Class Struggle Unionism
History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 11
Philip S. Foner
When Vermont Senator and socialist Bernie Sanders ran for the White House again in 2020, one of his oft-mentioned observations was that “Half the working people in the United States cannot come up with $400 – even for an emergency.” So, what is organized labor’s antidote for this systematic mass impoverishment? Answer: pick away at organizing one small shop and unit at a time, hoping somehow to counteract the millionaire and billionaire assault.
There is also another statistic that is just as scary as Bernie’s $400 story. Of the many promising union organizing drives that do get going in corporate workplaces every year only a bare few thousand get far enough to force the employer to allow the NLRB to conduct an “election”, often against furious illegal employer resistance. Of those that survive and actually succeed, less than half of those will win first union contracts. And of those that manage to get that far, only half of those groups will see a second union contract. So to sum this up; the working class is being reduced to abject poverty while the unions are flat-out repressed.
I have been a member of four different unions spanning my working life of almost 45 years. I have been in all sort of positions in the labor movement from rank and file organizer to staff organizer. All through those many experiences it was clear that we were in trouble. Big trouble. Like many rank-and-file workers and volunteers it has always been clear to me that the things we have been doing are not working. When you find yourself in a jam of this magnitude, it’s time to change course.
The “business model” of business unionism long ago started sputtering, so far as its ability to make real gains for the membership. Small islands and pockets of the working class have held onto some of the business union benefits. But that’s it. The vast masses of the unorganized now toil and languish in workplaces that resemble dictatorships, where month-by-month they fall farther and farther behind. We have all been witness to a descending and accelerating process where as the business unions shrink and conservatize the unorganized workforce see the old unions as less and less attractive.
Try as some might to avoid it, labor today finds itself encircled by the forces of hostile employers and politicians. A radical breakout strategy is urgently needed. I for one didn’t join this movement so I could merely participate in – and witness – the long and steady decline of the condition in the working class.
The release of these two new and vital labor books comes at a particularly critical junction point for the working class. The latest Joe Burns work, “Class Struggle Unionism”, appears now just as there are clear signals of some renewed labor militance and a discernably increased new organizing vigor. Class Struggle Unionism is based on the idea, as my old union UE calls it, of the “them and us” reality in the workplace today. Burns opens his book very simply by declaring that, “To revive the labor movement, we need to revive class struggle unionism.” Like brother Burns, nothing I have seen in my adventures over these many years leads me to any other conclusion.
The simultaneous appearance of the nearly lost Philip Foner book, “History of the Labor Movement in the United States Volume 11, The Great Depression 1929-1932” dovetails neatly with the new Burns volume. While Burns focusses on what class struggle unionism could look like today, Foner’s work documents in his customary detail the political and organizational roots of what became the great class struggle upsurge that ultimately gave birth to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Foner chronicles some of the desperate fights in several industries as workers were confronted with both employers bent on union liquidation, along with labor “leaders” determined to do whatever it took to water-down or even kill the growing spirit among the workers to aggressively fight back.
We can learn a lot from studying the early years of the Great Depression. The bulk of the business union leadership of today is equally listless, directionless, and as unimaginative as were their counterparts at the onset of that calamity. As both Burns and Foner amply prove, the old, failed formulas of the business unions will not deliver any better results today than what they delivered in the Depression decade.
The recent organizing breakthrough at Amazon attests, and as the spreading Starbucks union contagion likewise proves, workers will fight back when faced with intolerable conditions. The many young workers that I have been privileged to get to know who work for both of these corporate monsters possess something that few of the business union bigs have. Namely, their willingness to go all-in, to go directly to the membership, to risk everything against all odds, based entirely on the premise that history is our guide and that no struggle will bring no result.
For militants and activists toughing it out in the unions and unorganized shops today the thought of a revolutionized and invigorated labor movement may seem far, far away. But as legendary founding Director of Organization for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) James Matles remarked shortly after his retirement from a lifetime of militant union activity, “Rank and file unionism comes in waves. It rises, it falls, but the employers have been unable to liquidate it for all time.” Longtime UE organizer Phil Mamber once told me that, “Look kido, workers don’t need to join the union to get something that the boss might give them anyway.” It’s a stark contrast. Class struggle unionism delivers what the members want. Business unionism delivers what the union officialdom thinks is good for them.
An entire new generation of young union leaders are now taking their places in the front row of the class struggle. Whether in a union already, or trying to start one, I commend both books to all. The new Burns volume follows his several previous works on the strike question. Foner’s work adds the much-awaited Volume 11 to his epic U.S. labor history series, in addition to his more than 100 other books documenting the radical and inspiring history of our labor left.
William Z. Foster observed early in his career that, “The left wing must do the work.”. He refers to the elements both within and around the labor movement who bear responsibility for altering the disastrous course set by the business union stupor. Transforming the current unions from what they are into radically different and aggressive vehicles for working class progress is our mission. I say it. I proclaim it. Spread the word and buy and read these books.