How the Creation of Social Justice Caucuses in Unions Is Revitalizing an Aging Labor Movement
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Earlier this month at the Labor Notes Conference, rank and file labor leaders announced for the first time the creation of the Network for Social Justice Unionism (NSJU), a new infrastructure that unionists concerned with advancing social justice beyond the workplace hope to use to organize for a shift in the way the labor movement operates.
The NSJU seeks to encourage the creation of social justice caucuses in union locals across the nation and to establish working relationships between those caucuses to be able to support each other’s struggles. Together, these caucuses hope to create an movement inside of organized labor that pushes union leaders across the country to do more to see that union power benefits not just workers themselves, but also the communities that unions are embedded in and rely upon.
Plans for the NSJU have been in the works for over a year, and NSJU members are optimistic that their work will not only be enthusiastically received by workers and social justice activists, but that it could eventually transform and revitalize an aging labor movement. The NSJU effort has its roots in recent struggles for change led by teachers, but seeks to encourage workers of all kinds to commit to lending their knowledge, resources, and influence to other ongoing struggles for justice beyond their workplaces.
NSJU co-founder Michelle Gunderson is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who helped start the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). She sat down to talk about creation and purpose of Network for Social Justice Unionism and the potential of it work.
Roshan Bliss: Talk about the Network for Social Justice Unionism. Where did it come from?
Michelle Gunderson: It came from a definition. What does it mean to be a social justice unionist? What that means, in my mind, is that we hold workers’ rights in the same plane and in the same balance as students’ rights and community rights. We don’t hold our needs above students’. I will fight to the death for the right of a teacher to have good compensation and job security and due process as much as I will for my students to have text books or proper health care and the things that they need to do well.
The Network for Social Justice Unionism started from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators and Labor Notes thinking together, and we believe that social justice unionism is actually going to be what saves unionism as a movement. We are the antithesis of the union thug. We are the people who aren’t out for ourselves, who aren’t only about our work and our jobs. And we also are very much in favor of democratic union process.
That isn’t always true in our unions and it scares leadership at times, but without it we’re not going to get new members especially in right to work states and in places like Milwaukee where you have to opt in to your union. We have to decide to use the structure and the power that’s already there. It’s a good structure and there’s a lot of power, but we have to be using it for our students and workers alike.
RB: Is the NSJU a response to some of the failures of labor? What are some of the things that the labor movement needs to work on the most?
MG: Social justice unionism is about activating membership to actually do something, not just call the union when they have a problem. And it’s about a lot more than contracts. So the NSJU is taking what used to be called the business model of unionism — where the union was only involved with things that involved work and your 8-hour day — and taking it to the broader political and social realm.