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Beyond Social Movement Unionism

Sam Gindin on where to next: jacobin_issue22_images-gindin-e1469030774244Proponents of social movement unionism have found inspiration in the explosion of mass industrial unionism during the Great Depression. It’s not hard to see why. With the morale and dynamism of unions at historic lows today, it seems reasonable to revisit what went right for workers in a period even more challenging than the contemporary landscape.

For labor activist and writer Jane McAlevey, the Communist-led “deep organizing” of the 1930s was especially significant. This strategy was rooted in the capacities of rank-and-file workers to act as organizers in both their workplaces and their communities.

Workers sat down in their workplaces, prevented banks from evicting people who were behind on their mortgages, and marched with the unemployed. In Minneapolis and San Francisco, community solidarity with teamsters and longshoremen helped shut down the city.

Against the exclusivity of craft unionism, deep organizing favored working-class organizations that crossed boundaries of skill, race, and gender. Above all, this approach grasped the importance of building a cadre of committed organizers who could give confidence to the rank and file and assist in developing its organizational and political wherewithal.

Workers and practitioners didn’t label their organizing strategy “social movement unionism.” They simply took it for granted that the workplace and the community overlapped and that employers’ ferocious resistance to the new unionism made worker-community alliances a necessity.

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