“Alt-Labor”

Fascinating stuff, via Jesse Walker:

…The ROC is a labor group. But it’s not a union. It represents a new face of the U.S. labor movement—an often-ignored, little-understood array of groups organizing workers without the union label. As unions face declining membership these workers’ groups—like the mostly union-free job sectors they organize—are on the rise, particularly in New York. Because of their efforts, more restaurant workers in the city get paid sick days, domestic workers receive overtime pay, and taxi drivers will soon have health insurance.

Twenty years ago, when Rutgers labor professor Janice Fine first set out to count the nonunion groups that were organizing and mobilizing workers, she found just five in the entire country. Today, her tally stands at 214. These groups organize farmworkers and fashion models. They go by names like “workers’ centers” and “workers’ alliances.” Some are rooted in the immigrant-rights movement as much as the labor movement. Lacking the ability to engage in collective bargaining or enforce union contracts, these alternative labor groups rely on an overlapping set of other tactics to reform their industries. The ROC teaches workers their rights and also restaurant skills; advises and publicizes model employers; and helps organize protests like the ones at Capital Grille, making customers aware of what goes on behind the dining room. The ROC also lobbies state and local lawmakers for reforms and helps workers take legal action when all else fails.

“Workers come to us with specific complaints,” says ROC founder Saru Jayaraman. “Then we’re able to talk to them about all of the things that they’d like to see change in their workplace. That’s what we base our campaigns on.” While the center only goes after companies that have allegedly broken the law, its legal settlements often require those companies to go above and beyond the law, by instituting new benefits like paid time off or creating formal procedures for workers to register grievances. Employers who violate the settlements risk both legal penalties and the resumption of pressure campaigns.

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