Unlike a labor union, which is an empirical reality as a bureaucratic organization, a labor movement is a conceptual, rather than a physical, category. While its components are real (labor unions), it is a construct of people’s minds. In common usage it refers to a nation’s labor unions and the working class. Viewed as an ideal type (a Weberian term referring to the ideal version), it implies unity, coordination, cohesion, and, to draw on the favorite word of supporters of the concept, labor solidarity.
Union leaders promote respect for the concept because it connotes strength and purpose. The idea of the existence of a labor movement gives vote-seeking politicians reason to pay favorable attention to labor’s political agenda. It gives union organizers an attractive image to leverage in their ceaseless efforts to persuade the unorganized to vote to join as dues-paying members. It gives members a welcomed sense of personal significance, of being members of a social force for the Good. It also gives hope to the unorganized, as it highlights a force whose agenda includes winning gains, such as raises in the minimum wage level, that accrue to the well-being of all, union and nonunion workers alike.
Critics of the concept also promote its use, though for very different reasons. They use the idea of there being a labor movement to frighten all who fear that special interest groups undermine the general well-being of everyone. They warn that labor “bosses” (aka leaders) hobble the free market with unnecessary rules and regulations (as with those that promote safety and health at work). They use the concept to magnify shortcomings of this union or that one (such as sexist or racist ways), and they generalize from these weaknesses to the entire body of unions. And they use the concept to exaggerate labor’s power, thereby making a case for passage of new laws that weaken labor.
In fact, the concept is far weaker than either its admirers or detractors prefer acknowledging. Especially in advanced industrial nations like the United States where individualism is the main cultural motif, there is much that divides union members from one another (including levels of educational attainment, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual preference, political leanings, social class self-identification, industry, craft, etc.). Accordingly, it is hard for union leaders to get members to act on behalf of a cause that is not exactly theirs but is more a concern of other unionists.
Labor movement solidarity, although often displayed at Labor Day parades and picnics where no risk or price is entailed, frequently disappears where it really counts, as in daring to strike in support of the picket line of another union. Likewise, detractors of the concept are reluctant to concede there is far less to it than their calculated use of it as a fear-provoking image suggests.
Whereas in the 1800s, during the early industrial revolution, the notion of a labor movement may have had heft and consequence, there are only two aspects today with substance: political and community affairs. In the United States and most advanced industrial nations, the labor movement remains a voting force of importance. Unions can draw on many volunteers to run phone banks, canvas neighborhoods on foot to distribute campaign literature, and, in many other consequential ways, make a difference in election outcomes. Likewise, in response to a disaster (floods, hurricanes, etc.), the labor movement can rally many volunteers to rush aid to the needy, assist rescue and recovery operations (as during the 9/11 attack in New York), and in numerous other ways, lend a distinct and valuable hand.
Notwithstanding these two strengths (political and community matters), the concept of a labor movement remains a fragile and problematic one. In developing nations it is weakened by the dominance of family and tribal identity over class identity. In more advanced nations it is weakened by all the sources of identity mentioned earlier, and especially by the desire of many in the working class to rise up and out of that class. This wish can translate into disinclination or even refusal to come to the aid of others in the working class.
As if this wasn’t enough to weaken solidarity, there is also mean-spirited rivalry among some unions. Efforts are made to win over members of other unions, and in the process the targeted union is sharply denigrated, leaving both working-class participants in the “raid” and onlookers increasingly skeptical about there being any mutual respect left in the so-called labor movement.
Naturally, far-sighted and progressive labor leaders seek to add substance and worth to the labor movement concept. They understand its importance in promoting a social force that is supple, relevant, and significant. Their unions use educational efforts aimed at raising consciousness of solidarity, creating links among different types of members (as in creating women’s caucuses), and forging ties to relevant outside groups, such as the NAACP and La Raza, to extend the “reach” of the labor movement.
Thanks now to labor’s invaluable use of computer power to promote an “electronic community” via e-mail, Web sites, and other forms of Internet empowerment, admirers of the concept are more hopeful than ever that the 21st century will see nations host better labor movements than ever before. Indeed, the prospects are good for the welding together of a worldwide labor movement, thanks to the power of the Internet. Already more and more unions around the globe have more and more knowledge of one another and are beginning to cooperate in joint boycotts, protests, and even coordinated strikes. While much remains to divide the unions, including the biases of members (left-leaning unions find it hard to respect right-leaning ones, and vice versa), admirers of the labor movement concept are encouraged as seldom before by the possibility that slowly, carefully, and unevenly, the world’s labor unions—and large components of national working classes every-where—may finally come together in a new labor movement worth the name.
If and when labor achieves authentic global solidarity, the course of world events is likely to change, though whether for good or naught is yet to be decided. A global labor movement could prove to be one of the most significant agents of change, or it could remain as it is at present, a wistful idea in uneven search of substance.
- Aronowitz, Stanley. 1998. From the Ashes of the Old: American Labor and America’s Future. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Fantasia, Rick and Kim Voss. 2004. Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Hurd, Richard W., Lowell Turner, and Harry C. Katz, eds. 2001. Rekindling the Movement: Labor S Quest for Relevance in the 21st Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Lee, Eric. 1997. The Labour Movement and the Internet: The New Internationalism. London: Pluto.
- Munck, Ronaldo. 2002. Globalization and Labour: The New “Great Transformation” London: Zed.
- Shostak, Arthur, ed. 1995. For Labor’s Sake: Gains and Pains as Told by 28 Creative Inside Reformers. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
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