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?
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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.