I just finished reading all three of Joe Burns’ books. I recently said Kim Moody is the most influential and widely-read leftist author on the labor movement, but the popularity of Burns’ recent book “Class Struggle Unionism” might put him at the top of the heap. Whereas Moody is more narrowly writing to an audience of socialists and how they should engage in the labor movement, Burns’ target audience is a wider range of progressive and leftists in and around the labor movement. Jane McAlevey is another interesting point of reference, as she’s another widely read unionist who addresses a lot of similar themes as Burns. However, I don’t really consider McAlevey to be a “leftist” author or unionist as she doesn’t really center or even comment on anti-capitalism in her writings.
I ended up liking Burns more than I thought I would. His emphasis on workers needing to take collective action even if it means breaking labor law is something I agree with, and he emphasizes this more sharply than Moody or McAlevey, who doesn’t take up the question much at all. Burns’ grounding of labor strategy, anti-capitalist analysis and his emphasis on the importance of political education around anti-capitalism in the labor movement is something I appreciate.
These positive qualities makes his Class Struggle Unionism probably the best introductory book to general leftist unionism that I’ve come across, and the one I’d most recommend to people first becoming interested in anti-capitalism and unions. He’s a much sharper and more enticing writer than Moody, which makes him better able to communicate these ideas to budding laborites and leftists.
Despite my admiration for the book and broad agreement with its main claims, I have plenty disagreements, large and small, with Burns. I want to just elaborate on two of these differences here. First, while I think it’s helpful for some books to be aimed at a wider audience, and I think his advocacy of bringing a broad anti-capitalist analysis into the labor movement is commendable, the drawback is that he doesn’t really have much specific advice or theory in his writings for how to more specifically engage in the union movement as a leftist (other than generic advice that all leftists already agree on, like that unions should be democratic and that the strike is an important part of worker power).
While he has a fair amount of contempt for those who focus almost solely on organizing technique and tactics to the exclusion of a broader economic and political analysis (he really dislikes McAlevey for this reason, and to a lesser extent Labor Notes), his main idea that the labor movement needs more anti-capitalism and class struggle doesn’t really help tease out which among the many left union strategies on tap are preferable or more effective. At its worst, this represents a kind of, “just try a little bit of everything” which I fear is what the left labor movement usually does and doesn’t make much progress with. To create a strong left labor movement I think we need to have serious debates in order to at least try to hone in on more focused, intentional, and successful strategies. As much as I disagree with Moody about the specifics of his labor strategy ideas, I appreciate that he tries to advance specific strategies.
My second disagreement is more petty, but it’s been bugging me more and more lately. Why is that so many of the most prominent left writers on unions haven’t been someone who’s been organizing their workplace, either ever or in decades? As Burns was formulating all of his ideas about class struggle unionism, he thought the best way to advance the labor movement was leave the workplaces being organized and go to law school to become a union negotiator? Long ago in the 1990s, as it says in the author profile at the end of the book, Burns was a worker in a public hospital and then became president of his union local, but in all three of his books the only personal experience he mentions of his direct participation in the labor movement as a union worker himself was organizing a couple union conferences. He tells no stories from personal experience of organizing with his coworkers or taking collective action with coworkers or anything like that. Does he have no such stories?
I’m not against people wanting to support the labor movement by writing about it, reporting on it, negotiating for it, or what have you. I’m just against the idea that doing those things is more important than actually being a worker who organizes their workplace. None of these writers come out and say that explicitly, but if you look at their actions instead of their words, that’s the impression that’s implicitly conveyed. I think a lot of people follow that example of leaving the workplace after brief stints to go somewhere else and try to build the labor movement from outside the workplace itself, because they think that’s where the important stuff is done.
Most ironically, people who haven’t organized with coworkers in decades then write books about how others should organize their coworkers. As much as I disagree with McAlevey about most things, I admire how she moves back and forth between writing about organizing and organizing itself, though not as a worker but as a staff member, which gives her ideas a degree of liveliness and credibility that is missing in Burns and Moody. But on the other hand, I guess I mean this less as a critique of Burns individually, because writing books about the labor movement is cool and if non-organizers want to do it, that’s cool too. It’s more a comment on the state of writing about the labor movement as a whole, and how it’s unfortunate that it’s not those who do the union organizing themselves as workers, which is the heart of the labor movement, who are doing the writing or are being read. Maybe I’m being a little self-serving. But still, I think the point stands.
My rant is over. In summary, I think Burns writes good and accessible books, and if you’re relatively new to the left labor literature I think there’s a lot you can learn from them. Then, if you want to build a strong labor movement, organize with your coworkers.