What’s the difference between a Workers Center and a Union?

Unions are legally recognized to represent groups of workers in collective bargaining with management on issues such as wages, benefits, and working conditions, as well as disputes over contract violations. Workers centers are nonprofit, community-based organizations that offer support to low-wage, often immigrant workers who are not part of a collective bargaining entity such as a union, or who are excluded from federal labor laws. Workers centers offer assistance with campaigns for improving wages and working conditions, legal support for wage and hour claims, community advocacy, leadership development, and educational programs, but they do not engage directly in union drives or collective bargaining.

In The Hand That Feeds, Laundry Workers Center is the grassroots nonprofit group that helped the workers organize to demand changes at their restaurant. In this process, the workers decided to form their own independent union, the Hot & Crusty Workers’ Association, which is not affiliated with any major union. LWC and their legal team advised during this process, but the workers led the unionization drive and the contract negotiations. While some workers centers receive financial support from major unions, LWC never has. Now, Mahoma López and Maurilio Ortega, two of the original participants in the Hot & Crusty campaign, work part time as community and workplace organizers with LWC. Felicito Tapia, who worked at the 14th Street store during the film’s story, also continues to work as an organizer.

Many workers center campaigns, including others by LWC, do not have forming or joining a union as their goal. In the broader labor movement, workers centers, unions, service organizations and advocacy groups share the goals of advancing the rights of working people everywhere. To learn more about what these types of organizations do for food chain workers, visit our interactive action map Changing the Food Chain.