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When Goliath Gets Worried

You’d think it would be hard to argue in favor of income inequality these days, particularly when the numbers are so stark. Who wants to look like the fat cat owner of all the hotels on the Monopoly board sending everyone else to bankruptcy or jail? Apparently the well-heeled U.S. Chamber of Commerce has no such qualms, as a recent article in The New York Times points out - http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/17/business/as-worker-advocacy-groups-gain-momentum-businesses-fight-back.html?_r=0 According to The Times,the Chamber is actively helping to fund and organize an anti-worker center movement, a movement of business owners and conservative activists angry at the impertinence of low wage workers who are increasingly advocating for just economic conditions with the help of a national network of non-profit organizations called worker centers. The strategy is clear: Pass laws restricting the activities of worker centers, create regulations that will intrude on the freedom of their operations, and intimidate their funders.

Arise Chicago operates one of those worker centers. Arise is a small, gritty, can-do faith based non-profit that accomplishes far more than its size or budget might suggest. Organized by activists in the Chicago religious community over twenty years ago, Arise links faith communities to the concerns of workers, works with coalitions to advocate for the rights of low wage workers, and operates a worker center that helps workers fight against wage theft and other forms of abuse in violation of state and federal labor laws. It employs seven paid staff members and several interns, operates out of crowded office space in a local Presbyterian church, and gets by on an annual budget of about a half million dollars raised from contributions, grants, and an annual fund raising event.

And what nefarious activities has it engaged in to draw the ire of the Chamber? Consider these recent accomplishments among many:

  • Helped a group of bakery workers fired abruptly at the holidays without severance and with final paychecks that bounced organize themselves to negotiate (with the threat of legal action) the payment of some of their stolen wages and some, though not all of the severance due them under state law
  • Co-sponsored with the University of Illinois a major study of the abuse of car wash workers who are routinely paid below minimum wage, denied legally mandated overtime, and subjected to dangerous working conditions, and is working with those car wash workers to help them negotiate covenants with their employers guaranteeing that legal standards for pay and safety will be met
  • Worked with a Chicago alderman to pass a groundbreaking anti-wage theft ordinance that allows the City to revoke the business license of any company found to be violating labor laws
  • Helped a group of workers at a local moving company organize a union that will enable them to negotiate better pay and working conditions for themselves and their families
  • Worked with a national coalition of maids, nannies, and home health care workers to advocate for the passage of a state-wide Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, because it’s not just foreign diplomats who abuse the people who clean their homes and care for their children and aging parents

What irks the Chamber, and groups like Worker Center Watch which it funds, is not only the fact that these victories cost their members ill-gotten gains (though hardly enough in most cases to seriously threaten the bottom line); it is also the belief that worker centers are really the pawns of big labor which is using them as a means of recouping some of the losses they’ve experienced over the last decades. It is true that some low wage workers who come to Arise do decide to seek union representation as the best way to secure their rights. Union activities are protected, after all, by federal law, even if the Chamber would like it otherwise. And it is also true that Arise, like other worker centers, gets some funding from unions – along with contributions from churches, synagogues, mosques, individuals, and foundations. Labor unions are one important means to protect many workers’ rights. Of course groups like Arise will collaborate with them whether the Chamber or its allies like it or not.

On the one hand it is rather ludicrous for a powerful, politically well-connected Goliath like the U. S. Chamber of Commerce to be worrying about a bunch of little Davids operating under the guise of worker centers! In 2010 the Chamber’s annual budget was reported to be $200 million and it claims to represent three million businesses in the US. Its members link the Chamber to many powerful lobbying organizations, including the American Legislative Exchange Council which writes legislation for pro-business, anti-labor legislators in every state. Why worry about a group of underfunded activists operating worker centers around the country?

Perhaps the Chamber and its allies remember the end of the tale when Goliath lay dead on the battlefield. Better to preemptively neutralize David before he gets a chance to whirl his sling. Whatever the reason, look for attacks on worker centers and their funders to increase in intensity over the coming months. While income inequality may provoke the moral disgust of many, and provide some with attractive political rhetoric, there are others who benefit from the status quo. And they will stop at little to preserve it.

John H. Thomas
January 23, 2014


(Full disclosure: For the past 2 ½ years I have served on the Board of Directors of Arise Chicago)

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