The case for class struggle unionism
Joe Burns’ latest book, Class Struggle Unionism (CSU), coincides with a new ferment among workers in the U.S. private sector. In the course of some of these conflicts, rank-and-file workers have been pitted against their own union leaders over the nature of tentative contract agreements and strike tactics.
We’ve seen divisions of this kind develop in unions such as the United Auto Workers, where the bargaining units at Volvo and John Deere conflicted with the officialdom over the substance of contract language. A similar situation developed within the Seattle Carpenters, which even went so far as the formation of an independent, rank-and-file organization.
Burns has written a book in plain, unpretentious language that accentuates and explains these divisions within unions, while making no bones about siding with the ranks in these struggles.
Burns is a labor lawyer, which is ironic, given the fact that the practices of many of today’s unions are dictated by lawyers. They’re conservative by the nature of their relationship to the union, and keep things safely within the legal bounds of the contract.
However, Burns is not your average labor lawyer, and CSU is not the default strategy prevalent in most of today’s unions. In fact, the labor movement in the U.S. has been in steady decline for several decades.
Union density in the private sector has long been in the single digits. Conditions for workers have been steadily deteriorating, and the labor unions seem to be completely impotent; unable to muster any sort of sustained and effective strategy to rebuild themselves in the face of an unrelenting onslaught by capital.
In order to “revive the labor movement,” Burns writes, we need to reject the models of unionism that have dominated for generations. “We need to revive class struggle unionism.”
Centering the Workplace
The main strength of CSU is its orientation to the workplace. Burns writes that this is where rebuilding working-class power will have to take place. This will involve organized labor finding its roots.
The workplace is where ordinary people can harness extraordinary power; where the diversity of an often segregated community can be overcome, and where workers can bring the profit-generating machine of the ownership class crashing to a halt.
Capitalist society is based on the freedom to exploit, and CSU strikes at the very heart of this system. It does so, Burns writes, by tactically challenging private property rights; by setting itself up as a “parallel force in society”; by “directly challenging the process of capital accumulation” and the “basic structure of employment,” and destabilizing the notion that “we live in a classless society.”
CSU is informed by a class view of society, the antagonistic relations between labor and capital in the workplace, and the common battle between the contending classes for control of the value workers create.
CSU foregrounds a critique of the labor bureaucracy—something unfortunately absent from most contemporary labor analyses. This is the layer of officials and staffers that direct the major unions—who play a mediating role between the union membership and management. Because of their institutional function and social location outside the workplace—involving greater autonomy, higher wages, more satisfying work conditions, and social and political connections—the labor officialdom is naturally prone to conservatism.
Most Tempest readers are likely familiar with the term “business unionism,” which is used to describe the conservative, and often corrupt leadership practices of most U.S. unions. This tendency, though sometimes challenged by the Left, has been dominant since the end of World War II; successor to the “pure and simple,” bread-and-butter-style unionism of Samuel Gompers and the early AFL.
Readers may be less familiar with the term “labor liberalism,” which describes the practices prominent today among the SEIU, “most workers’ centers,” and “many central labor councils,” as well as in the writings of many labor commentators and labor research departments in various universities.
Labor liberalism became a strong presence in the 1990s with the emergence of the New Voice leadership of the AFL-CIO, which proclaimed a break with the traditional bureaucratic practices of the business unionist old guard.
Labor liberalism and its “organizing strategy” were born from the remnants of the 1960s-70s social movements. It “emerged as a third way, situated between the confrontational rank-and-file approach of the class struggle unionists and the conservative business unionists.”
Many in the ex-activist milieu entered university, and then drifted into “mid-level” positions of the labor bureaucracy, via the organizing and education departments of various unions. They brought with them the progressive thinking of the social movements, but they didn’t shed their middle-class sensibilities. This led to an orientation outside the workplace that involved workers as supporting actors in legislative and other stage-managed activities directed by staff.
These practices are still highly prevalent today in many unions, and are embodied in the thought and practice of Jane McAlevey, whose ideas are promoted by many who ironically declare support for a rank-and-file strategy in Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Yet, despite declarations otherwise, Burns writes that labor liberalism, and its left-wing, “social unionism,” doesn’t break with the labor bureaucracy, “lacks critical components of class struggle unionism” such as “shop floor militancy, rank-and-file democracy, and an overall opposition to capitalism.”
Burns writes that business unionism and labor liberalism both have merits and demerits. The former has a limited focus on the workplace, and the latter takes progressive positions on social issues. But the thread that binds them together is an acceptance of the prevailing employment relations under capitalism, and a tendency toward non-worker-led labor activism. The substitutionist tendency of both business unionism and labor liberalism comes in for withering critique in the book.
CSU counterposes the burning need for worker self-activity. In fact, Burns writes that this is the fundamental characteristic that distinguishes CSU, and is the best way to parse it from labor liberalism and social unionism, despite how progressive they often sound.
Burns recounts the way that labor radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn assessed a labor struggle:
A strike victory is “twofold,” Flynn says. It is one part “economic,” and one part “psychological.” The workers should make some material gains, but they may not win all their demands. A strike settlement is, in fact, a compromise with management, insofar as it accepts exploitation, but tries to minimize it.
Flynn was advancing the idea that—more important than the settlement itself—was the impact the strike had on the workers’ way of thinking. What lessons did the workers draw from the struggle—even if a loss?
Workers can only develop radical consciousness if they’re given the space to test their ideas in action, learn what does or doesn’t work, and draw their own conclusions. This can happen through the process of even the most top-down led strike, but is seriously impeded. CSU puts rank-and-file democracy front and center.
Defying the Law
CSU also makes important contributions to our understanding of labor law in the U.S, or what Burns calls the “system of labor control.” This is something— that as a labor lawyer—Burns is in a unique position of authority to critique. Both business unionism and labor liberalism follow this legal system to the letter.
What labor law in the U.S. has done is banned most of the tactics that made unions effective, such as workplace occupations, sit-down strikes, mass picketing, and secondary (solidarity) strikes and boycotts; tactics part and parcel to the class struggle.
Why would the federal government outlaw these tactics? Naturally, because they worked. U.S labor law privileges “private property rights over human need,” therefore, the state can never be neutral in a contest between labor and capital.
The Wagner Act, or National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935–on the heels of mass labor militancy—and ruled constitutional in 1937, is described by many as the most progressive piece of labor legislation in U.S. history, and perhaps it was. But what is often ignored was that its first order of business was safeguarding the “free flow of interstate commerce,” not recognizing unions.
When middle-class “progressives” seeking labor peace fought to convince Roosevelt and the ruling class that the stick was no longer the best approach to dealing with labor militancy, key sectors of capital had little choice but to acquiesce. In the heat of general labor combativeness, the government switched to the carrot in the hopes of curtailing production-halting strikes. Capital would find an opening to hit back with Taft-Hartley ten years later.
State-led industrial labor relations and the suppression of the Left after World War II also played major roles in the entrenching of the labor bureaucracy—wedding one conservative force to another.
CSU shows that what the contemporary labor-law regime has done is banned solidarity, or has at least tried to. But it need not be an impregnable obstacle. Labor will have to operate outside the bounds of this “system of labor control” if it wishes to regenerate itself.
This will mean not relying on labor lawyers to dictate union strategy, nor counting on “labor-friendly” politicians to champion legislative reform out of some sort of altruism. It will also mean not betting on cops being sympathetic to our picket lines, nor seeking justice in the courts, which are tasked with upholding the “freedom to contract, private property, and managerial authority.” But most importantly, it will mean thinking beyond the bounds of simple collective bargaining.
Michael Goldfield and Charlie Post have both conclusively shown that the CIO made its greatest gains in the harsh legal environment before the Wagner Act, through the use of militant, extra-legal tactics. Moreover, this militancy forced the state and some of the biggest corporations to recognize the industrial unions and settle on terms favorable to the rank-and-file. History shows us time and time again that while labor law reform acts back on the class struggle, it doesn’t determine it, rather, it tends to follow.
After the passage of the Wagner and Taft-Hartley Acts, the labor leadership’s reliance on the machinery of routinized collective bargaining, mandatory arbitration, the stepped grievance procedure, and appeals to New Deal Democrats—in place of worker self-activity and the strike— laid the groundwork for labor’s weakness today, where even unionized workplaces are most often dominated by management.
Following in the footsteps of Burns’ two other important books—Reviving the Strike and Strike Back—CSU shows us rightly that the only road back to a powerful labor movement must involve class struggle tactics. Labor must have a strategy to circumvent the legal straitjacket of contemporary labor law, and take control in our unions out of the hands of staffers and officials who are remote from the site of exploitation. As Burns makes clear, staffers and the officialdom bear much of the responsibility for getting us into this mess. It makes little sense to entrust them to get us out. Labor must return to a battle for power and control in the workplace, as opposed to an overemphasis on “more” at the bargaining table.
Burns also argues that CSU must include working out long-range strategies that target key industries for organizing; that it must be internationalist, insofar as it aims to take workers out of competition with one another beyond U.S. borders; and that it must not play into the boss strategy of divide-and-conquer by waffling on questions of oppression such as racism and sexism.
Burns also takes up some important questions confronting the Left: Should socialists try to transform existing unions, build new ones, or both? How should socialists relate to the labor bureaucracy? Should socialists ever take union staff jobs, or should we always remain on the shop floor? Should we prioritize fighting the bosses or reforming our unions? What kinds of workers should we relate to?
Recent strikes in the U.S. and the growth of the socialist Left have only exacerbated the weight of these questions.
The disarming trend of the book, however, is its ambivalent attitude toward politics. There has been a lot of confusion in recent debates about the Rank-and-File Strategy (RFS) within DSA; some of it based on a genuine lack of knowledge born out of the natural inexperience of a new socialist movement, and some based on willful political obfuscation, as competing political tendencies jockey for influence inside the big tent.
CSU provides some clarity and correction to the confusion, but doesn’t remedy the incoherence on the pressing need for independent working-class politics. There is a rather large disjuncture between Burns’ class-struggle view of the workplace, and what that struggle would look like in a generalized way, or, what form it would take, politically.
Burns argues correctly that trade unionism, in itself, is not enough to end the capital-labor relationship based on exploitation. For this reason, many class-struggle unionists “combine their union work with socialist political work.” But Burns then punts on this question, asserting that class-struggle unionists “need not agree on these larger political questions,” such as on the need for a labor-based political party with socialist politics. “Our belief,”, Burns writes, is in “the illegitimacy of the “employment transaction” under capitalism which “unites us.”
Is CSU meant to abolish this relationship or simply make it more palatable? Burns has already stated that unionism, in itself, is insufficient to the task of abolition. This means political action isn’t an optional extra, but an absolute necessity to build lasting workers’ power and actually broach the prospects for socialism. The question then becomes: what type of politics do we need?
While critical of labor’s longstanding ties to the Democratic Party (DP)—a capitalist organization that has helped lead the war against class struggle unionism—Burns offers no serious political alternative. And while CSU doesn’t outline a political strategy, Burns writes that we should take “inspiration” from Sanders and other DSA “electeds,” while making no mention of the contradiction at the heart of their ties to the DP, or the “non-worker-led labor activism” such a strategy represents.
The fact is, while Sanders’ and AOC’s campaigns may have temporarily popularized a conservative variant of socialism and increased DSA’s membership rolls, they also, as Andy Sernatinger wrote, “redirected activity away from labor organizing to elections, and naturalized dependence on the DP.” Both of these things are a hindrance to class struggle unionism in the U.S.
Granted, socialists need not agree on political strategy. Nevertheless, there are principles that must provide a foundation. As Burns writes, we must get the bosses’ “ideas out of our heads.” This isn’t possible just so long as we wear two hats—that of being both Democrats and socialists. Mixing the banners only confuses the people we aim to win to our side, and allows ruling class ideas to seep ever deeper into our ranks through making us increasingly focused on ‘winning’ seats at the table. Rather than breaking down boundaries and charting an independent path, the Left in the DP submits to the stacked rules of the game.
Suggesting, on the one hand, that class struggle unionism must be an oppositional force, defy labor law, and confront the government, and, on the other hand, that independent socialist politics aren’t a necessary component of this labor strategy, is logically inconsistent.
While it can be said that we’re at a more primitive level of simply attempting to help get workers moving again, I think we should be careful not to succumb to mechanical thinking and discount the role politics can play in that process. I agree, for instance, with more moderate socialists who argue politics can help revitalize labor. However, the content of their politics matters.
Moreover, the DP’s role in hobbling organized labor throughout U.S. history is one of the most important questions we face, and keeping any emerging layer of militant workers completely independent from its influence so as not to inhibit its organizational and psychological development is one that socialists must continuously and forthrightly fight for.
In sum, Burns has made an important contribution to an ongoing debate on labor strategy for radicals. These are the types of contributions we need right now. The fact of the matter is that the working class is still the agent of change in capitalist “democracies,” and the workplace is the natural realm for exercising its power.
There was a time in the early twentieth century when a great part of the U.S. Left coalesced in the broad movement for industrial unionism. There is much to be said positively about how Burns prescribes a similar approach for CSU, today.
But there is a fundamental difference between these two forms of unionism, not only in degree, but in essence. Industrial unionism was about overcoming the exclusivity of AFL craft unionism, and organizing workers wall-to-wall in a given industry, no matter their race, gender, nationality, or skill level. This was undertaken to strengthen the workers’ movement. CSU, however, more than a simple strategy, is an overarching philosophy premised on abolishing exploitation, and is, therefore, inherently political.
When considering class struggle, a political perspective is every bit as important as workplace action for understanding and utilizing the power of labor unionism. It isn’t a question of the Left ignoring politics to the detriment of labor organizing, or vice versa; rather, it is a question of the two areas converging.
Does Burns believe in some sort of DP left-wing realignment, or a long-range “dirty break” of working-class forces towards political independence? We would argue such a strategy is a dead-end, and will end up dispersing and disorganizing our forces instead of preparing and hardening them for the struggles that are needed ahead. There is ample evidence that such a retreat is already occurring.
I would argue that we need to work toward preparing a militant wing of worker-activists who are committed to a clean break from the forces of capital. It would have been useful if Burns had at least clarified his views on this critical question.
However, I strongly suggest that those of us on the Left read this book, and discuss it. The basic philosophy of CSU needs to be reintroduced into the labor movement, and ultimately put into practice. Burns’ book is a useful and timely contribution for both the labor-adjacent Left, and insurgent workers hungry for ideas.
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