As digital media gets its first big union shop, one labor powerhouse is betting on non-union organizing for a U.S. workforce with less factory workers and more Uber drivers.
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As of Thursday morning, America has its newest unionized workforce, with editorial staff at Gawker Media voting to join the Writers Guild of America, East.
The successful organizing drive — the first at a big digital media company — is a small victory for the beleaguered union movement, adding just under 120 workers to the ever-dwindling number of unionized Americans. But it's far from the only win celebrated lately by the wider labor movement, which has a spring in its step for the first time in decades.
And that is thanks in large part to the unprecedented efforts of one old-school union to fund and incubate the movements that seem set to eventually supersede it.
Central to the momentum of labor activism in recent years has been the rise of so-called alt-labor: organizing that takes place outside the traditional union system. Most prominently, the successes of the Fight For 15 minimum wage campaign, centered on fast food workers, have given energy to organizers across the country — including at Gawker itself.
“I wouldn't even have guessed they would be that successful. It's just a hard fight, they've accomplished a lot, they seem to be still going strong” said Hamilton Nolan, a Gawker writer who played a lead role in the site's organizing drive, of the low-wage protesters. “One reason for that is America as a country has moved. It's not the same place it was ten years ago, because of the recession and widening inequality. The wider inequality gets, the more America is going to be ready for more radical action.”
And if more American workers seek to join in that radical action, they will find a growing infrastructure of activist groups and resource centers waiting for them. They exist outside of the union system, but many of them are supported by the same benefactor: the Services Employees International Union, which has invested its money and people into backing the alt-labor movement.
Lynne Sladky / AP
The SEIU's move is timely, given the rising number of workers that will never join a traditional union. In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report counting 40 million contingent workers in America — part-time, temporary, seasonal or contractors — while a survey by the Freelancers Union found that 53 million people (about 1 in 3 members of the workforce) are now freelancing.
“All labor is alt-labor now — it's not just on the margins,” Sacket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), a workers' center backed by the SEIU, told BuzzFeed News. “They're agricultural workers, adjunct professors, and construction workers — but also contract attorneys. Gardeners, but also insurance agents. The day laborer corner that used to be outside Home Depot suddenly went up to the cloud, and now there's Amazon Mechanical Turk, so you become a classic day laborer, but a digital laborer.”
The NGA organizes primarily for workers that are not recognized as full employees in the traditional sense, and so lack the rights to organize that laws like the National Labor Relations Act were once written to protect. Guestworkers, agricultural and domestic workers, and independent contractors are among those in a category for whom unions were never a clear recourse.
The same goes for many others, including the fast food staffers that have been so visible in recent protests.
“You know the Fight for 15 is a movement and not just an institution because there's no single address you could send a postcard to,” said David Rolf, president of the SEIU's Seattle Local 775. While “capital C, capital B collective bargaining has taken up all the air in the room” in past decades, in Rolf's words, he says some in the labor movement are wising up to the reality that other forms of collective action, such as wage-focused issue campaigns, stand a better chance of success going forward.
Rolf is one of the forces behind the Workers Lab, a Silicon Valley-esque incubator that aims to apply startup principles to generating new tactics for labor, as unions threaten to fade away.
“The theory is workers in America need new models,” he said. “We have a choice: between turning inward and protecting what we have and transferring those talents and assets.”