Social movement unionism is coming alive


It wasn't long ago that a criticism directed at trade unions was they were only in it to service their members on a limited number of issues in exchange for dues. The fight of workers for a better workplace was not linked to organizing those workers to fight for a better world for all.

The argument had some merit, but the happenings in Wisconsin over the past two months blew all of that criticism - and that thinking - to shreds. Construction workers joined with teachers. Government workers joined with students. All joined with the people of faith, environmentalists, LGBT activists, peace activists and more to form a diverse coalition that declared, "We are Wisconsin." And the "we" were demanding a state that represented all, not the wealthy few at the top or those fortunate enough to be members of a union.

This emphasis on fighting for all and fighting on a range of issues affecting all working people, including racism and all forms of discrimination, the environment, peace, education and other matters, is called "social movement unionism."

That vision came from the Communists, socialists and other activists who built the U.S. labor movement. Somewhere along the line that outlook was lost.

At the bargaining convention of the United Auto Workers last week, the union's president, Bob King, noted that in the 1930s, '40s and '50s people thought the "UAW cared about and fought for everybody."

He continued, "The struggles in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan and throughout the country give us the opportunity to show we're not just fighting for ourselves, we're fighting for every worker in America."

Fighting for every worker has never been so important because globalization changed the rules of the game on how organizing is done. With the same companies producing the same goods throughout the globe, workers no longer can fight battles on their own. King says the pensions, wages and benefits his members deserve are going to continue to erode unless the power of the American labor movement is rebuilt and global solidarity becomes the norm.

While social movement unionism is reappearing in the UAW, problems and challenges remain. For example, the union has negotiated contracts with two-tier wages that pay different rates to workers doing the same job.

But solving these problems requires leveling the now very unequal playing field between unions and companies by building a broad social justice movement, unionizing non-union plants and building worldwide labor solidarity.

The success of social movement unionism begins with power built from and resting with the membership. That is exactly what we are seeing in Wisconsin and elsewhere, with union membership and leadership not only building a revitalized labor movement, but joining with others to build a new nation.

That point was driven home by actor and activist Danny Glover at last week's UAW convention. He told delegates, "The economic paradigm has failed us. We need a new vision of humanity. Whatever we call it, it is being built by workers in Wisconsin and Indiana."

When Glover finished, delegates rose to their feet in loud applause. They were ready to build a new social movement.

Photo: Jobs, justice, peace - Aug. 28, 2010: UAW members march in downtown Detroit. International Union, UAW via Facebook 


Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • Don't you understand that it's high time to receive the <a href="">loan</a>, which will help you.

    Posted by JoynerShari30, 12/30/2011 6:20am (4 years ago)

  • Great article John. Bob King has always been on the right track. Too bad it took so long for him to be in this position to be be able to express these views. But, the times they are a changing and Madison, Indiana and the fight back developing all over the country have called for a new attitude from organized labor and they are responding. We can only expect that fight back attitude will grow.

    Posted by Armando Ramirez, 04/01/2011 6:04pm (5 years ago)

  • Great article! Wonderful news!

    Just on the history point, it wasn't "somewhere along the line" that the UAW and the labor movement lost its way. It was in 1947 after Taft-Hartley was passed and the most opportunist labor leaders began expelling and raiding the more progressive unions. American union leaders like Walter Reuther enthusiastically took advantage of the Cold War witchhunt to aggrandize themselves at the expense of America's working people. It was late 1970s when class consciousness began to reassert itself in the American union movement, and we still have a ways to go.
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 04/01/2011 5:26pm (5 years ago)

  • UAW-united American workers
    International solidarity

    Posted by EVD, 03/31/2011 7:15pm (5 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments