Originally published at the Boston Review.
Fast food workers in dozens of cities staged a national day of strikes last Thursday, August 29. The action sought to galvanize public support for a living wage of $15 per hour, and respect for fast food workers' right to organize. Employees from restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King called on other retail workers around the country to join them in walking off the job. Many employees, who have had to go on food stamps and public assistance to survive on their industry's wages, felt they had no choice but to protest their treatment by employers. "My family and I are homeless due to poor pay right now," Regina Mays, a single mother who works at Little Caesars Pizza in Durham, NC, told reporters in advance of the strike.
The strike capped an active year of organizing by employees at McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and other low-wage chains. At a time when traditional unions are on the decline, scrappy organizing campaigns among low-wage workers, sometimes called "alt-labor," are capturing the national spotlight. While their prospects of winning union recognition through the cumbersome election process prescribed by federal law are slim, the workers have nevertheless demanded improvements in working conditions and are eager to use legal collective action to draw public attention to their concerns.
Much of the coverage of these struggles has been fragmentary, suggesting that the campaigns themselves are disjointed and local. But considered together, the efforts of fast-food workers, carwashers, retail employees, and domestic workers, among others, represent an experimental and creative wave of organizing that has reanimated the labor movement across a wide range of brands and industries.
The campaigns share some common traits. They center on populations that many people once considered un-organizable: immigrants, low-wage workers, transient employees, and people who work in isolated environments such as private homes. They look for ways to make advances for workers outside of the structure of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. And they are drawing on support from wider range of community allies than have traditional labor campaigns.
For example, despite Wal-Mart's virulently anti-union climate, employees -- both frontline retail workers and workers from the warehouses that supply Wal-Mart -- have joined together to demand better treatment on the job and an end to retaliation against workers who try to organize. They brought lawsuits, staged a series of one-day walkouts over the past three years, and in mid-June of this year brought their message to the annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas. In recent weeks, reports David Moberg of In These Times, "Seventy-five non-union workers at a giant warehouse in Mira Loma, Calif. serving Wal-Mart won big pay and benefit increases, as well as potentially more stable employment."
The heavily immigrant workforce in high-end carwashes in major cities across the country have also come together with the help of workers' centers, interfaith groups, and community-labor coalitions. In May and July of this year, New York workers backed by the WASH New York campaign won collective bargaining agreements that include raises, paid breaks, and employer-provided safety equipment. In Santa Monica, CA, some carwasheros, as they are known, won an agreement in 2011. Seeking to extend these victories, carwasheros in Chicago and Santa Fe are using a mix of publicly shaming bad-faith employers and appealing to consumers to patronize carwashes that take the "high road."
The sponsors of Thursday's strike, Fast Food Forward -- a New York-based coalition of fast food workers who are demanding raises and respect -- has launched the "Low Pay Is Not OK" campaign with the help of SEIU to encourage fast food workers across the country to speak up for themselves. The campaign's website has a toolkit for those who want to participate in strikes, as well as explanations of why coordinated job actions are effective.
Outside of fast food chains, workers in family and fine dining establishments are standing up for fair employment practices, health care, better wages, and paid sick leave. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC-United) have launched local affiliates throughout the country. Best known for persuading some of New York's and Washington, DC's restaurateurs (including celebrity chef Tom Colicchio) to provide paid sick days and health insurance to their workers, ROC came out in 2013 with a National Diners' Guide, a handbook of "high road" restaurants that meet its standards for fair employment practices.
Domestic workers, who must organize outside traditional union structures because they are exempt from the labor protections instated in the New Deal era, have also had success. On a state-by-state level, they have pushed for the passage of a domestic workers' bills of rights, which will set standards for wages, paid leave, and health and safety conditions in the workplace, as well as protection from abuse. New York passed its Bill of Rights in 2010, and this year Hawaii became the second state to pass one. Writing for The Nation, Josh Eidelson reported earlier in August that Ai-Jen Poo, leader of Domestic Workers United, believes that campaigners are on the verge of a breakthrough at the national level: the Department of Labor is now finalizing new rules governing wages, scheduling, health and safety for workers who do cleaning, child care, and elder support inside private homes.
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Some press coverage has portrayed workers' centers and other alt-labor groups as antagonistic with traditional unions. This perception was reinforced in a recent New York Times article, which quoted a member of the Texas-based Workers' Defense Project distancing his workers center from unions, which he characterized as "more closed group[s]." While the emergence of alt-labor hasn't been entirely free of tensions, established unions are not closed off to the new strategies and tactics coming from low-wage worker campaigns. Not only have leading unions served as key backers of fledgling alt-labor groups, the national AFL-CIO and others are now cultivating discussions about how to bring this new activity to scale.
Unions have been some of the biggest funders of these scrappy, autonomous campaigns. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) backs the Fast Food Forward strikes, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) supports the Wal-Mart workers' organizing efforts, and UNITE HERE -- the hotel and restaurant workers' union -- has assisted ROC. Foundations provide much of the non-union-based support. Given the recent wave of strikes, the prospect of heavier investment in alt-labor groups will be a hot topic at September's AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles.
In thinking about strategy, the AFL-CIO and leading international unions are trying to address the limitations of alt-labor efforts and how traditional labor goals might be pursued. How do you sustain local victories if you're not able to gain formal recognition or to secure collective bargaining contracts? How do you expand campaigns to include larger numbers of employees, so that the movement consists of more than small groups who make headlines by temporarily walking off the job? How can the energy of diverse campaigns be translated into the political power needed to revamp outdated labor law and ensure respect for the right to organize nationwide?
As labor struggles to find creative answers to these questions, it is entirely appropriate that current union members -- too often portrayed as a cloistered special interest group -- are extending support to workers in the low-wage and heavily immigrant service sector. Union members are increasingly recognizing that, just as the 20th century labor victories were largely built by the efforts of new immigrants trying to gain access the American dream, the future of the middle class in the new century will be tied to the fate of those struggling at the bottom of the wage scale. In that sense "alt-labor" is not a new trend, but rather one with deep roots in American unionism.
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