Social workers should be labor activists

December 3, 2020

You have to roll back three-quarters of a century to find anything resembling a robust commitment of professional social work to the U.S. labor movement. I’m not thinking of social workers joining and/or forming unions (though surely that not a bad idea). I mean a substantive and sustained engagement of social workers with labor organizing based on the premise that organizing workers can be a major force for social change.

It’s curious that the profession has paid so little attention to the labor movement, especially as labor was decimated over the last several decades by the forces of deindustrialization and the ideology of neoliberalism. “Change,” after all, is what social work is all about, is it not? Given that the most fundamental change in the interests of justice that we could hope for is a realignment of current power relationships – so very heavily and anti-democratically skewed in favor of the rich and powerful against the political, economic, and social interests of working people (i.e. the majority of people in this country) – it follows pretty closely that social workers should commit to helping to rebuild the flagging U.S. labor movement.

What other factor or force in American society can achieve social and economic justice if not labor organizations? Joe Biden and the Democratic party? Please. Another rightwing “populist” leader – Trump minus Trump’s self-defeating narcissism – who thrashes the elites on behalf of the “little people”? Never. What about other institutions at least nominally committed to incremental social amelioration – the universities, faith organizations, the media? Sadly, it appears that they all have been, in one way or another, either seduced by oppressive orthodoxy or otherwise neutralized as a force for progressive change.

No, if positive change is to happen, it will spring from organized workers, and from there, organized communities, reformed institutions, and democratized (small “d”) political parties. That’s the road to travel, and social work should be a leader in the effort to set people on this path to power.

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