Unions haven't fared well over the past few decades.
Today, about 1 in 10 are union members - and only about 6.6% of private sector workers are in unions.
The reasons for the decline are well chronicled - globalization, technological change, the growth of the hard to unionize service sector, increasing right to work laws, union mismanagement, etc.
As unions have declined, non-union organizations have formed that are focused on organizing, mobilizing and advocating for workers. These groups go by many names including "work centers" and "worker alliances", but are are broadly called Alt-Labor organizations.
Key quote from an American Prospect article on the growth of Alt-Labor groups:
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.
Alt-Labor groups are often foundation backed and are based on voluntary membership. While they do not have the collective bargaining powers of traditional unions, they see worker advocacy as their key mandate.
These groups are the organizers behind many of the current labor battles going on in the food service and retail industries. They're also drivers of the push for higher minimum wages.
One of the best known, and most controversial, Alt-Labor groups is the Restaurant Opportunities Center. According to their website they pursue workplace justice by:
Using tactics that include organizing workers, litigation, and public pressure, we work to demonstrate public consequences for employers that take the ‘low-road’ to profitability.
As the New York Times article Advocates for Workers Raise the Ire of Business reports, business groups aren't real happy with many Alt-Labor organizations. They claim they "often demonize companies unfairly and inaccurately".
Another Alt-Labor group is The Freelancers Union. They support freelancers, independent workers and the self-employed. Like other Alt-Labor organizations they don't offer collective bargaining, but they do provide other services traditionally associated with unions.
The New York Time's article Tackling Concerns of Independent workers describes them as:
one of the nation’s fastest-growing labor organizations ... a large, influential, self-supporting organization of workers that pushes to advance their interests, although its members work for numerous employers in many industries.
I'm a card carrying member of the Freelancers Union (OK, they don't actually have cards). But they provide a lot of interesting benefits and it costs nothing to join.
Traditional unions have noticed the growing clout of the Alt-Labor movement and are trying to figure out how to work with these groups. The Economist article New Labor, Alt-Labor covers how traditional labor unions are planning to build stronger relationships with Alt-Labor organizations.
We believe the Alt-Labor movement will continue to gain strength over the next 3-5 years.