Social Movement Unionism: Right Here! Right Now!


Dedicated to the Chicago Teachers Union and teacher activists everywhere.

Seventh in the Series: On Organizing.  See What is Social Movement Unionism? for the first part of this post including the Battle for Seattle, Occupy and the Great American Boycott.

Right Here! Right Now! Continued….

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”   Martin Luther King

Black Lives Matter and Ferguson

In 2012, after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his murderer, Black Lives Matter organized to rebuild the moment for black liberation, this time fully affirming the lives and leadership of people from all along the spectrum of gender, sexual, and able identities.1  Here is something for labor organizers to learn: social movement unionism embraces and expresses the full range of alternative political identities and consciousness aiming toward the realization of democracy.

In August 2014, thanks to the people of Ferguson, the long-simmering civil right movement was refounded as a dynamic national movement. Again, it was grassroots activism that created the possibilities for social movement unionism.  And, it was activists,  particularly black and low wage workers that brought #blacklivesmatters into union work.  AFL-CIO President Trumka did make a clarion call to consciousness, even recognizing labor’s racist past. But, much of the organizing came from workers centers, domestic workers and other groups along the dynamic edge of the working-class movement.

Stephanie Luce, writing for Public Seminar, outlines the potent, if rocky, relationships  between labor and the new civil rights movement.

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, is also on staff with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, highlighting the ways in which activists are linking economic and racial justice (including with immigrant rights issues).

In many ways, the alliance is an obvious one. Black workers comprise a disproportionate share of low-wage workers; they also have higher unionization rates than non-Black workers. The movements for economic justice and racial justice have intersected throughout history — from the movement to abolish slavery to the collaboration between civil rights groups and public sector unions in the 1960s. Yet that does not mean the alliance is a natural or easy one. Labor unions have an unflattering history of racial exclusion, and while an increasing share of union members are black, the leadership is still overwhelmingly white. And many civil rights organizations, including churches have tried to avoid confrontational class-based politics for fear it could be divisive within the black community, or due to relations with the Democratic Party and elected officials.

The greatest potential for social movement unionism lies in bottom up coalitional work between labors’ activist edge and the array of new organizing projects leading the new civil rights movement. And yes, we are still hobbled because of racism within unions and because labor, civil right groups and churches accept the limits dictated by the Democratic Party.

But like the movements of the late 60s and early 70’s Ferguson moves beyond the liberal consensus of conservative unions and the Democratic machine . In a recent forum by Viewpoint the new civil rights movement proves itself rich with potential for new strategic alliances. Viewpoint’s editors introduce “Strategy After Ferguson:”

The eleven groups featured below constitute part of what may be an emerging radical pole in the struggle for black liberation. Even in their analytical divergence and organizational heterogeneity, they yield the outlines of a revolutionary unity, opposed to separatism, whose ambitions exceed that of the misleadership both new and old.

The political vision of those eleven organizations offer far more than hope. Historically grounded, politically astute and strategically savvy; they represent a movement with which alliances are possible and synergies abound.

It’s worth remembering the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign.  Although ill-fated, it pointed the way toward an interracial movement that aimed at the core power structure of the day: the evil triplets of militarism, racism and economic exploitation.   A  New Poor Peoples Campaign For Today aims to pick up on that power.  When movements for racial justice, peace and economic democracy merge that is social movement unionism.

The Sanders Surge is a Social Movement.

For the first time in living memory a presidential campaign has unleashed revolutionary spirits.  Against all odds — and against expectations of the left, right and center — Sander’s call for a political revolution is moving millions.  And, we must admit that serious politics starts where there are millions of people.  We need not see Sanders as some perfect hero to learn how to leverage the Sanders surge.  But we do need to move toward a transformative electoral strategy. 

The mass demonstrations, protest marches, and record-setting meetings are raising  consciousness.  Sanders has already made history by running a major presidential campaign funded by everyday Americans.  Only the Green Party aspires to do the same.

It’s hard to understate the importance of restoring class politics to the electoral arena.  It’s about more than just issues.  A major political realignment seems possible.  The much maligned but potentially powerful white-working class is moving decisively in the direction of the social movements.  The multi-racial protests against Trump may not be formally part of the Sanders campaign, but they are part of how this election is taking on the transformative possibilities of a social movement by extending the horizon of the  possible.

It is time for organizing and movement building.  And it is time to disrupt.

There is a power shift underway.  The Sanders surge is disrupting the ruling strategy of triangulation and subverting its social control narratives: fear and fatalism, lesser of two evils, electability, inevitability, “there is no alternative” and the spoiler. It is the organizers task to show how those narratives no longer describe the new realities even though the corporate media and the machines repeat them a thousand times.

Yes, a new world is possible.

Much to labor’s discredit, the invitations to social movement unionism have almost all come from the social movements and an exceptional electoral campaign.  It is up to us to accept the invitation by encouraging rank and file activism and popular dissent.

Social movement unionism will reach the revolutionary threshold when the fusion of class race, gender, anti-imperial, environmental, youth and sexual consciousness finds simultaneous and equivalent expression in mass movements that incorporate all of the different trends yet is greater than the sum of its parts.  Well, easier said than done. But, who supposes that social transformation will be easy?

Here, then, are the major social upheavals of our time:  the 1999 Battle for Seattle, the 2003 global resistance against war and empire, the Great American Boycott of 2006, Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011,  Black Lives Matter 2012, the Ferguson rebellions of 2014, and the Sanders surge of 2016.   This is evidence; potent and unmistakable. It is possible to create a revolutionary movement and a revolutionary strategy.

Look at America.  We are ready to begin anew.


  1. For a new and insightful interpretation of BlackLivesMatter, See Keeanga-Yamahatta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

About Richard Moser

Richard Moser has over 40 years experience as an organizer and activist in the labor, student, peace, and community movements. Moser is the author of "New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent During the Vietnam Era," and co-editor with Van Gosse of "The World the Sixties Made: Politics and Culture in Recent America." Moser lives in Colorado.
This entry was posted in American Culture, Corporate Power, Electoral Strategy for 2016, History, Labor Movement, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, Uncategorized, union organzing, unions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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