The American Political Economy Blog

Symposium on Labor and Workers in the American Political Economy

Building Power at the Margins of the Labor Market

Understanding why and how low-paid workers are mobilizing through the alt-labor movement.
Building Power at the Margins of the Labor Market

Despite a booming U.S. economy and historically low unemployment, exploitation and abuse remain rampant in low-wage industries where unionization is difficult and regulation is lax.

Consider the problem of wage theft. Although 30 states have raised their minimum wages above the federal rate of $7.25, increasing pay for millions of workers, roughly 5 million workers are nevertheless paid below their state’s minimum wage each year. On average, these wage theft victims lose 20% of their income, causing many to fall under the poverty line.  

Though illegal, racial discrimination in hiring persists as well, reducing many low-wage workers’ job opportunities. Instances of sexual harassment and gender-based violence continue to be reported at intolerable rates. In 2023, the Department of Labor found upwards of 5,000 instances of child labor violations, an 88% increase since 2019. And unsafe and unhealthy working conditions are pervasive in low-wage sectors; in 2022, for example, a worker died from a work-related injury every 96 minutes.  

Unionized workers are significantly less likely to suffer these forms of exploitation at work. But despite strong public support for labor unions, antiquated rules and procedures governing unionization and collective bargaining make it exceedingly difficult for most workers to unionize: in 2023, only 4% of low-wage, private sector workers were members of unions.

Nonunionized low-wage workers and their advocates, however, have not sat idly by as the conditions of work have declined. As I describe in my new book, many have formed “alt-labor” groups (nonunion, nonprofit worker justice organizations) to organize and support primarily low-wage immigrant workers and workers of color in their fight for their rights. These groups are heterogeneous and include community-based worker centers like Workers Defense Project in Texas; regional groups like Raise the Floor Alliance in Chicago; national networks like the National Domestic Workers Alliance; social welfare organizations like LUCHA in Arizona; and amalgams like Somos Un Pueblo Unido in New Mexico and Make the Road New York. All seek to organize workers, galvanize their communities, bring about policy change, and, increasingly, alter their political environments.  

To better understand what workers are up against and how they are fighting back, it is helpful to consider how several distinctive features of the American political economy have shaped and constrained the field of action, drawing on APE frameworks.

1) The federal separation of powers system, featuring an outsize number of veto points and an exceptionally powerful and politicized judiciary, enables minority coalitions to relatively easily block efforts to update policies that have become increasingly ineffective amid changing contextual circumstances.  

Through the “fine political art of producing change by doing nothing,” those who dislike a policy can often achieve their goals by simply standing the way of reform while a changing context alters the policy’s effects. The status quo bias of American political institutions, magnified by increasing partisan polarization and gridlock, is thus conducive to what Jacob Hacker has termed policy drift.

Viewing labor law as a case of policy drift helps us to understand labor’s decline and comparative weakness not as an apolitical consequence of economic change but as a subterranean political strategy that business interests – the “losers” during the New Deal -- have used to become “winners” in recent decades.  

The National Labor Relations Act, the primary law governing relations between organized labor and private sector employers, was written in the 1930s with a very different economy and employment structure in mind. Although unions and their allies have launched multiple campaigns over the years to update the law, redress deficiencies, reverse restrictive Supreme Court interpretations, and help the law function more effectively amid a changing economy—including ill-fated campaigns during the first two years of the Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Biden administrations—opponents have successfully leveraged institutional veto points (mainly, the Senate filibuster) to block those reforms and literally freeze labor law in place. Consequently, labor law has become a glaring mismatch with altered economic conditions (including global economic integration, financialization of the economy, shifts in business strategies, and the rise of nonstandard work arrangements).  

Employers, meanwhile, have become expert at thwarting union organizing by exploiting loopholes in the New Deal-era law. With the expected penalties for unfair labor practices approaching zero, many employers also take illegal actions to resist unions with near impunity.  

At the same time, the potential for experimentation and innovation in the rules governing collective bargaining and union organizing at the state and local levels has been "choked off” and outlawed by federal labor law’s preemption doctrine (as Kate Andrias has described in her piece for this series).

Understanding labor law as a case of policy drift thus helps to clarify why, despite strong popular support for unions and abundant evidence that low-wage workers are highly organizable and capable of building significant collective power, organized labor has failed to thrive, the vast majority of low-wage workers remain unorganized, labor law has become more of a tool of business’s interests than a protector of workers’ rights, and a growing number of workers find themselves vulnerable to mistreatment.  

2) Scholarly frameworks for studying the American political economy also direct attention to the ways in which well-organized, mobile interests are advantaged in the highly decentralized, “territorialized” system of U.S. government while less well-organized groups face an uphill battle.

The relative mobility of business, paired with inter-state competition, creates downward pressure on the terms and conditions of work. The threat of capital flight or firm closure – key forms of employers' structural power – can pressure lawmakers to lower taxes, reduce regulatory capacities, and enact right-to-work laws on the unproven theory that such policies promote economic growth. Less state enforcement capacity and weaker unions leave employers with greater authority and discretion in how they treat their employees, which tracks systematically with higher violation rates.

The financialization of the economy, meanwhile, has incentivized companies to shed employment and shift labor costs and liabilities to smaller companies operating on thin margins in more highly competitive labor markets. This process, which David Weil calls fissuring, has not only fractured the traditional employment relationship and put downward pressure on the terms and conditions of work, but it has physically segregated workers and dimmed the prospect of collective action. Deindustrialization and the shift of employment to the disjointed service sector, featuring typically smaller firm sizes and higher rates of turnover, have only exacerbated these challenges.

Workers’ rights, consequently, have become increasingly geographically fragmented and unequal at the same time that twenty-first century workers have become more physically dispersed than ever before.

3) The institutionalization of anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and sexism in the United States has further hampered the prospects for low-wage workers to identify common interests, build solidarity, and act collectively.  

Over the course of U.S. history, public policy has often been used to preserve the status quo and lock in racial and gender hierarchies. New Deal policies including the NLRA, FLSA, and Social Security, for example, were intentionally written to exclude millions of Black workers, women, and immigrants in a Faustian bargain with the Jim Crow South. These political choices effectively segmented the labor movement from the start.  

What is more, exclusionary immigration policy, paired with employers’ unrelenting demand for low-wage work, has incentivized unauthorized immigration and rendered many low-wage immigrant workers doubly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Often working under the radar with the threat of deportation hanging over them, undocumented workers are significantly more likely to suffer labor violations than U.S. citizens. Although many immigrants bring deeply held commitments to collective action and draw inspiration from Latin American liberation and guerrilla movements – and despite the determination, bravery, ingenuity, and tolerance for risk that brought them to America – the looming threat of family separation has made them less likely to organize with other similarly situated low-wage workers. And although retaliation remains illegal, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that undocumented immigrants who are retaliated against for attempting to unionize are not entitled to back pay, thus making unionization an even riskier proposition for immigrant workers.

Racism, xenophobia, and sexism are also evident in occupational segregation and in the pernicious ways in which employers segregate and divide workers inside the workplace, hindering the development of class consciousness and the likelihood of collective action. These tactics have proven remarkably effective in limiting the growth of the labor movement over the course of American history.

Analytic frameworks used in the study of American political economy thus help to bring some of the key factors stunting labor’s growth into sharp relief. But each of these factors also has a flip side that helps to explain alt-labor’s development:

1) Policy drift, though constraining and stifling, can also be mobilizing and generative of new political dynamics.  

As Jacob Hacker and I have written about, policies undergoing drift often have political (“feedback”) effects. Though policy drift certainly has negative consequences for intended beneficiaries, it also creates new incentives for those on the losing end and illuminates new pathways for redress. It increases demand for institutional innovation in new venues; encourages old groups to adapt to new conditions; and provides incentives for new groups to form to support those who have been left behind. Because such reactions to policy drift represent workaround solutions, however, they often create complications, raise tensions, and impose tradeoffs.  

In the context of labor law’s drift, a new politics of workers’ rights has opened up along precisely these lines. For example, many unions have sought to adapt by pursuing innovative campaigns (e.g., Fight for $15 and Bargaining for the Common Good) and developing new organizing strategies. But even as they adapt to a new economic landscape, labor unions remain committed to the collective bargaining regime, stifled by its antiquated rules, and torn over how to allocate existing resources.

Alt-labor groups, meanwhile, have grown from only a handful of groups in the 1990s to between 250 and 300 today. As they have looked for new ways to support low-wage workers left behind by labor law’s drift, they have sought to expand beyond their traditional functions of service provision and workplace organizing—many now make policy campaigns and political engagement central to their operations. A growing number of groups now undertake concerted efforts to influence policy outcomes, build civic power, and hold elected officials accountable.

With avenues for legislative change largely blocked at the federal level (notwithstanding positive executive actions by the Biden-Harris administration), alt-labor groups have turned to state and local venues to strengthen workers’ rights and protections. They have played central roles in most campaigns to enact subnational minimum wage, paid sick and safe time, and fair workweek laws over the last two decades, and have succeeded in enacting dozens of laws to combat wage theft, improve workplace health and safety, fight discrimination, deter retaliation, provide whistleblower protections, “ban the box” on job applications (disclosing convictions/arrests), create a right to rest breaks, and establish local labor standards enforcement agencies. Alt-labor groups also led campaigns on behalf of ground-breaking Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights and Temp Workers’ Bills of Rights laws and pushed for myriad policies to defend immigrants’ rights.  

Subnational employment laws are far from perfect – they offer only the most minimal standards, feature inequalities of access, and lack vigorous enforcement -- but for workers who are either excluded by law from the NLRA (like farmworkers, domestic workers, and gig workers) or who find it exceedingly difficult to unionize given the structure of their industry and workplace (such as restaurant workers and temp workers), these laws represent an important step forward in the fight for workers’ rights and demonstrate the possibilities of collective action.  

However, alt-labor groups face serious questions about the long-term viability of their organizational model and their evolving role in the politics of workers’ rights. Due to their heavy reliance on philanthropic funding, their revenue model is inherently precarious; it also raises questions of accountability and responsiveness (to members versus funders). Alt-labor’s theory of change rests on their ability to build “people power” but resource-intensive organizing – for base-building as well as engagement in policy and politics – faces inherent problems of scale. And by increasingly embracing the role of political intermediary, alt-labor groups raise questions of both legitimacy and capacity.  

Without the luxury of designing a new industrial relations system de novo -- on a clean slate, as it were -- these workaround solutions have raised complications and tensions that have not yet been resolved. This complexity defines the new politics of workers’ rights.

2) While mobility and wealth are clearly major advantages in our territorialized federal system, local rootedness can also be an advantage for community-based organizations.  

As Han, McKenna, and Oyakawa, Michener and SoRelle, and others have recently shown, community-based organizations can, and often do, punch above their weight. By experimenting with different strategies and modes of organizing, many locally rooted groups representing poor and marginalized people are building sources of power that enable them to undertake a wider range of activities and influence key outcomes. Alt-labor groups, too, have been building sources of power they can draw upon to intervene in and, they hope, shape policymaking and political processes.  

Community-based worker centers, for example, have long focused on deep (“transformational”) organizing. In my book, I describe how such groups are building individual-level power (“power within”) by helping their members reject oppressive structures and expressions of power, develop their own sense of agency and political capacity, acquire leadership skills, build community and collective consciousness among low-wage workers, and formulate issue agendas that link workers’ experiences of exploitation and oppression to a positive program of action.  

Alt-labor groups are also building group-level power (“power with”) by leveraging their unique position in the labor movement and in the broader ecosystem of progressive groups to forge coalitions with other groups and expand the scope of the conflict beyond their local community and its confines.  

And many groups are developing new organizational capacities to expand their reach and magnify their influence (building “power to”). They are experimenting with new forms including regional and national networks of base-building organizations, online-to-offline models of engagement, and 501c4 “social welfare” groups that facilitate deeper engagement in electoral politics.  

Through deep organizing, coalition-building, and organizational innovation, these locally rooted groups are finding new ways to build and exercise power, support and organize their members, alter their political contexts, and transcend their local confines.  

3) Although institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and sexism have clearly made collective action within a diverse labor movement more difficult – and while race-class subjugated communities are clearly sites of oppression -- shared experiences of discrimination and exploitation in the workplace have also been instrumental in helping low-wage workers build solidarity.  

By providing spaces for workers to come together, explore the similarities in their experiences, build community, formulate collective identities, goals, and agendas, and conduct action-oriented power analyses, alt-labor groups are bridging racial and ethnic divisions and mobilizing diverse communities in collective action.

In the predominant scholarly view, the concentration of disadvantage in race-class subjugated communities leaves minoritized groups geographically isolated and politically disempowered. But as Michener and Soss and Weaver argue, by emphasizing the multiple sources of disadvantage that affect these communities, scholars have overlooked the democratic possibilities of such communities and obscured the ways in which their members can be “resourceful, creative, and deliberate political actors.”  

The efforts of alt-labor groups support this more hopeful take, demonstrating several “wellsprings of political agency, resistance, and solidarity that emerge in response” to workers’ marginalization—even in an otherwise inhospitable American political economy.  

Looking Ahead

One of the primary objectives of alt-labor groups is simply to persevere and grow. Their goal is not to win every battle—it is to stay in the fight.

Part of this determination stems from the groups’ recognition that their future prospects are likely to hinge on events that are almost entirely outside their control. They are, to a significant degree, dependent on variable external forces—be they structural changes in the economy, technological advances that shape the nature of low-wage work, changes in the philanthropic landscape, changes in the rules governing nonprofits, or significant labor law reform (which could alter alt-labor’s raison d’être). Alt-labor groups exist in relation to these variables.  

That is why so many groups emphasize perseverance: they have internalized the instability of the broader environment in which they exist and recognize the critical importance of their own organizational resilience to sustaining the broader movement of which they are a part.  

Perseverance is also necessitated by the ephemeral and dynamic nature of power, which as Marcela Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido explains, requires continuous attention to the ebb and flow of power relations:

The number-one job of the organizer is to help our members, in any given moment, assess our power at that moment. That’s it. Because it changes every day, depending on a whole host of issues that sometimes has nothing to do with us…The goal is to continue to build as much power as we can—and it’s going to look different at different moments—so that we can continue to be able to alter the relations of power and be able to change things fundamentally over time, knowing that that’s a never-ending job, and also knowing that we can pass these really great policies that we worked hard for—and they can disappear!—if we don’t actually have the power to sustain them.

Of course, what works in one context may not work in another. Organizing and power-building are inherently local processes, and different groups have different capacities and face different challenges. For scholars, this rich diversity presents a terrific opportunity to address the many open questions that remain. For example: How ought differently situated groups build strategic capacity? Are certain decision-making processes more effective than others in helping groups resolve their membership/funding dilemma? How do the micro-dynamics of power-building differ in different contexts?  

How economically and racially marginalized workers can best develop political capacities in oppressive settings remains an urgent question, both for those who wish to replicate the successes of others and for the prospect of democratic renewal more broadly.

About the Author
Dan Galvin
Professor of Political Science
Northwestern University