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Rethinking the workers movement in 2024


Although I do not make new year’s resolutions, I do set goals. My goals this year are focused on the workers movement. If we are going to build on the momentum of the labor movement over the past two years and bring about real change, we need to radically alter our perspective. 

We can start with rethinking what the labor movement is about. For far too long, we have had an extremely narrow view of what it consists of. Even the much hyped strategy of “Bargaining for the Common Good” misses the point. We think it is only about bargaining, contract, wages, benefits and working conditions. 

The labor movement is fundamentally a workers struggle against capitalism. Whether you want to put a leash on it, reform or overthrow it, we must confront the system head on. Using politicians as “champions” and running unions like an NGO advocacy and lobbying group have failed us for nearly a century. Politicians exploit our countless hours of free labor and use union funds as their ATM machines to get re-elected. Once they do, these politicians work to serve the system, not workers.  

We aren’t going to change or overthrow capitalism unless we assert our power in the only place that we have it: at work and over work. To do that we have to do more than get a better contract. It’s time to reject labor law restricting our struggles to “wages, hours and working conditions.” While these are important, we focus only on them at our own peril. Doing so relinquishes control over our work to the boss under “management rights clauses” that give them power over everything else. That has gotten us nowhere for 89 years. 

Instead, we need to focus our struggles on controlling our work, not merely what we get paid. We serve neither our members nor the working class by abandoning the need to democratize how we work, what we do and whose interests it serves.  

This means flipping our understanding of what a union is. To many, it is a legally recognized organization with dues, elected leadership and paid staff that follows the rules. We have forgotten that a union is really any group of workers organizing to take action to control their work and change society. 

By changing what we understand a union to be, we can reject the limits on how we organize and what we demand. Many union leaders and staff tell us that we can only act unless by following the complex rules that prevent us from taking any action until we either file an unfair labor practice complaint or declare impasse. These rules are a choke chain designed to contain and defeat us. 

While there are legal and financial costs to acting outside and against rules designed to serve the boss, the cost of not acting is much higher. Our lack of action has allowed the destruction of the very capacity of life on earth to survive. It has resulted in the maiming and death of countless numbers of workers on the job, the impoverishment and early deaths, like my parents, of millions, and the dismantling of our communities.    

The limits are not merely legal. They are limits on our imagination of how to construct a different kind of world that serves life on earth rather than lining the pockets of the elite few. We do the work and understand how to do it better, safer, in less time, and to serve the many, not the few. Focusing only on wages, hours and working conditions is to see the trees and miss the forest, which is being clear-cut right before our eyes. 

We need our unions to model the democracy we demand in government. Moving to direct elections of leadership can give the members direct control of union assets and organizing and strike strategy. Calling a strike by press release, without using union resources to organize the membership and asking workers to strike without a strike fund, does not make for a credible strike threat.  

Strikes should also pursue more control of our work that will help us move to a more just and saner world. This means organizing our power at critical choke points where our refusal to work prevents this destructive system from working as planned until our demands for systemic change are met. The recent UAW and Hollywood strikes both used this approach. 

As I wrote about last month, our unions have vast untapped resources that can help us make this shift. Underused labor halls can be opened up as worker schools like the one I am currently co-organizing. They can also serve as day-care centers, film houses, cafes, newspaper and website editorial offices, and lodging for traveling organizers. 

We need them as meeting places for assemblies of workers democratically developing a strategy to take over and democratize the economic system. The halls should be used to rebuild and support a culture of workers’ struggle. Union assets currently invested in Wall Street can be freed up and invested in organizing us to take disruptive strikes that cross national boundaries and provide strike benefits when they do.    

I am issuing this warning with great urgency because time is running out fast. Capitalism is burning our planet down at an accelerated pace. Fascism is on the rise here and abroad. Horrific wars and mass slaughters are taking place out in the open with active complicity by our and other powerful governments. Normal politics has failed humanity and the planet. 

We are past time for urgent action. Only the workers movement is capable of taking it to turn us back from the precipice of global disaster. 

Robert Ovetz is editor of "Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle," co-editor of the forthcoming "Real World Labor (Vol. 4)" and the author of "When Workers Shot Back" and "We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few." Follow him at @OvetzRobert

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