Why Alt-Labor Groups Are Making Employers Mighty Nervous

Union membership remained steady last year—steady at its near-hundred-year low. A mere 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, as are 11.3 percent of U.S. workers overall, according to figures released last Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.)   

Those government union membership statistics, however, don’t capture an entire swath of new, exciting and emerging labor activists—“alt-labor” activists—whom alarmed employers would like to see regulated by the same laws that apply to unions. Yet before we regulate them as unions, shouldn’t we first count them as unions?  

Consider those striking fast food workers you’ve been reading about, the ones calling for a $15 an hour wage. Their numbers are not counted in the union membership figures. How about those Wal-Mart workers who struck for Black Friday and just won a key court case? Uncounted. What about the day laborers who joined any one of hundreds of workers’ centers nationwide? You got it, not included.  Neither are the restaurant workers, home health care workers, taxi drivers or domestic workers, all of whom are organizing for workplace power outside traditional unions. 

Why are these labor activists uncounted? The BLS bases its union membership numbers on the Current Population Survey (CPS). Every month, the government asks about 15,000 people whether they are union members or members of an employee association like a union. The people who went on strike at McDonald’s for a day, or who joined a local workers’ center, will almost certainly say “no” to this question, because they don’t pay union dues or aren’t covered by a contract. The government’s questions have no place for these workers who are part of a new breed of “alt-labor” groups leveraging workplace power outside the realm of collective bargaining —such as through worker centers, labor coalitions, or the three million members of the AFL-CIO’s Working America. In addition, the government union numbers exclude people who report they are self-employed. In todays’ economy, that could easily mean day laborers and domestic workers who are part of new labor groups. 

This problem is not a new one. Although the media has long used the BLS numbers to gauge labor’s strength, the BLS numbers only paint part of the picture. For instance, these numbers have never reflected the numbers of people who tried to form unions each year, but who were thwarted by resistant employers or weakened labor law. However, there are other government statistics we can use to find a trail for these would-be unionists, like the numbers who tried to form unions through voting in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections. In order to truly capture today’s morphing labor movement, the government would have to ask different questions—ones which aimed to pinpoint wider involvement in today’s iterations of worker groups.  

Employers don’t actually want the BLS union membership numbers to rise. They will tout the news about low 2013 union membership without counting such new activists among labor’s ranks.  Nevertheless, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association and anti-union coalition groups publicly insist that these new groups are unions, because they want them to be subjected to the same kinds of legal limits that have come to constrain America’s labor unions, such as not being able to strike in sympathy with other workers. Scott DeFife, an executive vice president at the National Restaurant Association, said as much to the New York Times recently: “They’re trying to have it both ways. They’re a union and not a union. They’re organizing workers but not organizing workers. They have a history of tactics unions couldn’t get away with.” DeFife’s group insists that the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) is a union despite ROC’s insistence that it is not.

Do these uncounted “alt-labor” groups serve the same function that unions once did?  No, they do not.  When workers gained the right to state-backed collective bargaining through unions in the 1930s, it was one of the few checks the U.S. ever effectively put on employer power. As a result, people who have a union today make 26 percent more than those who do not, according to the government’s new statistics, and are much more likely to have health insurance and real pensions. The new labor groups have yet to harness a comparable kind of state-backed power with which to force employers to play fair. However, in a 21st century economy in which collective bargaining has been so severely weakened by structural changes and the roll back in workers’ rights, these new labor activists represent an important frontier for people concerned about worker power and economic inequality writ large. And their impact is becoming increasingly clear. President Obama’s $10.10 minimum wage for federal contractors rose on a groundswell of economic activism driven by labor groups both “counted” and “uncounted.”    

You know that workers are on to something when employers start to get nervous.  It turns out the low union membership statistics may not be as good a measure of labor’s future as employers would hope. 

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