We Need to Build a Labor Movement That’s Willing to Break the Law

The United States has the lowest level of unionization of all developed countries. Less than 11 percent of workers are members of a union. The unionization rate in Sweden is higher than that in Belgium. close to 50 percent; and in Iceland, almost the entire labor force (almost 92 percent) is unionized. The U.S. also has a nearly equal union membership rate for collective bargaining coverage. However, in the European Union, collective bargaining covers more than 60 percent of employees.

What’s causing the decline of unions in the U.S., from over 20 percent in 1983 to less than 11 percent today? What is limiting the ability of unions organize and bargain? Is it the unions themselves to blame for this? How can militancy be revived and the power of unions in the neoliberal era? This exclusive interview is for TruthoutJoe Burns, a veteran labor organizer and negotiator, shares his thoughts on these questions. Burns is also the author of Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor’s Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism TodayAnd Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America.Haymarket Books has just published his latest book. Class Struggle Unionism.

C.J. Polychroniou – Since the 1980s there has been a decline in unionization in the U.S. survey dataIt was found that nonunion workers prefer unions to their workplace at a higher level than 40 years ago. In the United States, unions are still weak. What are the causes of union decline and declining political effectiveness? Is there a link between a weak labor movement and rising economic inequality

Joe Burns: Corporate America began to attack unions in the 1970s. We were unable to strike because of the rigid restrictions imposed by Congress, the court system, and unions were shut down in every industry in the 1980s. Our unions survived decades of bureaucratization. business unionismThey were not up for the fight.

The guiding philosophy of a lot of the U.S. labor movement was and still is business unionism. Business unionism is cautious and bureaucratic, and sees only a limited role of unions in representing workers at specific plants or employers. Many chose to work with employers in labor management programs, rather than trying to solve the problem ourselves.

Management has been able to dictate terms in labor markets, with only 6 of 100 workers being unionized. Trucking today is largely nonunion, even though 500,000 truckers were covered under the National Master Freight Agreement, which was the primary labor deal between the Teamsters Union of the motor carrier industry in the country. Similar trends are evident in other industries. We see an increase in inequality and the erosion hard-won labor standards without a strong labor force.

Your new book Class Struggle Unionism, you argue that contemporary unions in the U.S. have been swept by the ideology of “labor liberalism” and thereby lack class consciousness and do not challenge capitalist exploitation. How would you define labor liberty, and how do you think this development is linked to the decline or rebirth of unions?

The main obstacle to bureaucratic business unionism up until the 1980s was class struggle unionism. This is based on the belief that workers who create all wealth in society should be exploited at work, creating the billionaire class. From this simple idea flows unionism that is based upon workplace militancy and class-wide struggle as well as a commitment to worker-led struggles.

A new form of unionism emerged in the mid-1980s. It sought to find a middle ground between militant class struggle unionism and bureaucratic business unionism. This was typified by the Service Employees International Union and the organizing approach in the 1990s, but also present in many initiatives, such as social unionism (an organizational-maintenance strategy), workers centers (institutions that help immigrants make inroads in the world of work in the U.S.), etc. This approach has been the most popular among progressive trade unionists over the last several decades. This approach I call labor liberalism.

It supports more progressive positions in social issues, but labor liberalism doesn’t have the conflict with the labor bureaucracy or focus on rank and file shop-floor violence that was the hallmark of class struggle unionism. This approach shared more similarities with the middle-class social movement than the traditional workplace concerns of both class struggle unionism and business unionism.

Although the framework has helped the rest of the labor movement think more broadly, labor liberalism is not up for the task of revitalizing the labor movement. We need a different approach that is more militant, more willing to take chances and is based in union members.

How can you understand class struggle unionism in this context?

Class struggle unionism was responsible for some of the most significant struggles in American labor history. The Industrial Workers of the World advocated for uncompromising unionism that included all workers in the early 1900s. In the 1920s and 1930s class struggle unionists took part in the militant struggles that led the creation of the modern labor organization. They often had the to face both the bosses as well as the business unionists. Adherents created a civil rights movement in the South in 1940s that offered a different route to unionism.

Recent years have seen thousands of antiwar, civil rights, and student activists radicalized from the 1960s enter the labor movement. They helped to build a wildcat strike, reform movements, and leave us with enduring institutions such as the United Nations. Labor Notes, Teamsters for a Democratic UnionAnd Black Workers for Justice. They offered a different route than the weakness and accommodation of the business unionists.

The core of class struggle unionism lies in the recognition that the interests of management and labor are opposed. As the United Electrical Workers union calls it, this creates a “Them and Us” form of unionism. This form unionism regards shop floor/workplace conflicts as crucial, since this is where the power of billionaires is created in the employment transaction. We need a new philosophy, which class struggle unionism offers, in order to pick the big fights and break through labor law restrictions.

The general strike was — and remains so even today — an instrument of radical European labor movements. In the U.S., however, there hasn’t been a general strike since 1946 Can a general strike play out in today’s U.S.?

In recent years, many people have called for general strike action. This is due to a true understanding of the immense power of the working class. Essential workers are crucial to the running of society, as we saw during the global pandemic. Because society would be without them, meatpackers, telecom workers, and transportation workers all continued to work during the pandemic. If all workers could strike simultaneously, we would have extraordinary power.

There are no silver linings and general strikes are not possible by relying on Facebook posts or the Internet. Kim Moody has demonstrated. pointed outThe majority of general strikes have been triggered by solidarity extensions. Several workers involved in militant strikes sought help and the strike spread to other workers.

A fundamentally different kind of labor movement is needed in order to be able strike across industries. One that is willing to break the labor laws and confront the authorities, one that values class-wide struggle and is deeply rooted within the working class. Reestablishing class struggle unionism is the only hope for the labor market.

Can we really expect a radical labor organization to be revived and lead to a successful transition towards a more democratic, egalitarian socioeconomic system in a political system that has been stripped of radical political parties.

We know from labor history that great things can occur when workers get involved. It doesn’t matter if it is private sector workers in 1930s or public employees of 1960s, striking workers can quickly transform the landscape.

In many ways, the weakness in the labor movement can be attributed to its left wing. Labor liberalism has dominated labor strategy, as has business unionism.

It is also true that any movement of extreme political parties must be based on a solid foundation of class struggle unionism. People who want a more just society will need the help of the labor movement. The workplace is where power and privilege are created and why we have billionaires. Because workers are the ones who create the value and flow upward to the global elite. The workplace is where workers of all nationalities and genders meet. Any social transformation project must include the labor movement.

After several decades of experimentation, it’s time to get back to basics. Only class struggle unionism with its worker-led militantism and willingness to challenge status quo holds any hope of changing the political equation.