The Rise of Alt-Labor

According to a new Field Poll, public support for labor unions has plummeted in California.  (Click here for the Sacramento Bee article)  The Field Poll registered a 10% change in public opinion from two years ago.  Today, 45%—a plurality of respondents—said that labor unions do more harm than good.  The poll definitely captured a partisan divide, with Democrats supporting unions while Republicans opposing them.  But what must be most troubling to labor unions is that a plurality of independent voters (44%) also believes that labor unions do more harm than good.

In contrast to the decline of traditional labor unions, there has been a tremendous increase in the visibility and influence of “alt-labor.”  Just take a look at who’s organizing the protests against Walmart and the fast food industry.  While organized labor may be in the background, worker centers and nonprofits are taking the lead.  (Click here for a great article on alt-labor in the California Lawyer magazine)

At its convention in September, the AFL-CIO passed resolution #5 titled, “Building a Broad, Inclusive and Effective Labor Movement.”  The resolution asserted that:

The labor movement consists of all workers who want to take collective action to improve wages, hours and working conditions. Our unions must be open to all workers who want to join with us…The AFL-CIO hereby invites every worker in the United States to join the labor movement either through an affiliate or through Working America.

Among the things that the AFL-CIO intends to do is to mobilize people in “electoral and other political efforts and in support of organizing drives and collective bargaining campaigns.”

So how will this affect the public sector?  Obviously, the alt-labor movement is focused on companies like Walmart in the private sector.  However, it won’t take long for labor unions to employ some of these tactics in the public sector.  They already are.  For example, we are already seeing some unions helping to fund and form citizen groups to protest against cuts in services.  In higher education, labor unions are already working closely with student groups.  I expect efforts like these to continue to proliferate in the future.

So what does this mean for employers?  It means that what happens in bargaining may depend as much on what happens away from the table as what happens at the table.  Savvy employers going into difficult negotiations will want a comprehensive plan that is prepared not only to deal with organized labor’s concerns, but the concerns of the broader “alt-labor” community.

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