workers in the L.A. sample had experienced at least one type of pay-related workplace violation in the week of work before the survey.”24

Lies, Smears, and Innuendo

The high-profile battle in California may have helped provoke an aggressive response from the national business lobby: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI) has released three faux-academic reports on low-wage worker organizing since last fall, starting with one in November 2013 that purported to expose a cabal of left-wing, foundation-funded, low-wage worker advocacy groups like KIWA.

The report presents a kind of historical analysis of how low-wage and immigrant worker organizations emerged; labels this highly diverse landscape of organizations “worker centers”; charges that they are “union front groups” (UFOs) that circumvent the many restrictions that tie the hands of unions; and maps foundation funding for the low-wage organizing sector (implying that foundations are as responsible as unions for its existence). The report fingers worker-advocacy groups of varying forms and sizes—from small worker centers such as KIWA to larger national organizing efforts like Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).25

Each subsequent U.S. Chamber report builds on the insinuations and distortions of the previous ones. Common to all of them is an effort to redeploy the rhetoric and regulatory efforts developed over decades against unions to attack these varied immigrant and low-wage worker projects that, while generally small, have become among the most dynamic sites of the worker-organizing resurgence. The Chamber’s approach requires convincing the public, policy makers, and judges that so-called “worker centers” are more or less all the same—that they are functionally unions, trying to represent workers for the purposes of collective bargaining while evading the regulatory scrutiny and restrictions on their behavior and funding that unions must endure.

In reality, worker organizing groups use a variety of tactics to achieve their strategic goals: a community organization files a lawsuit to stop local police from using traffic stops to hand immigrant workers over to immigration authorities; a worker center holds workshops to train members to prevent wage theft; or a local domestic workers’ organization holds a rally to call for an end to deportations. In none of these cases is a worker organization “seek[ing] to negotiate with employers on behalf of employees,” as the WFI report asserts.26

It is unsurprising that the corporate Right should want to fight on familiar ground. The loud “union front” accusation represents a clever bit of bait: an invitation for community groups to deny the charge of being unions (as if that were a bad thing) and thereby enter into a potentially endless cycle of defending themselves from that charge. In fact, the relationships between traditional unions and low-wage/immigrant worker organizing groups vary greatly: some have no working relationships with unions, some work occasionally and amicably with unions, and others engage with unions quite frequently and even openly aspire to become more union-like.

But the broad-brush labeling of “worker centers” could have potential legal and regulatory consequences, too. The U.S. Chamber is using its reports–plus attack ads, articles from right-wing think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute, and op-eds in major newspapers echoing similar refrains—to persuade the public and the government that all low-wage and immigrant worker organizing groups should be subjected to the same financial reporting and internal structuring requirements that unions face. They aim to impose severe restraints on charitable contributions and to limit or ban secondary boycotts (among other activities). If their opponents are successful, the low-wage worker sector—including groups with no active relationships with unions—could be hobbled.

The Chamber is not only recycling anti-union tactics. In one particularly revealing statement in its first report, author Jarol Manheim compares the loose network of worker centers to the anti-poverty network ACORN, which was targeted and ultimately broken apart by right-wing attacks in the mid-2000s. Manheim names a foundation (Needmor) that supports “organizing to achieve social justice, and was once a major contributor to ACORN chapters in several communities. Between 2009 and 2011, its grantees included, among others, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Association (KIWA).”27

This comparison of worker centers to ACORN may be a dogwhistle to business leaders that low-wage worker groups are vulnerable to the same take-down tactics, including pseudo-journalistic video exposés, congressional hearings, and public defunding. As Lee Fang pointed out in an April article in The Nation, the case of ACORN, which dissolved its national structure in 2010 in response to this onslaught, could be seen as a sort of cautionary tale for immigrant and low-wage worker organizing efforts: to avoid the same fate, they will need to recognize and strategically respond to this national threat.

Chamber of Secrets

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s stated mission is “representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions,” but watchdog groups say the U.S. Chamber represents the interests of a select few big industry groups that want to crush worker organizing.28 In some states, where the local Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders tend to operate from the same playbook as the U.S. Chamber, anti-worker campaigns tend to proliferate. The California Chamber of Commerce, for example, has been actively lobbying to prevent the state legislature from passing a bill that would help to prevent wage theft. Watchdog groups such as ChamberWatch have had some success in persuading smaller Chambers of Commerce and even a few big corporations to leave and/or denounce the U.S. Chamber for its history of opposition to any regulation of corporate behavior, including environmental and safety regulations.29

But identifying who is—and isn’t—part of the U.S. Chamber can be a challenge. Unlike many local Chambers of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber keeps its member and donor lists secret. Despite its claim to represent three million businesses, watchdog groups have documented that its actual membership hovers around 300,000. What’s more, local chambers of commerce have publicly denounced or left the U.S. Chamber by the dozens in recent years. U.S. ChamberWatch reported that nearly 60 Chambers have done so since 2009. Though it does not disclose its donors, OpenSecrets has been able to track major donations to the U.S. Chamber from industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Associated General Contractors of America, and the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, itself a hard-line, right-wing business association.30

These and other industry groups are funding a broader, coordinated push to preserve the low wages and exploitative working conditions that now characterize many industries. Their targets include groups such as ROC United, which is a national network of worker centers that is challenging the American model of low-wage service sector employment.

ROC United “really carefully looked at the restaurant industry and thought about what it would take to improve wages and working conditions and standards,” said Janice Fine, a scholar of labor studies and worker centers at Rutgers University. “They are doing a number of interesting innovative things.”31 These include  surveys of restaurant workers to find out what their wages and working conditions actually are; a code of conduct that employers can adopt to take the “high road” and treat workers better; picketing bad-actor employers; and promoting “high road” employers to socially-conscious diners.

In addition to attacks from the corporate sector, some worker organizing efforts have been under constant assault from nativist anti-immigrant groups. Other vectors of attack have come from cultural conservatives such as the American Life League, which has used smear tactics to pressure faith communities and congregations.

For their efforts, ROC United has been subjected to consistent and intense attacks from industry, and has fought back doubly hard. A January 16 New York Times article exposed the restaurant industry’s PR campaign against ROC: “A prominent Washington lobbyist, Richard Berman, has run full-page ads attacking the Restaurant Opportunities Center, accusing it of intimidating opponents,” according to the piece. “He has even set up a separate website, ROCexposed.com, to attack the group.”32 Restaurant owners have also filed frivolous lawsuits against ROC, aiming to force ROC to spend money and time fighting in court instead of organizing.

In one 2005 case involving ROC’s New York chapter, reports the National Employment Law Project (NELP), “Three restaurants filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that ROC-NY’s activities made it a labor organization subject to the National Labor Relations Act. If ROC-NY were subject to the Act, it would also be subject to a series of requirements… and potentially jeopardize its tax exempt status. The restaurants said that ROC-NY’s filing of litigation, and seeking settlements that provided for improvements in working conditions…, such as promotion policies or language access policies, made ROC a labor union.”33 Such lawsuits are another attempt to shut down new worker formations by calling them unions and seeking to restrict their activities accordingly.

“It’s a sign of their effectiveness,” Fine said.34 And, indeed, the workers’ groups are winning in court. The National Guestworkers Alliance, a network that advocates for guestworkers who are brought in from other countries to work for a specific employer, won more than $200,000 in back wages and damages for a group of McDonald’s employees who had been forced to live in a manager’s basement and were paid sub-minimum wages and denied overtime. ROC United, according to an issue brief from the United Workers Congress, also has had a significant track record of court victories on behalf of workers: “The Restaurant Opportunities Center has won 18 campaigns against exploitation in large, high-profile restaurant corporations that resulted in higher wages and better benefits for these workers, as well as $9 million in recouped wages.”35

Even if these numbers don’t significantly affect the bottom line of mega-corporations such as Walmart or Darden Restaurants (which owns the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains), Fine said, the undeniable power of workers winning back their rightfully earned wages is pulling public opinion over to the workers’ side. “Before, they might have been irritants, but not enough to raise the ire of big, corporate dark-money groups like the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”36

Another approach that worker organizers have taken, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 Hoffman Plastic decision—which stripped undocumented immigrants of the right to win any back pay that is withheld during a unionization campaign—is to seek relief from workplace abuses under international human rights law. The Hoffman decision has had real consequences for workers trying to organize themselves into unions to combat wage theft and other abuses. “Workers have abandoned trade union organizing campaigns because of the fear instilled by the Hoffman decision,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2005 report on human rights violations in the meat-processing industry.37

In addition to the attacks from the corporate sector, some worker organizing efforts have been under constant assault from nativist anti-immigrant groups. These include groups like FAIR, JudicialWatch, and NumbersUSA. Other vectors of attack have come from cultural conservatives such as the American Life League, which has used smear tactics to pressure faith communities and congregations into withdrawing their support for the Interfaith Worker Justice coalition of worker centers.

A Gathering Storm

If halting low-wage and immigrant worker organizing efforts is the goal, then it appears corporations and industry groups are testing out a variety of strategic models for achieving this goal.

Previous attacks have generally targeted specific worker centers or specific organizing campaigns through legal strategies or PR campaigns. The pattern of recent attacks against new worker organizations suggests not only a growing frequency and intensity but also a kind of nationalization of the attacks. The flurry of op-eds, attack videos, legal briefs, and state legislative interventions draw on a broad range of right-wing infrastructure and tactics (see PRA’s related timeline of attacks on low-wage workers).

One example is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s recent series of reports purporting to “expose” worker centers as being well-funded efforts to unionize low-wage workers.

So far, it appears that the organized opposition to the resurgence in low-wage and immigrant worker organizing has not landed on the kind of PR, legal, and policy package (e.g. “right-to-work,” “paycheck protection,” anti-public employee collective bargaining) that has proven devastating to unions and other anti-poverty groups such as ACORN. But the Chamber, NRA, and others are moving aggressively to box in and take down any challengers to their corporate dominance.

Meanwhile, big businesses are finding that former campaign managers for Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates are willing to act as PR attack dogs to spread rumors that worker centers are corrupt, or “commies,” or fronts for unions. “Picking fights with restaurant workers has been good business for out-of-work GOP operatives,” writes Lee Fang in a recent article in the Nation.38

The battle is joined. The U.S. chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative is stafed with lobbyists and consultants, who visit industry associations and present worker centers as a threat to business. Meanwhile, members of Congress use their subpoena power on Capitol Hill to advance the anti-worker organizing cause.

And so the battle is joined. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative is staffed with lobbyists who, along with consultants like Kefauver, visit local and state-based industry associations, presenting worker centers as a threat to business. Meantime, members of Congress use their subpoena power on Capitol Hill to advance the anti-worker organizing cause.

In September 2013, Reps. Phil Roe and John Kline, two Republican House committee and subcommittee chairs, convened a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions titled “The Future of Union Organizing,” which featured speakers from lobbying groups claiming to represent small business owners, as well as anti-union lawyers. Speakers called on Congress to subject worker centers to same restrictions as unions.

Earlier in the summer, Roe and Kline had also penned a letter to Labor Secretary Tom Perez, requesting that he designate six specific worker centers as labor organizations under the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA). Perez refused; but had he fulfilled their request, legal experts say it could have resulted in worker-organizing groups losing the right to picket bad-actor employers, loss of their tax exempt status, and other restrictions.

And should additional industry groups and big companies decide to join the U.S. Chamber’s campaign to squash worker organizing, recent events have made it clear they will find eager friends in high places. At that April 16 U.S. Chamber event hosted by staff at the Workforce Freedom Initiative, the chief of staff for Steve King (R-IA), a right-wing representative who carries the flag for anti-immigrant groups, took the microphone during the Q&A period. He asked a question that low-wage worker organizations and the foundations that fund them might view as a chilling signal that the recent wave of attacks may be mere prologue to an intensified onslaught. “Is there something on Capitol Hill,” the Congressional aide asked the panel of industry lobbyists and lawyers, “we could be doing?”39

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1 Notes from the webcast of this event (held on April 16, 2014)—titled “Shifting Tides: Worker Centers and a New Model of Representation”—were shared with the author by a staff member for Center for Media and Democracy. The webcast was subsequently removed from the Chamber’s website:  www.uschamber.com/event/shifting-tides-worker-centers-and-new-model-representation.
2 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.
3 “The World’s Worst Countries for Workers” (International Trade Union Confederation, 2014), www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/survey_ra_2014_eng_v2.pdf.
4 Steven Greenhouse, “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/business/union-membership-drops-despite-job-growth.html?_r=0.
5 Drew Desilver, “U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now highest since 1928,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 5, 2013, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/05/u-s-income-inequality-on-rise-for-decades-is-now-highest-since-1928.
6 Steven Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle,” New York Times, Jan. 12, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/sunday-review/americas-productivity-climbs-but-wages-stagnate.html.
7 “The Rise of Worker Centers and the Fight for a Fair Economy,” United Workers Congress (April 2014), www.unitedworkerscongress.org/uploads/2/4/6/6/24662736/_uwc_rise_of_worker_centers-_sm.pdf.
8 “Minimum Wage,” National Women’s Law Center. www.nwlc.org/our-issues/poverty-%2526-income-support/minimum-wage.
9 David Sirota, “Making Goliath Walk,” In These Times, Sept. 9, 2008, www.inthesetimes.com/article/3895/making_goliath_walk.
10 David Kinkade, “Old Wine in New Bottles: Worker Centers Are the New Face of Union Organizing,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 31, 2014, www.uschamber.com/blog/old-wine-new-bottles-worker-centers-are-new-face-union-organizing.
11 Greenhouse, “Our Economic Pickle.”
12 “FY 2013 Sam’s Club Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Field Non-Associate Pay Plan,” Huffington Post, http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/Walmart_0.pdf.
13 Joshua Holland, “Inside the Dark Money-Fueled, 50-State Campaign Against American Workers,” BillMoyerscom, Nov. 5, 2013, http://billmoyers.com/2013/11/05/inside-the-dark-money-fueled-50-state-campaign-against-american-workers.
14 Sally Dworak-Fisher, interview with Mariya Strauss, May 23, 2014.
15 “Companies with the Least Valuable Employees,” 24/7 Wall St, Sept. 26, 2012, http://247wallst.com/special-report/2012/09/26/companies-with-the-least-valuable-employees.
16 Paul Buchheit, “Apple, Walmart, McDonald’s: Who’s the Biggest Wage Stiffer?” Alternet, July 28, 2013, www.alternet.org/labor/apple-walmart-mcdonalds-whos-biggest-wage-stiffer.
17Candice Choi, “McDonald’s hit by lawsuits over worker pay,” Associated Press, Mar. 13, 2014, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/mcdonalds-hit-lawsuits-over-worker-pay.
18 Mary Bottari, “Efforts to Deliver ‘Kill Shot’ to Paid Sick Leave Tied to ALEC,” Huffington Post, Apr. 3, 2013, www.huffingtonpost.com/mary-bottari/alec-paid-sick-leave_b_3007445.html.
19 Amy B. Dean, “The drive to ban mandated paid sick days,” Aljazeera America, May 6, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/sick-days-corporatelobbyistsalecnra.html.
20 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.Alexandra Suh, interview with Mariya Strauss, Apr. 7, 2014.
21 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014.Dworak-Fisher, interview with Mariya Strauss, May 23, 2014.
22 Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. “CalChamber Stops ‘Job Killer’ on Assembly Floor,” CalChamber, Jan. 31, 2014, www.calchamber.com/headlines/pages/01312014-calchamber-stops-job-killer-on-assembly-floor.aspx.
23Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Suh, interview.
24Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Ruth Milkman, Ana Luz Gonzalez, and Victor Narro, Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles (KIWA, 2010), http://kiwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/LAwagetheft1.pdf.
25Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Jarol B. Manheim, The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing (Workforce Freedom Initiative, 2013) www.workforcefreedom.com/sites/default/files/WFI%20Manheim%20Study%2011-21-2013.pdf.
26Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Blue Eagle Has Landed (Workforce Freedom Initiative, 2014), www.workforcefreedom.com/sites/default/files/REPORT%20WFI_MembersOnlyUnions_Report_FIN.pdf.
27Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. Manheim, “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing.”
28Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. See Sam Jewler, The Gilded Chamber (Public Citizen, 2014), www.citizen.org/documents/us-chamber-of-commerce-funders-dominated-by-large-corporations-report.pdf.
29Joel Rogers, “Why ‘Harris v. Quinn’ Has Labor Very, Very Nervous,” Mar. 27, 2014. “Local Chambers vs. U.S. Chamber,” Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch, www.fixtheuschamber.org/issues/local-chambers-vs-us-chamber.
30 “Top Organizations Disclosing Donations to US Chamber of Commerce, 2014,” OpenSecrets.org, www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/contrib.php?cmte=US+Chamber+of+Commerce&cycle=2014.
31 Janice Fine, interview with Mariya Strauss, April 28, 2014.
32 Steven Greenhouse, “Advocates for Workers Raise the Ire of Business,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/business/as-worker-advocacy-groups-gain-momentum-businesses-fight-back.html.
33 Rebecca Smith, Take Action against Wage Theft! (National Employment Law Project, 2007), http://nelp.3cdn.net/a1eaf7bc861e8d5ae7_kpm6bf4qn.pdf.
34 Fine, interview.
35 “The Rise of Worker Centers and the Fight for a Fair Economy.”
36 Fine, interview.
37Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants (Human Rights Watch, 2005), www.hrw.org/reports/2005/01/24/blood-sweat-and-fear-0.
38 Lee Fang, “Look Who the Folks Who Took Down ACORN Are Targeting Now,” Nation , Apr. 30, 2014, www.thenation.com/article/179616/look-who-folks-who-took-down-acorn-are-targeting-now?page=0,1.
39 Sam Jewler, “Corporate center points finger at worker centers,” Citizen Vox,Apr. 21, 2014, www.citizenvox.org/2014/04/21/corporate-center-points-finger-at-worker-centers.