Where unions fail, alt labor can advocate for workers : The Indicator from Planet Money The labor union playbook just doesn't work like it used to. While unions enjoy the spotlight right now, they've faced years of declines. So advocates are deploying what one might call a grungier tactic: alt labor.

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Unions but make them grunge

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Unions are hot right now.

STEPHAN BISAHA, HOST:

Yeah. Think of all the different big-name companies where workers voted to join unions this year.

MA: You got Starbucks.

BISAHA: There's Amazon.

MA: Apple.

BISAHA: Google.

MA: Starbucks again.

BISAHA: Activision.

MA: And lots more Starbucks. Literally hundreds of Starbucks are voting to unionize right now. But, Stephan Bisaha, you're actually joining us on THE INDICATOR from a place where unions are not so hot.

BISAHA: Yes. I report for the Gulf States Newsroom, a big happy family of public radio stations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. And while unions might be the it trend right now, it's actually a bit of a dirty word here in the Deep South. But we do have something else - alt labor. It's sort of a grungier, less mainstream version.

MA: I like that - grungy, yeah. If the unions are like the Backstreet Boys, alt labor is more like Nirvana. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma.

BISAHA: Today on the show, alt labor. We're going to meet some Dollar General workers in Louisiana who've been using alt labor tactics to push for changes at their stores.

MA: And we'll hear how 90 years of unions hogging the spotlight may actually have hurt the U.S. labor movement.

Dollar stores - nearly every state has got them, and they've really boomed during the pandemic.

BISAHA: But while these stores are popular and cheap, they can be tough workplaces. Workers in Louisiana complain to us about broken air conditioning and bathrooms. Lots of times, there's only one person working in a store at a time. We also heard stories about dangerous conditions, like fights breaking out in stores and customers pulling out guns.

DAVID WILLIAMS: I don't see anybody working at a dollar store thinking that they're going to have a good life.

MA: That is David Williams. He's a stocker at a Dollar General in New Orleans, and he just got a $1 raise to $9.25 an hour.

WILLIAMS: I'm like, what am I do with this? Like, I can't take care of myself like this or even - or the possibility of having a family to take care of something like this.

BISAHA: The dollar sounds almost like it's an insult to you.

WILLIAMS: Pretty much. It's pretty much like a slap in the face.

MA: Now, this is a situation where you might think a lot of workers would look around and say, hey; why don't we form a union? Everyone else is doing it.

BISAHA: But remember; David lives in the South, a place where many workers consider union a four-letter word.

WILLIAMS: Because once they hear it, it's like, you know, they start trembling and start feeling terrified because they know they got to sign a piece of paper knowing that this is what you have to oblige by.

BISAHA: And a number of employers down here really lean into this fear. At the first whispers of the word union, they follow that classic anti-union textbook - you know, unions are outsiders. They make things more bureaucratic. And all they're really after are your union dues.

MA: That last statement is actually blatantly wrong. Many Southern states have what are called right to work laws, which means workers do not have to pay union dues even if the place is unionized.

BISAHA: Right, but these tactics can really work, and not just here in the South. Unions actually aren't in as good a shape as the headlines make it sound. Last year, national union membership was tied for a record low. That's all to say, if you're a labor organizer, going into David's Louisiana store yelling, hey; who wants to join a union? - well, it's not really on the table.

MA: Right. So when David was recruited into the cause, it happened on the down low, kind of like something you'd read in a spy novel. One day, David's stocking the shelves. He looks over, and he sees this woman just hanging around.

WILLIAMS: Well, she's not technically keep coming to me, but it was more like she was at that spot while I was working.

MA: And it was clear to David that she wanted to talk. It just wasn't clear to him what she wanted to talk about. He figured it had something to do with work.

WILLIAMS: And at that point, you know, I'm just trying to do my job, but not also get called in the office or anything like that.

BISAHA: So to avoid getting in trouble for chatting with this woman who isn't actually buying anything, David says, hey; maybe we could talk over my break. That becomes phone calls. And eventually, the woman sets up a meeting with her boss.

WILLIAMS: Then we just met in the park. We conversated, and then things more started becoming more clear about what was really going on.

BISAHA: David finds out the woman and her boss are part of an alt labor organization called Step Up Louisiana. And they want David to be their guy on the inside, recruiting more Dollar General workers. By teaming up, maybe they can fix those broken AC units - or, better yet, get more than a dollar raise.

MA: David is all in.

WILLIAMS: I believe at that moment, like, it just struck a lightning bolt that - you're like, yeah. I do want to get involved, and I think it is time to make a change.

MA: OK. I got to admit that this is all starting to sound like a union.

BISAHA: Well, Step Up Louisiana is an alternative labor organization that supports unions, but they're not a union. This is something David makes clear when he's recruiting other workers.

WILLIAMS: The first thing they ask us is, are you a union? And we tell them flat out, no. We're not a union.

MA: Yeah, they're just organizing workers and demanding better pay and holding meetings and - are you sure this is not a union?

BISAHA: OK, OK, OK, so here's the big reveal. The big difference - alt labor groups do everything a union does except for the one thing most central to how unions work - collective bargaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYMBAL CRASHING)

MA: OK, OK, I got it. So collective bargaining is to unions what the hammer is to Thor. It's, like, a main source of their power. And that is because federal law requires employers to negotiate with unions in good faith.

BISAHA: This goes back to a really important moment in labor history. At one point, labor battles in this country were just that - literal battles, like 10,000 coal miners in West Virginia picking up rifles against law enforcement in the 1910s and '20s.

MA: In response to all this turmoil, we got in 1935 the National Labor Relations Act. It gave workers a legally protected way to organize unions. Guns and bombs were replaced with petitions and hearings.

BISAHA: The problem is, negotiating in good faith - it leaves a lot of wiggle room. And since the law hasn't gotten much of an update in almost a century, companies have had plenty of time to figure out how to, you know, wiggle. Even if workers vote to join a union, it could take years to negotiate a contract. All those Starbucks stores that voted to unionize - none of them have a contract yet.

MA: Labor advocates say the right to join a union is still a good thing, but the movement relies too much on unions.

BISAHA: And that's where alt labor comes in with their own playbook, like play No. 1 - going straight to the media. That's what Kenya Slaughter did when the Dollar General she works in at Alexandria, La. - they were not providing her the plexiglass and masks to protect workers during the pandemic.

KENYA SLAUGHTER: There were multiple other stores, like Walmart and Walgreens, and everybody else had their plexiglass and their masks. And the pandemic hit in March. We didn't get PPE until May, the end of May, after I went national.

BISAHA: National meaning the New York Times. Step Up Louisiana used its connections to get an opinion piece written by Kenya published.

MA: After the story went up, Kenya says the company quickly made the changes they were asking for.

SLAUGHTER: Did not need a union to get that done, and it got done expeditiously.

MA: So play No. 2 is pressuring politicians. Example - the Fight for $15 Movement. So back in 2012, fast food and other workers started demanding better pay. And a big part of that movement was calling on politicians to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. Eventually, 11 mostly blue states did just that.

BISAHA: Then we got play No. 3 - protesting. Step Up Louisiana did just that outside Dollar General's headquarters during a shareholder meeting last May, and they brought along a New Orleans second line band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: This is one of those protest essentials - right? - picket signs, water bottles, tubas.

BISAHA: Yeah, exactly. Now, it's worth noting that unions can and do often use this same playbook. Unions played a big role in the Fight for $15. For Kenya Slaughter, alt labor, unions - for her, it doesn't really matter how change happens, just that it does.

SLAUGHTER: Nothing out of the ordinary. I'm not asking for a lot. I'm asking for us to be paid what we're worth and not be put in positions where you're alone and have to fear for your life and keep watching everything and be paranoid. You want to feel safe at work.

MA: This episode was produced by Nicky Ouellet and engineered by Maggie Luthar. Dylan Sloan checked the facts. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is of production of NPR.

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