Building Social Movement Unionism

With about 850 people in attendance, this year's Jobs with Justice conference in Cleveland September 6-9 was the biggest and the best yet. For many participants, this was their first time attending a national Jobs with Justice event. Almost everyone seemed to share a sense of excitement that such a diverse and enthusiastic crowd could be brought together in the fight for social justice.

At the same time, JwJ's shortcomings, in particular its relative lack of rank and file union participants, were also evident.

Jobs with Justice was founded in 1987, in an effort to bring together trade unionists and their allies in a national campaign for workers rights. This seemed the natural terrain of the official labor movement, but most U.S. unions had not promoted large-scale social movement unionism for many decades.

According to founding members Steve Early and Larry Cohen of CWA, a number of top officers and staff from a dozen or so unions joined forces with national church organizations, Citizen Action, and the United States Students Association to fill the void left by the AFL-CIO and labor councils in the fight against union-busting and plant closings.

The organization has grown steadily over the years, despite the view of some that it could be dismantled after the "New Voices" slate was elected to the AFL-CIO leadership in 1995. Today, there are 47 Jobs with Justice coalitions in place across the country.

STRENGTHS ON DISPLAY

This year's annual conference highlighted the strengths of the organization. Jobs with Justice, not tied down to the bureaucratic structures of the formal labor movement, has a sense of momentum not felt in many other places. Able to make decisions quickly, the organization has responded to the opportunities for organizing posed by the anti-corporate globalization movement.

JwJ chapters in Boston and Portland, Oregon, for example, have been in the forefront of organizing unionists and community activists for demonstrations, teach-ins, and conferences around globalization.

JwJ's internationalism was evident at the conference. Main plenaries focused on struggles in Brazil and South Africa, the repression of labor organizations in Haiti, and the recent successes of workers at the Kuk Dong factory in Mexico. Workers drew the connection between their own fights and the effects of global capitalism.

Information about these international struggles is vital, but news updates from workers around the globe can leave a U.S. worker wondering how she could support a fight halfway across the world. A video presentation made by a Kentucky Jobs with Justice group demonstrated one strategy for building bridges between workers.

When a plant was closed in Kentucky and moved to the maquiladora zone in Mexico, the Kentucky workers' first reaction was to blame the Mexican workers for "stealing our jobs." But the Kentucky JwJ set up a Kentucky-Sonora Worker Exchange and took a number of U.S. workers down to the new plant to see how the workers lived. And, according to the video, seeing the conditions of the Mexican workers living in poverty changed their minds about who was the culprit.

Workers saw that the company would likely move again to wherever it could find cheaper labor, and that the only solution was for workers to build a common struggle.

JwJ's other main strength, evident in Cleveland, is its ability to draw in a diverse group of supporters. Participants showed a range of ages, races, cities of origin, and areas of activism.

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On the other hand, a weakness is the lack of strong formal support from the labor movement. Other than CWA, no national union contributes significant resources, and none channels large numbers of rank and file members to JwJ activism. This means that the bulk of conference attendees are active supporters of labor struggles, not the workers directly involved in those struggles themselves.

SOME CONTROVERSIES AVOIDED

In order to maintain the cohesiveness of such an eclectic group, workshops are sometimes pitched at the "least common denominator." Controversial issues that could divide the group, such as internal union politics, union democracy, or electoral politics-Nader vs. Gore, for example-are left aside. Of course, with such a wide range of experiences brought to the JwJ table, the common vocabulary for addressing controversial internal union issues may not yet be available to many participants.

Thus in this realm, all unions are equal-whether they share the perspective that unions should fight for social justice, or not. Beneficial for holding a new and sometimes fragile coalition together, this approach can often leave out debates necessary for building a political movement.

Yet JwJ has not shied away from other issues controversial to the labor movement. At the conference, the need for a radical alternative to the current economic system and the need to build international labor solidarity were presented as a given.

Jobs with Justice continues to push the envelope of the labor movement by bringing young radical activists in contact with mainstream unions, by promoting a natural fit between religious organizations and the labor movement, and by bringing much-needed attention to the plight of non-organized workers, as with its campaign to win better conditions for day laborers in Chicago.

Two actions during the four-day conference--one at a shopping mall as part of UNITE's Global Justice for Garment Workers campaign and another at Case Western Reserve University in support of cafeteria workers organizing through HERE--both demonstrated the way that Jobs with Justice emphasizes the creative protest strategies of young organizers. A pre-conference meeting was organized by Art & Revolution, a network that trains activists to make art for direct action and popular education. There participants created massive puppets and props that were used during the university protest.

SUPPORTERS FOR WORKERS

The attendance at the conference is perhaps a reflection of the reality of the labor movement today. Many young people who come to JwJ through groups like United Students Against Sweatshops are enthusiastic about getting involved in the labor movement. But it's not easy to get a union job these days, and it's not easy to organize your own workplace.

Other labor supporters-clergy members, community activists, academics-themselves aren't usually unionized. JwJ offers the perfect opportunity for people like this to join the labor movement even if they might not be a trade unionist.

This is a strength and weakness both of JwJ and of the labor movement itself: many allies, few active rank and file unionists. Having allies to lead labor struggles can take away some of workers' fears of retaliation, but unions are at their best when workers self-organize and are at the front of the fight.

Strong local coalitions can be built using the Jobs with Justice model, and concrete and impressive wins have been achieved. But the ability to take and use power in a workplace is an experience that non-unionized Jobs with Justice activists will go through only vicariously. Therefore, the labor movement promise of democratically accessible power might become more attractive to community activists--and who knows, maybe more union organizing will result from that cross-pollination.

Ultimately, beyond the solidarity and support for labor, the Jobs with Justice model offers labor the opportunity for higher visibility and more opportunities to organize in local areas. It also offers a way to bridge the two cultures of "activist-academic-youth" and labor, and has set about re-educating a generation of activists who have not learned about the labor movement any other way. But all of these benefits will only be fully realized if union members themselves are won to JwJ's social movement unionism.


Stephanie Luce is a JwJ member in Western Massachusetts and teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Labor Center. Sonya Huber is a JwJ Organizing Committee member in Columbus, Ohio.