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Six Groups That Are Reinventing Organized Labor

Through workers associations, work centers, and “alt-labor” groups, millions of workers — along with part-time workers, temporary workers, and those who work for employers that have no union — are using new tactics to fight against that inequality of bargaining power. The groups are not competing with traditional unions, but rather working alongside them and in tandem.

The National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935 to ensure protections for workers and employers and to encourage collective bargaining. In its preamble, Congress noted: “The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce.” But the act explicitly excluded certain types of workers from those collective bargaining rights — including agricultural laborers, many domestic workers, and independent contractors — meaning those groups cannot organize with the same protections.
Nearly 80 years later, we’ve seen the state of American worker organizing fluctuate massively. Over the past several decades, the number of American workers who are part of a labor union has declined fairly steadily. But while in this changed economy just 11.3 percent of the nation’s wage and salary workers — about 14.5 million people — belong to unions, millions of other American workers are also organizing and uniting for better conditions, in a manner outside of the union structure created by the National Labor Relations Act.
Through workers associations, work centers, and “alt-labor” groups, millions of these workers — along with part-time workers, temporary workers, and those who work for employers that have no union — are using new tactics to fight against that inequality of bargaining power. While the structures of these groups vary, each is pushing for higher wages, better working conditions, and other issues that benefit not just them but others in their communities. The groups are not competing with traditional unions, but rather working alongside them and in tandem.
Here’s a look at the six groups using new and alternative methods to make gains for workers’ rights:
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) was formed in 1998, hoping to improve conditions for one of the city’s most atomized communities. Executive director Bhairavi Desai told ThinkProgress that the group’s success — its membership now includes 17,000 of New York City’s tens of thousands of yellow taxicab drivers — has come from “mobilizing, organizing drivers, bringing our fight into the public domain and out in the street where members of the public can really see the inner workings of the exploitative nature of the industry.” In 2011, the AFL-CIO recognized the National Taxi Workers Alliance, which now includes the NYTWA and groups in Philadelphia, PA and Austin, TX, as an affiliate organization.
Because New York considers taxi drivers to be “independent contractors,” they cannot collectively bargain. With the help of a pro-industry regulatory commission, Desai lamented, “slowly the industry has found ways of privatizing the wealth and socializing the risk on the backs of the drivers.” Organizing workers who are in their car for most of their waking hours and prohibited from using a cell phone has not been easy. “The partition is both practical and symbolic, people remain very hidden in front of it. It’s reflective of how drivers as a workforce have been treated politically. To break that isolation has been important,” she added. The partition is both practical and symbolic, people remain very hidden in front of it. It’s reflective of how drivers as a workforce have been treated politically. To break that isolation has been important. To accomplish this, she and other organizers spent 70 to 80 hours a week in the field talking to drivers. This included, Desai recalled, “literally 12-hour days, just at the two airports, and restaurants and neighborhoods. Drivers tend to live near each other, different buildings like Brighton Beach in Brooklyn has a massive Pakistani community, parts of the Bronx have a huge Bangladeshi community. In one apartment building, we could have a meeting in one driver’s apartment with 20 to 30 drivers. It was tiring but also really exhilarating.”By using tactics including driver strikes, demonstrations, and public presence, the commission has gradually had to take the group seriously. 
Desai said that even without collective bargaining rights, by uniting the group can collectively negotiate and has achieved better regulatory outcomes. Still, she said, “We’ve not been able to negotiate an industry wide contract with the trade association, but I think that’s only a matter of time. No group of workers should have to be in the predicament where you have to fight for so many years for recognition.” Desai said 80 percent of the group’s budget comes from its membership: “We’ve grown slowly, through the years, as that dues base developed. We’re really proud of that growth. We’re about to open up a new office 10 times the size of our last office. We’ll soon have 11 staff people, including a staff attorney. We’ll have an education and training center for drivers and families, a number of services, a meeting hall that members can rent out for special family events, and monthly clinics on legal rights, affordable housing, financial empowerment.” “Everything old is new again,” Desai observed, “This is how the labor movement started [when] the [collective bargaining] law didn’t exist. Workers throughout time have worked to defend themselves.” Bringing The Labor Movement To Your Door
In 2003, the AFL-CIO launched Working America, a non-profit organization aimed at organizing people who are not members of a union. Through door-to-door outreach in working class neighborhoods, organizers enrolled people at two out of every three homes they visited, and signed up more than 3 million members. Many of those voluntarily contribute as little as $5 annually. Karen Nussbaum, executive director of the group, told ThinkProgress that some in the traditional labor world have compared Working America to “turning the funnel right-side-up.” In order to be part of a labor union today, a worker must fit into the narrow end of the funnel by finding a unionized workplace or by risking his or her job to start one in a workplace that is eligible to unionize. But, she says, “Working America says, ‘Oh, you want to be part of the labor movement? No problem, sign up here!’ And millions of people have done that.”
The organization then works with those members to encourage their involvement in pushing for progressive policies at all levels. “We turned our attention to campaigning around issues all year round and we found that we could have a huge effect in getting people who were the most unlikely activists to speak out on some of the most unlikely issues. We can generate hundreds of heartfelt hand-written letters on issues that are otherwise seen as these narrow union self-interest issues,” Nussbaum explained. And because it operates outside of the traditional sphere, she observes, “there’s also an element of jujitsu to it, too,” making it possible to bypass the resistance to unions and to “start a whole new conversation that’s really about the substance.”
By focusing on an economically progressive agenda, Nussbaum added, Working America has attracted large numbers of white working-class moderates and conservatives. While that population generally votes overwhelmingly for Republicans — often on the basis of social issues — a super-majority of members vote for Working America-endorsed candidates. Many of the members are even Tea Party supporters. “Populism operates on a Möbius strip, it turns around in ways that are not always predictable, it’s seamless in these really weird ways,” Nussbaum observed. “The same things about corporate control of government — those fundamental issues can either go in a direction like Working America (where it’s about building power to restore balance) or the can go into the Tea Party (which in a lot of ways is just a cover for deeper corporate interests). It’s cool when that happens, to see that you can bring people along in a different direction.”
Other unions are also embracing the approach.
Iron Workers vice president Bernie Evers told ThinkProgress that after a trip to Germany, he wondered why American unions couldn’t similarly represent workers without an agreement with the company. His union is now partnering with Working America on an Iron Workers Associate membership program for construction workers who are not in the union at work. By standing up for workers denied drinking water on the job, pay for all the hours they work, and even access to restrooms, he is hopeful that these associate members and others will get to see the benefits of union membership — and help improve conditions for everyone.
A successful pilot program in Houston is now being expanded to places across the U.S. and Canada. Andy Stern, the president emeritus and former national president of the Service Employees International Union, told ThinkProgress that the biggest challenge for groups like Working America that cannot rely on collective bargaining is “how to have sustainable revenues.” While today much of the funding for Working America comes from the AFL-CIO — about 10 percent of comes from voluntary membership dues from about fifteen percent of its members — Nussbaum is optimistic of finding a path to self-sustainability. The group is experimenting with multiple approaches, she said, including partnering with another non-profit to offer health insurance on the public exchanges. Organizing In A Workplace Of One
Nussbaum also pointed to the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) as an innovative group successful organizing “a workforce that is, by definition, the most atomized on the Earth.” Since 2007, NDWA has worked to organize nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers — many of whom work in a one-or-two-employer/one-employee relationship, behind closed doors in private homes. Mariana Viturro, deputy director of the nonprofit organization, told ThinkProgress that alliance has focused on “worker-led grassroots campaigns.” “A lot of the success has been having workers share stories with legislators, really lifting up their voices through a communications strategy that’s been most effective way to get bills through,” she said.
By advocating for state-level bills of rights for domestic workers — first in predominantly progressive states like California, Hawaii, and New York — the 10,000-plus members have been able to “legislate terms of employment that other workers are able to bargain for through contracts,” by effectively “bargaining with the state on setting some standards for domestic work.” Their efforts include not only ensuring basic rights (like paid leave), but also shifting cultural perceptions regarding the value of work. What we’re trying is sort of new: legislation with the enforcement mechanism that can advance the organizing, create revenue for organizing, building individual worker organizations to get us to a different scale… To connect with workers in a sector where collective-bargaining is not an option, Viturro explained, organizers often go to local parks, book stores, libraries, senior centers, and the bus lines on which the domestic workers commute. “We’re still grasping what the organizing model looks like – and trying to innovate on what will make the workers connect with the organization, either through specific services and benefits.”
State member groups organize rallies, marches, mobilization, and lobbying campaigns in support of relevant legislation. The alliance aims to organize not only workers, but potentially employers who want to do right by their employees. The organization mostly receives its funding from foundation grants, but does get some revenue through individual and organizational membership dues. It too is exploring various new ways to become self-sustaining. But, Viturro noted, things are still in an experimental stage. “What we’re trying is sort of new: legislation with the enforcement mechanism that can advance the organizing, create revenue for organizing, building individual worker organizations to get us to a different scale, and trying to influence an entire industry and new market players around domestic work and care work. We’ll see how all those things land.” Workers’ Rights, Not Just For Americans
Viturro identified the National Guestworkers Alliance as an organization organizing “some really exciting campaigns” outside the collective bargaining structure. And, like the domestic workers, the guestworkers’ group has seen some really success in organizing and protecting one the economy’s most vulnerable groups: workers from outside of the country with temporary work visas. Saket Soni, executive director of the alliance, told ThinkProgress that guestworkers represent a crystal ball for the future of the economy. As economic shifts have brought more and more contingent work, left fewer and fewer workers tied to a particular place or employer, and made it easier and easier for businesses to distance themselves from the conditions of the people at the bottom of the supply chain. Looking at them, he observed, one “can see the future of work in the new economy” — one where worker power is undercut and so is any safety net. Captive to employers who control their visas, guestworkers have, in some cases, been abused with labor camp conditions that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “close to slavery.”
After the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice successfully worked to improve the conditions of guestworkers and others in a post-Katrina New Orleans, the organization decided to expand nationally. In 2006, in the words of Soni, it began “pilot experiments in organizing and policy in cities across the country, to really figure out how workers themselves can shape the future of work.” So far, he noted, there have been some real successes: “We have had workers in small, tiny factory floors in the heart of Louisiana go on strike and redefine themselves as Walmart workers because they were part of Walmart supply chain, and subcontracted workers like in Minneapolis say they want to bargain not only with the people who sign their pay checks but the people who control the overall economy — the Target Corporation and their executives.” With the alliance currently funded by foundations and donors, Soni does not expect self-sustainability to come immediately. “I think it’ll be several years of social-movement building until the energy and momentum of that social movement in translated into strong institutions that monetize and can self-sustain. It’s gonna be a while,” he explained. “In the meantime, people are gonna have to pool together. A host of people across the country will really have to give out of their own pockets to nourish and sustain a movement that can end up eventually setting policy, generating revenue, and rebuilding civil society. It’s gonna be a long journey.” He is optimistic that a “broad-based movement” will eventually “take off and gather steam in order for institutions to be created that sustain millions of workers.” Progress, One Table At A Time
Like the Guestworkers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United began with a local group working in the aftermath of a national tragedy. In the days after September 11, 2001, ROC-NY was formed to support restaurant workers displaced from the World Trade Center. Overwhelmed by calls from around the country, in 2007, its co-founders organized a national non-profit organization to take its workplace justice campaigns beyond New York City. Co-founder and co-director Saru Jayaraman told ThinkProgress the group does campaigns against exploitation in standard settings and high profile companies, litigation, worker organizing, and community organizing. It has won better wages, improved working conditions, and helped recoup more than $20 million in stolen tips and wages for restaurant workers and pushed for legislation to raise the minimum wage above the current $2.13-per-hour federal rate for “tipped workers.”
The restaurant industry has boomed in recent years — more than 10 million employees in the U.S. — but its workers are the worst paid of any sector. ROC United has more than 13,000 members across more than 30 cities, working for livable wages, paid sick days, and protections from unfair business practices. The majority of ROC-United’s fundraising comes from donors and foundations, but Jayaraman noted that the organization is receiving growing amounts of revenue from contributions “not just from worker members but also employer and consumer members” who join to promote a “high road” for the industry. What’s more, the organization is also receiving money from an unusual new source: cooperatively-owned restaurants that provide training and jobs to workers.
“We get some income from the restaurants, but mainly we’d like to grow to be much more self-sufficient and have much more income coming from member contributions as well as restaurants,” Jayaraman explained. She noted while the organization is often labeled “alt-labor,” she does not like the term. “We are the labor movement. ROC is part of the labor movement, the food movement, and the women’s movement. We’re not an alternative to the labor movement. We look something akin to what many unions looked like a hundred years ago — and different.” Building A Better Workplace Created in 2001 as a national gathering of day laborer organizations, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) unites dozens of community-based organizations and worker centers. Its members work to “develop leadership, mobilize, and organize day laborers in order to protect and expand their civil, labor and human rights” and to foster “safer more humane environments for day laborers, both men and women, to earn a living, contribute to society, and integrate into the community.”
Stephanie Gharakhanian is director of research and policy for one of those member groups, the Workers Defense Project (WDP). Her group organizes construction workers in Austin and Dallas, TX. She told ThinkProgress that her organization began as a service provider organization at an Austin shelter for migrants and refugees, but has grown into an advocacy organization fighting against wage theft and unsafe working conditions.
By putting public pressure on large developers, they have nudged those who have real power to agree to “Better Builder” standards, not only for their direct workers, but for workers employed by their subcontractors. “Consumers want to live in homes knowing that the workers who built those homes were treated fairly,” she told ThinkProgress, “Consumers who go to the grocery store want to purchase produce knowing it wasn’t picked by someone abused on the job. It’s about changing public consciousness and shifting the framework for responsibility… creating a new public understanding that you don’t have to be a direct employer to be responsible for working conditions, preventing labor abuse.” WDP provides education and training, including English classes, computer classes, and occupational safety training (in partnership with OSHA) and leadership,and also teaches workers what their rights are and how to defend them.
Through direct action, lobbying, and lawsuits, they seek to recover and stop wage theft and ensure safer working conditions. Like many worker centers, Gharakhanian noted, WDP relies substantially on foundation grants, but also receives some funding from membership dues. She says the big challenge is to figure out “how can we be sustainable and make sure our workers feel a sense of ownership within our organization?” As it has moved toward advocacy, WDP — like other members — has relied on NDLON for resources and technical assistance. “Those networks are helping in getting organizations like ours off the ground, a lot of technical assistance,” Gharakhanian said, “At times, they’ve led campaigns affiliates participate in across the country. And they make sure information sharing is happening across their networks, so we’re sharing best practices.” “This is enough” Perhaps the biggest sign that these groups are having a real impact is the opposition they are engendering.
Earlier this year, a prominent corporate lobbyist warned the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of the growing threat of groups with “the ability to leverage infrastructure to bring a multi-pronged attack, and force internal corporate changes [that] they wouldn’t have been able to get through [union] collective bargaining.” The anti-union Center for Union Facts has denounced them as “union front groups” that are “relying on a loop hole in labor law to operate largely unregulated.” The group labels worker centers as “the hubs of unionists’ hopes that so-called ‘alt-labor’ groups will replace or reinforce traditional unions in worker organizing.” And these six organizations are just some of the many springing up around the country. Others, such as Making Change at Walmart and Fast Food Forward have also drawn national attention in their efforts to force major corporations to take ownership of the treatment of workers at all levels of the employment chain. Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice (a non-profit incubator organization for “strategic campaigns to make concrete advancements in workers’ lives” and a partner in the Making Change at Walmart effort) told ThinkProgress that these organizations have having a major impact.
“What’s working, broadly speaking, is that we have been seeing a rise of low-wage workers in motion right now, in ways that we haven’t seen in a long time,” she said, and the growing awareness of income inequality “didn’t just come from out of the view — it’s from seeing actual workers in motion who are telling their stories of not being able to survive in our economy. We have a political moment where income inequality is being talked about — and we can talk about what it means that so many people are working and still in poverty [and] what are the solutions.” Gupta acknowledged that more experimentation is necessary to find sustainable labor models that can operate on a large scale.
“We’re seeing a lot of pilots; no one has a silver bullet. Many of us are looking to talk to entrepreneurs and others for what could be possible business models that stay within the values we hold. Time will tell what will end up feeling scalable,” she explained, adding that the various organizations are eager to “to crack this knot as soon as we can.” “At the end of the day, workers are struggling and are not just gonna accept that they work more, get paid less, and can’t survive,” said Gupta, “At some point, we’ll reach a moment where workers will say, ‘this is enough, we have to fundamentally shift how we think about workers globally.’”