A Program Not a Handbook for Class Struggle Unionism

Class Struggle Unionism
By Joe Burns
Haymarket Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781642595840

For more than five decades, as the percentage of American workers who belong to unions has dwindled, labor academics and union activists have been churning out books and articles on what is to be done. Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism is a recent entry in this field. It doesn’t break new theoretical ground, but is  meant as a short and accessible polemic for activists and interested  workers on what trade unions and the union “movement” should—and should not—be doing. Burns’ calls for targeting (and seeking to abolish) the “billionaire class” through militancy, shop floor struggle, rank-and-file-led unions, and racial, gender, and international solidarity are meant as a type of check-in for the militant minority: Is our work focused on these fundamental principles? Neither a history nor the ABCs of American trade unionism, it might still be useful in labor studies courses as a critical commentary on the current precarious state of labor unions, and—with its suggestions for different ways of thinking about union work—a provocation, challenging students to think outside the traditional trade union toolbox which has, at best, only slowed unions’ decline.

While [Burns] offers a new way to think about the goals and methods of union work, he does not explain how to implement them.

However, a polemic—doctrines, a vision, and critique of alternatives—is not a program. The main limitation of this provocative but slim tract is that Burns has left the hard work to others. While he offers a new way to think about the goals and methods of union work, he does not explain how to implement them. Thus, Burns doesn’t address why class struggle unionism has hardly ever been the main trend in the American labor movement; in other words, why it has been difficult to practice. He’s mostly silent on the tactics necessary to achieve the transformations he proposes. And he mostly ignores the dilemmas and choices that militant activists will face as they begin to apply the model he advocates.

The most valuable parts of the book outline the differences between class struggle unionism . . . “business unionism”—and . . . “labor liberalism” . . .

The most valuable parts of the book outline the differences between class struggle unionism, its traditional bête noire “business unionism,” and a newer theory of how to revive the labor movement, emerging first in the 1980s, which he terms “labor liberalism” (both discussed). The book contains a fine chart comparing the three types of unions which should be posted in every union office, and carried by every activist, so they act consciously and not through ignorance. In two successive chapters, he counter-poses his model to the currently dominant alternatives. While the on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand format is useful in drawing distinctions, it makes his initial exposition of class struggle unionism awkward and piecemeal, being mostly described by what it is not.

Both business unionism and labor liberalism, he argues, are based on mistaken practices of class collaboration and top-down service unionism. By assenting, with at best modest limitations, to the employer management of work and the workplace, and control of investment decisions and profits, they both reject aspirations toward what used to be called “industrial democracy.”[1] They try to maintain a working relationship with management and come to identify with company concerns. And each is prone to its own internal class formation, with specialists at the union hall devising strategies, deciding on priorities, and living differently than the workers they represent. Beyond this, each has its own particular characteristics.

Business unionism is based on the idea of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.” It sometimes engages in struggle against individual (bad) employers, but purposefully rejects struggle to eliminate the “class of billionaires who control our economy and our government.” That formulation seems meant to be a user-friendly anti-capitalist slogan, but its imprecision is irksome. After all, if there were no billionaires, expropriation of surplus labor would continue. Burns argues that business unionists represent only their own members even when that puts them at odds with larger working-class interests, but he needs to provide examples that show how this is a problem and why it repeatedly occurs. It seems petty to criticize construction unions “for fighting for [union] construction jobs to build a Walmart store while ignoring the effect of such an antiunion employer on the rest of the working class” (p. 22). It would be more challenging, but better, to address the problem of unions whose work is directly tied to the fossil fuel industry. Burns needs to acknowledge that workers often face contradictions between long-term interests in international solidarity and redressing the balance of power in society, and the short-term ones of protecting current jobs and putting food on the table.

Still, Burns feels business unionism is often more willing to fight management and submit key decisions to the rank-and-file than unions organized on a labor liberalism basis. Many progressives, dismayed by trade unionism’s slow decline, have been attracted to labor liberalism’s social justice mantras, its promise to organize the unorganized, and tactics that supplement labor’s toolbox, such as corporate campaigns and one-day strikes.

Burns concedes that some of this makes sense, but he is critical of strategies centered on “tightly choreographed workers’ struggles, a dominant role for staff organizers, and an orientation toward passing protective labor legislation.” Often, unions (and workers’ centers) adhering to a labor liberal perspective are quite undemocratic. Burns is scathing about labor liberalism’s  abandonment of a class perspective on and off the shop floor, for example, criticizing former president of Service Employees International Union, Andy Stern, for denying workers agency or voice by accepting management prerogatives in return for recognition agreements. He cites Stern’s comments on one negotiating session that Stern found particularly satisfactory: “‘As hard as I tried, I could not distinguish the union representatives from the management representatives’. To Stern,” Burns acidly comments, “that was a good thing, although most union members would like their representatives to sound different from company officials.”

Examples of class collaboration and top-down control here and elsewhere are pretty awful, but Burns is too hard on unions’ choice of tactics in the face of real-life constraints. Since it’s difficult, as everyone acknowledges, to organize fast food workers, was the SEIU wrong to “fight for $15” legislatively (using what he calls “publicity strikes” to jog lawmakers), or is it just imperative to understand that shouldn’t be all trade unions do, that empowering workers is a crucial end in itself? Burns argues that with limited resources, unions should focus their energies on strategic sectors such as logistics and manufacturing—Walmart’s warehouses and truckers rather than their stores, for example. But where does that leave tens of millions of service workers—such as those at Starbucks, whose likely very challenging struggle to secure contracts is nonetheless a rare recent example of the shop floor struggle and rank-and-file democracy and decision making Burns extols?

Class Struggle Unionism tilts toward idealism: that if activists consistently espouse and practice Burns’ mantras, they will happen. When he turns to Class Struggle Unionism’s own strategies and tactics, he ducks hard questions. Creating and sustaining union democracy, for example, poses constant quandaries. What if a significant chunk of the rank-and-file prefers service unionism, or isn’t as radical or willing to fight for ambitious goals as their new class struggle union leaders? If workers prefer the money-for-control trade-off of the Treaty of Detroit, should they be re- educated by Burns’ militant minority, or is that just a different form of top-downism?[2] Paraphrasing A. J. Muste, precisely what types of “town hall meeting” decision-making must percolate up, and when must a union act as an army with a field general—and who makes that determination?[3]

Turning to the conflict with employers, when should class struggle unionists wage fights they know are likely to be lost? What set of principles or analysis should guide those decisions? If it’s really true that management and workers never share a common interest, was it wrong when the union Burns works for, the Association of Flight Attendants, collaborated with the airline companies to get Covid bailout money?[4] How to ensure that compromises and organized retreats—which Burns acknowledges are sometimes necessary—don’t result in wholesale abandonment of class struggle perspectives? Occasionally, Burns shows that he knows these types of dilemmas exist. When he advocates that unions need to ignore injunctions and employer property rights, for example, he proposes that “start-up” unions, funded by existing unions, but without assets, would minimize legal risk. I have no idea whether this would work, but it’s a rare case where he suggests a specific solution to address potential problems in implementing the tactics and strategy he proposes. Too often, though, Burns leaves his militant minority to find their own way or, worse, be demoralized when class struggle unionism proves harder to practice than he has led them to believe. They need to better understand the material, legal, psychological, and cultural reasons—beyond class betrayal, corruption, or incompetence—that business unionism has been so hard to displace as the dominant form of trade union practice.

In sum, there’s good advocacy in this short book with a mission and argument for what might be. It’s easy for even working-class militants who hate the boss to slide into diligent business unionism. It’s easy for middle-class activists who want to do something useful for workers to look toward (social justice) labor liberalism, especially if they have never seen an alternative. Class Struggle Unionism provides a useful corrective, a challenge to both groups to remember that class struggle in the workplace and against the employer and the employers’ state should be their North Star, their guiding default principle. However, the actual strategies and tactics to address constraints and dilemmas need to be worked out elsewhere.

1. In which workers would make, or at least actively participate in, decisions about the best ways to organize production. Testifying to the Commission on Industrial Relations in 1916, Louis Brandeis urged, “there must be a division not only of profits, but a division of responsibilities; and the men must have the opportunity of deciding, what shall be their condition and how the business shall be run.” Final Report of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, Senate Document No. 415, 64th Congress, 1st session (1916).
2. The “Treaty of Detroit” was Fortune magazine’s characterization of the United Auto Worker’s 1950 contract with General Motors in which the union ceded control of production decisions to management in return for winning a variety of economic benefits.
3. A. J. Muste, “Factional Fights in Trade Unions: A View of Human Relations in the Labor Movement,” in American Labor Dynamics in the Light of Post-War Developments, ed. J. B. S. Hardman (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1928).
4. Jennifer Gonnerman, “Flight Attendants Fight Back,” The New Yorker, May 23, 2022, available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/05/30/flight-attendants-fighting-back.

Author Biography
Marc Kagan is a PhD candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center History Department. His forthcoming dissertation is titled, “Take Back the Power!: The Fall and Rise and Fall of Transport Workers Union Local 100, 1975-2009.” As an activist transit worker, public school teacher, and adjunct lecturer, he has tried to act as a class struggle unionist.

1 thought on “A Program Not a Handbook for Class Struggle Unionism

  • January 2023 at 11:59 am

    The article discusses how a “program not a handbook” is necessary for class struggle unionism. It argues that a program is necessary to provide a vision and a guide for action, while a handbook simply provides rules and guidelines. The article is based on the work ofImmanuel Ness and Dario Azzellini’s book “Assembly Hall of the Working Class.” I agree that a program is necessary to provide a vision and a guide for action. I would add that a program should also be flexible, so that it can be adapted to changing circumstances. A handbook, on the other hand, is more static and can become outdated quickly.

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