Demonstrators outside of a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, April 4, 2013, in New York City. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
As the AFL-CIO holds meetings to mull its future, there’s increased talk inside and outside the federation about ways for workers to join the labor movement without winning collective bargaining. “We want to figure out a way to make membership more open, to make membership in a union not depend on workers being willing to endure trial by fire in an election or extended pitched battle with the employer for voluntary recognition,” AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker, a former National Labor Relations Board member who’s overseeing pre-convention deliberations for the federation, told The Nation in April. “So how do you do that, and what’s the nature of that membership? How do you make it meaningful?”
With those questions comes another: Who should pay the bills?
As I reported in The American Prospect’s winter issue, the past two decades have seen explosive growth in “alt-labor”—groups that are organizing and mobilizing workers without seeking legal union recognition or collective bargaining. Some such groups are organizing workers who are legally excluded from unionization, like fashion models deemed “independent contractors.” Other alt-labor groups organize in sectors like the restaurant industry, where workers have the right to unionize on paper but—facing a labor law system that does little to protect worker-activists or to compel companies to bargain—mostly haven’t. Rather than union negotiations, alt-labor groups use a range of tactics to press for change in their industries, including workplace activism and legal, political, media, community and consumer pressure. (Unions increasingly rely on such tactics as well.)
While alt-labor groups have scored some significant victories, they face many of the same challenges as unions, and a few of their own. That includes the funding question: outside of “Right-to-Work” states, unions with collective bargaining agreements have a secure source of revenue: automatic deduction of union dues (or, for workers who opt out of membership, representation fees) from employees’ paychecks. Alt-labor groups don’t have that option. Some collect voluntary dues from their members, but hardly any are primarily funded by them. Instead, they’re largely funded by foundation grants and by traditional unions.
Leaders of some of the country’s top alt-labor groups say that’s a problem. In an April interview announcing a long-term goal of becoming financially self-sufficient, Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum told The Nation, “In the long run, that’s the litmus test, because worker organizations that aren’t self-sustaining can’t be democratic.” Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate for non-union workers that longtime organizer Nussbaum founded a decade ago, currently receives significant funding from the AFL-CIO and unions.