It’s no secret that the traditional model of organizing workers is struggling. Union membership is at a 97 year low. The large manufacturing employers who provided millions of members to the AFL-CIO are either gone entirely or shells of their former selves (auto and steel in particular). The really big numbers are in the public employee unions, and increasingly, low wage service workers. The iconic image of a burly and buff steelworker wearing a hardhat with an American Flag on it marching on Labor Day has been replaced by a screaming purple shirted overweight female shaking a gallon jug of pennies in your face. The change in public optics is striking.
Their future looks grim and the game plan designed for an industrialized world of the 20th century will not work in the 21st. They need new strategy, new tactics, and preferably an asymmetrical line of attack on targets whose own strategies and tactics are designed for 20th century threats. Enter Alt-Labor.
The term was coined by Josh Eidelson, writing for American Prospect in January of this year. The goal of the movement is to obtain some of the objectives of unions (e.g. higher wages) without actually organizing the target employer right away by using religious, not-for-profit social service agencies and the like to publicly shame or humiliate (you have to read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to understand this) until they get their desired outcome. The beauty of this lay in the avoidance of the laws developed for traditional union organizing. Try filing a ULP against a church group and see how far that gets you. Here is a great article by Vincent Vernuccio on how these groups operate.
The question is how to pay for this effort. Unlike the traditional model where union members foot the bill, the Alt-Labor movement merely asks for donations. The not-for-profits in league with this enterprise can, do, and will apply for and win government and foundation grants for their mission, but that won’t be enough. The AFL-CIO will need to pony up to make this a nationwide movement.
August 29th is a red letter day for the Alt-Labor movement. They are organizing a nation-wide (read cities in major media markets) walk-out of fast food workers to impress the union bosses at 815 16th Street NW in DC. It will be interesting to see if they pass the test.