The Agenda

The Virtues of ‘Alt-Labor’

Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolicy sees the rise of “alt-labor” — new labor-aligned non-profit organizations, also known as worker centers, that aim to “stage strikes, hold protests, wage public-pressure campaigns, organize boycotts, and file lawsuits against employers” outside of the traditional collective bargaining framework — as a positive development.

To begin with, it helps to understand what drives conservatives and libertarians crazy about traditional unionization in this country. The particulars vary from state to state, from public sector to private sector, and from industry to industry, but the most important factor is usually what’s referred to as “collective bargaining”: When a majority of workers vote to unionize, the union wins the legal right to represent all the workers. Once workers unionize, it’s illegal for employers to negotiate directly with individual workers, even if neither the employer nor the worker in question has voluntarily agreed to this restriction. Employers are required to negotiate with unions in good faith. And once a contract is in place, unions are often entitled to dues or fees from all workers, including those who choose not to join. The entire system is rife with coercion.

Alt-labor groups, despite all they do to put pressure on employers, are different. They do not seek to represent workers by government force. There are still problems — for example, labor law still grants the movement’s protesters a right to strike without being fired — but that in itself a huge improvement.

Robert addresses various objections that have been raised about the new worker centers, e.g., that they’re not obligated to comply with regulations that restrain unions (that’s because they don’t have the same powers granted to traditional unions), or that they’re “doubling down on the failed models of the past” rather than offering workers services that can enhance their value (that’s a matter of opinion, and it’s hardly surprising that conservatives and libertarians would object to their strategies), etc. What really matters about the new worker centers, in Robert’s view, is that rather than rely on special legal privileges that entail limiting freedom of contract for firms and for workers who would prefer not to belong to unions, they take a quite different approach:

The newest element of the labor movement is one that eschews most of these privileges, instead relying on basic constitutional freedoms to achieve its goals. Union critics should see that as a victory.

The chief virtue of Robert’s approach is that it zeroes in on what is most objectionable about organized labor while acknowledging that the labor movement has every right to use the same tactics used by other pressure groups.

Robert’s reference to F. Vincent Vernuccio’s case against alt-labor brings to mind an idea:

If the new labor organizations actually focused on the original intent of unions, namely, to serve their members — if they acted as professional organizations offering à la carte services such as insurance, representation in contract negotiations, and the like, only to those workers who want those services, without using intimidation and political influence to achieve their goals — that would be a good development for labor in America. But that’s not what is happening.

One wonders if workers, conservative philanthropists, business leaders, and civic associations might collaborate on worker centers of their own, which draw on Vernuccio’s service model. 


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