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Green Shoots At The Grassroots

How can unions regain strength in a political and economic environment that has been hostile for decades? What can unions accomplish for working people in the dismal current economy?

These are tough questions that unionists grapple with every day – not just on Labor Day – and there’s probably no simple answer. One line of thinking is the coalition-oriented view that unions must embrace a "social movement" approach, and connect with other progressive groups that focus on "social identity, the environment, and globalization" (see here). Indeed, according to a recent article in The Nation, unions and environmentalists in New England are doing just that, and enjoying some success. Groups whose primary focus is teaching people how to save energy have joined with unions and community groups in coalitions that seek both to promote environmental stewardship and to create "high road" green jobs. According to activists, these will be good union jobs in sustainable, green industries. By recognizing shared interests and overlapping constituencies, they maintain, traditional tensions between unions and environmental groups have been overcome to the benefit of both.

This social movement model is founded on three essentials: "deep coalitions, policy research, and political action." It’s an approach in which the article’s author, Amy Dean, has a wealth of experience, and which she describes in a book she recently co-authored. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute provided some support to Ms. Dean for the writing of this book.)

So does social movement unionism really blaze a grassroots trail to a union renaissance? That’s impossible to say with any certainty, but I have a few related points.

Social movements depend on grassroots passion on behalf of the cause. Movement membership ebbs and flows with the profile of the cause and the energy of the activists. And social movement unionism takes a "mobilizing and campaigning" approach that regularly encompasses the broader issues of social injustice. Of course, unions always have been at the heart of coalitions fighting for social justice – the civil rights movement is but one important example.

I would argue, however, that union strength – the source of the power and clout to fight for broader social causes -- flows from the unexciting, everyday business of representing union members at the workplace and elsewhere. This is not just in regard to wages and benefits, but attention to professional and technical training and craft skills, which often make unions an unmatched source of occupational expertise. Unions’ organizational heft is sustained by steady mass membership, regular dues, and long-term collective bargaining relationships with employers.

Unions also represent working families who, as a practical matter, cannot lead lives of full-time movement activism. And often, union leaders and members are wary of activists who are promoting (often worthy) causes, because a union’s primary focus is and must be the well-being of its members. That’s where most of the organization’s limited resources must go – back to the members who gave them the resources to do the work they were given for. This is not as selfish as it may seem. Studies consistently show that a strong union presence in a community does "lift all boats" (see here).

And finally, unions are democratic, representative organizations, with elected officers who are accountable to the members who pay their salaries. In addition, insofar as social issues affect the lives of union members, their representative organizations will engage on their behalf. Labor always is at the center of coalitions leading the fight to protect social security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health care issues, which help every working person in the U.S.

The social movement model, as I understand it at least, is quite different. Financial support for operations and campaigns flows from a variety of sources. Funding-raising is a constant concern. This may create issues of focus, accountability and sustainability. Members and contributors often are not expected to have a voice in an organization’s operational decisions. It is enough that the cause is the right one.

This is not to question at all the very positive role that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play in civil society; but democratic mass membership organizations and social movements are just vastly different creatures. Unions, as democratic institutions focused on the everyday aspirations of their members and other working people, embody both pragmatism and vision in a way that is not replicated by any other organization that I can think of.

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