Social justice unionism is an organizing model that calls for a radical boost in internal union democracy and increased member participation. This contrasts to a business model that is so dependent on staff providing services that it disempowers members and concentrates power in the hands of a small group of elected leaders and/or paid staff. An organizing model, while still providing services to members, focuses on building union power at the school level in alliance with parents, community groups, and other social movements.
Three components of social justice unionism are like the legs of a stool. Unions need all three to be balanced and strong:
- We organize around bread and butter issues.
- We organize around teaching and learning issues to reclaim our profession and our classrooms.
- We organize for social justice in our community and in our curriculum.
Unfortunately, few public sector unions in Wisconsin adopted this model of unionism. As long as we had an agency shop and could protect our members’ compensation and benefits, most members were happy.
We are now paying the price for defining our unions as contract bargainers and enforcers. Today, when we try to sign up members, many are aware that our collective bargaining rights have been severely limited. Often they respond, “Why should I join?” Others think we don’t even exist, as our identity has been so tightly woven to the contract.