The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to be Done? (Part 2)

Many people reading the blog have only the read the first position paper on unions and not the second. We are releasing the second to make clear there are two position papers being discussed in Advance the Struggle. We wanted to share both so people can see the discussion going on. Please feel free to comment, and or critique both pieces.


Revolutionaries, Unions and emerging Class Struggle.

“Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachment of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”  -Marx


So few revolutionaries are implanted in the landscape of over 14 million US union members,  making a key task the formation of revolutionary cells amongst the rank and file of unions, which would  engage in three types of political work; 1) day to day organizing and base building amongst the rank and file of that union, 2) form new working class organizations outside of the unions (like solidarity unionism or independent committees) and, 3) in rupturing  moments of capitalist attack, like the “Wisconsin moment,” to lead classwide offensives against capital.



           American revolutionaries currently lack an adequate perspective detailing precisely what sort of political interventions are necessary to make a revolution. Unions are locations of struggle between workers and capital, central to any potentially successful revolutionary strategy. The revolutionary left has two general strategies in dealing with the unions. One is to orient towards them as if they are another part of capital; the other is they are a viable organization of the working class that should be transformed into instruments of working class struggle. Such disagreements lead to differences in how the character and structure of the unions is outlined, the first view of them as fully co-opted and transformed by capital, the other that unions are flawed but still changeable organizations of the working class. To begin a characterization of unions, we can begin with when Marx, in 1864, when he was preparing the formation of the First international. In The Process of Production of Capital, the “missing” 6th chapter, written a few months before the foundation of the First International, Marx stated, “The trade unions aim at nothing less than to prevent the reduction of wages below the level that is traditionally maintained in the various branches of industry…The workers combine in order to achieve equality of a sort with the capitalist in their contract concerning the sale of their labor. This is the rationale (and logical basis) of the trade unions…They are insurance societies formed by the workers themselves.” Such insurance societies formed a rigid caste of functionaries that made decisions, and shaped the process of how those decisions were made, due claiming to have a technical, and organizational superiority in the management of the trade-union organization. As a result, the functionaries that operated the union developed political and class interests that diverged from the interests of the worker members of the union, and became the bureaucracy. Robert Brenner states in Rebel Rank and File, “Since the officials‘ well-being depends instead on whatever it takes to secure the trade union’s health and prosperity, their overriding tendency is to confuse the defense of the organization with the defense of the membership, with the former taking precedence over the latter and tending to become an end in itself, rather than simply a means to further the goals of the rank and file.” This bureaucracy, shaping the structure of the union as a whole, became vertically integrated into the state, beginning with the formation of the National Labor Relation Board formed after, and a response to, the 1934 general strikes. After World War II, such integration only intensified. The process of the union’s vertical integration into the state, parallels the movement of the growth of intensity regarding the constantly increasing quantitative output of commodity production. The political machinery of unions merged directly with the Democratic Party, and the logic of capitalist law, severely narrowing what unions were allowed to do after 1947. Taft-Hartley was passed that year, making sympathy strikes illegal, a central act of transforming workers struggle into a class offensive. In 1950, the “Treaty of Detroit” took place, where the United Auto Workers became responsible for rationalizing the labor process to raise productivity and maximize profits, shifting the whole character of unions. Fast forwarding to 2009, the United Auto Workers bought and now owns about 65 percent of Chrysler stock and 17.5 percent of General Motors. The financialization of union pensions lead to further integration of unions into capital. The restructuring of the union system and the legal guarantee of steady flow of dues to maintain the union, eliminated the political culture of shop stewards being workplace militants who solve issues through worker action in the workplace. As a result, the class struggle content of unions before the 1950s are gone. Unions shifted by being political integrated into the laws and institutions of the state, as well as an economic integration by having to maintain a steady flow of profits. This is the opposite of what unions did during their era of formation. In 1905 with the IWW, and in 1935 with the CIO, these unions had an offensive character by organizing non organized workplaces, fighting against brutal exploitation, establishing new and emerging working class rights. Nevertheless, given the shifts within the structure of unions, their reason for existence is to maintain the collective bargaining agreement, the insurance workers have established in selling their labor-power at a rate that reduces the level of exploitation. Since, World War II, unions have become defensive organizations, and in practice the first line of defense against the boss. The contemporary elimination of unions allows capital to atomize workers into defenseless wage-slaves. As a result, capital has, and is still, on the march of busting unions, due to how the content of collective bargaining agreements is a barrier to maximizing profits. The class struggle response to this dynamic has been to still to radically transform unions into vehicles of class struggle by overthrowing the bureaucracy or develop class struggle outside of the unions. Both have equally failed.

  The United States has been a political desert, with class struggle at an all time low. In the 1970s, 20% of workers were involved in strikes or lockouts, while in 2009, it was only 0.05%. The US competes with South Korea for having the most dangerous workplaces in the “advanced” capitalist world, with 14 workers killed a day. 2% of the population, seven million people, Largely Black and Latino, are awaiting trail, in prison or on parole, almost exactly numbering the loss of industrial jobs. On January 23, 2013, the New York Times, published an article titled “Share of the Work Force in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low, 11.3%.” At the same time, as of recently, we have seen some incredible working class mobilizations; Chicago Teachers, Longview, Washington Longshore workers, and public sector workers in Wisconsin. To a lesser extent we have seen walkouts of Walmart workers, strikes of truckers in Southern California, and strikes of fast-food workers in New York. Chicago, Longview, and Wisconsin are massive reactions to union busting, while Wal-Mart workers, truckers, and fast-food workers are new workers movements against brutal unchecked exploitation. Regarding Wisconsin, Longview and Chicago, class-conscious union workers defended their unions against capitalist attack, inspiring massive working class mobilizations as a response. Yet when there was massive mobilization to go on the offensive against capital it lacked a clear strategy and deeply rooted organization of public sector workers to do so. Wisconsin led to a defeat, Longview received one of the worst contracts in ILWU history, and the Chicago teachers strike was an exceptional draw. ILWU local 21 in Longview accepted a horrific contract due to ILWU president McCallrath threatening to not pay state sponsored fees of a million dollars if the contract was not signed. Chicago was semi-successful due to mobilizing the Chicago working class as a whole, raising demands in the interest of working class youth, and elevating the politics of standardized testing, while the leadership caved into what was acceptable by capitalist law. Capital will continue to co-opt and attack unions, pushing as far as it can go in maximizing profits, while producing millions of powerless wage-slaves who live in ever more increasing precarious conditions.

South Africa and China

To compare our situation with other countries, it is worth examining recent strike waves in China and South Africa. The wildcat strike wave that swept the platinum belt in South Africa in 2012 was ignited by the South African police sponsored murder of mine strikers. The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union of the strikers, sided with the police. This caused the rank and file to split from the NUM and form worker committees. Striking workers won a 22% raise, the largest in South African history, unleashing a strike wave that was unified on that demand. These strikes, not sanctioned by the union, were wildcat strikes, forming new working class organizations. Such worker committees coordinated the strike movement throughout the country. China has also caught the world by storm, as it is reported that it has 1,500 strikes a day. Unions in China are almost without exception either controlled by the state or by the boss. Workers go on strike, engage in informal collective bargaining, and choose their own representatives and the official union acts as an intermediary with the boss. These wildcat strikes have actually been very effective at getting big wage increases. But it has not been able to transform existing unions or form its own organizations of class combat and political struggle, something equivalent to the South African worker committees. One striking Chinese worker who participated in the Honda strikes of 2010 stated in a interview by Rena Lau in Restructuring of the Honda Auto Parts Union in Guongdong, China: that, “we should put our union executives to a fresh vote…the others were also in favour of the idea.” These movements demonstrate the centrality of forming serious class combat based working class organization that will first struggle within their own unions, and only when all possibilities are exhausted will rank and file militancy lead to rupturing with the unions to form new working class organizations of class struggle. If South Africa is an ending point, China represents the beginning.

   When unionized American workers defend their union rights against attacks by capitalist employers, like in Longview Washington or Wisconsin, it inspired significant sections of the working class to support such a defense, ultimately leading to the formation of an offensive movement. The classwide offense begins with increasing the defense, inside the union ranks to outside the union, mobilizing as much of the working class as it can. If unions define the defense, it will be channeled into the state: lawsuits, letters to politicians, press conferences, resulting in defeat. Union workers who defend their unions do so for two reasons: to defend their narrow individual interest, but also to defend organizations of the working class. In order to cultivate the latter, we should be clear to defend unions against capitalist attacks, coupled with advocating the formation of a working class organization that can actually fight for the class as a whole as a simultaneous movement. American unions have a broad range of differences, with the ILWU shutting down the ports against imperialist war and controlling their own hiring process to the UAW who own the majority of Chrysler and enforce speed ups. Each union, demands a particular strategy to deal with their own unique complexity. Socialist who have been trying to transform their unions have lived in a bureaucratic proceduralist swamp for decades. Leftist who sought a new labor movement outside of unions have also been met with only defeat. As of now, we cannot measure with precision the union’s capacity for transformation, and when a rupture will need to take place, until moments of open class conflict. But with that said, we must challenge the transformation of the unions perspective, and a rupture from the unions perspective, as two bankrupt programs for developing class struggle.

Towards the formation of Revolutionary Cells

As the union debate has been focused on singular possibilities, transformation or rupture, the left has no proposal of how to actually do either successfully. As a result, we must pull the lens back and realize there are over 14 million workers in the US that are members of unions, with very few revolutionaries implanted in such a landscape. Informal groups of workers that are unified and engage in common acts of resistance can somewhat alter the power relations at work. Working class organization coupled with working class acts of resistance, forms working class power, the antithesis of capital. The powerless landscape of wage-slaves within almost dead unions will begin to unravel with the formation of class struggle organization. The power of such an organization will have to be able to challenge the leadership of unions who closely collaborate with capitalist employers. It must also prepare for rupturing moments, like with the situation of Wisconsin, where capitalist employer attack leads to an unleashing of a classwide movement with a potential for an offensive. Such an organization could do work as a union caucus, but is not shaped and limited by that model. Such an organization would engage in political work both within and without the workplace, engaging workplace battles and social movements, becoming a bridge between these two worlds. The striking truckers in Southern California, the Walmart workers who engaged in walkouts, and the NYC fast food workers who engaged in a one-day strike, need an organization that corresponds to their emergent struggle. Such an organization would concretely support the formation of new class struggle organizations according to these emergent struggles. Such a political rank and file organization within the unions would be a revolutionary cell. Its content is the concentration of working class power, its form is the campaigns it unleashes as an outcome of the strategy developed. As the revolutionary left in the US is tiny, we also have to plan for fostering the development of individual class consciousness workers into such militants to build and lead such political cells. In addition, they will make apparent the degree to which the structure of the union, organized as it is in accordance with, and modeled after, capitalist legal frameworks that inherently suffocates working class militancy. This is a political intervention union caucus cannot do, or have not done, and those that advocate union transformation usually ignore. The focus on union transformation from its record of cooptation has not seriously challenged the union’s vertical integration into the state, nor the economic integration into capital. But those that have called for a rupture within the unions have also proven flat, and divorced from the energy and dynamics of working class struggle. The task at hand is to prepare for these coming capitalist attacks on unions, highly located in the public sector, with the formation of revolutionary cells within the unions that can combine the network building of day to day agitation, with rupturing moments of upsurge. This is where the community organizer meets the insurrectionist at the base of the union. The quality and quantity of such militants, unified with a strategy, form the degree of working class power that such a revolutionary cell embodies.

           The majority of workplaces are non-union and can fire workers at will. The day-to-day agitation within the workplace, should be followed by a public political fight that demands the right to organize in all workplaces, coupled with democratic rights at work that support organizing of workers against the boss. The unions claim to lead this fight through their friends in the Democratic party, or their lawyers in the courts. We must begin, and develop, this fight in the streets and in the workplaces, squarely against electoralism, the state and the Democratic Party. That is how the working class will feel its strength against the capitalist state. It is central that the working class must fight for the right to strike as a class to begin to grow as a real force against capital. The experience and training of class conscious workers actively fighting for their working class rights in general, through real organizing campaigns, will expose how the capitalist class has the power, and begin to answer what it will take to overthrow such power. It will also expose how union bureaucracies will always try to hijack such movements, take the organizing out of the hands of the workers, and place it into the domain of the state. Strikes also expose one, the “neutral” institutions in how they serve the capitalist boss’ interest, and two, how workers who don’t work, force society to grind to a halt. Behind every defensive strike that transforms into an offensive one, the hydra of revolution also lurks, sending chills down the spine of the capitalist. The great 1877 general strike was the first strike of that character within this country. Once workers have the confidence, organization, and political strategy to defeat their boss, this movement can then challenge the capitalist system on a much larger level. Since we must begin from where we actually are, the movement of forming rank and file revolutionary cells within the unions is a prerequisite to get to this larger historic battle. Advance the Struggle aspires to accomplish such a historic task, being central groundwork in making a revolution in this country.

10 Point Program for Revolutionary Cells in the Unions:

1. For a defense of unions against capitalist attack. .

2. For a political struggle against the bureaucracy and capitalist law that force unions to be enslaved by the will of capital.

3. To expose the structure of unions that has been transformed by capital and the state to not be able to serve the interest of the working class.

4. For the day-to-day work of developing networks, organization and confidence amongst the scattered demoralized union rank and file into a class struggle formation.

5. For the preparation of crisis moments of capitalist attack, like the “Wisconsin moment,” unleashing a class-wide offensive against capital.

6. For the struggle against capitalist law that makes organizing and class struggle militancy illegal, unleashing a movement of worker rights built by the working class, for the working class.

7. For the rank and file to push for union transformation to its limits and linking it with a union rupture to build worker committees.

8. For the cultivation and development of individual militants to engage and do this political work to create such revolutionary cells.

9. For a working class control of automation in the workplace, where workers can benefit from the fruits of technological development.

10. For a political perspective of against the state, the agent of the capitalist class as a whole, to lay the groundwork for its overthrow to place the working class as the class in power.

7 responses to “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to be Done? (Part 2)

  1. I like this one a lot better than the first.

    “Unions are (…) central to any potentially successful revolutionary strategy.”


    And does “unions” mean the currently existing labor movement or does it mean something about ways to conduct struggle? I assume it means the first or both, because of the emphasis on defending currently existing labor unions.

    “the class struggle content of unions before the 1950s are gone”

    I largely agree but that “class struggle content” should be dealt with in more depth. If we agree with Marx that the history of all societies is class struggle then that suggests, in my view, that class struggle is a feature of all of society, which means in part that it’s a feature of aspects of society that we as communists reject. That is: class struggle and radicalism are different, at least some of the time.

    “Union workers who defend their unions do so for two reasons: to defend their narrow individual interest, but also to defend organizations of the working class.”

    What makes some workers’ unions organs of the entire working class?

    “we should be clear to defend unions against capitalist attacks, coupled with advocating the formation of a working class organization that can actually fight for the class as a whole as a simultaneous movement.”
    I basically agree with this, but I think “fight for the class” is vague and will be the source of future conflicts and splits, because there will be fights over who gets to be ‘the class’ (which organization gets to represent and to lead, and how gains won in struggle will be distributed), and there are differences of vision over what the life of the working class under capitalism could look like (different programmatic vision among reformists) and differences among those people who think struggle should move beyond fighting for a better version of capitalism.

    I think you somewhat underestimate the presence of revolutionaries among the unionized working class. There are probably more revolutionaries (in terms of self-understanding) in the labor movement than in any other institution in the U.S.

    I agree with the point about revolutionary cells. I think the programmatic content described here is basically what a lot of us in the IWW have been working on and while the IWW is super, super tiny, we’re probably the biggest left group doing this particular kind of work in the U.S.

    I don’t think this is true: “Behind every defensive strike that transforms into an offensive one, the hydra of revolution also lurks, sending chills down the spine of the capitalist.” After every offense is a set of questions and sometimes the mobilized working class answers those questions conservatively.

  2. Hi all

    I really appreciate Advance the Struggle putting this debate on the internet. I am just gonna ask a lot of questions as I try to understand where AS Comrades are coming from. Down the road I will throw down my own thoughts.

    1. What is to prevent revolutionaries from being captured in trade union work? In replacing the self activity of the working class for the leadership of the bureaucrat? Hasn’t this been the history for a while in the U.S.?

    2. Will unions allow extra-union organizations of workers to exist in already unionized workplaces? What has the historical experience of this been? I am most familiar with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

    3. When you write, ” The revolutionary left has two general strategies in dealing with the unions. One is to orient towards them as if they are another part of capital” Do you mean to imply that these folks are abstenionists? If so in what way? Do you have historical references in mind or contemporary examples?

    4. You cite Marx’s characterization of unions. But are there other characterizations from serious people you respect which can throw some problems on Marx’s formulations? Underlying my question is that Marx wrote under a certain context of capitalism, class, and the state. Is Marx still correct?

    Is it unfair of me to say that unions are playing a vanguard role in actually lowering wages?

    5. Isn’t Brenner’s point limited only as an organizational and dare I say, critique of the leadership of the unions. At least what you quote here. If I had to guess Brenner has a structural analysis of the unions as well. What of the structural analysis of unions? Later you do say ” This bureaucracy, shaping the structure of the union as a whole, became vertically integrated into the state”, but what are the implications of that formulation: changing the leadership of the bureaucracy is possible? That unions as a form/ content are not structurally integrated into capitalism and the disciplining of the working class?

    Not sure what you think? What are the implications of the structural argument versus the bureaucracy sucks argument?

    6. You write, “Fast forwarding to 2009, the United Auto Workers bought and now owns about 65 percent of Chrysler stock and 17.5 percent of General Motors.” After saying this, it is unclear what your conclusions are. You say this means further integration. Towards what? What are you describing is unclear. Becoming what?

    This is what confuses me, ” Since, World War II, unions have become defensive organizations, and in practice the first line of defense against the boss.” Earlier you just laid out how much stock the unions own and then you still argue that unions are defensive organizations. Can you explain that more. I am unclear how those two things can happen together? Are they not fundamental contradictions? It seems the unions are the boss of workers in the case of the UAW.

    7. One of the assumptions of your piece is that unions are always a barrier to maximizing profits. Considering what you said about the Treaty of Detroit, does that still hold true? Would not another way to look at it say that UAW was crucial in stabilizing and ensuring long term profit for GM. What about the history of unionized workplace struggles in the last 30 years? Have unions been crucial in selling a raw deal to workers?

    8. The list of contemporary union struggles you listed–as you write yourself–ended in big defeats. The Chicago example is definitely contested across the political spectrum. While John Garvey’s critiques can be placed in the ultra left camp

    I have heard other less radical people have critiques as well. You can just google “Chicago teacher’s strike victory defeat” and a ton of debates come up.

    9. You write, ” The focus on union transformation from its record of cooptation has not seriously challenged the union’s vertical integration into the state, nor the economic integration into capital. But those that have called for a rupture within the unions have also proven flat, and divorced from the energy and dynamics of working class struggle.” What do you make of the great wildcat strikes of the 1970s not only in the USA, but almost across the entire advanced capitalist countries? How do we understand your point with that historical reference point in mind?

    U.S. workers have had many opportunities to do what you are calling for in your piece. How come it has not happened? (Not trying to be snarky or an asshole.)

    in solidarity

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  4. I think this sort of discussion/debate is a huge part of what has been lacking on the left, especially holding this out in the open.

    As far as the unions: I think we have to start by looking at the objective developments and what mood and consciousness that created.

    The 1930s and then again the strike wave of 1946 taught the US capitalist class a lesson: They could not simply steamroll over the working class as they had been accustomed to doing. So they retreated to trying to stabilize class relations. This was made possible by the post war economic boom and the dominant position of the US capitalist class globally. They were easily able to afford concessions.

    There was also the role of Stalinism, which gave “socialism” a foul odor in the nostrils of the great majority of workers.

    This enabled a sector of the union bureaucracy that was most closely linked with the employers to strengthen their base in the unions and strengthen their grip on the union structures. Any worker who seriously wanted a more militant union was suspected (at the very least) of being a “Commie”, and there were consequences, the least of which was being shunned by one’s fellow workers.

    Ironically, the end of the boom and the collapse of Stalinism actually strengthened this state of affairs. The collapse of Stalinism strengthened a huge propaganda wave in favor of the “free” market. We had reached the end of history, you see. Any thought otherwise was simply living in a dream world at best. And the end of the boom accelerated the attacks on the working class, including accelerating the wave of plant closures and runaway plants (to Mexico and then to China and elsewhere). Workers in general, and the union workers in particular, were told that if you fight for higher pay, or even if you fight against cuts in pay, you will end up losing your job altogether.

    Then there is another factor: Historically, the most militant and class conscious sector of the working class is the industrial sector. That was certainly true in the US in the ’30s. This is the sector that most strongly tends to carry the traditions of the class struggle. However, that sector was decimated, not only in the US but in the West in general.

    It was exactly here that many of the attacks against union workers was felt the most, for example in steel and auto. In auto in particular, there was a pretty widespread struggle against concessions, but in almost every single case they were unable to convince the majority of workers to vote against concessionary contracts. I think the reason was two fold:

    First, they had no strategy for countering the job losses. They never put forward a strategy for organizing the unorganized plants nor for how to link up with the auto workers in other countries. Thus, the majority of auto workers felt that their only options were to accept cuts or lose their job entirely.

    But this reflected a decline in the consciousness in general. Almost all the old traditions have been lost. The near total collapse of any socialist current within the working class has meant that, among other things, there is a general mood that it’s not up to us as individual workers to figure out what has to be done and to take an initiative and organize it. And after all, why should we? There is no percentage in organizing to buck the entire union leadership, with all the repercussions that follow, if all you are fighting for is a few more dollars on the pay check. Better to spend your time and energy studying and playing the stock market. Of course, I’m being ironic here, but the point is that in general the main driving force behind being a union oppositionist is seeing that this activity is involved in a wider struggle to transform society. And that vision has been decimated, until recently.

    I think there are a few conclusions that can be drawn from this view:

    First is that the collapse of the revolutionary left, and its extreme weakness inside the unions is first and foremost a result of objective developments. The problem is that that many in the revolutionary left became disoriented by those developments. Some adapted by making their peace in one way or another with the union bureaucracy. They disguised their links with the union bureaucracy by being the most active members, but it is activity without organizing around opposing the perspectives, program and strategy of the bureaucracy/hierarchy. Then there are others who conclude that the dangers of getting caught in that web are so overwhelming that the best thing is to simply stay out of it altogether. I’ve met several people of this view who then turned right around and became part and parcel of the official leadership.

    The third way is to be active in the union but with a perspective and program. Whenever a small step forward is taken, support that step and clearly point out what this step implies — what is the next logical step that has to be taken. Support strengthening the union, but explain that the role of the official leadership in general leads in the opposite direction. Oppose concessions, but explain what such opposition means.

    We cannot escape the role of the union officialdom. We saw that in Occupy Oakland, for instance. There, when it became clear that it wasn’t going away anytime soon, a layer of that officialdom got involved in order to ensure that the radicalism of Occupy didn’t infect their members. (It was really a shame how quickly even a layer of the anarchists jumped on the officials’ bandwagon.)

    But there is another conclusion: While the mainstream unions still remain by far and away the largest and most powerful organizations in the US working class, and while they have the strongest traditions within the working class, we have to accept that they are extremely weakened not only in numbers but also in terms of how present they are in the consciousness of millions of workers. Many, maybe even most, union members, for instance, couldn’t even tell you the name of the union to which they belong. (I once worked with a young carpenter who thought that the AFL-CIO was a new football league!) Whenever a big mass of workers determines that they simply cannot take it any longer, that they absolutely have to overcome all obstacles and rise up, given how the official channels of the unions are so blocked off, in many cases it may be that these struggles are carried out outside these official channels. Isn’t that exactly what happened with the South African miners? Once started, whether it be inside the mainstream unions or outside or some of both, such a struggle will have an impact within the mainstream unions and will draw all sorts of workers into activity. But we have to prepare for all of this.

    I don’t think there is any one rule for whether revolutionaries who are union members should be active in their union. So much depends on their particular situation and the particular situation within their union and their work place. And what may be valid for one time can change overnight as the situation changes. But I do think that the above understanding and perspectives should be borne in mind, whether a revolutionary is active in her or his union or not. And definitely in this period they shouldn’t take an appointed, paid staff position with the bureaucracy/hierarchy.

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