Diversity Dialogue: Building alliances, social justice and the future of unions

By Anthony Balzano

The recent Jane McAlevey book “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020) acknowledges — although few sources give them credit — how unions fought to defeat a white supremacist candidate and pull Joe Biden across the finish line. This happened while certain politicians incited white nationalist fervor in response to the horrifying execution of George Floyd.

Her central thesis is that unions must now commit themselves to expand their base and build alliances as a critical strategy to save democracy. These alliances, she emphasizes, must be committed to union work that recognizes the intersectionality of race, gender and class. McAlevey asserts that collaborations across race, gender and class boundaries are where the future of union power lies.

I agree.

McAlevey describes the decades-long attack on unions from the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision in 2018. (She also explains the exclusion of workers of color from the benefits of union membership until very recently.) She notes how one of the last bastions of union strength is in unions like the AFT in the education sector. McAlevey provides several examples of how union leaders have won important victories by building coalitions with neighboring community action groups, political office holders, social service providers and religious organizations.

We must continue to make commitments to support each other within AFTNJ and support others in our communities who are fighting for equality and democracy. How do we go about doing this?

We have learned at our AFTNJ social justice committee meetings that listening to the issues that we must deal with daily on our campuses or in our schools is the first step toward building coalitions among ourselves. We should not have to go it alone when confronted with injustices.

So, a first step to start to build the kind of alliances that will empower unions, the kind McAlevey writes about, is for us to start talking with each other about how we work for social justice in our workplaces. If you would like to take this first step, join us at one of our committee’s monthly Zoom meetings. (The next one is scheduled for July 13.)

For more information, contact me at abalzano@sussex.edu.

Anthony Balzano, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Sussex County Community College in Newton, is a co-chair of AFTNJ’s social justice committee.