Look Who the Folks Who Took Down ACORN Are Targeting Now
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
In a presentation at the Drake Hotel in Chicago last October, Joseph Kefauver addressed a conference of executives from companies like Nike, Macy’s and Crate & Barrel, among other leading brands. Kefauver, a key player in the rising cottage industry of lobbyists and consultants hired by the retail sector, warned his audience that a new movement was taking hold, one that could leverage the “exponential growth of grassroots networks” to force change at corporations beyond the reach of traditional labor unions. These activists, Kefauver explained in his PowerPoint presentation, could create pressure in the media, throughout a supply chain, and even in the policy and political arena, making them a threat to business’s bottom line unlike any other. In addition, he noted ominously, these new groups are spreading beyond the big cities and blue states and have established a “left-of-center beachhead in traditionally conservative areas.”
The conference attendees were then asked to consider the pushback. “How aggressive can we be?” one slide read. “How do we challenge the social justice narrative?” queried another.
Kefauver is a former executive for public affairs at Walmart and a former political action committee staffer for Darden Restaurants, the parent company of chain eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster. As a full-time consultant at firms that serve the restaurant and retail industry, he is part of a phalanx of lobbyists and political operatives with a small but focused goal: to destroy what has become known as the “worker center” movement.
Kefauver’s alarm at the rise of worker centers, which he has repeated in talks with the US Chamber of Commerce and other business trade groups, isn’t simply bluster. Just as conservatives aimed their fire—to devastating effect—at organized labor and low-wage advocacy groups like ACORN in the past decade, right-wing lobbyists and the businesses that pay them are going after worker centers today because they recognize their potency. With unions in decline—a fact celebrated in one recent ad targeting worker centers—the “alt-labor” movement has helped jump-start a nationwide effort to reshape working conditions for millions of Americans in low-wage jobs. The question is: Can worker centers escape the fate of other, similarly situated groups targeted by corporate smear campaigns?
* * *
Though many worker centers began as localized efforts to combat poverty, the movement has rapidly spread and matured. These groups still help low-wage workers find legal representation and understand their rights at work. But many now coordinate their organizing with other community groups or labor unions across multiple regions. As Kefauver’s presentation suggested, worker centers are indeed organizing along corporate supply chains to achieve their demands. And in many cases, it’s working.
Arise Chicago, a faith-based nonprofit that founded a worker center in 2002, has helped win new safety agreements for hotel workers; negotiate a new city ordinance to crack down on wage theft; and mobilize Walmart employees for an unprecedented set of strikes aimed at hiking pay and benefits. In Florida, the pioneering farmworker group the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has successfully pressed for a wide-ranging labor agreement with major food companies to curb abusive working conditions. The Restaurant Opportunities Center, which began as a New York–based group that organized a small number of waiters and waitresses, is now a federation that spans the largest restaurant markets in the country and has come to represent an alternative for consumers seeking information about the industry.
With this success has come a new, all-out assault by business. Many observers point to a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal last July sponsored by Rick Berman, a longtime lobbyist for the restaurant and agricultural industry, as the first major shot across the bow. As The New York Times reported, Berman has since launched his own website filled with negative information about worker centers and has appeared regularly in the media to criticize the movement, particularly the Restaurant Opportunities Center.
“I think that businesses are going after worker centers because they view them as much more effective than they used to be,” says Janice Fine, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. Calling the increasing attacks on worker centers a “backhanded compliment,” Fine notes that the centers are “no longer looked at as local organizations.”
Some of the pushback has been overt. A Google search for “OUR Walmart” produces as its first result a web page sponsored by the retail behemoth, claiming that the group exists solely to benefit the interests of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, one of its financial backers. Fox News and conservative talk radio have taken to reporting on worker-center-led demonstrations. Asked to describe a wave of fast-food strikes, Mallory Factor, speaking on Fox & Friends, suggested that the demonstrators were all paid to be there, calling them a “rent-a-mob, purely rent-a-mob.”
Some of the attacks, though, are less transparent. This past November, about a month after Kefauver’s presentation in Chicago, a group called Worker Center Watch launched a series of YouTube videos aimed at discrediting the Black Friday protests staged by worker centers against big-box retailers. One video depicted the activists as “professional protesters” who “haven’t bothered to get jobs themselves.” Another video from the group alleges that the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), OUR Walmart and other worker centers are nothing more than union front groups designed to “make more money for greedy union bosses.” The video closes with an appeal not to be “fooled” by worker centers.
A week later, Worker Center Watch posted the transcript of an audio recording from a private worker-center meeting in New York that had been obtained by Breitbart News, the right-wing website founded by the late Andrew Breitbart. The headline blared about the offensive “Santa’s slaves” comments made by the organizers, though the actual recording was rather innocuous.
When contacted by The Nation, Worker Center Watch refused to reveal its backers. However, records obtained for this article show that Kefauver’s public relations firm, Parquet Public Affairs, registered the website for Worker Center Watch. After I inquired about the registration, the website hosting the record was concealed with a proxy.
Kefauver would not respond to multiple requests for comment on what he does or who is paying him. But he was listed as a “consultant” to the National Restaurant Association—the largest lobbying group for the restaurant industry and the driving force against raising the minimum wage—on a schedule posted by restaurant industry lobbyists for a meeting in San Antonio several months ago.
Around the same time last fall that Worker Center Watch released those YouTube videos, the group’s spokesman, Ryan Williams, showed up at a rally for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. According to organizers, Williams was accompanied by a man who attempted to unfurl a giant Soviet flag in front of the CIW activist demonstration. Kate Kelly, a CIW supporter, asked the man who arrived with Williams to put the flag down and “respect the work many of us had done to organize the protest by not detracting from our specific message.”
The man refused, and Williams began snapping photographs of the flag in front of the worker activists. After the organizers confronted the man with the Soviet flag, he began walking across the street and left the demonstration with Williams. It was apparent to those present that Worker Center Watch wanted to depict the CIW as a fringe organization, even if that meant using an outsider to smear its image. Williams, a former hand on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, would not comment on the flag-waving incident.
“There are a million worker organizations out there that Worker Center Watch could attack, but they’re attacking us because someone is paying them to,” says Greg Asbed, the CIW’s co-founder. “They admit they’re funded by undisclosed businesses, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess that businesses like Publix and Wendy’s might be among them.”
For worker centers like the CIW, dealing with the cloak-and-dagger tactics of the industry is now part of their job as organizers. When the organization began scaling up its agreement with tomato growers and fast-food chains, news reports revealed that a Burger King vice president had posed as his daughter on the Internet to post angry messages about the CIW, calling them “blood suckers” and “the lowest form of life.” The CIW also found out that a private detective firm had been retained to place one of its investigators, posing as a student, into the ranks of student activist groups supporting the coalition.
Other worker centers have been subjected to similar stunts. In 2012, Mercury Public Affairs, a lobbying firm retained by Walmart, was caught sending one of its employees, posing as a local reporter, into an event for Warehouse Workers United, a worker center based in Southern California.
* * *