On a Saturday in June, workers, organizers and allies of UNITE HERE Local 217’s downtown Providence hotels marched in solidarity with gay rights activists in the Rhode Island Pride Parade. Rainbow confetti carpeted the streets. Lady Gaga blasted from every float. Though I played high school soccer, I’ve never seen so much (or so little) underwear on a single occasion. Even for my college eyes, this was a lot of skin. When they said Big Labor, they meant it.

This was Providence, a place where sexuality and solidarity are less bad romance than mutual labor of love. That night, I witnessed a union between unionism and sexuality-based identity politics, the old left and the very new left. It was a heady mixture of social movements that, even in the liberal academy, you’re led to associate with the supposedly burned out student radicalism of the ’60s. At Yale, the social left conspires with the economic center. As alum and National Review writer Matthew Shaffer puts it, “A member of the Party of the Left is now more likely to work for a hedge fund than a labor union after graduation.” I wish it weren’t true, but it is.

It doesn’t have to be. As I’ve learned from the social movement unionism of UNITE HERE, a new generation of worldly social liberals is ripe to be organized under the union banner. UNITE HERE disproves the standard assumptions about how to spend your energy if you’re the sort of student who’s into “doing good” or “solving problems.” In the process it shows that the labor movement is, or can be, far from the stodgy, middle-class-white-male, bloated bureaucracy that many otherwise reasonable Democrats make it out to be.

UNITE HERE is at the forefront of labor “organizing” in its strictest sense. Organizers are tasked not with cutting deals with employers but with building strong committees of workers who then, themselves, take on the task of organizing other workers. As some recent high-profile certification votes convincingly show, workers prefer this model to the more top-down approach of the formerly Andy Stern–led Service Employees International Union, whose concession bargaining and shop-floor unionization raids unfortunately but understandably put a bureaucratic Big Labor face on labor. 

It’s the sort of organizing that would attract Carmen Castillo, a member of the Local 217 committee whose struggle is simple: “I want to be a professional, to make a good job and make good money” and, every year, take a “vacation home” to the Dominican Republic. For Carmen, economic self-determination is both the point and the process toward organizing success. This active personal stake is the grassroot of broader social movement spirit. Picketers and paraders are, first of all, participants.

Call it democratic, progressive, American, “socialist,” whatever. What’s at stake is not an ideology, but life itself. Shouting “Show me what democracy looks like!” alongside a hundred others, as professors from the New York Times–funded “American Democracy Project” conference crossed a picket line to enter a militantly anti-union hotel, is the closest I’ve come to a singular political imperative.

For every rebel, there’s a cause. UNITE HERE–style social movement unionism is fundamentally a flow of on-the-ground campaigns with concrete goals. What looks like a mass anti-corporate uprising may, in the aggregate, be one, but foremost, it’s a demand for living wages, fairer job security protection, employer accountability to a progressively weakened National Labor Relations Board, women’s rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, better schools and stronger communities.

This form of unionism is never just about contracts. It harkens back to a long tradition of labor progressivism. UNITE HERE’s Sleep with the Right People campaign has contributed $125,000 to combat California’s ban on gay marriage. Unions have helped secure “community benefits agreements” between developers and communities in over fifteen cities since the first in Los Angeles in 1998. And on October 2, thousands of workers and activists from across the country converged on Washington for One Nation Working Together, a march for jobs, education and economic justice. As new United Auto Workers president Bob King puts it, the whole point of the labor movement is to provide every human being with dignity and a decent standard of living.

This is particularly true at Yale. It took me nearly two years to find out that Yale’s unions, UNITE HERE Locals 34 and 35, were more than a shortcut for dispensing paychecks to New Haven’s largest workforce. In fact, the 2009 contract was the first in recent history without vigorous union contention and the usually ensuing student, faculty and community mobilization. The locals have a special ally in Connecticut Center for a New Economy, a coalition-builder which has helped animate a historically community-minded workforce and forge a truly mutual Yale–New Haven relationship. Most recently, Yale’s unions have been vocal champions of the municipal living wage ordinance currently up for consideration—even though they don’t benefit directly from it.

Forgive my excitement. Social movement unions are real, imperfect institutions made up of real people. And yet you don’t create change by recruiting saintly revolutionaries prepared to martyr themselves for a cause. Instead, you build structures and situations that transform will into power and people into communities.

Experience it for yourself. Then judge the labor movement.

And then, if you’re a student, rethink your fourteen-point plan to travel and/or “save” the world. Indeed, the struggles and daily life of small post-industrial cities like New Haven and Providence draw little sensational press and even less consideration from the average college student. But the guts and the soul of grassroots unions, sustained by the communities that they enliven and create, deserve our attention. If you’re looking for a summer or lifetime’s worth of campaigns to help win, here are your model cities.