The Role of Unions Today in the U.S.: Who Benefits?

Degree Name

MA in Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management

First Advisor

Janaki Natarajan


Before beginning my studies at SIT, I had worked only in non-profits, first as advocate for domestic violence victims in New York and then with an Indigenous Rights organization in Kenya. I left both jobs frustrated with the direct service nature of the work. After studying at SIT and in an effort to do something other than direct service work, I worked with UNITE HERE (UH) in Puerto Rico (PR) as a union organizer. Unions are popularly thought of as movements by, for and with workers that exist not just to ease the suffering of people, but also to create solidarity and build critical consciousness among workers so that they have the power to make decisions about their workplace, so that they claim justice. However, I found myself having similar frustrations with the union as I did with the non-profits I had worked for, because similar to non-profits, UH and many of the larger US unions are reformist organizations. That is, they believe that that the economic and political system in which we live is basically good, that things will change with a new administration, more power, better training, resources and technology.

This paper investigates the logic of labor unions, their potential, and their role in the US today. It analyzes the larger political, economic and social context of capitalism in which the labor unions, and those working within them, exist. Through case studies, interviews, surveys, research and personal experience, this paper investigates a fundamental question and its consequences that all social justice workers confront—should we work to re-form pre-existing institutions or do we work to create new ones?


Labor Relations

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