The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to Be Done?


(Editor’s Note:  The 2nd piece in this post has been updated on a separate blog post.  The original piece was a late draft.)

The Advance the Struggle Collective is currently engaged in high level discussion around the central political question of the unions and how revolutionaries interpret its history, its present, and how communist intervention can help develop a much-needed revitalized labor movement. The experience of the Chicago teacher’s strike, the battle in the Northwest over the fate of the ILWU, and the mass uprising of public sector workers in Wisconsin stresses both the need to defend unions from bourgeois offensives and the limitations of rank-and-file activity within actually-existing unions; on the other hand, the struggles of Wal-mart, Mi Pueblo, Hot & Crusty, and fast food workers reveals a strong rank-and-file desire for the unionization that might provide some dignity, security, and a greater platform from which to organize and increase rank-and-file confidence against the bosses. What’s the analysis and what’s the program?

In light of this, we are providing two separate pieces on unions written by AS comrades. We don’t pretend to have a uniform line on this important question yet, but we believe that by public, transparent debates we can create a healthy culture of revolutionary debate and dialogue, embracing differences while striving for higher levels of principled unity through our practice in the school of class struggle. 


Unions – How do We Intervene?

NOTE: This section of the program focuses on what we do when we do orient to unions. There are entire areas of the class struggle that are just as important as the labor movement. Other areas of class struggle are dealt with in other sections of the program. They are separated from each other for analytical purposes, and NOT because they are built in isolation from each other.


Existing unions are not sufficient for general working class uplift much less proletarian revolution. However, those forms of working class organization which lay beyond these can only come about through the work of strengthening existing unions in addition to building intermediate organizations not identified with specific workplaces (these could be called “class-wide committees”). At this time, AS avoids simplistic prescriptions that champion one form over another, as the class struggle is not at all developed enough to prove where the locus of our interventions ought to be.

Our program regarding the labor movement is this:

1. Defend unions from capitalist and state attack.

This is in the interest of the particular workers under attack, but is also in the interest of all workers. As the bar is lowered for one group, it is lowered for others.

2. Transform the character of unions.

Beyond democratic rank and file control of unions, we seek to transform unions, so as to make them more porous, more linked with other workers, and active on a political plane beyond the employer and job category to which they pertain.

3. Bring unions into an overall proletarian offensive against capital, for socialism.

In connection with transforming unions through the power struggle for control within them, unions must be brought into broader class organizations, or “class-wide committees” that coordinate strikes, blockades, occupations, and other forms of take-overs of space and time.

What are Unions?

1. The most basic relationship all workers have with their employers is one of economic exploitation, meaning that they are paid below the full value of work they perform. Unions are an economic united front of workers to defend against this exploitation. The most basic function of a union is to bring the workers’ pay as close as possible to the full value of their work.

2. We do not see the union movement as the vehicle for socialist revolution, but as the most consistent arena of organized worker resistance to capital. The unionized sector of the working class is disproportionately important to class formation and class consciousness. It is, therefore, crucial to have a clear-headed approach to working within unions. Orienting toward unionized sector of the working class must never blind us to the vast majority of the proletariat that is not unionized (addressed elsewhere in this program).

3. The main property of a union is the “collective bargaining” process. This consists of the members of a union agreeing to a pay scale, articulated in a contract that is available for all to read. The collective aspect of labor unions is what employers generally dislike about them; bosses prefer to deal with each worker individually, so that they can intimidate and lie to each worker, as well as pit them against each other as a means by which to strike the lowest “bargain” for wages.


State Hegemony over Unions

4. The CIO was a split in the conservative AFL that organizationally united the proletariat as never before in the US. The CIO represented a mass split from the AFL, growing out of militant rank and file unionism of the General strikes and factory occupations of the early 30s. The CIO had a heavy marxist influence amongst the rank and file leaders, who for a period succeeded at pushing the CIO to act as a vehicle for militant struggles, but the Communist Party militants in particular, supported the CIO’s connection to the Democratic Party and the “no-strike pledge” of WWII.

5. The National Labor Relations Board was established by the New Deal regime of FDR during the Great Depression to mediate this sharp class conflict. It established a legally protected mechanism for collective bargaining and workplace grievance procedures to work out and keep production going steadily. The NLRB registers unions and arbitrates contracts.

6. Although workers were able to use the new corporatist structure of the New Deal Era to get unprecedented wages and benefits, the NLRB turned out to be one step toward the co-optation of unions by the state, a step followed by ever-more restrictive laws that limit tactics of labor struggle. In a sense, workers, under the leadership of pro-capitalist union officials and misguided Stalinist CP militants, consented to their political defeat (despite impressive economic gains) during this period. The most blatant aspect of this political defeatism was loyalty to the Democratic Party. Despite this, workers launched wildcat strikes in defiance of the capitalists and bureaucrats. 1946 was the USA’s last general strike, taking place in Oakland, CA.

7. Objective shifts in the capitalist accumulation processes (eg, automation and outsourcing in the post-war period) were implemented smoothly by the destruction of militant organizational intervention at the base of unions (the red scare, McCarthyism, etc) and other coercive measures such as the Taft-Hartley Act which among other things, outlawed the sympathy strike tactic which lay at the heart of the wave of general strikes that swept the US in the early 30s and then in the mid 40s.

The Bureaucracy is Anti-Union

8. The combination of reconfigured production, state co-optation and legal repression paved the way for the always latent bureaucratic layer to consolidate their control at the top of union structures. A revival of rank and file agency is the key to breaking free of the bureaucratic and legal choke-hold that has prevailed over the six decades of defeat experienced by the US working class.

9. The union bureaucracies only fight capitalist attacks to protect their self-interest as a parasitic layer that sucks the blood (in the form of dues wasted on CEO-level salaries for officials and political donations, as well as restrictions on rebellious activity) from the membership. If the union is smashed, bureaucratic CEOs loose their cash-cow. Sometimes this interest corresponds with rank and file interests in winning improved work conditions, wages and benefits. Most often, however, union bureaucracies sell out workers’ demands in back room deals, that might preserve the union formally, but gut its content as a workers’ economic united front to the extent that many union members themselves either have no idea they are even in a union or have anti-union sentiments.

10. The bureaucratic parasites that stifle militancy and keep unions isolated from one another as separate fiefdoms cannot spoil our class loyalty to defend unions against capitalist interests which almost always reside in anti-unionism.

Defend Unions by Transforming Them

11. Most of the left, AS included, lacks significant membership or influence amongst unionized sectors. At our current stage, we are limited in our outside interventions due to our small size and the low level of class struggle coming organically from the proletariat generally. Main dimensions of outside support include joining unions on the picket lines, supporting union organizing campaigns, and organizing other parts of the proletariat to combine in struggle against a common enemy.

12. When we find ourselves within unions, as one worker wrote recently in a workplace newsletter of the Oakland public schools: “We must demand that our union leadership negotiate in open meetings where teachers, parents and students can all observe and have input. On top of this, we must, as the rank and file, develop the framework to be ready at a moment’s notice to withdraw support from the union bureaucracy if we feel there is even a hint of capitulation or self-interest from leaders. Whether this comes in the form of a union caucus or education committee, or something more inclusive of other sectors of workers — like a workers council, it must have complete autonomy from any of the hierarchical structures designed to limit the militancy and success of strike actions.” (Issue #4 of Classroom Struggle, p 16)

13. By building cells of militant workers within unions, which push struggle for uncompromising demands and challenge the bureaucracies to match their resolve, unions can be transformed out of their frozen impotent state. This transformative process includes opening union struggles to participation of non-union members and injecting the union into struggles outside of its the parameters of its own membership. Crucially, transformation involves breaking from the legality and proceduralism that bars unions from using winning tactics.

14.  As we stated in our article,  Occupy, ILWU, EGT and the Coming Class Battles (9/3/13) “The right for rank-file to negotiate during contract fights is something forgotten by a new generation of radicals that over emphasize the agency of surplus populations and street protests as the new form of class struggle or understand the labor movement as getting a job as a union organizer, or doing volunteer work for a union campaign. The new generation of radicals, avoiding these twin pitfalls, should share a political principal of fighting for rank-file participation, with a rank-file analysis, in contract fights and negotiations. Giving this political terrain to the bureaucratic leadership will only lead to the string of defeats unions have been subjected to in the last 30 years of capitalism offensive.”

Rank and File Transformation, Linking with the Class

15. Any effort that succeeds at organizing rank-file hegemony in the negotiating process, let alone initiating and leading strikes and workplace take-overs, will put the union on the path toward serious confrontation with the legalistic modus operandi of modern the labor movement. It would predictably cause a mass split in a union between those that support the officialdom’s class collaborationism and those who seek working class autonomy. These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalistic bureaucratism.

16. Most likely, the conditions which pushed rank and file towards intransigence in the face of their employers, bureaucratic officialdom, and the state, would be spurring similar processes amongst other sectors of the class. This would open up the possibility for militants from all sectors to link up into “class-wide committees” that coordinate common assault on capital in a framework beyond and even independent of unionism.

17. We must have no such syndicalist illusions to believe that unions transformed by rank and file intransigence, would themselves be the organizational vehicles for the socialist revolution that is necessary for abolishing the wages system (capitalism). Unions never have – and never will – play the role of revolutionary organization. Neither is it probable that the effort to split existing unions away from bureaucratism would fully triumph; it is likely that in a revolutionary situation, the revolutionary process will unfold so rapidly as to render this work redundant by the supersession of the union by higher organizational forms, or capitalist dynamism will smash transformed unions back into bureaucratic behemoths.

18. However, in non- or pre-revolutionary situations (as our own), any success in the effort to defend unions from capitalist attack by transforming their character toward rank and file control and more inclusiveness would forge new advanced cadres within the working class itself, steeled in political and economic aspects of class struggle. These most advanced members of the proletariat could, with their skills, experience, and the trust of thousands of other workers, build the broader proletarian structures (workers councils, “class-wide committees”, soviets, proletarian parties, etc) that would be the seeds of mass proletarian revolutionary organization.

19. Defense of the unions through their transformation is one important pathway through which masses of proletarian warriors will be trained. It need not precede efforts in building broader proletarian organizations. In fact the processes will have to run parallel to one another, and feed each other symbiotically. It is clear to us that this is the general outline of what work within unions has to look like.



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 guerilla 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.



So few revolutionaries are implanted in the landscape of over 30 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 30 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.

19 responses to “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S. – What is to Be Done?

  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I’ve just looked at the two articles quickly but have a few brief questions based on the Bureau of Labor Report pasted in below. First, both of the posted articles cite a union membership figure of 30 million. But, according to the BLS data, at best it’s only half that. Do you know where the 30 million figure came from? Second, what significance, if any, do you think the even lower rates among younger workers has? Third, similarly, what significance, if any, does the concentration of half of all union members in eight states have? Fourth, what should we make of the very high rates of unionization among protective service workers (I assume this is cops, prison guards and firefighters)? (See highlighted sentences below).

    UNION MEMBERS — 2012

    In 2012, the union membership rate–the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of a union–was 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.4 million, also declined over the year. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

    The data on union membership were collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households that obtains information on employment and unemployment among the nation’s civilian noninstitutional population ages 16 and over. For more information, see the Technical Note.

    Highlights from the 2012 data:

    –Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (35.9 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.6 percent). (See table 3.)

    –Workers in education, training, and library occupations and in protective service occupations had the highest unionization rates, at 35.4 and 34.8 percent, respectively. (See table 3.)

    –Black workers were more likely to be union members than were white, Asian, or Hispanic workers. (See table 1.)

    –Among states, New York continued to have the highest union membership rate (23.2 percent), and North Carolina again had the lowest rate (2.9 percent). (See table 5.)

    Industry and Occupation of Union Members

    In 2012, 7.3 million employees in the public sector belonged to a union, compared with 7.0 million union workers in the private sector. The union membership rate for public-sector workers (35.9 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private-sector workers (6.6 percent). Within the public sector, local government workers had the highest union membership rate, 41.7 percent. This group includes workers in heavily unionized occupations, such as teachers, police officers, and
    firefighters. Private-sector industries with high unionization rates included
    transportation and utilities (20.6 percent) and construction (13.2 percent). Low unionization rates occurred in agriculture and related industries (1.4 percent) and in financial activities (1.9 percent). (See table 3.)

    Among occupational groups, education, training, and library occupations (35.4 percent) and protective service occupations (34.8 percent) had the highest unionization rates in 2012. Sales and related occupations (2.9 percent) and farming, fishing, and forestry occupations (3.4 percent) had the lowest unionization rates. (See table 3.)

    Selected Characteristics of Union Members

    The union membership rate was higher for men (12.0 percent) than for women (10.5 percent) in 2012. (See table 1.) The gap between their rates has narrowed considerably since 1983, when the rate for men was 24.7 percent and the rate for women was 14.6 percent.

    In 2012, among major race and ethnicity groups, black workers had a higher union membership rate (13.4 percent) than workers who were white (11.1 percent), Asian (9.6 percent), or Hispanic (9.8 percent). Black men had the highest union membership rate (14.8 percent), while Asian men had the lowest rate (8.9 percent).

    By age, the union membership rate was highest among workers ages 55 to 64 (14.9 percent). The lowest union membership rate occurred among those ages 16 to 24 (4.2 percent).

    Full-time workers were about twice as likely as part-time workers to be union members, 12.5 percent compared with 6.0 percent.

    Union Representation

    In 2012, 15.9 million wage and salary workers were represented by a union. This group includes both union members (14.4 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.6 million). (See table 1.) Private-sector employees comprised about half (814,000) of the 1.6 million workers who were
    covered by a union contract but were not members of a union. (See table 3.)


    In 2012, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742. In addition to coverage by a collective bargaining agreement, this earnings difference reflects a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, firm size, or geographic region. (See table 2.)

    Union Membership by State

    In 2012, 31 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average, 11.3 percent, while 19 states had higher rates. All states in the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions reported union membership rates above the national average, and all states in the East South Central and West South Central divisions had rates below it. Union membership rates declined over the year in 34 states, rose in 14
    states and the District of Columbia, and remained unchanged in 2 states. (See table 5.)

    Eight states had union membership rates below 5.0 percent in 2012. North Carolina had the lowest rate (2.9 percent), followed by Arkansas (3.2 percent) and South Carolina (3.3 percent). Three states had union membership rates over 20.0 percent in 2012: New York (23.2 percent), Alaska (22.4 percent), and Hawaii (21.6 percent).

    About half of the 14.4 million union members in the U.S. lived in just seven states (California, 2.5 million; New York, 1.8 million; Illinois, 0.8 million; Pennsylvania, 0.7 million; and Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio, 0.6 million each), though these states accounted for only about one-third of wage and salary employment nationally.

    State union membership levels depend on both the state wage and salary employment level and the union membership rate. Texas, with a union membership rate of 5.7 percent, had about one-third as many union members as New York, despite having 2.7 million more wage and salary employees. Conversely, North Carolina and Hawaii had comparable numbers of union members (112,000 and 116,000, respectively), though North Carolina’s wage and salary employment level (3.8 million) was more than seven times that of Hawaii (537,000).

    • Hi John, thanks for the clarification on the factual question of the # of unionized workers. It’s been noted and addressed in the two pieces.

      I am going to hold off on responding to your questions, because I’m more interested in hearing what YOUR thoughts are on the questions you pose. What do you think the significance of these facts are?

      Also, looking forward to your engagement with the arguments presented in the essays.


  2. Comrades,

    I’m glad an actual discussion is going on, and not a dogmatic rehashing of the theses of some obscure communist organization from the 1970s. We are in a new era of recomposition of the militant labor movement, and I for one welcome fresh thinking. That said, the first piece I think fell short of my expectations.

    A key contradiction in the first text was a conception of a union that seemed to be more ideal than one rooted in late or decadent capitalism. Here, it is almost as if the author is saying “On one hand, they hold no hope for socialist revolution” while on the other they are elevated to becoming a possible offensive weapon against capital. I don’t see how this contradiction is resolved in the text at all. I was left wondering what exactly is the limit of the union in terms of whether or not we can see any transformation of its very structure as having a correlative impact on its functioning; apparently not.



    • Hi JD, glad for the engagement.

      I did not read the first piece in the same way, as containing an unexamined/unresolved contradiction….I more saw it as describing an objectively-existing contradiction, built into the union-form within capitalism. Perhaps this relates both to a certain vagueness (or more charitably purposeful simplicity) in the article and different assumptions on both of our parts.

      As a somewhat tangential aside, I see no clear political differences between these two pieces, and it seems kind of funny to characterize these different methods of presentation as a “debate”, but hey let’s engage what comes up.

      I thought it’s a basic aspect of Marxism, from Marx to Lenin to Luxemburg to Gramsci etc. etc., that unions CAN be an offensive weapon against capital (please see all union struggles for wage increases, union-based general strikes in Egypt, union-based struggle for the 8-hour work day). But that they also are NOT the organs through which the working class will make a revolution (see any critiques of the limitations of syndicalism, anarcho-syndicalism in the Spanish Revolution, the IWW as a viable society-wide revolutionary organization.) I assume we agree that a revolution is not the only kind of offensive against capital.

      This contradiction is rooted theoretically in the tendency for the proletariat to struggle both inside of capitalism against the constant threat of a social wage insufficient to reproduce us, while also coming to greater understanding of the inherent limitations of this constant struggle and the need to destroy the current social order and build a different one. In political economy, as far as I understand this contradiction is seen in the fact that workers are both the gravediggers of capital, and as labor-power are capital themselves.

      I see any union-form (even ones that are not bound by laws such as Taft-Hartley) as always containing these contradictory impulses, and generally having both represented by political currents. The right-wing of the union bureaucracy normally directly represents capital, while the left-wing usually represents the interests of workers in getting paid the value of their labor. Our role is to bring out the class war, anticapitalist, systemic critique that is ALSO immanent in any kind of union form under modern capitalism…..we do this by engaging deeply in the struggles within capitalism, and then pushing hard and effectively on their ideological and practical weak points where they can explode into class consciousness and class war.

      Lately I have been trying to think through what the resurgence of struggle at the point of production would look like, and I think a key element will be “mass splits” from existing NLRB-managed unions. (I see this as the probably concrete form of the “transform the unions” mentioned in both pieces above.) Here’s what I have brainstormed on the subject:

      I submit this:

      No union will be both registered with the NLRB, and regularly breaking Taft-Hartley (or other labor laws) at the same time.

      This would not be possible because they would be bankrupted by fines until their organization didn’t exist, and whatever else the NLRB can do to them. The key recent example is when Longview ILWU Local 21 broke labor law (having illegal pickets and blocking trains). Many members (including the local president Dan Coffman) were put in jail, and the local was fined millions of dollars that they were not able to pay. The ILWU International told Coffman that if his local kept supporting the Occupy movement and breaking the law, they would not help with the legal costs and lawyer fees. This would have bankrupted, and legally destroyed, local 21. Instead Dan Coffman bent the knee, they got the money, and they came back under the discipline of the international.

      If he had refused, ILWU Local 21 would have ceased to exist…..but a new organization would have immediately emerged, probably calling itself something else (for legal reasons) based on both the fight and the betrayal by the International. This is what I would call a “mass split” in a union, as opposed to dual unionism which seeks to build a small, militant or communist alternative union starting with militants and slowly recruiting…..also opposed to either boycotting organizing in workplaces with unions or accepting them as permanent structures as they are. These mass splits will be necessary for all unions before serious gains can be made in the class struggle……but they will only happen as a result of struggle as in the above case, never as the result of leftist arguments are attempts to initiate them from scratch.

      The CIO is also a historic case of “mass splits” as opposed to dual unionism, although the situation was very different and it should not be used as an example of the process I’m talking about here.

      These new “mass split” unions would already have structure, history of struggle, and a recently radicalizing experience of being forced by circumstance to break with legalism. They would also be uniquely open to new allies, having just broken with the state/union establishment that had been supporting and limiting them…..a prime time to reach out to other sectors of workers, and non-work-based struggles such as housing, gender, police brutality etc.

      • Very interested in your thoughts, also I was kinda replying to this question but I also kinda didn’t understand it, could you clarify?

        “whether or not we can see any transformation of its very structure as having a correlative impact on its functioning”

  3. Aram.
    I will do so.

  4. JD said:
    “Here, it is almost as if the author is saying “On one hand, they hold no hope for socialist revolution” while on the other they are elevated to becoming a possible offensive weapon against capital. I don’t see how this contradiction is resolved in the text at all”

    My interpretation of what is being argued for in this post is that the union form will have to be transcended in the course of a growing struggle, based on workers drawing lessons from their own experience and one cannot give a formula answer of the type 1) work outside the unions or 2) work inside the unions to reform them.

    I think the points in this post align with but would’ve been clearer explicitly connected to El Chaco’s post that “The goals of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Communism must be explicitly talked about in struggles…, and it must be made clear to the masses that a program of their own is needed.”–El Chaco (

    Point 10 gets at this but the limitation is that it’s not clear what “revolutionary cells” are whereas El Chaco explicitly refers to the need for the class conscious workers to build their own party based on a revolutinary program.

    An international party, uniting and centralizing the most important generalizations of past and current class struggle and the workers who are conscious of those lessons, is I think a practical necessity, but the work inside and outside the unions will have broader and different kinds of unity, just as the union itself does. I can try to explain this better if it’s not clear, but a concrete example of a workplace bulletin that is the League for the Revolutionary Party’s attempt to address these issues is here:


    P.S. The second post referred to two positions papers but it looks like it included some of the same stuff in the first post…it wasn’t clear to me what the different positions where?

  5. Just on the first paper –

    “Existing unions are not sufficient for general working class uplift much less proletarian revolution.”
    Does “not sufficient” mean “currently failing” or “only able to fail”?

    “forms of working class organization which lay beyond [existing unions] can only come about through the work of strengthening existing unions”
    “Defend[ing] unions from capitalist and state attack (…) is in the interest of the particular workers under attack, but is also in the interest of all workers. As the bar is lowered for one group, it is lowered for others.”
    I don’t think this is true, at least not always. I’d like to see a fuller argument for this.
    On the three points of the program, are they in order of priority? And/or do you think that doing one always advances the other two? If not, then what are the priorities here, in general?

    “The most basic function of a union is to bring the workers’ pay as close as possible to the full value of their work.”
    Why is this the most basic function of a union? This also seems really economistic to me. Here as elsewhere I notice almost no engagement with history on this matter.
    “The unionized sector of the working class is disproportionately important to class formation and class consciousness.”
    Why? and when and where? It seems to me that the racialized parts of the U.S. working class and the criminalized parts (often largely the same sectors) have been more important, if we’re going to make claims about disproportionate importance. Look at the history of black freedom struggles in the U.S. as a big example.
    “The main property of a union is the “collective bargaining” process.” Maybe, though in the following lines you conflate this with contracts which implies that for you the main property of a union is contractual in nature. How do you maintain this while criticizing the NLRA? It seems to me you’re articulating a view pioneered by New Deal policy planners, with the help of labor leaders in the CIO. (I also think you vastly overestimate how left the CIO ever was.) I also think you overstate the degree to which union officialdom is merely reactive. At least some of the time the union officialdom are capable of visionary leadership, which doesn’t make it left win in character. The CIO was a good example of this, which was a product at least as much by skillful bureaucrats as it was by an insurgent working class from below.
    I support “building cells of militant workers within unions, which push struggle for uncompromising demands and challenge the bureaucracies to match their resolve” as a worthwhile activity. I’m skeptical that it will lead to “unions [being] transformed out of their frozen impotent state” but let’s say you’re right here. What does this transformation look like? It seems to me that you’re basically hoping for a thaw in the labor movement. That could be cool. But these have happened before and the result has usually been a reinvigoration of the mechanisms of negotiation and co-optation, and the recreation of hierarchies in the working class. That’s not to say radicals should oppose the idea of a fighting labor movement, not by any means. Rather it’s to point out that we need workers organizations that do more than be combative in their pursuit of collective bargaining.
    “success in the effort to defend unions from capitalist attack by transforming their character toward rank and file control and more inclusiveness would forge new advanced cadres”
    I think cadre-making is the best reason to do stuff, but as laid out in the piece the political character of these cadre (beyond “fight like hell when bargaining”) is basically absent. And that seems like a key issue. I’m also not sure that *success* in these or other efforts is all that important for cadre-making.

    • Hi all,

      Wanted to say a few things on the first part of this post, “Unions– How Do We Intervene?” . Again, thanks AS for conducting this debate.

      I will begin with questions:

      1. In response to your point one. I understand your general point and I have some agreement to what you are saying, but…

      What about port workers who operate cranes. According to the Wall Street Journal crane operators in Long Beach make an average of $110,000/ year. (

      If they said what you were saying would that be correct for other workers?

      2. In transforming the character of the unions: could you expand more. It seems like a generation of revolutionaries tried to do exactly what you are saying in the 1970s and instead became union bureaucrats. Are you proposing something different? Is the situation different today?

      3. How would unions be brought into broader class organizations?

      4. You write, ” The unionized sector of the working class is disproportionately important to class formation and class consciousness. ” What evidence do you have of this today? The experience I have had is that unionized workers are the most social democratic.

      The most radical working class people I meet are non-unionized and often unemployed.

      5. I am confused on your point about the “collective bargaining process.” From what I understand that has become the sanctuary of lawyers, high level trade union bureaucrats, and management. Am I missing something? Sorry if we are talking about two different thing.

      My experience has been that workers do not even know about the negotiations, let alone contract. Do you have a different experience?

      6. Do you share an assumption with the other position in this debate that the problem with the unions is the bureaucracy/ leadership? Is that all that is wrong with unions? You seem to imply something more fundamental in the section, “State Hegemony Over Unions” but then your next section is called “The Bureacracy is Anti-Union.”

      I argue your next section might have been titled “The union is anti-union” (How is that for all you Hegel heads.)

      7. As I follow your point 17 it might be your general strategic statement in a revolutionary framework. Can you expand on it more? It seems you feel that as the momentum of struggle picks up, workers will transcend the union form on their own? Is that what you are saying?

      But I will think more about your point 17/18 and respond more. Any clarification on your part would be helpful.

      8. Not to be repetitive but on your point 19, did not a generation of revolutionaries go into the factories also hoping to defend unions. What is your analysis of that experience?

  6. I want to suggest a response to the question John Garvey posed, about why the highest rates of unionization in the United States are in protective services.

    First of all, I think that framing the debate in terms of one-sided critiques or defenses for labor unions is a strange way to do things, in that in practice it tends to reproduce, in leftist drag, the abstract opposition between particular and general interest that’s been used to attack labor unions since the Reagan era. Obviously, the patterns of de-unionization which have occurred have left a largely non-unionized workforce with pockets of secure, highly compensated blue-collar work–a fact that in turn makes those remaining pockets of unionization convenient scapegoats. To imply this is evidence against unions seems, at best, to confuse cause and effect. It seems better to look at the transformation of unionization in terms of recent history.

    So, rates of unionization in protective services are high because the structural transformation of the state in the last 30 years and especially the last 10 years under neoliberalism has made security a much larger proportion of the total economy and has made this sector a lucrative growth area. This area of the economy remains heavily state-subsidized and led, and secured from economic crisis: it is also relatively skilled work. It’s also worth pointing out that police and firefighters are at the top of a stratified job market within the security economy which also includes less lucrative and skilled positions such as correctional officers. This isn’t to mention the vast array of subcontracting jobs (the people who clean prisons, etc.) that exist in the sector. The unions that do exist in this sector tend to be very politically right-wing. But that is a circumstance of the nature of their work, and the way that these historical transformations have appeared to the perspective of the people who do that work, not the inherent nature of unions.

    Thus, while I don’t think this fact reflects very much about that, it does reveal a great deal about how the state negotiates the relationship between politics and the economy. Protective services (and to this I’d add the much larger sector of the military proper, which is not unionized) are in some ways the exception that demonstrates the internally contradictory nature of the neoliberal state’s claim not to intervene in the economy. The state is always inherently involved in the economy. The question of what particular kind of state we have needs to be understood in terms of the power dynamics within the state. Ironically, it’s because of the tendency towards the redefinition of the state as primarily a repressive apparatus under neoliberalism–which is a recent development–that this turn has occurred.

    This is also why a putatively radical conception of the state as something that ‘just is’ repressive contains a pitfall–not because that isn’t the case, but because it’s the vision of the state that in some ways neoliberalism pushes. Maybe it would be more effective to push for conceptions of security as a universally shared positive social right–like the ‘insurance agency’ that Marx speaks of–and conceive of a new role for unions from there, instead of trying to either determine their function in the abstract or dismiss them. Otherwise, I think this debate will unfold in a way that tends to reinforce polemic without yielding any very clear answers.

    • Sorry for the delay in responding! For the moment, I’m only going to answer my own questions. First, about unionization rates among young workers, it seems clear to me that, in any rebellious or revolutionary moment, young people are going to be among the most active and important. There are many reasons for this–including the fact that they have not yet been worn down by life’s realities but also that they have fewer responsibilities that will incline them to stop and think before they take chances. Many years ago, a friend suggested that having children was the most radicalizing thing in her life. I disagreed. Unless you and your children are faced with an all-but-life-and-death situation, your political instincts are going to be profoundly conservatized by your desire/need to protect your children from danger. On the upside. we need to look to young people as the source of our hope. So, my question really is–what do low rates of unionization among young people mean in terms of their political potential? My best guess is that the answer is an ambiguous one. They do not have the collective sensibility about their work situations that their grandparents might have had but they also don’t have too many illusions about what unions might do to improve matters. In either case, however, those young workers need to be kept central in our own understandings of the work we need to do. It would help a great deal if we simply knew a lot more about their circumstances and their ideas. Conversely, higher rates of unionization among older workers don’t necessarily indicate very much of anything–other than the significance of living long. I don’t think we should be investing terribly much energy in figuring out how to address them–other than as a whole class project that goes way beyond the unions.

      Second, about the concentration of unions in certain states. I believe that we’d find an even greater concentration if we looked at cities within those states and sectors within those cities. Those states and cities might be especially important for the future of revolutionary activity or they may not. In either case, we should not be oblivious to the situation.

      More to come!

      • Sorry for the interruption! Grandchildren interfered. Let me turn now to the unionized protective service workers. Their unionization rates all but completely are a reflection of their status as public employees and, in that regard, they are no different from other public sector employees–dependent, for the most part, for the quality of their contracts on negotiated deals with city or state elected officials dependent on union support. But, other than firefiighters because of their role as protectors of the existing state of affairs. unlike other public sector officials, they should be deducted from the numbers of unionized workers–making the overall rates of unionization even lower–for our purposes.

        So, what does all this mean? I think it means that we should stop obsessing about unions–a reality that means almost nothing in the life or potential of the American working class that’s available for revolutionary politics. Why? First, only a tiny number of workers are in unions. Second, many of the members are older and not easily able to break with the circumstances that make their lives tolerable. Third, more than half of union members are in the public sector where, in spite of the battles of Wisconsin and Michigan, the members’ well-being is more dependent on support of politicians than anything else. And, furthermore, a whole lot of those public sector workers are cops and prison guards.

        What to do instead? Mostly, let’s learn a lot about what workers are faced with and what they’re doing. And let’s keep in mind that the end is the abolition of wage labor and the self-emancipation of the working class–a very distant dream in these dark times.

  7. Pingback: On the Union Debate: The Internationalist Group’s Response to “The Problematic of the Union in the U.S” (1 & 2) | Advance the Struggle

  8. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 02/23/13

  9. Pingback: In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization | Creativity Not Control

  10. We have posted the first of two responses at

    The second post will be at a later date and may represent divergent views.

  11. Pingback: Union Debate: Mara Responds to Jocelyn and James | Advance the Struggle

  12. Pingback: Testing, Schools and Class(room) Struggle | Advance the Struggle

  13. Pingback: Teacher organizing, unions, and lessons from the Decolonize/ Occupy Port Shutdown | Black Orchid Collective

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