Joe Burns’s Class Struggle Unionism chronicles the power of radical union organizing and the ways that collaborationist union strategies have both jeopardized workers’ long-term goals and weakened the labor movement. Burns shows, with compelling evidence from recent history, how focusing solely on narrow goals such as pay and benefits while ceding control over workplace rules and decision-making is a self-defeating strategy.
Burns is a labor lawyer and union negotiator, currently working as the director of collective bargaining for the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America. Industrial Worker recently spoke with him about “Class Struggle Unionism” and why unions ought to remain radical. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
IW: What is “Class struggle unionism” and why should workers practice it?
Joe Burns: Class struggle unionism is based on a simple idea: working people produce all things of value in society. Whether they’re a barista, a nurse, a truck driver or an Amazon worker, during their work shift, workers take the inputs supplied by the employer and make them more valuable. But at the end of their shift, they receive only a fraction of the value they produce. This is how and why we have billionaires in society and it is the starting point of class struggle unionism.
As the legendary IWW leader “Big Bill” Haywood noted; “[the mine owners] did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them!” Class Struggle Unionists, such as the IWW, raised the slogan “Labor creates all wealth,” and saw their unionism as part of a larger struggle against an exploitative class.
The IWW, in the early part of the 20th century, built a powerful form of unionism based on class struggle. While the business unionists in the American Federation of Labor were wining and dining with the robber barons, the IWW engaged in bitter strikes. Other examples of Class Struggle Unionists include the Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s and more recently the radicalized student and anti-war activists who entered the labor movement in the 1970s.
The bureaucratic business unionists, on the other hand, largely accepted this exploitative relationship and only sought to get “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” Rather than fight for the entire class, business unionists sought to bargain for a small group of workers. Not believing in the Class struggle, they aimed to contain struggle rather than build it.
That is a fundamental difference. To revive the labor movement, we must break with business unionism. We cannot revive the labor movement without reviving Class struggle unionism.
IW: Why should workers be wary of business unionism and labor liberalism?
Joe Burns: Business unionism is killing the labor movement. Only six out of 100 workers belong to unions and most of the unions are weak and ineffective. One of the great contributions of the IWW in recent decades has been to point to a different path based on shop floor organization.
In my book, I discuss a new form of unionism which I call “labor liberalism” which talks the talk but does not really break from business unionism. Folks may be familiar with this in unions such as Service Employees International Union, many foundation-funded workers centers, and other unions, which take progressive positions, but fail to engage in sharp worker-led struggle in the workplace. This form of unionism has more in common with middle-class social movements than worker-led class struggle. For decades, it has played a dominant role in labor thought.
For the last three decades, business unionism and its cousin labor liberalism have been the guiding philosophy of labor and it is killing us. We have lurched from fad to fad while ignoring the need to break labor law through class struggle tactics, build radical, independent unionism, and transform our unions into fighting organizations.
IW: Why should rank-and-file workers care about gaining power over workplace decision-making rather, than only improving pay and benefits?
Joe Burns: The reason we have billionaires in society stems from the workplace transaction. Employers hire workers to perform labor for a period of time, but their labor is attached to human beings. This sets up a basic struggle between employers who want to make workers work harder and longer and workers who want livable work schedules, safe working conditions, and strong work rules.
Class struggle unionists have long prioritized building workplace organization and contending for power on the shop floor. In contrast, the business unionists in the last half century have abandoned the struggle over speed up and have surrendered the workplace to the employers. That is why the solidarity unionism of the IWW is so important: because it sees the Union as something living and breathing in the workplace.
The labor liberals are no better in this regard than the business unionists. To the labor liberals, it is all about the “fight for fifteen” and wages, but employers and most workers understand the real money is in work rules. When you look at a lot of their signature efforts, there is little emphasis on building shop floor struggle.
IW: How should unionists contend with state power?
Joe Burns: This is a very important question which receives far too little attention. Class struggle unionists understand that the primary purpose of government is to protect this system of exploitation. Successful strike activity must blockade or takeover workplaces, interfering with the property “rights” of employers.
In an era of union weakness, it is seductive to rely on National Labor Relations Board charges to push back against employers. Tactically that is fine, although many overstate the impact. Getting the NLRB to issue a charge, which may or may not result in reinstatement a year later, does not build worker power. And it can lead to confusion on the role of the NLRB in enforcing State power. The primary role of the NLRB is enforcing the system of labor control, something we find out in the rare instances when workers confront labor law such as the ILWU in Oregon a decade ago.
Now, the business unionists see the NLRB as a potential protector. The labor liberals, although they talk left, are really just liberal lobbyists, using strike activity not to build shop floor power, but to generate publicity to pass legislation. Neither recognize the necessity to break free from the restrictions on labor law which will require confronting state power.
IW: How does class struggle unionism improve material conditions for the Working Class?
Joe Burns: Class struggle unionism is the only philosophy capable of reviving the labor movement. We know from labor history that only a militant worker-led movement is capable of taking on management.
We can win NLRB elections, form worker centers, and create alternative organizations, but unless we create a labor movement capable of making management bleed in the pocket book, we can never contend with capital.
Class struggle unionism is a powerful philosophy hated and feared by the Billionaire Class. There is a reason they ruthlessly suppressed the IWW and, decades later, Communist Party labor activists. The billionaires know that a militant, class-conscious labor movement is their greatest enemy and the one force in society capable of resisting their relentless drive to accumulate untold riches, while impoverishing billions.
Class struggle unionism is a complete package, including class struggle tactics, class struggle organizing, and most importantly, a set of ideas which validate successful union activity. We need to sharpen our analysis and join together to build a class struggle trend within the labor movement. If we do, we know from labor history that incredible gains can be won in a short period of time.