Worker Centers: Labor Policy as a Carrot, Not a Stick
28 Pages Posted: 9 Dec 2019 Last revised: 28 Aug 2020
Date Written: November 21, 2019
Worker centers empower communities of workers that are challenging for labor unions to organize. This includes immigrant workers and other vulnerable workers in high turnover jobs. These centers often organize workers that fall within the definition of “employee” under the Depression-era laws designed to protect some forms of collective worker activity from employer retaliation. Although employees associated with these centers can benefit from labor law’s carrot, worker centers are not “labor organizations” subject to labor law’s vast reporting requirements and restrictions on associational behavior (labor law’s stick). We use an original study of worker centers’ filings to the Internal Revenue Service to reveal that worker centers are more similar to nonprofits, than labor organizations. Both First Amendment and labor law principles affirm the characterization of worker centers as organizations that are not subject to labor law’s stick. Providing worker centers access to labor law’s carrot, but not its stick, is particularly compelling given that they are operating at a historical moment when income inequality parallels New Deal levels and hostility to worker organizations and workers’ rights is pervasive. Our carrot-but-not-a-stick approach has implications for the vitality of American labor policy. It opens up space for emerging worker centers to expand their efforts to amplify employee voice and improve the working lives of the growing low-wage workforce.
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