A ‘New’ Social Movement: US Labor and the Trends of Social Movement Unionism

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  • A New Social Movement: US Labor and the Trends ofSocial Movement Unionism

    Jane Schuchert Walsh*Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh


    Social movement unionism (SMU) is frequently understood as the antithesis to business union-ism. While business unionism, often characterized as bureaucratic and hierarchical, dominatedmost of the second half of the 20th century, SMU showed resurgence in the 1990s. Somescholars argue that SMU should reach beyond the workplace and incorporate the community.Others seem to be proposing a strategy and understand SMU as tactically innovative and mobiliz-ing in alliance with traditional social movements, such as the womens, environmental, or immi-grant rights movement. Some offer propositions about the social processes of a labor union andthat SMU must be internally democratic. Finally, some advocate an internationalist componentsuch as a link to global-justice campaigns. In this article, I propose that SMU consists of an arrayof trends and is inclusive of these varied descriptions, strategies or processes. These trends include(1) rank-and-file mobilization, (2) leadership, (3) community-based organizing, (4) worker centers,(5) corporate campaigns, and (6) transnational components. I draw on social movement and laborliteratures to seek a broader understanding of this labor organizing form.

    The labor movement has received considerable attention as scholars have sought to ana-lyze reasons for its post-World War II decline, recommend prescriptions for its revitaliza-tion and investigate its current trends (Nissen 2003). While movement tendenciesappeared in pockets of US labor organizing over the past century, especially during thelate 1800s and the 1930s, labors business union model dominated the 19501990s. Gen-erally speaking, business unions have been characterized as formal, hierarchical, limited,undemocratic, reactive, and conventional (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Voss and Sherman2000). Additionally, the fading of labors social movement characteristics alongside therise of the Civil Rights Movement and new social movements (NSMs), which haveorganized around collective needs and group identities (Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris1992, 509), may have lent to the development of a dismissive attitude by social move-ment scholars toward old social movements rooted in class and materialist struggles(Calhoun 1993; Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992). The increase in number and atten-tion to NSMs should not lead to scholarly unconcern for labor activism, as Calhoun(1993, 418) cautions, especially when union members are concerned about racial, ethnicand gender forms of oppression as well as class oppression (Robinson 2000, 122). Inwhat follows, I provide an overview of labors most recent movement trends, but firstbegin with a brief historical synopsis of US labor.

    Despite its 19th century roots, it has been argued that the contemporary labor move-ment originated in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of industrial workers joinedunions (Goldfield 1989; Voss and Sherman 2000, 310). In the early 1930s, the Congressof Industrial Organizations (CIO) emerged as a powerful movement of industrialunionism that remade the American labor movement (Fantasia and Voss 2004, 41).

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  • The ideology of the CIO, more or less to the left of the American Federation of Labor(AFL), favored the organization of non-skilled factory workers, as opposed to the skilledAFL craft workers, and strongly supported the development of a national welfare stateduring the New Deal era (Cornfield 1991, 31). In 1935, Congress passed the NationalLabor Relations Act (NLRA), which the Supreme Court upheld in 1937. The NLRAgave union recognition and collective bargaining rights to any workers who could gainmajority workforce support (Turner and Hurd 2001, 13). Not only did it defend theworkers right to organize, but it also prohibited unfair labor practices by employers(Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992, 498) and gave workers a voice both in the work-place as well as in the political arena (Compa 2001; Freeman and Medoff 1984).

    Labors social movement characteristics during the 1930s lost their edge in the 1950s astactics were modified and goals were reduced. The Cold War set in and unions purgedthemselves of leftist influence (Nissen 2003). Although the CIO stood left of center untilpost-World War II, it began to drift to the political right. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947,which coincided with the onset of the Cold War and weakened unions, not only putthe brakes on new organizing and growth, [but] also channeled labor protests in a lessradical, more economistic direction (Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992, 500). Taft-Hartley: (1) made union certification less flexible, (2) outlawed closed shop hiring, (3)permitted states to pass further labor restrictions, (4) outlawed sympathy strikes and sec-ondary boycotts, (5) gave strike breakers a right to vote, and (6) made members sign ananti-communist loyalty oath (Fantasia and Voss 2004). Labors influence becameconfined to collective bargaining and shopfloor enforcement (Turner and Hurd 2001,134). In response to this political threat, the AFL and CIO joined forces and merged toform the AFLCIO in 1955 (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Goldstone and Tilly 2001).

    The literature discusses both external and internal reasons for union density declineduring the post-World War II era. Besides Taft-Hartley, other external explanationsinclude but are not limited to: (1) a relocation of capital into geographical areas that werenot union friendly, (2) an increase in employer resistance to unions, (3) a shift from agoods-producing industrial economy to a service-producing post-industrial economy, (4)subcontracting, and (5) neoliberalism (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998; Clawson 2003; Corn-field 1991; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Moody 1997; Turner 2007; Voss and Sherman 2000).Key internal reasons, which often were responses to the abovementioned external expla-nations, include: (1) union decentralization and bureaucratization, (2) the separation ofunion leadership from the rank-and-file, (3) worker dissatisfaction with union grievancesystems, (4) a focus on the declining industrial (as opposed to the rising service) sector,and (5) an isolation from NSMs (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998; Burawoy 1979; Clawson2003; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Fletcher and Hurd 1998; Lichtenstein 2002; Milkman1997; Turner 2007). Regardless of why labor mobilization declined in the second half ofthe 20th century (the scholarly literature has no consensus), the business union modelappeared to dominate this period (Clawson 2003; Nissen 2003; Sullivan 2009; Turnerand Hurd 2001). Consequently, collective bargaining resulted in contract concessions,union leaders came to resemble business agents and by 1990, win rates continued tohover below 50 percent (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998, 2; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Slaugh-ter 1983; Voss and Sherman 2000; Zieger 1987).

    Despite these internal and external struggles, the 1990s witnessed the growth andexpansion of important strategic innovations in the US labor movement (Clawson 2003;Turner and Hurd 2001, 10). Recognizing that a less hostile climate was not on the hori-zon, some labor activists began to incorporate issues other than labor and expanded toinclude people of color, women and immigrants in the craft and industrial sectors as well

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  • as the service sector, high- and low-skilled, private and public (Bronfenbrenner et al.1998; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Johnston 2001; Levi 2003, 45; Turner 2007). Unions inurban areas experienced growth and success as coalition formation fostered solidarityamong workers and the development of new allies (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Turner2007). In addition, the AFLCIOs 1995 New Voices leadership slate (Sweeney,Trumka and Chavez-Thompson) encouraged these innovative approaches (Clawson2003, 28). Labor and social movement scholars refer to this fresh and creative labor orga-nizing approach as social movement unionism (SMU).

    Waterman (1988) uses the concept of SMU in order to analyze labor movementsworking toward human rights, democracy and social justice (Scipes 1992). A particularform of labor organizing that differs from the more traditional collective bargainingstrategies (Almeida 2008, 166), SMU has become increasingly popular thus invitingsocial movement scholars to notice labor. As Isaac and Christiansen (2002) note, socialmovement scholars can benefit from paying attention to labor movement reemergence inthe same way Taylor (1989) identifies abeyance structures between surges of activism.

    There are many ways to comprehend SMU (Voss and Sherman 2000) such as adescription of some state of affairs, a strategy, a proposition about social processes or anemphasis on the transnational. Generally speaking, SMU is a type of unionism based onmember involvement and activism (Turner and Hurd 2001, 11). Some labor theoristsoffer an SMU description that could be measured empirically such as Moody (1997),Clawson (2003) and Fantasia and Voss (2004) who argue that SMU should reach beyondthe workplace and incorporate the community. Others seem to be proposing a strategyand understand SMU as tactically innovative and mobilizing in alliance with traditionalsocial movements, such as the womens or environmental movement, or recent move-ments, such as the gay or immigrant rights movement (Clawson 2003; Nissen 2003;Turner and Hurd 2001). Others still are offering some propositions about the social pro-cesses of a labor union, such as Moody (1997) and Nissen (2003), who contend thatSMU must be internally democratic. Finally, some advocate an internationalist compo-nent to SMU, such as a link to global-justice campaigns and the global political economy(Evans 2005; Levi 2003; Moody 1997).

    I propose that SMU consists of an array of trends that is inclusive of these varieddescriptions, strategies or processes. While the variation I examine is neither exhaustivenor does it encompass the breadth of the labor movement, I argue that current labortrends should be considered to understand SMU. These include (1) rank-and-file mobili-zation, (2) leadership, (3) community-based organizing, (4) worker centers, (5) corporatecampaigns, and (6) transnational components of SMU. Drawing upon social movementand labor literature, I provide an overview of SMU and at points, an assessment of theeffectiveness of this organizing approach in order to contribute to its broader understand-ing.

    Rank and file mobilization

    In addition to employer assault and labors isolation from other social movements, someconsider a decline in rank-and-file involvement to be a reason for labors decline (Claw-son 2003; Nissen 2003). Limited rank-and-file participation in union decisions inhibitsspontaneous actions and direct action, thereby perpetuating a hierarchical, business unionmodel (Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992; Levi 2003; Piven and Cloward 1979). Recentchanges within unions illustrate a move toward democratization, decentralization andincreased inter-union cooperation (Levi 2003, 46). New labor strategies such as these

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  • can be linked directly or indirectly, to a new emphasis on rank-and-file participation ormobilization, the essence of social movement unionism (Turner and Hurd 2001, 10).

    Moody (1997) notes that positive change comes almost always from some layerbeneath top union leadership (15). Face-to-face organizing by rank-and-file activists canprovide an opportunity to confront workers servicing expectations and deal with work-ers ingrained fear about organized labor (Lopez 2004, 132), giving workers a voice inthe union they desire. Yet, Clawson (2003) contends that in a union buildingapproach, tactics should aim

    to empower workers, to teach them and to assist them in building the kind of union theythemselves want, giving them the confidence, the solidarity, and the tools needed to stand upfor what they believe in and win it. (10)

    Fiorito et al. (1995) found that union decentralization contributes to organizing effective-ness in that workers do for themselves (631) as opposed to looking to the centralizedunion for member services.

    Bronfenbrenner and Juravich (1998) find that despite employer assaults, there wasincreased probability of union election wins for each intensive rank-and-file tactic used.These findings were based on a single rank-and-file intensive union tactic variable thatcontrolled for election environment, employer characteristics, tactics and demographics.Their union tactics variable includes (1) a representative rank-and-file committee, (2)house calls to union members, (3) group meetings during the campaign, (4) rank-and-filevolunteers from other organized units, (5) solidarity days, rallies and actions, (6) mediacampaigns, (7) community-labor coalitions, and (8) one-on-one contract surveys. Theyemphasize that individual tactics are insufficient and for unions to win, a comprehensivestrategy must be implemented.

    Milkman and Wong (2001) studied four campaigns of immigrant workers in SouthernCalifornia divided into leadership-initiated and bottom-up initiated campaigns. Leadershipinitiated campaigns included Los Angeles office janitors in the Justice for Janitors cam-paign (J for J), and Guess, Inc. garment workers. In contrast, drywall hangers in Califor-nias residential construction industry and truckers servicing Los Angeles-Long Beach portwere bottom-up initiated campaigns. In each category, one campaign was successful (J forJ and drywall hangers) while the other was not (garment workers and port truckers).Milkman and Wong concluded that as top-down or bottom-up campaign does not mat-ter but that success seems to depend upon effectively combining the two approachesinto a comprehensive strategy (103) including resources commitments, expertise andmobilization from both leadership and rank-and-file.

    On the contrary, Voss and Sherman (2000) find a combination of (1) political crisis, (2)the presence of activist leadership with outside organizing experience, and (3) an influencein favor of change led by the international union can explain a unions local revitalization.They insinuate that the key to increased organizing activity and tactical innovation ispressure from above (typically from the national union) rather than from an upsurge frombelow (Clawson 2003, 129). Similarly, Harrison (2005) argues that for a union such asthe United Steelworkers of America, revitalization must come from centralizing organiza-tional power and forcing change at the local level via a top-down approach.

    Although scholars disagree about the role the rank-and-file play and how muchagency it posse...


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