Document Type


Publication Date

September 2020


With union density falling to alarmingly low levels and dropping, many have largely written off traditional business unionism and have turned to so-called alt-labor forms of worker empowerment, particularly worker centers. But traditional unions continue to provide valuable service to the workers they represent and to society as a whole. The union wage premium may not be as strong as it once was but it still remains and workers represented by unions are far more likely to have health and retirement benefits than their unrepresented counterparts. Moreover, it is through traditional transactional business unionism, that workers find protection from disagreeable working conditions and arbitrary management actions. And unions are legally required to be democratically run. Worker centers, on the other hand, while doing a laudable job of obtaining justice for low wage workers, particularly with respect to wage theft, generally do not provide sustainable continuing representation of workers with their employers, are not accountable to the workers they represent, are financially dependent on unstable foundation funding, and, even with respect to wage claims, often have to limit their intake so as not to exceed their capacity. Moreover, while some groups thought of as alt-labor, such as the Fight for Fifteen, have succeeded at the state and local level in securing worker-protective legislation, particularly increases in the minimum wage, union-represented workers are far more likely to be aware of and take advantage of statutory workplace rights. This article urges that we not abandon traditional business unionism and suggests a few ways forward that may help restore traditional labor unions’ roles in representing workers in the United States.