Social Justice Unionism...Social Justice Unionism vs. Contract Unionism: A False Dichotomy...

Protest in Manila. Substance photo by Kim Scipes.The on-going debate in CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union about social justice unionism vs. contract unionism — perhaps using different terminology — seems to have pushed people into different sides, with perhaps some frustration with others. Since this debate started elsewhere—and I was one of the initial participants — I thought I would try to provide some background that may help to clarify issues and hopefully get people speaking more knowledgeably.


The emergence of a new type of trade unionism in three major labor centers in the Global South during the 1970s and ‘80s — CUT in Brazil, KMU in the Philippines, and COSATU in South Africa — led several different activists/labor scholars to debate whether this was a new type of trade unionism or not, and if so, what kind was it.

Peter Waterman of The Netherlands argued this was a new type of unionism and coined the term “social movement unionism” (SMU) to refer to it in 1988. Rob Lambert and Eddie Webster from South Africa responded that same year, agreeing this was a new type of unionism but tried to refine the conceptualization. Later, using my experiences and research in the Philippines on the KMU, I responded to both Waterman and Lambert/Webster in 1992, arguing that it was a new type of unionism but surpassing both previous conceptualizations. Thus, in this international debate, my two articles were the last word as no one has challenged my conceptualization. I subsequently published a book on the KMU in 1996, whereby I argued that the KMU’s “genuine trade unionism” was what we were calling “social movement unionism,” and used my empirical research findings to solidify my theoretical conceptualization.

(References to important items are placed at the end of this article, so as to not distract readers from the issue at hand. When available, links are provided to respective URLs.)

Parallel to this, but not part of this international debate, in 1994, Gay Seidman published her very innovative book, Manufacturing Militance: Workers’ Movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970-1985. In this book, Seidman tried to understand the new trade unionism that had arisen in these countries that seemed a product of the “rapid industrialization” both countries had engaged in from the late 1960s onward. She used the term “social movement unionism” to describe this new unionism, getting it from Eddie Webster, but unlike any of us in the earlier debate, did not offer a very theoretically-informed conceptualization of SMU.

Kim Moody of Labor Notes, however, saw the Seidman version of SMU and—not knowing of the earlier debate—utilized the term in his 1997 book, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. However, Moody applied the term SMU to refer to the new progressive unionism in the United States, taking this term and using it to refer to a qualitatively different type of unionism than that for which it had been initially development. Nonetheless, Moody popularized this term in North America and it spread widely.

In 2003, I completed my Ph.D. dissertation in Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), “Trade Union Development and Racial Oppression in Chicago’s Steel and Meatpacking Industries, 1933-1955.” In this research, I did a historical comparison of unionization in steel and meatpacking in the Chicago area (including Northwest Indiana) from 1933 to 1955—the “CIO years”—and examined how the two different unions that emerged addressed racial oppression—in the workplace, the union and the community. [Spoiler alert: the steelworkers ignored white supremacy, while the packinghouse workers directly confronted it in all three spheres.] However, to theoretically ground this study, I argued that there were three different types of trade unionism—economic, political and social movement unionism (coming out of the earlier international debate), but that there were two different forms or subsets of the economic type of trade unionism: business and social justice unionism, which I theoretically delineated. I argued that the United Packinghouse Workers of America exemplified this “social justice” form of economic trade unionism. (Unfortunately, I have yet to publish this dissertation, choosing to write a book on AFL-CIO foreign policy prior to this historical work, but I’m back working on it.)

Subsequently to my dissertation, but independently (i.e., she didn’t know about my dissertation), in Poor People’s Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below, Vanessa Tait used the term “social justice unionism” in 2005. This usage did not seem to catch on.

However, in 2008, Bill Fletcher, Jr., and Fernando Gapasin published their important study, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice. This appears to be the source by which the term has gotten generalized to refer to progressive unionism, including that of the CTU, especially in writing about the successful 2012 teachers’ strike in Chicago. This term was also developed independently of my work by Fletcher and Gapasin.

So, we have three independently-developed analyses that advance the term “social justice unionism.” While I argue my version is the most theoretically developed of the three, nonetheless, we all use it to refer to progressive unionism in North America. And that’s where things lie today.

(In 2014, in an article titled “Social Movement Unionism or Social Justice Unionism? Disentangling Theoretical Confusion within the Global Labor Movement,” I revisited the “social movement unionism” debate and tried—and believe I succeeded—untangling the theoretical “goulash” that had emerged over this and other related terms, again making these terms understandable, consistent and, thus, usable. I specifically discussed the concept of “social justice unionism,” and included a list of questions that I had used in my dissertation to identify a union engaged in social justice unionism.)


As I have been writing for (hereafter, Substance) for over two years and participating in editorial board meetings during that time, I have heard fairly continually over this time of the debate within CORE (and perhaps the CTU as a whole) over how to develop further the union. Although the term “factions” is probably too strong to use, there definitely seem to be two different positions as to how to advance unionism in the CTU. One position supports “social justice unionism,” which supports building alliances and coalitions with parents, community organizations, and progressive politicians, arguing that CTU should use the power of its’ approximately 26,000 members to advance social justice issues throughout the Chicagoland region, including making major interventions in the electoral political arena. However, from what I gather, this “grouping” tends not to focus on enforcing the union contract in the schools, with an increasing number of union members becoming discontented over working conditions in the schools and feeling a definite lack of union power on the job.

The other grouping, engaging in what I call “contract unionism,” tends to “pooh, pooh” the social justice folks’ positions, arguing that the union has to build its strength in the schools by militantly enforcing the contract. This group, however, downplays the social justice aspect of the CTU, and seems to often lose sight of these larger concerns.

Now, it appears that these two groupings have emerged despite people on both sides of the issue having long-established positions fighting for union power and social justice. While I can see the need to honestly and dispassionately debate these two positions within the union, it is important not to demonize one side or the other: there are good people on each side, and adherents of both positions need to respect those of the other “side.”

However, all of that being said, and being a long-time Labor activist—most recently, I served as the elected Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the National Writers Union from 2011 to 2015—and scholar engaged with these very debates, I thought I would share MY position for each side’s consideration.

I believe social justice unionism is important, and believe it is important for unions to advance larger social concerns and to engage in social justice issues. This certainly includes developing programs to educate and activate rank and file members of the union, and creating the conceptualization of the CTU (and like-minded unions) as being a “sword of justice”—a term taken from Richard Hyman—acting for the larger social communities in and around Chicago (and nationally, through the AFT). Note, carefully, however, that I’m arguing for the education and activation of union members and not just union leaders and/or activists.

That being said, I further argue, however, that the priority of the CTU should be to build strength in each and every school, activating and energizing members in the workplace. This includes educating all members as to the contract, and how to use it to build power in the workplace, but never collapsing efforts in the schools to merely engage in “contract unionism.” What I mean by this is that union power always depends on collective engagement and activism at the workplace by the members. Accordingly, members should not depend on representatives to handle their problems, but must be engaged so as to get them to collectively solve their problems whenever possible, using representatives to support their efforts (including, when appropriate, filing grievances and dealing with administrative/legal issues that most teachers don’t have the time or often inclination to address).

From what I hear, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with CORE (and the union) in many schools. That being said, “bitching” is not activism. It is a warning that activists and leaders need to engage their fellow work-mates, and win them over to the position of building a strong union in each school that has the power and strength to force principals (and the Board) to treat them with respect and, accordingly, to observe the contract. In other words, union membership in and of itself does not create militant union activists; this activism must be created, and it seems lacking today in many ways. I’m not saying that union leadership does not have the support for a (possible) strike, because I believe union members will fight the assault on them if push comes to shove, but I am saying conditions in many schools have deteriorated to the point where many union members feel ignored, neglected and are questioning their leadership. And this is never good for any union.

However, again, this approach to unionism must not be confined to just workplace and/or economic concerns. I strongly believe it must include developing social justice activists in the union who will fight to mobilize the union to fight for larger social justice concerns on the basis of a strong, well-organized union that has power to improve workplace conditions in each school. And certainly that includes building respect and connection between teachers, the union, students and their families, along with progressive elected officials.

In short, we have to develop some nuance among union leaders and activists. This should not be approach as an “either/or” debate, but rather one that prioritizes one side or the other, while not excluding or dismissing the importance of the other position. Both are important. The real question, noting the real situation of the union today, is how to best prioritize efforts to further develop the Chicago Teachers Union as its moves boldly into the future.



Fletcher, Bill, Jr., and Fernando Gapasin. 2008. Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Moody, Kim. 1997. Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy. London and New York: Verso.

Scipes, Kim.

--- 1992a. “Social Movement Unionism and the Kilusang Mayo Uno.” Kasarinlan [Third World Studies Center, University of the Philippines], Vol. 7, Nos. 2-3 (4th Qtr. 1991-1st Qtr. 1992): 121-162. [Must be put in browser, loads slowly—on-line at kasarinlan/article/view/1393/pdf_38.] This article discusses previous efforts and is the most theoretically developed.

--- 1992b. “Understanding the New Labor Movements in the ‘Third World’: The Emergence of Social Movement Unionism, A New Type of Trade Unionism.” Critical Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 2: 81-101. On-line, in English, but with incorrect date [2003], at Not much different than 1992a article, but argues “social movement unionism” differs from the Leninist idea of trade unionism.

--- 1996. KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994. Quezon City, Metro Manila: New Day Publishers.

--- 2003. “Trade Union Development and Racial Oppression in Chicago’s Steel and Meatpacking Industries, 1933-1955.” Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago.

--- 2014. “Social Movement Unionism or Social Justice Unionism? Disentangling Theoretical Confusion within the Global Labor Movement.” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Vol. 2, No. 3, November. On-line at

Seidman, Gay. 1994. Manufacturing Militance: Workers’ Movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970-1995. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Tait, Vanessa. 2005. Poor Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below. Cambridge, MA: South End Press. (Now carried through Haymarket Books.)


Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN., but who taught high school in El Cerrito, CA for two years in the early 1990s. Besides his book on the KMU, Scipes has written AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010 hardback, 2011 paperback). He has edited a collection, Building Global Labor Solidarity in an Age of Accelerating Globalization, which will be published by Haymarket Books in Spring 2016. He lives in Chicago.


October 19, 2015 at 11:01 AM

By: Jean Schwab

I agree

Unions must enforce the contract, negotiate an enforceable contract, be aware of members' concerns and work for social justice, especially when our students are impacted.

I thought this was an informative article.

October 21, 2015 at 7:11 PM

By: Taylor Martin

I agree

However, I think CTU members need to me more sympathetic of those members who have been fired, given low ratings, etc by rogue (or maybe typical) principals. I know a lot of fellow teachers who are more concerned about their 2 percent raise or unused sick day than they are about a fellow teacher who got laid off, or fired, or given a low rating. Makes me sad. When their is a strike everyone is "united" but then these same teachers come back to work and start "tattle taling" and (for lack of a better word) backstabbing all over again. Unions are for social justice and electing the right politicians. But more importantly is a union should be a place where individuals look after other less fortunate members. I feel like this is lacking in many members. I am not perfect. But I seen "well rated teachers" treating displaced teachers/subs like second class citizens. Or have the attitude that some teachers deserve their low ratings. Sorry for the rant. But I just think we need to not forget a union is a "brotherhood/sisterhood" first and a political and social agent second!

October 21, 2015 at 7:13 PM

By: Taylor Martin

sorry for errors

I just read my post. Sorry for all of the really bad grammar and typos!!

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

3 + 5 =