Unions and Coalition-Building

Guest Commentary

Volume C, No. 9September, 2000

Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Unions have had a very mixed experience with regard to building and sustaining coalitions. Our practice is undergoing some changes at present – but in general this practice has been, and continues to be, very uneven.

To understand the difficulties the union movement has experienced in engaging in coalitions, it is first critical to understand that unions, themselves, are coalitions or united fronts. They are united fronts of workers who are drawn together around a common issue or opponent – i.e., improving the lives of the members, as workers, in their specific workplace or industry, or in the general economy. As united fronts, unions contain a variety of different political tendencies and viewpoints, all coexisting to different degrees. Thus – and this is a problem which many issue-based organizations fail to grasp – unions must come to certain internal agreements in order to advance a program. This is no different from other organizations, except that unions are made up of members who may or may not have joined because they believe in the views of the union; some may only believe that the union makes them stronger as workers.

The second problem with regard to coalition building is a certain notion of trade unionism which has dominated organized labor for more than a century. This approach, often called “pure and simple trade unionism,” is very job focused, and limited to fighting around a fairly narrow range of issues involving wages, hours and working conditions. From this perspective, engaging in coalitions has generally been seen solely in a tactical sense – i.e., around very specific battles in which the union, itself, is engaged. Thus, when the battle is over – whether through victory, defeat or stalemate – the coalition is over, at least from the standpoint of the union.

This presents problems when a community-based or issue-based organization approaches a union. The issue around which they are attempting to organize may or may not have a direct relevance to the job concerns of the particular union. Thus, the union must evaluate what it stands to gain, or not to gain, through participation, as well as what will be the internal cost – if anything – of engaging in a coalition.

Other factors have also influenced the willingness of many unions to participate in coalitions, including a political suspicion of community-based, issue-based, and/or left-wing organizations, a suspicion which is largely rooted in Cold War trade unionism.

Today’s union movement is addressing itself to a very different world, but with these factors serving as background.

What Can Be Done?

Nothing in nature is ever static, and this is certainly true with regard to the question of coalition building. For well over a decade there have been growing tendencies within organized labor which have stressed the need for the unions to reach out and move beyond tactical alliances. These unions have stressed the importance of strategic, or long-term, alliances with those organizations and social movements with which we have common aims.

This process, however, did not take place all at once. In some cases it started with very successful tactical alliances around organizing or bargaining campaigns. During the tail end of the civil rights movement, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference engaged in alliances with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as well as with 1199/National Union of Health and Hospital Workers. It was in their 1968 coalition in Memphis that Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered by the forces of reaction.

During the 1980s the union movement took important steps when several unions helped form Jobs with Justice, a national labor/community alliance for workers’ rights. Unemployed organizations were formed, often with the help of unions, during the recession of the early ’80s – organizations which may have been originally based within the membership of a particular union, but expanded over time. During the 1980s some unions and unionists also advanced various issue-based coalitions: for example, around U.S. involvement in Central America, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, as well as around various electoral campaigns.

Today’s movement is faced with the challenge of going beyond even these important efforts. Organized labor now exists as roughly 14 percent of the workforce, and with that percentage it is impossible to speak for the working class as a whole, in the absence of allies. The working class has many different organizations, including immigrant-rights groups, tenant associations, anti-racist and anti-sexist movements, many of which are deeply rooted among workers themselves. For the unions to speak as the voice of labor – and not only as the voice of the institutions known as unions – we need to engage with these other organizations and see them as part of the broader labor movement. In other words, we need to think of them as strategic allies in the process of building labor’s renaissance.

Outside of the working class, there are other potential allies. The current struggles against sweatshops being waged on many college campuses are illustrative of one such sector. Students have taken up a domestic and international battle for economic justice. These efforts can also be part of rebuilding a labor movement, in that they expose the gross injustices of unbridled capitalism. Many of these movements may not, at least at this time, see unions as the solution or as one of the solutions to the problems workers face in these oppressive conditions, but that does not mean they cannot be won to such a stand.

If we are to break out of the confines which hostile employers and governments are foisting on workers, unions must seek out new and essential allies. We must see these allies as not simply those who will help us, but those with whom a truly bilateral relationship can be built. This will mean, at the end of the day, reconceptualizing our notion of trade unionism – and doing it in such a way that we can build a movement for the 21st century committed to the consistent struggle for social and economic justice.

Bill Fletcher is Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.