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Can alternative labor revive U.S. trade unions’ fortunes?

Sun, Sep 15, 2013

Labor Day 2013 finds the U.S. trade union movement in a seriously weakened state. Although unions currently have 14.3 million members, overall union density slipped from 11.8 percent in 2011 to 11.3 percent in 2012, less than one-third of its 1955 peak of 35 percent. Private sector union density continued its downward trajectory as well, plummeting to 6.6 percent this past year. Although public sector union density remained a relatively healthy 35.9 percent in 2012, the recent attacks on public sector unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states initiated a couple of years ago do not bode well for governmental unions’ future. Overall U.S. unionization has not been this low since 1916, when it was estimated to be 11.2 percent.

Many books and articles have recounted the factors that have contributed to U.S. labor’s decline, which include globalization, vehement management opposition to union formation, and U.S. labor law’s ineffectiveness in protecting workers’ rights to organize. These publications also have proposed methods for revitalizing trade unions, such as strengthening labor law, reviving the strike and resuscitating worker militancy.

In trying to identify a strategy for ameliorating labor’s weakness, Josh Eidelson in late January 2013 penned an article entitled “Alt-Labor” in The American Prospect, which detailed nonunion workers’ groups’ efforts in advancing employees’ rights. The question motivating Eidelson’s essay was whether these organizations could generate the same kind of impact that traditional labor unions have had in raising wages, increasing benefits and improving working conditions.

Nonunion worker groups have been around for years, so Eidelson’s essay is not the first publication discussing these groups. But what he did is label them as “Alt-Labor,” short for alternative labor, thus distinguishing “Alt-Labor” from traditional labor unions. While all alternative labor organizations lack collective bargaining rights, significant differences exist among them.

Although Eidelson does not categorize these groups, alt-labor organizations can be classified into minority unions, worker centers and open source unions. Minority unions are nonunion unions, which means they are labor groups, supported by traditional labor unions, which have not been certified as the employees’ collective bargaining agents. Although they cannot negotiate written contracts with employers, minority unions attempt to improve wages, benefits and working conditions through various modes of collective action such as the 2012 Thanksgiving walkouts organized by the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart).

A second category of alt-labor groups are worker centers and other community-based worker organizations. These groups are also unable to achieve collective bargaining recognition but also seek to improve employees’ wages, benefits and working conditions through organizing collective actions, which include coordinating mass protests and conducting legal actions against employers. Eidelson discusses the Restaurant Opportunities Center in his article, which has used the above-listed tactics to obtain back wages and penalties of approximately $6.5 million for restaurant employees from 13 employer settlements since the group’s establishment in 2001. Eidelson also reports on the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which after six years of conducting mass rallies, attending hearings, and lobbying legislators led to the New York state legislature implementing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The first such code in the United States, it instituted overtime pay, sexual-harassment provisions, and paid leave for domestic workers to care for children or elderly parents.

The third classification of alt-labor groups are open source unions which are either occupationally or craft-based organizations such as the Freelancers Union; another variant includes groups of workers interested in achieving fundamental union objectives such as the AFL-CIO’s Working America. In uniting these workers, open source unions deliver an array of services to their memberships such as low-cost health insurance, career development opportunities or the chance to participate in political activities.

Eidelson concludes that “alt-labor groups are no cure-all for what ails unions….But in a growing segment of the economy, they are the only labor groups making gains for workers.” I will go one step further in arguing that alt-labor groups will play an increasingly important role in the coming years. Because alt-labor groups often represent employees ineligible for collective bargaining coverage, such organizations often are the only available option for workers to exert pressure on their employers.

Additionally, since alt-labor groups utilize a wide assortment of tactics and strategies, the seeds of trade union revival might emerge from one of their innovative approaches. There is historical precedent for such a view. The pioneering use of the sit-down strike, hundreds of which occurred from 1936 to 1938, contributed to the explosive growth of the U.S. mass industrial unions during the late 1930s. While there are no guarantees, a ground-breaking tactic developed by an alt-labor group could have a similar effect on the U.S. trade union movement. Any organization that can provide employees with even a modicum of protection must be utilized in such perilous times. While no panacea, alt-labor groups will remain invaluable with the attack on traditional labor unions unlikely to abate in the immediate future.

Victor Devinatz
StreetWise Contributor

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