Unions are dying, but union advocates are hoping they have found a virtual solution. For the last two years, only 6.9 percent of private sector workers were unionized. Many view unions as outdated — helpful for eliminating sweatshop conditions in the early 20th century, but doing little more than contributing to bloated payrolls today. Union organizers are desperate to rebrand themselves, lest they become as irrelevant in today’s world as the pay phone and the VCR.

Is social media the answer? Relying heavily on Facebook and Twitter, a new movement, known as “alt-labor,” has sprung up. Alt-labor, short for “alternative labor,” refers to a method of organizing workers without traditional tactics and sometimes without unions. For example, a traditional union seeks to unionize a specific workplace, negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, and even go on strike if negotiations fail. Alt-labor goes about it differently, aiming its campaigns at specific industries (including quick-service restaurants, retail, and car washes) or nationwide or regional employers (all Walmart stores). Rather than following National Labor Relations Board procedures to initiate a union election and gain union representation, alt-labor groups attempt to gain public sympathy through high-visibility actions. Remember the strikes at Walmart on Black Friday in 2012 and the “fast food strikes” that escalated over the past year from New York City to 58 cities nationwide?

But alt-labor’s mission is unclear. At times it seems poised to fill the unionizing void left by the near-extinction of unions and thus strives to boost union membership. At other times, it pushes for changes for all workers — regardless of industry — as when it lobbies for minimum wage increases or paid sick leave. This is a function unions championed in the 1930s, but seem less committed to in recent years

As alt-labor rewrites the handbook on unionizing, employers must learn to recognize and respond to unionizing’s new face and new tactics. Alt-labor groups are aggressive and often relentless. For example, a Subway employee in Seattle was allegedly fired after going on strike on August 29, 2013, when protests against quick-service restaurants were held in 58 cities nationwide. According to reports, the franchise owner explained the employee was fired for giving away a cookie, which was against company rules. The employee claims it was retaliation for leading his co-workers on strike. For more than a month after, alt-labor groups in Washington sustained a social media campaign to turn the public against the restaurant, picketed outside the restaurant, and encouraged sympathizers to post negative reviews on Yelp. Old-line unionizing tactics never reached such a broad audience so quickly, effectively, or cheaply.

Who’s Behind Alt-Labor?

Unlike traditional union organizing, alt-labor initiatives are seldom driven by a single group. Instead, alt-labor initiatives are the efforts of coalitions with members ranging from New York Communities for Change (formerly ACORN) to Occupy Wall Street. Often behind these leaders are traditional unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). All indications suggest all these groups share funding, ideas, and human resources. These groups have joined forces to create targeted campaigns such as Fast Food Forward, which demands unionization and $15 per hour for all quick-service restaurant employees, and OUR Walmart, which demands $13 per hour and the availability of a full-time position for any Walmart associate who wants one. The actual players behind the loud strikes and prolific social media campaigns are often unknown.

The uncertainty as to who is behind alt-labor is no accident. These non-union groups, often referred to as “worker centers,” offer many of the same services as unions, but without the accountability of unions. For example, unions must submit financial filings to the federal government each year and these documents are public records. Worker centers are not subject to the same regulations. Unions have fiduciary obligations to their members; worker centers do not.

Beyond a lack of accountability, the funding of worker centers is totally hidden. Many may think these “left wing fringe groups” are a passing fad with no backing. Nothing is further from the truth. Some of the biggest backers of worker centers are unions. Prominent union groups, including the AFL-CIO, acknowledge the existence of “partnerships” with worker centers. Unions realize they need support from as many social activist groups as possible. In fact, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, recognizing the declining influence of unions, recently called for partnerships with other organizations, such as the NAACP and the Sierra Club, to enable unions to wield more political power. Worker centers are likely to be a big source of support for unions in the coming years.

It is important for employers and employees to know who is driving these worker center unionizing campaigns. The smoke and mirrors of these unofficial coalitions can make it difficult to do so. While congressional efforts are underway to examine and clarify these issues, do not underestimate the power or backing worker centers can wield.

New World Of Unionizing

Alt-labor groups are decidedly 21st century in their approach. The union hall has gone virtual as these groups gain support via Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and text messaging campaigns. In order to respond to organizing campaigns in their infancy, employers must learn to recognize the early warning signs of virtual unionizing.

Many early warning signs of traditional unionizing continue to apply. Does it seem there are two employee camps in the workplace? Are there hushed conversations that stop when a manager walks by? Do you suddenly get more questions about benefits or requests for raises? Do employees suddenly seem to be experts on labor relations law? As before, if employers notice these warning signs, they should be prepared for the possibility that organizing efforts are underway.

But there are also new warning signs thanks to the 21st-century approach of alt-labor. Are employees or strangers posting messages on the company’s Facebook or Twitter profiles complaining about employee treatment? Is there a rise in negative feedback on review websites relevant to your industry (e.g. Yelp or Tripadvisor)? Are employees reaching for their phones more and more during work time or on breaks? Are employees taking pictures at work that somehow seem to become public? Are solicitors meeting with employees during breaks to discuss social welfare issues, such as subsidized housing or food stamps? These new warning signs may suggest alt-labor groups or even unions are attempting to unionize employees.

Maintaining Control

There is a lot employers can do to maintain control of the workplace. As is normally true, preventive strategies are easier and more cost-effective than reactive strategies. Since alt-labor often seeks to unionize industries with low union penetration rates and low wage and benefit rates, every employer should assess whether it is a likely target.

The best preventive strategy is for employers to maintain positive employee relations. Start by honestly assessing whether the total compensation package is competitive within your industry and geographic area. If the employer believes compensation is fair but employees do not, can communication address this? For example, if a company cut pay in order to avoid layoffs, employees may feel a lot better knowing this than if they received no explanation. Recognizing how changes impact employees and gaining employee input where appropriate can help avoid a unionizing campaign.

Programs that show respect for the employee, such as employee recognition programs and open door policies, can also ward off unionization efforts. Alt-labor groups also like to showcase employers that already provide the benefits they are demanding. For example, alt-labor groups loudly argue that if Costco can pay its employees an average of $17 per hour, so can Walmart and Sam’s Club. This is great public relations and employee relations if you are Costco and not so good if you are a competitor. Staying competitive minimizes this risk.

Employers must also be prepared to respond to unionizing activity. Do your managers know what to do if an organizer enters the building and demands to speak with employees? Have they been trained to know what your solicitation policy is and how to respond when an employee says she thinks a union might help? Employers often wait until a union is banging down the door to address these questions. This is often too late. A quick response can end a union drive. Unions assess their chances for victory right at the outset; if your company is ready to fight, a union might seek an easier target.

Finally, employers must be prepared for all their policies to be scrutinized. Are the company’s solicitation policies, social media policy and even dress code policy (yes, we said dress code) compliant with the most recent decisions from the National Labor Relations Board? Will the company be accused of “wage theft” and have all its pay policies come under the microscope? A unionizing campaign can trigger a domino effect creating numerous other problems for the employer. Once the spotlight shines on you, no one knows what will be scrutinized. This is where that proverbial ounce of prevention is worth the pound of cure.

As unions struggle to survive, alt-labor is changing the playing field in their favor. Employers must understand that unionizing efforts may look different from before, move dramatically quicker, and involve massive campaigns for public support. Understanding the implications of alt-labor and its ability to generate employee and public support through Internet campaigns is key to determining how to prepare for and respond to their efforts.•