In the past year, we’ve seen large, militant strikes by autoworkers, Hollywood writers, and others. It’s a promising sign that, after decades of weakness, the US labor movement is ready to take the fight to the boss.

Members of the Unite Here! Local 11 hotel workers union picket the Four Points Sheraton after walking off the job on Monday, July 10, 2023, in Los Angeles, California. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Over the past six months, strikes and threatened strikes by autoworkers, Hollywood writers and actors, United Parcel Service (UPS) Teamsters, and LA hotel housekeepers have resulted in industry shutdowns and major contract victories across the United States. This wave of militancy represents a departure for the US labor movement, which for the past several decades has seen both declining union density and reluctance to use the strike weapon.

Joe Burns, a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer, sees this turn to more militant organizing as informed by the long tradition of what he calls “class struggle unionism,” a perspective and set of strategies that emphasizes the importance of worker-led unions in making transformative change. In his most recent book, Class Struggle Unionism, he makes the case that adopting such an approach is necessary for significant workplace victories. Sara Van Horn and Cal Turner spoke with Burns for Jacobin about divergent visions of union strategy, the militant approach behind recent victories, and why it’s important for labor to have a broader political vision.

Sara Van Horn

Can you give us a brief recent history of class struggle unionism? You note in your book that union militancy dwindled toward the end of the twentieth century, but that there have been promising movements in the opposite direction. Where did this revival start?

Joe Burns

I started doing labor work in the late 1980s. I caught the tail of a class struggle trend, where thousands of radicalized students and antiwar and civil rights activists entered the labor movement because they saw that as a fundamental vehicle to make change in society.

Over time, a new trend that I call “labor liberalism” developed. Labor liberalism tried to find alternatives to sharp class conflict. It looked at other ways of fighting, such as corporate campaigns and community coalitions. But it sacrificed the traditional elements of class struggle unionism. In 2011, I wrote a book called Reviving the Strike because I realized that the strike had been virtually abandoned. I got a lot of odd looks, even among labor activists.

Nowadays, everyone believes that the strike is an essential tool. UPS Teamsters got their deal right before their strike deadline in August. We’ve had teachers over the last decade striking in high numbers and production workers at General Motors and Nabisco a couple years ago. We’ve also seen a lot of reform efforts in recent years, which have a view of unionism that breaks with what I call “business unionism.”

Cal Turner

Could you describe the hallmarks of business unionism and labor liberalism? Why is the distinction between those approaches and class struggle unionism so important?

Joe Burns

Business unionism has traditionally been — and still is — the predominant form of unionism. Business unionists see themselves as having a fairly limited role, which can be summed up with the slogan “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

They see their struggles as involving a narrow group of workers in a particular factory or industry instead of as part of a larger class struggle between labor and capital. This form of unionism tends to be fairly bureaucratic, following rules and relying on lawyers or experts in the field. They don’t go looking for trouble, but sometimes they do get into sharp disputes because they need to.

Nowadays, everyone believes that the strike is an essential tool.

Labor liberalism developed in the 1980s as a third way, a unionism that positioned itself between business unionism and the sharp fights of class struggle unions. Labor liberals did a lot of good: they broke away from the racist and anti-immigrant stance of the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations] in the ’80s, which was also deeply anti-communist.

One of the problems of labor liberalism was that it situated itself too much within middle-class staff activists and lost some of the rank-and-file character, opposition to business unionism, and democratic functioning that are core principles of class struggle unionism. It also lost some of the class-versus-class struggle, because even though the labor liberalists do a lot of picketing, when you look closely at how much of it is worker-led, these intense struggles are more like one-day publicity strikes. The goal is not so much to take on an employer but to get legislation passed. I argue that if we want to revive the labor movement, we have to look back to the proven formula, which is class struggle unionism.

Sara Van Horn

Besides the strike, what strategies differentiate these approaches?

Joe Burns

Let’s look at the strikes that have been happening in recent years, like those of the production workers at General Motors and Nabisco. If you really drill into them, what you see is that the initiative to strike came from the workers.

They repeatedly voted down tentative agreements. They made demands that went beyond the narrow wage demands of the union and staff bargainers. Their demands were bold and audacious: they wanted to end two-tier schemes [in which one group of workers receives lower compensation than another]. They wanted to take control of the work schedules and weekend work. They wanted to take control of their lives with breaks between shifts. Both in terms of where the strikes came from and the demands the strikes made, they really were worker-led.

Cal Turner

The strike threat, in addition to striking itself, seems to be experiencing a revival this summer. Why is normalizing strikes as a bargaining tool important? How should unions strategically use the threat of strikes?

Joe Burns

Traditional labor theory viewed the strike as the essence of collective bargaining. It was hard to think about true bargaining without the strike threat.

There was a long period where the strike threat was ignored, and you ended up with backroom deals born out of weakness. But recently things have been very exciting. For the Teamsters to be throwing down the gauntlet with the largest employer in the United States a year in advance of bargaining by saying, “We’re going out on strike unless our demands have been met” — I’ve never seen that with a major national employer that far in advance.

For Teamsters president Sean O’Brien to put forward the demands at the beginning and then carry them through to the brink of a strike — I think that’s amazing. And O’Brien didn’t just materialize out of thin air: there was a forty-year reform effort within the Teamsters, led by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, that supported him.

Sean O’Brien didn’t just materialize out of thin air: there was a forty-year reform effort within the Teamsters that supported him.

We also have the United Auto Workers breaking from business unionism. Instead of the behind-closed-doors negotiating of the last four decades, where often only the national union president knew what was going on, UAW president Shawn Fain gets into office and shakes hands with the members at the plants, puts forward a list of members’ demands, and tells the automakers that either they’re going to have a deal or the workers go out on strike. It’s a fundamentally different kind of bargaining.

There’s been a big shift in our model. It stems not from different organizing techniques — because those follow behind it — but from the labor movement taking a different stance in how we relate to the employer and how we relate to our members.

Sara Van Horn

Where does “salting” — organizers seeking jobs at a specific workplace with the goal of forming a union — fit into your analysis of class struggle unionism?

Joe Burns

Fifty years ago, student radicals getting involved in labor didn’t talk about it as salting. They viewed themselves as joining a labor movement not at the behest of the union officials, but with an independent objective to help build the rank-and-file power that would lead toward more strikes, more militancy, and a more effective labor movement.

In recent years, that’s morphed into the idea of salting, which has the flavor that you’re going in as agents of the union and working for the union. Over time, that creates some tensions, because the union’s goals or imperatives in organizing may not fit with what you find on the shop floor.

I also think people should set their sights a bit higher, because we need people not just to go in there and help established unions organize, but to go in there and help get our unions on a class struggle agenda. That takes a different relationship to the union bureaucracy.

Cal Turner

Where else do you see worker leadership in the high-profile organizing this summer? What role has this played in the organizing efforts and victories we’re seeing across industries?

Joe Burns

Strikes and militancy are contagious. Strike waves happen because workers see workers striking in other industries and realize that they can do that as well. We certainly saw that with teachers in the wake of the Chicago teachers’ strike; that eventually led to teachers all over the country striking.

Some writers make it out like these workers just had different organizing techniques or were reaching out to the community. But, again, the key difference is that they had a class stance. The teachers said, “We’re going to break with decades of the teachers’ union cozying up to the Democratic political hacks who are destroying public education in our cities.” The teachers’ union had accommodated these hacks for years and tried to play nice with people who wanted to destroy them.

Sara Van Horn

Why is it important to pinpoint billionaires as the enemy? How does this play out in recent high-profile labor struggles like the SAG-AFTRA [Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] and grad student union strikes, where there’s often a public perception of prestige and proximity to power?

Joe Burns

Class struggle unionism begins with a view of society and how it’s organized. The reason we have billionaires is because workers create all value in society, but during their work shifts, that value gets siphoned up and trickles upward to a handful of billionaires.

Class struggle unionism has always viewed unionism as part of a larger struggle against the employing class. The problem with business unionism and some other forms of unionism is that they think they can just plod along and bargain their contracts. Even if they get the best contracts in the world, guess what? Their enemies are amassing more and more capital. And what is capital? Capital is a social relationship. Capital is power.

Class struggle unionism has always viewed unionism as part of a larger struggle against the employing class.

What are employers going to do with more and more power? They’re going to use it against you. The Koch brothers are funding initiatives to undermine labor rights. We can bargain the best contracts with our employer, but we’re still bargaining the terms of our exploitation. Not that it’s a bad thing to make improvements — that’s what I do as a union negotiator. But we have to have a bigger vision too, because our enemies do.

In that light, all these other distinctions that people try to draw between different groups of workers become less material. Certainly, there’s a special place for strategic workers and workers in production in terms of creating value in society and actual things. But unless you own enough that you don’t have to work, people are working, and to the extent that they are, they’re suffering exploitation. Public employees and grad students relate to this whole system differently, but they’re very much part of the class struggle.

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