The New Face of Big Labor
Can’t unionize a company the traditional way? Try politics and intimidation.

Our Walmart's "Black Friday" protest in Boynton Beach, Fla.


There is a new trend in union organizing. Big labor is setting its sights on “organizing” workers without necessarily making them members of a union.

The strategy is not to organize these workers in order immediately to represent them in the workplace. The goals of these nonunion organizations boil down to intimidating job creators so as to get more money and manpower for political action.

Nonunion groups, many of which are simply fronts for traditional unions, have adopted the old labor strategy of “corporate campaigns” as one of their main tactics. In a corporate campaign, the organization might urge a regulatory agency to investigate the target company, or use public-relations techniques to damage the company’s reputation, or join with a civil-rights group in a lawsuit claiming some form of discrimination — all in order to pressure the company into acceding to the organization’s demands. The principal demand is usually taking away the secret ballot from workers, thus paving the way for traditional unionization.

Pro-union writer Josh Eidelson popularized the term “alt-labor” for these nonunion labor organizations in a January 2013 American Prospect article.

Alt-labor groups are created to organize workers who cannot easily be unionized for various reasons. In some cases, it is because a majority of the employees at a company don’t want to join a union; in others, it is because the employees fall outside the scope of traditional labor law.

According to Eidelson, alt-labor groups are quickly expanding in number. He cites work by Rutgers labor professor Janice Fine, who 20 years ago found only five “nonunion groups that were organizing and mobilizing workers.” Today, the Wall Street Journal estimates the number at over 200.

Alt-labor groups can collect dues or membership fees, which can be used for representation in negotiations with the employer or for political action. What separates these groups from traditional unions is that they can do this without getting a majority of workers to agree to join. Some of these groups even set themselves up as nonprofits so as to collect funds from foundations and government grants.

Labor leaders like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka are embracing the concept. Trumka told the Conference on New Models for Worker Representation this spring that “the AFL-CIO’s door has to be — and will be — open to any worker or group of workers who wants to organize and build power in the workplace.”

Most recently, the alt-labor strategy was the subject of an entire panel at the annual conference hosted by the liberal bloggers’ organization Netroots Nation. The concept came up in other panels throughout the day.

The AFL-CIO’s nonunion group, Working America, started a new website called to help organize nonunion workers. Organizing is a central theme for the site, yet the term “collective bargaining” is hard to find.

Working America purports to be the “fastest-growing organization for working people in the country. At 3 million strong and growing, we use our strength in numbers to educate each other, mobilize and win real victories to improve working people’s lives.”

Trumka is throwing money and manpower behind the effort. Organized-labor veteran Karen Nussbaum is Working America’s executive director.

An April 17 press release boasts that Working America plans to expand into all 50 states in the next five years. It goes on to say, “As Working America expands nationally, it will continue its year-round community organizing and electoral and legislative work, as well as pilot different methods of organizing workers on the job.”

A key selling point for big labor is that alt-labor groups can organize nonunion workers without ever needing to win a workplace election. As Craig Becker, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board and currently general counsel of the AFL-CIO, told The Nation in April: “We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition.”