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  • Oral History with Margaret ButlerAdvocate for Workers' Rights and Jobs with Justice
  • Laurie Mercier (bio) and Margaret Butler

DURING THE LATE 1980s, Margaret Butler and a handful of labor activists held a series of informal meetings to discuss how they might build an action-based workers' rights movement in Portland, Oregon. Frustrated by the inability of traditional unions to effectively challenge rising threats to worker power, they were attracted to new labor-community alliances, including Jobs with Justice (JwJ). In 1987, ten national unions had come together to form Jobs with Justice, which labor studies scholar Andy Banks describes as "the labor movement's most ambitious and comprehensive attempt at community unionism."1 Community unionism, which sought to engage workers beyond the workplace with broader labor, civic, and social concerns to advance the needs of all working families, had been practiced by some unions in earlier decades.2 But by the 1980s, unions were struggling to deliver gains and address a changing economic, political, and legal context.

The challenges were many. Despite rising worker productivity, real wages plummeted in relation to purchasing power, and the profits from productivity steadily shifted to the top 1 percent, widening income inequality. Since the 1930s, union power had been relatively successful in achieving gains for White male workers, but growing conservative political power weakened labor laws and enforcement, automation reduced the number of union jobs, global trade agreements and capital flight moved jobs to where cheaper labor was available, and union complacency all contributed to decreases in union power.3 Union membership fell from a peak of almost 35 percent of nonagricultural employment in 1953 to 20 percent in 1983, and industries that had a high concentration of union members before the 1980s, such as transportation and manufacturing, suffered dramatic declines.4

Margaret Butler was part of a generation of labor activists who developed innovative strategies to confront this new environment, embrace new workers in the growing service economy, [End Page 80]

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All images courtesy of Margaret Butler

MARGARET BUTLER stands between Anne Sweet (left) and Rachel Noble (right) at the Summer Institute for Union Women (SIUW) in 1994. University labor education programs affiliated with the United Association for Labor Education (UALE) started SIUW in 1980. Since the late 1990s, SIUW has been hosted by UALE institutions in the West as well as by the British Columbia Federation of Labour.

and diversify labor leadership. Witnessing setbacks within her own union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Butler recognized that bolder methods of organizing were needed. She gravitated to what is today called "social justice unionism," which combined trade union goals of mobilizing rank-and-file workers with community goals for the "common good."5 Steeped in civil rights and other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the "New Labor Movement" of the 1980s and 1990s sought to expand labor and social rights to non-unionized and low-wage workers and workers of color.6

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Justice for Janitors campaign, which launched in 1986 and enjoyed a major success in Los Angeles by the end of the decade, provided new models of organizing that included civil disobedience and public pressure on vulnerable targets—in this case, commercial landlords who outsourced janitorial work to cleaning companies—and empowered Latina low-wage workers.7 In 1995, AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organization) members chose the "New Voice" electoral slate to lead the nation's labor movement, [End Page 81]

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JOBS WITH JUSTICE (JwJ) MARCHERS protest Austin CableVision's unfair labor practices, likely at a February 1992 JwJ annual conference.

including President John Sweeney, who articulated plans for revitalizing and diversifying unions. At age forty-six, Richard Trumka became the youngest person ever to serve as the federation's Secretary Treasurer, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, as executive vice-president, became the first woman of color to hold a high-ranking position in the organization.8

While the "union advantage," which shrinks the pay gap between male and female workers, encouraged women's growing participation in unions, women held few union leadership roles during...


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