EXCERPT FROM Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement: Taking the Big Steps to Social Movement Unionism
Written by Jonathan Rosenblum
In the last eighty years, the most prominent labor organizations in the United States can be described as either economic unions or political unions. Economic unions focus largely on improving the circumstances of their members within society’s
existing industrial relations and political structures. The unions that dominated the post–World War II formation of the AFL-CIO represent this type: “bread-and-butter” unions, they are keen to bargain good contracts for dues-paying members and endorse mainstream party politicians, focusing on their members’ immediate economic interests; society’s broader problems are of secondary, and perhaps only cursory, interest. Historically in the United States, most unions are economic. Some have a proud record of strikes and shop-floor power struggles against management. But most of them have been organized with the post–World War II culture of business unionism, in which members pay their dues and come to expect their grievances and bargaining to be handled by professional staff.
Political unions, in addition to bargaining for their dues payers, reach beyond workplaces to advocate in the political arena for the interests of society as a whole. Unions advocating for Obamacare and SEIU’s Fight for $15 campaign are two contemporary examples of political unions advocating for interests beyond those of their own members. Political unions may cultivate a muscular public profile and a social justice orientation, but like economic unions, they don’t challenge the existing economic or political order. They endorse mainstream political candidates and are leery of alternative or insurgent political parties. Their struggles focus within the confines of the existing political system. Some do a better job than others at engaging members in the broader political struggles, but most still practice the business unionism model of servicing their members, fostering the image of the union as an intermediary between workers and employers or workers and political leaders.
Both economic and political unions focus largely on economic redistribution. Neither contests the primacy of the profit system, preferring to manage—not challenge— the problems that capital imposes on workers and communities. So while political unions promote higher area minimum wages, big business races ahead with new forms of worker exploitation that escape the reach of the new wage laws and other legally prescribed job protections and benefits.
Indeed, by containing their arena of struggle within existing industrial relations laws and political structures, by steering clear of basic questions of power and the purpose of an economy, economic and political unions serve to reinforce the
social stability of the capitalist system. So as welcome as political unions are compared to their more narrowly focused economic union cousins, they fail to provide the direction and leadership to tackle power inequality.
We have to look beyond national borders to find any union formation of significant scale that approximates what is needed to rebuild worker power in US society today. In developing countries, workers have long been forced to struggle against the twin tyrannies of imposed neoliberalism and severe political repression. Particularly in the global south, workers recognized that workplace issues were intimately related to broader economic and political fights and struggles for basic human rights. Workplace-based organizations built broad alliances with like-minded community movements to take on the full range of injustice doled out by those in control. Black industrial and mining workers, under the banner of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), extended the concept of the workplace strike to society at large, helping to bring down apartheid. Filipino workers waged community-wide “strikes of the people” to protest everything from rising fuel prices to the Marcos dictatorship. Young Brazilian workers in emerging privatized industries have formed unions that blend workplace and community struggles seamlessly, elevating issues like the rights of sexual minorities and working-class cultural expression along with better wages and other working conditions.
What’s common to these union movements is an expansive definition of “the union,” a commitment to build broad alliances, and a readiness to challenge the assumptions of capitalism and advance an alternative vision of society. These
formations are commonly labeled social movement unions.
The Filipino Alliance of Progressive Labor describes a social movement union as one that “recognizes the broadness of workers’ interests and the diversity and complexity of work arrangements. As such, it is geared toward the struggle for workers’ rights in all aspects—economic, political and socio-cultural—and at all levels—local, national, global.” In short, the alliance concludes, “the strategic objective of social movement unionism is nothing less than social transformation.”
What would it take to create a powerful new labor movement in the United States that embraces the core elements of a social movement union? I believe there are three bedrock principles to guide justice activists: aim higher, reach wider, build deeper.
Aim higher: articulate a bolder vision of a just society that stands as a stark counterpoint to capitalism. This vision starts with a sharp critique of the capitalist system—not just what has happened to wealth distribution in this country, but identifying how the economic and political system has by design produced such immense inequality. The disruption in the US airline industry beginning in 1978 is but one example of how big business seized control over a sector of the economy and re-purposed it to meet the interests of private profit. The plummeting living standards that befell hundreds of thousands of other airline industry workers had nothing to do with individual moral failings, lack of training or education, worker overreach, or amorphous “market forces.” Rather, it was an intentional design by people in control of the levers of power. You could look at any number of other sectors of the economy and see identical developments.
Big business and finance have their clear vision of a future economy; workers must develop their own. The Occupy movement was on the right track in 2011, tapping widespread popular anger at Wall
Street to spark a national conversation about capitalism’s failure to meet the needs of the 99 percent. Occupy opened up an important space to imagine a new social order. But unions missed an opportunity by failing to build upon Occupy’s critique, instead diverting energy into pragmatic battles—like Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign— that raised the justice banner but steered clear of any serious discussion about what an economy built to fulfill human needs, not profit, might look like. Worthy as they were for engaging a new generation of activists, most of the leading post-Occupy struggles cut short a vital national discussion, one that urgently needs revival.
Beyond pointing out the failures of capitalism, a new labor movement must define a bold, unapologetic vision of society and economy, one that inspires millions of workers to engage and take action. In its own hyperlocal way Sea-Tac provided a stage for such a transformational conversation, raising basic questions about why good airport jobs had gone bad and how workers and the community needed to fight back. The hearty reception that greeted Kshama Sawant in SeaTac and then Seattle, replicated nationally in 2016 on a much grander scale by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, shows that working people engaged in struggle are eager to take up the idea of democratic socialism.
Yet another lesson of Sea-Tac is that this potent, sustained movement must rest on more than economic and political principles. A movement should draw upon the values that emanate from our deepest human emotions and desires for justice and community. The call for spiritual morality, whether advanced by organized religion or secular humanist yearnings, has played a decisive role in leading struggles throughout history. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and the abolitionist movement of a century earlier are but two examples of struggles that were propelled forward by powerful calls for spiritual morality. Today, the Moral Mondays movement, born in North Carolina and fusing direct action with a spiritually based call for justice, offers similar promise.
The vital role of a moral framework crystallized for me at the 2013 Alaska Airlines shareholders meeting. When the Reverend John Helmiere and his fellow clergy stood up to issue their prayer for worker justice, they were connecting material demands to spiritual values, deftly shifting the terrain from dollars and cents to values and justice. Convened for their annual showcase of economic success, the Alaska executives dared not challenge the clergy.
This foundation of spiritual morality is widely underappreciated or downplayed in most quarters of today’s union movement. Entire campaigns are conceived and launched with little consideration for the role of surrounding faith communities or how faith and moral perspectives can propel organizing. Spiritual leaders routinely are contacted by union organizers only when campaign leaders decide they need a respected community leader to validate the struggle, or when
the campaign is in dire crisis and needs a rescuer. Yet the moral call for a social order that places human needs above private profit, woven into the fabric of a campaign from the start, is vital to the movement’s future success.
Reach wider: redefine who constitutes “the labor movement” to include all workers. To realize the full collective power of workers, a new labor movement has to reject the historic definition of the movement as comprising only workers who are members of unions, and instead embrace the full spectrum of the working class and working-class-based organizations. My organizing colleague Abdinasir Mohamed noted that from the perspective of East Africans, defining the union solely as a workplace-based organization makes little sense because workers “belong to the community, they have places of worship, they have community centers, and there is no way we can separate the community from working people.
“If we selectively define who is in the labor movement, then we are cutting off people who are struggling with housing issues, people who are not working in the airport but maybe have their own small businesses in the community. Those people are also part of the labor movement, and we should not limit our fight,” he said.
Today, anti-foreclosure groups, tenant rights organizations, advocates for ending homelessness, worker centers, immigrant rights organizations, parents standing up for public education, groups fighting police brutality, civil rights groups, health-care advocacy organizations, faith institutions—all of these and more, along with workplace unions, are organized expressions of the interests and desires of working people. They are essential building blocks of a powerful labor movement. Unions need to embrace these groups not as allies to be invited in only after strategy has been set, but as unions in the community—part of the core of the labor movement.
This wide embrace is rarely practiced today. Leading union campaigns reflexively distinguish one part of the labor movement from the working class overall. Union organizers routinely ask allies to turn out to support workers in bargaining, on strike, or lobbying for legislation— but as supporters, not co-architects. This limits the creativity and power of the movement. As British academic Richard Hyman has noted, “The boundaries of union inclusion are also frontiers of exclusion. . . . In compartmentalising workers, unions traditionally have compartmentalised solidarity.”
Fault here lies with US unions’ establishment of artificial boundaries defining who was “inside” or “outside” of labor. In the aftermath of World War II, most unions funneled attention into the collective bargaining model of industrial relations, which advanced pay and rights for many but created a separation between dues-paying union members and the broader labor movement of all working people. Workers outside of any collective bargaining structure came to be called—and to call themselves—“nonunion,” and many saw their basic economic interests as distinct from dues-paying union members. Over time, this notion of differentness among workers has become embedded not just in the pro-corporate media but also in US working-class culture, weakening all workers—both “union” and “nonunion.” This cultural failure to unite along class interests created political openings for union-busters like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, but perhaps just as insidiously it’s spawned the sort of thinking that produces workers like SeaTac Tea Party members Vicki Lockwood and Kathleen Brave, solidly working-class members who come to believe that unions are narrow, self-interested groups.
Probably no one recognized this historic union weakness more acutely than the late Tyree Scott, a Seattle electrical workers union member and militant activist. An African American electrician trained in the marines, Scott had to muscle his way into the exclusionary building trades unions in the 1970s. Along with other black construction trades workers, he led fights to open up job opportunities to workers of color—shutting down job sites through direct action, often butting heads with union leaders in the process. Twenty years later he’d often raise the question Whose labor movement is it anyway? and would answer simply: It belongs to all of us. The problem, he maintained, was that “one sector of our movement has appropriated the voice of all of us.”
Building a broad labor movement will require a vastly different approach to alliance building. Plenty of union campaigns today engage what organizers label “coalitions.” But a coalition on paper is not necessarily a true working partnership, a relationship that incorporates the strategic ideas and talent of participants. Often unions invite faith groups and community allies to help out, but the scope of engagement is confined within the boundaries of the campaign’s existing goals and decision-making structure. The campaign welcomes a group that commits to turn out a certain number of people for a rally, a clergy member to stand before cameras at a press conference, or a community leader to deliver a predetermined message to elected officials. But the ally’s particular assets—moral authority in the community, language or cultural skills to reach out to a sector of the workforce, research savvy, or political connections—are employed strictly in a utilitarian manner. These are fundamentally transactional relationships, failing to tap the full potential of a true partnership.
Transformational relationships, on the other hand, embrace not just the ally’s talents but also create space for the ally to participate in the decision-making process and influence the campaign’s goals and culture. A true partnership recognizes that the most potent campaign is produced by sorting through the ideas of all participants and groups. Implicit in a true partnership relationship is that all parties— including the workplace union—need to be ready to embrace new perspectives and to change themselves.
This cultural makeover in alliance building is going to be enormously difficult. Today’s expectation among most union leaders, accepted by all too many community allies, is that the organization providing the most dollars and staff gets to call the shots. But community allies bring other assets, like relationships, credibility, or cultural competence, which can’t be measured monetarily but are just as vital.
This point came home to me early in the Sea-Tac campaign as we struggled to engage the East African community. Following the union stand to support the Muslim Hertz workers’ right to pray, what impressed Sheikh Abduqadir Jama—until then, a union skeptic—was that “you came down to us” and sought their expertise. He became a key community advocate for the campaign, opening up his mosque to union gatherings, encouraging Muslims to get involved, and advocating alongside workers and other clergy in a private meeting with Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden.
Likewise, in the run up to Alaska’s 2013 shareholders meeting, clergy, community activists, and workers designed the specific meeting interventions—the prayer, the chanting, skit, singing, and questions. The complicated hodgepodge of activities that unfolded turned out to be a beautiful synergy of moral framing and righteous indignation, far from what an individual campaign operative would have developed. Neither Sheikh Jama nor the community activists brought money or staff into the campaign. But their credibility and creativity added value beyond any traditional campaign measurement.
Build deeper: cultivate the ideas and leadership of workers. It’s not enough to have big ideas and a broad group
of stakeholders. A powerful new labor movement must embrace the principle and practice of authentic worker engagement and leadership. In US unions today, this is far too rare. Most union leaders and professional union organizers are trained to regard workers as people to be influenced, persuaded, moved into action—instruments to be activated for the benefit of a greater institutional goal that the workers themselves may have only vaguely bought into. Union staff are trained that it’s their responsibility to “move workers” and to “organize workers.” Most of what passes for worker involvement today just touches the surface of tapping true worker intelligence and leadership. Union democracy—not just voting rights but the genuine engagement of worker ideas—is given lip service.
This union staff perspective of worker-as-instrument has it exactly backward. The idea of a union is, at its essence, workers uniting to fight for the things they need. The union staff organizer’s job is to be the instrument of that group: to help cultivate worker aspirations, draw out their ideas, introduce skills, and bring forward the lessons of previous organizing struggles so that workers can learn from the past and embrace a coherent campaign plan. To be sure, a union staff organizer is responsible for bringing personal and institutional expertise to bear in a campaign, but these ideas must not smother worker innovation and creativity. The history of union organizing reminds us that workers will take extraordinary risks and endure tremendous sacrifice—as long as they have ownership over the campaign.
Community organizer Claudia Paras told me the biggest lesson she took from working on the Sea-Tac campaign was simply that “the solutions are found within those who are most experiencing the problems, if they’re given time and resources to work on them.”
In Sea-Tac we practiced this approach with the best of intentions. Sometimes we succeeded; often we fell short. The cabin cleaner Samatar Abdullahi persevered in late 2012 in conveying his conviction to me that the campaign needed to focus on forming unions at the airport. His intervention helped me and others gain clarity over a major strategic question in the campaign. That clarity proved pivotal: it kept the campaign focus on building worker power, even as we moved into the political arena with the $15/hour initiative. Similarly, Christian faith activists planned the tactics, prayers, and speeches for the 2012 International Human Rights Day march inside the airport, the one that moved wheelchair attendant Saba Belachew to recognize the power of the moral voice in the airport workers’ struggle. Yet at numerous other times, campaign exigencies led to inadequate worker consultation and input. The temptation to cut corners was always present, and the campaign often suffered when organizers— myself included—yielded to those impulses.
One challenge, especially for trained staff organizers, is in discerning worker wisdom. It usually doesn’t come in clearly labeled packages. Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers, noted that “we should not expect them to come and say, ‘Mr. Organizer, what we want is a program,’ and then draw a little picture for us and color it in with detail. They will not do that. We must pay very close attention to the people; because in their own action, in their very breath, they are telling us what they want all the time.”
A different way to think about worker engagement and leadership is to view union organizing through the lens of “accompaniment,” a term introduced half a century ago by liberation theology priests working with rural campesinos in Latin America. In carrying forth their ministry of “a preferential option for the poor,” they positioned themselves not as church authorities coming to aid the impoverished, but as equal partners with farmers in a struggle for social transformation. Liberation theology and its method of accompaniment spread through Latin America, sparking land reform movements, strikes, and even revolutions in Nicaragua, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and elsewhere. El Salvador’s archbishop Oscar Romero was an outspoken proponent of accompaniment before he was assassinated by that country’s military in 1980.
A few years ago labor activist Staughton Lynd wrote that the US labor movement could benefit greatly by applying the concept to unions. The union organizer brings technical, legal, and campaign knowledge, but the worker’s life experiences are equally valuable. Both bring essential ingredients to the organizing enterprise. With accompaniment, Lynd noted, “no longer do we have one kind of person helping a person of another kind. Instead we have two persons exploring the way forward.”
I won’t, of course, romanticize accompaniment. Workers can come up with foolish ideas as easily as union leaders and staff organizers can. But in Sea-Tac, as in other union campaigns, I also saw how authentic engagement with workers and community allies—as co-creators, not simply as people to be mobilized—stimulated creativity and opened up windows to greater possibilities. The other staff organizers and I had extensive experience to contribute to the Sea-Tac strategy. But so did the airport workers: many had advanced educations, had escaped wars, been homeless, gone hungry, and learned to deal with oppressive bosses and horrible working conditions. They had known economic privation beyond what most union leaders could imagine. Those experiences taught them unity, courage, creativity, and adaptability—all valuable tools to inform the organizing campaign.
What would it take to develop accompaniment in union organizing? The challenge is largely battling the prejudices in our own minds and organizational cultures: staff organizers often have low expectations of workers, and many workers hold back because they don’t believe their experiences are revealing or their ideas are valuable simply because that’s what they’ve been taught throughout life. Charles Payne, writing about civil rights movement organizers Ella Baker and Septima Clark, practitioners of accompaniment, noted that their understated legacy was “a faith that ordinary people who learn to believe in themselves are capable of extraordinary acts, or better, of acts that seem extraordinary to us precisely because we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people.”9
Viewed in that light, the success of union leaders and staff organizers depends less on their loquaciousness and technical skill and more on their ability to get people to believe in themselves and each other. This requires a basic respect for workers. That’s an innate quality, not something you can train union leaders or organizers to do. Nor can you overestimate its value. Respect bridges cultural, language, and other chasms. It represents the germinating seed of a powerful new movement, one that unleashes the full creativity and collective organizing potential of workers.
Excerpted from Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press and available from Beacon Press at www.beacon.org
Jonathan Rosenblum has been a labor organizer for more than 30 years working with local unions in New Orleans and New England and then with SEIU until landing in Seattle where he directed Jobs with Justice and more recently was the Sea-Tac Airport campaign director.
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