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Every Worker Needs a Union
And every union needs to fight for our future
It was an incredible, powerful week for organized labor. SAG-AFTRA, the guild representing 160,000 working actors, announced their strike Thursday and launched it Friday at 12:01 a.m. They joined the WGA—the writers of Hollywood—on the picket line for the first time in 60 years. At the same time, UPS Teamsters around the country held practice pickets as 340,000 workers prepare for what will be, if it happens August 1st, one of the largest strikes in U.S. history. The United Auto Workers also started negotiations with the major car manufacturers in Detroit, and they did so under more militant leadership than the union has had in a long time. More on that later.
The list could and does go on. Healthcare workers at the mega-hospital chain Kaiser Permanente announced strikes at 50 locations across five states. Amazon Teamsters spread picket lines across the country. And that’s just the beginning. The culmination of all these major union actions, and labor organizing, is a powerful and electric feeling in the air. I’m seeing people voice a real and maybe even newfound hope for change, and they should be. Unions are one of the clearest sites of working class power. There is clarity in winning tangible wages and benefits from organizing with your fellow workers. And there is a visceral energy on picket lines, a mass of people coming together, often across substantial difference, to build power and get victories for the working class.
But it never comes out of nowhere. None of it, neither the massive announcements nor the many smaller, significant pieces of labor news this week emerged in a vacuum. There are two clear sources of this current, gripping moment: the workers and the bosses. What I mean by this is, one, that the owning class across the United States has brought this moment upon themselves in many ways. They have refused to stem their own greed, and have, over the last four decades of Reaganism and neoliberalism, pushed a country with a massive middle class and tens of millions of comfortable people towards ever increasing precarity. UPS is one of the clearest and most relevant examples. The company cashed in on the increase in delivery traffic over the pandemic, netting a whopping $13 billion last year. Yet tens of thousands of part-time workers, already denied the good package that full-time workers get, saw their wages fall from upwards of $22 early in the pandemic to just $16 or $17 dollars an hour now. It is unfathomable greed, and a system that pushes and incentivizes and even mandates such gross extraction of wealth. So workers are angry.
Which brings us to the other half of the equation. Workers have been angry, and have been getting angrier for some time. And more and more we’re seeing them do something about it. One of the best avenues that workers are taking is reforming their unions, or even organizing new unions. UPS once again leads us to the perfect example for this case study. About 340,000 UPS workers are in the Teamsters union, plus another 900,000 other workers at other companies. For decades the union was plagued with corruption, but in recent years there has been a powerful reform movement within the union, that culminated in candidates endorsed by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union caucus winning the presidency and numerous other elected positions all up and down the massive labor union. And now the union’s new President Sean O’Brien is talking a big, militant game, encouraging new organizing at Amazon and elsewhere, and getting the Teamsters ready for a huge fight against UPS. And they’re not alone. UAW, the United Auto Workers, has also seen a reform caucus take over the union after the old guard was forced to concede to a one member, one vote approach to internal union elections. Their new president, Shawn Fain, has already signaled a more militant approach to the negotiations with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis that began just yesterday.
Every paid subscription from this piece, no matter what kind you choose, will give $50 to the Barboncino’s workers from the essay earlier this week fighting for their union!
Every worker should have a union, I think that’s clear to you if you’re reading this. One day every worker should own and control their workplace, and we should move beyond the current exploitative system, but right now every worker needs the power and protection of a union. But even in our current context we shouldn’t settle just the the exisetence of a union, any union at our workplaces. What we’re seeing right now is impactful new union drives, but we’re also seeing what labor militancy looks like. In other words it’s not just that the approval of unions is higher than it’s been in 50 years, or that important unions win like the wave of Starbucks victories, the wave of academic unions victories, and the landmark Amazon victory are taking place. It’s that more and more of the workers winning and running unions understand the need for class struggle unionism.
In his fantastic, must-read book titled after its vital subject, Joe Burns breaks down Class Struggle Unionism, and how we can practice it. I highly, highly recommend getting the book, linked in the previous sentence. This topic has been of paramount importance to workers across the world for over 200 years now, but in the last several decades it has become especially urgent, largely because of how it has been overlooked. Burns, veteran labor lawyer and current Director of Collective Bargaining for CWA, the powerful national flight attendants union, gets into it much further. I’ll quote him extensively, but in essence there is a fundamental divide in the labor movement that we need to understand. It’s the divide between business unionism and class struggle unionism. As Joe writes, “The business unionists said sure, as long as they got a ‘fair days work for a fair days pay’ they would accept management’s control of the workplace and the economy.” And that probably doesn’t sound like a bad trade off to a lot of people, because so many millions don’t get a living wage, don’t get decent pay for a day of work. But class struggle unionism tells us to aim for more. It tells us, in fact, that so many people are so deep in the hole largely because we have settled for less, because we have only asked for decent wages, and not demanded control of our jobs and our lives and this economy that is powered by our labor. We have accepted too little, for too long.
Instead of limiting the scope of our union activity, and allowing the owners to control the vast majority of soiety Burns tells us that, “Class struggle unionists said no.” Instead, these more radical unionists said that, “labor creates all wealth” and “viewed their unionism as one part of a bigger struggle against the billionaire class.” This tension between business unionists and class struggle unionists was, in many ways, won by the business faction. It became normal to just struggle for a contract, for solid pay and benefits, without having our eyes on the horizon, on changing the power structure and the economic structure of society. So when the Reagan years hit, and the rich and powerful became even more viciously anti-union, labor didn’t have the power to strike back. Workers didn’t have a political party, we didn’t have political power, our scope had been too narrow and prosperity had made us and our unions too comfortable, in many ways. Of course the ruling class is also powerful, and when allied with Christian conservatives, well we know what happened from the Reagan years through today.
But class struggle unionism gives us a powerful and clear path forward, today. It gives us hope. Burns says, “Rather than just fighting for a fair wage we are fighting for control of our workplaces, of the wealth we create, and for our class in general.” The labor fight can and should be part of a larger fight for control of society, for a better society. Your wages matter, my wages matter, our healthcare and benfits matter, of course. But we also want a better world. For one we want a world that doesn’t keep sliding into fascism, or to keep feeling like we’re just taking one step forward and two steps back, at best. We must aim far beyond that. We know that society must be transformed, must be made just and sustainable and livable for the working class. We need a green revolution, to name just one facet of the change we must pursue. And class struggle unionism can help make that possible. United Electrical (UE) workers at Wabtec are on strike right now, and producing green locomotives and fighting for national green standards across their industry are core parts of their demands. The UAW, under their new leadership, is fighting for a just transition to a sustainable economy. Dozens of unions and labor organizations are fighting against the dangerous Cop City project in Atlanta as we speak. Organized labor has every right to set its eyes on class struggle and the transformation of society.
It takes work. It takes a lot of organizing and dedication and time to do democratic, militant organizing and to really practice class struggle unionism. It can require struggling against deeply entrenched and unhealthy tendencies or structures within your own union, but what can be won is enormous. This strike wave we’re seeing right now is directly connected to years of increasingly democratic organizing to change the composition of some of the country’s biggest unions. What that means is these democratic and militant unions are increasingly willing to fight, together. Leadership is more willing to strike and struggle, and the members are more willing to strike and struggle, and win. And it couldn’t come at a better time. With sky-high inequality, fascism becoming increasingly overt, and bosses trying to replace workers with AI, we need to organize and contest for power.
As Fran Drescher said in her truly stunning speech to launch the SAG-AFTRA strike, “What are we doing, moving around furniture on the Titanic? The jig is up. You have to wake up and smell the coffee.” And people are waking up. We’re seeing the greed of our bosses, we’re seeing the rent go up, we’re seeing the cost of a bag of groceries go up. We all see it. Now it’s time to also see the hundreds of thousands of workers organizing, mobilizing, and striking. It’s time to see that we can do it too, that we must do it too, and that we must do it with our eyes set firmly on the horizon of systemic change. We must organize. We must practice class struggle unionism. We must aim for the total, fundamental transformation of society, for control of our workplaces, for the ownership of our own labor. We must aim for real, collective freedom—together. Workers of the world, there’s no time to unite like the present.
Every paid subscription generated today means $50 for the workers unionizing NYC’s first pizzeria. Hope you’re able to pitch in, and thank you for reading! - Josh