The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor made headlines last month when its unions perplexingly lobbied for their members to be exempt from the city’s intended plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Since these unions initially supported the wage increase when it was proposed, many observers were mystified by their request for a union waiver.
The Los Angeles City Council is now studying the union exemption and its implications. In the process, they are caught in the midst of an existential question for the labor movement: What is the relationship between traditional labor unions and newer, alternative labor movement groups (or, “alt-labor”)?
A New Form of Alternative Labor
The alt-labor question is being raised at a time when the form and function of labor unions is becoming increasingly unclear, with the bargaining power of traditional organized labor at a historic low. The proportion of unionized private-sector workers has declined dramatically since its peak in 1954, when 28.3 percent of the private workforce was unionized. That number dropped to 6.6 percent in 2014, and in the restaurant industry, that number is lower still, at only 1.4 percent.
Since the late 1970s, a growing number of alt-labor organizations have been formed, attempting to fill the gap left by declining union resources or to serve workers traditionally excluded from organized labor altogether. The alt-labor group “Fight for $15,” whose activism focuses on the restaurant industry, is largely responsible for the recent Los Angeles minimum wage increase. Its campaign earned major national coverage, despite its status as a nontraditional organizing group.
Prior to the formation of Fight for $15, alt-labor efforts have commonly manifested in the form of “worker centers”—defined by Janice Fine, a political scientist at Rutgers University who researches alternative labor, as “community-based and community-led organizations that engage in a combination of service, advocacy, and organizing to provide support to low-wage workers.” The number of these worker centers has increased dramatically over the past two decades: while there were just five in 1992, there are now over two hundred.
Most worker centers’ efforts happen on the margins or outside the scope of the labor-management relationship; in other words, they operate through outside regulation or enforcement, not by bargaining directly with management. They often focus on advocacy for immigrant populations—fighting for basic workplace safety protections and prevention of wage theft. Organizing workers is often a long-term goal, but not a short-term strategy—much as it is in the Fight for $15.
While the Fight for $15 campaign resembles the worker center model in certain ways, particularly because it emphasizes policy advocacy over traditional collective bargaining, it does receive significant funding and support from unions. Given the difference in priorities, however, it may not be surprising that unions’ priorities sometimes now come into conflict with those of Fight for $15. According to Washington Post reporter Lydia DePillis, exemptions like the one sought by unions in Los Angeles are relatively common. In Los Angeles, unions are arguing that the city’s new minimum wage cannot legally take precedent over existing contracts between unions and national management. Those unions are now caught between increased minimum wages and the complicated reality of labor laws and negotiations.
Cooperation in a New Context
Although this isn’t the first instance of tension between alt-labor models and traditional unions, they have generally tended to find ways to work together. Often this has been because, while worker centers continue to expand, they are generally insufficient on their own, due to a lack of a funding. A network of worker centers and unions in the United States and Mexico called ENLACE, for example, unites resources to provide training in community organizing.
Among current forms of alt-labor, the Fight for $15 is unprecedented in its scope. Although it’s a national movement, it can be understood as a relatively decentralized network of sub-organizations centered in cities that remains in contact through social media. A growing body of evidence suggests that the cooperative interaction between physical and online components of protest movements is a significant contributor to their unique success.
As anthropologist and journalist Sarah Kendzior puts it, for many young low-wage workers, “Unions are vestiges of the past, largely obliterated before they were born.” But Fight for $15 has been able to gain the attention of the younger generation of workers, particularly because of its use of familiar media platforms. The question now is, to what extent can the movement and unions reconcile their different priorities in pursuit of the same goals?
A Path Forward
In the context of the union exemption request debate in Los Angeles, both sides have a point. Supporters of Fight for $15’s wage increase victory are right to be wary of anyone who could blunt the impact of their movement, one that has galvanized the efforts of low-wage workers and their supporters in a way that labor unions have tried, and failed, to do directly for years.
Critics of Fight for $15 argue that fighting for a higher minimum wage is essentially an admission that workers have little or no internal bargaining power, and the success in Los Angeles could actually make collective bargaining more difficult for them. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias notes that many countries with strong collective bargaining cultures don’t even have a minimum wage. Others have noted that the minimum wage is an unstable instrument for effecting lasting change: as long as it is not indexed to inflation, its value is constantly eroding. That is, Los Angeles’s new $15 minimum may be worth significantly less by the time it is scheduled to go into effect in 2020.
It’s no secret that contemporary social movements are increasingly utilizing online networks and technology to mobilize members and distribute messaging. Last week, The Century Foundation released a report in support of developing an app that would allow workers to organize union chapters discreetly and conveniently. Such an app could present an opportunity for unions to reach new audiences and, perhaps, to narrow the gap between union insiders and alt-labor leaders.
Ultimately, however—regardless of the technology used—alt-labor movements and unions must together find a way to channel the energy of the Fight for $15 toward a larger cultural shift in which both collective bargaining and improved public policy are seen as a vital part of life for American workers.