Campaigning in 2016, Donald Trump portrayed himself as a champion for workers. He walked factory floors, rallied with men in hard hats, and promised that the GOP would become “a workers’ party.” So far, he hasn’t delivered. While the Trump economy offers full employment and rising wages, the administration has proffered few policies focused on the working class. Indeed, his highest-profile effort to cozy up to factory workers, a campaign of tariffs, has done harm to the very people it was supposed to help.
If the president wants to do something for the working class ahead of his reelection campaign, there’s a politically potent tactic he could use that would both keep his promise and divide a key Democratic bloc: offering support to emerging “alternative workers’ organizations,” which are not traditional unions. He could do this right away, without involving Congress or the National Labor Relations Board, through a combination of regulatory forbearance for new labor models, promotion, and financial nondiscrimination. Doing so could pay huge political dividends while helping to build social solidarity for many of those most likely to be left behind.
A strategy of supporting groups that perform some functions of unions but not all does not mean cozying up to the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, the Teamsters, or any other part of “big labor” — just the opposite, in fact. Even if such old-line groups might somehow be persuaded to support Republicans, they face terminal decline. While nearly a third of the American work force had a union contract in the 1950s, only 11.5 percent do today, and only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union. A revival of such dinosaurs seems nearly impossible, at least in part because unions are burdened by a business model written into statutes between the 1930s and the 1950s. While they have certain powers that seem too great — for instance, they can compel payments from workers in non-right-to-work states and forbid all workers everywhere under union contracts to bargain on their own — they also face massive burdens. Neither unions nor employers can truly pick and choose what topics are going to be the subject of bargaining. The government can bring felony charges against their leaders if they sell anything — benefits-management experience, political-organizing chops — to employers. As a practical matter, furthermore, unions can’t hold equity stock in companies they organize.
Given these burdens, it’s not surprising that many workers, and those interested in organizing workers, are searching for new models. The most widespread of these are “worker centers” — nonprofit groups targeting lower-level employees and focused on specific geographies, industries, or demographics rather than specific employers. Most are heavily Latino or African-American. These groups are most active in industries such as quick-service restaurants, where rapid turnover makes traditional organizing nearly impossible. The worker centers — some of them backed by unions, others by philanthropies, still others being at least partly grassroots — rarely attempt to get contracts for those they represent (which would make them unions). Instead, they carry out public-policy training, pressure employers, and provide self-help programs intended to improve work conditions and build political influence for the people and communities they represent. One well-known such organization, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center, in Northampton, Mass., offers an almost bewildering variety of services, ranging from language classes to policy campaigns intended to combat wage theft by employers.
The increasing number of worker centers over the past decade has led employer groups such as the Chamber of Commerce to call them “union front groups” and demand that they be brought into the burdensome paperwork and disclosure environments of actual unions. In early 2018, Representatives Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), then chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Tim Walberg (R., Mich.), then chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions, requested a Department of Labor inquiry into worker centers, with the goal of declaring them unions in disguise.
The simple fact is that they are not. Worker centers have existed since the 1970s and have been widespread for more than 20 years. During this time, private-sector unionization has declined almost continually. Even if their backers might wish otherwise, the centers have no more coercive power than any other type of nonprofit organization; their influence amounts to little more than social pressure. The mere fact that they annoy employers and sometimes promote public policies that conservatives oppose shouldn’t make them subject to burdensome regulations.
If Trump’s White House and Department of Labor are interested in showing that they speak for the interests of workers — particularly low-wage ones — they should embrace worker centers rather than investigate them. To do this, they could halt most ongoing investigations into worker centers and issue regulatory guidance clarifying that centers that don’t actively seek union contracts are not unions and won’t face any risk of being treated as such.
The last few years have also seen the gradual growth of hiring halls — union-run entities that provide workers to employers on a project-by-project basis — outside of their traditional strongholds in the maritime, construction, and theatrical industries. The industries that these new entities serve are often lower-skilled than the traditional mainstays of hiring halls, but not unskilled. One well-known example, the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality hiring hall (MASH), focuses on venues in a newly developed neighborhood around a basketball arena. Some hiring halls sign exclusive agreements with employers under which the employer promises to procure labor only from that specific hiring hall (as a matter of law, non–union members still must be allowed to use that hall), while other hiring halls, with non-exclusive agreements, operate as democratically run nonprofit staffing firms that must compete with their for-profit counterparts and employers’ own human-resources divisions.
The law already allows hiring halls to operate, but because they are typically limited to a handful of industries, legal uncertainties linger. Once again, the administration can help the most by simply getting out of the way and offering regulatory guidance summing up the long body of NLRB and judicial decisions legitimizing the expansion of hiring halls in every industry. A campaign drawing attention to existing hiring halls could also do a lot of political good. Indeed, since the hiring-hall-reliant building-trades unions have traditionally made up the labor movement’s right flank, a warm embrace of their business model could help mobilize some already strong hiring halls as a meaningful pro-GOP force.
Finally, there are several other types of non-traditional labor organizations with specific niches. United Farm Workers, for example, has created joint labor–management committees that would be illegal in other sectors but are possible on farms, where the National Labor Relations Act largely doesn’t apply. The New York–based Freelancers Union likewise provides benefits and serves as a political advocate. There’s no question that these organizations can already exist and operate as they do under current law, but as part of a campaign to draw attention to worker-empowerment models that are not traditional unions, they also deserve support from the highest levels of the administration.
What all these organizations have in common is that, unlike traditional labor unions, they do not coerce workers. They generally do not require payment of dues by anyone who doesn’t want to pay them. And although many of the things they advocate — such as reporting and oversight mechanisms for employers, intended to prevent wage theft — may encounter opposition from some employers and conservative groups, they are clearly in the interests of the people these organizations represent. If workers in every profession, ranging from making explosives to selling insurance, can have professional associations, there’s no reason that ordinary workers shouldn’t have them too.
To solidify the place of at least some of these organizations, the Trump administration could establish an initiative modeled after the faith-based efforts of the George W. Bush administration. Currently, dozens of government-funded training and vocational programs with facially neutral purposes are designed largely to benefit existing, traditional unions or employers: They might, for example, require financial data in formats that only traditional unions use, or mandate paperwork that a small worker center can’t handle. The initiative would eliminate such barriers. The Bush administration’s efforts largely focused on smaller, often non-white, faith-based organizations (giant players such as Catholic Charities were already getting lots of money from government grant programs) and brought them into providing many public services.
An embrace of these newish labor organizations could make the difference in November 2020. Bush’s faith-based efforts — many of them focused on African-American and Latino churches — were key to small but meaningful increases in his share of the black and Latino votes between 2000 and 2004. In key swing states such as Ohio, these increases represented non-trivial portions of his victory. Although old-line labor groups are willing to say nice things about, and have given modest support to, worker centers and new-model hiring halls, some mainline lefties, such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have reflexively sided with unions when they’ve come into conflict with nontraditional groups.
Such organizations offer viable models of solidarity, self-help, and political power. Politically, the notion of supporting such organizations should be attractive, because the workers served by most of them tend to be core Democratic constituents. The continuing decline of the white working class as a percentage of the electorate — about 40 percent today, down from over 70 percent in the 1970s — means that a Republican party that cannot broaden its appeal beyond that group is doomed to obsolescence. If support for new labor organizations resulted in even a few of their members’ deciding that their interests lay with the Republicans, the Democrats’ coalition would be disrupted, and the Republicans would come closer to being the workers’ party that Donald Trump promised.