By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The biggest U.S. business lobbying group is warning the nation's employers that labor relations could be reshaped by non-union labor groups that are backing high-profile efforts to raise wages and mandate paid sick leave.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted trade association representatives, labor consultants, attorneys and political staffers on Wednesday for a briefing on "worker centers" as partners and sometimes replacements of traditional labor unions.
"Unions have come to view worker centers as critical to their long-term future," said Glenn Spencer of the chamber's Workforce Freedom Initiative.
The term "worker center" is a catch-all used to describe everything from community organizations that provide job training and other services to formal labor union affiliates.
A chamber report released Wednesday says that as these new groups become more entrenched in the labor movement, they could lead to a "significant paradigm shift" in U.S. labor law.
In the United States, labor unions must have the support of a majority of employees in order to bargain on behalf of workers and negotiate with employers. Other countries allow unions to bargain on behalf of only those workers who choose to join, even if they only represent a minority of workers.
But worker centers advocate for workers without going through the traditional union-election process and do not have to show majority support. It could allow the minority representation model to gain traction with U.S. regulators, the chamber said.
"That's a completely different model than the way our system works currently," Littler Mendelson attorney Stefan Marculewicz said at the chamber event at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.
Groups such as OUR Walmart, which has planned protests at Walmart stores, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), which has pushed for paid sick leave and higher wages in restaurants, show how this could occur, according to the report.
The OUR Walmart protests, typically scheduled on busy shopping days, are meant to pressure Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the country's largest retailer, to raise workers' wages. But the group has not shown it has the support of most workers at the protest locations, the chamber report said.
OUR Walmart representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the chamber report.
Marculewicz estimated there are 400 to 500 active U.S. worker centers. Some are grassroots groups that provide language training and healthcare; others target a certain employer or industry. Some are a hybrid of the two.
The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of U.S. labor unions, has since 2006 allowed worker centers to become formal affiliates. In 2011, the National Taxi Workers' Alliance, one of the first workers to affiliate, became an official AFL-CIO member.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Lisa Shumaker)