Labor’s Weakness

Image by Jack Sloop.

Most people reading this will agree that the recent actions by Congress and the White House demanding that railway workers accept the contract rejected by the majority of those voting on it was a despicable use of government power in favor of capital. Some union members and supporters have even called it a betrayal by the Democrats. Pointing at Joe Biden’s declaration that he is the most pro-union US president ever, these members and their supporters seem more surprised than the rest of the apostles were when Judas betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. While I understand their anger, I condemn their apparent naiveté–contrived or genuine. After all, Biden may actually be among one of the most pro-union US presidents. This doesn’t mean he is really that pro-union. It just shows how anti-union the US government is.

The history of the United States includes many, many federal interventions into strikes, boycotts and other labor actions, especially since the industrialization of the nation began in earnest after the Civil War. Given the importance of the railroads to this capitalist episode that not only saw intense industrialization but also an increased concentration of wealth, power and control of the national economy in the hands of a few families, railroad workers experienced this quite intensely. Indeed, two national railroad strikes–in 1877 and 1894–were brutally crushed by US troops and private security groups. Furthermore, the executive branch was the branch that ordered these actions. In 1926, the federal government enacted a law that gave the government permission to intervene before a railroad strike occurred. Like it gave Truman in 1950 and Bush in 1991 the power to act, this is the law that informs the current action by the feds.

In light of the recent intervention, it seems like a good time to revisit a few realities about labor unions in the United States. Despite the recent upsurge in organizing activity in workplaces like Amazon, Starbucks and Chipotle, the truth is that most (and I mean most) workers in the United States are neither organized or even close to such a move. This is due to many factors, but the two that I consider most important are the federal and state laws that make union organizing very difficult and the lackadaisical effort that the major unions put into organizing unorganized workers. As someone who is just finishing up an almost two-year stint as president of my local, I can verify that the pressure to sign up new workers and organize the unorganized came more from our state AFL-CIO office than through any utterances or funding by the national and international of the union or AFL-CIO. Fortunately, Vermont is currently home to what is perhaps the most radical and democratic AFL-CIO Labor Council in the United States. This has meant that the Council spends money, time and energy on organizing unorganized workers.

I don’t pretend that what the Left appropriately calls business unions are the answer to the innumerable economic issues facing working-class people in the United States. However, I will state clearly that unionized workplaces are better places to work. Beyond the pay rates and benefits–which are almost always better in union shops when compared to non-union shops in the same types of workplaces–there is the fact of a process that prevents abusive tactics and just plain abuse by management. When such abuses do occur, union shops have entire parts of their collective bargaining agreement devoted to ending them and procuring some kind of justice for the abused laborers. Still, even in these circumstances, the union local is only able to do as much as its members demand of it. If the members see the union as just one more part of the job without participating in its elections, actions and meetings, the local ends up having little chance of keeping pace in its responses to management and its reneging on the contract. When members of a local are willing to stick their neck out and take action to support one of their fellows, management will often step back before the work becomes too disrupted.

Of course, if management refuses to step back and reconsider, it is up to the workers to take the next step. Sometimes, that action is something as simple as a petition signed by close to everyone in the shop. Other times, it requires a walkout. Most often, it is something in between that works. Very rarely, that something is a request that an elected official step in. This isn’t because elected officials don’t have the means to make a difference because sometimes they do. During a 2013 strike by bus drivers in Burlington, Vermont, it was a behind-the-scenes intervention by Bernie Sanders that eventually convinced management to sign a good deal for the drivers. Of course, it took several weeks of striking and community solidarity actions before that occurred. In other words, it was the solidarity of the drivers and the community that convinced Sanders to pressure management. Still, most elected officials are more beholden to the power structure than they are to working people. The reason for this is simple. The power structure is organized. For the most part, working people in the United States are not.

This brings us back to the first paragraph of this piece. Democrats give lip service to working people and their unions. They give obeisance to the banks, the arms industry, the Pentagon, the railroads and the rest of corporate America. Why? Because those entities have extreme amounts of power and they use that power to get what they want. If the working people of the United States wish to have power to get what they deserve, they must create their own power. History proves that it must be a power separate from the electoral system. It must be beholden to and composed mostly of those who sell their labor. While it is of course important to once again call out the duplicity of the Democratic party at this time, it also seems like a beneficial time for those on the Left to look in the mirror. When we look there, is the Left we see an entity that is willing to critically challenge a strategy that depends on a party beholden to capital? Do we see an entity composed of working people willing to commit to organizing our own workplaces; into organized shops for those not organized and into more militant locals committed to working-class solidarity for those already organized? Do we see an entity that is committed to exercising its power in the streets even if it means breaking the law? Do we want to do the work it requires to gain and exercise our power?

If we are, then now is the time to step it up. We can’t leave it up to the national leadership of the unions. They are not interested in upsetting the apple cart to the degree it will require in order to gain working-class power. For those already in a union, leaving it up solely to the officers and stewards of your local is unrealistic; most of them already have their hands full (often with little support from above) trying to keep management from breaking contracts. No, for those who are already union members, it’s time to step up and demand your international spend more money on organizing workers, not legislators. Furthermore, it’s time we risk our comfort (such as it is) and be willing to boycott, walk picket lines, talk with and meet people outside of our comfort zones and organize actions in support of working people fighting for a decent situation. When we reach the critical mass required, we will know we are there, because we will be heard. And because those now in control will have to respond with something more than the brush-off just given to the railroad workers.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: