Social Movement Unionism: from the IWW to Wisconsin and the World

Thursday, 14 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 50 (Main Building)
Distributed Paper
Heather BLAKEY, University of Bradford, United Kingdom
Graeme CHESTERS, University of Bradford, United Kingdom
Neoliberal political dynamics in recent years have pushed the labour movement towards a ‘silo mentality’ (e.g. UK legislation outlawing solidarity and politically-motivated strikes). Despite roots in a movement which set out to shape the social, economic and politic context, it has to a large extent accepted an elite-sanctioned role as a ‘functional’ part of the corporate environment, confined to maintaining industrial relations.

This paper examines two examples of labour organizing in the US and UK that moved beyond such defensive strategies and engaged in a global dialogue with social movement opposition to neoliberalism and austerity economics. The first examines the experience of Wisconsin public sector workers in the 2011 Wisconsin ‘uprising’, with its wave of occupations, rallies, community interventions and support networks in opposition to the removal of collective bargaining rights. The second example is the growth in syndicalist forms of organizing in the UK, particularly the emergence of the International Workers of the World (IWW) in a number of UK cities.

These examples highlight the potential of ‘social movement unionism’ as a means of moving beyond silo approaches. The extension of traditional workplace rights approaches to include broader social justice agendas (Chesters and Welsh, 2010: 156-57) can provide a tremendous resource for social movement struggle, and engagement with a wider range of activists can help innovation in union activity. Like neoliberalism, these forms of unionism seek to transform the wider context for the production and distribution of social and economic goods. They are therefore oriented to a more strategic and long-term commitment to struggle. We suggest that this approach is evolving rapidly, as legislation on both sides of the Atlantic diminishes the arena for more conventional union activity, prompting a return to older forms of collective action and a desire to learn from repertoires of struggle deployed internationally.