A New Social Movement: US Labor and the Trends of Social Movement Unionism

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  • A New Social Movement: US Labor and the Trends ofSocial Movement Unionism

    Jane Schuchert Walsh*Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh


    Social movement unionism (SMU) is frequently understood as the antithesis to business union-ism. While business unionism, often characterized as bureaucratic and hierarchical, dominatedmost of the second half of the 20th century, SMU showed resurgence in the 1990s. Somescholars argue that SMU should reach beyond the workplace and incorporate the community.Others seem to be proposing a strategy and understand SMU as tactically innovative and mobiliz-ing in alliance with traditional social movements, such as the womens, environmental, or immi-grant rights movement. Some offer propositions about the social processes of a labor union andthat SMU must be internally democratic. Finally, some advocate an internationalist componentsuch as a link to global-justice campaigns. In this article, I propose that SMU consists of an arrayof trends and is inclusive of these varied descriptions, strategies or processes. These trends include(1) rank-and-file mobilization, (2) leadership, (3) community-based organizing, (4) worker centers,(5) corporate campaigns, and (6) transnational components. I draw on social movement and laborliteratures to seek a broader understanding of this labor organizing form.

    The labor movement has received considerable attention as scholars have sought to ana-lyze reasons for its post-World War II decline, recommend prescriptions for its revitaliza-tion and investigate its current trends (Nissen 2003). While movement tendenciesappeared in pockets of US labor organizing over the past century, especially during thelate 1800s and the 1930s, labors business union model dominated the 19501990s. Gen-erally speaking, business unions have been characterized as formal, hierarchical, limited,undemocratic, reactive, and conventional (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Voss and Sherman2000). Additionally, the fading of labors social movement characteristics alongside therise of the Civil Rights Movement and new social movements (NSMs), which haveorganized around collective needs and group identities (Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris1992, 509), may have lent to the development of a dismissive attitude by social move-ment scholars toward old social movements rooted in class and materialist struggles(Calhoun 1993; Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992). The increase in number and atten-tion to NSMs should not lead to scholarly unconcern for labor activism, as Calhoun(1993, 418) cautions, especially when union members are concerned about racial, ethnicand gender forms of oppression as well as class oppression (Robinson 2000, 122). Inwhat follows, I provide an overview of labors most recent movement trends, but firstbegin with a brief historical synopsis of US labor.

    Despite its 19th century roots, it has been argued that the contemporary labor move-ment originated in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of industrial workers joinedunions (Goldfield 1989; Voss and Sherman 2000, 310). In the early 1930s, the Congressof Industrial Organizations (CIO) emerged as a powerful movement of industrialunionism that remade the American labor movement (Fantasia and Voss 2004, 41).

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  • The ideology of the CIO, more or less to the left of the American Federation of Labor(AFL), favored the organization of non-skilled factory workers, as opposed to the skilledAFL craft workers, and strongly supported the development of a national welfare stateduring the New Deal era (Cornfield 1991, 31). In 1935, Congress passed the NationalLabor Relations Act (NLRA), which the Supreme Court upheld in 1937. The NLRAgave union recognition and collective bargaining rights to any workers who could gainmajority workforce support (Turner and Hurd 2001, 13). Not only did it defend theworkers right to organize, but it also prohibited unfair labor practices by employers(Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992, 498) and gave workers a voice both in the work-place as well as in the political arena (Compa 2001; Freeman and Medoff 1984).

    Labors social movement characteristics during the 1930s lost their edge in the 1950s astactics were modified and goals were reduced. The Cold War set in and unions purgedthemselves of leftist influence (Nissen 2003). Although the CIO stood left of center untilpost-World War II, it began to drift to the political right. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947,which coincided with the onset of the Cold War and weakened unions, not only putthe brakes on new organizing and growth, [but] also channeled labor protests in a lessradical, more economistic direction (Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992, 500). Taft-Hartley: (1) made union certification less flexible, (2) outlawed closed shop hiring, (3)permitted states to pass further labor restrictions, (4) outlawed sympathy strikes and sec-ondary boycotts, (5) gave strike breakers a right to vote, and (6) made members sign ananti-communist loyalty oath (Fantasia and Voss 2004). Labors influence becameconfined to collective bargaining and shopfloor enforcement (Turner and Hurd 2001,134). In response to this political threat, the AFL and CIO joined forces and merged toform the AFLCIO in 1955 (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Goldstone and Tilly 2001).

    The literature discusses both external and internal reasons for union density declineduring the post-World War II era. Besides Taft-Hartley, other external explanationsinclude but are not limited to: (1) a relocation of capital into geographical areas that werenot union friendly, (2) an increase in employer resistance to unions, (3) a shift from agoods-producing industrial economy to a service-producing post-industrial economy, (4)subcontracting, and (5) neoliberalism (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998; Clawson 2003; Corn-field 1991; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Moody 1997; Turner 2007; Voss and Sherman 2000).Key internal reasons, which often were responses to the abovementioned external expla-nations, include: (1) union decentralization and bureaucratization, (2) the separation ofunion leadership from the rank-and-file, (3) worker dissatisfaction with union grievancesystems, (4) a focus on the declining industrial (as opposed to the rising service) sector,and (5) an isolation from NSMs (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998; Burawoy 1979; Clawson2003; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Fletcher and Hurd 1998; Lichtenstein 2002; Milkman1997; Turner 2007). Regardless of why labor mobilization declined in the second half ofthe 20th century (the scholarly literature has no consensus), the business union modelappeared to dominate this period (Clawson 2003; Nissen 2003; Sullivan 2009; Turnerand Hurd 2001). Consequently, collective bargaining resulted in contract concessions,union leaders came to resemble business agents and by 1990, win rates continued tohover below 50 percent (Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998, 2; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Slaugh-ter 1983; Voss and Sherman 2000; Zieger 1987).

    Despite these internal and external struggles, the 1990s witnessed the growth andexpansion of important strategic innovations in the US labor movement (Clawson 2003;Turner and Hurd 2001, 10). Recognizing that a less hostile climate was not on the hori-zon, some labor activists began to incorporate issues other than labor and expanded toinclude people of color, women and immigrants in the craft and industrial sectors as well

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  • as the service sector, high- and low-skilled, private and public (Bronfenbrenner et al.1998; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Johnston 2001; Levi 2003, 45; Turner 2007). Unions inurban areas experienced growth and success as coalition formation fostered solidarityamong workers and the development of new allies (Fantasia and Voss 2004; Turner2007). In addition, the AFLCIOs 1995 New Voices leadership slate (Sweeney,Trumka and Chavez-Thompson) encouraged these innovative approaches (Clawson2003, 28). Labor and social movement scholars refer to this fresh and creative labor orga-nizing approach as social movement unionism (SMU).

    Waterman (1988) uses the concept of SMU in order to analyze labor movementsworking toward human rights, democracy and social justice (Scipes 1992). A particularform of labor organizing that differs from the more traditional collective bargainingstrategies (Almeida 2008, 166), SMU has become increasingly popular thus invitingsocial movement scholars to notice labor. As Isaac and Christiansen (2002) note, socialmovement scholars can benefit from paying attention to labor movement reemergence inthe same way Taylor (1989) identifies abeyance structures between surges of activism.

    There are many ways to comprehend SMU (Voss and Sherman 2000) such as adescription of some state of affairs, a strategy, a proposition about social processes or anemphasis on the transnational. Generally speaking, SMU is a type of unionism based onmember involvement and activism (Turner and Hurd 2001, 11). Some labor theoristsoffer an SMU description that could be measured empirically such as Moody (1997),Clawson (2003) and Fantasia and Voss (2004) who argue that SMU should reach beyondthe workplace and incorporate the community. Others seem to be proposing a strategyand understand SMU as tactically innovative and mobilizing in alliance with traditionalsocial movements, such as the womens or environmental movement, or recent move-ments, such as the gay or immigrant rights movement (Clawson 2003; Nissen 2003;Turner and Hurd 2001). Others still are offering some propositions about the social pro-cesses of a labor union, such as Moody (1997) and Nissen (2003), who contend thatSMU must be internally democratic. Finally, some advocate an internationalist compo-nent to SMU, such as a link to global-justice campaigns and the global political economy(Evans 2005; Levi 2003; Moody 1997).

    I propose that SMU consists of an array of trends that is inclusive of these varieddescriptions, strategies or processes. While the variation I examine is neither exhaustivenor does it encompass the breadth of the labor movement, I argue that current labortrends should be considered to understand SMU. These include (1) rank-and-file mobili-zation, (2) leadership, (3) community-based organizing, (4) worker centers, (5) corporatecampaigns, and (6) transnational components of SMU. Drawing upon social movementand labor literature, I provide an overview of SMU and at points, an assessment of theeffectiveness of this organizing approach in order to contribute to its broader understand-ing.

    Rank and file mobilization

    In addition to employer assault and labors isolation from other social movements, someconsider a decline in rank-and-file involvement to be a reason for labors decline (Claw-son 2003; Nissen 2003). Limited rank-and-file participation in union decisions inhibitsspontaneous actions and direct action, thereby perpetuating a hierarchical, business unionmodel (Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992; Levi 2003; Piven and Cloward 1979). Recentchanges within unions illustrate a move toward democratization, decentralization andincreased inter-union cooperation (Levi 2003, 46). New labor strategies such as these

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  • can be linked directly or indirectly, to a new emphasis on rank-and-file participation ormobilization, the essence of social movement unionism (Turner and Hurd 2001, 10).

    Moody (1997) notes that positive change comes almost always from some layerbeneath top union leadership (15). Face-to-face organizing by rank-and-file activists canprovide an opportunity to confront workers servicing expectations and deal with work-ers ingrained fear about organized labor (Lopez 2004, 132), giving workers a voice inthe union they desire. Yet, Clawson (2003) contends that in a union buildingapproach, tactics should aim

    to empower workers, to teach them and to assist them in building the kind of union theythemselves want, giving them the confidence, the solidarity, and the tools needed to stand upfor what they believe in and win it. (10)

    Fiorito et al. (1995) found that union decentralization contributes to organizing effective-ness in that workers do for themselves (631) as opposed to looking to the centralizedunion for member services.

    Bronfenbrenner and Juravich (1998) find that despite employer assaults, there wasincreased probability of union election wins for each intensive rank-and-file tactic used.These findings were based on a single rank-and-file intensive union tactic variable thatcontrolled for election environment, employer characteristics, tactics and demographics.Their union tactics variable includes (1) a representative rank-and-file committee, (2)house calls to union members, (3) group meetings during the campaign, (4) rank-and-filevolunteers from other organized units, (5) solidarity days, rallies and actions, (6) mediacampaigns, (7) community-labor coalitions, and (8) one-on-one contract surveys. Theyemphasize that individual tactics are insufficient and for unions to win, a comprehensivestrategy must be implemented.

    Milkman and Wong (2001) studied four campaigns of immigrant workers in SouthernCalifornia divided into leadership-initiated and bottom-up initiated campaigns. Leadershipinitiated campaigns included Los Angeles office janitors in the Justice for Janitors cam-paign (J for J), and Guess, Inc. garment workers. In contrast, drywall hangers in Califor-nias residential construction industry and truckers servicing Los Angeles-Long Beach portwere bottom-up initiated campaigns. In each category, one campaign was successful (J forJ and drywall hangers) while the other was not (garment workers and port truckers).Milkman and Wong concluded that as top-down or bottom-up campaign does not mat-ter but that success seems to depend upon effectively combining the two approachesinto a comprehensive strategy (103) including resources commitments, expertise andmobilization from both leadership and rank-and-file.

    On the contrary, Voss and Sherman (2000) find a combination of (1) political crisis, (2)the presence of activist leadership with outside organizing experience, and (3) an influencein favor of change led by the international union can explain a unions local revitalization.They insinuate that the key to increased organizing activity and tactical innovation ispressure from above (typically from the national union) rather than from an upsurge frombelow (Clawson 2003, 129). Similarly, Harrison (2005) argues that for a union such asthe United Steelworkers of America, revitalization must come from centralizing organiza-tional power and forcing change at the local level via a top-down approach.

    Although scholars disagree about the role the rank-and-file play and how muchagency it possesses, I argue it is a current labor trend that can be placed under theumbrella of SMU. Many scholars I cite also consider how leadership plays a role inlabors revitalization and arguably, its stagnation. Thus, I move to a discussion on thechanges and developments of labors leadership.

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  • Leadership

    Similar to social movement organizations (SMOs) in the Resource Mobilization tradition,labor unions formalized, resulting in a rise of career leadership and paid staff that dis-tanced labor leaders from the rank-and-file (Clawson 2003; McCarthy and Zald 1987;Staggenborg 1988). Beginning in the 1990s, opposition and leadership challenges hitmore and more unions (Moody 1997, 198), but the AFLCIO reform was the most vis-ible leadership change in the labor movement. In 1995, the New Voices slate of JohnSweeney, Rich Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson challenged the old leadership ofthe AFLCIO and won in the first contested presidential election in the history of thefederation (Fantasia and Voss 2004, 98; Fiorito 2007; Moody 1997). While the NewVoices slate was challenged by the 2005 Change to Win Federation that eventually splitfrom the AFLCIO, unions, labor councils and state federations tried to reinvent them-selves in light of the Sweeney win (Fiorito 2007; Ganz et al. 2004).

    New local (as opposed to professional) leaders can help to fuel an increase in rank-and-file participation. At the same time, the rank-and-file can also motivate those reluctant tobecome leaders, as evident among early 20th century US coal miners (Dixon et al. 2004).This prompts us to question the importance of biography for those who rise to leadershippositions. Ganz (2000) emphasizes biography in his discussion of strategic capacity, whichdevelops when leaders (1) combine local and outside knowledge, (2) employ tactics stem-ming from this synthesis of knowledge, and (3) have sustained motivation (Ganz 2000).United Farm Worker (UFW) leaders led lives with deep roots in the farmworker com-munity, either as insiders personally committed to constituencies with whom they iden-tify or outsiders normatively committed to a vocation (Ganz 2000, 1015). In contrast toprofessional leaders with no ties to the worker community, success of the UFW becamea personal mission, which enhanced leader motivation and pushed leaders to draw uponprevious community organizing experience in search of new and innovative tactics andstrategies (Ganz 2000; Haskins 1970).

    Bronfenbrenner and Hickey (2004) note that an increase in union election win rates isdependent upon campaigns that include staff and rank-and-file leadership reflective ofthe unit being organized (55). The Las Vegas HERE campaign launched worker-ledcommittees in every hotel department, which built solidarity among workers and gaveworkers experience in different facets of labor organizing. Internal leadership can developand sustain the solidarity necessary for mobilization (Clawson and Clawson 1999; Dixonet al. 2004).

    Voss and Sherman (2000) argue that a political crisis such as a ruinous strike or a mis-managed local must occur first in order for new leadership to result. Additionally, theycontend that there needs to be the presence of leaders with activist experience outsidethe labor movement (303), who are sensitive to rank-and-file concerns. In conjunctionwith international unions that push top-down change, Voss and Sherman assert that theseaspects can help American labor unions revitalize and break free of the bureaucratic busi-ness union model.

    Can labor leaders with activist experience be effective if their biographies differ fromthe rank-and-file? Levi (2003) argues that local and national unions with leaders commit-ted to broader justice issues are more likely to become SMUs and that the skills learnedvia movement participation provide an orientation to this justice vision. It is also possiblethat current rank-and-filers were strongly influenced by the social movements of theirformative years and became a constituency inside their unions for change (Turner andHurd 2001, 17). Shared experiences could transcend gender, racial, ethnic, and linguistic

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  • differences as Nepstad and Bobs (2006) notion of context-specific cultural capital sug-gests. As I move to a discussion of community-based organizing, I seek to discover howgender, racial, and ethnic boundaries are addressed.

    Community-based organizing

    While community mobilization was critical for labors success in the 1930s, an emphasison community declined during the latter half of the 20th century (Clawson 2003; Gold-field 1989). In addition to the NLRA and Taft-Hartley, suburbanization accelerated adecline in community ties in that workers were less likely to live close to their work-place and less likely to ride public transportation, where they could meet workers fromother worksites (Clawson 2003, 96). Recently, there has been a push for solidarityamong workers and broad-based community organizing, which brings larger segments ofthe community together for workers rights (Fantasia and Voss 2004).

    Community mobilizing is not a new phenomenon as Voss (1993) shows in her statisti-cal analysis of late 19th century New Jersey Knights of Labor locals. She found withinthe community, the presence of craft locals encouraged the organization of less-skilledworkers (172). Since within the industry, craft locals had the potential to hinder theorganization of less-skilled workers, the geographical community was the most promis-ing foundation on which to build an inclusive labor movement (1723). This type oforganizing can bring the community together in solidarity and counter employer offen-sives (Voss 1988).

    Besides geographical proximity, workers may come into union activism through neigh-borhood ties, pre-existing organizations and collective identities (McAdam 1988;McCarthy 1987). For example, despite the notion that a predominantly immigrant work-force is often considered to be unorganizable, labor organizing among Mexican andother Latino immigrants took off in the 1990s (Milkman 2007, 96). Existing immigrantnetworks facilitated community organizing as the SEIU Los Angeles Justice for Janitor (Jfor J) campaign illustrates (Milkman 2000). Neighborhood, commuter, occupational, andimmigrant communities overlapped to make mobilization more feasible for janitors in theL.A. metropolitan area, which is famous for no community (Milkman and Wong2001, 111). The successful campaign brought thousands of Mexican and Central Ameri-can immigrants into the union (Moody 1997, 175).

    In the current economic and political context, corporations, ironically, are providingunions with new opportunities for organizing (Cornfield et al. 1998, 247). Rampantdownsizing accompanied by temporary and part-time work is helping to dismantleemployee loyalty that once strengthened relationships with employers and weakenedunion organizing efforts. As long-term employment becomes a distant memory, opportu-nities exist to forge new relationships in the community outside of the workplace tostrengthen and redefine labor organizing (Clawson 2003). For example, alliances betweenlabor and environmental groups are forming despite the past history of antagonismbetween them (Obach 2004; Rose 2000). The corporate global reach also enables thecommunity to be expanded.

    Staggenborgs (1998) utilizes the concept of social movement community not todenote geographical proximity but to encompass all actors who share and advance thegoals of a social movement (182). She explains that while some social movementparticipants respond to political opportunities, large numbers of participants are attractedby the culture of the movement community (183). A shared culture encompassing sym-bols, values and ideologies enables a movement community to develop and in reference

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  • to labor, to extend beyond the union or SMO to include students, people of faith andnon-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Almeida 2008; Staggenborg 1998; Van Dykeet al. 2007).

    A case in point is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker-led,non-violent, community-based organization in Immokalee, FL hoping to improve farm-worker conditions by striving to increase workers pay to a fair wage, to enforce theworkers right to organize and to eliminate indentured servitude in the fields (Lydersen2005). A major component of the CIW strategy is the participation of allies who havemobilized with Immokalee farmworkers and share a common vision of fair food(Sellers 2009; Student Farmworker Alliance, 2010). Allies include students, communityactivists, people of faith from various traditions and human rights, labor, sustainable foodand agriculture, and environmental organizations. While not a union, the CIW has signedagreements with Taco Bell and Yum! Brands, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods,Subway, Compass, Aramark and Sodexo (http://www.ciw-online.org/about.html). Com-munity organizations that build alliances such as these provide the opportunity for moreaggressive tactics and for campaigns to have a greater impact within a broader communityframework (Clawson and Clawson 1999).

    Worker centers

    A worker center is a type of community organization that trade unions and non-unionaffiliated workers implemented to combat the decline in union membership and power(Ness 1998). Subcontracting resulted in a decentralized corporate structure that makes itdifficult for unions to obtain a contract even with an adequate membership base(Bonacich 2000; Moody 2007; Ness 1998). To complicate matters, a contract cannotprevent job loss or shop relocation, a possibility more intimidating to workers than astrike is to an employer. The worker center approach organizes workers regardless ofemployment site to address the limitations that subcontracting brings to traditionalbusiness union organizing (Bonacich 2000; Ness 1998).

    While worker centers are geographically bound, they differ from other community-based organizations in that they focus mainly, though not exclusively, on workplaceissues (Fine 2006; Milkman 2007; Moody 2007, 35). Unlike a labor union that alsoplaces its focus on workplace issues, a worker centers biggest advantage is its inclusionof nonunionized workers (Ness 1998, 93). They tend to be located in the areas wherework is sought (such as street corners or parking lots) and not necessarily at employmentsites (Fine 2006; Moody 2007). Most worker centers focus on a combination of six fac-tors including service and support, advocacy, socializing and solidarity, leadership training,education, and organizing (Bonacich 2000; Fine 2006; Moody 2007; Needleman 1998;Ness 1998). Although the workplace is the center of attention, the notion of workplaceissue is far reaching. Issues include retrieving unpaid wages, pressuring employers forbetter and safer working conditions, and assisting workers with completing work or resi-dent related paperwork (Fine 2006; Moody 2007).

    The three worker center waves coincide with recent immigration waves (Fine 2006;Moody 2007). The first wave, which began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coincidedwith the rise of service sector jobs and was initiated by politically minded activists withsome connection to union organizing (Fine 2006; Moody 2007, 217). The second wavebegan in the late 1980s and was mainly comprised of immigrants from Central Americafleeing the violence of civil war, revolution and US intervention. The third wave of

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  • worker centers, which came after 2000, has been most connected to established unions(Fine 2006; Moody 2007).

    Bonacich (2000) contends that worker centers give workers necessary tools to fightback against exploitative employers. She found that a worker center in Los Angeles notonly aids workers in recovering withheld wages, but also offers an education about rightsand the political economy through low-risk struggles that have radicalizing effects(Bonacich 2000). The worker center becomes the training-ground for the building of ageneral movement of garment workers who, regardless of where they work, are ready tofight when necessary (147). While non-union affiliated worker centers have drawbacksin that they are small and dependent upon foundation grants as opposed to worker duesfor funding, they also have advantages (Clawson and Clawson 1999; Moody 2007). Theyinclude all workers (and not just union members) and are outside of the control of theNational Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which places strict limitations on tactics andstrategies (Needleman 1998; Ness 1998). Working outside of the NLRB may provideincreased innovation and flexibility in an organizations social movement repertoire, espe-cially in regards to corporate campaigns, a topic to which I now turn (Martin 2008).

    Corporate campaigns

    In an effort to reject traditional NLRB procedures, unions subscribing to SMU sometimesrely on corporate campaigns to address power inequalities between employers and employ-ees, including issues posed by subcontracting, temporary and part-time work (Fantasia andVoss 2004; Hurd et al. 2003). Changes such as increased employer union resistance,unfriendly labor regulations and restraints on traditional union tactics, union vulnerabilityto corporate business strategies and union decline in the private sector have prompted laborto seek alternatives to collective bargaining, picketing and strikes (McGuiness 1996; Perry1996). Corporate campaigns are an innovative way for labor to make gains in what often isan unfriendly economic environment. Other advantages to corporate campaigns includecost-effectiveness (in comparison to strikes) and the possibility that they can lead to alli-ances with unions and political actors in other countries thereby providing opportunitiesfor transnational labor organizing (Hurd et al. 2003, 113; Perry 1996).

    Corporate campaigns attempt to pressure a company into changing its practices towardemployees by exploit[ing] the points of vulnerability of the target company (Jarley andMaranto 1990; Perry 1996, 338). Some campaigns challenge business practices by pressur-ing top policymakers and interfering in the employers relations with lenders, clients,shareholders, and subsidiaries (Jarley and Maranto 1990; Northrup 1991; Voss andSherman 2000, 312). Others use media and direct action to obtain public support forcampaigns and broader union goals by focusing on issues such as dignity and fairness inaddition to material concerns (Jarley and Maranto 1990; Sellers 2009; Soule 2009; Vossand Sherman 2000, 312). In sum, they are a way for activists to target well-knowncompanies and attempt to do real damage to its image in an attempt to force change(Soule 2009, 13).

    Corporate campaigns are often traced to a dispute between the Amalgamated Clothingand Textile Workers Union and textile firm, J.P. Stevens, during the 1970s and 1980s(Jarley and Maranto 1990; Perry 1996; Voss and Sherman 2000). Although the termcorporate campaign was first used in the Stevens case, Johnston (2001) claims corporatecampaigns originated with UFW efforts. Given the difficulty of targeting specific growers,the UFW chose to target and boycott all grapes and products of Schenley and Digiorgioindustries to win labor contracts and union recognition for California agricultural

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  • workers. Since it made little sense for large corporations to risk compromising theirbrands for the sake of minor farming operations, especially when they had union con-tracts elsewhere (Ganz 2000, 1040), the industry eventually complied with the workersand their supporters demands (Johnston 2001).

    The first step to a successful corporate campaign is discovering the most vulnerableplayer. The J for J campaign learned that although subcontractors hired the janitors whocleaned office buildings, they were neither the power holders nor the most vulnerable(Fantasia and Voss 2004; Hurd et al. 2003). Office building owners were both powerfuland the most vulnerable to public opinion and social disruption because their profitsdepended on maintaining the prestigious reputation of their properties and keeping thevacancy rate low (Fantasia and Voss 2004, 140). To concede only cost building ownersone to two cents unlike subcontractors affected by changes in workers wages. Bad pub-licity was more costly than concession (Perry 1987). In the end, the L.A. J for J campaignpushed the buildings owner to hand the contractor a thirty-day ultimatum, basicallyamounting to go union or youre fired (Fantasia and Voss 2004, 141). Both cases illus-trate conflict escalation, another key factor to corporate campaigns (Jarley and Maranto1990; Perry 1987). Conflict escalation creates target pressure, legitimizes union effort andaids in gathering public support by demonstrating that (1) that the target is unfair toorganized labor; (2) that it is a corporate outlaw; or (3) that it profits from human mis-ery (Jarley and Maranto 1990, 515). If a union verifies claims and encourages publicsupport, then conflict escalation may gain momentum (Perry 1987).

    Transnational components of social movement unionism

    Neoliberalism, free trade policies, and multinational corporations (MNCs) have led laborto seek new opportunities in codes of conduct, transnational corporate campaigns, appealsto broader justice issues and transnational alliances among workers and consumers.Although neoliberalism has accelerated the growing employer assault on union wages,conditions, centralized bargaining practices, and in some countries, union rights and free-doms (Moody 1997, 122), the globalizing world can potentially link workers acrossnational borders (Willis 1998). Instead of US labor concerning itself with job loss, com-petition and xenophobia, transnational connections can lead to international worker soli-darity (Evans 2005; Willis 1998).

    Initially, some workers and consumers responded to job loss and shop relocationbeyond US borders with the resurgence of the Buy American movement initiated bythe International Ladies Garment Workers Union (Frank 1999). In contrast, SMUcarries its social justice concern to international anti-corporate efforts (Fantasia and Voss2004). Workers and allies try to realize stateless regulation through internationalboycotts, codes of conduct and transnational campaigns intended to put global pressureon points of corporate vulnerability (Seidman 2007, 1). Stateless transnational laborcampaigns appeal to a worldwide audience through international human rights standards,use external monitors such as NGOs and rally consumer pressure to be placed on acorporate violator if needed (Seidman 2007).

    The anti-sweatshop movement, which arose in the mid-1990s on US college cam-puses, is a transnational labor campaign that uses consumer pressure by way of a socialjustice frame (Clawson 2003; Snow and Benford 1992). Now known as United StudentsAgainst Sweatshops (USAS), the movement pressured universities to carry university logoapparel that was sweat free (Clawson 2003; Seidman 2007). To assure this, they createdthe Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent monitoring system that

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  • responds to workers complaints, brings international attention to abuses and makes abusesvisible to the general public (Clawson 2003; Seidman 2007). Besides urging universityadministrators to join the WRC and pay dues to fund it, USAS launched campus cam-paigns against MNCs such as The Gap, Nike and Liz Claiborne whose subcontractorswere committing labor abuses. USAS used mobilizing tactics such as stories, photos andpersonal accounts (Clawson 2003; Seidman 2007). Considering that apparel companiesdepend upon the college-aged market, companies aimed at American students, like TheGap may want to demonstrate good citizenship, and are susceptible to giving in to thistype of naming and shaming (Evans 2005; Seidman 2007, 129).

    In her analysis of three transnational campaigns, Seidman (2007) details how MNCs havebeen pressured to agree to some corporate social responsibility for the communitieswhere global investments were located (47). The Sullivan principles defined good cor-porate citizenship, tried to enforce labor standards of American companies in South Africaand hoped to undermine apartheid (Seidman 2007). Indias Rugmark exemplifies sociallabeling that ensures carpets are sold free of child labor. Like the South African case, Rug-mark is a foreign dominated effort imposed from outside that gave Indian citizens littlecontrol over the goals, the process, or the outcome (Seidman 2007, 99). As Bob (2002)notes in his study of Ogoni mobilization in Nigeria, transnational support may encouragemovements to take actions that are risky or counterproductive at home (409).

    In the 1990s, monitoring of the Guatemalan apparel industry began with preexistingties involving church groups, human rights organizations, indigenous groups, and laboractivists as well as ordinary migrants (Seidman 2007, 103). Activists with ties helped tofound Guatemalas Commission for the Verification of Codes of Conduct, which moni-tors Guatemalan clothing factories that are often subcontractors of brand-name retailers(Seidman 2007). Seidman not only argues that workers voices are heard in this structure(because of the close ties with activists), but also that the state could intervene (if neces-sary) to regulate subcontracting and prevent shops from closing. Relational ties betweenworkers and consumers may contribute to stronger alliances in which consumers followand respect workers diagnoses, demands and prescriptions.


    Social movement unionism is a particular form of organizing that sees workers strugglesas merely one of many efforts to qualitatively change society (Scipes 1992, 86). I have dis-cussed the most prominent labor trends including: (1) rank-and-file mobilization, (2) lead-ership, (3) community-based organizing, (4) worker centers, (5) corporate campaigns, and(6) transnational components. These contemporary trends, which I consider to be majorelements of SMU, may provide for a renewed interest in labor as a social movementwhile also offering an opportunity to extend our understanding of old versus newsocial movements. For instance, scholars may consider assessing the extent of SMU withinthe labor movement as well as its outcomes compared to the business union model. Theliterature would also benefit from an evaluation of these trends in relationship to oneanother in regards to prominence and success. In sum, the labor movement, especiallySMU, deserves systematic attention in conjunction with new social movements.

    Short Biography

    Jane Schuchert Walsh is a PhD candidate in the sociology department at the Universityof Pittsburgh. Her research is located at the intersection of social movements and labor

    A New Social Movement 201

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  • and focuses on social movement allies such as students and people of faith in worker-ledcampaigns. Her current dissertation seeks to understand how a social movement organiza-tion is able to attract and incorporate individual and organizational allies yet maintainautonomy and avoid co-optation of the movement goals, organizational styles and collec-tive actions through the lens of the ally experience. In 2010 she was awarded theNational Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant and plans to complete herPhD by May 2012.


    * Correspondence address: Jane Schuchert Walsh, Department of Sociology, University of Pittsburgh, 2614 WesleyW. Posvar Hall, 230 Bouquet Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, USA. E-mail: jmw129@pitt.edu or janeschuchert@hotmail.com


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