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Worker Group That Took on Target is Union, Labor Department Says

Nov. 20, 2019, 12:42 AM

The Labor Department determined a Minneapolis worker center that successfully forced Target and other retailers to hire unionized janitors should be categorized as a labor organization and bound by federal rules for unions—the first evidence of such a finding under the Trump administration.

The DOL’s Office of Labor-Management Standards has “reason to believe,” based on available evidence, that Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha—or Center of Workers United in Struggle—is a labor organization, the department said in an Aug. 15 letter obtained by Bloomberg Law.

The department’s findings followed a two-year probe. It means that if the findings are made official, CTUL would have to start filing detailed financial disclosures and could be restricted in its advocacy activities, potentially disrupting its operation.

Critics of worker centers say they are thinly veiled unions that are avoiding following federal labor law. The DOL under President Donald Trump was long expected to take a closer look at worker centers after political conservatives and business interests pressured the department. The Aug. 15 letter is the first known instance of Trump administration labor investigators determining that a worker center is a labor organization.

Unions work directly with employers to negotiate working conditions for dues-paying members, and must abide by stringent federal laws and regulations pertaining to actions like strikes or boycotts. Worker centers, however, don’t typically bargain with employers directly, but may exert pressure on affiliated corporations. They’re often funded through charitable donations and, in some instances, union dollars. Some even charge membership fees.

“We view this as a positive development and, hopefully, an indication that this Department of Labor is ending the longstanding DOL practice of turning a blind eye to this area of the law,” Patrick Semmens, vice president for public information at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said in a statement.

“We’ve long made the case that many so-called worker centers appear to meet the legal definition of a labor union under the LMRDA,” he added, referring to the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, “as union officials must not be allowed to keep their activities hidden from workers and out of disclosure reports simply by funneling them through a third party organization.”

Worker centers have served as an effective alternative to unions at a time when private sector labor membership rates are at a record low. Other worker centers, such as Fight for $15 and Our Walmart, have led strikes, helped organize union drives, filed unpaid wage claims, and instructed low-income and immigrant workers on their rights in the workplace.

CTUL staged a series of walkouts in 2014 that culminated in Target adopting a “responsible contractor” policy. That paved the way for hundreds of janitors to unionize at subcontractors that provide services at Target and other big-box brands, such as Best Buy and Macy’s, throughout the Twin Cities. Those workers are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 26, CTUL’s close ally.

The department gave CTUL until Sept. 4 to respond to the findings before the DOL finalizes its determination. The next steps are not clear. A spokesperson for the Labor Department said OLMS can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an open investigation. CTUL didn’t respond to Bloomberg Law’s requests for comment.

Trump DOL Slow on Investigations

The Labor Department throughout the Trump administration has been slow to respond to the business lobby’s requests to investigate worker centers.

The department oversees financial disclosure requirements for unions, which could provide more insight into how CTUL and other groups are funded. The National Labor Relations Board, a separate agency that enforces collective bargaining rights, also has been urged to extend to worker centers existing limits on strikes and other union activity.

The added scrutiny of worker centers is “politically motivated harassment,” said Charlotte Noss, worker center program director for the National Employment Law Project. Requiring worker centers to submit more financial reports could place additional financial burdens on them, Noss said, echoing concerns that other labor advocates have expressed.

The investigation into CTUL originally began in 2017. A Bloomberg Law report found in December 2018 that DOL’s investigations into worker centers had resulted in just one completed probe since 2017, documents indicated at the time. The completed investigation found that a group called Good Jobs Nation is not a union.

‘Pressure Tactics’

CTUL’s bylaws state the group’s purpose is to organize low-wage workers across Minneapolis, according to the DOL.

But the Aug. 15 letter to CTUL, written by OLMS Detroit-Milwaukee District Director Thomas Murray, said the group has members who pay voluntary annual dues of $50 in order to be designated as “ally members” who have the right to vote on organization decisions. The members, some of whom are private sector employees, participate in demonstrations and protests conducted by CTUL, Murray wrote.

“CTUL appears to employ multiple pressure tactics against Target and other employers to advance the interests of employees with regard to workplace conditions and actions, as well as possible employer criminal violations,” Murray said in the letter.

That includes holding strikes, pickets, and press conferences, displaying banners outside of retail stores, distributing fliers, and protesting shareholder meetings.

“These provisions indicate that CTUL exists, at least in part, for the purpose of dealing with employers concerning wages, rates of pay, and other terms and conditions of employment,” Murray wrote.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jdiaz@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Lauinger at jlauinger@bloomberglaw.com