Employment Law: Alt-Labor: An Introduction To Virtual Unionizing

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Unions are dying, but union advocates are hoping they have found a virtual solution. For the last two years, only 6.9 percent of private sector workers were unionized. Many view unions as outdated — helpful for eliminating sweatshop conditions in the early 20th century, but doing little more than contributing to bloated payrolls today. Union organizers are desperate to rebrand themselves, lest they become as irrelevant in today's world as the pay phone and the VCR.

Is social media the answer? Relying heavily on Facebook and Twitter, a new movement, known as "alt-labor," has sprung up. Alt-labor, short for "alternative labor," refers to a method of organizing workers without traditional tactics and sometimes without unions. For example, a traditional union seeks to unionize a specific workplace, negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, and even go on strike if negotiations fail. Alt-labor goes about it differently, aiming its campaigns at specific industries (including quick-service restaurants, retail, and car washes) or nationwide or regional employers (all Walmart stores). Rather than following National Labor Relations Board procedures to initiate a union election and gain union representation, alt-labor groups attempt to gain public sympathy through high-visibility actions. Remember the strikes at Walmart on Black Friday in 2012 and the "fast food strikes" that escalated over the past year from New York City to 58 cities nationwide?

But alt-labor's mission is unclear. At times it seems poised to fill the unionizing void left by the near-extinction of unions and thus strives to boost union membership. At other times, it pushes for changes for all workers — regardless of industry — as when it lobbies for minimum wage increases or paid sick leave. This is a function unions championed in the 1930s, but seem less committed to in recent years

As alt-labor rewrites the handbook on unionizing, employers must learn to recognize and respond to unionizing's new face and new tactics. Alt-labor groups are aggressive and often relentless. For example, a Subway employee in Seattle was allegedly fired after going on strike on August 29, 2013, when protests against quick-service restaurants were held in 58 cities nationwide. According to reports, the franchise owner explained the employee was fired for giving away a cookie, which was against company rules. The employee claims it was retaliation for leading his co-workers on strike. For more than a month after, alt-labor groups in Washington sustained a social media campaign to turn the public against the restaurant, picketed outside the restaurant, and encouraged sympathizers to post negative reviews on Yelp. Old-line unionizing tactics never reached such a broad audience so quickly, effectively, or cheaply.

Who's Behind Alt-Labor?

Unlike traditional union organizing, alt-labor initiatives are seldom driven by a single group. Instead, alt-labor initiatives are the efforts of coalitions with members ranging from New York Communities for Change (formerly ACORN) to Occupy Wall Street. Often behind these leaders are traditional unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). All indications suggest all these groups share funding, ideas, and human resources. These groups have joined forces to create targeted campaigns such as Fast Food Forward, which demands unionization and $15 per hour for all quick-service restaurant employees, and OUR Walmart, which demands $13 per hour and the availability of a full-time position for any Walmart associate who wants one. The actual players behind the loud strikes and prolific social media campaigns are often unknown.

The uncertainty as to who is behind alt-labor is no accident. These non-union groups, often referred to as "worker centers," offer many of the same services as unions, but without the accountability of unions. For example, unions must submit financial filings to the federal government each year and these documents are public records. Worker centers are not subject to the same regulations. Unions have fiduciary obligations to their members; worker centers do not.

Beyond a lack of accountability, the funding of worker centers is totally hidden. Many may think these "left wing fringe groups" are a passing fad with no backing. Nothing is further from the truth. Some of the biggest backers of worker centers are unions. Prominent union groups, including the AFL-CIO, acknowledge the existence of "partnerships" with worker centers. Unions realize they need support from as many social activist groups as possible. In fact, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, recognizing the declining influence of unions, recently called for partnerships with other organizations, such as the NAACP and the Sierra Club, to enable unions to wield more political power. Worker centers are likely to be a big source of support for unions in the coming years.

It is important for employers and employees to know who is driving these worker center unionizing campaigns. The smoke and mirrors of these unofficial coalitions can make it difficult to do so. While congressional efforts are underway to examine and clarify these issues, do not underestimate the power or backing worker centers can wield.

New World Of Unionizing

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