Over the past year, the labor movement has been on a bit of an upswing. Workers are winning historic victories at big corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon. The cost-of-living crisis brought a renewed interest in strikes and workers organizing for better wages and conditions.
However, according to author Joe Burns, not every labor union is the same. In his book “Class Struggle Unionism,” released earlier this year by the leftist publisher Haymarket Books, Burns argues that there are significant, qualitative differences among unions and their methods of resolving labor disputes. A longtime labor lawyer and negotiator, Burns has defended the use of strikes and more militant tactics that have fallen out of favor throughout much of the labor movement.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 16 major work stoppages were started in the U.S. in 2021, down from a peak of 470 in 1952. The department began tracking this number in 1947.
He said that, instead of aligning with business or the Democratic Party, unions should return to a more radical philosophy of class struggle. Real Change sat down with Burns to learn more about the internal dynamics within the labor movement and how workers can help revive the United States’ labor movement in 2022 and beyond.
Real Change: Could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to write “Class Struggle Unionism”?
Joe Burns: I had written two previous books, “Reviving the Strike” and “Strike Back,” which both focused on the question of the tactics and reviving an effective strike weapon. But I wrote “Class Struggle Unionism” because I realized that we need to dig a little bit deeper and get into what is sort of the philosophy driving the labor movement, and what’s an alternative philosophy that we can adopt, given the weak state of the labor movement today and our inability to revive the labor movement.
How do you see the divisions between business unionism, class struggle unionism and labor liberalism playing out today in our contemporary politics and labor issues?
So, for the first 100 years of unionism, I think the big, different forms of unionism were what’s called “business unionism” — or “bureaucratic business unionism” — and “class struggle unionism.” And the difference between the two is that the business unionists just see themselves as narrowly representing a group of workers in a plant or even an industry but don’t really see themselves as having a bigger role in society. They also view the wage transaction as that: They help workers negotiate a better rate of pay, and maybe some better working conditions, but once that deal has been done and the work is performed, the employer controls both the work process and also the product of all the value that’s produced by those workers.
In contrast, you have class struggle unionism, which has a completely different philosophy. Class struggle unionists believe that labor creates all wealth in society. They look at the employment transaction as that workers are forced to get a job, if not for one employer then for another. And what workers all have in common is that during their work shift, they produce value — they make the input supplied by the employer way more valuable. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be hired.
So it doesn’t matter whether you’re a barista, truck driver, a nurse, an auto worker — during your work shift, you transform things and make them more valuable. And you’re only paid a fraction of the value that you produce, and that’s why we have billionaires in society. The real source of inequality in society is that the workers create all value, but it goes to a small class of people.
So those are two very different viewpoints. The class struggle unionists believe that our fights are not against individual employers, but they’re part of a bigger fight between the working class in the country and the owning class and the working class around the world and the worldwide owning class. That means that class struggle unionism fights for all workers; they fight against racism and sexism and against the anti-immigrant moves. Class struggle unionists fight on the shop floor; they fight for union democracy because they realize that workers need that in order to have power. So it produces a very, very different form of unionism and, historically, it’s been very different, too. Some of the great battles in U.S. history ... As opposed to the racist, exclusionary business unionists, you had the Industrial Workers of the World, you had the great upsurges of the 1930s — all led by class struggle unionists who believed in an inclusive, militant form of unionism.
So those are kind of the two main ones. In recent years ... there’s a development of what I call “labor liberalism,” which is this form of unionism that really tries to straddle between the two, between class struggle unionism and business unionism, but it doesn’t do a really good job at it. It abandons a lot of the essential features of class struggle unionism, such as worker democracy and a lot of the militancy, and ends up just being a lot more like business unionism than they care to think. And it’s really a dominant idea within labor. So, those are the main differences.
What would you say to folks who are maybe a little skeptical about a more militant approach at their workplaces? Maybe they’ve heard bad words about Marx and other socialist and communist thinkers? To union organizers who don’t want to criticize the Democratic Party? Why do you think they should adopt this class struggle unionist approach?
We only have six out of 100 workers in the private sector who belong to unions. We have the lowest rate of unionism that we’ve had in centuries. We’ve got record inequality in society. We have employers basically abusing workers in the workplace, and we have no real prospects to revive the labor movement. We’ve tried a lot of different ideas over the last couple of decades. There’s been all these different theories about how we’re going to revive the labor movement. None of them have worked.
But we do know what’s worked historically: member-driven, democratic, worker-led organizations that are willing to take on the boss, that were willing to use the sort of tactics and strategies capable of winning. To do that, though, we need to break with the set of ideas that are dominant in the labor movement and really have our own philosophy, which is class struggle unionism.
Why is it important for unions to do political education around capitalism, class struggle, structures of oppression and other issues? And why has this type of education on the shop floor declined so much over the past half century or so?
The modern labor movement was really created by people with sort of radical ideas. But in the 1950s and beyond, a lot of the best activists were driven out of the labor movement during the red scares, and the labor movement adopted a fairly conservative approach. A lot of it was anti-communist, very suspicious of the left.
That started to break a little bit in the 1980s, but, instead of really having this class struggle unionism, they adopted what I call labor liberalism, which was the middle ground. And it really didn’t challenge a lot of what needs to be challenged.
So, I think there’s a lot more openness in the labor movement than there was a couple decades ago, openness to ideas. We have the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialists of America. So I think there’s a lot more openness than there used to be, and it’s really [created] an ability for us to have these conversations that we really haven’t had in the labor movement.
I think there was this anecdote about a lot of unions having thinktank arms but not necessarily curriculum or dedicated study time around class struggle analysis. Do you know a little bit about why that transformation happened, and if unions should try to make sure everyone in the union, including the rank and file, is able to participate in these debates and has access to political education?
Part of the problem is a lot of the unions don’t have a class struggle unionist viewpoint and really think a lot more like business unionists. I think they look to the Democratic Party. For example, we talk about the rail dispute going on right now. It’s clear that the rail workers are upset, they have real needs that aren’t being met through their contracts. It [requires] an ability to break with the sort of ideas that have been ruling for years and have a different vision. I don’t think that unions are, and have been, very good about having deeper discussions. A lot of unions are fairly bureaucratic and not really open to change. But, if we’re going to revive the labor movement, those are the types of discussions and political education that we need to be having.
I wanted to hear how class struggle unionism fits in with some of the contemporary labor struggles we’ve seen. You mentioned the Democratic Party and federal government’s decision to ban rail workers from striking. There’s also internal divisions we’re seeing within [United Food and Commercial Workers] about responding to the Albertsons-Kroger merger. And a third one was this rise in grassroots rank-and-file organizing, especially at Starbucks and Amazon. How do you think the different divides within the labor movement, right now, are playing into what we’re seeing in 2022-2023?
I think some of the more exciting things going on in the labor movement is from people who are sort of operating from a class-struggle perspective and a rank-and-file organizing. So if you look at the railroad workers, one of the reasons that they’ve been able to make it such a big, national issue is because you’ve got Railroad Workers United, which is a rank-and-file group that’s existed for a couple decades now and has organized railroad workers across industries. So, they have a different approach than rail unions, which has favored bargaining separately and is fairly conservative.
In the United Auto Workers, you got a rank-and-file group that supported everyone getting to vote for the international officers and are making great headway there. You’ve got the folks who aren’t using the tired, old organizing models in Amazon and Starbucks — really are appealing to a new generation of workers by doing things a bit differently. So, I think all of these show a willingness to go directly to the members and to the workers and do some direct organizing. Many times they’re not necessarily in alignment with the union leadership but willing to take different positions.
For folks who are reading this interview who might be excited about the prospect of organizing or unionizing, what should they know about that? Whether they’re inside an existing union or want to form one, how can they try to have a class struggle approach in that organizing?
Anyone who’s entered organizing, I think, needs to have an ability and a willingness to try different things. A lot of people come into the labor work and they just follow how organizing they think is supposed to go, but that’s not working. So, I think the greatest gains are where you go in, you organize your coworkers, you believe in what you’re doing. And I think people have to have a willingness to sort of experiment on different paths to creating change in the workplace. Don’t just rely on [National Labor Relations Board] elections, or don’t just follow the sort of standard script about how you organize a union. So, I think some of the best work is coming from people who are willing to trust your instincts and say, “Hey this is how we should do it.”
Always believe in the members and the power of your coworkers to create change.
Read more of the Dec. 14-20, 2022 issue.