The source of union power

December 19, 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 published in two parts. Click here to read part one: "The return of class struggle unionism."

The Contradictory Role of Unions Under Capitalism

In some ways, the two vastly different traditions of class struggle unionism versus business unionism reflect the contradictory nature of unions under capitalism.

As Sharon Smith wrote in an International Socialist Review article titled "Marxism, Unions and Class Struggle":

Unions are workers' front line of defense against their employers under capitalism. But as vehicles for struggle, they are also crucial to the future self-emancipation of the working class. But there is also a contradiction: unions both negotiate the terms of exploitation of workers under capitalism and also provide the vehicle for struggle that can prepare the working class for revolution...

At their best, unions are indispensible vehicles for the class struggle. But since their essential function under capitalism is to negotiate the terms of exploitation on behalf of their members, their preservation depends on the continuation of capitalist class relations.

Thus, on the one hand, contracts negotiated by the unions exist to keep "labor peace" in exchange for some protections and guarantees about wages, compensation and working conditions. At the same time, anyone with a union contract knows how easily it can be used against you. The fact that "insubordination" is a violation of the contract should be an indication of its purpose. In this capacity, unions are far from radical.

Teamsters and police deputies battle in the Minneapolis streets
Teamsters and police deputies battle in the Minneapolis streets

And yet, as institutions formed through struggle to defend workers, unions have radical and even revolutionary potential--which is why the bosses hate them so much.

Unions weren't created by the ruling class to contain class struggle and negotiate the terms of our oppression. Unions had to be fought for, tooth and nail, through strikes, mass mobilization and direct action. They were built with the blood and sweat of working-class people. Unions are threatening precisely because they defy the logic of capitalism--that individualism and competition are the only way to get ahead.

As Karl Marx's collaborator Frederick Engels wrote:

But what gives these unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order.

For Marx and Engels, unions were thus crucial in advancing working class struggle because through them, workers come together and realize that we are stronger when we stop competing among ourselves and use our collective strength to fight the bosses, who are actually the problem.

Unions and Struggle

Class struggle unionism begins with an understanding of this potential of unions and an understanding of capitalism as a system that inevitably forces workers into struggle. This is, in part, because the people who run this system and who profit from it will never stop trying to get more out of working people. That is the way they make money.

As anyone who has been involved in the labor movement over the past few decades knows, this means that there are very long periods in which our side does not struggle, at least in open battles. Instead, we get pummeled by our employers, and hard-won gains of the past are stolen from us. At times, it seems like that will never change. And yet struggle inevitably emerges as workers are forced to fight for their livelihoods, their working conditions, their dignity and their humanity.

As the American socialist Hal Draper wrote:

To engage in class struggle, it is not necessary to "believe in" the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton to fall from an airplane. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so.

In other words, bosses don't exploit people because of a personality flaw nor do working people engage in collective struggle or struggles for social justice because they're better people--even though they often are. Understanding this is the basis for class struggle unionism. Collaboration is a failed strategy because bosses have no reason to collaborate with us unless we struggle--thus, struggle is necessary even at the most basic level of forcing bosses to negotiate with workers at all.

The strike is a crucial weapon not because radicals have some kind of fetish about it, but because it's the only way that workers can demonstrate their labor power en masse. Strikes don't guarantee victory--but failing to fight, or at least failing to pose a credible strike threat, only guarantees further retreat. As a worker at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago during the 2008 occupation put it: "If I don't fight, I'll definitely lose. If I do fight, I might lose, but I also might win. And even if I lose, at least I'll know that I fought."

Teachers in Chicago showed this power, without question. While education reformers like to act as if teachers stand in the way of educating our students, when 26,000 teachers go out on strike, schools simply can't function. Despite all the bluster and threats, Rahm Emanuel was forced to retreat on his attack. Ultimately, the Chicago Teachers Union accomplished more in nine days than decades of lobbying, advertisements and backroom negotiations

That doesn't mean they won everything--strikes rarely do. For Marxists, the key question is not just what is gained in a strike, but whether it advances the class struggle as a whole. Strikes are almost always partial victories. The role of radicals is to draw the lessons of these victories and build on them, because we know that the struggle continues--and will continue until we change the world fundamentally and create a socialist society.

After the 1934 Teamster Rebellion in Minneapolis, there were debates about the meaning of the struggle and its success. Despite one of the most successful working-class mobilizations in U.S. history, in which Teamsters literally ran the city of Minneapolis for periods of time, the union did not win anywhere near all its demands. But they did win their key demand: the right to unionize. As the leading U.S. Trotskyist James Cannon argued in an essay titled "Minneapolis and Its Meaning":

This spirit of determined struggle was combined at the same time with a realistic appraisal of the relation of forces and the limited objectives of the fight. Without this, all the preparations and all the militancy of the strikers might well have been wasted and brought the reaction of a crushing defeat. The strike was understood to be a preliminary, partial struggle, with the objective of establishing the union and compelling the bosses to recognize it. When they got that, they stopped and called it a day.

The strong union that has emerged from the strike will be able to fight again and to protect its membership in the meantime. The accomplishment is modest enough. But if we want to play an effective part in the labor movement, we must not allow ourselves to forget that the American working class is just beginning to move on the path of the class struggle and, in its great majority, stands yet before the first task of establishing stable unions. Those who understand the task of the day and accomplish it prepare the future. The others merely chatter.

Struggles that win inspire others to struggle as well. It's no coincidence that unions have historically been at their most powerful and most popular during high periods of struggle. Thus, unions enjoyed the greatest popular support in 1936 at the height of the sit-down strikes.

The Rank and File vs. the Trade Union Bureaucracy

Central to class struggle unionism is an orientation on the rank and file--the people who actually give a union its strength. Too often, the rank and file in unions today is disempowered and encouraged to see the union as a service organization, in which they play a passive role.

Within this model, the class position of union leaders is contradictory. They act as negotiators for their members--despite the fact that they themselves are not workers and the contracts they negotiate on behalf of their members do not affect their own salaries and working conditions.

For example, last year, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, got a base salary of $360,000. Her total net pay was almost half a million dollars. When asked about this in an interview, she defended herself in part by arguing, "In the corporate world, salaries for CEOs are not three to five times what their employees make. It's hundreds of times more." That Weingarten compared herself to a CEO certainly says a lot about how she views union members.

As a result, it can often seem like the union leadership is, in fact, the enemy and that its interests are more aligned with the bosses than with the members. Many people argue that the union leadership, in fact, benefits from selling out its membership.

It's perfectly understandable that people would think this. Union leaders are often completely disconnected from the membership. Their primary concern is for their own survival. As a result, they often discourage rank-and-file activism and fail to protect union activists. When they do negotiate contracts, they are willing to contemplate concessions that workers never would.

This is because, as mediators between workers and the bosses, unions are subject to pressures from both. In the absence of struggle from below, it's far easier to succumb to the pressure from the bosses, and their logic wins out. It's easier for union leaders to sell out their members than to fight the bosses. Because they don't actually experience the working conditions that they negotiate over, union leaders find it easy to make the argument that this is the best we can do--that we need to accept concessions.

There is, thus, an inherent conservatism to the union bureaucracy. It's not an accident that so many union leaders are so bad--this is because of the nature of unions under capitalism, the pressures placed on them and the nature of the contradictory position of union leaders.

But when the rank and file does mobilize, that changes.

Just as socialists need to understand the contradictory nature of unions under capitalism, we need to understand the role that the union leadership plays. No matter how bad they are, they vacillate, depending on the strength and organization of the rank and file.

This is not to say that leadership doesn't matter. There is a long history of radicals contesting for union leadership and winning it. Radicals can play an important role as leaders in unions precisely because they understand the power of the rank and file, and the need to mobilize the membership and build a democratic union led from the bottom up.

This isn't just something that socialists recognize. The World Bank does, too. A document from the Bank's Education Reform and Management series titled "The Politics of Education Reform: Bolstering the Supply and Demand; Overcoming Institutional Blocks" (note: "institutional blocks" means unions) states:

[U]nions whose leadership face serious internal upheaval, including challenges to the leadership, are likely to contest reforms. When union leaders feel threatened from below, they are more likely to act as "agents of workers." They will feel a greater need to compete for members' votes by challenging state efforts to impose constraints. Union leaders who do not face internal challenges, on the other hand, will feel more comfortable cooperating with the state and even accepting certain sacrifices, as long as there is some compensation.

For socialists, rank-and-file organization is the key to building a strong union. When the top union leadership plays a role in leading that, we stand with them. Where they are obstacles, we oppose them. As Leon Trotsky argued, writing about Britain, "With the masses--always; with the vacillating leaders--sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses."

Radicals can play an important role as union leaders, but the key focus needs to be on organizing the rank and file.

If we look at the example of Chicago, it's clear that the victory of a rank-and-file group, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in CTU elections paved the way for the first successful teachers' strike in several decades. But CORE itself emerged as a movement from the union's ranks, with a commitment to social justice unionism and organizing members in the schools.

Among the first things CORE members did when they won the top offices of the CTU was to make sure no union leader was paid more than the highest-paid teacher and to immediately put more resources into organizing. They then spent two years organizing rank-and-file teachers in preparation for a confrontation with the city. This paved the for a strike authorization vote in which 90 percent voted "yes."

Nonetheless, the CTU leadership still faced an entrenched national leadership in the AFT: Randi Weingarten, who, in the name of "solution-driven unionism," was behind the New Haven teachers contract that strips away job protections won over decades.

In many ways, they faced a very similar dynamic to the radicals and socialists who led the Teamster Rebellion in Minneapolis in 1934. While they were the ones who led the strike, they faced immense opposition from the International.

None of the socialists who were leaders on the ground held an official union position until after the strike was over. Dan Tobin, the head of the International, never approved of the tactics or the strike. In fact, he worked to undermine the strike. Yet rank-and-file organization was so strong that the official leadership was powerless to rein it in. As one of the Minneapolis organizers explained:

When the bosses threw our demands into the wastebasket, we went to the Teamsters' council for permission to strike. I said, "Hell, if we lose, we're no worse off than we were. This is no union we've got now anyway, but if we win, it will be like a red flag to a bull. The workers will come to us, and we can organize the whole damn industry." So they gave us permission. I wrote Daniel Tobin, International president of the union, for an okay. Two days after the strike was over, he wrote back that we couldn't strike. By that time, we'd won and had a signed contract with increased pay.

The key to the success in Minneapolis was the strength of the rank and file. At the height of the strike, the leaders were picked up and held under military arrest. Nonetheless, this didn't stop the struggle.

In fact, many of the most important strikes of the 1930s were led from below--and were victorious in spite of, not because of, the union bureaucracy. One union official described the dynamic after the successful Flint sit-down strike against General Motors:

You'd be sitting in the office any March day of 1937, and the phone would ring and the voice at the other end would say: 'My name is Mary Jones; I'm a soda clerk at Liggett's; we've thrown the manager out, and we've got the keys. What do we do now? And you'd hurry over to the company to negotiate, and over there, they'd say, "I think it's the height of irresponsibility to call a strike before you've ever asked for a contract," and all you could say was "You're so right."

This spirit wasn't confined to the 1930s. The 1970s saw a wave of wildcat strikes in which rank-and-file workers not only challenged the bosses, but defied their own union leaderships. For example, rank-and-file Teamsters rejected an inadequate contract negotiated by the leadership. Teachers all over the country went on strike and faced injunctions, fines and jail. Postal workers went on strike over the opposition of their leaders.

The power of this rank-and-file insurgency was clear to all--including the ruling class. As George Shultz, then secretary of labor under Republican Richard Nixon, remarked, "There's only one thing worse than an illegal strike. A wildcat that wins."

Union Democracy

Union democracy is essential to building a member-driven union with an empowered rank and file.

Here, too, the Teamster Rebellion in Minneapolis has much to teach us. From the committee of 100 that led the strike, to the daily strike newspapers, to the nightly meetings, at every step of the way, members were in control of the strike.

Thus, for example, when two federal mediators were sent in to broker an agreement, the union leaders agreed to meet with them, but they refused to bow to their demands and allow them any leeway in negotiations, arguing that any decision had to be ratified directly by the membership.

When an agreement was reached, a mass meeting was held at which the workers of Teamsters Local 574 agreed almost unanimously to settle the strike, despite the limited gains in some areas, and ended the meeting by singing "Solidarity Forever." In Chicago, it was likewise crucial that CTU delegates decided to extend the strike into a second week in order for members to have time to discuss a tentative contract agreement at each school site.

If this is a lesson in democracy that should be replicated, then the 2005 strike Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York City is a good example of what not to do.

The strike of subway and bus workers, called in part because of pressure from below, was an inspiring example of rank-and-file militancy. But union leaders did nothing to involve members. Eventually, workers were sent back with no news and no agreement. Not surprisingly, the eventual agreement was initially voted down by members.

From this negative example, it's once again clear that assessing what a strike has accomplished is not only about what was won, but how the strike was conducted, the lessons drawn by the rank and file and their own sense of their power. Union democracy is essential.

Social Movement Unionism

The centrality of connecting union struggles to other social movements is likewise crucial to rebuilding the labor movement.

This was another important lesson of the Chicago teachers' strike. CORE was involved in the fight against school closures well before its members won office in the CTU, and they continued that fight after being elected. In doing so, they built alliances with community groups that were crucial during the strike. The vision the CTU put forward in "The Schools Chicago's Students Deserve" also helped to build public support by making clear that educational justice was at the center of the teachers' fight.

The flip side of this lesson is the devastating consequences when a union fails to understand the necessity of taking up social justice issues like the struggle against racism, sexism and all forms of oppression.

Nowhere in the labor movement's history was this clearer than in the 1968 teachers' strike in New York City, in which the United Federation of Teachers was pitted against advocates for community control in the African-American neighborhood of Ocean Hill Brownsville. This had a devastating impact and led to long-term rifts between the union and the communities our schools serve.

The labor movement in this country must take up the question of racism and immigrant rights and put it at the center of our struggle for a new labor movement. It is no coincidence that the South, with the worst part of the country's racist history, is the least unionized.

The past few years have shown once again that unions are not "special interest" groups. When union workers joined force with Occupy Wall Street or took part in upheaval in Wisconsin or went on strike in Chicago, they tapped into a much broader anger and radicalization in U.S. society.

Class struggle unionism means that we have to recognize the role unions play in leading a wider class fightback against austerity. This means we need to be part of rebuilding a tradition of militant rank-and-file struggle in our unions and pushing our unions not only to defend their members, but also to fight for universal health care, better unemployment benefits and guaranteed pensions for all working people. We also need to be clear about the importance of politics in our struggle and the role of radicals and the left in raising political questions that are crucial to the success of unions.

We need to learn the lessons of our history--both the defeats and the victories--if we are going to rebuild a militant labor movement that can win real gains for our side. What is exciting about the present period is that, for the first time in decades, the victories we can learn from aren't only in the past, but also in the present.

This means that we have more of an opportunity today to build a labor movement based on the principles of class struggle unionism--one that can turn the tide against the agenda of the 1 percent. It's a struggle that is urgent--but also one that we can win.

Further Reading

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