Fusing our power

IssueMay 2007
Feature by Dan Clawson

Unions and social movements have much to learn from each other. If we can combine the best of both, we can transform the world.

Unions and movements differ in recruitment, funding, means used to mobilise, and ways of achieving their goals. Most social movements, the peace movement included, recruit people based on their agreement with the movement's goals. If a social movement can get one percent of the population to turn out to a demonstration -- half a million people in Britain, three million in the US -- that is a spectacular victory.
In practice, therefore, movements tend to recruit people who already share the movement's goals. Often these are people who are like us in many other social and cultural ways, from the coffees they drink to the music they listen to. [See Chris Crass's article on p4.]

The new movements

Many of these social movements have few viable chapters where people meet face-to-face, and instead rely on a young, underpaid, highly effective and deeply committed staff, who may spend a significant part of their time trying to raise financial support, which often comes primarily from a relative handful of wealthy donors.
Most of the participants are involved as an act of conscience, not primarily because the issue has direct and immediate material consequences for their daily lives, and often are mobilized through emails.
Demonstrations are mostly symbolic: their aim is to draw media attention and change public attitudes rather than to shut something down.

Uniting the divided

Traditional labour unions are very different. They enroll all or nearly all of the workers in a given workplace, people who often are sharply divided in religion, culture, and views on a wide range of issues.
These members, however, share common material conditions, and meet each other face-to-face every day. Tens of thousands of local chapters each have elected officers and regular meetings. The organisation is financially self-sustaining, with all members paying substantial dues, and all members in a given category paying the same dues; no wealthy donor or outside foundation contributes.
In order for a traditional strike to succeed it must achieve the support of something close to 90 percent of the membership.

The new unions

In the last dozen years in the United States, unions have changed to become more like social movements, and to be more open to forming alliances with other movements, very much including the anti-Iraq war movement.
Many of the staff in US unions are now people who come out of other social movements, emphasise social movement approaches, and may have more in common with the staff of other social movements than they do with the workers in the union.

The way forward

As an example of the innovative approaches possible, consider the Stamford (Connecticut) Organizing Project, a multi-union coalition of low-wage service workers, almost entirely people of colour, mostly women.
The coalition began by talking to all the union members, asking what issues concerned members most, and finding out what organisations they belonged to. Person after person reported their key problem was the cost of housing.
Most of Stamford is highly affluent, with average incomes over $100,000 a year, so rental costs were high. To afford a private sector two-bedroom apartment a worker needed a wage of more than $21 an hour, far beyond the reach of janitors, nursing assistants, and childcare workers.
To make matters worse, the city was systematically shutting down public housing, and turning it into privatised “middle-income” housing -- for people with incomes of up to $70,000 a year. The city was, of course, targeting the most desirable public housing in the best locations.

Central to our lives

The union coalition decided that even though this was not a workplace issue, it was central to members' lives. The union used its effective face-to-face organising techniques, with union organisers going door-to-door in the threatened public housing area, followed by a mass public meeting.
When the city housing authority held what was supposed to be a quiet and routine nearly-invisible meeting, more than 200 residents came, offered their own alternative plan, and refused to cooperate with the housing authority's plea to “please work with us inside the system”.
Through a set of marches, meeting takeovers, and disruptive actions, public housing residents were able to prevent the privatising of the complex, and to win an ordinance requiring that new public housing be put up on a one-for-one basis for any housing closed down.

Union as community

In some sense the union became a community movement -- but the residents of public housing were also working in exactly the kinds of jobs the union was trying to organise. The union coalition's reputation as fighting for working people, and people of colour, made it much easier to organise additional workers.
That's a model of the way unions can take up other issues, and join with other movements, to strengthen both labour and the movements. For example, public sector unions could join the peace movement in pointing to the costs of war, and the ways peace could make possible improvements in public services.
Although labour has learned from social movements -- improving its public relations, symbolic presentation, and use of electronic communications -- too often it has lost what should be its greatest strength, and the lesson it could offer the peace movement: the willingness and ability to have a material impact on those with power.
US public sentiment strongly backs both labour and peace. In the United States today, only 16 million people actually are members of unions, but polls show that more than 60 million would like to be represented by a union. Opinion polls show large US majorities opposed to the Iraq war, significant majorities calling for withdrawal, and voters considering this by far the most important issue on the political agenda. That's the good news.
But the good-bad news is that public sentiment by itself is not enough. The only way to get the people with power to change their actions is by a movement that shows the ability to disrupt the normal, routine, functioning of social institutions.

The capacity to disrupt

Labour and the peace movement have focused on the symbolic realm, and have shown far too little capacity to disrupt the normal functioning of the society, especially those aspects most important to the powers-that-be.
Any individual worker lacks power, but collective solidarity by a large majority of a workforce makes it possible to go on strike, and to staff a picket line intended to keep scabs from taking workers' jobs. A strike, if effective and sustained, hits the employer in the pocket- book, and requires the company to meet (at least some of) workers' demands.
Winning a wage increase, or winning peace, requires more than a carefully scripted, arranged with the police, one-day civil disobedience action staged for the mass media, and intended for symbolic purposes. It requires that the movement show the ability to make the “powers-that-be" pay a cost.
During the civil rights movement, lunch-counter sit-ins and boycotts of downtown stores were sustained for weeks and drove merchants to the point of bankruptcy. Strikes often have that effect on employers.
At the height of the Vietnam war, in Manhattan half the men told to report for induction into the military simply did not show up. Labour has adopted many of the strengths of social movements such as the peace movement. Now both labour and the peace movement need to add to that a commitment to shut down (some important aspect of) the society until peace is won and workplace justice achieved.

Topics: Labour movement