When there is news of faith-based groups, student associations, worker centers, and other community organizations confronting employers, the appropriate response may be to borrow a classic New Orleans line: who dat? Close inspection may reveal that it is nothing more than a labor union in disguise.
There is a simple rule that boys from the age of Huck Finn know: if there is a turtle on the tree stump, it didn’t get there by itself. For example, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (more commonly known as OUR Walmart) has repeatedly denied any connection to the labor union engaged in a campaign against Walmart, the United Food and Commercial Workers (“UFCW”). Yet, in September, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) revealed that UFCW, for the first time, listed OUR Walmart as a subsidiary on its 2013 financial reports.
Other organizations with strong ties to organized labor, such as Interfaith Worker Justice, have similarly denied any express connection with organized labor. But, the facts tell a different story: it has a written partnership agreement with the AFL-CIO. The same is true for the organization behind the recent attacks on the fast food industry — Fast Food Forward is an arm of the Service Employees International Union (”SEIU”), one of the most aggressive and fastest growing labor unions in the country.
One of SEIU’s earliest union corporate campaigns – Justice for Janitors – targeted cleaning contractors in commercial office buildings. SEIU has waged similar campaigns against other service industry employers but could not gain traction in the fast food industry under its own name. Yet, after launching Fast Food Forward, there has been a groundswell of public support in favor of increasing the minimum wage for those workers to $15 per hour. Even after nationwide one-day strikes, Fast Food Forward is not labeled a union.
This is just the beginning. The AFL-CIO announced this fall that it was investing heavily to expand its front organization, Working America. The goal: a presence in all 50 States by 2018 (up from just 11 today) with a “multi-pronged approach to organize workers and improve their labor conditions—both online and at on-site workplaces—outside of the traditional collective bargaining method.”
Why proceed in disguise? There are dual motives. A seemingly disinterested group is more newsworthy and more appealing to public attention. But, there is also a legal logic. Traditional labor unions are bound by statutes, case law, and administrative agencies regulating their behavior, including a prohibition on secondary boycotts and requirements that unions file reports and financial statements with DOL. These front organizations operate outside those legalities and, thus, can allow unions to do indirectly what the law forbids doing directly.
Sun Tzu explained why who dat? is a key question:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Scouting your opponents is not just for basketball and football coaches. There are historical patterns to be researched; familiar names to be traced; and – of course – the Woodward-Bernstein rule: “follow the money.” In this new era of union organizing, the best labor lawyers have an archive of game films and scouting reports; without that, too much is given away while everyone else is still asking who dat?