Book Review: Class Struggle Unionism (2022), by Joe Burns (Haymarket)
In Class Struggle Unionism Joe Burns builds on his previous book, Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (2011).
As before, Burns grounds his argument in the class war, a battle-to-the-death between the employer class and the working class over who controls the wealth that workers create.
We are up against a ruthless and uncompromising enemy. One which believes every sphere of human activity should enrich them as a class. (p.142)
Casualties of the class war include: billions dead from preventable diseases; injured and killed by unsafe work; dead and displaced in capitalist wars; locked in cages, deprived of basic human necessities, and struggling to survive polluted and destroyed environments.
The billionaire class views our unions as the enemy, as key institutions of the working class. Like it or not, they are engaged in a class struggle against us. (p.142)
How can workers defend against employer attacks? Burns dissects the difference between class struggle unionism, business unionism, social (or social justice) unionism, and labor liberalism. Only class struggle unionism challenges the legitimacy of the capitalist system.
An illegitimate system
Class struggle unionism is based on the understanding that labor creates all social wealth, that the wage system wrongly separates workers from that wealth in order to create a billionaire class, and what workers create rightly belongs to the entire working class. Therefore, the wage system and all the laws and customs that sustain it are illegitimate and can be rejected.
Taking what workers produce is not legally stealing. Capitalist law supports an employers’ right to claim whatever workers produce, just as it forbids workers to fight back effectively. In 1919, lawyer Clarence Darrow concluded,
Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have, and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in. The laws are really organized for the men who rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice. We have no system for justice, not the slightest in the world.
The employer class have trapped workers in a capitalist system that normalizes and legalizes their exploitation. Burns argues that we can accept the resulting degradation, or we can reject the validity of laws that block us from managing our work and society for the common good.
Class struggle unionism is a form of unionism that challenges the control over our society by the handful of billionaires who own the vast majority of resources in the United States and the world. Every part of class struggle unionism, from the guiding ideas to strike tactics to organizing techniques, is shaped by an understanding of this class struggle. (p.1)
Whatever the issue, class struggle unionists insist that workplace militancy and class solidarity are the key to success.
Business unionism accepts the capitalist system, services workers instead of mobilizing them, and strives to win ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ – but only if employers can afford it.
Business unionists mistakenly believe that employers and workers have a common interest. They do not; what benefits the one harms the other. Expecting fairness from an employer is equivalent to pleading for mercy from an enemy whose success requires your complete subjugation.
As Burns explained in Reviving the Strike, business unions have been incorporated into the capitalist system of labor management. They behave as if there is no class war and, therefore, no need to seriously mobilize workers against their exploiters. Instead, they proclaim that all miseries can be corrected by way of limited strikes or electoral change.
When such methods inevitably fail, business unionists proclaim that nothing more can be done until we can elect more labor-friendly politicians. The result has been a catastrophic decline in union power. Burns laments,
I believe the labor movement is adrift. We have no plan, no prospects, and most importantly have not really come to grips that we are lost. But it does not need to be that way. (p.142)
Burns argues that workers can win the class war if they understand it as a war and use effective methods to win it, legal or not. As he points out, “there is no such thing as an illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.”
Strikes were illegal in every jurisdiction in the United States until the late 1960s, yet public employees engaged in one of the biggest waves of civil disobedience to win their unions. Millions of teachers, sanitation workers, and others successfully violated labor law to win strikes during this period. (p.98)
Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona engaged in illegal statewide strikes… They were powerful precisely because they were not under the control of the labor establishment… Yet because they struck statewide, they did not face legal repercussions or discipline. The sheer size of the conflict provided striking teachers protection. (p.98)
Social (justice) unionism
Burns explains that, in North America, the failure of business unions to defend workers on the job gave rise to ‘social unionism.’
Social unionists argue unions should work with community groups and embrace broad social demands. This is an incredible draw, especially given the narrowness of much of the existing labor movement. Social unionism has pushed the labor movement to take better positions on immigration, to confront issues of racism, and to form alliances with other social groups. For public employees, social unionism leads to a form of unionism that emphasizes ties to the community. (p.68)
Social unionism that develops as a support for workplace action gives it a broader class character that can engage whole communities in advancing workers’ demands. A prime example was the 2019 Chicago teachers’ strike that fought to improve conditions for teachers, students and their families.
Social unionism also includes a broad range of organizations that pressure employers and politicians to behave in a more socially responsible manner.
Within the broad tent of social unionism are staff-driven projects that form alliances with non-profits and foundation-funded workers’ centers that look to the Democratic Party [the NDP in Canada, the Labour Party in the UK]… Another way to think about this is all class struggle unionists are social unionists but not all social unionists are class struggle unionists. (p.69)
The problem with the term social unionism is not what it includes — we should all agree that a broad class-based approach is good — but what it fails to include. As a framework it misses sharp class-on-class struggle, connection to the workplace, union reform, and the like. (p.69)
Class struggle unionism has been eclipsed as the main alternative to business unionism, replaced by an approach that I call labor liberalism. While this approach focuses on organizing techniques and ties to the community, it lacks critical components of class struggle unionism, including a willingness to challenge the union bureaucracy, shop floor militancy, rank-and-file democracy, and an overall opposition to the system of capitalism. (p.2)
Labor liberals accept the legitimacy of the capitalist order and its laws. Believing that one must obey the law or change it, they identify the electoral system, not the workplace, as the source of social power. However, elected officials do not make the big decisions, such as whether to prioritize military spending or social supports. Such decisions are made in corporate boardrooms and transmitted to officials through the promise of campaign funding, future careers, and other forms of bribery.
Elected officials only get to implement the decisions made by the capitalist class, for example, how much money for weaponry and how much for social supports. What they decide reflects the relative power of the warring classes.
Historically, mass worker rebellions win higher wages, better benefits, and more funding for social services. Labor defeats are followed by lower wages, a loss of benefits, and cuts to social services. Disregarding this reality, labor liberals direct workers to rely on their individual vote instead of on their collective power to disrupt the flow of profit. This is a dead-end strategy.
Electoral campaigns to raise the minimum wage and improve conditions succeed only when workers are gaining ground on the job. They inevitably fail when workers are in retreat.
Even when progressive labor legislation is won, courts regularly overturn it in order to protect employers’ interests. Undeterred, one labor liberal insists that if you cannot win pro-labor legislation, “you can’t reverse labor’s decline.”
Playing by the enemy’s rules is a sure way to lose a war.
For several decades, we have attempted to revive unionism within a political and legal system set up to benefit the billionaire class. It’s not working. The owners of industry take in billions and billions of profits, creating a class of people with unimaginable economic and political power. Money is power. For unionists, this power shapes our unionism in more ways than we care to admit. (p.3)
We CAN win
Every social-justice activist should read this book. In clear language, Burns explains why living and working conditions have deteriorated so much, and why the political left and the unions have failed to stop or reverse this downward spiral.
Every human being has so much to contribute. Our days could be filled with discovery, invention, and delight. Instead they are filled with fear, anger, and despair. Life is becoming intolerable. We must stop chasing ineffective strategies and do what is necessary to free ourselves, our class, and our planet from capitalist rule.
Burns’ solution is to revive class struggle unionism, to focus on winning workplace conflicts by mobilizing as much of the class as possible for every battle. Wining the class war is the key to winning social justice.
Class struggle unionism grounds all our actions and all our strategies on a simple proposition: that workers create all wealth, and a system that allows the few to obtain billions in riches while the producers of wealth live in misery is an illegitimate system. Once we accept that essential reality and act as a class, victory will be ours. (p.142)