Class Struggle Unionism: Reviving the Labor Movement

Recent efforts at organizing unions at Amazon warehouses and Starbucks and Apple retail stores have raised expectations that the beginning of the end of labor’s long retreat in the US is at hand. Alongside these efforts, the emergence of new, fighting currents in the Teamsters and the Northwest Carpenters unions, among others, has renewed hopes for reviving the “movement” element of the labor movement as the key to stemming the effects of its decades-long retreat.

In the course of the prolonged withering of labor’s strength, the percentage of workers organized into unions has dropped from a high of 35% in 1953 to just 11% today, with only 6% of private sector workers unionized. Unions that once relied on powerful mobilizations of workers in militant defense of workplace rights and standards of living have been largely reduced to begging favors from capitalist governments while shackled to forced arbitration of disputes over wages and working conditions.

Recent efforts at organizing unions at Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple have raised expectations that the beginning of the end of US labor’s long retreat is at hand. / Image: Ethan B., Wikimedia Commons

Although the growth of pro-union sentiment among younger workers has raised the prospects for a reversal of that trend, a number of questions occur to critical-minded workers, including: What kinds of changes to the structure, strategies, and leadership of the labor unions will be needed in order to drive through this renewal?

Veteran labor activist Joe Burns addresses this question in his new book, Class Struggle Unionism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022, 174 pp).

Class-struggle unionism

From the very first chapter, Burns poses the need for an entirely different mindset for trade union leaders. Burns restates a portion of Karl Marx’s analysis in Value, Price, and Profit to make the point that billionaires create nothing at all; all new wealth is created by working people, and the fortunes of the rich are accumulated through their legalized robbery of labor’s surplus product.

Flowing from this reality, labor and capital must be recognized, not as partners, but as enemies locked in struggle over control of society’s wealth and productive resources. Unions have arisen historically as an elementary necessity for workers to combine their efforts to fight the capitalist class’s push to drive down our wages and dominate our lives.

Burns points out that the state is not neutral in this struggle. Labor law is created and controlled by the political agents of labor’s enemy—the Democratic and Republican parties—and is crafted to outlaw effective use of labor’s power. Even supposedly pro-labor legislation, like the NLRA, imposes restrictions on workers’ use of strikes, secondary strikes and boycotts, and plant occupations that can mobilize the inherent strength of the working class against the capitalists.

The employers make use of capitalist labor law and the weapon of injunctions—securing court orders from capitalist judges limiting picketing and solidarity outreach—to hobble and defeat workers in their struggles. Hefty fines are imposed on unions which can very quickly drain their treasuries.

Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934
Breakthrough campaigns such as those led by the Minneapolis Trotskyists in the Teamsters Union are examples of what can be accomplished through class-struggle methods. / Image: Public Domain

Burns advocates the use of class-struggle methods to transform the movement, methods which center on mobilizing the ranks of the working class in mass actions to effectively fight the employers—including the perspective of breaking those anti-labor laws which limit workers’ scope for struggle.

The book makes the case that a renewal of the labor movement can only be accomplished through the formation of a class-struggle left wing among the organized workers. This means activating the ranks through the growth of militant-minority formations in local unions.

Historical precedents for such a formation are described throughout the text. In the early part of the 20th century, the IWW united radical elements of the working class around efforts at breaking through the narrow craft unionism of the AFL. Building from the 1919 national steel strike, William Z. Foster’s Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) attempted to unite revolutionary-minded workers within the existing union movement for its transformation along class-struggle lines during the 1920s. And in the 1930s, the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) within the AFL stood at the head of an active left wing that successfully organized the previously non-union basic industries in the US.

Breakthrough campaigns such as those led by the Minneapolis Trotskyists in the Teamsters Union and Communist activists among the San Francisco Longshore Workers in 1934 are highlighted as examples of what can be accomplished through the use of class-struggle methods.

Conservative bureaucratism

As we have noted elsewhere, the long postwar capitalist boom—based on the massive destruction of WWII, the birth of the US military-industrial complex, and the relative balance of power between US imperialism and the Stalinist USSR—laid the basis for the capitalists to purchase class peace for a time through granting concessions to better-off layers of the working class. As it did so, it collaborated with conservative layers of the labor bureaucracy to drive radicals out of the unions, expunging the class-struggle methods with which the unions had been built in the first place.

The domination of a conservative class-collaborationist bureaucracy was thus cemented in the latter half of the 20th century, one that supported the foreign policy of US imperialism without question and which oriented the union membership towards support of the capitalist political parties in the elections.

AFL-CIO President George Meany and other labor leaders meeting with Kennedy in 1961. The domination of a class-collaborationist bureaucracy was cemented in the latter half of the 20th century. / Image: Kheel Center, Wikimedia Commons

Burns identifies two main trends in the conservative labor leadership of today, both of which stand in the way of labor’s renewal. One is the traditional business unionism of the AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy, which envisions a “partnership” between capital and labor. In pursuing this collaboration with the enemy class, it has combated rank-and-file control.

The other trend arose in the 1990s and manifested in the Change To Win split off from the AFL-CIO federation. Burns calls this “labor liberal unionism,” and notes that it centers its focus on staff control of unions rather than rank-and-file democracy. Even though aligning itself with progressive social issues, with this trend at the helm, strikes are conducted more as one-day PR campaigns instead of as worker struggles for exerting serious leverage in the fight for higher wages and conditions.

Key to the renewal of the labor movement, in Burns’s view, is building maximum unity within the working class. This means actively supporting the movements of those most oppressed by capitalism in struggles against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. It also means championing the struggles of immigrant workers and countering the labor bureaucracy’s open support for imperialist exploitation and oppression of workers in other countries.

The book rounds out its vision of renewal for the labor movement with a review of tactical questions, including the need to revive the strike as a means of shutting down production and distribution, not just as a form of protest, but as a key means of compelling capitalist submission to union demands.

The limits of unionism under capitalism

Burns’s vision of a revitalized labor movement under the pressure of a mass class-struggle left wing is shared by Marxists, who see such a movement as naturally arising from the coming battles waged by the working class for its own survival.

But even a powerfully revitalized union movement will find itself unable to eliminate the economic laws of capitalism which limit its struggle to end exploitation. The class-struggle left wing will need to pass beyond the limits of trade unionism and into the realm of political activity in order to realize its goal.

And that goal is a workers’ government, one which uses its power to take control over the commanding heights of the economy, nationalize the holdings of the big banks and corporations, and begin the socialist transformation of society under a democratic plan of production and distribution.

Advanced layers of the labor movement must throw themselves behind the effort to build a mass, independent workers’ party, armed with a socialist program. / Image: Socialist Revolution

To achieve this, the advanced layers of the labor movement must throw themselves behind the effort to build a mass, independent workers’ party, armed with a socialist program capable of uniting the entire working class and all the oppressed under its banner.

A new class-struggle left wing in the labor movement, one that educates the rank-and-file in the fundamentals of Marxist theory and adopts a solid socialist program of action, will not only transform the labor movement, but transform itself along the way. Struggles over control of the workplace are also schools for workers’ control of production, a necessary ingredient for building socialism.

This is the perspective Marxists will promote within the class-struggle left wing of the labor movement as it is forged in its battles with capital. Class Struggle Unionism contains many valuable insights into the current condition of the labor movement and the factors which can help transform the unions into effective tools of struggle. Today’s fighters will do themselves a favor by adding it to their libraries.

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