We’ve Been Here Before: Embracing All of What Today’s Labor Movement Has to Offer – Next100
Commentary   Economic Opportunity

We’ve Been Here Before: Embracing All of What Today’s Labor Movement Has to Offer

We are in a critical period of labor experimentation, but that's not new. Given the need to strengthen worker rights, we need to embrace the fluidity and diversity of all of today’s labor movement organizations, because out of this will come greater worker activism and innovation.

At the height of the Great Depression, farmers, especially tenant farmers and “sharecroppers”—people who rented others’ land in exchange for part of their crop—were especially hard-hit. A primary reason was that the prices for produce, and for cash crops like cotton in particular, had been plummeting for years. The federal government had made some efforts to alleviate the hardship: for example, in 1933, Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which aimed to boost cotton prices by paying farmers to take land out of production. By law, no tenant farmers or sharecroppers should have been evicted from their farms for leaving their farmland fallow; but enforcement was weak, and between 1933 and 1934, an estimated 900,000 people—African-American and white—had been thrown off the land they had been cultivating and living on by plantation owners, punishing the farmers for heeding the policy while taking the benefits meant for those farmers for themselves.

Women at a Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in Rally Parkin, Arkansas (1937). Source: blackpast.org

This was the challenge facing tenant farmers across the country in 1934, including in Tyronza, Arkansas—where something extraordinary occurred in response. In July of that year, black and white tenant farmers and members of the Socialist Party, of all genders, banded together to form the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU). Their immediate aim was to protest the eviction of twenty-three farming families on a plantation in their town; but the organization’s overarching goal was to reform the crop-sharing system and to fight generally for the rights of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and farm laborers—groups that had clearly not benefited from New Deal agricultural policies, and who were growing more desperate as the Depression worsened. The union’s efforts met with no small success: in 1935, it staged a strike of 5,000 cotton pickers and won wage increases, and it organized demonstrations to bring the nation’s attention to tenant farmer evictions. And all the while, the union grew. By 1937, it had 31,000 members; and in 1938, at its height, its membership reached several Southern states, including Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Unfortunately, despite the support it received from Eleanor Roosevelt and other prominent liberals, at the onset of World War II, the STFU declined in membership and was not able to withstand the enormous pressures launched against them. For one, the union faced a great deal of harassment and violence because it was interracial, which at that time was uncommon—and unwelcome—in the South; another reason was that it was pushing against a longstanding exploitative agricultural system. This made the STFU much more dependent on outside funding to provide services, such as the occasional safe refuge for its organizers, than were Northern industrial unions. Also, the union’s goals were seen as so radical—for instance, replacing the plantation system with cooperative farms owned by tenants, and a racially integrated organization of the nation’s farm workers—that many in the Roosevelt administration joined the plantation bosses in opposition. Robert MacElvaine, author of The Great Depression, wrote, citing the STFU’s periodical Sharecropper’s Voice, “…Under Roosevelt ‘too often the progressive word has been the clothing for a conservative act. Too often he has talked like a cropper and acted like a planter.”

In short, the STFU simply could not break the hold that planters had on federal farm aid and eviction. More than twenty years after its inception, in 1960, it would become the National Agricultural Workers Union, and eventually merge with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union. Its legacy lived on through those organizations, but that legacy had become submerged, difficult to trace, and nearly forgotten.

Fast forward to today. Many workers find themselves in a similar position to the one forced on the STFU membership in the early 1930s. They feel just as powerless as those sharecroppers did. Almost half (44 percent) of workers in the United States today are in low-wage jobs, and the inequality gap is at a level comparable to the gaps prior to the Great Depression. Labor standards enforcement and legal protections are weak or nonexistent in some areas, particularly at the federal level; the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which regulates those standards and protections, and which was passed at the Depression’s height, has not been updated in decades. The economy may be growing, but workers are not the ones seeing any gains.

Also, like many of today’s workers, who are gig, temporary, part time, or contract workers, the STFU’s members were also not “employees.” They were primarily sharecroppers, renting land in exchange for a share of the crop, and the farmers were not negotiating with an “employer” or “firm,” per se, but with landowners, who frequently abused and defrauded their tenants. And just as the nascent membership of the STFU did, today’s workers are mobilizing and organizing to push against a system that has been oppressing them for far too long. They are making broad demands on their employers, from higher wages and safer working conditions, to greater security and stability, to a greater voice in key workplace decisions, such as employers’ ethical practice standards and environmental practices.

Yet, as we look at the growing number of workers rising up across the country, there is an important part of their story that has gone under the public’s radar: they are not only organizing through unions. It’s true that strike activity in the United States in 2018 reached its highest level since 2007, and the number of workers involved in 2018 was the highest since 1986. However, there also has been a groundswell of organizing and activism by workers who are not a part of unions. Some of these workers —including agricultural laborers, many domestic workers, part time and temporary workers, and independent contractors—are not covered by the NLRA, do not have collective bargaining rights, and thus can’t organize with the same protections as those in unions, because the act explicitly excluded them. (Labor and policy leaders compromised to pass the law by excluding domestic and agricultural workers sector to ultimately appease lawmakers, driven by bigoted ideals, who would not let the NLRA pass if it covered these workers.) Other workers want to “collectively organize” but do not necessarily want to join a union because of ideological or cultural preferences that don’t align with those of unions. These newer forms of worker organizations are sometimes collectively referred to as “alt-labor,” an abbreviation for alternative labor.

Figure 1

A Wide World of Alternative Labor Organizing

Despite the rise in alternative labor organizations over the last three to four decades, they are still fairly unknown to the general public; yet they operate in plain sight, working at local, national, and even global levels. While they take on a variety of forms, generally their mission is to empower, advocate for, and support workers by improving pay, working conditions, labor standards, and other important variables in their workplaces and/or communities. Some provide legal advocacy services or low-cost insurance and benefits, or career development and training. “Worker centers,” for example, are community-based organizations (e.g. Restaurant Opportunities Center and the National Black Worker Center) that focus on low-wage workers in immigrant and/or marginalized communities. Other types of alternative labor organizations focus on uniting workers in specific occupations (e.g. writers, freelance contractors) or industries (e.g. home care, retail); or building coalitions in and across unorganized sectors (e.g. tech). Some operate digital platforms that provide tools and technical assistance to workers engaged in workplace and political action. Many of these organizations operate in coalition and partnership with other worker advocacy groups, both union-based and otherwise (e.g. National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and Jobs with Justice).

Despite the rise in alternative labor organizations over the last three to four decades, they are still fairly unknown to the general public; yet they operate in plain sight, working at local, national, and even global levels.

The main distinction between alt-labor and unions is that they are not legally recognized under the NLRA, which means that they do not have the right to bargain collectively with employers. As a result, they operate outside of, and without recourse to, most of unions’ defining structures and tactics, relying instead on methods such as secondary boycotts (i.e. a refusal to do business with a second employer or supplier that engages in business with a primary employer who is involved in a labor dispute). Many of these tactics are illegal for NLRA-protected organizations to employ. Essentially, workers in alternative labor groups tend to organize when law, policy, and public institutions do not provide workers with protective powers and structures: they are “alternative” not by nature of any inherent novelty or nascency, however novel or nascent individual cases may be, but by how the lack of legal protections requires them to seek power in ways that NLRA-sanctioned organizations typically don’t or can’t.

In recent years, the term “alt-labor” has become a colloquialism, used among academics and journalists in particular, to describe these newer forms of labor organizations that have emerged in the response to declining unionism, and an overall rise in precarious work. Some have expressed dissatisfaction with the term; it evokes images of the staunch conservatism of the “alt-right” movement, leading to an incorrect conclusion that alternative labor groups are far-right-leaning, conservative, and/or anti-union. In addition, the term “alternative” presumes that these groups are outside of the established cultural, social, or economic norm, which is misleading considering that workers in alternative labor groups represent a substantial portion of the United States working population. In 2015, it was estimated that those in contingent and alternative work arrangements—including temporary workers, agency workers, day laborers, part-time employees, and independent contractors—make up about 40 percent of the workers in the country. Although exact numbers are debated, a substantial majority of new job growth in the decade between 2005 and 2015 appeared outside of traditional employment in the form of project or task-based activities, especially for black and Hispanic workers. From 2005 to 2017, nonwhite representation in contingent and alternative work increased for black and Hispanic workers: for black workers, by 12 percent in contingent work, and 41 percent in alternative work; and for Hispanic workers, by 10 percent and 46 percent, respectively. For white workers, such  representation has declined.

It must also be said that “alt-labor” suggests efforts distinct from unions when, in fact, alternative labor organizations and unions have overlapping goals, often working alongside one another; and they even use some overlapping tactics and rhetoric. After all, workers organizing themselves predates unions as a specific form; and NLRA definitions hardly cover every single aspect of organized activity. Accordingly, many alternative labor organizations and unions operate within a cognizant symbiosis, with unions even directly initiating and funding many alternative labor efforts and supporting many efforts of autonomous worker organizations. For example, in 2003, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) launched Working America, a nonprofit organization aimed at organizing people who are not members of a union. Furthermore, United For Respect (formerly known as OURWalmart) began as a collaboration between former Walmart workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and the Fight for $15 movement, which has left a global imprint, leading to $15 minimum wages being instituted across the United States and beyond, was a joint effort between fast food workers and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). However imperfect the terminology, the need for organizations now designated as “alt-labor” is clear.

People gather together to ask the McDonald’s corporation to raise workers’ wages to a $15 minimum wage as well as to demand the right to a union in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Source: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As evidenced by the minimum wage increases mentioned above, the fact that these groups are not covered by the NLRA does not mean that they haven’t had success in changing laws, whether in pushing for improvements in wages, benefits, and/or working conditions. In fact, recent historic bills that have been passed at the state and local level across the country or that have been introduced at the federal level are, in part, due to the efforts of alternative labor organizations. For instance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance advocated for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, introduced by Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-07), is the first ever national bill to provide concrete protections for the entire care sector. The aforementioned United for Respect, a group that is organizing workers across retail and other sectors, joined with elected officials, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and others, to introduce the Stop Wall Street Looting Act of 2019, which aims to curb private equity’s abusive practices that harm workers “by putting private investment funds on the hook for the decisions made by the companies they control, ending looting, empowering workers and investors, and safeguarding the markets from risky corporate debt.” Rideshare Drivers United is another example of an alternative labor group that has played an instrumental role in legislation, helping to pass the landmark (albeit now controversial) California’s AB 5 law, which made it more difficult for Uber and Lyft to treat drivers as contractors rather than employees. And these are just a few contemporary examples.

A Throwback to an Earlier Era

This increase in worker unrest, particularly in the last several years, has led to a heightened media focus on labor issues, like the substandard pay and working conditions of teachers, the exploitation of workers by Uber, Lyft, and Amazon, and the precarity of the gig economy. In one sense, this has been positive for raising the consciousness of the American public about the reality for many workers. However, in another sense, it also gives the illusion that this kind of period of experimentation and innovation is new. It’s not.

In one sense, this has been positive for raising the consciousness of the American public about the reality for many workers. However, in another sense, it also gives the illusion that this kind of period of experimentation and innovation is new. It’s not.

For example, there are similarities between what went on from the 1910s through the 1930s to what is going on today. At that time, the labor movement was fairly chaotic and in flux, and comprised of different types and forms of labor organizations. This was a time of great experimentation and trial and error within the labor movement. There wasn’t necessarily a dominant form of worker organization, and workers were rapidly experimenting and inventing new strategies and tactics as much as they were relying on tried-and-true methods. There was a feeling that collective action could succeed, and all kinds of people wanted to engage in collective action in the workplace against the backdrop of poor and stagnant wages and economic security.

During this time, a powerful craft movement was coming undone because of labor market changes, industrialization-driven restructuring, and a form of “scientific” labor and production management known as Taylorism, just as today’s labor movement has been disrupted by labor market changes prompted by corporate restructuring, globalization, financialization, and technological advancements. Just as today’s workers are organizing and making demands on companies as part of unions and alt-labor, during this earlier period, workers were engaging in various organizing efforts—not only in unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW), the American Federation of Labor (AFL, prior to the splintering and rejoining of the CIO), and the International Workers of the World (IWW), a.k.a. the “Wobblies,” but also in lesser-known groups like the STFU.

This first third of the twentieth century was certainly not an era of unqualified success for labor. Workers and worker organizations faced tremendous challenges, and like today, many of these challenges were about how to grow and scale, and how to build longstanding and entrenched power, leverage that would not only build stronger and sustainable labor institutions but also lead to fundamental changes in the system to improve workers’ quality of life.

Today, many in the labor movement continue to experiment and innovate. Worker organizations, regardless of their form or label, are testing different approaches, and there is no one size fits all approach to building worker power. We can’t know for sure how their initiatives, or their organizations, will develop or change; but we can look to the first decades of the last century, and to the STFU, when we need a reminder that there are no hard and fast rules about what makes an ideal labor organization. Organizations, technology, employer and labor tactics, and the economic, legal, and political environments in which all of the above operate are continually changing, and these changes disrupt our conventional notions that guide work and employment and labor organizing.


The silver lining of the magnitude and gravity of the challenges that workers face today is that our country’s workers are up to the challenge. Just as in the 1930s, though with greater public attention, contemporary labor organizing is comprised of diverse groups of workers in different parts of the economy and across the country, diverse in profession—from tech sector workers, to professors and graduate students, to gig economy workers, to home care and farm workers, and so on—as well as in race, gender, primary language, and nation of origin. While these workers ultimately want the same thing—good pay, good jobs, and good working conditions—they also want different things and have different needs, varying based on who they are, where they work, or what they believe. In order to fundamentally shift the balance of political and economic power in this country in a way that favors the many over the few, we need more workers organizing and joining forces, whatever the form of collectivity they take. This means we must build an inclusive movement that makes all workers feel welcome—that broadens popular conceptions of who is included in labor, regardless of what the existing law or policy may dictate. While, in some respects, today is not so different from the 1930s, let’s make it different in this crucial way: this time, let progress be for all of us.

About the Author

Portrait of Phela Townsend, she has a very curly bob and a grey blazer.
Phela Townsend Economic Opportunity

Phela Townsend is scholar-activist on a mission to transform how we think about—and value—labor and work in our society. At Next100, her work examines how today’s workers and labor organizations are using digital tools to rebuild worker power in the twenty-first century. Phela is also a PhD candidate at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

See more