Social Movement Unionism

Brief History of the Labor Movement:

Protectionism was the sprit of the United States when unions were initially introduced to the Economy. Unions sought to protect American workers’ interests. Unions aimed to reduce competition form foreign markets, and bring forth job stability to the American workforce. It is evident then, why American unions did not seek internationalist ties, and cross borders to untie worldwide. With the ever-evolving world economy, these ideologies of the past are being challenged in order to strengthen the bargaining power of the modern American union.

Traditionally, American ideologies have been very focused on American goals and concerns. Unions sprung forth and developed in the period after WWI, where economic policies were very nationalist. The economy after WWI was devastated, and ultimately lead to the great depression, which further collapsed the world economy. In attempts to strengthen the American economy protectionist approaches advocated tariffs and quotas on imports, government policies to promote the production of domestic goods, and to “buy American.” Consequently, these ideologies became indoctrinated into the union beliefs and goals, and remained through most of the 20 century.

Competition over jobs with foreign markets was the key reason that most unions did not seek an internationalist approach towards unionization. Furthermore, different countries had different forms of unions and organizations. With the Cold War fervor of the 1980’s, seeking to associate with non-communist unions was a daunting task, due to the ramped control of unions by non-democratic governments. Moreover, the United State’s success of going it alone, and getting the job done, made many individuals doubt the potential of international unions.

Besides ideological boundaries to cross border unionization, there were other forces hindering the internationalist approach. First and foremost, the greatest boundary to unionization was communication. Language barriers made it difficult to communicate with foreign organizations. Furthermore, many Americans are not fluent in multiple languages, making it difficult to establish ties with international organizations. In addition, many developing nations lack the technologies and telecommunications necessary to communicate with the rest of the world. Moreover, the gender gap in communication, made it difficult to understand the different goals that many developing nations (were women were the predominate workforce) held versus those of the United States (were traditionally men were the predominate leaders in the workforce. Although this has now changed in today’s time, in past decades prior to the women’s right revolution it was an obstacle in communication ) . The male mentality was a definite challenge to establishing cross border communication. Therefore, for unions to establish cross border bonds, a lot more than a shift in ideological perspectives would be needed.

Only 12.9 % of United States workers are currently union members in 2003. Therefore, it is obvious that domestically, unions do not hold the power they did in pervious years. As American jobs flee the United States to developing countries, these new workers do not enjoy the luxuries that we as American workers held in that position. Therefore, new innovations need to be made to strengthen the power of unions on an international level. With many Americans now competing globally for jobs, it is only obvious that the nationalist ideologies of the past need to be abandoned in order to unify the international workforce toward a common goal. International labor standards, cross border communications, international organizations, and debt forgiveness are just a few of the cornerstones of the internationalist approach. For Unions to truly succeed, the internationalist approach needs to be developed globally, consequently strengthening the bargaining power of unions.

Enter Social Movement Unionism:

Social Movement Unionism (SMU) is not the answer for the American labor movement. Although it’s goals and techniques seem appealing, in reality they are utopian ideals of a perfect society. Reality is society is far from perfect. SMU’s goals are to idealistic in nature, and would not be effective in the capitalist structure of the United States. Moreover, SMU calls for a radical change within in the structure of capitalist society. Such a fundamental change to the structure of capitalism against the favor of corporations would result on a negative impact on the US economy. Unions have a difficult time gaining respect and recognition to begin with; as a result, SMU would cause greater hostility from corporate elites on the labor movement.

A radical social change against the favor of corporations may lead to destabilization of the US economy; in a time where the current market is very vulnerable due to one of the largest budget deficits of our time. SMU would encourage many American multi nationals to flee the United States to countries with policies more favorable toward corporations. The stability and prosperity of American society has derived much of it’s power form these powerful American multi nationals. As a result, employing policies that limit corporate profits would lead to further devaluization of the dollar and economic insecurity due to the flight of corporate powerhouses to other nations.

SMU is more damaging than effective for the United States. Countries that have had success with SMU does not guarantee that the US economy will benefit from such a movement. The current capitalist environment is one where intense competition dictates the market. Nations compromise toward globalization ideals. Tax breaks, incentives, and pro corporate polices all entice corporate elites when deciding to locate their next corporate headquarters. As a result, backing SMU ideals would leave the United States vulnerable in a time where many nations are competing to unseat the US as a leader in the global market.

Counter Argument

Social Movement Unionism, in it’s ideal form, has a high degree of autonomy from the state, from political parties, and from employers (Nissen, 190). SMU is very democratic and highly open to membership (which is also voluntary). SMU’s ideological framework is centered on the notion that their purpose has a social change mission (Nissen, 191). In addition, these changes are fundamental in nature; therefore, SMU is critical of the existing social order. The radicalness of SMU is one of the techniques that aids the movement in accomplishing their goals.

Their ability to rally and organize large numbers of the population toward a common social change objective demonstrates the ideological restructuring power of an effective SMU movement. SMU would revitalize the American labor movement by bringing social movements together. The strategy of unifying social movements toward a common social change goal adds leverage to the labor movement. Their ability to unify and strengthen their position is also derived from the inclusive membership policies they uphold. Furthermore, the technique of large-scale mobilization is one of the most critical aspects of SMU. Consequently, these distinct and different aspects of the SMU demonstrate proven and effective strategies for gaining power within their social hierarchy to reshape social order and ideological perspectives.


The American labor movement would regain power and the political clout it once held in pervious decades if they employed the strategies of SMU. SMU has the ability to bring organizations together and work toward a fundamental goal, while projecting a sense of urgency toward the movement’s goal within the population as a whole. SMU strategies have been proven effective and successful abroad, in many developed and under developed nations. The American labor movement has failed in accomplishing such feats and would learn substantially from employing SMU tactics. Business Unionist ideals and techniques, the traditional American answer, are no longer effective in today’s capitalist society. The dynamics behind capitalist structures has changed, and consequently, our labor movement needs to change in order to effectively deal with these new dynamics. As a result, SMU is the best form of unionism to accomplish the current goals of the American labor movement.

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