May 19, 2021
Three-quarters of a century ago, in the struggle for worker rights, social workers were known for their support of organized labor. They should be again, for at least these four reasons:
Self-determination is a core value of professional practice. Yet any realistic meaning of self-determination is stripped away by the virtually totalitarian control of employees in the work place. Professional values aside, it’s odd that so many people who self-identify with democratic self-rule willingly relinquish all semblance of participation in governance whenever they are “on the clock.” All the more reason that a profession committed to promoting self-determination would celebrate the measure of worker control afforded by unions.
Social work proclaims a vision of social and economic justice. Central to any vision of justice is the recognition of fundamental human rights and the universal satisfaction of basic human needs. Yet on today’s public scene there simply is no institutional guarantor of fundamental rights or basic needs satisfaction. Not government, not the mainstream media, not institutional religion, not the neoliberal university, and certainly not the oligarchic capitalist system dominating the global economic order. Organized labor, frequently accused, unfairly on the whole, of promoting its own self-centered interests, is in fact the only contemporary force that systemically strives to advance a universal right of access to the satisfaction of basic needs.
Social work advocates the democratic construction of policy with an aim toward incremental social amelioration. “Progressive” change on the incremental model presumes a pluralist conception of power arrangements in society, reflected in the relative “neutrality,” openness, and even-handedness of the policy-making system. On the pluralist perspective, the interests of marginalized and historically disadvantaged populations may be as well represented as those of the privileged and powerful, assuming that they or their advocates engage the policy-making system. But the pluralist ideal is a lie, completely divorced from a wholly corporatized political reality. Economic power today translates directly into political power, to the extreme detriment of working people. What remedy is there for this radically undemocratic power imbalance but the organization of workers through unions and the democratic structures of organized labor?
Social work embraces the reality of the “public interest,” a commonality shared by all people, in a word, “solidarity.” In direct opposition to the ideology of neoliberalism, with its insistence on the primacy of private interests over public good, of the individual over the collective, and of economy over government and politics, a solidarity perspective highlights the toxicity, destructiveness, and ultimate unsustainability of the neoliberal world order. Nothing would seem more compelling in an era of pandemic and rapidly advancing climate crisis than the need for a radical paradigm shift in the direction of human solidarity. Here again, all the flaws of labor unions notwithstanding, no institution has more consistently promoted an ideal of human solidarity and the public interest than has organized labor.
For these reasons and more, social workers should not simply “advocate” for the right of workers to organize; they should be labor activists, throwing their lot in with the struggle of organized labor to remake a toxic and unsustainable political-economic order. If there is another contemporary institutional actor with aims more consistent with the stated ambitions of the social work profession, please let me know.