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Not your grandpa’s labor union

As ‘employee’ and ‘employer’ become hazy categories, experiments in worker advocacy are replacing unions as we’ve known them

Jacob Thomas for The Boston Globe

Last month, when the college football players of Northwestern University tentatively won the right to unionize, the ruling by the regional National Labor Relations Board asserted that even though these young men were students at their school, they were also its employees. The decision—which could still be reversed—promised to make union men out of a group that looked quite different, at least on the surface, from the blue-collar factory workers who have traditionally been the face of American labor.

But to look around the modern landscape of American employment is to see a number of equally surprising organizing efforts. Music video dancers recently unionized. Adjunct professors on some college campuses have, too. In New York, jazz musicians have been pressuring nonunion nightclubs for pensions and other benefits, and on the Internet, video game designers have discussed the possibility of unionizing as a means of protecting themselves against game companies. Meanwhile, fast-food workers all over the country have been organizing with the help of the Service Employees International Union.

These people might seem like they have nothing particular in common. But behind their disparate organizing efforts, which come amid plummeting private-sector union membership overall, is a profound shift affecting nearly every industry in the American economy. More and more working people, at all levels of income, are operating in a gray area in terms of their employment status. For some, this means being hired as independent contractors or temps; for others, it means working for a subcontracting company or a franchise that takes orders from a massive corporation. For others still—this would include the college football players—it means being told that the work they’re doing is not work at all. As Boston University School of Management professor David Weil writes in his recent book, “The Fissured Workplace,” “employment is no longer the clear relationship between a well-defined employer and a worker.”

Most workers affected by this new paradigm are not at risk for being maimed or killed on the job, the way American miners were in the 1860s when dangerous working conditions spurred them to unionize. But they feel vulnerable in a different way. In a world where a full-time, long-term job with benefits at a single company is increasingly rare, these so-called precarious or contingent workers often lead unpredictable lives without financial stability or a clear set of similarly affected colleagues.


Under this new regime, formal unionization is out of the question for millions of Americans. In response, the labor movement has begun to experiment with new possibilities for how workers might negotiate for better conditions. Beyond outside shots at unionization like that of the college football players, worker groups and labor advocates are exploring ways to harness collective action without the official bargaining rights that made unions such powerful institutions in the past.


“Most of our labor law is built on this New Deal vision of the industrial workforce, when it was fairly clear who the employers were,” said Kate Griffith, an associate professor at Cornell University’s ILR School and cochair of the Precarious Workers Initiative. “Generally speaking, there wasn’t the same level of complexity that we have now.” Figuring out how to organize workers who would otherwise be excluded from the labor movement entirely, Griffith said, is an attempt to “adapt the old labor law model to new realities.”

As union membership in the country continues to decline—from its peak of around 35 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950s to 9.2 percent in 1994 to just 6.6 percent in 2013—the flowering of nontraditional organizing campaigns around the country can be seen as an indicator of how the job market has created new categories of Americans who see themselves as vulnerable to exploitation. Taken together, their efforts represent a major shift in thinking—both within the labor movement and outside it—about what today’s workers have in common, and what kinds of obstacles they face.


“There’s been a fundamental shift in the workplace in this country,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. “These are all experiments in trying to organize the new working class.”


Labor unions first began to form in the United States during the mid-19th century, as the industrial revolution created a vast range of new jobs in which workers felt themselves to be at the mercy of their employers. Joining a union meant that individual dissatisfactions could be turned into a collective demand for better pay, less grueling schedules, and safer working conditions; by presenting a united front, workers gained leverage to pressure employers into signing contracts that guaranteed these and other protections.

Though they surely didn’t see it this way at the time, the country’s industrial-era union organizers had a relatively straightforward task. In most cases, the people they wanted to unite came to work at the same place, whether it was a steel mill or a rubber factory, and answered to the same company boss. As Eve Weinbaum, an associate professor of labor relations at UMass-Amherst and the director of its Labor Center, put it: “If a majority of the workers in an automobile plant wanted to be in a union, they’d hold an election, and they were in a union.”

Football players of Northwestern University tentatively won the right to unionize. Above, a Boston College-Northwestern game.Paul Beaty/Associated Press

Today’s organizers face a much more fractured landscape. “There are just very few sectors of the economy that fit that model anymore,” Weinbaum said. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the number of people who fell under the umbrella of contingent workers—defined in the report as those who “are not wage and salary workers working at least 35 hours a week in permanent jobs”— was 42.6 million in 2005.


Unionizing these workers has proved difficult but not quite impossible. About three years ago, for example, a group of dancers who perform in music videos decided they were fed up with feeling powerless on set—having to come in at 5 a.m. even though they wouldn’t actually be asked to perform till the late afternoon, suffering knee damage after being forced to dance on concrete for hours without protective gear—and decided to organize. Following through was not easy, and not just because the dancers all worked for subcontractors as opposed to being direct employees of the record labels bankrolling the videos. “The workforce tends to be young, and dancers’ career cycles tend to be very short,” said Steve Sidawi, an organizer with SAG-AFTRA, the union that the dancers are now affiliated with. One way they prevailed over those obstacles, Sidawi said, was by “embracing alternative approaches to organizing,” like making viral-ready videos to connect with fellow dancers through social media, and holding meetings at dance studios and trendy nightclubs instead of the proverbial union hall. In the end, the dancers got a multi-employer, industrywide contract that covers all music videos produced by major record labels.


Unionization efforts have also been successful among some graduate students and medical residents, who have had to convince the institutions they work for to recognize them as employees, rather than categorize their teaching or hospital work as merely educational. Adjunct professors, who have been able to find only low-paying freelance teaching jobs after finishing degrees, have also formed unions recently. Meanwhile, the large number of doctors who in recent years have effectively gone from business-owners to employees after selling or leasing once-independent practices to hospitals are being targeted for recruitment by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. “The people we’re getting the calls from, they’re being told what to do and they don’t like it,” said UAPD president Stuart Bussey. “We once were in charge...but now we’re managed by people who are in charge of us.”

In all these cases, labor experts say, what we’re seeing is evidence of a struggle to establish clarity about what constitutes employment, and an effort to reduce the ambiguity surrounding the relationship between workers and the entities that wield power over them. That is what’s happening with fast-food workers, who have been striking for higher wages since last December, and who have been told by industry executives to address their grievances to the owners of the individual franchises that employ them. Organizers counter that franchise workers should be recognized as employees of the parent companies, instead; if they were, they could potentially organize on a much larger scale.

Because unionization is considered an impossibility for low-wage, temporary workers, workers’ rights advocates have set about figuring out what else can be done. To date, their efforts have spawned more than 200 so-called worker centers nationwide that don’t fit the union mold, including some that are place-based and some that are devoted to specific industries. These groups—collectively known as alt-labor organizations—embrace tactics that don’t rely on compulsory membership or collective bargaining in order to win concessions from employers. In so doing, according to Rutgers University associate professor of labor studies Janice Fine, they have tried to “fill the void that was left by the decline in unions.”

One such entity, the New York-based Restaurant Opportunities Center, known as ROC, seeks to organize servers, bartenders, dishwashers, cooks, and other restaurant workers, and has made a name for itself by suing employers who illegally withhold pay or maintain unsafe working conditions. To date, ROC’s lawsuits have netted $7 million of dollars in back pay for workers, and have resulted in settlement agreements—which function almost like de facto contracts—that grant workers things like sick days and wage increases.

Other alt-labor groups have pursued other tactics, including lobbying for public policy. The Model Alliance, an organization founded by former runway model Sara Ziff, serves as a support center for models—most of whom are classified as independent contractors—and puts public pressure on the fashion industry to help protect them from inhumane hours, malnourishment, and sexual harassment. The organization’s biggest victory so far is a law passed last fall in New York, which extended child labor protections to underage models.


Scholars of labor relations say the jury’s still out on how influential organizations like ROC and the Model Alliance can become. “It’s not clear that [their work] is resulting in a large-scale ability to improve working conditions,” Price said. “That’s the challenge that worker centers now are trying to figure out.”

Laws, after all, are one thing, but they don’t entirely replace the power that used to come from collective bargaining—and alt-labor groups are wrestling with how people in nontraditional jobs could access some form of it. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, for example, successfully lobbied for a law in New York that extends a range of protections to nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers. Now, as other states consider adopting similar laws, the organization faces the task of devising a system that would allow its members to make collective demands of their employers, even though they all work for different people.

One idea on this front comes from Saket Soni, the executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. Soni imagines a new kind of bargaining regime that would allow precarious workers to negotiate with employer associations, rather than individual employers. An even more ambitious vision comes from the Future of Work initiative at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, where scholars are considering possible legal reforms that would make it possible to organize precarious workers across industries. “We’re basically asking, ‘If we were starting from scratch, how would we design our labor laws?’” said Dorian Warren, an assistant professor in political science at Columbia University and a leader of Future to Work.

There are skeptics who say that no matter how ambitious alt-labor organizations might be, they’ll never have enough power to create real change. This used to be a widespread feeling among traditional union leaders, according to Warren, but it has faded in recent years. “Even in the first part of the 2000s...traditional unions weren’t paying much attention to ROC or the Domestic Workers Alliance,” he said. But now, “it has totally changed because that’s where the excitement is, that’s where the energy is. And with a labor movement that’s dying… they’re searching for all the allies and innovations they can find.”

For Americans who believe organized labor holds companies back from innovation and efficiency, of course, all this experimentation within the labor movement may sound like a step in the wrong direction. However, there’s an aspect of what all these campaigns are doing that might be less polarizing: They’re simply trying to pin down how employment works in post-industrial America. You don’t have to be a leftist, after all, to acknowledge that, at a time when complex supply chains, outsourcing, and independent contracting have come to dominate the experience of work in the United States, it’s worth taking an honest look at exactly what it now means to be employed—and what the relationship requires of both the employer and the employee. For American workers of all kinds, from music video dancers to football players to short-order cooks, it could be a useful first step toward restoring what was good about working conditions of the past while accommodating the realities of the present.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.