Politics & Policy

The New Face of Big Labor

Can’t unionize a company the traditional way? Try politics and intimidation.

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 www.fixmyjob.com 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.”

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.


The Latest