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The return of the fighting union


If you are wondering what kind of union you belong to, longtime labor lawyer Joe Burns has some pointers in his new book, “Class Struggle Unionism.”

You may be in what he calls a business union if the leadership is run by a small clique, only cares about its members, and is narrowly focused on enforcing the contract.

Maybe your union is more interested in collaborating with the boss, advocating for legal reforms, and supporting friendly candidates in elections than taking on fights on the shop floor or striking. Then your union is what Burns calls a labor liberal union.

But if your union fights the boss and carries out member-led disruptive strikes, then Burns would congratulate you for belonging to the tradition he calls class struggle unionism.  

If you think these differences don’t matter, think again. The state of the workers movement is grim. Last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a further decline in union membership to its lowest levels in 40 years. The number of new union workers grew but slower than the number of new jobs. 

According to Burns, “The labor movement today is in miserable shape, probably worse than in any period of labor history.”

The reasons have everything to do with most unions being top-down, staff-driven organizations that prefer to collaborate with the boss than fight them.

For the past 50 years labor liberalism has been celebrated as an alternative to business unionism. According to Burns, things have only grown worse under the new labor liberal leadership in the largest unions and AFL-CIO. Millions of dollars have been wasted on workers centers and hundreds of millions spent on PR campaigns, lobbying and campaign donations. All these flashy PR campaigns haven’t gotten us a $15 minimum wage or organized Walmart or Amazon.

Under labor liberalism, union density continues to drop, strikes have nearly disappeared and the billionaires have only gotten wealthier and more powerful.

In recent years, there has been a renewed focus on organizing with the rising popularity of labor organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey’s trainings. While these trainings are useful (I’ve attended them and read her works), Burns argues that teaching more organizing skills hasn’t made much of an impact either.

But aren’t things looking up? The Cornell Labor Action Tracker reported a 60 percent increase in the number of “labor protests” and strikes last year. As I reported last year, we have also seen a large uptick in credible strike threats.

For Burns, this isn’t enough. He’s correct that the billionaire class continues to not only grow richer but more powerful and capitalism continues to pillage our planet.

Burns argues that to turn the workers movement around we need to take up the militancy of unions like the Western Federation of Miners, IWW, Trade Union Educational League, early CIO, the UE and organizations like Labor Notes which have put the struggle against the billionaire class and capitalism at the forefront.

We also need to have member-, not staff-driven, organizing and strikes, Burns urges us. We don’t need supermajorities, as McAlevey contends, only a militant minority that will fight the boss and break unjust labor laws. When they win, more workers will flock to join them and labor law will be changed to respond to the new reality of worker power.

We have seen some recent successes using this strategy. Among them are the Chicago Teachers Union strikes, the 2018 “illegal” wildcat teacher strikes, job actions carried out by Amazonian Workers United, and the University of California graduate student strikes in recent years.

What makes them different?

According to Burns, these strikes have been led by an organized membership taking action against the boss by engaging in open-ended, disruptive, and even illegal, strikes. They take on power in the workplace and connect it to issues of gender, racism and capitalism. Most importantly, they are worker and not staff organized. Staff, Burns says, want to keep their jobs so can be expected to urge caution and keep the members in line.

These strategies and tactics matter a lot. For Burns, “the politics of class struggle unionism were systematically employed to go into battle with employers and in the process transformed the union.”

In short, labor liberalism has it all backwards. We don’t need to first build the union and change labor first before we can strike. By taking on the boss and engaging in disruptive strikes, the workers build the union and force labor law to be changed once it proves to be irrelevant.

According to Burns, we have a choice. Today our unions’ narrow focus on negotiating contracts is no less than “bargaining over the terms of our exploitation … agreeing to a situation where the billionaire class gets richer off our labor.”

Rather than carrying out ineffective symbolic “strikes” that everyone knows will be short, Burns advocates open-ended strikes that “impede the profit-making ability of the employer by preventing either the production or distribution of products and services.”

Last December, 48,000 striking University of California graduate workers ended their six-week strike, the largest in the history of higher education. Although it came up short on the original demands, it proved disruptive because it did all the three things Burns says makes a strike successful.

It stopped the operations of the 10 campus system. Because other organized workers supported the strike, it shut down classes, transport and deliveries. Most students, like my daughter, stayed away and many faculty canceled classes and gave out the same grade to every student. Many students still haven’t received their grades. Its impact reverberated throughout the state.

The strike took years of fighting the boss to prepare. In 2019-20, UC Santa Cruz graduate workers went on a wildcat strike and refused to turn in grades. Not only did it result in the university paying the cost of living increase demanded by the strikers but the fired workers were rehired.

As if following Burns’ strategy, this unsanctioned and “illegal” wildcat strike made the successful 2022 strike possible. They fought the boss and won — twice.

Robert Ovetz teaches about labor relations work. He is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back” and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” Follow him at @OvetzRobert


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