Friday, February 20, 2015

Social Justice/Movement vs Economic Unionism - Where Does the UFT Stand?

"I don't have time to give a shit about Cuomo -- I'm in a life and death struggle with my principal and the union people I deal with seem to be on his side" .... overheard at the Feb. UFT Delegate Assembly.

I raise this point as an introduction to this piece because I don't care how a union or caucus brands itself - SJ, SM, business/economic unionism  - the battle comes down to the school level and if that doesn't get addressed it all become irrelevant. I maintain that the UFT's unwillingness or inability to address this issue - and in fact often defend some principals and brand the members complaining as malcontents - goes beyond labels. Many - not all -- Social Justice oriented people often seem to be working in schools they like - if you are in a career death spiral due to an oppressive administration it is hard to keep your head above water to think beyond survival.

On the other hand, with the attacks on unions, without a social justice/movement component, unions stand alone, so there is a yin-yang going on.

Let me get into this pretty interesting piece on Social Justice unionism posted at Substance.
With the recent decision by the Washington Post, not generally a friend of labor unions, to feature a lengthy essay by Milwaukee's Bob Peterson, and the attempts by some in the Chicago Teachers Union to brand CORE as a "social justice caucus," it's time for a full debate over not only terminology but underlying concepts. The following essay by Substance staff member and contributor Kim Scipes helps frame some of the issues that are, once again, coming to the forefront as the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union ends its campaigns in the Chicago municipal elections and heads into a fierce fight over the new contract, the first since the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012...... George N. Schmidt, editor, Substance
I posted Milwaukee union president Bob Peterson's piece on Ed Notes recently with some commentary -- Undemocratic Teacher Unions Are the Problem, Not the Solution.  I also posted a summary of SJ caucus actions around the nation from UCORE -- Ve R Not Alone -- UCORE - United Caucuses of Rank ....

Bob, one of the founders of progressive Rethinking Schools, is one of the most interesting educators I've met - a lifetime classroom teacher catapulted into union leadership - yes, he is NOT a lawyer pretending to be a teacher. Interesting point -- he is NEA not AFT but Wisconsin may see a merger and that would add Bob to the other progressive union leaders, hopefully in time for the 2016 AFT convention in Minneapolis.

George  Schmidt posted a very interesting scholarly piece on the roots of social justice/movement unionism by Kim Scipes. 'Social Movement Unionism', 'Social Justice Unionism,' or some other understanding... Disentangling Theoretical Confusion within the Global Labor Movement

 ....those promoting the concept of social movement unionism in North America argue for a democratic, rank and file-led unionism that mobilizes their members to address not only issues of the union’s (institutionalized) self-interest, but also issues within unions themselves, as well as the interests of all poor and working people in general, but without challenging the existence of the current social order.
George used this photo I took at the past summer AFT convention in LA - George was in the audience but I had this camera angle.
By July 2014, leaders of the three largest pre-K - 12 locals in the American Federation of Teachers were brought together to discuss "social movement unionism" during the convention of the American Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles. Above, Michael Mulgrew (President of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City), Karen Lewis (President of the Chicago Teachers Union) and Alex Caputo Pearl (President of the United Teachers of Los Angeles) were on the panel on "social movement unionism" during the 2014 AFT convention in Los Angeles. Substance photo by Norm Scott.
George and I often have discussions on SJ unionism and SJ caucuses - as both CORE in Chicago and MORE in NYC have branded themselves - and we do at times roll our eyes at some of the rhetoric we hear. I ran into a whole crew at the convention this summer that were under attack in LA that are not supporters of Alex or SJ unionism.

I can't tell you how often someone in MORE says we have to do or take a position on a, b or c because we are a social justice -- no -- THE social justice caucus -- in the UFT. I often respond that Unity Caucus, though branded by the left as a "business" union has a few aspects of SJ unionism - at least on the surface.

Both George and I are not comfortable with the branding and at times I would like to either ink out "The Social Justice Caucus of the UFT" phrase on the MORE teeshirts or add a bunch of other phrases to go with it - like we are "THE defense of public education and teacher rights" caucus, which I think is SJ but a more inclusive term. Fact is, different people in MORE have their own definitions of Social justice/movement unionism and that is what at times makes the branding an internal burden. My feeling is it often comes down to what you do at the school level.

Here are just a few excerpts from Kim Scipes' long piece which may not be for everyone but certainly worth taking a look at:

I'm also including the 20 questions to ask about your own union - come up with a score for the UFT, which the opposition often brands as an economic or business union. was argued that there were three types of trade unionism in the world: economic, political, and social movement unionism.

Economic trade unionism was defined as:
... unionism that accommodates itself to, and is absorbed by, the industrial relations system of its particular country; which engages in political activities within the dominant political system for the well-being of its members and its institutional self but generally limits itself to immediate interests... (Scipes, 1992a:126).

Political unionism was defined as:
... unionism that is dominated by or subordinated to a political party or state, to which the leaders give primary loyalty—and this includes both the Leninist and “radical nationalist” versions. This results in generally but not totally neglecting workplace issues for "larger" political issues (Scipes, 1992a: 127).

And then, after detailing the debate over “social movement unionism” (Scipes, 1992a:127-133), this version of social movement unionism was defined as:
… a model of trade unionism that differs from the traditional forms of both economic and political unionism. This model sees workers’ struggles as merely one of many efforts to qualitatively change society, and not either the only site for political struggle and social change or even the primary site. Therefore, it seeks alliances with other social movements on an equal basis, and tries to join them in practice when possible, both within the country and internationally.

Social movement unionism is trade unionism democratically controlled by the membership and not by any external organization, which recognizes that the struggles for control over workers’ daily work life, pay and conditions is intimately connected with and cannot be separated from the national sociopolitical- economic situation. This requires that struggles to improve the situation of workers confront the national situation—combining struggles against exploitation and oppression in the workplace with those confronting domination both external from and internal to the larger society—as well as any dominating relations within the unions themselves. Therefore, it is autonomous from capital, the state and political parties, setting its own agenda from its own particular perspective, yet willing to consider modifying its perspective on the basis of negotiations with the social movements [and political parties] with which it is allied with and which it has equal relations (Scipes, 1992a: 133).29
One of the constant debates in the opposition in the UFT over the  45 years I've been involved has been over whether a caucus should focus solely on the economic model, a debate that has led to internal conflicts and splits. Note these points by Kim Scipes relevant to a group like MORE, which focuses on building a core of activists (as I saw yesterday at a MORE meeting with 11 people who gave up half their vacation day.)

I think there is a big difference between CORE in Chicago which has control of the union and MORE in NYC which is a tiny sliver of people mostly unknown to the vast majority of UFT members, most of whom have little interest in SJ unionism. But the yang of this is that if you are trying to build a core of activists who are willing to give up chunks of their lives to organize people in the union, they are more likely to do so if they are SJ oriented - and no caucus can go very far without people to do the work.
The adoption of a particular conceptualization of unionism by any union at best is a product of a three-way interaction between members, activists (informal leaders) and formal leaders, although obviously, once established, formal union leadership in some cases can encourage or hinder membership and/or activist involvement in such choice. In other words, the form of trade unionism chosen is more than just a product of the presence or absence of activists
and their particular politics: activists are important, but how they are facilitated or constrained by formal leaders is a factor, as is how the membership responds or does not respond to their ideas/activities/proposals, etc.
At the same time, this is a process critically affected by how collective decisions are made, whether inclusively from the bottom-upwards, or exclusively from the top-downwards:  unions whose positions are based on inclusive rank-and-file participation and collective decisionmaking are more likely to have greater membership participation and maintain vibrant internal democracy than are unions that exclude rank-and-file members from decision-making processes (see Ross, 2008: 148-153). Further, support for any form of unionism based on inclusion and collective decision-making is much more likely to survive difficult times than those with exclusive decision-making.
The comment in bold is a key -- the UFT is screaming for members to jump in on the Cuomo battle but as all too many people have said -- I don't have time to give a shit about Cuomo -- I'm in a life and death struggle with my principal. I don't care how a union or caucus brands itself - SJ, SM - the battle comes down to the school level and if that doesn't get addressed it all become irrelevant.

Is the UFT an economic or social justice union: 20 questions to rate the UFT. Kim raises an interesting point. "The sets of questions have been divided into two categories—institutional and programmatic concerns—so as to indicate differences between how things are formally organized and how they work in practice."

Unity trolls claim the UFT institutional is democratically organized. I don't agree, but especially in the practice it is not democratic.

Measuring Different Forms of Trade Unionism
A 20-question scale has been developed by which to measure different forms of [economic] trade unionism. 

While a study involving more than two unions would need a more elaborate scale devised to help determine relationships among the unions, this is not needed in a qualitative study with only two unions being studied. Nevertheless, there are several issues that need to be specifically considered in any effort to distinguish between business and social justice forms of unionism.

The sets of questions have been divided into two categories—institutional and programmatic concerns—so as to indicate differences between how things are formally organized and how they work in practice. Ideally, a union is formally organized in a way so as to encourage its program, but whether it is remains an empirical question. In any case, it is suggested that actual practice is the more important of the two factors—i.e., any conception of
“structural determinism” is rejected—and thus double the weight is accorded to the answers in the “programmatic concerns” section.
In asking the following questions, business unionism is used as the referent, so a specific threshold must be reached for a union to qualify as a social justice union: it is assumed that a US-based union is based on business unionism unless it “proves” otherwise. Accordingly, in this measurement scale, one or two points (depending on section) is awarded for attributes associated with social justice unionism. There are 30 possible points than can be accumulated, and to qualify for classification as a social justice union, a minimum of 20 points (66.7%) must be attained: this sets the threshold at a high but not impossible level, suggesting that the finding that a union is a social justice union denotes a qualitative difference between that and a business union.
A key feature in any determination is the issue of union democracy (Lipset, Trow and Coleman, 1956/1962). Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin (1995: 830-836) specifically focus on requirements for union democracy based on the work of Franz Neuman. They argue the standard for union democracy “is the same standard met by any political system qualifying as a democracy.” Therefore, union democracy must combine (1) a democratic constitution, with “guarantees of basic civil liberties and political rights”; (2) an institutionalized opposition, which is “the freedom of members to criticize and debate union officials and to organize, oppose, and replace officers through freely contested elections among contending political associations”; and (3) an active membership, which they define as “maximum participation by its members in the actual exercise of power within the union and in making the decisions that affect them” (Stepan- Norris and Zeitlin, 1995: 830). This measurement scale includes these requirements in it, but then goes beyond them as well. While ultimately I believe that all 20 questions relate to the issue of union democracy, I believe that the following relate to the Stepan-Norris/Zeitlin explication: 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 17, 18 and 19.

However, the question must be asked: is “social justice unionism” simply the same as “union democracy”? No. On my scale, affirmative responses to these items identified immediately above provide 15 of 30 possible points. This, a social justice union conceptualization, by definition (i.e., needing a minimum of 20 points on my scale), requires more than just affirmative answers to these specific questions; a social justice conceptualization
cannot be reached through union democracy alone.
Institutional concerns

1. How was the union founded?
• 0 points if founded by another union
• 1 point if the union is the product of rank and file efforts or 1 point if the initial organization bequeathed by the founding union is rejected by the subsequent union

2. Does the Union Constitution ensure freedom of speech and association for members?
• 0 points if no
• 1 point if yes

3. Are leaders elected or appointed?
• 0 point if they are generally appointed
• 1 point if they are generally elected

4. What is the length of term of office?
• 0 points if three or more years
• 1 point if less than three years

5. Do top officers reflect rank and file racial demographics?
• 0 points if rarely
• 1 point if generally

6. Do top officers reflect rank and file gender demographics?
• 0 points if rarely
• 1 point if generally

7. How often are union conventions held?
• 0 points if at a three year or longer interval
• 1 point if more often than three years

8. Are elections for top-level officers publicly held with roll call votes recorded?
• 0 points if rarely
• 1 point if usually

9. Must collective bargaining agreements (contracts) be ratified by the general membership covered?
• 0 points if no
• 1 point if yes

10. Are members encouraged to participate in union activities?
• 0 point if generally no
• 1 point if generally yes

Programmatic concerns:
11. Do union leaders try to ascertain members’ concerns and desires?
• 0 if rarely
• 2 points if usually

12. Do union concerns extend beyond workplace issues such as wages, working conditions and benefits?
• 0 points if rarely
• 2 points if usually

13. Does the union actively target continuing discriminations (such as race, gender)?
• 0 points if rarely
• 2 points if usually

14. Does the union develop and present on-going education programs?
• 0 points if rarely
• 2 points if usually

15. Does the union initiate leadership development programs?
• 0 points if rarely
• 2 points if usually

16. Does the union join with grassroots community-based groups to work for social and/or economic justice?
• 0 points if rarely
• 2 points if usually

17. Is convention discussion limited to officers’ and committees’ concerns, or are broad rank and file concerns addressed?
• 0 points if generally limited
• 2 points if generally broad

18. Are issues discussed/debated on floor of convention or confined tin committees?
• 0 points if generally confined to committees
• 2 points if generally debated on the floor of convention

19. Are bargaining committees limited to full-time staff/officers or broadened to include rank and filers and/or stewards?
• 0 points if generally limited
• 2 points if generally broadened

20. When bargaining committees are broad, are members active participants or for “decoration” (i.e., mainly observers)?
• 0 points if generally for decoration
• 2 points if generally active

From answers to the above questions, a union can be categorized as either a business or social justice union: if a union is awarded 19 or fewer points, it is classified as a business union; 20 or more points gets it classified as a social justice union.


  1. Thank you, Norm, for a penetrating analysis of the issues raised in these various pieces.

  2. UFT got over 20 points.We are a social justice union.

    1. You must be marking on a big curve. I give them 10-12 at most. I'll put the questions up in a new post and ask for comments on the numbers. You must be counting astroturf for community outreach.
      And you must think they are pretty democratic since that is a big component of SJ unions.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.