The meaning of social justice unionism

May 18, 2015

What labor activists today call social justice unionism is a renewal of a long tradition of solidarity in the U.S. labor movement, writes New York City educator Megan Behrent.

UNIONS TODAY are in an existential struggle for survival, from the draconian anti-labor policies of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and the spread of right-to-work laws to half of all U.S. states, to the raiding of pension funds and the imposition of concessionary contracts in the era of austerity.

These are not just assaults on organized labor, but part of a broader attack on working class living standards. While some sectors of the economy have recovered the crisis hit its low point in 2008-09, much of that recovery has been on the backs of working people. Unemployment remains high--specifically in Black and Brown communities--while wages have remained low, unlike heath care payments, tuition rates, and local rents.

Meanwhile, unions are weaker than ever. Their strategies of backroom deals and political negotiations--the failed model of "business unionism," which still dominates the labor movement today--have left rank-and-file members demobilized and union leaders without much leverage.

Chicago teachers march with supporters during their strike to defend quality public schools
Chicago teachers march with supporters during their strike to defend quality public schools

Faced with this dire situation, many labor activists argue that unions need to adopt a new strategy of "social justice unionism"--an approach that begins with the premise that an attack on organizations of the working class requires a wider working class response.

From this standpoint, building a strong union movement requires broadening the fight beyond the specific demands of one union to class-wide or "social justice" demands-- which include traditional "bread and butter" issues, but are not limited to them.

"Given the horrific attacks on unions and teachers, business unionism is suicidal," argues education and labor theorist Lois Weiner in The Future of Our Schools. "Fighting for the social good," she goes on to write, "which is what a social movement union does, is actually the more practical option."

This tradition of unionism based on struggle, class solidarity and movements for social justice has a long and successful history in this country--from the IWW to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s.

In its latest incarnation, social justice unionism has attracted a generation of radicals from the global justice protests and Occupy Wall Street--as well as movements for environmental, educational and racial justice--who became political through different social movements and turned to unionism in search of a force with the power to win.


PUBLIC-SECTOR workers--particularly unionized public school teachers--are central to these struggles, both because they represent one of the last bastions of unionized workers and because their struggles for fair wages and working conditions are intimately bound up to the fight to defend public services and the living conditions of the working class as a whole. As a result, while this article will argue for the importance of social justice unionism generally, it will focus primarily on how it has emerged within teacher unions.

Social justice unionism is a necessity because the only way that teachers unions can survive and make real gains for teachers and students is by allying with the communities they serve.

Many contractual issues are, in fact, social justice issues because the conditions of teachers' workplaces impact the learning environment of students. At the same time, if teachers want parents and communities to fight for the contract that teachers deserve, they must broaden the scope of traditional trade unionism and be ready to stand with them on issues that most impact parents' and students' communities.

Bob Peterson was elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association following the 2011 Wisconsin labor uprising that battled heroically--but unsuccessfully--against the imposition of the draconian anti-public sector Act 10, which significantly eroded collective bargaining rights and requires annual recertification of unions by 51 percent of all eligible employees.

In a recent article in Rethinking Schools, Peterson argues that we need a revitalized movement based on social justice unionism--one that:

builds on the strengths of traditional "bread and butter" unionism. But it recognizes that our future depends on redefining unionism from a narrow trade union model, focused almost exclusively on protecting union members, to a broader vision that sees the future of unionized workers tied directly to the interests of the entire working class and the communities, particularly communities of color, in which we live and work.

This is a sea change for teacher unions (and other unions, too). But it's not an easy one to make. It requires confronting racist attitudes and past practices that have marginalized people of color both inside and outside unions. It also means overcoming old habits and stagnant organizational structures that weigh down efforts to expand internal democracy and member engagement.


WHILE PETERSON'S vision of social justice unionism might indeed be a sea change from the business unionism that has dominated for the past few decades, it has a long tradition in the U.S.--particularly in the history of teachers unions.

The early teachers union movement had strong links to the women's suffrage movement, simply because with a female-dominated workforce, there was no way to talk about teacher rights without talking about women's rights.

Tenure, for example, was understood by early teacher unionists to be a women's rights issue. Without tenure and unions, women were routinely fired for being married or becoming pregnant. Lest the unmarried and childless women think they might be spared, one could also get fired for wearing pants or being out too late in the evening.

(This was not just a 19th century occurrence. My grandmother, a home economics teacher in Texas, lost her job when she got married. This was not extraordinary, but routine.)

Furthermore, as early unionists argued, the pay inequity between men and women was immense. "In 1850, four-fifths of New York's 11,000 teachers were women," historian Dana Goldstein notes, "yet two-thirds of the state's $800,000 in teacher salaries was paid to men."

This discrepancy was the subject of one of Susan B. Anthony's first speeches--made at the 1853 annual meeting of the New York State Teachers' Association--after which she became a full-time activist for women's rights.

Likewise, Margaret Haley, an early teacher unionist in Chicago known as the "lady labor slugger," saw the fight for suffrage as crucial to the ability of female teachers to fight for their rights. Haley also provided one of the earliest and clearest articulations of social justice unionism, arguing for the importance of contractual provisions to protect both teachers and students rights.

In her book Blackboard Unions, Marjorie Murphy quotes Haley's argument that the freeing of the child or the student:

can only be secured by the freeing of the teacher...to the teacher it means freedom from care and worry for the material needs of the present and the future--in other words, adequate salary and old-age pensions, freedom to teach the child as an individual and not to deal with children en masse. In other words, fewer children for each teacher. Last but not least, the teacher must have recognition in the educational system as an educator. The tendency is to relegate her to the position of a factory hand, or a taker of orders from above.


HALEY'S WORDS continue to resonate today for a new generation of radical unionists--particularly in schools, hospitals and other public-sector workplaces where neoliberal restructuring has increasingly made it clear that attacks on working condition are attacks on the living conditions of the working class as whole.

This ultimately is the central argument of social justice unionism: To be successful, union struggles must move beyond the narrow constraints of individual workplaces to make links with social movements and fight for our interests as a class.

Social movement unionism," argues Weiner, "requires stretching the union's definition of 'what counts' for members...We shouldn't counterpose union work to other political activity. Instead, we need to find ways for members to bring their activism into the union, encouraging them to use the union as a vehicle for social justice work."

Weiner's point here is important in light of frequent debates about the relationship between school-based or workplace issues and "social justice" issues. In fact, the two are inextricably intertwined: to win changes at the school or shop level in the era of neoliberal austerity requires alliances and solidarity that extend beyond the individual school or workplace.

At the same time, we need to recognize the fact that, ultimately, the greatest power we have to win social justice is through our collective power as workers--in short, our ability to withhold our labor and shut down the system.

That is why Weiner also argues that "a social movement union not only endorses social justice outside of the school, it also exists as a social movement itself."

Weiner prefers the term "social movement unionism" because it emphasizes the fact that this type of unionism is not limited to social justice demands, but instead understands that internal union democracy--the organization of the union as a social movement--is likewise crucial.

Unions that advocate for social justice positions in the abstract while, in practice, suppressing dissent and adopting the organizing model of top-down service unionism are not the solution. Democracy is essential--not only because it is a principle to be defended, but also because without it, genuine rank-and-file movements are impossible.

A union that fails to foster genuine rank-and-file leadership on the shop floor will inevitably fail to mobilize the kind of rank-and-file militancy and organization that is crucial to winning demands and fighting for social justice.


SOCIALISTS WHO see the self-organized struggle of the working class as the only means by which genuine liberation and democracy can be achieved have often used the term "class struggle unionism" to highlight the means by which demands for social justice can be achieved. From this standpoint, no amount of lobbying, advertising or moralizing will ever achieve social justice--it is only through rank-and-file-led class struggle that such goals can be achieved.

Activists around the country have looked to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) for inspiration as the union that has come closest to this model of social justice unionism in recent history--despite many ongoing debates in the CTU.

At the time of the 2012 strike, there was a clear sense that the union was fighting for more than just legally negotiable contractual provisions, but instead, for the "schools Chicago's children deserve." At the height of the strike, when people had the greatest sense of their own power, they insisted on the need to fight not only for raises, but also for air conditioners and against what CTU President Karen Lewis called a system of "education apartheid."

The CTU leadership came from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which from its inception built alliances with parents and community leaders in the fight to stop school closings. Karen Lewis summarized the success of CORE in a Jacobin article:

Only one [caucus] talked about the need to include our natural allies in the struggle against educational apartheid and the takeover of Chicago's public schools by the city's ruling class; only one had been organizing alongside those allies for years; and only one had begun laying the groundwork for the strike that would come in September 2012.

That caucus was CORE.

This practice of social justice unionism was the reason why the 2012 CTU strike received such immense support among parents and other members of the community--particularly among African-Americans and Latinos.

The flip side of this lesson is the devastating impact of a failure to understand the necessity of taking up social justice issues and the struggle against racism, sexism and oppression.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the 1968 teachers strike in New York City, which saw the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) pitted against advocates of community control in the African American community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a debacle that led to a decades-long term rift between the UFT and the communities in which its members worked.


THE U.S. labor movement must take up the question of racism. It is no coincidence that the South, the region with the greatest legacy of our country's racist history, also has the lowest unionization rates.

This has been all the more important since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the resistance in Ferguson--and, more recently, Baltimore, which has posed new questions in the labor movement about the relationship between social justice issues and unionism.

Demanding justice for Mike Brown, for example, is also a class issue and a union issue. Mike Brown was a public high school graduate--from a school so underfunded that the entire graduating class had to share two graduation robes. His mother Lesley McSpadden is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

The fight against racism is not external to the trade union movement, but is very much at its center. When tragedy strikes one of us, it is felt by all of us," declared UFCW President Joe Hansen. "We stand in solidarity with our sister Lesley McSpadden and join her calls for a fair investigation and justice under the law." A revitalized labor movement should echo Hansen's words and push for them to be translated into action.

The same principles hold true in New York City: In the most segregated school system in the country, racism is a school-based issue. This was made all the more apparent when a small group of teachers wore NYPD T-shirts to show their solidarity with the police, rather than Eric Garner, after his murder at the hands of the NYPD.

While some teacher union members used the argument of "due process" for the police officer who killed Garner to justify their pro-NYPD stance, it's important to be clear that the only people who were denied due process were Eric Garner, a public school parent and an unarmed man, and his wife and children, all of them former and current public school students.

It is worth noting that of 179 fatalities involving the NYPD in 15 years, there have been only three indictments. To invoke due process or union solidarity with the police in this context is to leave the police to remain above the law--while inevitably alienating the Black and Brown communities our schools serve. It is to oppose the movement's slogan that "Black lives matter."

It's also worth noting that "union solidarity" rarely goes both ways when it comes to the NYPD. Indeed, in the event of a teachers' strike, it is the police who will be called in as strikebreakers to enforce the anti-labor Taylor laws that make it illegal for public-sector unions to strike in New York.

No matter what the individual political opinions of officers or their connections to members of other unions, as a force, the police serve the 1 Percent to maintain a system that is racist to the core and inherently at odds with the interest of the working class.


REAL LABOR solidarity means standing with working people--union and nonunion--who are fighting for social justice. Such solidarity is not simply a question of political calculation, but a recognition of our shared interest in opposing exploitation and oppression.

In this regard, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in Oakland led the way on May Day by shutting down the Port of Oakland in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

As educators in North Carolina's Organize 2020 explained in a statement endorsing #BlackLivesMatter:

We believe deeply that the lives of all people matter. As teachers, our lives are constructed around this fact. Shouting loudly that Black Lives Matter does not negate our commitment to ALL of our students. In fact, we believe that challenging all of our students and colleagues to recognize the innate value of Black lives will help them grow, and that the quality of life for all who live in our communities will improve when we value the lives of everyone. Since so many of our Black students struggle to trust that our society values them, we must go out of our way to affirm that their lives, specifically, matter...

Historically, when Black people have fought for a more democratic society, the lives of all people have improved. Each time a barrier to Black people's potential has been erected, our whole society has suffered. Organize 2020 stands with those who proclaim that Black Lives Matter, and we commit our work in the classroom and the community to making this slogan a reality.

Putting the fight for racial justice at the center of the fight for educational equity is particularly important when those who seek to destroy public education drape their attacks in the mantle of civil rights. To expose their hypocrisy, it is essential to take up issues of racial justice.

As Weiner writes:

[The] failure [of teachers unions] to see beyond "bread and butter"--in particular, their unwillingness to put race and racism on the table as legitimate concerns of parents and students--has made them vulnerable to neoliberalism's audacious and effective usurpation of the rhetoric of equal educational opportunity historically associated with progressive movements.


FOR ANYONE committed to the fight for public education or to reforming our unions so that they can be genuine defenders of workers' rights, the fight against racism and all forms of oppression is central. This is an essential principle of social-justice, social-movement and class-struggle unionism. It is at the heart of the old labor slogan that "An injury to one is an injury to all."

When the labor movement has been at its strongest, it has learned these lessons, showing in practice what genuine solidarity looks like: from the IWW textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that involved workers from 25 different nationalities, speaking 45 different languages, to the massive strikes of the 1930s that were able to organize so-called unskilled factory workers and win the support of the unemployed.

Most recently, it was evidenced in the CTU strike of 2012, which has led to a growing network of teacher unionists committed to social justice unionism as a means of reforming their own unions and fighting for educational equity.

If the labor movement hopes to emerge from its current death spiral, it must build on this history, learn its lessons and rebuild the kind of solidarity and alliances that are essential to its survival. Anything else is suicidal.

To achieve this aim, unions need to be rebuilt from the bottom up--or built anew--in every workplace, in every school, on every shop floor. But they must also reach beyond the confines of individual workplaces to unite with social movements in the fight for social justice for all working people. This struggle has never been more urgent.

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