“Employers Feel Wildly Free to Pay People However They Want”: An Interview with Kim Bobo

Interfaith Worker Justice founder Kim Bobo explains why progressives should be doing more to woo evangelicals; how the Chamber of Commerce is abandoning small businesses by not fighting wage theft; and why some Catholic employers are lobbying for workers to get paid overtime.

This interview is part of the Winter 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice

Kim Bobo, the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), is one of the Left’s luminaries when it comes to the intersection of faith and economic justice. Bobo, who was herself raised an evangelical Christian, and is the author of Wage Theft: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid, and What We Can Do About It, will transition out of leadership at the end of 2014.  Although the problem of wage theft—workers not being paid what they are owed for their work—is rampant in low-wage workplaces, Bobo’s ability to persuade Christians, Jews, and Muslims to support the rights of workers in their communities has even earned her the respect of some employers. But it has also earned her the distinction of being targeted by both the Religious and Corporate Right. In 2012, the Catholic-funded American Life League issued an 80-page “report” red-baiting Bobo. Recently, too, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has challenged IWJ by blocking anti-wage theft laws and naming IWJ in a series of reports claiming that worker centers should be regulated just like labor unions.  Bobo sat down with The Public Eye to talk about her personal journey of bringing together workers’ rights and faith, and about her reasons for remaining optimistic despite the continued suffering of many low-wage workers under the most extreme economic inequality in 100 years.

The Public Eye (PE): How did you come to start Interfaith Worker Justice?

I had gotten involved in 1989-1990 in putting together a religious support committee for the Pittston Coal strike. I realized that there was not much structure in the faith community to be involved in labor issues. That seemed just a missing piece to me, because in faith communities we cared about poverty, we cared about poor people, we were doing soup kitchens and shelters.

Clearly we needed to do something around labor, jobs, wage payment, those kinds of issues, as well. So I did this Pittston work and the folks I worked with at UMWA (the United Mine Workers of America union) were phenomenal and interested in the partnerships with the faith community.  While there was no structure, it was pretty easy to get people to do stuff.

I was living in Chicago, so I put together a group of religious leaders to support labor.  I didn’t understand the politics of labor, but I happened to completely luck out: Don Turner, who was the assistant to the President of the Chicago AFL-CIO, was assigned to be my liaison. He was interested in rebuilding these partnerships. We became this team, with me mobilizing the religious community for labor and him helping me understand labor.

We called it the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice.

PE: What is your faith background?

I grew up in an evangelical fundamentalist home in Cincinnati, Ohio, in what’s called the Church of Christ. I memorized lots of Bible verses as a kid. The heart of the scripture is: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. For me, my whole life is trying to figure out how to put that into actuality. Some would say that’s an odd background to be doing this work. I don’t think so. It was fundamentalist teachings of the core of the scriptures that drove me.

I have been involved in church work my whole life; in fact, I’m the choir director and moderator at my church. I am now a member of the United Church of Christ. (The names sound similar; they’re about as far away from one another as you can get.)

One of the things that has not been smart has been to lump evangelicals and fundamentalists in with the conservative Christian Right. While a lot of people have been confused on things and connect with the Christian Right on stuff, to lump this huge group of people or write them off as not part of our [workers’ rights] movement is dumb.

You see that right now on immigration reform. The evangelical world is completely solid on immigration reform. And at the local level, we see a lot of fundamentalists and evangelicals involved in the work.

We need to understand there are some very well-funded, concerted efforts by right-wing forces to continue to capture [evangelicals]. The Heritage Foundation published a small study guide entitled “Seek Social Justice.” It argues that the best way to help poor people is to do it through your church, because we are closer to people, and thus the best way to get there is to cut taxes of rich people and give more money to the church. It also makes these wild statements like, “If people aren’t happy with their jobs, they can just go find another one.”  Really?  It is not a very sophisticated argument.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing.

We should not assume [evangelical Christians] are a static group of people that is owned by the Right Wing. This is a set of folks that have a set of values of their faith that are being contested. I think that we need to be in there contesting for them. It’s hard because the Right Wing understands the importance of the faith community in these issues. They put a lot of money into funding right-wing religious organizations; the progressive world doesn’t.

You look at those of us working in the economic justice space within the religious community and every one of us is struggling for money. The progressive funding infrastructure doesn’t get that this is contested space and that we need to be out there working at it. Most progressive donors do not fund in this world. It is a problem. We get a little money from the unions, but most large donors, the people who are viewed as the larger progressive donors, do not fund in this world. They just don’t believe in it.

PE: How did the worker centers start?

I can remember that in ’96 and ’97, pastors would refer us workers who hadn’t gotten paid. They said, “Oh you got a workplace problem? Oh, call Interfaith Worker Justice.”  So these random workers would call us. I would say, “You haven’t gotten paid? You work at a restaurant? Maybe the hotel and restaurant workers union can help you.” My assumption was if workers weren’t getting paid, I could just refer them to unions, but unions didn’t want these workers that didn’t make sense in their strategic plans.

We produced a workers’ rights manual in English and Spanish. Then, when workers called, I could send them the manual and I could go back to doing my real work – supporting workers’ right to organize.

Yet we had to figure how to create a structure that could support these workers who are not being served by the labor movement.

I describe the work right now in three prongs. One is the work engaging the faith community in supporting workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining. Second is helping support and build structures that help workers that are not yet served by unions: the worker center movement. We now have 27 worker centers. The third is public policy. How can we be involved in policies that raise the core standards of workers, from minimum wage to sick days to anti-wage theft ordinances?

Our wage theft work, which grew out of the worker center movement, has merged with all aspects of our work. On the one hand, dealing with wages is the heart and soul of worker centers. It’s their number one problem.

But unions are recognizing that the issue of wage theft resonates with workers and makes sense to use in organizing workers. In sectors where they are unionized, the non-union companies are committing wage theft in a way that undermines the standards of whole industries.

Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

We’ve been winning all of these local ordinances around the country around wage theft. Even though we’ve been losing on a lot of other stuff, we’ve been winning on wage theft. It’s hard to argue that wage theft is okay.

PE: Can you name a couple of significant victories?

Fe Y Justicia in Houston just passed a wage theft ordinance that strengthens enforcement at the citywide level and says that when they do city contracts they’ll look at wage theft criteria for city enforcement. Arise Chicago (a worker center) led an effort that allows city government to pull a business’ license if someone is found to be a repeat violator.

PE: Are such ordinances largely symbolic, or do they have real teeth?

I think that a bunch of them have teeth. Some of the state bills have treble damages, which is huge [Ed. note: this means the employer must pay the worker triple the amount owed]. The New York State includes a provision for protection against retaliation. The city ones, it’s early to tell.

PE: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been portraying worker centers as a problem, as crypto-unions that should be regulated in the same way.

The Chamber doesn’t like worker centers because worker centers have been effective in challenging bad practices in businesses. To the extent that unions have a bad reputation in the country, which the polls generally show, the Chamber is trying to taint worker centers by calling them unions. I like unions so that doesn’t taint them in my book, but the truth is, legally they’re not unions and the Department of Labor has been really clear [about that].

Worker centers work with and support labor unions, but that doesn’t make them labor unions—in the same way that they work with religious communities but are not a church. If you want to compare them to something, they’re much more like settlement houses at the turn of the century or the Catholic or Jewish labor schools from the ’30s and ’50s. They are community organizations that support labor.

The Chamber of Commerce would be much better served helping its members address the wage theft problems that they have.

PE: What do IWJ worker centers do beyond helping workers who have been denied their wages?

We advocate in general for higher wages through increasing the minimum wage.

If you have a group of workers who come in and they haven’t been paid or are having problems, we talk to them about their rights in the workplace, including their right to have a union.

Workers make the choice. Sometimes they want to get their money back. We’ll work with them on direct action and help them get their money back. Sometimes, we’ll file claims with the Department of Labor or file a lawsuit. Sometimes, they decide, “we need ongoing representation in our workplace,” and the workers organize a union.

We do education around these issues and tell people what their rights are, but the worker center is not the union.

PE: What is the role of congregations with worker centers?

We are trying to encourage deep engagement of the faith community with worker centers. Some worker centers were started by people of faith or by social justice committees. Some of them had a secular start, but because they are affiliated with us, they want to know how to do a better job. Congregations and denominations provide financial support and volunteers. IWJ’s national headquarters is housed at a church that offers space for modest rent. There are a lot of worker centers in church basements and they provide advocacy. If a group of workers want to get their money back from an employer, local clergy will go with them. Or, if they want to strengthen enforcement at the city level, there’s engagement of the faith community in advocating for that.

PE: IWJ says it aims to address the root causes of economic disparity and indignity in the workplace. What are those causes?

It’s because workers don’t have power.  We are trying to figure out how we get more power through unions and through workers working independently, and through core standards and public policy.

We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

We believe that the economic system in this country, monopoly capitalism, is not serving the common good and not serving the vast majority of workers in the country. We need to figure out how to get from where we are to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.

How do you put some limits on capital, as it is now?  How do you get higher core standards in the society? How do workers get more power, more ability to influence what happens?

PE: IWJ calls for a proactive and transparent Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. How far are we away from that?

We have great leadership in the Department of Labor. Tom Perez is really great, but he’s new.

[Labor enforcement] also hasn’t been on the top of the list of the White House and that’s a problem. While the Department of Labor touts its expanded enforcement as, “We’ve added 250 more investigators,” [that means that] they went from 750 to 1,000 for 135 million workers in the country. That’s not enough. They’re really working hard and doing creative work—but they’re not scratching the surface of the problems.

If they had 4,000 investigators, I think we could start making a dent, but I’m convinced that wage theft has gotten worse, not better, in the last few years. The economy has gotten rough and employers feel wildly free to pay people however they want.  Calling people independent contractors [so that] they are exempt from all basic laws is another practice exacerbating this. How do we stop that?

It’s outrageous: there’s no sense right now of the importance of paying workers fairly. We’ve got to strengthen this sort of work that worker centers are doing around this, beating up on employers who are cheating people.  [That’s] why the Chamber of Commerce is so upset, but we’ve got to keep doing this.

We’ve got to always stand with unions because if we had more unions we wouldn’t have this crisis of wage theft.

We also need to engage the business community in some conversations around this. The Chamber of Commerce needs to stop these attacks and start having conversations with its members: how can we have a democratic society if we can’t figure out how to pay workers enough to raise their family with dignity?  The Chamber ought to be helping lead those conversations.

PE: Do you see any signs of that actually happening? 

I see several signs. They’re not huge ones, but I always look for the glimmer of hope as a person of good faith. There are some business leaders in construction in Texas who are good Republicans, Catholic businessmen who are saying, ‘We can’t compete against these low-road employers who are calling [employees] independent contractors.’

So they are standing up for the anti-wage theft bills in Houston. [Ed, note: Since this interview was conducted, Houston has begun implementing its anti-wage theft law, and workers have been getting the money they are owed.] They’ve got a commitment from both the public entities and the universities and hospitals to only hire employers in construction that pay people fairly. That’s huge and that’s really being driven by the business community. They may be conservative, but these are ethical people.

We are trying to figure how to lift up employers who are paying fairly. I think that’s encouraging.

I did an interview with human resources professionals who were concerned that they’re being asked to condone [employer] behavior in the workplace that’s not right. What if the Chamber of Commerce were saying, “We’re going to start a conversation with our members about how to pay people fairly and justly?” That would change things. They should be doing that.

PE: On the other hand, the HR people are probably worried about their legal responsibilities and the Texas businessmen are worried about competing with low-wage labor. Does the moral argument ever resonate with people?

I think it’s hard to separate them. Stan Merrick in Houston has really led. There are clearly economic arguments. He’s getting hurt by [low-road contractors], but he also has all these immigrant workers. He’s become a huge advocate for immigration reform, as well, because he knows these guys. He’s hired these guys. They’ve got families. It’s also personal. He was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools. His values are also a part of this. When you talk to business leaders, some of them are cutthroat and don’t care about anyone else, but that’s not all of them. A lot of them, on the one hand, are hardcore business guys, and, on the other hand, know it’s not right to cheat people. We’ve got to appeal to people on that.

I think figuring out how to pay people fairly is a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue in the long term. We can’t be a consumer-driven society if the consumers don’t have any money to buy anything. So, I’m going to make all the arguments. You can’t separate one from another. 

PE: “Can you talk about how IWJ’s economic justice work also intersects with and reflects a commitment to racial and gender justice?”

You see companies using race to separate people and to make economic gain. The Chicago Workers’ Collaborative is suing temp agencies that refuse to hire African American workers, and have instead intentionally hired immigrant workers and then stolen their wages from them. The lawsuits seek to recover back wages and stop discriminatory practices. Clearly, the temp agencies believed they could make higher profits that way.

Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

Race and class are intermingled in ways that are used against us. Anybody who is vulnerable is likely to be a victim of abuse in the workplace. African Americans often feel vulnerable and are often victims of abuse. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are even more vulnerable. Women’s wages are not what men’s wages are. Almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and you’ve got this whole sector of jobs that continues to be viewed as women’s work and has historically been paid less.

And these discriminatory practices are embedded in our labor laws. So farm work, which was historically performed by African Americans and then by Latinos, was not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home care work was women’s work and African Americans’ work, and also not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. We’ve built into the very codification of our laws these discriminatory practices.

PE: What can you leave us with that would be helpful in social justice work?

On the one hand, we’ve got to learn from the past. What are the struggles that people have had before us, and what can we learn from that?

For organizers, how do we make sure we spend time with our families so we’ve got the support structures that we need? We need love surrounding us so we can do the work for the long haul.

And how do we keep hope so we can keep going, especially in what’s been really rough times the past few years? How do we have the hope for the future?

How do we in the faith community do more at the congregational level, because there’s a structure. There are so many young people who define themselves as spiritual but not religious. So how do we capture engaged people who are spiritual not religious, not connected with a congregation? Is there a way to have people participate?

PE: To have a sense of the common good?

Right! I’m intrigued by all the online stuff that people are doing, like social networking. We need to do that, but I’m not convinced that it’s a substitute for “people stuff.” How do we do the people stuff and the social networking? the only way change ever happens is when people work together.

Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

 

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

 Share on Twitte Button  Share on Facebook Button

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.

Minimum Wage and Attacks on Worker Organizations

 image via CNN Money

image via CNN Money

May Day – Yesterday, Senate Republicans shut down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. A recent poll put popular support for the increase at 72%. Not incidentally, the Senate defeat coincided with the National Restaurant Association’s national lobby day. Known among restaurant workers as “the other NRA” for its political clout in Washington, the NRA is among the leading forces opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage currently underway in cities and states around the country, as well as in Congress.

This is a David v. Goliath contest, with the (other) NRA representing industry giants such as McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Starbucks. Calling out the NRA’s undue influence over workers, the economy, and Congress, earlier this a coalition of economic justice groups published a full-page ad in the New York Times challenging members of Congress to stop taking NRA campaign contributions. The contest between everyday working people and industry power over questions of basic economic fairness is intensifying in communities across the country. And the corporate is taking notice.

Groups representing low-wage workers—including domestic and agricultural laborers excluded from New Deal-era reforms—are building power.  We’ve seen domestic workers Bill of Rights legislation pass in New York and California; the recovery of millions of dollars in wages stolen from low-income workers; powerful organizing in fast-food restaurants; momentum toward a $15 minimum wage; and paid sick-days legislation in states around the country.

This resurgence of low-wage worker organizing—which builds on decades of effort to win living-wage standards—is a hopeful sign in an economy otherwise characterized by falling wages, precarious job security, and a massive expansion of corporate power over our workplaces, politics, and society. As might be expected, the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups that have worked to decimate private and public sector unions are now determined to prevent the rise of new worker organizations that dare to challenge their dominance.

Last November, a group of demonstrators with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) were out in the streets of Washington, D.C. calling on the Wendy’s chain of fast food restaurant to sign a “fair food agreement.” The measure earns Florida farmworkers an extra penny per pound of tomatoes. Industry giants like Burger King and Walmart have signed on, and those pennies have added up to more than $10 million passed on to workers over two years.

The D.C. action drew more than supporters, however. Among the demonstrators appeared a young man, unknown to CIW, wearing an Obama cap and brandishing the red flag of the former Soviet Union, with its distinctive hammer and sickle. He refused organizers’ requests to put the flag away and posed among CIW supporters for a man with camera lurking nearby.

Fortunately, quick-thinking CIW activists foiled the apparent redbaiting stunt, snapping their own picture of the photographer – who turned out ot be none other than Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch—a hatchet-job PR project funded by The Chamber of Commerce. The incident evokes the notorious right-wing smear tactics used against ACORN and Planned Parenthood. The intensifying PR attacks on new worker organizations are one prong of an evolving industry campaign to attack the low-wage worker field.

The same month as the Soviet flag stunt, the national Chamber of Commerce’s “workforce freedom initiative” issued a 50-page report arguing that worker centers are simply unions by another name, and suggesting they should be brought under the same union regulations that ban secondary boycotts and restrict foundation funding. That same line was used at a September Congressional Subcommittee hearing, championed by the National Restaurant Association. The Chamber is promoting a road show to educate local chapters about the so-called “ominous threat” of new worker organizations.

Meanwhile, right-wing policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are pushing state-level “pre-emption” bills that ban improvements to sick leave and other common-sense public policies. The National Restaurant Association is a key player in these policy fights, lobbying to deny states the right to pass nutrition labeling requirement and fighting women’s equality by opposing the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act.

The Chamber’s new focus on worker centers and other grassroots economic justice groups is a significant threat given industry’s history of expending massive resources to bring down worker organizations. A new report from the United Workers Congress finds that “corporate forces are building a dark money infrastructure of lobby groups and public relations firms to weaken public support for worker centers” and distract from the fundamental problem of growing economic inequality.

At PRA, we’re closely following the mounting corporate attacks on the low-wage organizing sector. Watch this space.

**Also: read this important piece by The Nation‘s Lee Fang on the campaign to take down low-wage worker groups.