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Working Papers | March 3, 2021

Innovations in Collective Action in the Labor Movement: Organizing Workers Beyond the NLRA and the Business Union

Gabriel Nahmias

WP13-2021

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The American labor movement is facing a paradox. Private-sector unionization is at its lowest level in nearly a century. Yet, esteem for the labor movement is the highest it has been since the 1960s, and most Americans want to be in a union. To better understand this situation, this paper reviews how workers are achieving collective action and building the labor movement outside the traditional business union. I begin by examining those “left out” of the NLRA: agricultural, domestic, and “gig” workers, as well as freelancers and graduate students. For each group, I introduce key lessons from the decades of organizing by these labor activists. I then turn to collective action “without unions:” ¬†practicing solidarity (petitions and mutual-aid), exogenous populations of organizers (immigrants and a resurgent Left), and alternative institutions for coordination (digital platforms, workers centers, and non-majority unions). I discuss how this activism lays the groundwork for building unions and the labor movement, including sparking wildcat strikes. I end with recent examples of workplace organizing “beyond” working conditions: tech workers fighting for corporate responsibility, the Strike for Black Lives, and Bargaining for the Common Sound. I discuss how these actions both lay the seeds for an empowered labor movement and fight for the broader interests of working Americans. Many of the empirical points in this article will not be new to dedicated observers of the labor movement. However, by bringing together these cases, we may better understand the landscape of opportunities and possibilities available for a labor renaissance.

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