Former Snarf's workers hold a protest at the Snarf's location at Two Prudential Plaza in Chicago. (Zbigniew Bzdak / MCT)
Labor groups and worker centers increasingly are filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of people who aren’t union members.
“It seems clear to me that a whole new movement is taking place,” said Peter Ohr, regional director of the NLRB in Chicago.
In December, for example, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago filed charges against sandwich shop Snarf’s on behalf of more than one dozen workers who were laid off via email two days before Christmas.
The workers were told in the email that the Chicago restaurant was closing for “remodeling.” But the group claimed in its filing that the owners were retaliating against workers for participating in “protected, concerted activities.”
The workers had taken part in strikes Dec. 5 organized by the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. The strikes are aimed at increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, from $8.25. The campaign is known as Fight for 15.
After the Snarf’s workers were laid off, the group organized protests Dec. 23 and Jan. 8 aimed at getting the employees back to work. On Jan. 15, a tentative agreement was reached between the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago and the restaurant, according to Snarf’s.
“Until that is solidified, we don’t feel it is appropriate to comment any further,” a spokeswoman for Snarf’s said in an email.
Last year, the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, formed in November 2012, filed more than 60 charges with the NLRB against employers. Many claim that workers have been fired or their hours have been cut to discourage talking with organizers, participating in meetings or “protected, concerted activities,” such as one-day strikes.
“We use the National Labor Relations Board to hold corporations accountable to the law,” said Hannah Joravsky, deputy director of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. Joravsky said employers often don’t know they are violating the law.
Other labor groups filing charges with the NLRB on behalf of nonunion workers include Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, a group based in Joliet, Ill., and backed by the Electrical Workers union.
Last month, nine people who worked in a Wal-Mart warehouse in Elwood, Ill., reached a settlement with their employers totaling $52,381. The warehouse workers committee claimed in 2012 that the workers were threatened, disciplined and fired for organizing to improve wages and working conditions at the warehouse.
The distribution center is operated by Schneider Logistics, which, subcontracts with staffing firms to hire workers. The settlement was reached with Schneider and staffing agencies RoadLink Workforce Solutions and Skyward Employment Services.
“The more I started dealing with Warehouse Workers for Justice and knowing that my rights were being violated, I wanted to know who I could talk to to air my grievances. Who can I report these injustices to and who can do something about it?” said Bakari Whitfield, 32, one of the workers who won the settlement.
Whitfield said he made $9 per hour to load and unload boxes at the warehouse. Since the charges were filed, Whitfield said his emotions ranged from anger and sadness to worry. Now he feels vindicated, he said.
Schneider said in a statement that the settlement was in the best interest of its associates and the company, ending a distraction and allowing everyone to focus on business.
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the increase in charges brought by labor groups and worker centers shows how the low-wage movement is growing.
“There was a learning curve, and they’ve caught on,” he said.
Labor’s new push hasn’t gone unnoticed by business groups.
Wilma Liebman, a former NLRB chairwoman, said some business groups have begun to push back by trying to get the worker centers and community organizations recognized as labor organizations as defined by the National Labor Relations Act. That recognition would limit how they engage with workers and the strategies they use against employers.
Adam Kader, director of the Arise Chicago Worker Center, said business groups have suggested that worker centers and community organizations are trying to hide their financing or their motivations. Arise Chicago, he said, discloses its finances as a nonprofit and is not trying to unionize workers.
When workers seek to unionize, the center works in partnership with unions such as Workers United and the United Steelworkers.
In November, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a report titled “The Emerging Role of Worker Centers in Union Organizing: A Strategic Assessment.” The report homed in on how worker centers are financed by “activist foundations,” such as the Ford Foundation.
In a statement, the Ford Foundation said its support for worker centers is part of its efforts to help people climb out of poverty and achieve economic security.
Some organizations, like the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, which is mostly financed by the Service Employees International Union, have become unions themselves. While the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago encourages workers to voluntarily join, it does not negotiate labor contracts. As a result, it skirts some of the limitations that normally would be imposed by the National Labor Relations Act.
Tom Geoghegan, a labor lawyer, said the charges are a wake-up call to employers that have never dealt with unions.
“The reality is that you can get fired in this country for any reason at any time, even for an unfair reason,” Geoghegan said.
But workers cannot be fired for engaging in collective action, he said.
For example, if a worker complains about it being too cold, the worker can be fired. But if a group of workers says to the employer, “We want you to raise the heat,” the workers are protected because they engaged in collective action, Geoghegan said.