The return of class struggle unionism

December 18, 2012

Two faces of the U.S. labor movement were on display in 2012. On the one hand, teachers in Chicago showed unionists everywhere that the strike weapon could succeed in turning back employer attacks, and workers at Wal-Mart took a stand at the world's largest private employer. On the other, organized labor endured historic defeats with the passage of anti-union "right-to-work" legislation in Indiana and Michigan--with labor failing to mobilize more than token opposition, even in Michigan, its one-time greatest stronghold.

Megan Behrent, a New York City public school teacher and union activist, spoke about the prospects for rebuilding the labor movement in a talk given at a conference for socialists and activists in early November. This article, based on the talk, is the first of two parts. Click here to read part two: "The source of union power."

THERE ARE two traditions of unionism in the U.S.

On the one hand, there's a tradition of unionism based on struggle, on class solidarity, on social movements and for social justice. This is the tradition that brought us the Industrial Workers of the World and the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. It's the tradition that built unions in this country.

On the other hand, there is a tradition of unionism based on collaboration, using a service model and characterized by top-down structures, whose reaction to a crisis for the labor movement has been to engage in concession bargaining.

This tradition of unionism is often called business unionism. It fought, in the era before the 1930s, to keep unions based on craft, focusing on professionalism rather than class solidarity. In the postwar boom, when winning decent contracts from the bosses was possible, it triumphed. But since then, it has paved the way for a steady decline in union membership and organized labor's power.

What's exciting today is that for the first time in decades, when we talk about rebuilding the labor movement, we aren't limited to talking about what's wrong with it. We can also talk about what's right.

Teachers and students rally and march in a show of support for the CTU's fight for a fair contract
Teachers and students rally and march in a show of support for the CTU's fight for a fair contract (Elizabeth Schulte | SW)

The recent teachers' strike in Chicago is one of the first positive example in decades of class struggle unionism in action--a strike in which teachers fought not only for the survival of their union in the face of an all-out attack by city officials, but for wider class issues. It was a strike for educational justice and against teacher-bashing, union-busting and neoliberal policies that have decimated our schools and communities under the banner of "reform."

The Chicago teachers' strike also revalidated the strike as a strategy--the key strategy of labor--to win.

Many teachers in the U.S. had up to this year never seen a strike, let alone a successful one. That is no longer the case. All over the country, people are trying to figure out how to do what Chicago did: How do you organize democratic, militant unions led by rank-and-file initiatives, which can fight the bosses and win?

The UPS strike in 1997 was also a successful strike that tapped into wider class issues with the slogan "Part-time America doesn't work." But the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike has an even greater significance--not only because of the organization of the strike itself, but because it comes on the heels of the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the labor upsurge in Wisconsin--struggles which gave expression to the immense class anger that exists in this country and showed the potential for a mass fightback, though they fell short of tangible and lasting victories.

The strike in Chicago is far from the end of that fight. Even now, Chicago teachers are gearing up for another round to prevent school closings.

At the same time, we've seen inspiring walkouts at Wal-Mart warehouses and stores--against what seemed to be an undefeatable behemoth embodying the absolute worst of Corporate America's attempt to drive down the expectations and living conditions of working-class people. And in recent weeks, we've seen workers in fast food industries in New York City rise up and confront the bosses.

To be clear, the labor movement today is in dire straits as it struggles for its existence. But recent struggles give us a taste of what's possible. If we are to succeed, we need to learn the lessons of our history because they are crucial to the battles of the present and the future.

Class Struggle Unionism vs. Business Unionism

Not only did the Chicago teachers' struggle revive the idea of the strike as a strategy for defending our unions, but it also popularized the idea of social justice unionism as an essential component of rebuilding the labor movement. For far too long, union members have been demonized as the enemy of working-class people, enjoying decent wages and easy working conditions at the expense of other workers.

When the 26,000 Chicago teachers went out on strike against racism and the segregation of our schools, against testing and the standardization and sterilization of education, and for smaller class sizes and air conditioners, the public--particularly parents and students--stood with the CTU because they saw the teachers' struggle as a fight for social justice and to defend quality public education.

If this type of unionism seems new to many of us, it's actually a tradition that is far from new in U.S. history. The fact of the matter is that "social justice" issues aren't separate from union issues. They go hand in hand.

Social justice unionism is crucial, in part, because the first thing one hears anytime workers go out on strike is how selfish they are. If they're teachers, they're hurting students. If they're nurses, they're hurting patients. If they're transit workers, they're hurting riders. But social justice unionism isn't just a way to win better public relations ploy--it's important because workers themselves have every reason to fight for social justice.

This is very clear from some of the earliest teachers' struggles, which helped to form unions in this country. Tenure--now reviled as the unions' devious weapon to protect incompetent teachers--was fought for, among other things, as a women's rights issue.

In fact, the early teachers' union movement had strong links to the women's suffrage movement. In a workforce heavily dominated by females, there was no way to talk about teachers' rights without talking about women's rights. To give a sense of how enmeshed these issues were, the Littleton school committee in Massachusetts argued in1849:

God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems...very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one-third of the price.

Without tenure and unions, women were routinely fired for being married or becoming pregnant. Lest the unmarried and childless women think they might be spared, one could also get fired for wearing pants or being out too late in the evening. This wasn't just a 19th century occurrence. My grandmother, a home economics teacher in Texas, lost her job when she got married. This wasn't extraordinary, but routine.

Thus, union issues and women's rights went hand in hand.

In response to early organizing attempts in Chicago by Nicholas Murray Butler, a onetime president of Columbia University who served on the New Jersey Board of Education, criticized teachers for their "pernicious" activities, which damaged the educational profession. He expressed concern about innocent teachers who were captured by the union and forced to conform to the "dominance" of women leaders.

As Marjorie Murphy's book Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA describes, Butler called these teachers "contemptuous and rebellious toward authority" who would therefore "send forward children who in turn are likely to be dissatisfied, contemptuous and rebellious towards authority, and who have no regard and no respect for law and order."

Fast forward a hundred years, and you could find a very similar response to teacher militancy a few months ago in the pages of the illustrious New York Times. As columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote:

This isn't a battle between garment workers and greedy corporate barons. The central figures in the Chicago schools strike are neither strikers nor managers, but 350,000 children. Protecting elements of a broken and unaccountable school system--the union demand--sacrifices those students, in effect turning a blind eye to a "separate but equal" education system.

Or one could read the Times editorial, entitled "Chicago Teachers' Folly," which argued that, "Teachers' strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea."

In the same editorial, CTU President Karen Lewis was demonized, much as Margaret Haley--a leader of the Chicago Teacher's Federation, and later the National Federation of Teachers--100 years earlier. The Times reduced the CTU strike to a "personality conflict," with Lewis depicted as a leader who "seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system [and] seems more inclined toward damaging the mayor politically than in getting this matter resolved."

The response to these charges by radical teachers' union organizers of the 19th century resonates today. Margaret Haley argued that the freeing of the child or the student:

can only be secured by the freeing of the teacher...[T]o the teacher, it means freedom from care and worry for the material needs of the present and the future--in other words, adequate salary and old age pensions, freedom to teach the child as an individual and not to deal with children en masse. In other words, fewer children for each teacher. Last but not least, the teacher must have recognition in the educational system as an educator. The tendency is to relegate her to the position of a factory hand, or a taker of orders from above.

This is as true today as it was 100 years ago. It's the same message that came from Karen Lewis and the CTU when they went on strike not against children, but for children and the schools that they deserve.

The Tradition of Collaboration and Compromise

To understand the power of a strong union on the shop floor--and how much that power has been eroded over the past few decades--Gregg Shotwell's Autoworkers Under the Gun is a must read.

Shotwell begins with a story about his early days on the job at General Motors when a new foreman tried to interrupt the workers' morning coffee and tell them to get to work. The workers complied--but within 30 minutes, every machine in his department was down, with others soon to follow. By the next morning, the foreman had learned his lesson and simply said, "Good morning, gentleman." As Shotwell writes:

The shop floor was our turf. We controlled the means of production because we were the master of the means. We didn't plan this direct action. It was automatic. It was natural. We called it "showing the boss who's boss." That's what old-timers taught me about unionism.

It's a striking story because the United Auto Workers (UAW) today has been eroded to the point of near obsolescence by the logic of business unionism--that other tradition in the history of the American labor movement, which has dominated unions for the past few decades, and if allowed to continue unchallenged could pave the way to their extinction.

As a result of concession after concession, UAW-organized plants are now essentially no different than nonunion ones. While each concession has been justified on the basis of maintaining union jobs or "living to fight another day," the UAW--which had 1.5 million members in 1979--is now a shadow of its former self. Even after modest growth in the past year, its total membership today is about 380,000. At GM alone, after 30 years of concessions, the job loss is almost 90 percent. If ever there was a failing strategy for workers, this is it.

What is the logic of this failed strategy? As Jesse Hagopian and John Green explain in a chapter of the collection Education and Capitalism:

Its underlying principle is that of "partnership," sometimes called "collaboration." In this view, unions and management have common interests and should "work together" to meet those interests. In a recession, this means that everyone should tighten their belts and "share the sacrifice." In the good times, we hope, the spoils will be shared. The old slogan from the 1950s and '60s sums up this approach to unionism: "What's good for General Motors is good for America."

We can, of course, see how well that spirit of collaboration and shared sacrifice worked in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which brought us all together to respond to the disaster. Transit workers and employees of Con Edison and Verizon were all celebrated for the sacrifices they made...until it came time to tally up sick days, and then suddenly, the spirit of solidarity evaporated as the bosses refused to pay workers who physically could not get to work.

Under this model of unionism, negotiations between labor and management are seen as paramount. When this fails, the goal is to find better politicians, better bosses, better media and better messaging.

Thus, my union, the United Federation of Teachers, has been waiting for a new mayor that it can work with since I started teaching 13 years ago. In the name of practicality, the union builds alliances with politicians and bosses that inevitably lead it to sell out its membership and the communities it serves.

Strikes are avoided at all cost since they declare in practice workers' refusal to collaborate in their exploitation. When the threat of a strike is used, it's all too often not to scare the bosses, but the membership--which has no confidence in the collaborationist leadership to lead a successful struggle.

When the demoralization this inevitably breeds demobilizes the rank and file, union leaders blame the passivity of the membership for their inability to launch a more militant fight. They drive members into demoralization, encourage passivity and disorganization--and then wonder why it's so hard to get people out to protests, which are often no more than glorified press conferences where members' bodies are used as a backdrop to the union leaders' negotiating strategy.

The Tradition of Solidarity and Struggle

Class struggle unionism, also called social justice or social movement unionism, has a very different history in this country, and one that we need to learn from. It is a tradition of unionism characterized by struggle. As Hagopian and Green explain:

The underlying assumption is the old slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all." This tendency starts from the basis that the interests of the business and political establishment are actually opposed to the interests of workers and the public..."Class struggle unionism" is the idea that workers' essential power lies in their ability to withhold labor, and that this power can be used to fight for positive change.

This tradition of unionism has a long and proud history in this country. It can claim leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood of the IWW, who, among other accomplishments, led a strike in Lawrence, Mass., of textile workers that the craft unions of the time wanted nothing to do with. They organized a strike of over 14,000 workers, mostly women and children, and most of them immigrants, representing at least 25 different nationalities, who spoke 45 different languages

Class struggle unionism gave birth to the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s--a new federation of unions created in opposition to the conservatism, narrowness and racism of the American Federation of Labor.

This was the height of the labor movement, a period of unprecedented mass union struggles, including the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike and the sit-down strikes that included and followed the fight of autoworkers at General Motors in Flint, Mich., in 1936-37.

The Minneapolis strike is one of the best examples of class struggle unionism in practice. In 1934, a handful of socialists working in the city's coal yards began an organizing drive that would ultimately lead to what was called the "Teamster Rebellion." At its height, the Teamsters struggle involved over 7,000 members of Local 574, and as many as 50,000 other workers in Minneapolis who organized alongside the Teamsters.

Radicals played a crucial role in the strike, organizing from the bottom up with military precision. Their crucial priority was to rely on the strength of the rank and file. They organized strike headquarters in a garage, and workers patrolled the streets of Minneapolis with "cruising picket squads"--trucks filled with workers who were dispatched on a moment's notice to wherever scab trucks tried to move.

The workers organized mass kitchens, and their own hospitals. They held regular nightly meetings to keep all workers posted on any developments and to make decisions democratically. They created a strike committee of 100 truck drivers, which published a daily strike newspaper. The only trucks moving in Minneapolis did so by permission of the union.

Despite facing police violence, mass arrests, the imposition of martial law and pressure from the federal government, the workers were ultimately victorious winning the right to unionize.

Though this was the high point, class struggle unionism didn't end in the 1930s. It's a tradition that continued with the wave of wildcats in the 1970s, the UPS Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997 and the sit-down strike at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago in 2008. In the past year, it was revitalized by teachers in Chicago and low-wage workers at Wal-Mart and in fast-food restaurants.

Further Reading

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