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We Need to Build a Labor Movement That’s Willing to Break the Law

It’s time to bring back class struggle unionism with its worker-led militancy, says veteran labor organizer Joe Burns.

California College of the Arts staff strikes in protest of the school's unfair labor practices outside of its building in San Francisco, California, on February 8, 2022.

The United States has one of the lowest levels of unionization among developed countries, with less than 11 percent of total workers being members of a union. In Sweden, on the other hand, over 66 of the labor force is unionized; in Belgium, close to 50 percent; and in Iceland, virtually the entire labor force (almost 92 percent) is unionized. In the U.S., moreover, collective bargaining coverage (all people whose terms of work are collectively negotiated) is also almost the same as the union membership rate, while in the European Union, over 60 percent of employees are covered by collective bargaining.

What’s causing the decline of unions in the U.S., from over 20 percent in 1983 to less than 11 percent today? What is undercutting the ability of unions to organize and bargain? Are unions themselves to blame? How can militancy and union power be revived in the neoliberal age? In this exclusive interview for Truthout, veteran labor organizer, labor negotiator and attorney Joe Burns offers his own insights into these questions. Burns is the author of Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today and Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America. His latest book, which was just released by Haymarket Books, is Class Struggle Unionism.

C.J. Polychroniou: Since the 1980s, there has been an erosion of unionization in the U.S. even though survey data reveals that nonunion workers seem to prefer unions in their workplace at a higher rate than was the case 40 years ago. In addition, unions in the U.S. remain weak. What are the causes for union decline and their declining political effectiveness, and is there a link between a weakened labor movement and rising economic inequality?

Joe Burns: Unions came under a withering attack by Corporate America beginning in the 1970s. With our hands tied behind our back by the rigid restrictions on strike activity imposed by Congress and the court system, unions were busted in industry after industry in the 1980s. But our unions, after decades of bureaucratization and business unionism, were not up to the fight.

Business unionism was, and is, the guiding philosophy of much of the U.S. labor movement. Business unionism sees a limited role for unions in representing workers at a particular plant or employer, and are often cautious and bureaucratic. Many opted for accommodation with employers in labor management programs rather than fighting our way out of the problem.

With only 6 out of 100 workers in unions, management has largely been able to dictate terms in the labor markets. Thus, whereas 500,000 truckers were covered by the National Master Freight agreement, which was the primary labor agreement between the Teamsters Union and the motor carrier industry across the country, trucking is mostly nonunion today. We see a similar story in other industries. Without a strong labor movement, we see widening inequality and the erosion of hard-won labor standards.

In your new book, Class Struggle Unionism, you argue that contemporary unions in the U.S. have been swept by the ideology of “labor liberalism” and thereby lack class consciousness and do not challenge capitalist exploitation. How exactly do you define labor liberalism, and do you think this development itself is linked to the decline of unions?

Up until the 1980s, the main challenge to bureaucratic business unionism was class struggle unionism, which is based on the idea that workers who create all wealth in society are exploited in the workplace, creating the billionaire class. From that simple idea flows a form of unionism which is based on workplace militancy, class-wide struggle, and a commitment to worker-led struggles.

In the mid-1980s a new form of unionism developed which sought to form a middle ground between bureaucratic business unionism and the more militant class struggle unionism. This was typified by the Service Employees International Union and the organizing approach in the 1990s, but also present in many initiatives, such as social unionism (an organizational-maintenance strategy), workers centers (institutions that help immigrants make inroads in the world of work in the U.S.), etc. For the last several decades, this has been the leading approach in the labor movement among progressive trade unionists. I call this approach labor liberalism.

While it supports more progressive positions on social issues, labor liberalism lacks the conflict with the labor bureaucracy and focus on rank-and-file shop-floor militancy which typified class struggle unionism. In general, the approach had more in common with the middle-class social movements than the traditional workplace concerns of both business unionism and class struggle unionism.

While the framework has helped push the rest of the labor movement to think broader, ultimately labor liberalism is not up to the task of reviving the labor movement. For that we need an approach that is a lot more militant, lot more willing to take risks and is based in the rank-and-file of unions.

Within the same context, how do you understand class struggle unionism and how can it be revived in both the private and public sector?

Some of the greatest struggles in U.S. labor history were led by class struggle unionism. The Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s advocated for an uncompromising unionism which embraced all workers. In the 1920s and 1930s, class struggle unionists engaged in the militant struggles which led to the creation of the modern labor movement, often having to take on both the business unionists and the bosses. Adherents built a civil rights unionism in the South in the 1940s which offered a different path for unionism.

More recently, thousands of radicalized civil rights, antiwar and student activists from the 1960s entered the labor movement and helped build a wildcat strike wave, built reform movements and left us with enduring institutions, such as Labor Notes, Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Black Workers for Justice. They offered a different path than the accommodation and weakness of the business unionists.

The core of class struggle unionism is the understanding that the interests of labor and management are opposed. As the United Electrical Workers union calls it, this creates a “Them and Us” form of unionism. This form of unionism sees shop floor/workplace struggles as key, as this is where the power of the billionaire class is created, in the employment transaction. In order to pick the big fights, break through restrictions on labor law, we have to have a new philosophy which class struggle unionism provides.

The general strike was — and remains so even today — an instrument of radical European labor movements. In the U.S., however, there hasn’t been a general strike since 1946 Can a general strike play out in today’s U.S.?

Many in recent years have put out calls for general strikes. This is based on a correct understanding of the incredible power of the working class. As we learned during the global pandemic, essential workers are key to running society. Meatpackers, telecom workers, transportation workers all continued working during the pandemic because without their labor, society would grind to a halt. If all workers were able to strike at the same time, we would have incredible power.

There are, however, no silver bullets, and general strikes do not materialize out of thin air or through Facebook posts. As Kim Moody has pointed out, most actual general strikes have come from extensions of solidarity. Groups of workers engaged in militant strikes asked for help, and the strike spread as other workers joined the battles.

In order to be able to engage in general or mass strikes crossing industries, we need a fundamentally different type of labor movement. One willing to violate the restrictions of labor law, confront the powers that be, that prioritizes class-wide struggle and that is deeply rooted in the working class. For that reason, the only hope for the labor movement lies in reestablishing class struggle unionism.

Can we really expect a radical labor movement to be revived and trigger a successful transition into a more democratic and egalitarian socioeconomic order in a political system deprived of the presence of radical political parties?

One thing we know from labor history is when workers get in motion, great things can happen. Whether it be private sector workers in the 1930s or public employees in the 1960s, when workers begin striking in large numbers, they can quickly transform the landscape.

In many ways, the weakness of the labor movement is the weakness of its left wing. In the absence of a strong, organized class struggle trend, labor liberalism and business unionism have dominated labor strategy.

But it is also true that any movement of radical political parties must rest on a strong foundation of class struggle unionism. The labor movement plays a particular role for those who want to see a more just society. The source of power and privilege in society, and the reason we have billionaires, begins in the workplace. For it is here that the value created by workers is separated from them as the producers of goods and services, flowing upward to a global elite. The workplace is where workers of different nationalities and genders come together. For that reason, the labor movement must be at the heart of any project of social transformation.

After several decades of experimentation, it’s time to get back to basics. Only class struggle unionism, with its worker-led militancy and willingness to challenge the status quo, holds any hope for changing the political equation.

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