After the election of John Sweeney as President of the AFL-CIO in October 1995, activists and supportive intellectuals in the United States began thinking about how to revitalize the almost moribund American labor movement. A key part of this literature has revolved around the concept of “social movement unionism.” This term touched a nerve, and has garnered widespread usage in North America over the past two decades.

However, most researchers using this term have no idea that it was initially developed to understand the new unionism developed by members of specific labor movements in Brazil, the Philippines and South Africa, a type of unionism qualitatively different from that found in North America. This paper argues that the term “social movement unionism” should be confined only to labor organizations developing the same type of unionism, wherever in the world such should be found.

Accordingly, this concept should not be utilized in North America today as there are no labor centers or unions present that are developing this type of trade unionism.

It is important to clarify this confusion because it is leads to incorrect understandings and miscommunication. Accordingly, the current situation—whereby the same term is used to refer to two qualitatively different social phenomena —theoretically works against efforts to build global labor solidarity.

What about the progressive, broad-scope unionism emerging in North America over the past two decades? Taking a page from labor history, this article argues that the proper precedent is progressive unionism developed by the United Packinghouse Workers of America, CIO, and others, and therefore should be referred to as “social justice unionism.” An Appendix provides a measurement tool. The argument is empirically grounded and theoretically developed, allowing us to better understand trade unionism around the globe.

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