Transforming a movement


Organized labor has struggled in recent years to adapt to changing times. In 2012 less than 7 percent of private-sector workers and a little more than 35 percent of public-sector workers belonged to unions. Both percentages represent continuing declines.

Seeking to revive the movement, some organizers are adopting "alt-labor" tactics that look a lot like free speech and voluntary association. Stepping away from the older tactic of organizing workplaces and enforcing collective bargaining agreements, nonunion groups calling themselves "workers' centers" and "workers' alliances" stage protests and strikes, sponsor public relations campaigns, organize boycotts, and litigate against businesses they believe are mistreating employees.

The aim is to shame employers and win public support without using the legal privileges governments have awarded unions over the years, such as compelled union membership and mandatory collective bargaining. Those controversial advantages have been of diminishing use to the labor movement as the workplace has become increasingly dynamic, with workers switching jobs and losing interest in formal union affiliation. The privileges also come with strings attached-restrictions on sympathy strikes, for example-which alt-labor groups are free to reject.

Politicians have spent decades putting their thumbs on one side of the scale or the other in labor-management relationships, courting the support of either big business or big unions. The alt-labor groups have the same goals as their privilege-seeking predecessors, but their tactics are far less coercive.