Printer Friendly

Labor and the Intellectuals: Where is Social Work?

For the past two decades, the U.S. labor movement has faced serious difficulties. A concerted corporate attack on unions, combined with government policies that inhibit labor organizing, has diminished the percentage of the U.S. workforce represented by labor organizations. Furthermore, deindustrialization has eroded labor's industrial base, and the threat of global relocation has weakened its capacities for aggressive bargaining (Galenson, 1994).

However, the U.S. labor movement is now showing signs of renewed vigor. During the past two years, labor increased its political presence in U.S. electoral politics, mounted a new aggressive organizing campaign, and won an important battle in the United Parcel Service strike. The AFL-CIO, under John Sweeney's leadership, is attempting to create a new labor movement that addresses the needs of a changing U.S. labor force. Labor is increasing funding for organizing and making efforts to recruit organizers and members who reflect the diverse workforce of women and people of color. Recognizing transformations in the labor market, labor also is shifting resources into organizing service sector and lower-skilled employees. After 15 years of government neglect and corporate assault, American labor is finally developing a strategy for growth and renewal (Wypijewski, 1997).

Academics also have rediscovered labor unions. Intellectuals and scholars are returning to the study and support of labor issues. The 1996 labor issues teach-in at Columbia University, widely lauded as a success, was repeated at 20 other universities (Greenhouse, 1996). A new journal, Working USA, has been launched to provide a forum for articles that provide "new insights on labor and work." A recent book on the connection between the new labor movement and U.S. intellectuals offers similar essays from 21 notable scholars from a variety of academic disciplines (Fraser & Freeman, 1997). Missing from this academic effort, however, is social work. The aforementioned book includes not a single social work author, even for the article on labor unions and welfare reform. A search of Social Work Abstracts finds only 23 citations for the subject entry "labor union" in the period 1977-97. Of these, only 11 appeared in social work journals. Despite labor's new emphasis on organizing women, people of color, and low-wage service workers, social work seems relatively unconcerned with labor issues.

Labor and Social Work's Forgotten History

It has not always been so. Although incompatibilities existed between early guild unions and the Charity Organization Societies, by the 1890s common ground had formed between the industrial unions and the settlement house movement (Karger, 1989; Straussner & Phillips, 1988). From the 1890s to the 1940s, labor and social work shared perspectives on corporate power, child labor, the right to organize, and the need for adequate wages and cooperated in political movements around those issues. The Rank and File Association, a radical social work group, supported unionization among workers and fostered the unionization of social workers themselves. Bertha Capen Reynolds provided social work services to the Maritime Union, and union-based welfare positions became common (Karger, 1989). It has often been suggested that social work and labor unions have common goals, and a 1985 issue of Catalyst (the forerunner of the Journal of Progressive Human Services) was dedicated to articles discussing that connection. Overall, however, the sympathy of social work for labor evident in the period from 1890 to 1940 appears to have diminished in recent decades. What accounts for this changed relationship?

Although several trends are responsible for this estrangement, three are most salient. First, the preoccupation with psychological and therapeutic issues among social workers transformed the profession from one oriented to social action to one oriented to personal change and growth (Specht & Courtney, 1994). As a result, personal identity and internal processes replaced socioeconomic status as the primary concern of the profession. Second, in the period following World War II, the increasing professionalization of social work led to its alienation from organized labor. Social work became increasingly identified with management, and tensions between the ideology of labor union membership and professionalization created a decreased likelihood that social workers would form or join unions (Karger, 1989). Third, during the renewed period of interest in social activism of the 1960s, even the radical social work movement was distant from labor, largely because of its perception that labor was bureaucratic, supportive of U.S. intervention abroad, and led by corrupt and greedy officials (Karger, 1989).

During the past 20 years, only scattered writings about labor and social work have appeared and typically have focused on organizing among public sector employees. Among social workers and social services workers, unionization occurs most often among public sector employees, and these workers are frequently located within concentrated geographic areas (personal communication with Philip Schervish, Howard University, May 7, 1998; personal communication with lack Schutzius, Service Employees International Union, May 5, 1998). Unionization of this small percentage of professional social workers does not seem to have affected the profession's consciousness of labor issues.

The 1990s, however, are bringing an increased awareness of the growing wage gaps between social classes in the United States. Social workers look to a range of public and private initiatives to remedy wage stagnation and inequality but consistently overlook the option of promoting increased labor representation. Declining union levels have had a deleterious effect on wage gaps in the United States, accounting fur 20 percent of wage decline since the 1970s (Freeman, 1990). Other research, comparing U.S. and Canadian workers, demonstrates that the difference in unionization rates explains 40 percent of the variance in the two countries' wage gaps (Lemieux, 1994). Furthermore, the decline in unionization has been negative for employee benefits packages; deunionization accounts for 7 percent of the decline in health insurance and a 6 percent drop in pension plans (Bernstein, 1994). Unionization should he of great interest to social workers concerned with promoting economic well-being, particularly during this period of welfare-to work transitions.

In addition, renewal of the welfare state and the social work profession will not occur without a re-emerging labor movement. The decline of the labor movement has been paralleled by the efforts of conservative politicians to weaken social work and the welfare state. Social work's efforts to promote progressive social policies for oppressed populations are likely to be ineffective without organized labor, which is possibly the only political actor that can garner the human and financial resources necessary to push legislation in a progressive direction (Cloward & Piven, 1986). It is in the best interest of the profession and its clients for social work to rethink its relationship to organized labor and to contemplate ways to become involved in the renewed labor movement.

Renewing Social Work-Labor Connections

Social work can reconnect to the labor movement through research, direct practice, and policy actions. An immediate agenda should include the following:

* First, social work academics should renew ties to organized labor through research activities that focus on issues of concern to unions and working-class citizens. Although this might be broadly conceptualized, in general such research would attempt to examine the relationships among working conditions, union membership, and family well-being. Occupational health and safety, union-based social services, workplace participation, family leave and flex-time issues, services to laid-off workers, job training, and organizing strategies would be possible topics for such research.

* Second, schools of social work should restore labor ties through active coordination of social work practicums at labor sites. The current expansion of labor organizing and increased union membership provide opportunities for social work students to be involved in workplace and community campaigns and to provide direct member services. The AFL-CIO's new Union Cities project, which attempts to build on union power in 100 participating cities, could incorporate social work students in community-organizing activities. A possible project would entail social work students and unions jointly organizing workers currently participating in welfare reform.

Practitioners should also be involved in this alliance. At the simplest levels, direct service workers might make a basic awareness of labor law a part of their practice knowledge base, as well as having information available to refer clients to unions. Workplace stress and violations of labor law should not be treated solely with stress management techniques; clients also should be directed to appropriate union resources. Furthermore, practicing social workers should themselves consider the benefits of union membership.

Finally, the policy agenda of NASW should include the promotion of fair labor laws. The current policy agenda is limited with regard to labor issues, and policy action around such issues should increase. NASW should support the right to a workplace in which organizing employees are free from harassment. NASW should lobby with labor to make illegal the hiring of replacement workers and support the AFL-CIO's efforts to promote a trade policy that sets standards for fair labor practices internationally (Rothstein, 1993).

Greenberg and Skocpol (1997) have noted that the 1930s progressive movement organized around industrial workers, and the 1960s progressive movement organized around peace and civil rights. A new progressive movement might organize around the needs of working middleclass families. Greenberg and Skocpol suggested that growing economic and family pressures are opening opportunities for progressive political activity. If these authors are correct, social work--a discipline deeply concerned with family well-being--is in a position to help labor understand family needs. Social work, acting boldly in an alliance with labor, might restore itself by becoming the discipline that helps to bring families, communities, and labor together in a new progressive era.

Original manuscript received November 26, 1997

Revision received May 26, 1998

Accepted October 14, 1998


Bernstein, A. (1994, May 23). Wiry America needs unions, but not the ones it has now. Business Week, pp. 70-82.

Cloward, R., & Piven, F. (1986). The welfare state in an age of industrial decline. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 56, 132-155.

Fraser, S., & Freeman, J. (1997). Audacious democracy: Labor, intellectuals and the social reconstruction of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Freeman, R. (1990). How much has de-unionization contributed to male earning inequality? (NBER Working Paper 3826). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Galenson, W. (1994). Trade union growth and decline: An international study. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Greenberg, S., & Skocpol, T. (1997). Democratic possibilities: A family-centered politics. American Prospect, 35, 34-38.

Greenhouse, S. (1996, September 26). Academics and labor leaders pulling in tandem once more. New York Times [Late Edition], Sect. 1, p. 14.

Karger, H. J. (1989). The common and conflicting goals of labor and social work. Administration in Social Work, 13(1), 1-17.

Lemieux, T. (1994). Unions and wage inequality in Canada and the United States. In D. Card & R. Freeman (Eds.), Small differences that matter: Labor markets and income maintenance in Canada and the United State, s (pp. 69-108). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rothstein, R. (1993). Setting the standard: International labor rights and US trade policy. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Specht, H., & Courtney, M. (1994). Unfaithful angels: How social work has abandoned its mission. New York: Free Press.

Straussner, S., & Phillips, K. (1988). The relationship between social work and labor unions: A history of strife and cooperation. Journal of Sociology und Social Welfare, 15(1), 105-118.

Wypijewski, J. (1997, September 8). A stirring in the land. Nation, 265, 17-18.

Edward Scanlon, MSW, PhD, is assistant professor, School of Social Work, University of Washington, 4101 15th Avenue, NE, Seattle, WA 98105; e-mail:
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Association of Social Workers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Scanlon, Edward
Publication:Social Work
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Previous Article:The Bell Curve: Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Social Work.
Next Article:Taking Social Work into the New Millennium.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters