In response to declines in popularity and failures to organize workers in the nation’s growing service industries, unions have responded with the creation of entities outside of the traditional organizing model to rebrand their movement. These groups, which include workers centers, can be loosely termed “Alt-Labor.” They include:

  • Workers Centers: The core of alt-labor, these pseudo-unions protest and agitate for changes to wages and working conditions by utilizing tactics outsides the boundaries of traditional unionism, like wildcat strikes, press stunts, and other union-like actions. Workers centers are organized in many forms, taking the shapes of community “coalitions,” independent nonprofits, and arms of unions themselves.
  • Associations of Non-Union Employees: The most notable of these groups, the AFL-CIO’s Working America, collects workplace complaints and provides support for non-unionized collective workplace action. Working America claims 3.2 million members, but a report in The Nation said that only 15 percent of them paid dues, which are as little as $5/year.
  • Associations of non-NLRA Workers: Not all employees are covered by the National Labor Relations Act and its close transportation industry cousin, the Railway Labor Act that govern the overwhelming majority of employee-employer relationships in workplaces that can be unionized. Farmworkers are not covered by either act due to the unique structure of that industry. Independent contractors are not covered because contractors are not in a bona fide employee relationship with the people who sign their checks. While farmworkers’ unions have existed under state laws for many years, new groups, which include the Freelancers Union which claims 200,000 members for independent contractors and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for farm laborers, organize and advocate for independent contractors and other workers not covered by those laws.

The strategies of Alt-Labor groups resemble those of normal unions and their pre-1930s predecessors. Protesting worksites, organizing boycotts, and engaging in “wildcat strikes”—unauthorized, intermittent walkouts targeted to cause maximum disruptions to business operations—are their main tactics. Consider the following actions by these groups:

  • Fast Food Forward, a coalition-type workers center whose supporting organizations are backed by over $2.5 million in SEIU money, has conducted multiple one-day walkouts and protests of New York City fast food chains to force them into supporting increases in minimum wage laws.
  • The Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a workers center born of the Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees union (HERE, now UNITE-HERE), conducts union-style corporate campaigns with unscientific “convenience” surveys of restaurant employees to pressure employers to yield to its demands.
  • OUR Walmart, a workers center affiliated with and a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers International union organization, has picketed at Wal-Mart stores and demonstrated at the homes of Wal-Mart officials.

All three of those groups and many other workers centers are or were supported by existing labor unions. In part, this is because “alt-labor” groups such as workers centers do not have unions’ ability to collect mandatory dues from members (or fees from non-members in certain circumstances). The effect is one of members of traditional unions subsidizing these “new organizing” groups through dues.

Ultimately, these alt-labor groups hope to unionize employees under some system. They exist because mainline unions’ histories of corruption, wildly partisan political activity, and failure to deliver on promises of job security in times of global competition have severely harmed their brand. Unions’ approval ratings have fallen ten points in ten years, just as their memberships have fallen. “Alt-Labor” provides unions with one last desperate tactic to recover their standing.