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Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Are you familiar with the Network for Social Justice Unionism? “It could eventually transform and revitalize an aging labor movement”
“Earlier this month at the Labor Notes Conference, rank and file labor leaders announced for the first time the creation of the Network for Social Justice Unionism (NSJU), a new infrastructure that unionists concerned with advancing social justice beyond the workplace hope to use to organize for a shift in the way the labor movement operates.
“The NSJU seeks to encourage the creation of social justice caucuses in union locals across the nation and to establish working relationships between those caucuses to be able to support each other’s struggles. Together, these caucuses hope to create a movement inside of organized labor that pushes union leaders across the country to do more…
“Plans for the NSJU have been in the works for over a year, and NSJU members are optimistic that their work will not only be enthusiastically received by workers and social justice activists, but that it could eventually transform and revitalize an aging labor movement. The NSJU effort has its roots in recent struggles for change led by teachers, but seeks to encourage workers of all kinds to commit to lending their knowledge, resources, and influence to other ongoing struggles for justice beyond their workplaces.
“NSJU co-founder Michelle Gunderson is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who helped start the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). She sat down to talk about creation and purpose of Network for Social Justice Unionism and the potential of it work:
“Talk about the Network for Social Justice Unionism. Where did it come from?
“It came from a definition. What does it mean to be a social justice unionist? What that means, in my mind, is that we hold workers’ rights in the same plane and in the same balance as students’ rights and community rights. We don’t hold our needs above students’. [We] will fight to the death for the right of a teacher to have good compensation and job security and due process as much as I will for my students to have text books or proper health care and the things that they need to do well.
“The Network for Social Justice Unionism started from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators and Labor Notes thinking together, and we believe that social justice unionism is actually going to be what saves unionism as a movement. We are the antithesis of the union thug. We are the people who aren’t out for ourselves who aren’t only about our work and our jobs. And we also are very much in favor of democratic union process…
“Is the NSJU a response to some of the failures of labor? What are some of the things that the labor movement needs to work on the most?
“Social justice unionism is about activating membership to actually do something, not just call the union when they have a problem. And it’s about a lot more than contracts. So the NSJU is taking what used to be called the business model of unionism – where the union was only involved with things that involved work and your 8 hour day – and taking it to the broader political and social realm.
“Social justice unionists realize that we don’t live in vacuums and that our students live in a huge context. We can’t’ teach unless our students are well; we can’t teach unless our students have resources, and we can’t teach if there’s inequity in our schools and we have to fight those things.
“Teachers as unionists are also changing. The National Education Association (NEA), for a long time, called itself a ‘professional organization’ and shied away from being thought of as a union. We changed that narrative in CORE, and we changed it as social justice unionists…
“What do you hope to accomplish with the new Network for Social Justice Unionism?
“We can’t make the change we need to see today without political change, and in both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), you have to have a certain amount of momentum before you can change those organizations… Social justice unionists have to win union elections so we can push leadership to then become political and not always be just a rubber stamp for the Democratic Party…
“What do social justice caucuses do that is different from the rest of the union?
“First of all, for the union to make good decisions, there are constitutions and bylaws in place for good reason. We shouldn’t make decisions quickly and arbitrarily. But a caucus can move very quickly – we just have to call a meeting and get it done. We don’t have to go through a committee process and have a resolution.
“Many times in a union as large as CTU with 30,000 members, if you want change or you want something to happen, it’s like turning an air craft carrier around. But if we have to respond quickly to something or we want something that’s more radical than our union can participate in, such as the boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), that’s what the caucus is for.
“We recently had teachers from CORE who were boycotting the ISAT state test. If the union backed that, they would actually be promoting an action that goes against Illinois school code. The CTU can’t be put in that position, but a caucus can. So a social justice caucus can be a militant arm. And 'militancy”' is not a scary word.
“Why should militancy not be a scary word? What is it?
“I think we got brainwashed in the ’60s to believe that militancy meant people who create molotov cocktails or bombs or people who harm others. Militancy, in my mind, is when people are willing to put their bodies on the line, are willing to do acts of civil disobedience that don’t harm others, but are not willing to roll over and play dead for the bosses, for politicians, or for their union bosses. I look to [this type of] militancy for change..."