After a spate of successful organizing drives at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, and other fiercely anti-union firms, the American labor movement has new wind in its sails. But how labor plans to capitalize on this renewed energy remains an open question.

There is broad consensus among union activists and academics that the postwar labor-management accord, where employers begrudgingly accepted unions’ right to organize and engage in economic planning, is a dead letter. As employers fight tooth and nail to roll back labor rights, unions can no longer rely on the processes outlined under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to organize and bargain contracts for workers. Labor law is now more restrictive and hostile towards unions, and globalization, subcontracting, and industry deregulation make it more difficult for unions to build density at scale.

In the mid-1990s, lacking effective institutional channels, unions turned to creative tactics associated with ‘new social movements’—staging sit-ins and public-facing boycotts; forging community alliances; and integrating the moral critiques and resources of faith-based groups—to exert pressure on employers. Dubbed “social movement unionism” (a term borrowed from the global South), this approach quickly made waves as a viable means of exercising collective power without recourse to NLRA protections—and even in cases where workers were laboring in de-centralized and low-skilled jobs.

Prominent social movement unionism campaigns such as Fight for $15 and OUR Walmart mark a clear departure from the main contours of postwar unionism, often referred to pejoratively as “business unionism.” These campaigns are typically bandied about as a prescription for the labor movement’s ailing fortunes. Unlike the unions of yesteryear, today’s unions should foreground community and social justice issues, reflect a multiracial working class, and leverage militant direct action to extract concessions from capital and the state.

Two things are usually missing from this conversation: (1) a robust account of the extent to which social movement activity really changes unions’ forms and functions; and (2) a more serious discussion of strategy—not just tactics. When unions “act like social movements”, are they redefining what and whom unions fight for? How do they hope to build upon and institutionalize their power in a post-New Deal era?

American labor unions are famously decentralized. National federations have little binding authority over affiliates, and unions seldom coordinate bargaining and mobilization processes across locals or jurisdictions. Given the absence of centralized coordinating capacity, unions may very well employ similar tactics and espouse shared commitments to social justice but adopt disparate demands in service of different strategic goals. Social movement activity may be additive in some cases (i.e. traditional union activity plus more disruptive protest in coordination with community partners) and transformative in others (i.e. community involvement and disruptive protest fundamentally alter how unions behave as economic and political organizations).

Is There a New Collective Bargain in the Making?

In a recent study, I analyze 76 published case studies of union-led collective-bargaining campaigns, strikes, and political mobilizations since 1990 and identify patterns across cases. I find that the American labor union movement—even the most ‘radical’ flank of it—has not transformed its core forms and functions very much in the last three decades. Out of the sample of 76 cases, only seven (notably, all teachers’ unions) use social movement tactics in service of more expansive social demands and new bargaining arrangements. Roughly 30 percent of cases include unions that “act like social movements” to ultimately work within the confines of labor law and make job-specific contract demands. (Here, the recent Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United drives, while not included in my research, are illustrative.)

Individual organizations in the labor movement, even among the more militant flank, make different choices about how to exercise their movement power. These choices fall into roughly four buckets: Unions use social movement tactics to (1) secure good contracts according to permissible bargaining procedures (what I call “Coalitional strategy”); (2) establish de facto sectoral bargaining (“Sectoral strategy”); (3) institute pro-worker legislation and struggles for social rights outside of the strictures of collective bargaining (“Municipal strategy”); and (4) repurpose contract negotiations to petition the state for increased public goods and services (“Communal strategy”). Contemporary labor union revitalization is therefore best understood not as a singular “social movement” struggle but as an amalgamation of four different strategies, each espousing divergent visions for how unions can recapture social, economic, and political power.

This research also offers clues as to which unions might be more likely to pursue certain kinds of strategy and how those strategic choices might induce certain cultural effects. I suggest that well-established unions representing workers with high disruptive capacity, like those in industrial manufacturing or logistics, are more likely to demonstrate additive approaches to social movement activity, while such activity is often transformative for unions in rapidly growing, non-unionized sectors with little disruptive capacity. Moreover, vilified public sector workers and unions in geographic areas with low union density and/or high corporate power seem more likely to take up community demands and fight for increased social welfare.

If collective identity is an emergent property, forged through collective action, different strategies may produce different class sentiments and patterns of coalition formation. One of the fundamental components of social movement unionism—building alliances with community groups—takes on a different character depending on the reincorporation strategy in which it is situated. Coalitional and Sectoral alliances presuppose that unions and community groups are bounded entities with discrete interests, which converge for the duration of a particular campaign. Municipal and Communal alliances, at least in a stylized sense, are born out of the recognition that union and community struggles are always intersectional and overlapping.

Labor’s Mixed Outlook

What can we learn from three decades of union experimentation, and how troubled should we be by the lack of internal coherence among these cases? In one sense, strategic diversity foregrounds the creativity of progressive unionism in a post-industrial era in which there is not one dominant mode of capitalist production. What works in one sector, industry, or geographic locale might be poorly suited for another. The decentralization of the U.S. labor union movement allows locals and state federations to craft strategies that take stock of workers’ disruptive capacity, latent resources, and the needs of membership.

However, strategic diversity may also reveal a fundamental weakness of contemporary revitalization efforts. Many of these strategies rest on conflictual logics. While unions engaged in Communal and Sectoral strategies seek to transcend the institutional ‘rules of the game’ that govern the practice of collective bargaining, those engaged in Municipal and Coalitional strategies leave them intact. Similarly, while unions pursuing Communal and Municipal strategies aim to refashion themselves as articulators of broad demands for social rights, stretching the scope of unions’ usual subjects of bargaining, those pursuing Coalitional and Sectoral strategies confine their demands to occupationally-specific issues. There is neither a discernible overarching vision that unites all workers and aids in broad class solidarity nor an easy way of layering strategies so that they serve complementary ends. Whether this misalignment proves damning for labor remains to be seen.

Sara Gia Trongone is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This article is based on Sara Gia Trongone, “A New Collective Bargain? A Multicase Comparison of U.S. Labor Union Strategy.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 27(2):149–68 (2022).

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