A leading labor expert says the OUR Walmart campaign, which last month mounted a strike by 500 retail store employees, demonstrates the potential of an oft-debated model: what scholars call “minority unionism.”

“You’re never going to be able to organize store by store by store by store,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education and research at Cornell University. “Because then Walmart would close store by store by store by store” to shut the organizing down. Instead, “they built an organization that was a Walmart workers’ organization…in stores across the country.”

Bronfenbrenner credited United Food & Commercial Workers Organizing Director Pat O’Neill with crafting a model for “another unionism” for Walmart (OUR Walmart is supported by and closely tied to the UFCW). Bronfenbrenner compared the OUR Walmart approach to “the European model,” in which unions’ leverage and legitimacy aren’t tied to majority membership at any given worksite. “Instead of being 180 workers at one [Walmart] store,” she said, “it could be 5,000 workers spread across forty stores…It’s not enough to be a majority at any of the stores. But it’s still 5,000 workers. That’s a lot of workers.”

(In past statements to The Nation, Walmart has denied retaliating, and dismissed OUR Walmart’s actions as publicity stunts aimed at securing union dues.)

In the US, legal union recognition is premised on “exclusive representation,” secured by demonstrating majority support (through an arduous election process, or a voluntary agreement) in a certain bargaining unit, usually confined to a single worksite. Bronfenbrenner doesn’t support proposals floated over the years to do away with exclusive representation in the United States; she predicted such a change would allow companies to shirk negotiations while propping up company-controlled unions. Bronfenbrenner believes that formal recognition and legal collective bargaining rights are worth fighting for (and supports reforms to make them easier to win). But she said the UFCW has been wise to use minority unionism “as a tool to get to majority union status.”

Bronfenbrenner noted that US labor law offers protections for the right of workers without a recognized union to engage in collective action, including strikes, and prohibitions on discrimination against workers who do (although such strikers can be “permanently replaced” under some circumstances). She said that by organizing collective actions by growing minorities of workers, and punishing the retaliation against those actions with strikes, OUR Walmart has shown that—when faced with a company of Walmart’s size, structure, and anti-union style—there’s a better alternative to focusing on proving majority support within individual stores.

“You organize these workers,” said Bronfenbrenner, “and you engage in strikes, and eventually you get management to give in to some of your demands. And then, eventually, you hope that more workers will come out and support you, and then you would get recognition…. You don’t talk about recognition until you’re at the point where you have enough members” to win it.

The Walmart workers aren’t the only ones practicing a form of minority unionism. As I reported for Salon, New York City fast food workers staged a one-day strike on November 28. The 200 workers came from dozens of stores representing several of the industry’s top chains. While OUR Walmart so far hasn’t called for union recognition, the fast food strikers are demanding a fair process to unionize. But both campaigns are hoping that aggressive strikes will make majority support possible, rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile in Michigan, Republican legislators have pushed through last-minute anti-labor legislation. Check out Allison Kilkenny's coverage of the protests in Lansing.