The decline in union membership over the past four decades has been dramatic. At just 13.1% (2011), union membership is less than half of what it was in 1973 (26.7%). The ramifications for declining union membership include lower wages for all workers, widening income inequality and lower participation by workers in the political process.
Countering this dismal trend presents a major challenge. Public, institutional and political support for unions has diminished in tandem with declines in worker participation. With business news dominating the news media's economic coverage, labor-oriented reporting in the major, corporate-owned media outlets is often negative when it exists at all. Corporate budgets dedicated to influencing public opinion dwarf those of even the largest, most powerful unions. Given shrinking membership, diminished political and economic clout and waning popularity with the general public, the current outlook for labor unions is dire indeed.
What can turn this situation around?
Union Renewal is an effective strategy to counteract declines in membership, popularity and institutional support for unions. A key aspect of union renewal is Social Movement Unionism, or putting the movement back into the Union Movement.
Elements of Social Movement Unionism
- a) rank and file mobilization
- b) coalition building
- c) political action
- d) new member organizing
- e) union education
(Or Coalition Unionism or Labor-Community Coalitions.)
At its simplest, community unionism is a term to describe the several ways that trade unions work with communities and community groups. Community unionism also describes a whole range of alliances between union and community, and may take many forms. No matter how a union sees the link at the outset, community unionism broadens the ways unions work.
Carla Lipsig-Mummé identifies three kinds of community-union alliances:
- Instrumental - A union approaches community organisations or the community at large (the public) for support on specific union issues or an important struggle.
- Common Concern - Focuses on issues that link both union members and members of community groups, and are identified as important by each.
- Transformative - Unions and community organisations come together to create a new structure, because the principle of common ground they identify merits a structured and more permanent identity.
Lipsig-Mummé cites two types of transformative coalitions.
- The first entails creating a broadly-based social movement, like the anti-globalisation movement.
- The second is the creation of pre-union formations that are halfway houses between the union and specific communities of vulnerable workers.
Notes & Resources
Web Sites & Blogs
- Community unionism is used here in the context of unions seeking to reach out to the community. Resources on this site include:
- A series of research papers on the topic of community unionism and union-community coalitions.
- A series of diagrams and training documents prepared to train union and community organisers and members on how to develop effective community union practice.
- An annotated bibliography of some articles found useful in defining and exploring community unionism.
- Contact details and research areas of several key academics in USA, Canada, UK and Australia who are working on this important topic.
- The Main Street Alliance creates opportunities for small business owners to speak for themselves on issues that impact their businesses and local economies.
- Main Street Alliance of Oregon - (See their Testimony to Portland City Council Budget Hearing Opposing Budget Cuts, Encouraging Balanced Solutions.)
- Affiliated with the National Main Street Alliance.
- The Sydney Alliance brings together diverse community organisations, unions and religious organisations to advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable city. We do this by providing opportunities for people to have a say in decisions that affect them, their families and everyone working and living in Sydney. The Sydney Alliance is a non-party political organisation.
- From About page: “We believe that people working together have the power to change their communities and their country for the better. Political and corporate leaders often don’t embrace change, unless they’re pressured by the people they serve. But too many people don’t realise they have potential to join forces and create change in their neighbourhoods and across the country. We work with the people who want to transform the world—from what it is to what they believe it should be. We challenge people to imagine the change they can accomplish, connect individuals and organisations to multiply their power and mobilise people by the thousands to make their voices heard. We set audacious goals, create savvy strategies and take on the powerful interests that stand in the way.”
Drawing on the proven power of person-to-person organising, our work transforms communities and builds the local power necessary to create local and national change.
- Grassroots Collaborative unites eleven membership-based organizations in Illinois in order to create policy change on local and statewide levels.
- A collaboration of dozens of organizations in Baltimore.
- The Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (formerly Workers Rights Project) was started in Greenville in 1980 as a project of a North Carolina-based group, Southerners for Economic Justice (SEJ). SEJ had been formed in the mid 70s by civil rights leaders such as Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson who felt that newly-won civil rights were incomplete if people had little or no rights on the job.
- NOA’s mission is to advance progressive organizing for social, economic and environmental justice and to sustain, support and nurture the people of all ages who do it.
- (See NOA’s Books to Support Building the Movement page.)
|“||Community organizations brought crucial resources to the campaign, including local media contacts, assistance with public events, respected community leaders, broad community support, and contacts with state, regional and national organizations. With their roots in and commitment to the community, these organizations raised a powerful voice in support of organized labor—a voice that management had difficulty countering.||”|
- Frustrated at labor’s longtime slump, Larry Williams Jr. created UnionBase, which he’s positioning as both a social network for union members and an organizing vehicle for unions.
- Why Pope Francis just called labor unions “prophets” - Tara Isabella Burton, Vox
- The pope just lashed out at "advanced capitalist societies." Again.
- After years of organizing, Los Angeles carwash workers successfully negotiated contracts with three carwashes and gained workplace rights most workers should be able to take for granted: sick leave, access to health care, workplace safety, lunch breaks, living wages and respect. The carwash workers were successful, in large part, through the strength of community-labor partnerships: the United Steelworkers teamed up with the Community Labor Environmental Action Network (CLEAN), faith-based groups such as Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and low-income immigrant rights organizations such as the Wage Justice Center and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance.
- As the unionized share of the American work force has shrunk, it's become clear that new approaches to labor organizing are needed. If individual unions break out of their parochialism to work with each other and with local allies (from religious leaders to environmentalists), labor can become more of a social movement again--a working-class social movement that connects a multiplicity of workers (public- and private-sector workers, skilled-trade and low-skilled service workers, industrial and white-collar workers) and also links their on-the-job interests with the needs of their home communities. This may indeed be precisely what's required to attract and galvanize new union members.
- Unions and community organisations came together to oppose the massive public sector cuts in the United Kingdom. They have formed coalitions to organise numerous events and rallies at the local and regional level, as well as the successful national demonstration in London on 26 March. But sustaining a movement that not only “resists” austerity but wins new economic reforms and shifts the political climate is no easy task. How will the coalition between unions and community groups sustain participation locally and pressure nationally to win people-friendly reforms?
- In recent years, a whole new language of union change has sprung up in English-speaking developed countries: social movement unionism, labour internationalism, union renewal, global unionism, cultures of militancy, associational unionism, organising culture, organising unions. These are words of optimism. But then there are the other, less inspiring words: strategic paralysis, union repositioning, union restructuring, market share. This article argues three things:
- Community unionism is not at all new: it is the way unions organised before World War II. Rediscovering it can be very useful indeed today.
- Community unionism is particularly suited to our fragmenting and deregulating labour market, and the polarisation that is occurring between different types of communities.
- What definitions, and what parts of the idea of community unionism, can be useful to unions now? But a caveat: neither "unions" nor "the community" is homogeneous.
- ABSTRACT: On October 27, 1994, employees of the Melrose Resort, on South Carolina's Daufuskie Island, made history. They voted 98 to 45 to be represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE). With this vote, these workers became the first in the Hilton Head area to successfully organize and win union representation. In the South, where corporate control is still the dominant theme and less than 3 percent of the workforce is organized, the victory in Hilton Head was remarkable. The campaign that lead to the vote was also remarkable because it pulled together an alliance rarely seen in this part of the country—labor and community. In order to win the vote and survive the 16 months of contract negotiations that followed, the workers depended on the support of an unusual and very successful partnership forged between the union and the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE).
- Workers and homeowners, union members and community activists—all had a reason to march against Bank of America this spring. In Lynn, Massachusetts, our protest was another step in building the relationship between unionized working people and working-class community organizations, especially among immigrants. It’s a relationship that the North Shore Labor Council has been carefully nurturing for years.
- Over the last decade, some unions have successfully undertaken collaborative broad-based organizing efforts, such as Los Angeles’ highly successful Justice for Janitors campaign, mobilizations to pass local living wage ordinances, and organized mass protests against global free trade policies. These trends reflect a growing realization of the strategic need to strengthen the collective voice of workers and their families through collaborative advocacy and organizing efforts that bring together organized labor and other sectors of civil society.
- There is Power in Coalition: A framework for assessing how and when union-community coalitions are effective and enhance union power
- Proposals for union revitalisation suggest the importance of unions reaching out to the community and the formation of union-community coalitions. Yet, how this process of ‘reaching out’ can be most effective for building union power and advancing union renewal is little understood.
- Public sector employment relations are increasingly difficult for public sector unions. This paper uses the concept of community unionism to explore how and when relationships between unions and community organisations may enhance union power and success in bargaining and policy reform.
- The proliferation and interchangeable use of multiple terms in the union renewal literature – “social movement unionism, union-community coalitions, social unionism, community unionism, social justice unionism or citizenship movement unionism” – complicates our understanding of social unionism’s specificity.
- In recent decades, alternative organizations and movements — ‘quasi-unions’ — have emerged to fill gaps in the US system of representation caused by union decline. We examine the record of quasi-unions and find that although they have sometimes helped workers who lack other means of representation, they have significant limitations and are unlikely to replace unions as the primary means of representation. But networks, consisting of sets of diverse actors including unions and quasi-unions, are more promising.
- Union-Community Coalitions and Community Unionism: developing a framework for the role of union-community relationships in union renewal
- A look at the pattern of recent relationships between unions and community organisations in NSW, Australia
- The labor movement sees coalitions as a key tool for union revitalization and social change, but there is little analysis of what makes them successful or the factors that make them fail.
- Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages
- State of the Unions: What It Means for Workers -- and Everyone Else
- Declining number of union members affects all workers’ salaries
- Three Big Reasons for the Decline of Labor Unions
- Forms Of Solidarity: Trade Unions And Community Unionism
- Forms Of Solidarity: Trade Unions And Community Unionism
- Hundreds rally to support Seattle port short-haul truckers
- Waterfront workers versus bosses: “We’re all fighting the same enemy”
- Unfair to labor: a community discussion...
- Justice on the Waterfront: July 21 Labor Forum
- March for the Alternative sends a noisy message to the government: Vast majority were ordinary people wanting to make voice heard, but small group of rioters seemed bent on trouble
- North Shore Labor Council - "Where no Union and no Worker Stands Alone."