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.


Union scholars believe that, besides avoiding the hassle of elections, alt-labor groups have the advantage of not needing to obey certain labor laws the way unions have to. One such law bans secondary picketing, in which a union pickets a supplier of a company because of a labor dispute with that company.

Protests and public actions such as secondary picketing are hallmarks of corporate campaigns. The ability to skirt secondary-picketing laws makes alt-labor groups very attractive for unions looking for other avenues than traditional organizing.

In fact, the United Food and Commercial Workers heavily support the non-union group Our Walmart, which is currently waging a corporate campaign against Walmart. Recent actions have included staging protests like the ones on Black Friday. Most of the protests garnered only a fraction of the participants the union and the media anticipated, but Our Walmart still succeeded in gaining attention and giving the retail chain negative publicity. In fact, the political pressure exerted against the company resulted in the Washington, D.C., City Council’s passing legislation to impose a $12.50-per-hour minimum wage on large retailers. The bill was aimed at Walmart, which planned to open several stores in the district but is now reconsidering.

Organizations calling themselves “worker centers” are organizing restaurant, fast-food, and agricultural workers because the unions have not been able to organize them through the traditional process. One of these “centers,” Fight for 15, which is affiliated with the SEIU, is organizing strikes among fast-food workers around the country, demanding $15 an hour. Another, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), originally affiliated with the UNITE HERE union, stages protests and files legal actions against restaurants.

In July 2012, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa, wrote a letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis informing her of an investigation into federal funds received by the ROC, especially grants awarded by the Department of Labor. Congressman Issa points out, as an example of the group’s methods, that “ROC repeatedly harassed celebrity Chef Mario Batali’s restaurant in New York City, forcing Mr. Batali to obtain a restraining order against ROC.”

The alt-labor movement has arisen in response to the continued dramatic decline in union membership across the country. After losing almost 400,000 members in 2012, unions have the lowest percentage of the American workforce since 1916. Overall, union membership in the United States is 11.3 percent of the workforce, and only 6.6 percent of private-sector workers are union members.

Last year Michigan, the state with the fifth-highest union-membership rate in the nation and the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, joined Indiana in passing a right-to-work law. That means there are now 24 states that forbid unions to get workers fired for not paying them — a scary notion for organizations whose historic business model relies on forced dues. As Trumka has publicly stated, unions “are not going to rebuild the labor movement solely through NLRB elections and voluntary recognition by employers.”

And so, desperate to stem the decline, unions are trying the alt-labor route. Instead of focusing on their original purpose — representing employees in the workplace — big labor is doubling down on the practices of politics and intimidation.

These tactics show that the alt-labor model is more about maintaining money and power and less about worker representation.

— F. Vincent Vernuccio is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.