Alt-Labor Movement

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Amy Dean:

" in working-class America, low-wage workers in the domestic work, fast food, restaurant, taxi driving, and retail industries are on the move to demand better workplace safety, better wages, and better working conditions. Some have formed advocacy groups—214 of them were recently counted by Rutgers labor studies professor Janice Fine—like Domestic Workers United, Warehouse Workers United, Fast Food Forward, and Restaurant Opportunities Centers. Even without collective bargaining, these groups push for change using whatever tools are at their disposal. These tools include asking employers to sign “high road” agreements for treating workers correctly (and then publicly endorsing those that sign), shaming bad employers by picketing and calling for consumers to boycott or otherwise pressure them, and lobbying to pass new laws protecting workers in their industries. Recently, many of them have even staged small-scale strikes, walking off the job and attracting the media’s attention to exploitative conditions.

Most importantly, though, many of these “alt-labor” groups (which may receive funding and staff support from unions but are not themselves formal labor unions) are bringing workers together in industries where workers are either explicitly excluded from labor law, or exploited so badly by employers that joining a union would mean instant firing. The law as it currently stands prohibits workers who harvest crops, work for tips, or perform domestic work from bargaining collectively. Retail and fast-food workers, while not explicitly barred from bargaining, are frequently subject to a host of abuses when they attempt to do so.

Service-sector unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), SEIU, and Unite Here are supporting the alt-labor groups as a way of overcoming such legal hurdles; they stand ready to sign up these low-wage and tipped workers as the alt-labor groups agitate them. Many immigrants, people of color, and younger workers who have not been able to access many of the protections won by traditional unions see hope for their working lives to improve through their participation in these alt-labor groups." (