Organizing for workers’ rights and the living wage: a view from the US

alt labor

Living Wage campaigns by low-waged workers in the US have hit the headlines in recent months.  How do traditional trade unions and the fast rising “Alt -labor” grassroots movements work together to overcome the tough political and institutional obstacles they face? How have they organized creatively to promote workers’ rights ?

Karen Beckwith and   Scottish Parliament host Deputy Speaker Elaine Smith MSP

Karen Beckwith and Scottish Parliament host Deputy Speaker Elaine Smith MSP

At a Scottish Parliament Women’s Dinner held as part of  the parliament’s Trade Union  Week activities, Professor Karen Beckwith (Case Western Reserve University) –  US-UK Fulbright Scotland Visiting Professor at University of Edinburgh  – shared her insights of current developments and issues. Below we reproduce her talk.

The Distinctive Context of the US Labor Movement

The US labor movement – including labor unions and Alt-Labor, works in a distinctive context.

  • First, the labor movement operates in a federal political system, where labor law is constructed, enforced, and effective at the national level, through national legislation, but also through the individual state governments; hence, labor law is fragmented and varies across the fifty states (with consequent impacts on union organizing);
  • Second, labor unions (but not Alt-Labor) are constrained by law; only labor unions recognized in law as official bargaining agents for a unionized workforce can represent union workers. Furthermore, labor law also prohibits some bargaining tactics by union members (common situs picketing, secondary boycotts, workplace occupations, wildcat strikes).
  • Third, in the US, labor unions have no formal historical connections with a political party, the way the Trades Union Congress has historically had with the Labour Party in the UK.
  • Finally, organized labor has had to bargain with employers for benefits that, in other countries, have been provided by the state (e.g. healthcare, maternity and parental leave, childcare and eldercare, paid sick leave). Whatever benefits are secured obtain only to workers represented by the union; the benefits are tied to employment; and workers who lose their jobs lose those benefits.

Note, however, that non-unionized workers, including management, may also have such benefits, as private employers choose to extend them to other workers. In short, social welfare benefits in the US are tied to the individual’s position in the market and do not obtain as a right of citizenship.

Nonetheless, labor unions have been mobilizing within the broader labor movement outside of the official union structure, particularly in the low-wage and service industries in the US. For example, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the Alt-Labor movement have targeted low-wage-sector service employees for organizing and mobilizing. The majority of these workers are women and persons of color. Among low-wage workers, 77% are women, and 36% are women of color. Women are overrepresented in the 10 lowest-paid occupations:

  1. Hand packers & packagers 53%
  2. Food preparation workers 58%
  3. Bartenders 60%
  4. Combined food preparers and servers 65%
  5. Waiters & waitresses 71%
  6. Cashiers 72%
  7. Personal care aides 85%
  8. Home health aides 88%
  9. Maids & housekeepers 88%
  10. Childcare workers 94%

These groups have been targeting employers for increased wages, improved working conditions, and non-wage benefits, through union organizing efforts and outside the formal union structure — and hence outside the legal restrictions that apply only to labor unions.

Examples of the US Labor Movement’s Strategic Innovations

Organized labor union and Alt-Labor work both independently and in cooperation to coordinate their efforts These groups have been active and successful on three fronts: using existing lawchanging the law; and using social movement tactics.

First, they have used existing law, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the “Wagner Act, to bring lawsuits against companies and firms. These include charges of “wage theft,” violations of existing labor law (including organizing and union membership rights), and employment discrimination violations based on age, race and sex.

Second, these groups have been active in changing the law, using legislative and state governmental tactics in regard to increasing the minimum wage.

Finally, these groups have successfully employed social movement tactics of disruption and public shaming, directed at employers (and also consumers), to improve working conditions and raise wages.

Using Existing Law

For example, the labor movement has used national employment and labor law to bring a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Walmart. Walmart is the largest employer in the US, with 1.3 million employees; its employees are not represented by organized labor.

OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect) is an employee, grassroots group of Walmart workers, closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. They have succeeded in convincing the National Labor Relations Board to issue the largest-ever complaint against Walmart (January 15, 2014), forbreaking federal labor law by violating workers’ rights. The complaint alleges Walmart illegally fired and disciplined more than 117 workers, including those who went on strike last June to speak out for better jobs.

The NLRB asserts illegal activities in 14 states at 34 stores and shows that company executives conceived—and oversaw implementation—of an unlawful retaliation policy for store managers to execute. The complaint—the largest ever against Walmart in both size and scale—names 63 individual store managers and company spokesperson and vice president of communication David Tovar’s illegal threats made to employees.

Changing the Law

The labor movement has also been successful in changing the law. A major example is the state-level campaign to raise the minimum wage. In the past decade, citizens have initiated minimum wage campaigns, with considerable success, in multiple states. These campaigns involve direct pressure on state legislatures, statewide ballot proposals initiated by citizen groups, and citizen-initiated amendments to state constitutions. Minimum wage campaigns emphasize raising the minimum wage (the current federal minimum wage is $7.25) and providing annual, automatic inflation-indexed cost of living adjustments (COLA).[i]

Action on the national level is evident in the proposed Miller-Harkin Fair Minimum Wage Act. This proposed congressional legislation would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10/hour in stages across three years; it would increase the “tipped” minimum wage from $2.13/hour to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.[ii] The current federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, and includes no COLA.

Individual states have legislated minimum wage hikes in response to campaigns led by local citizen alliances, labor organizations, and religious groups. In 2006, state legislatures in Arkansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan and Rhode Island increased the minimum wage in response to such campaigns.

Activists in other states chose not to work through their state legislatures, but to tackle the minimum wage issue through statewide ballot measures. In 2006, six states succeeded in raising their state’s minimum wage by statewide citizen vote; all of these measures included a COLA. Arizona, Missouri and Montana initiated state statutes  (direct citizen legislation) to raise the minimum wage, with COLA; Colorado, Nevada and Ohio established a higher minimum wage, with COLA, through state constitutional amendments. Raising the minimum wage by state constitutional amendment makes it more difficult to revoke the provision (i.e. it cannot be overturned by a state legislature and requires a second, statewide constitutional amendment campaign).[iii]

Social Movement Tactics

Alt-Labor groups have been working with labor unions to raise wages and improve working conditions, using social movement tactics of disruption and public shaming to bring pressure directly on employers and companies, independent of union-organizing drives. This is not to say that these campaigns are sidestepping organized labor in the US. Rather, organized labor (through the AFL-CIO and individual unions) is working with these groups, providing funding and guidance.


For example, the campaign for a higher minimum wage/just wages has employed a social movement strategy to bring direct pressure on employers and on legislators, with the support of organized labor. Living Wage campaigns have targeted employers, cities and states with demonstrations, protests and public shaming, to raise the minimum wage. Living Wage campaigns are undergirded by two moral propositions:

“first, that work should be rewarded, and second, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

This is an important issue. US federal poverty guidelines (2012) identify 4-person families as living in poverty if their annual income falls below $23,050 (or currently c. £13,800).

OUR Walmart [Organization United for Respect], which is closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union, has been organizing around the issue of just wages, to establish a minimum annual wage for Walmart workers of $25,000/year. OUR Walmart estimates the average hourly wage for non-management Walmart workers is $8.81/hour (c. £5.30). Because many of these workers are part-time workers, their annual wages place them below the US federal poverty line. To bring economic pressure on Walmart and to draw public attention to low wages at Walmart, OUR WalMart organized a national strike of WalMart workers on “Black Friday” 2013, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday. OUR Walmart has employed demonstrations, protests and other activities honed by social movements activists to move directly to influence companies and employers.

Other labor movement groups have used similar tactics; these include the Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC), which has engaged in protests and demonstrations outside restaurants in NYC. ROC-NY has won

“13 workplace justice campaigns against exploitative high-profile restaurant companies, obtaining more than $7,000,000 and improvements in workplace policies for restaurant workers…, [and] played an instrumental role in winning a statewide minimum wage increase for tipped workers, [growing] to include more than 10,000 restaurant workers in our membership from at least 26 states”[iv].

Domestic Workers United (DWU), also in New York, developed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights” that became law in 2010:

“establish[ing] overtime pay, sexual-harassment protection, and paid time off for workers hired by families to care for children or the elderly in their home.”

Similarly, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance succeeded in bringing pressure upon New York City’s government and the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, through strikes and demonstrations. They succeeded in persuading the Commission to approve rules (by a vote of 6-2) that increased fares 17 percent to hike drivers’ pay, created a health-care and disability fund, and strengthened a cap on leasing fees.[v]

Prospects for the Future?

First, we have seen substantial resistance and repudiation of attempts to constrain public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Following the 2010 elections, newly elected Republican governors and Republican-majority state legislatures in several states initiated legislation to limit or to revoke public employees’ collective bargaining rights. This legislation provoked an uproar in Ohio and in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, there were mass demonstrations in the state capitol building, and eventually a recall drive was launched to remove Governor Scott Walker and several Republican legislators from office.

Because of the referendum provision in the Ohio state constitution, citizens were able to mobilize quickly to secure a statewide vote on the Ohio legislation, the Ohio Collective Bargaining Limit Repeal, in November 8, 2011, to repeal so-called Senate Bill 5. Firefighters, police officers and teachers mobilized, with help from the political action committee We Are Ohio.

“Senate Bill 5 would have impacted the state’s 400,000 public workers, restricting their ability to strike and collectively bargain. The bill would have limited public employees to collectively bargain for wages, preventing them from collectively bargaining for health insurance and pensions. It would also have prohibited all public employees from striking and could have increased employee contributions for pensions and healthcare.”[vi]

Organized interests spent more than $30 million in the repeal campaign. The resulting vote was an overwhelming rejection of Senate Bill 5, with 61.59% of Ohio voters opposing the legislation. Of the 88 counties in the state, 82 counties recorded majority votes against Senate Bill 5.[vii]

Second, as economic inequalities increase in the US, as citizens become more aware, and as political parties clarify their positions on issues of the minimum wage and the tax code, Alt-labor organizing will have positive impacts of influencing public policy. Recent congressional attention to the minimum wage is an example of this.

Finally, despite the recent failed unionization drive by the United Auto Workers (UAW) at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee,  it is likely that unionization efforts in the southern states will continue, and will be successful.

As Kate Bronfenbrenner recently wrote in the New York Times:

“The South has more manufacturing units with a majority black workers, immigrant workers, low-wage workers and women of color – those most likely to choose unions — and fewer majority white male manufacturing units — those least likely to choose unions.” (February 17, 2014)

Background to labor organizing in the US

The US labor movement consists of two components.

  • First, labor unions, organized under and constrained by labor law, constitute a major and the most public face of the US labor movement. Most labor union are members of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO[viii]), a national federation of labor unions.
  • Second, the Alt-Labor movement, which consists of non-labor union community groups and organized activists, works outside of the formal labor union structure. Alt-Labor includes the Living Wage Campaign, Janitors for Justice, and other groups that rely on community and workplace organizing, and that employ social movement tactics to achieve their ends.

These two – organized labor union and Alt-Labor, work both independently and in cooperation to coordinate their efforts.

Formal labor union membership has been declining in the US. In 2013:

  • 11.3% of the US workforce was unionized, compared to 20.1% in 1983, thirty years ago.[ix] This decline has been particularly evidence in the private-sector workforce, where only 6.7% of private-sector workers are represented by labor unions.
  • Public sector employees – such as police officers, firefighters, school teachers, and government employees — continue to constitute the bulk of unionized workers; 35.3% of public employees are union members.
  • The unionized workforce is unevenly distributed across the US, given the impact of individual state laws on representation and bargaining rights.[x]
  •  Men have a slightly higher union membership rate (11.9 percent, 7,955,000) than women (10.5 percent, 6,573,000).

Much of the decrease in unionization in the private sector has been the result of three factors:

1) the decline of manufacturing and heavy industry in the US, particularly in auto and steel;

2) the difficulties of union organizing in new employment areas, such as service and retail establishments, including the limitations and weaknesses that result from US labor law; and

3) legislative and judicial attacks upon unionizing rights.

Karen Beckwith is Flora Stone Mather Professor of Political Science at the Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. She is Visiting Professor at University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science from Jan-June 2014.

[i] For a detailed discussion of the politics around the minimum wage at the congressional level, see Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy (Princeton, 2008), Chapter 8.

[iii] For more recent examples, see

[vii] See the Ohio Secretary of State’s webpage at

[viii] The AFL-CIO has more than 50 member unions representing 12.5 million workers ( The Change to Win [labor] Federation was formed in 2005 when several unions left the AFL-CIO; these included the United Farm Workers, SEIU, Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers (, some of whom have since reaffiliated with the AFL-CIO.

[ix] Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 24, 2014


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