Organizing with solidarity in mind: Notes on social movement unionism and critical equity work

This is a chapter from AK Press's Why Don't the Poor Rise Up, which is out now.

This is a chapter from AK Press’s Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up, which is out now.

In November 2015, the National branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) held a convention open to delegates from locals across Canada at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Charging locals $200 for each of the 2,000 delegates in attendance, the convention—a space meant to determine the national union’s social and political priorities for the coming year through social and political action groups and the electing of executive officers—was filled with extravagant gifts, socials, and production value. From the feature-film-like, professionally-edited commercials lauding the union’s work and advocacy, to lavish hotel meeting spaces and penthouse parties, delegates entering these spaces looking for discussions around critical equity work and political organizing through CUPE often found themselves sidelined, even openly antagonized, for critiquing union strategy.

One particular example sticks with me from that convention: a carefully crafted resolution hit the floor to expand the National Executive Board by four seats specifically reserved for members from equity-seeking caucuses: women, LGBTQ workers, workers with disabilities, and young workers. This was a controversial resolution that organizers from each of the four equity-seeking caucuses had campaigned for throughout the course of the convention, handing out flyers and campaigning in hallways from the first day of the convention until the resolution hit the floor on the final day. Despite a week’s worth of modules and impassioned convention speeches on the importance of building solidarity across sectors, organizers were met with a fierce campaign countering their work, a particularly loud group of members flooding microphones in the convention hall to express dissent. These dissenting voices spoke to concerns over favoritism. Other convention-goers cheered, arguing that “talking about our differences takes away from equality,” and that “merit” should be the only consideration, not special seats created to “help people get ahead.” From our seats, we listened to speakers from the growing lines at the mics:

I’m a woman, and I find it insulting that someone would want to create a special seat for me when I’m more than capable of earning it myself. I don’t need a handout.

People earn positions on the National Executive Board. You don’t get reserved seats.

If minorities want to be on the executive board, they can run.

Talking about our differences like this breaks our solidarity.

Suddenly narratives of solidarity, collective action, and campaigns for workers’ rights began to advance without the most marginalized communities in the union hall. It became a space difficult for workers from equity-seeking backgrounds to exist in, listening to convention-goers belittle legitimate claims of systemic discrimination within union structures. Union organizers, activists, and equity representatives worked hard to counter ideas about merit and mobility in union spaces, by touching on issues of power, structural inequalities, and discrimination that has historically kept poor and working class communities from taking on leadership roles at local, provincial, and national levels of CUPE. These testimonies were consistently met with the thin logic of bootstrap development philosophies that falsely equated equality clauses to favoritism and handouts: work hard, and you will move ahead in the union.

Proponents of merit-based ideas of progress and success often neglect to think through important issues of power and privilege in union-spaces that set poor and working class members—particularly women, queer and trans workers, racialized workers, and workers living with disabilities—at a disadvantage from the beginning. The resolution to expand our national executive board was overwhelmingly opposed in the convention hall. It fell to thunderous applause and cheers from a room of largely cis-gendered, able-bodied, white, male delegates. The convention hall was then led through a rendition of “Solidarity Forever” by CUPE National’s in-house band, as the rest of us were left to take in the absurdity of the moment.

This is one of my most vivid memories of union organizing. My first national convention was a staggering moment of defeat for the progressive trade unionists running the campaign for better representation on our National Executive Board. The fallout was new and confusing to me. A fierce backlash I hadn’t expected, followed by the celebration of a motion shut down; a standing ovation for refusing to include these equity seats followed by “Solidarity Forever.” As members in the hall sang, many organizers pushing for the equity seats sat frozen in defeat, caught somewhere between bewilderment and pain from the obvious erasure of such a tune following the failure of a resolution built on principles of inclusion. This loss reveals some of the most pressing blind spots in union organizing to date—the idea that issues of equity, inclusion, and social justice are second to merit-based, bootstrap development principles, and labor management models of unionism.

I’m interested in how trade unions founded on radical ideas of direct action, working-class power, and solidarity have become institutions replicating the same false narratives of development as employers. In labor unions like the Canadian Union of Public Employees, spaces founded on principles of working class empowerment and radical organizing shift to replicate these structural inequalities, and mark a shift in their ability to fight for the poor and working class communities represented in their membership. Principles of equity and inclusion have become afterthoughts in the labor movement’s struggle for working class power. I’m interested in thinking through the work of labor unions as institutions for working class resistance, and the disconnect between the legacy of trade unions as spaces for radical action to improve the lives of the working class through direct action and creative forms of protest, and the present-day focus on collective bargaining and incremental gains as markers of strength and progress in modern labor movements. Modern trade unions replicate the hierarchies and exclusionary tactics of employers by prioritizing collective bargaining and incremental gains over radical forms of social and political mobilization. Poor and working class communities do attempt to rise up and reclaim spaces and power from employers and forces of systemic discrimination, but some of the most detrimental forces to this progressive push come in the form of institutions set up to help and represent working-class communities.

Labor Organizing through Social Movement Unionism

Conversations of social movement unionism are concerned with organizing workers outside of typical workplace issues and moving to embrace social movements and collaborative organizing between workers’ rights movements and social justice work around critical equity issues.1 Social movement unionism stands in staunch opposition to labor management models of unionism that adopt a corporate model of union operations and require local executives to operate as managers of their membership, often instituting the same structures of bureaucracy as employers and reproducing structural inequalities within their work by taking on this kind of managerial role.2 Accordingly, the tactics of social movement unionism differ from labor management models, or business unionism. Social movement unionism is heavily influenced by the drive and dissent from radical activist communities, whereas labor management models of unionism operate as a top-down structure whereby decision-making power and capacities are concentrated with local executives and executive branches of provincial and national unions.3

The same bodies trade unions are meant to combat and hold accountable are able to disenfranchise workers on the basis of social locators such as race, class, and gender. Labor unions are capable of reproducing power inequalities and privilege within their governance. When these forms of inequality are reproduced through institutions tasked with representing poor and working-class communities—through local executives, decision-making capacities and the dissemination of information—only the most privileged are able to access positions of authority in labor movements. When our labor movements ignore—or actively denounce—the impact of racism, classism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry in our institutions, they invalidate the experiences of marginalization and exclusions equity-seeking groups often experience in labor organizing, despite taking on disproportionate amounts of organizing.

On Incremental Gains and Radical Organizing Potential

Disenfranchising and excluding workers from labor movements can happen directly and indirectly through representation and policy in local unions, as well as the strategies and tactics labor unions choose to adopt to hold employers accountable to workers. Whereas the politics of social justice work often allow for organizations to pursue direct forms of action such as rallies, occupations, and very contentious forms of protest, labor management models of unionism are concerned with maintaining friendly relationships with labor management bodies. Union leadership that refuses to engage in contentious negotiations with employers are not capable of defending the rights and interests of their most marginalized members. Critical equity issues—issues of access, targeted discrimination, and exclusion in our workplaces—need to be met with swift action, organizing from labor movements, and an open acknowledgment of the role of employers looking to disenfranchise poor and working-class communities. Employers are not our friends, nor should we negotiate with them as such. Employers have a vested interest in the continued marginalization of poor and working-class communities. To embrace them as friends or allies is a decision made at the expense of our most vulnerable communities.

The idea of incremental gains as tangible progress stands in direct opposition to the by-any-means-necessary tactics of radical organizing and direct action. Past ideas of radical protest—taking over the institutions we work for and reclaiming space through direct action—have been revamped by large trade-unions to, instead, focus on business unionism and labor management models whereby senior leadership and executive committees become middle men, negotiating between employers and their membership in ways that stress strong, positive relationships with employers. When dealing with employers looking to keep workers below the poverty line, and who refuse to address important issues of pay equity, biased hiring practices, and the marginalization of poor and working-class communities, prioritizing incremental gains through collective bargaining processes pushes leadership to work to sell lackluster agreements to the membership, and balance the demands of a radical left with the bottom line—the very least that’s needed to convince members to capitulate to the demands of the employer.

The Corporate Executive: Managing Labor Relations

It’s not uncommon for executive members to become so wrapped up in maintaining these relationships with the employer that they begin to neglect and resent the demands and interests of their members. Prioritizing strong relationships with employers over member-driven organizing and political action works to replicate the same exclusionary forms of top down leadership that employers rely on. When senior leadership in labor unions are occupied with needing to create amicable relationships with employers, they overlook the inherent conflict between employers and working-class communities represented by their unions. Factoring in executive salaries, access to union funds, and the tiered nature of relations between union executives and their membership, can make union executives an extension of the employer.

In this context, when there is no emphasis on union development, training organizers, creating support systems, or social and political action groups to challenge and improve on how local unions function, there is no growth. These practices exclude the most marginalized members—poor and working class, sex-working, BIPOC/racialized members, new immigrants, single parents and families with dependents, workers with disabilities and members disproportionately exposed to harassment and intimidation. Detached from labor management perspectives are the views and experiences of seasoned organizers in union spaces who come from marginalized communities. Because unions don’t typically champion the politics and perspectives of the most marginalized, we see a lack of education and awareness in these spaces when it comes to pressing political concerns around issues of anti-Black racism, anti-poverty organizing, policing, status, and related social movements. In CUPE, we still struggle to connect Black Lives Matter and anti-racism work to union development when Black women and racialized members are threatened, harassed, and disrespected by those who think anti-racism work is a distraction from the goals of the union.

In CUPE 3902, representing teaching assistants and academic workers at the University of Toronto, for example, issues of sexual violence during the 2015 Unit 1 strike went unreported and unresolved when union reps and strike coordinators told those disclosing to “focus on the goals of the strike” and present a united front. Issues of sexual violence highlight the violence and the trauma that we inflict onto vulnerable members looking to address forms of gendered violence and discrimination in union spaces. The advice to “focus on the goals of the union” and “present a united front” is an alarming reminder of the level of violence members are asked to endure and hide in the name of “solidarity.” Equity work and fighting inequality are seen as something secondary to this labor management model of union operations and a rigid focus on building a relationship with the employer by presenting a unified front. But the reality stands: if you can’t walk into a union space and feel safe, secure, and heard, these elusive “goals of the strike” or “goals of the union” aren’t built around you and your needs. In this way, the most marginalized communities are overlooked and pushed out because they aren’t being heard.

Critical Equity Work in Labor Movement Organizing

The work that inspired the motion at CUPE National in 2015 to push for the expansion of our National Executive Board was perceived as a threat to the structure of our union, using principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion to thwart conversations about union operations. Critical equity work and political action that is actively critical of the work of trade unions is interpreted by leadership as threatening—“breaking our solidarity”—and taking time away from the goals of the union by introducing a new, critical rhetoric of leadership and union operations. For these reasons, grassroots organizing in trade unions needs to stay critical of leadership and the operations of our unions both at the provincial and national level, as unconditional partnerships with political parties like the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP) have become the norm. When organizations are tasked with acting as the unilateral voice of working class communities, representing us to employers and government bodies, it’s important that we are able to shape, critique, and direct their work; otherwise, we risk the same forms of hierarchy and exclusion reproducing themselves in the work of our unions.

When labor movements are disconnected from the realities of their most marginalized members, they are disconnected from the roots, realities, and motivations of their most powerful, resilient, and creative organizers. Considerations of social justice, equity, and inclusion are the foundation of a strong labor movement and strong organizing. Thinking about equity and inclusion in the context of bargaining and negotiations means collective agreements do not allow particularly vulnerable groups to slip through the cracks. Equity audits and bargaining built on inclusion point to agreements prioritizing workers from equity seeking groups and strong support networks.

When leaders don’t bother to invest in organizing or outreach, and actively shame people doing mobilizing work, they are scared of their members and the power of a strong, informed, organized union base. Members hold power: the power to elect officials, shape policy, determine bargaining practices and demands, as well as the power of oversight. When members are allowed to access the same information as executive committees, they are better able to hold leadership accountable. In the context of CUPE, a union whose executive is largely comprised of the same faces changing positions from year-toyear, these executive roles are coveted. Elected leaders do not want members, particularly active, critical, and politicized members, to participate in these spaces. Political action, direct action, member-engaged organizing strategies— these things work to shift power and authority off of executive members and onto the membership. That kind of accountability terrifies executive members, because it forces them to get political and get organizing. It highlights their use of union funds and resources, making indiscretions transparent to the members they serve: paying each other out in honorariums, using union funds to buy each other gifts, double salaries, nepotism, and secure jobs within larger divisions of CUPE.

The labor movement isn’t anyone’s playground for a better job opportunity—it’s a political struggle for workers’ rights that has the power to better the lives of some of our most vulnerable communities. When our leadership actively works against member-driven organizing and pushes for critical equity work, they silence the voices, concerns, and demands of those with the most to lose. A friendly relationship with labor relations divisions is not more valuable than engaging a membership ready to organize. It is not the job of executive officers to “sell” anything to their members. Executive officers work for us. They are elected to carry out the will of the membership, and need to be held accountable for abusing power, withholding information, and demobilizing communities. In CUPE this method of critique is dangerously conflated with anti-union sentiments, “breaking our solidarity” to include conversations of critical equity work, and detracting from “union goals” under a labor management model of unionism. The operations, strategizing, and campaigning of modern trade unions should be built on a solid foundation that prioritizes ideas of critical equity work, pushing for diverse representation from marginalized, working-class communities within our membership.

Unions replicate the work, strategies, and philosophy of employers looking to disenfranchise working class communities when they prioritize business unionism and labor management models built on incremental gains over member-driven organizing and engaged critiques of union leadership and developments. When unions shut these voices out of union development and campaigns, we get creative in our organizing. To survive, grassroots, working-class campaigns rely on action and outreach that the apolitical cannot replicate—grounded forms of member engagement, public education, and political action. These are methods that lead to many uncomfortable conversations, requiring patience, unlearning, and a dedication to building spaces for as many members as possible, but often what these member-driven initiatives reveal to us is that we must be willing to question, critique, and defy traditional notions of solidarity to build it properly and authentically.

  1. Peter Waterman, “Social-movement unionism: A new union model for a new world order?” Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 16.3 (Summer 1993): 245–78.  

  2. Melay Abao, Fighting Back With Social Movement Unionism: A Handbook for APL Activists (Quezon City, Philippines: Alliance of Progressive Labour, 2001).  

  3. Stephanie Ross, “Varieties of social unionism: Towards a framework for comparison,” Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Study 11 (2007): 16–32; Jim Smith, “The corporatization of unions,” Labor Notes, June 30, 2002. Available online: