ALT-Labor, Secondary Boycotts, and Toward a Labor Organization Bargain
40 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2014
Date Written: February 11, 2014
Recently, workers led by non-union labor advocacy groups, popularly labelled “ALT-Labor,” have been staging strikes and other job actions across the low wage economy. Some observers see this activity as the harbinger of a reinvigorated labor movement or, more generally, as audacious dissent by low wage workers with nothing to lose. Others view the activity cynically as an exercise in futility, a struggle against inexorable market forces that refuse to pay $15 per hour to a fast food or big box retail worker. This article takes a different tack, presuming (implicitly using history as its guide) that employers will respond to ALT-Labor in a historically typical manner — by seeking labor injunctions and civil damages in courts.
Labor injunctions are available under certain sections of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) when “labor organizations” violate those sections. This article specifically considers whether ALT-Labor groups, though not unions in the traditional sense, are nevertheless “labor organizations” under the LMRA capable of violating the secondary boycott provisions of the statute. If ALT-Labor groups have the requisite status to commit these violations, they may be subject to federal court injunction and civil damages under the LMRA.
The article concludes that ALT-Labor’s labor organization status is uncertain and will turn on a given group’s explicit statement of a “labor organization-like” purpose, and on whether it behaves like a statutory labor organization. Litigation premised on the labor organization status of an ALT-Labor group therefore poses risk for both sides, business and ALT-Labor.
The article accordingly proposes that unions and business strike a deal by agreeing to narrow the labor organization definition. Employers have wanted to narrow the definition for decades in order to establish workplace committees that have consistently been found presumptively unlawful. Unions, on the other hand, have historically resisted a narrowing of the definition because of the 1930s historical specter of the “company union”: “fake” unions set up by employers to confuse workers into thinking they have real representation when they do not. However, the article contends that the companies in which fake unions were once a concern are vanishing artifacts, and that unions should therefore compromise on the labor organization definition to protect a dynamic, emerging new type of workforce from labor law used as a sword.
Keywords: labor organization, secondary boycott
JEL Classification: J50, J51, J52, J53, J58
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation