By Steve Leigh
Joe Burns, “Class Struggle Unionism” (Haymarket Books 2022).
This is an excellent overview of the principles necessary for effective class struggle. It explains three types of unionism: Business or pure and simple unionism, labor liberalism, and class-struggle unionism (CSU).
CSU is based on a radical understanding of class relations under capitalism. It understands that capitalism is based on exploitation of the working class and opposes that exploitation. Instead of a “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” it wants the end of exploitation. It understands that union-boss relations are fundamentally a struggle, so unions must actually fight. They must organize to shut down the profits that the boss makes. They cannot rely on legislation, arbitration or helpful politicians. This includes the willingness to break the law since the law is set up for the benefit of bosses. CSU rejects the bosses’ parties, Republicans and Democrats. It sees the need for an independent workers’ party.
The author explains the “critical components” of CSU: “willingness to challenge the trade-union bureaucracy, shop floor militancy, rank-and-file democracy and an overall opposition to the system of capitalism” (p. 2). Later, he adds that CSU-oriented workers are not just interested in wages and benefits but also the need to control the workplace, which other trends in labor have largely given up (p. 37). Burns also makes plain that CSU must actively oppose racism, sexism, and other means by which bosses divide workers (p. 63).
Chapter 5 explains in more detail the tactics that CSU will use to win strikes. It also explains the need for rank-and-file organization, since the labor bureaucracy is under constant conservative pressure. As its name suggests, CSU champions the needs of the whole working class, not just particular sections of it. It refuses to sell out one section of the class to make gains for other sections.
CSU must be internationalist and seek to organize the unorganized: “The minimum necessary elements of a class struggle program today must include a plan to organize the key sectors of the economy, establish international solidarity, and revive militant labor tactics capable of bringing capital to its knees” (p. 106). The author believes that this strategy is far more important than the recent stress on particular organizing techniques.
Burns helpfully gives a Marxist sketch of exploitation. He quotes Big Bill Haywood, leader of the IWW and Western Federation of Miners:“ The mine owners did not find the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belongs to them!”
Burns cites the IWW, the better struggles of the CIO, the CTU strike of 2012, etc. as good examples of CSU. He notes that for many decades CSU has not dominated the union movement. Instead, it has been led by with an admixture of labor liberalism.
Business unionism was the main trend in the AFL before the Great Depression. It was only concerned with the wages, benefits, and conditions of the members it bargained for. Though Burns doesn’t specify this, its philosophy was to limit the number of workers with a particular skill to raise the price of that labor. This was in part why it was racist and sexist. It tried to exclude “cheap” labor rather than organize it to make it more expensive.
This approach led to class collaboration and support of the bosses in their imperialist foreign policy. Foreign policy support was and still is part of this brand of labor, even after John Sweeney came into leadership in 1995. Burns notes that the foreign policy of the AFL-CIO continued the AFL line. Under Sweeney, the words changed but not the action. Another feature of this type of unionism was actual opposition to government social programs! The idea was that if people could get these for free they would see no need to join a union.
The CIO started with more of a class-struggle approach but soon developed a bureaucracy that was more committed to political support of the bosses’ parties, and finally, open class collaboration. This was cemented in 1955 when the CIO joined the AFL to form the AFL-CIO. Before this, the CIO wing also had a garnish of labor liberalism.
This is one of the strongest points of this book—outlining and rejecting the trend of labor liberalism. This trend differed from business unionism in favoring social legislation. In fact, it had a concentration on politics rather than direct economics. It pushed for higher legal minimum wages, health care, etc.—but all through government action.
Leftists have often been more favorable to this wing of labor. It seems much more progressive in being concerned about the fate of the working class instead of just the bargaining unit. Burns rightly points out that this is an illusion. This trend is if anything less democratic than business unionism. It does not seek to organize workers at the point of production, but sees them as a stage army to lobby for political goals. In fact, in some cases, it is actually less oriented to class struggle than business unionists are (p. 44). It may be seen as a response to the weakness of labor’s business-union strategies. This is understandable since the power of labor has declined precipitously since the mid-1950s, from 35% of the workforce to around 11% today. This has accompanied a concentration of wealth at the top.
Part of his examination of labor liberalism is his discussion of “social unionism.” He is for the broader political goals of social unionism but says that only CSU can actually achieve those goals. “All class struggle unionists are social unionists but not all social unionists are class struggle unionists” (p. 69).
Burns has done a great service to activists in calling out the three trends in labor, especially in warning radicals not to be seduced by labor liberalism. His chart of the differences on pages 45–46 is useful.
His overall summary of the trends in unionism is helpful: “Business unionists seek modest improvements in particular workplaces. Labor liberals attempt to help disadvantaged workers by operating on their behalf, by doing things for them. Class struggle unionists, however, seek to contend with capital on a grand scale, seeking to change the balance of forces between the working class and the billionaire class”(p. 129).
In spite of this service and clarity, there are some problems with his analysis. Though he rejects the Democratic Party as a bosses’ party, he seems to support Sanders and the Squad as positive for labor. This is a contradiction he never explains. In fact, left-sounding Democrats have always been useful to the bosses’ party by winning support from those who might otherwise push for a workers’ party. Despite frequent good-sounding rhetoric, Sanders and the Squad continue to vote for military budgets, aid to Israel, continuation of the anti-immigrant border regime, etc. They continue to support the neo-liberal leadership of the Democrats in Congress, including Pelosi. Burns mentions his position on supporting these politicians several times in the book.
Another problem is an overly schematic analysis. Laying out the three wings of labor is important for clarity. However, the reality is more mixed. Business unionists will sometimes engage in class struggle. They will allay their activity with a veneer of labor liberalism. Labor liberals will sometimes back organizing drives that could result in positive changes, etc.
Part of this schematic view is an implication that only Marxists or perhaps anarchists can be class-struggle unionists. If anyone accepts the continuation of the capitalist system, they cannot be adherents of CSU. This implication seems very limiting. There can be people who have not yet been won to the overthrow of capitalism that still understand the need for class-struggle tactics. Of course, a deeper understanding of how the economy works provided by Marxism is a much firmer basis for CSU, but is not a precondition to class struggle.
This overly precise view of the basis of CSU can have negative consequences in organizing. Burns calls for union caucuses that follow CSU strategies. Obviously, the people most attracted to these will be Marxists or revolutionary anarchists. However, if the caucuses are limited to those groups, they will be smaller and less effective. Marxists need to build these caucuses with others who want real class struggle and try to win them to Marxism in joint struggle. Burns in general takes this approach but his overly restrictive idea of what being a class-struggle unionist entails will cut against this more practical method.
This united-front approach is also applicable to union leaders who follow business unionism and/or labor liberalism. Class-struggle-oriented caucuses and individuals need to support the initiatives of these leaders to the extent that they improve the conditions and combativity of workers. As Farrell Dobbs, a leader of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes in the 1930s, put it, Marxists need to aim at the boss and catch the union leaders in the middle. With this approach, activists can sometimes force union leaders to take positive action (p. 115). Class-struggle unionists need to be seen as of the union—i.e., trying to push the union as a whole to take class-struggle action. As shop stewards in Britain put it 100 years ago: We will support the union leaders to the extent that they rightly represent the members and oppose them when they don’t. Burns says he supports Farrell Dobbs’s approach, but some of his examples suggest otherwise.
An example of this is the author’s seeming rejection of all publicity strikes (p. 51), such as those of the Fight for 15. He is critical of the underlying strategy behind these efforts, which is understandable. However, once these efforts are going, class-struggle unionists can give them critical support and try to turn them in a more militant direction. In spite of its limitations, the Fight for 15 has helped raise wages. Burns seems ambiguous on these strikes, saying on page 57, “My point isn’t to knock this work.”
The author helpfully outlines some open questions within CSU on page 111, including the attitude to electing officers and taking staff positions. Burns stresses that independent worker organizing is key. This means relying on funding from workers, not NGOs, which often seek to limit struggle. The author believes that it will take a “militant minority” to organize other workers toward taking a class-struggle approach. On page 133, he outlines the next steps for class struggle unionists to take in building this wing of labor.
Overall, this is a very stimulating and useful book! It is also short, well written, and accessible. Even with some contradictions and ambiguities, it can serve as an important starting point for understanding what is needed to revive the labor movement!
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
Top photo: Fast-food workers protest outside the McDonald’s corporate campus in Oak Brook, Ill., in May 2014. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)