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Meet "Alt-Labor": The Non-Union Workers' Movement

With unions in decline, new kinds of collectives of workers are springing up to fight for better pay and conditions.

At this point, the death of unions is an old story. Fewer than one in 15 private sector workers belongs to a union according to the latest stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—and that ratio continues to fall.

But there are disruptive entrepreneurs in the world of labor. They aren’t unions, but what labor journalist Josh Eidelson describes as "Alt-Labor."

Janice Fine at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University has been tracking this new species of organizing for two decades. "Given the decline of unions, I was trying to understand what type of organizations might have been stepping in to fill the void," she says. "What I found was this growth of community-based worker organizing projects, particularly in immigrant communities."

The name she uses for these projects is "Worker Center." In 1992, she counted exactly five of them, and they didn’t exactly look like a viable union substitute. "Most of them were really community-based help centers," Fine says. They were helping individual workers—typically within a single ethnic community—fight abuses like illegally withheld back pay; they weren’t taking the union approach of organizing workplaces and bargaining with employers to improve those conditions. "The truth is most of them would work with whoever walked in the door," Fine says.

But something happened over the last two decades and especially over the last few years. For one, the number of these worker centers steadily rose: from five in 1992 to 137 in 2003 to 214 in 2012. As they proliferated, they also evolved. "In my interviews with labor unions I was often told, ‘They only enforce existing laws, they don’t raise standards," Fine wrote in a 2011 paper. "But I seldom hear this now."

They weren’t raising standards the old-fashioned union way, using collective bargaining. But they were mounting campaigns just the same, and pushing to improve working conditions through legislation, like a "Bill of Rights" for domestic workers in New York and a wage increase for taxi drivers passed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Those victories are still modest and limited to unusual oases of labor-friendliness. (There’s a reason both of those examples are from New York.) But Fine says that’s in part a function of the same laws that have made these union alternatives necessary.

"Brands like Nike, they don’t own factories anymore. They don’t manufacture anything. They don’t even manage manufacturing," Fine says. She cites the shift from vertically integrated firms to a world of contractors and subcontractors as a central problem for any labor movement, especially since unionizing contract workers is illegal. "We have this dramatic mismatch between 1930s forms of representation and 21st-century forms of employment," she says.

Until those laws change, for millions of low-wage workers trying to improve their lot, the alt-labor worker center may be the best hope.