This is the third in a series of four posts on the “union triad.”
Community building has much in common with organizing. Successful organizers are usually embedded in communities. Of all activity in the labor movement community building is most ignored and least understood. Very few unions hire staff or designate leaders that dedicate a portion of their efforts to coalitional work or community outreach.
Fewer still dedicate significant resources to the activities that form the foundation of community. An array of community-labor organizations outside of, but linked to unions, as taken the lead.
Before the 1940’s however, the labor movement’s power grew from local, usually urban and ethnic communities. Organizers did not restrict their activities to the shop floor. Local merchants, families, religious groups, ethnic associations, community organizations and intellectuals all participated in the labor movement. Community networks existed in neighborhoods or ethnic groups and the daily activity of working class people in sports, taverns, clubs, and local government.
Unions were part and parcel of these networks and carried on outside the workplace in sport leagues, theater troupes, vacation resorts, mutual-aid networks and local political parties — all to the tune of a rich body of labor music. The music displayed labor’s cultural sources by borrowing liberally from folk, gospel, and blues traditions. Historians called this social unionism but it suffered the same fate as organizing when US labor came of age in the post-WWII world.
At the same time that unions turned away from social unionism and community building as no longer necessary, the upheavals of the mid-20th century transformed and revitalized identities and traditions, reshaping community among people of color, youth, women and sexual minorities. These communities continue to be labor’s allies and underappreciated sources of strength.
The revolution that occurred in consciousness and identity that we associate with the new social movements provides one of labor’s richest resources. Movement culture of the 60’s helped to recast and broaden the range of oppositional social positions and alternative identities available to activists. These activists then seeded the labor movement. This new wave of activists were a part of, and could relate to, the increasingly female, ethnic, and immigrant workers that have been among the greatest sources of new union members and leaders. Even so, these communities are not stable resources waiting to be tapped. Communities, like many workers, are contingent — sometimes they are there — sometimes not.
The global economic restructuring that began in a big way after 1975 weakened labor and eroded popular involvement in community. Stagnant compensation and increased work hours drained away our ability to participate in civic life beyond that necessary for the short-term survival of our families. Communities can recreate themselves but it takes intentional work. As community organizers will tell you, “The community you get is the community you make”.
Today, community building in Labor’s neighborhood commonly takes two related forms. The first and most successful have been the multi-sector or cross-class communities that have emerged from coalition work. Jobs With Justice, Students Against Sweatshops, Central Labor Councils, and the Living Wage Campaigns, have not just demonstrated that there is a labor community beyond unions but provided the movement with some of the most innovative and inspirational organizing in recent history. The Fight for $15 relies heavily on a mobilized community.
Community building and coalitional work also promises a grassroots alternative for national and international labor issues. The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, and the New Faculty Majority for example, has helped to build community among part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members in Canada, the US, and Mexico. Similarly the coalitions working for justice in the Maquiladoras coordinate the activities of religious, labor, environmental, community and women’s groups throughout North America to address the catastrophic consequences of so-called free trade.
Local communities based on racial, gender, sexual, geographic, or political identity may resemble the older, seemingly more stable traditional forms of community but community has always proven difficult to create and sustain. Unions often see this work as a luxury they cannot afford yet it was once a pillar of union power.
A minimal investment in parties, receptions, happy hours, film series, book clubs, lectures, and other cultural events can promote a greater appreciation for unions activists as well-rounded people, and create real bonds of trust and friendship. The creative communities of poets, artists and musicians are particularly fertile fields. The college campus offers an excellent opportunity for the development of community in which the union will be an important participant.
A more community focused unionism would encourage workers to articulate their views as women, or citizens, or gays, or professionals, or people of color, or immigrants. Community building could help labor grow as a social movement by tapping into the creative energies unleashed by other identities and other movements for justice. Speaking as part of the community encourages social movement unionism. Community organizing enables labor’s issues to become matters of the public interest and public issues to find a prominent place on labor’s agenda.
Next: Conclusion to the Union Triad