When the nationwide fast-food strikes hit Los Angeles several weeks ago, they did so under the guise of union-backed “worker centers.” The AFL-CIO followed this up two weeks later at its L.A. conference by formally incorporating these groups into its membership structure.

But there’s just one problem: Worker centers aren’t actually labor unions. They walk and talk like unions. They also draw their funding from unions and receive assistance from professional union organizers. But at no point are they actually treated like unions by federal law.

It’s a clever legal loophole that labor leaders hope will revitalize their ailing movement. By registering with the IRS as charities and non-profits rather than unions, worker centers are freed from employee and employer protections established by the National Labor Relations Act and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, while contributions to them are tax deductible.

Practically speaking, the major difference between worker centers and actual labor unions is that worker centers never make the final call for outright unionization. In fact, they can picket for union recognition indefinitely until they finally develop enough support to call for a unionization election. That contrasts with restrictions on such harassment and recognition picketing for official labor unions.

This loophole allows worker centers to use professional union organizers to single out a select group of employees with grievances – sometimes no more than a few dozen – and then engage in nuisance “strikes” and make demands of the employer that would apply to the entire workforce.

Freed from the restrictions of labor law, worker centers have been created at an astonishing rate. Starting with fewer than five in the early 1990s, the AFL-CIO now estimates that there are 230 such groups, with more added every year.

Many are hard at work in Los Angeles. There’s the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which targets high-profile restaurants and was founded by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The city’s fast-food strikes were organized by Fight for $15, which was founded and is funded by the Service Employees International Union.

There’s also the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, the Long Beach Committee for a Living Wage and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. These groups are the creation of the AFL-CIO, Here and the Laborers’ International Union of North America, respectively.

More nationally, the Our Wal-Mart group is the offspring of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

AFL-CIO influence

Despite the obvious connection between these groups and labor unions, the AFL-CIO is only just now willing to admit its paternity. It’s no surprise why: Organized labor’s Great Depression-era structure is crumbling, and the movement’s leaders hope that worker centers will revitalize their cause, particularly in the eyes of the general public and among the broader progressive coalition that the AFL-CIO hopes to build.

Worker centers might be the golden ticket they’ve been looking for. Thankfully, some are catching on to the loophole that worker centers exploit. The House of Representatives recently held a hearing, “The Future of Union Organizing,” to seek answers about the legal relationship between worker centers and the unions that spawned them, while Reps. John Kline (R-Minn.) and Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) have asked Labor Secretary Thomas Perez for clarification on why worker centers aren’t subject to labor regulations.

These are questions that need answers. After all, federal labor law is about more than just regulating the relationship between unions and management – it’s also about protecting employees from exploitative union practices.

Richard Berman is executive director at the Center for Union Facts in Washington, which also operates WorkerCenters.com.