"Community Unionism"

TNR has a new blog: The Study, aggregating academic papers and thinkers.  For all my efforts to avoid TNR, I'm a sucker for this stuff, and so far, it hasn't disappointed.  Clicking around, I stumbled on this post by Georgetown's Michael Kazin on the revival of "community unionism" in the fallout of Walker's attack on public workers in Wisconsin:

[...] the massive support the unions drew from students, faculty, small farmers, and immigrant rights groups, among others, imparted an old lesson that progressives often forget: to advance its interests, labor needs to look less like an interest group and more like a moral cause that appeals to allies from outside the wage-earning class.


A century ago, the horrific Triangle fire helped garment workers make a case for unions as well as safe workplaces. In the 1930s, auto and steel workers gained public sympathy when they struck for “industrial democracy” against autocratic employers. In the 1960s, the plight of low-wage, mostly Mexican-American farmworkers became a favorite cause of liberals.

This year at Georgetown University, another such labor moment occurred—in a modest but still instructive fashion. After a campaign that began in the muck of July, the roughly 200 men and women who work either at the student cafeteria or at one of a handful of campus fast-food outlets (including a Starbucks) are close to winning recognition from Aramark, their employer, whose $12 billion annual revenue makes it one the largest service providers in the nation. The workers, most of whom are black or Latino, have become members of Unite Here, the leading union in the culinary trades.

But they have not done it alone.

Kazin describes a "community union" coalition grown out of frustration, aligning '90s era organizations, College Democrats, the student chapter of the NAACP, and minority workers in a strategic move to tell the personal stories of university service employees to the community (culminating in a MLK day "testimonial" at a local church). 

After a more than a decade fighting for better conditions, just a few weeks ago, according to Kazin, nearly 80% of employees signed in support of representation by the international service union Unite Here.

The fight in Wisconsin has breathed new life into the ideas behind unionization and workers rights.  But to turn the energy into a movement, it's going to require reinforcing the connection between unions and the dinner table.  Conservatives have succeeded to some extent at numbing the country to workers rights, and the dominance billionaires enjoy in the dialog.  Progressives need to take back the frame, and remind the country that, just like the 1930's, unions provide a voice not as easily shouted down by Supreme Court sanctioned corporate "persons." 

What's happening at Georgetown is a microcosmic example that better coalition building between workers and the broad "organizational left," tying the framework to simple dignity and personal experience, is an opportunity to drive the message home.



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