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The Revolutionary Potential of a Revived Union Movement

Notes on the Road
to 21st Century Socialism

Issue 2, March 2020

The Revolutionary Potential of a Revived Union Movement


We want to begin by saying that this article addresses only one aspect of the labor movement: unions. For this article we have decided to focus on unions, because they have occupied, and continue to occupy, a core and foundational role within the labor movement. Before discussing unions, we want to clarify that we do not view unions and the labor movement as one and the same, as is common. From our perspective labor movements, or the movements of working or laboring class people, are not unique to the modern capitalism. Slave rebellions and peasant uprisings have been some of the most dramatic forms labor struggle in colonial era of capitalist expansion throughout the Caribbean, North, Central, and South America. Given this, we understand the labor movement to consist of a constellation of working-class and pro-working-class formations. These formations include unions, worker centers, community-labor coalitions, working-class community organizations and churches that provide political and/or economic support to workers, working-class think-tanks, workers’ rights education centers, and pro-labor lawyers to name a few.

We think it is important to acknowledge the breadth of the labor movement, because doing so allows us to more accurately consider the necessary long-term work of revitalizing the labor movement. Specifically, by understanding the historic and current relationships between these different movement formations, as well as the conditions of each, we can develop interventions that may be more fruitful to labor movement revitalization. For example, in recent years, there have been powerful demonstrations of the immigrant rights movement’s ability to disrupt capital. We see struggle of working-class immigrants as part of the labor movement. Understanding how different struggles within the movement relate to each other will be critical for our collective liberation. For the purposes of this article we have elected to focus on the union movement, because it has played a substantial role in the general organization of the working-class for struggle under modern capitalism. We argue that the features of the unions make the union movement critical to the labor movement, and the labor movement as a whole is vital to (a) the defeat of Trumpism and (b) our ability to build a 21st-century socialist movement to scale. In what follows, we discuss some of the reasons we think unions are critical to social and political project of 21st-century socialism.

Contradictions & Challenges in the Union Movement

  1. Capital has always determined the structure of the working-class and work. Capital has organized the working-class through immigration, slavery, and settler colonialism. All these processes are racial and gendered, such that white supremacy and patriarchal relations and ideologies shape them. Trade unions are not separate from the rest of society. Therefore, the history of unions is rife with the contradictions of race and gender relations.
  2. The racial and gender contradictions have historically been expressed within the conflict between craft unionism and industrial unionism. Historically, craft unions have taken reactionary political stances in which unions have advocated against immigrants, in particular, working-class immigrants of color, and women as way of protecting who do due the white supremacist patriarchal nature of U.S. capitalism receive lower wages. The reactionary perspective of many unions (especially craft unions) has been that because people of color and women drive wages down (because Capital determined the cost of their labor should be less than white men’s), they should be excluded from the labor market. For unions this was a protective measure. This view was later challenged by industrial unionists who have worked to organize across racial and gender lines. To be clear, this is not to say that the contradictions of race and gender are not at work within industrial unions.
  3. As capital in the US shifted to industrializing the economy, so did unions. One strand focused on elevating the status of skilled workers (predominantly white workers) by organizing by craft. The other strand, fueled by socialists and socialism, sought to organize all workers in an industry against the capital power – industrial unionism. This tension eventually led to the industrial unions being expelled from the American Federation of Labor. Later similar tensions were exploited to expel leftists from the union movement. The debates, contradictions, and tensions between business unionism or service unionism vs social justice unionism and organizing unionism is rooted in deep history and is alive and well. Black and brown labor activists have often been at the forefront of broad social justice unionism. Examples of this are dotted throughout labor history – including organizing of farm workers, restaurant workers, transportation workers, sanitation workers, and janitors.
  4. Capital makes it so that workers measure their life value only in their ability to exchange their labor for money. Workers routinely sacrifice their health to work in toxic (physically and psychologically) jobs in order to earn their wages. Whether, its working on railroad tracks, working in the mines, working in toxic school buildings, or cleaning buildings and breathing in industrial cleaning supplies, workers exchange their health for a wage, because capitalism requires them to do so.

    A notable way this contradiction has shown up within unions is when it comes to environmental justice and Contradictions & Challenges in the Union Movement Historically, craft unions have taken reactionary political stances in which unions have advocated against immigrants, in particular, working-class immigrants of color, and women as way of protecting who do due the white supremacist patriarchal nature of U.S. capitalism receive lower wages. Out To Win: Issue 1 142 balancing the lives of members engaged in extractive industries and the survival of humanity as a whole. One example of this is the tension between adopting environmentally friendly policies, which on one hand will benefit the health of workers and their families, but on the other hand will result in many losing their livelihoods and thereby negatively impact their health and well-being through their inability to participate in the labor market. This tension is most clearly present in the political opposition of the United Mine Workers of America to policies that shutter coal mines. Understanding the nature of these contradictions can allow the Left to consider productive policy interventions such as “just transition” policies that guarantee workers in highly extractive industries to be trained and find employment with comparable benefits and wages. Capital has explicitly attacked the strength of organized workers through the tools of the state.
  5. Capital continues to innovate and change the organization of labor, creating new tensions and contradictions within our movements. While capital has consolidated, the organization of work has become increasingly fractured through use of technology, subcontracting, independent contracting, gig work, and privatization (to just name a few). This fracturing disproportionately impacts the driving forces identified in “We Believe That We Can Win”.
  6. Lastly, we want to note the role of the capitalist political state in generating tensions within unions. The political state has enacted a series of laws and court rulings that have systematically weakened unions. It is not possible to speak on more than a few. Right to Work laws weaken unions by siphoning off financial resources by permitting individuals in a work place to opt out of union membership and paying dues. Another example are laws that restrict the kinds of strikes and boycotts unions can engage in. Unions used to engage in solidarity with other striking workers by going on strike at workplaces that had connection to the other striking workers. For example, workers at plant A meat packing factory goes on strike. Workers at meat delivery company at B would go on strike so that if the company hired replacement workers (scabs) the meat products could not be picked up and delivered to its final destination. The economic pressure forced employers to recognize unions and to negotiate dignified contracts.

The political states actions to make this kind of striking illegal has made it easier for capitalists to replace striking workers and thereby weakening unions. The political state has also made it so that some unions cannot legally strike, which means the risk of strike activity relatively substantial. Lastly, the political state has historically engaged in thorough political repression of unions. The most notable example is the passage of the Taft-Hartley bill which included anti-communist previsions which barred communist, socialists, and other radicals from being able to hold leadership positions in unions, and which resulted the expulsion of at least one million Leftists from unions, the dismantling of whole unions, and the rise of conservative business unionism.

What does the Union Movement offer to the Movement for 21st Century Socialism?

We believe in the central importance of the union movement in building towards 21st century socialism. However, WBTWCW can be strengthened with an understanding of the revolutionary potential of a revitalized union movement, and by extension a revitalized labor movement. Consider the following:

Unions are key to defeating Trumpism. While WBTWCW states that the left has limited electoral capacity, this is not true for unions. Given the unions’ volume of electoral experience, union political funds, and the size of union memberships make unions potentially powerful electoral forces. Given this, unions are an important terrain on which to advance our strategy’s anti-Trump and anti-neoliberal electoral goals.

Unions can help us sharpen our class analysis. WBTWCW provides a class analysis, in which, there are multiple layers of the capitalist class and the working-class. Using that framework, WBTWCW identifies specific groups of people within these different layers of the working-class on the basis of the historic relationship to the state’s repressive and oppressive systems. However, we think it is important to develop an analysis of role of economic position in structuring working-class forms of struggle. We argue that where workers are positioned within the economy allows different groups of workers to turn their economic power into political power. Unions as mass organizations that specialize in organizing people within their workplaces can help identify the kinds of economic power members of the leading forces have at their disposal, by virtue of where they are positioned within the economy. Under Left leadership unions can also work to develop unionization campaigns in industries and occupations where members of the leading forces are employed.

Unionists are key to building multi-racial blocs. The workplace is an area in which many societal contradictions converge and thus provides a starting point for building strong multi-racial solidarity. While the degree and impact of exploitation varies based on race, gender identity and other factors, workers experience a common exploitation of their labor power by capitalists, thus creating a common enemy to struggle against and an opportunity to engage around the other contradictions. We can look to labor to find both examples of how not to do this (by ignoring race or subordinating racial justice demands to economic demands) but also in some of our more progressive unions we see useful examples of how to combine fights for racial justice and economic justice.

Unions provide scale. Unions are one of the largest bases of organized working class people in the US. Although it has clear challenges as a terrain of struggle, it is an important piece of the puzzle for grounding in the left in a working class base and developing the fighting abilities and power of that base. WBTWCW alludes to a wave of workplace protests leading to a renewal of the labor movement. As we speak unions are under extreme attack from corporate forces and the Right. Nevertheless, despite the lowest the lowest percentage of union workers in over a century, unions can mobilize massive numbers of members. As of today over 14 million people belong to unions in the US; many millions more are close to unions (retired union members, former union members, or people that would like to be in a union). Of course, not all of these people identify with or even want to be in their union, but even a fraction of this makes it one of the largest organized forces of working class people in the country. As Socialists this means that unions themselves are critical sites of struggle.

Unions facilitate the exercise of economic power and disruption of Capital at the point of production. Throughout history, strikes and other forms of militant workplace actions have played a key role in challenging the power structures of racial monopoly capitalism. Disruption of the status quo is critical to any sort of change. However, to truly realize and sustain the transformative power of strikes, organization is required at the grassroots level. When workers come face to face with the true character of raw capitalism but also realize the tremendous power built by collectively withholding their labor power, it creates a transformative moment and opportunity for deeper politicization. At their militant height, unions have throughout history demonstrated their deeply disruptive capacity to capital’s core imperative. The organizing of the sleeping car porters, the 1934 trucker and textile strikes, the Flint sit-down strikes, the grape boycott, and the 2018 – 2019 teachers strikes are just a few examples of this. A point that should be made is that unions operated as non-legal associations for many years. Therefore, workers do not need to be part of a formally recognized union to exert this kind of power. However, being a formally recognized union grants certain protections that make the condition for organizing easier.

Unions are a key space for developing working class capacities to govern. Despite the many failures in democracy that exist in practice, unions are often structured as democratic, membership-based organizations. In fact, there are no other institutions of this size that are controlled by the working class. They create a unique space for us to analyze different forms of democratic governance and leadership development and practice dealing with all the contradictions that arise in governing a mass-based organization of folks with varying degrees of consolidation. For example, the collective bargaining process can be a process through which the membership engages in debate with each other around what they collectively need, and how they can or should collectively operate within the workplace. These opportunities, though not always seized, can generate important experiences that can translate into individual and collective protagonism (i.e. workers individual and collective sense that they can and should be in control of determining how they engage in labor, and the conditions and product of their labor). Something to consider is that the existence of unions in a workplace is in direct conflict with the institution of private property, which says the owner is also the master of the workplace. Some unions due to the particular sector they are can play a more direct role in advancing working-class socialist democratic practice on a broad scale. This is specifically true of public sector and service sector unions. Union workers in these sectors are often engaged in labor that directly connects to the needs of the broader working-class public. Therefore, unions under Left leadership could facilitate processes for community control of schools, hospitals, city planning and construction and variety of systems.

The unions of the future have the potential to facilitate the collectivization of industry. Workers have the skills to run industry. This paired with the capacity to govern and political willingness to collectivize industry will be critical to consolidating support for a movement for 21st century socialism. In our view, unions of the future can facilitate this process by becoming more than agents of worker representation for their own wages and benefits. Workers can use their unions as democratic institutions through which they can organize and coordinate their labor in ways that can support production for social needs and human solidarity. The successful collectivization of industries requires the expertise and skills learned by workers through their everyday work. For example, members of public sector and service sector unions provide critical labor to the function of communities, towns, cities, counties, etc. They include teachers, cooks, nurses, nurse technicians, doctors, sanitation workers, mass transit workers, street workers, building maintenance and cleaning workers, water department workers, communication workers, etc. At the same time, unions can provide space through which political education processes can be established and facilitated. Such processes will be important for building support among workers for the socialist project.

So how do we realize the revolutionary potential of the union movement?

By the 1930’s, communists and socialists had developed a shared analysis that the struggle between craft and industrial unions represented the primary contradiction within the labor movement. This allowed them to move with unity that their task was to make interventions oriented around building industrial unions, as this was a prerequisite for turning the labor movement into a revolutionary force.

The following are some of the transformation paths we (or other left unionists) are engaged in:

  1. Organizing for militancy: Increase US working class militancy through base building organizing (including strikes and disruptive action). The most powerful way for a worker to understand power and empowerment is by collectively organizing to confront it.
  2. Whole worker organizing: Shift the political character of unions by engaging in whole-worker organizing. This includes bargaining for the common good and taking on issues that go beyond the bread and butter.
  3. Building internal democracy within various unions.
  4. Shifting worker organizing with the economy: As mentioned previously, capital’s organization of work is changing. The legal framework to organize workers into unions comes from the era of industrialization and consolidation of the working class. These labor laws do not show promise for building the union movement. We must find different ways to organize the working class to confront capital. One example of this is engaging in sectoral bargaining, as opposed to single workplace or company-based organizing. Adopting a sector-wide broad-based approach to worker organization, can better position unions to confront players in the monopoly capitalist level of society.
  5. Recruit more leftists into the labor movement, recruit rank and file workers into left organization.
  6. Contest for power and leadership within unions by building and participating in progressive caucuses within unions.

What are the next steps?

Our first project was to develop this journal entry as a launching point to further our analysis of revolutionary strategy. Our praxis circle plans to do further study, which will draw from our experiences and from the experiences of other left unionists. In particular, we would ideally like to:

  1. Develop a journal entry that summarizes labor movement history, attacks from the state and capital, the evolution of work, and also highlights key struggles where labor disrupted the entire social order, especially those led by workers of color and women.
  2. Conduct an expanded class analysis that looks at how the driving forces are positioned within the economy and what structural power they have.
  3. Analyze existing projects underway within the labor movement related to the strategies discussed above. We especially want to use the projects members of the Labor Praxis Circle are ourselves engaged in to help hone our assessment of these strategies.
  4. Share our experiences doing political education within unions with the goal of recruiting more union activists, especially those from the rank-and-file, to LeftRoots.

We invite unionists to become part of LeftRoots and join us on this journey!

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