Is that all labor needs?
Ever since the sharp decline of unions in the latter half of the 1900s people have been scrambling to “revive” the labor movement. The call to action gained momentum recently during the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopes were rekindled with new Amazon and Starbucks organizing attempts. People shout for more unions, more certification elections, more contracts, more workers organizing, more oomph –We mean it this time, dammit!
The sense of urgency is definitely on point, but the problem with the revival discussion (with a few exceptions) is that it suggests we only need to add more energy to the movement. No doubt it would be great to have more labor activity, but there is much less discussion about what form a new labor movement should take. There are different kinds of union practices underneath the labor umbrella and not all of them should be revived.
The danger with this mindless urgency is that it doesn’t account for how business unionism (the dominant form of labor organizing) was complicit in the decline and suppression of class struggle. If we simply step on the gas and apply the old labor habits our tires are going to spin in the mud. The problems will not be resolved, they’ll repeat with more intensity. Needing more labor activity is obvious, but all the important decisions are about the form this movement should take.
Here are two aspects of the labor movement that definitely shouldn’t be revived: Bureaucratic Leadership and Workplace Contractualism.
Bureaucracy refers to the top-down, staff-led form of unions that dominates the labor movement. Rather than shop floor committees, today’s unions are like separate agencies that provide a service for workers. You pay your dues and the union reps handle the logistics. This has resulted in the rank & file being divided away from controlling the union’s direction. The union also diverges from the real needs of workers.
Some business unionists have recognized that rank & file disinvolvement is part of labor’s decline, so they attempt to activate more workers. But this has amounted to little more than token involvement in the same old business union practices.
Why is bureaucracy so problematic? As an economic rule, business unions must provide better conditions for workers compared to having no union at all – this is a bare minimum they must do in order to exist as organizations. However, these businesses are bound to an economic logic of minimizing their costs, cutting corners, and seeking the quickest compromise with the boss. The weakening of the labor movement is a reflection of unions driving down their costs and producing agreements in the cheapest way possible, always hovering around a minimal effort. They’re not called business unions for nothing.
Secondly, bureaucracy generated a class collaborationist labor movement that led to a decline in worker militancy. That kind of structure has its own institutional characteristics that are different from rank & file committees. Union officials are not interested in waging a class war, but in mediating peace between classes. It is the bureaucrat’s role to collaborate with the employer, broker a settlement, and put workers back to work. I stress this problem is not a matter of individual personality, but the bureaucratic structure which shapes individuals into their role. Even the most militant rank & filer elected to leadership will develop these characteristics after spending time in union officialdom.
Is it any wonder then why the labor movement is so inactive? Who are these clowns at labor’s helm who cry out for labor’s revival when their own form of organization has been suffocating rank and file militancy for decades? The bureaucratic aspect of the labor movement needs to be abolished, not rejuvenated.
Further, since business unionism has declined to the point of organizing 10 percent of the workforce, and only 6 percent of the private sector, it doesn’t make sense to ‘bore from within’ and breathe more life into business unionism. Let these dinosaurs die.
Workplace contractualism is another major factor that contributed to labor’s decline. This clunky term refers to how today’s unions are entirely built around negotiating a contract. In the US, this practice was officially endorsed by the government’s National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which sought to substitute labor’s disruptive potential with an “orderly” election and contract negotiation procedure. The ultimate purpose of the NLRA was to subdue the class war rather than accelerate it.
Through the NLRA, workplace contractualism became the standard practice of unions. The rank & file was reduced to the role of politely voting for union representation, and then voting to ratify the contract prepared in the backroom. In effect, the self-activity of workers on the shop floor – the real threat labor poses to capitalism with its strikes and other disruptions – was displaced by union staffers, legal experts, and other porkchoppers required to facilitate the contract process.
Workplace contractualism is a class collaborationist form of unionism that seeks to establish “industrial peace,” a situation where strikes and other disruptions are minimized. Unions get some minor wins but are also locked down by no-strike clauses. If there is a complaint, workers have to go through a bureaucratic grievance procedure that is far removed from the shop floor. Unions most often forfeit the ability to control work by agreeing to management rights clauses in the contract. These are all huge victories for the employer that solidify the class system and guarantee the continuity of wage slavery.
Through workplace contractualism, workers lost their strike-readiness and the leverage that comes from the ability to disrupt work. If revival takes that form again the result will be more of the same. Do not resuscitate!
Vicious Circle of Defeat
These two problems with the movement aggravated each other and drove labor’s decline. The more workplace contractualism was practiced, the more bureaucratic expertise was required to run unions. Likewise, the more bureaucracy commanded the labor movement, the more entrenched workplace contractualism became since that practice is what suits the comfy staffers and union officials.
More Energy, Different Movement
We do need more labor activity – a bigger, faster, more dedicated movement – but to get there we need to break the mold of unionism set by the US government and its lackeys in the labor movement. It is the form of business unionism that limits the amount of labor activity. Rather than the bureaucratic / staff led structure, our organization needs to be grounded in self-managed committees. We must reclaim day-to-day control of work and all the leverage that comes with direct action. If we hastily revive the aspects of labor that tamed class struggle in the first place, we have no reason to expect a big new labor movement. By repeating the same old habits, we only reproduce our own defeat.