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Book Review: ‘Class Struggle Unionism’

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The cover a book that reads "Our Class Struggle by Joe Burns"

How do we revive the labor movement? We need a militant, bottom-up approach, Joe Burns says—one that challenges the dominant modes of union organizing.

U.S. labor unions represented one-third of the workforce in the 1950s, but are now down to about 10%, and only 6% of the private sector. For decades there has been a debate about how to reverse this long decline. In his new book Class Struggle Unionism, Joe Burns—a veteran negotiator with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA—takes critical aim at what he considers the rather timid and narrow attempts by unions to turn around the labor movement. 

Various proposals for union revitalization have emerged over the past few decades. Many point to inadequate labor law and the need for reforms such as the PRO Act. Others have argued that unions should spend much more on organizing new workers and adopt better organizing techniques. The Labor Notes community has long advocated for more union democracy and membership involvement in running their unions. Worker centers have arisen as an alternative organizational form to help workers. More recently, there have been projects to promote Bargaining for the Common Good, and proposals for sectoral bargaining. I have been involved in the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a project that started during the COVID-19 pandemic which seeks to train many more workers in how to start organizing and winning improvements on the job.

Joe Burns has intervened in this debate over the last decade with a forceful argument on reviving effective strikes. In Reviving the Strike and Strike Back, he discussed how effective strikes that shut down production in the private sector in the 1930s and the public sector in the 1960s were key to the dramatic breakthroughs in organizing in those eras. The number of large strikes today is much lower than decades ago, and abandonment of mass strikes has accompanied the loss of union membership and power. Class Struggle Unionism extends his previous arguments and calls for a return to a more militant form of unionism.

What is class struggle unionism?

For Burns, the labor movement has forgotten the lessons of worker militancy of the past. Unions are now defensive and cautious as they manage their slow decline. They are largely top-down bureaucracies that beg for a seat at the table of capitalism. In short, after the militant upsurge of the 1930s and 1940s, they have evolved in the post-war era into their dominant organizational form, business unionism. 

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As a core concept, business unionism adopts a pragmatic, limited role for unions. It accepts the rights of management to run the company, and seeks only to get and preserve limited gains in wages, benefits and working conditions. It identifies with the success of its particular union employers, and doesn’t wage fights on behalf of the working class as a whole. It’s top down and not democratic enough. It’s cautious about strikes, seeks to minimize conflict, and wants labor-management partnerships wherever possible. It sometimes adopts conservative political positions.

Many labor union members and activists on the Left have long criticized these tendencies of business unionism. It’s not successful enough on its own terms, and will never contribute to any meaningful larger political transformation because it seeks to work within the system in a limited role, as what has often been called a “junior partner” of capitalism.

Burns discusses what used to be the main alternative back in the day, class struggle unionism, which is democratic, militant, and focused on shop floor organizing. It’s critical of capitalism and sees labor and capital as inherently opposed. It wants to pick fights with the bosses and widen the struggle as much as possible. 

But what Burns brings to this debate is something new, a critique of what he claims has become the new dominant opposition: labor liberalism. 

“I will argue in this book that for the first time in US labor history, class struggle unionism has been eclipsed as the main alternative to business unionism, replaced by an approach that I call labor liberalism. While this approach focuses on organizing techniques and ties to the community, it lacks critical components of class struggle unionism, including a willingness to challenge the union bureaucracy, shop floor militancy, rank-and-file democracy, and an overall opposition to the system of capitalism.” 

This form of unionism adopts more progressive politics, and sees itself as a real contrast to business unionism. But for Burns, it’s too similar in all the ways that really matter. It still relies on top-down decision making and a desire for labor-management partnerships. It focuses on lobbying for progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage, rather than fighting on the shop floor or striking. He identifies foundation-funded worker centers with this trend as well. Overall, for Burns it may have more progressive goals, but the work is done on behalf of the workers instead of by them. 

Is this a helpful framework?

Are these categories helpful for understanding the labor movement? These types are both philosophies of unionism and a collection of union practices that flow from them. What’s hard to hear from Burns’ analysis is that the vast majority of unionism in the U.S. is business unionism or labor liberalism. But that’s not wrong just because it’s bad news. Reading his description of labor liberalism makes it clear that much of my own training, mentoring and work within multiple unions as a researcher, campaigner and organizer could be seen as within that framework.

Critically, Burns claims that labor liberalism pretends to be the new solution that will turn around the labor movement. He identifies a kind of bait-and-switch, where labor liberals criticized business unionists for certain things, like racism in their unions, and then held up their vision as a clear alternative. But their critique was too narrow and left in place the majority of top-down union practices. If labor liberalism offers too much of the same core failed strategies, this time dressed in progressive rhetoric, then we need to recognize and reject it.

So though there are times when I think Burns is being somewhat unfair, I think this is essentially a helpful analysis. The unfairness comes with his scant acknowledgement that it’s a tremendous challenge to even keep unions alive and running. It’s difficult to fight all the time everywhere. And unions, even within the dominant frameworks, do a lot of good, with tens of millions of workers over the decades often having life-changing better conditions at work. Many unions do wage tough and successful fights, including strikes. A campaign like Fight for $15, which Burns criticizes, though certainly susceptible to valid critique from the Left, has helped raise the minimum wage for tens of millions of workers.  

But Burns is absolutely right that the dominant current forms of unionism are only managing the labor movement’s decline. It’s true that the labor movement was built on past upsurges of militancy, and then became domesticated over time. A recent report on labor movement finances has revealed that unions are sitting on billions in assets that could be spent on organizing. This echoes Burns’s critique of unions that are way too passive overall. 

Seeing his distinctions among kinds of unionism helps remind us how current union practices fall far short of what is needed. The example of member democracy is key. We all know that far too many union members are distant from the union and uninvolved in its activities. Pragmatists in the dominant traditions likely accept this as unfortunately inevitable (or even worse, desirable), which is why there is such an emphasis on union staff doing so much of the work. 

But this is a condition that is created and maintained through union practices. Labor Notes has a useful article on how staff should work within a member-run union, more as helpers and facilitators than folks doing all the work, something Burns agrees with. As he writes, “Folks are actually quite creative about organizing themselves if given the space. Class struggle unionists seek to create that space for workers, while labor liberals seek to fill it.”

I also appreciate his criticism on the excessive focus on organizing technique. Now I have long been fascinated with the discussions on how to organize better—what things we should do and how, what makes campaigns more successful, what training works best, etc. I love writing and talking about it. But for Burns, this is a narrow discussion that ignores the real issues that we simply can’t organize well enough within the labor movement we have. Without more fundamental structural changes in unions, we will never do all the organizing that is needed, and the organizing we do will not succeed enough. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic comes to mind.

How to build class struggle unionism?

It’s easy to complain that unions are doing it all wrong, but Burns does more than that. In a few thoughtful chapters, he outlines steps we can take to “build a labor movement on class struggle principles.” There is no detailed outline here, more like suggestions for getting the conversation going to create a coherent and growing class struggle tendency within the labor movement, with a strategy and demands on labor leadership. The folks interested in this now are primarily in the Labor Notes community.

Burns frames it the right way. Rather than asking what unions are allowed to do within the existing system, he asks what kind of labor movement we should build that could implement class struggle strategies that would for example, win more strikes, and also “force the system to live with our successful labor tactics.” 

Can we turn existing unions into class struggle unions? Perhaps. Reform caucuses coupled with a class struggle program could work, especially starting at the local level and then building from there. The Chicago Teachers Union is a great example, which Burns sees as a class struggle union, but it’s a local within the American Federation of Teachers, which Burns would likely tag with labor liberalism.

Burns also cites the United Electrical Workers (UE) union as an existing class struggle union. The UE is widely known on the Left for its member democracy, militancy, and Left political orientation, best recently summarized in their Them and Us Unionism statement. But UE also operates in some familiar and traditional ways—it runs National Labor Relations Board elections and signs union contracts with employers, for example. 

So perhaps it’s more the case that most unions are complicated organizations that may have multiple tendencies and practices within them. Therefore class struggle unionism may not be out of reach for more unions, if members and staff can build on those tendencies. The recent leadership change at the Teamsters and direct-membership elections for union leadership at the United Auto Workers (UAW) offer examples. 

Of course, it takes tremendous work to change union leadership and culture over time, as a class struggle union is forged not just by electing new officers and adopting new policies, but through engaging in sustained militant struggle and political education. Any union’s politics and practices also can’t be too far from where its members are. We can’t assume that it’s always naturally militant workers held back by union bureaucrats. There won’t be a class struggle union with members that are more politically conservative and don’t want to wage the class struggle, so this takes time to build. Typically it’s a “militant minority” of union members that does this difficult work, and the Democratic Socialists of America’s “Rank and File Strategy” takes up this approach.

Burns emphasizes the need to build the capacity to violate labor law. He wants us to replace decades of “law-abiding, rule-following, unimaginative, losing unionism” that has taught us to think small. One essential tactic will be stopping production at facilities where the workers are on strike. This means picketing seriously and keeping scabs out. Burns rightly outlines how this conflicts with the dominant ideology that prioritizes the property rights of employers and views that kind of picketing as coercive. A class struggle approach must overcome that.

For this, we may also need new organizations. This idea flows from a serious structural problem that unions have. Established unions are immersed in a web of relationships (political, contractual), that a class struggle strategy would jeopardize. They also have a lot of assets that could be lost in lawsuits or penalties from violating injunctions. The crippling fines recently imposed on the ILWU are one example. Another is the United Mine Workers union which is fighting a huge fine arising from their long Warrior Met Coal strike. This is enough to make any union president nervous. Therefore, a possible solution is to form new low-asset organizations with nothing to lose that could take riskier actions. This idea has been around the labor movement for a while but never seriously discussed or implemented. 

We need big changes now

Pragmatists in the dominant union traditions who are comfortable enough with the status quo are likely to say that all of this is just too risky and won’t work. Possibly they are right, but I hope not. The 1930s pragmatists no doubt said the same thing. But the class struggle unionists will have to prove them wrong, and sometimes surprising events like the victory of the independent, worker-run Amazon Labor Union may lead unions to rethink some of their assumptions. 

We’re in an exciting era when unions are extremely popular and tens of millions of non-union workers want to be in a union. We need fundamental change to organize on a mass scale, and the standard union practices of recent decades are absolutely inadequate for this challenge. We need new approaches that engage the energy, participation and creativity of millions of unorganized workers and union members to help with organizing and running their unions—the class struggle framework that Burns proposes. Overall, this book is much needed to remind us that tinkering around the edges of the labor movement we have is not enough. We shouldn’t be satisfied with managing our further decline, so it’s time to shake things up.

Featured image: the cover of ‘Class Struggle Unionism,’ by Joe Burns, Haymarket Books, 2022

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