Organized Labor Quietly Targets Strategic Areas of Fla.
It’s well known that Florida is a presidential battleground state, but what many Floridians may not fully appreciate is that the Sunshine State has also become a major battleground in a broader war over the future course of the nation’s economy.
Just as the presidential candidates have repeatedly crisscrossed the state’s populous southeastern counties and centrally located I-4 corridor in search of votes, out of state labor organizations have come to the same areas to promote an economic agenda.
The amount of organized labor activity may come as a surprise to many Floridians. After all, Florida is a right-to-work state with no real history of labor ascendency. Labor unions do indeed exist and often recruit in Florida, but they cannot compel employees of a given company to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment. The state has long recognized the importance of giving workers a choice of whether or not to belong to a union. Twenty-two other states, mostly in the South and West, have such laws.
But one way that labor organizations and their political allies are maneuvering around such laws in Florida, soon be the nations third most populous state, is through non-unionized activism and workforce centers. Jobs with Justice, Organize Now, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center are just a few of the groups currently working a ground game to train and mobilize workers as labor activists, particularly in the restaurant and retailing industries.
For example, Organize Now was a behind-the-scenes force in the recent effort in the Orlando area to force employers to provide workers with paid sick leave – a noble idea at face value but also a potentially costly one for employers.
The group also teamed up with Washington D.C.based Jobs with Justice’s Central Florida chapter to host the 99% Spring Training – an event modeled after Occupy Wall Street and designed to train over 100,000 activists across the nation.
The self-described mission of this partnership was “to learn to plan for direct action, execute your action, connect your action to a larger strategy, and WIN on your issue.” The groups used the paid sick leave issue as an agenda setter because it fares well in public opinion polling.
Indeed, the groups helped organize an Orange County ballot push, gathering voters signatures to put on the ballot a sick-leave proposal that business owners said would have harmed the financial stability of the Orlando area’s restaurant industry at a time when its facing strong economic and regulatory headwinds. The Orange County Commission voted 4-3 to study the issue further. This kept it off the November ballot, though it might return via special election.
Enter the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). In a recent confrontation at a Darden Restaurants shareholder meeting, representatives from ROC — along with some former and current restaurant workers — verbally confronted Dardens CEO Clarence Otis, lodging wage theft allegations and sick leave complaints in the presence of the company’s investors.
The aggressive tactic was relatively benign when compared to some of ROC’s previous activities. In New York City, for instance, the New York Times reported that “on one occasion about 40 members of ROC marched into a Manhattan restaurant and handed managers a letter demanding that [the owner] discuss their accusations or face a lawsuit and as much as $1.2 million in liabilities.” The owner, Daniel Boulud, eventually settled out of court after he was visited by ROC over a dozen times. Orlando-based Darden, which employs more than 180,000 workers in the United States and Canada, makes for a much more lucrative target.
ROC showed up at Darden’s annual shareholders meeting in Orlando in September. Jon Cronan, an ROC organizer, New York City resident, and a former Darden restaurant employee, was quoted by the Orlando Sentinel as he confronted Otis at the Darden shareholders meeting.
Cronan, however, is not a struggling Orlando waiter, as some might have assumed. In fact, he can be explicitly tied to the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. As reported by Nation of Change, an online progressive news site, ”We were on the sidewalk, on public space, standing in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the park when we were pepper sprayed,” said John Cronan, a member of the Restaurant Opportunity Center and an OWS protester.
ROCs relationship with the Obama Administrations Department of Labor was investigated by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2009. ROC received a $275,000 federal grant to educate restaurant workers and their employers about workplace hazards, but instead produced documents encouraging unionization and ROC membership.
Orlando’s own Organize Now is also rumored to be funded, in part, by national labor organizations and politically connected special interest groups. Organize Now’s President of the Board of Members, Tamecka Pierce, is a former lead organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now in Florida (ACORN), and Stephanie Porta of Organize Now was the former head of ACORN Florida.
ROC has produced a number of reports that highlight its positions and its reasons for them. One such report, dubbed Dardens Decision, was released the same day as the ROC-led confrontation with Dardens CEO. Another, Behind the Kitchen Door: the social impact of inequality in Miami’s growing restaurant industry, was produced partly in conjunction with the Center for Labor Research & Studies at Florida International University (FIU).
FIU is a state institution and would be in violation of state law if it used any public funds to support an organization engaged in illegal activities, a concern given ROC’s coordinated disruptions of legitimate businesses.
The Capitol Vanguard served a public records request via certified mail to FIUs Office of the President asking for documentation regarding the university’s material relationship with ROC and other specified similar groups.
FIUs deputy general counsel responded with several documents amounting to an ostensibly de minimus relationship, failing to even mention FIUs labor research contributions to ROCs aforementioned Behind the Kitchen Door report.
There is no doubt that labor organizations profess noble ideas and often act on them. What’s sometimes in question however is the integrity of such organizations; and what’s always in question is the wide-ranging economic and political impact of their agendas.
As reasonable and fair as some labor-leaning initiatives may sound, economists frequently point to unintended consequences. For instance, raising the minimum wage and mandating paid sick leave both may actually harm the very workers who are supposed to benefit; workers may lose their jobs when businesses are forced to absorb expensive new regulations.
Case in point, Darden, whose restaurants Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn, and others — employ 2,000 people in Central Florida alone, is already hiring part-time employees to avoid the coming expenses associated with the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). The company recently reported that labor costs currently account for 31 percent of its total sales, and, with a weak multi-year economy leading to sluggish revenues, the restaurant conglomerate is fighting to maintain profitability.
In an election cycle largely focused on the economy and jobs, Floridians would do well to know who is on the labor side of the economic ballot.