Alt-labor: a new union movement or the same old song?

Unions are evolving to survive, as protests against Walmart – without employees of the company – increasingly show.

On a crisp and sunny morning on the day after Thanksgiving, a group of protesters gathered in front of a large Walmart in Michigan’s Sterling Heights, calling for wage increases and better working conditions for the superstore’s employees. Mary Johnson, a retiree and member of international activist group the Raging Grannies, stood next to Dan Lombardo, a plumber wearing old-fashioned overalls, who was carrying a sign stating “Walmart equals poverty.” Mothering Justice founder Danielle Atkinson, in a vibrant purple coat, turned up with her entire family. Even Mary Kay Henry, the International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), who was back in the Detroit area for the holiday, was there.

But as police cars drew up, scattering the protesters, it seemed there was one cohort of people missing: the protest had not included a single Walmart worker.

Over the last couple of years, in a bid to survive, unions have been fighting back against crumbling membership rates, testing out new strategies and pouring logistical and financial resources into non-union, alternative forms of organizing, at the heart of which are campaigns to raise the minimum wage. In the interest of reaching a new cohort of younger and more diverse workers, immediate ambitions to increase membership levels have fallen by the wayside.

So the pragmatism sets in: to command the numbers they need to create a presence at protests, unions are helping organize workers who are not paying members and have little prospect of becoming so in the near future.

There’s a name for it that harkens more to the music industry than the labor movement: alternative labor, or ” alt-labor”.

Leading the “alt-labor” initiatives have been two organizing clusters: Our Walmart, created by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the Fight for 15 movement. The former group’s demands include a $25,000 a year minimum salary for all Walmart workers but have given up on hopes for unionization. Then there’s the Fight For 15 movement, created by the SEIU. That targets the fast-food industry, with demands for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to form a union-and an appeal to millennials.

Alt-labor as a phenomenon – filling in gaps where unions have failed to organize – is not new. In the last two decades, workers in the restaurant, retail, agriculture and domestic work industries have been fighting for their rights through non-union foundation funded worker centers, grassroots, community organizations, including the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, who have had a number of landmark victories.

What is new is the extent of big labor unions’ involvement and investment into alt-labor, and the creation of their own alt-labor spinoffs.

The labor movement is trying to reinvent itself, by necessity. The United States labor movement is in crisis. Unions today represent just 11.3% of American workers, down from 28.3% in 1954. Worse for the old bosses of labor, 93% of the private sector is currently non-union – a reflection of a number of trends, including the gradual spreading of anti-worker, pro-employer legislation and policies, an idea that unions are bad for business, the outsourcing of jobs and labor’s failure to adapt to an increasingly service-based economy.

“The labor movement is on a learning curve,” says Bob Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois, who directs its Chicago-based labor education program.

Unions have remained vastly absent from the retail and restaurant industries, Walmart and fast food chains included. Walmart currently employs 1.3 million people in America, while the 10 largest fast food chains employ 2.2 million Americans.

“As income inequality grows greater and greater, it becomes more and more obvious that you’ve got larger sectors of the workforce that are now huddling round the minimum wage,” Bruno says. “The labor movement is coming to a realization that these are workers that they need to be attentive to and think about finding ways of supporting.”

In many ways, Our Walmart and the Fight For 15 movements are not new forms of labor, but labor from scratch – organizing members who have never been members of unions before – one worker at a time, one work place at a time.

When Nancy Salgado, 27, who has been a McDonald’s employee in Chicago since the age of 16, received a phone call from her sister last summer, urging her to join the Fight For 15 movement, she says she didn’t believe any of what her sister was telling her was true.

“I wasn’t aware that I had rights, I wasn’t aware that anybody cared about fast-food workers or anybody cared about how much I was making.”

Now Salgado, who makes $8.25 an hour and has two young children she is the sole provider for, says she won’t stop protesting, striking and mobilizing more of her colleagues until she earns the right to organize without retaliation, form a union and negotiate a raise.

Damon Silvers, director for policy and special counsel at the AFL-CIO, a national trade union center representing 11 million workers, says the future of the labor movements is not so much tied to whether or not unions will survive, but whether the rights of working people will.

“The critical thing right now in the American economy and the American workforce is for working people to rediscover that they have power collectively to shape their own economic future,” Silvers says.

But with only a minority of workers taking part in protests (and in the case of Sterling Heights, none at all) there is no doubt this is a public awareness campaign too. Less kind commentators have called Walmart and fast-food industry-geared protests a march on the media.

Striking hardly threatens the daily functioning of businesses in highly volatile, low-skill industries where employees can be fired or have their hours cut from one day to the next with little protection. It does however serve to draw attention to broader economic issues, including stark income inequality, and the reality of living on the minimum wage.

“Often, fast-food workers are out of sight, out of mind,” says Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos.

Jessica Davis, 25, also a McDonald’s employee, says she first learned about unions and workers’ rights just four months ago, when she was approached by an organizer on a work break. Before then, she says she assumed she was at the mercy of her manager.

Today, Davis, who has had her hours cut in half since she joined Fight For 15, dedicates time at work convincing colleagues to join the fight with her.

“I tell them they can cut your days for anything they want, why not have them cut your days for something you believe in, for something where you can stand up and say ‘They cut my days for this, this is not right.’”

While similar stories of worker empowerment are happening across the country through on the ground organizers at least partially financed by UFCW for Walmart and SEIU for fast-food outlets, it should come as no surprise that Salgado and Davis’ originally lacked any knowledge of their rights as workers. That kind of lack of awareness is what motivates alt-labor organizers.

Last September, economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 95% of the wealth generated since the 2008 financial crash went to the top 1% of American earners, with economic recovery holding a very different meaning for those at the top of the American economic ladder than it did for those at the bottom.

In a report released last October, the National Employment Law Project estimated McDonald’s 707,850 employees were forced to rely on $1.2bn in public assistance despite the company making $5.46bn in profits, and paying its CEO $13.7m.

Traub argues the fast food and Walmart strikes and the personal stories that accompany them have brought increased visibility to theoretical arguments, propping up major campaigns to raise the minimum wage in more official settings, such as the recent Democrat-sponsored congressional bill to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by 2016.

But opponents abound, selling their skepticism: are these campaigns a succession of media-stunts set up by big labor as a last resort to advance their interests, or is the effort to build a new movement actually taking place on the ground?

Among the most vocal denouncing alt-labor practices is the Center for Union Facts, run by renowned conservative public relations expert Richard Berman.

Berman’s websites, and, among others, seek to expose alt-labor organizations’ ties to unions, with the implication that the old labor movement is pulling the puppet strings.

“No campaigns supported by unions – either implicitly or explicitly – to raise the minimum wage are worker-led battles,” Berman says. “They are coordinated attacks led by national labor unions against long-time industry foes.”

Berman’s point about worker involvement is a sensitive topic within labor and alt-labor.

When asked, Our Walmart and the Fight For 15 movement did not hide their union affiliations – though the ties are definitely downplayed. Presumably in an effort to appear as grassroots-led as possible, SEIU’s Fight For 15 movement has a different name in each city, and has no central website. Neither organization’s budget has been made accessible, which keeps opposition scrutiny at bay.

More concretely, one question remains: if the larger unions continue to dissolve, the sources of financial support for alt-labor are likely to go with them. The financial future of alt-labor is thus up in the air. Could fast-food workers feasibly become the dues-paying GM workers of the future?

If convincing workers to take part in protests still represents an uphill battle, the central, core ambitions of the protests – raising the minimum wage and tangibly addressing inequality – are bringing a variety of sympathetic community members and organizations together. With a new cause to rally around, the question arises: could a new kind of American, far from the factory floor, represent the future and survival of the labor movement?

Back at the Walmart gathering in Sterling Heights, with police officers growing increasingly impatient from their cars, the remaining, diverse set of protesters had gathered for a group photo. They exchanged jokes and, later, phone numbers. Current Walmart store employees may have been absent from the protest, but the cause of raising the minimum wage and tackling inequality was clearly forming new friendships, connections and alliances.