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Social Justice Unionism Requires Political Power for 2024 and Beyond

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Thick crowd of people wearing "UNITE HERE" sweatshirts, many holding signs reading "EQUAL." Mixed crowd - men and women, different ethnicities - wearing winter hats and coats.

Political power unionism pairs the strong organizing methodology of rank-and-file leadership development with social justice union politics. These approaches are essential if the working class is to build real accountability with elected officials and independent political organization.

An old question has taken on new importance in recent weeks: How should the labor movement orient itself to the electoral arena? As more unions take public positions on the genocide in Palestine that conflict with the pro-Israel stance of the vast majority of Democratic electeds, this question will inevitably follow.

Rather than put forward a specific endorsement strategy that we should adopt across labor, I would offer that the most important thing unions can do is apply the principles and methods of social justice unionism to our work in the electoral realm. This will enable us to build lasting independent political organization and power. Our ability to hold elected officials accountable to the priorities of the multiracial working class is directly linked to how organized we are in the political realm. It is time for the labor movement to stop siloing political and electoral work as the terrain of lobbyists and campaign managers and start embracing it as another opportunity to develop our membership, our organization, and our power.

Luckily, we have a few strong examples of that work to learn from. The Chicago Teachers Union has been at the forefront of social justice unionism, fighting for the interests of the whole majority Black and brown working class in the city, not just its members. After a rank-and-file reform takeover, the union adopted a Bargaining for the Common Good framework, developed the leadership of members across the union, took back the strike weapon with great success, built strong partnerships with other community groups and helped initiate independent political organizations. These methods work. The CTU has won its strongest contracts in a generation and revitalized the public’s support for teachers’ unions. Their approach has inspired other unions, both public and private sector.

In April 2023, the CTU applied its social justice unionist principles to the ballot box, working with community organizations to elect CTU organizer Brandon Johnson to the mayor’s office of the third largest city in the US — defeating a billionaire-backed, school-privatizing Democrat. Chicago’s public schools were facing an existential threat via the electoral sphere, and CTU understood that winning governing power at the city level was necessary to save them. A union with strong workplace organization and deep community relationships used those same tactics to win an electoral race: committing serious resources to organizing, rank-and-file leadership development, and alliance-building to elect working-class champions to office and defeat some of labor’s fiercest enemies.

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Another strong example of how to engage in electoral work with an organizing method is UNITE-HERE’s national political program. After 98% of its members lost their jobs at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNITE-HERE invested even more in its work in the political arena. (If the ability for your members to return to work depends on the government solving a public health crisis, then your workplace fight is very clearly also a political one.) It identified the races that would have the most impact on defeating Trump, then invested significant financial resources and set up a robust field program of members paid by the union to do full-time canvassing. The program worked: an astounding 1,700 UNITE-HERE canvassers knocked on the doors of three million voters in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida for months in Fall 2020. Its program and members were instrumental in turning Georgia blue with an upset win in the January 2021 and November 2022 Georgia Senate runoffs.

This program didn’t just rack up electoral victories: it developed members’ leadership, with deep political education and specific pipelines to move canvassers into higher levels of leadership in the program (including not just door knocking but running field operations themselves). Canvassers conducted deep organizing conversations on the doors, not just quick GOTV hits, all while the Democratic Party had largely eschewed door-knocking during the pandemic. And after the elections were over, the union plugged emerging leaders from the field operation into more leadership development opportunities in contract campaigns, new organizing, and other workplace organizing work.

This approach—utilizing strong organizing methods of rank-and-file leadership development paired with social justice union politics—is the work that we must replicate throughout the labor movement. I call it “political power unionism,” as these methods of leadership- and organization-building are key to securing the kind of political power we need to have real accountability with elected officials long-term for the working class.

Most of us aren’t used to this kind of approach to political work in unions: we are instead accustomed to simply endorsing and cutting checks to milquetoast Democrats, hoping they will support our membership’s legislative priorities (and maybe a broader progressive agenda, too, if we’re lucky). But that kind of backroom, low-member-engagement political program brings no actual demonstration of organization, of the ability to deploy masses of people to act collectively against a target. And when we don’t demonstrate our organization to elected officials, they think like bosses at a weak shop: I can get away with doing what I want, because members won’t hold me accountable. If we want more power to push elected officials to do what we want, we need to build organization not just in the workplace and community but in the political arena as well.

Why unions should build political power right now

In the last 10 years it has become increasingly clear that a movement for working-class freedom must center the question of political and governing power generally and elections particularly, for at least three reasons. First, the rise of a criminal MAGA movement through the GOP has imperiled the very limited form of democracy we have, a democracy that protects our right to organize. Second, elections remain the broadest form of working-class political action in our society. Third, while capitalism has always been political, the entwinement of capital and the state continues to deepen as capital becomes more desperate than ever to use political power to secure growth as it runs out of other options.

The existential threat to liberal democracy in the US

The MAGA movement rejects legitimate electoral outcomes and embraces the use of political violence. These are hallmarks of fascism. Unionism rests upon the basic liberal principles of fair elections, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom to withhold labor. Without the basic ground rules of liberal democracy, any kind of unionism, social justice or traditionalist or pragmatic, is imperiled. Our unions are duty-bound to lead the fight to defend democracy and defeat MAGA by mobilizing against anti-democratic attacks through street mobilizations and strikes in dire circumstances (for example, if Trump had refused to leave office). But these are fallback measures, and the unsexy work of electoral engagement to beat MAGA at the ballot box—through political education with union members and organizing conversations with voters—is just as important for our movement.

A way to fight for the whole class

Social justice unionists understand ours to be a mandate to fight on behalf of the whole working class. We can do this by investing in organizing new members and by raising standards in an industry through a combination of collective bargaining and legislative fights. But the former exposes us to very few new people, and the latter mostly excludes any direct contact with non-union workers. In US political culture, elections are the window in which most working people are consciously doing politics. Taking our union vision into the electoral sphere allows us to engage with more working people than any other kind of tactics in our toolbox, save perhaps extreme moments of mass mobilization. (This is not to understate the importance and transformative experience of collective bargaining, especially in a Common Good framework, which is an essential tool for improving material conditions for workers.)

A necessity for challenging corporate control

The traditional enemies of the workers movement, capitalists and corporations, have become steadily more intertwined with and dependent on the government since their inception, and the mutual dependence has reached levels never seen before. Bosses are more and more using political power to secure rates of return for capital and to capture parts of the public sector that can be outsourced to private ownership. The growth of charter schools, attacks on USPS, the ballooning of subsidies and tax breaks to corporations like Amazon demonstrate that the Right understands how to leverage governing power to secure greater profits, convert public sector work to private sector profit, and control the market. If we are to break the stranglehold the billionaire class has on the state and our membership’s working conditions, we must contend for governing power. Here an anecdote about the Fight For 15 can be instructive.

Of course the Fight For $15 has many origin stories, but one goes like this: SEIU workers in the Seattle SeaTac airport were in a contract fight pushing for wage increases. The airport was stonewalling, refusing to give an inch. SEIU threatened to put a minimum wage increase on the ballot if the airport didn’t relent. By some accounts, this was a bluff. But the airport refused to budge, leaving the union with little choice but to play the card that they were never planning to use. They ran a municipal minimum wage hike campaign and lo and behold, they won. They won a greater increase in wages than they had been asking for at the bargaining table, and it affected far more workers. The Fight For $15 movement replicated the strategy across the country where Democratic municipal majorities existed in blue and sometimes purple states. Going on the offensive through not just the bargaining but also the electoral arena gave our movement more power in the fight to lift wages for the most exploited layer of the working class. Of course, the Fight for $15 movement never achieved the twin goal of its campaign—unions for fast food workers—and has its shortcomings. But using all the sources of power available to us, including politics, can yield better results than assuming our fight is strictly limited to the shop floor.

A vision for political power unionism

At a certain level, many unions understand they must invest in building their political and governing power. The huge investment of the AFL-CIO in political work, and its underinvestment in organizing, is evidence of that. However, most unions’ political strategies suffer from some of the same philosophical shortcomings as their organizing, campaign and community strategies suffer, because they are grounded in a pragmatic or traditionalist approach.

(As Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin write in Solidarity Divided, traditionalist unions seek to advance only the white, privileged layers of the working class, see leftists as an enemy to their cause, and ally themselves with bosses and the capitalist class. Pragmatist unions similarly hold an exclusionary understanding of the working class, but they will work with leftists to the extent that those leftists don’t undermine their institutional power.)

Traditionalist and pragmatist unions make political choices in small rooms rather than engaging the membership broadly. They tend to focus their support on campaigns that fully demobilize after Election Day rather than long-term electoral power building. They focus their support for candidates on financial resources, without mobilizing members. When they do mobilize their membership, it’s to marshal them like disposable campaign staff, and not like an organizer mobilizes an organizing committee, with a focus on an upward spiral of consciousness and capacity for all its members.

They tend not to leverage national resources for anything other than imminent national fights in purple districts, leaving aside any long-term power building vision in solidly red or blue states. They do not partner and build power with community organizations or independent political organizations in any meaningful way. They tend to make extremely risk-averse and conservative choices regarding which candidates to endorse and support; this is usually grounded in a fortress mentality seeking only to minimize loss rather than optimize gain, and a confusion between access and power.

This confusion means that most of our unions have forgotten why the Democrats have historically cared about unions’ support in the first place. Yes, they want our money, but they also need our people. We represent the largest swath of the organized working class, and they need our members for their votes and for their organization to turn out the rest of their communities. As our movement has gotten weaker in our organizing skills on the shop floor, and as our solidarity with other base-building groups has dissipated, so too has our influence waned in the political and electoral arena, and we can all see the consequences.

Social justice unionism is an intervention in the workplace and community strategy, but it must also be an intervention to build a strategy for working-class governing power. Pragmatic and conservative unionism has a failed approach to politics, and it is incumbent on progressives in the labor movement to help think through and implement a program that builds and demonstrates our people power from shop floor to voting booth.

As social justice unionists, we must lead our unions into electoral struggle against the Right while recognizing the limits of the Democratic Party and building independent political organization and power. A vision of this endeavor—of building political power unionism—includes:

  • Mobilizing our members in large numbers to engage in key races that are most likely to have a decisive impact on winning governing power for a multiracial pro-democracy united front
  • Practicing widespread and deep leadership development of members to engage in electoral field operations, understanding that political work is also a chance to develop members’ leadership
    • Connecting that leadership back into the workplace fights (developing leaders to be stewards, new organizing salts, and other union leaders)
  • Focusing on person-to-person conversations, through door knocking and phone banking
  • Integrating comprehensive political education into all aspects of political and union work
  • Working with municipal- and state-level community and independent political organizations, either by creating them or partnering with them on field operations and between elections
  • Supporting candidates that advance a full progressive agenda (not just a narrow set of issues that appeal to your membership), especially those who run against MAGA candidates

There are specific elements of the CTU and UNITE-HERE programs that have enabled them to reach such a large scale that may be harder to replicate in other unions in the near term. For example, members participating in the UNITE-HERE program come into the field on lost time for several months at a time in some cases, and there is a significant fundraising program to expand the work. There is buy-in from the national level and across locals that makes it possible to continue to develop and advance this program. But it is worth noting that all of this work happened while the union was put in its most vulnerable position in workplace fights—with little structural power for fighting back—and its response was not to retreat from the fight but to go on the offensive politically. This is a strong model to learn from and strive to emulate however possible.

Both CTU and UNITE-HERE offer distinct, strong models of how unions can expand social justice unionism to the electoral arena—models that we can learn from and build on.

Featured image: UNITE-HERE held a rally for workers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on March 13, 2014. United Workers came out in support. Photo from United Workers. CC BY 2.0 DEED