You are on page 1of 100



















































E D I TO R & P U B L I S H E R


Bhaskar Sunkara

Seth Ackerman
Alyssa Battistoni
Mike Beggs
Megan Erickson
Peter Frase
Connor Kilpatrick


Remeike Forbes

Nicole Aschoff

Shawn Gude

Erin Schell

Elizabeth Mahony
Jen Hedler Phillis

Lauren Traugott-Campbell

Jonah Walters

Duncan Thomas

Neal Meyer

Katrina Forman

Position Development


Bashir Abu-Manneh
Jonah Birch
Sebastian Budgen
Ronan Burtenshaw
Liza Featherstone
Beln Fernndez
Eileen Jones
Matt Karp
Cyrus Lewis
Chris Maisano
Scott McLemee
Gavin Mueller
Karen Narefsky
Catarina Prncipe
Kate Redburn
Corey Robin
Miya Tokumitsu
Micah Uetricht

Jacobin is a leading voice

of the American left,
offering socialist perspectives
on politics, economics,
and culture. The print magazine
is released quarterly.

$29 US (print)
$39 Canada (print)
$59 international (print)
$19 (digital)
High-income $59
Institutions $69
388 Atlantic Avenue,
Brooklyn, NY 11217
2016 Jacobin Foundation
ISSN: 2470-6930

Ubiquity Distributors
Ingram Periodicals
Central Books (Europe)
C I RC U L AT I O N ( J U N E 2 0 1 6 )

Circulation: 19,263
Web Visitors: 874,238

The class war between employers

and workers over the product of
Labor goes on without letup. Settlements in wage movements,
whether these are accompanied
by strikes or not, are at best only
truces in the ceaseless struggle,
only turning points where the
struggle takes on new forms. The
employers will continue to try to
destroy the workers standard of
living and break the unions; the
workers will continue to build
their unions and to advance their
interests. Organization campaigns, strikes, settlements and
their aftermath, are but various
phases of the one great process of
class struggle under capitalism.

William Z. Foster,
Strike Strategy, 1926

I SS U E 2 2 | S U M M E R 2 0 1 6

Rank and File



Chris Maisano & Micah Uetricht

Joe ODonnell

Nicole Aschoff is the
managing editor at Jacobin
and the author of The New
Prophets of Capital.

Chris Maisano is a

Barry Eidlin is an assistant

professor of sociology at
McGill University and a
former head steward for uaw
Local 2865.

Jane McAlevey worked for

twenty years as an organizer
and negotiator in the labor
movement and is the author
of Raising Expectations (and
Raising Hell).

Beverly J. Silver is a

Joseph A. McCartin is
professor of history and
director of the Kalmanovitz
Initiative for Labor and the
Working Poor at Georgetown

Micah Uetricht is a
contributing editor at Jacobin
and the author of Strike for
America: Chicago Teachers
Against Austerity.

Sam Gindin was research

director of the Canadian Auto
Workers from 1974 to 2000
and is now an adjunct
professor at York University
in Toronto.

contributing editor at Jacobin

and a union staffer in New

Charlie Post is a longtime

socialist activist who teaches
at the City University of New
professor in the department of
sociology and director of the
Arrighi Center for Global
Studies at Johns Hopkins

Photo Attributions Page 1 First United States Labor Day Parade, September 5, 1882 in New York City, Illustration by staff illustrator for Frank Leslies
Weekly Illustrated Newspapers September 16, 1882 issue Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. Page 8 Eugene V. Debs, by Unknown Library of
Congress, This image is available from the United States Library of Congresss Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a25146,
Licensed under public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (1897). Striking American Railway Union members confront Illinois National Guard troops in
Chicago during the Pullman Strike, by Unknown Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, Licensed under public domain, via Wikimedia
Commons (1894). Untitled, by Unknown International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985) at the Kheel Center for
Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University (1958). Flint Sit-down Strike Voices of Detroit
(2012). Communists with signs in Union Square on May Day 1931 Image ID: 237232813, Everett Collection Historical (1931). Page 9 United
Steelworkers of America-CLC-CIO lapel pin (1952), William Garvey papers Featured in Celebrating Research, Rare and Special Collections from the
Membership of the Association of Reseach Libraries from the Penn State Special Collections (2007). Taft Hartley Pickett by Unknown Robert F.
Wagner Labor Archives. The Boycott Continues by United Farm Workers of America; AFL-CIO Licensed under public domain, via the Center for the
Study of Political Graphics, Acquisition Number: 1994-066 (1976). PATCO Trade Unionists Jailed, by Unknown Labor Notes (2009). UPS is Playing
Games with Our Future by Unknown International Brotherhood of Teamsters (1997). A May 2012 march, before the Chicago Teachers September
strike, featured a sea of red shirts., by Sarah-Ji / licensed by artist.

Jacobin Summer 2016

Rank and File


The Forgotten
Charlie Post


From Class to
Special Interest
Barry Eidlin

33 The Long Road

to Crisis


Nicole Aschoff

of the World
Beverly J. Silver

How Labor Can Win


Everything Old
Is New Again
Jane McAlevey

75 After the

Friedrichs Scare
Joseph A. McCartin


Beyond Social
Movement Unionism
Sam Gindin

Rank and File

Rank and File

American unions are in bad shape really bad shape.
The numbers are well-known, and seem to get worse every time new ones
are released. In 2015, 11.1percent of all workers were unionized, with less
than 7percent organized in the private sector the lowest levels since the
Great Depression. Strikes, too, are near all-time lows. Unions wield nowhere
near the kind of influence they once did in American society.
Labor leaders recognize this state of affairs. Yet rather than make a
serious attempt to change course to put forward new approaches and
strategies, to save themselves before its too late nearly all US unions
continue to run in place. They refuse to broaden their focus beyond the
narrow interests of dues-paying members, shovel truckloads of cash into the
Democratic Party despite its open disdain for workers, and treat paid staff
positions as sinecures rather than stewards of a bigger social movement.
Despite the serious crisis of organized labor and the working class
more broadly in the United States only a handful of unions seem willing
to pursue alternative strategies.
At times it seems like the labor movement has given up on itself.
Should we give up on it too? Perhaps we should shift our focus to more
vibrant social movements movements that arent as constrained and
conservative, movements on the rise rather than at deaths door. Many on
the American left seem to think so.
The choice to give up on unions is understandable. Organized labors
checkered past like the afl-cios anticommunist Cold War foreign
policy and the openly reactionary attitudes of labor leaders like George
Meany together with contemporary unions ineffective and blinkered
organizing strategies engenders a deep sense of frustration among members
and supporters alike.
But even in their weakened state, unions continue to improve the lives of
both unionized and nonunionized workers. This role is seen most clearly in
terms of wages and benefits. Contract fights are battles, and union workers

Jacobin Summer 2016

have won many; they still earn significantly more than nonunion workers, and
their victories help nonunion workers by raising the floor of compensation.
Beyond wages, unions bring less tangible, but equally important, gains.
Workers want dignity and a modicum of democracy in the workplace. Capital
wants to hire and fire and shuffle and abuse workers at will. An organized
workplace puts a check on the power of bosses.
And while unions are flat-footed today, the labor movement has improved
peoples lives on a scale much larger than any other social movement in
American history.
Organized workers also retain tremendous power. As Bay Area dockworkers have amply shown, unions can bring key sectors of the economy
to a grinding halt. The Chicago Teachers Union has transformed the citys
political climate through its broad social vision and willingness to strike.
Even the Fight for 15 campaign, imperfect as it is, has been able to transform
the demand for a $15-an-hour minimum wage from a pipe dream to the law
of the land in a growing number of states in just a few years.
Finally, unions remain the best vehicle for bringing mass numbers of
people into struggle, for turning ordinary working-class people into working-class militants.
Decades of dramatic corporate restructuring atop a shifting geopolitical
landscape has seriously undercut the power of unions. Today, the United
States may well be the most anti-worker state of any wealthy democracy.
Yet the labor movement has played a central part in its own downfall.
When faced with an increasingly hostile environment in the 1970s, unions
resorted to defensive and shortsighted tactics and strategies. The accumulation of these decisions is as much to blame for labors sorry state as processes
like globalization or deindustrialization. Union recovery is impossible
without reckoning with this truth.
Labor is not blind to its own shortcomings. Numerous schemes to
reverse its decline have been implemented in recent decades mergers
among major unions, for example, and a split within the afl-cio to form
the Change to Win federation. But these reforms from above have done
nothing to stop the bleeding.
Top-down schemes that dont lead with mass organizing and educating
and a commitment to industrial action are a dead end. Union power comes
from rank-and-file workers.
But even with a powerful rank-and-file base, unions cant go it alone.
Unions primary responsibility will always, rightfully, be to their members,
limiting their scope. Despite their powerful potential, unions will never be
the sole vehicle for working-class emancipation.
Nor should they be working-class emancipation is the job of the
Left. Beating capital will require a radical, political movement that goes far
beyond the boundaries of the workplace. The Left needs to take the lead in
the fight against capital.
Unity is key: unions need a strong left to orient and push them, and
eventually go beyond them; and the Left needs to be anchored in a strong
working-class movement. Without a socialist left, both inside and outside
of unions, organized labor will continue to lose ground.

Rank and File



The Forgotten
Weak working class resistance
is rooted in the loss of radical trade

he US labor movement is in deep trouble.

For the past forty years (and, some would argue, even longer),
the capitalist class and its political representatives in both parties have waged a vicious offensive against working people.
Employers across the economy have demanded tremendous
concessions from their unionized employees wage, benefit, and work-rule
givebacks; the introduction of multi-tiered workforces; the outsourcing of work
to nonunion subsidiaries and companies all while fighting union organizing
drives at their new facilities.
In the political arena, capitals loyal servants have blocked any substantial pro-worker reform of labor law and gutted the social welfare state, which
provided minimal protections against the worst aspects of labor-market
The results of the offensive are well known: growing inequality and insecurity that have created a fertile ecosystem for the growth of racism, xenophobia,
sexism, and homophobia among a significant minority of workers.
Despite the expectations of the generation radicalized in the 1960s and early
1970s, this decades-long onslaught has been met with relatively little resistance.
There have, of course, been some struggles against concessions and austerity:
the strike at Hormel in 198586; the near-simultaneous strikes against Bridgestone-Firestone, Caterpillar, and Staley in 199496; the ups strike of 1997; the
New York City transit strike of 2005; and the Chicago Teachers Union (ctu)
strike of 2012. But with the partial exceptions of the ups and
teachers strikes, most of these struggles ended in defeat.
Class Against Class
Even more importantly, the level of organized fightback at
Unemployed workers rally in front
the workplace is extremely low. The number of workdays lost
of Communist Party headquarters
from strikes has dropped to historic lows, and the percentage
in Union Square, 1934.
of employed workers who are union members declined to about
Charles Rivers, Tamiment Library /
11percent in 2014, the lowest share in a century.

Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives,

New York University

Rank and File

What explains the disturbingly small amount of

working-class resistance in the United States today?

Competing Explanations
One popular argument on the Left is that the US
labor movement faces unprecedented hostility from
employers, who are abetted by a legal environment
that is unfavorable to labor. This argument, however, does not withstand historical scrutiny. The
cio made its most important breakthroughs in the
1930s, in the face of much greater employer animosity (at times rising to the level of armed force)
and before the Supreme Court upheld the National
Labor Relations Act (nlra) in 1937.
Likewise, when public-sector workers organized
en masse in the 1960s and 1970s, their unions often
made significant gains despite sustained employer
opposition and before new state and local laws gave
them collective bargaining rights. Labor-law reform
in the US has followed working-class upsurges, not
preceded them.
Other explanations for minimal working-class
resistance emphasize the changes in the structure
and composition of the working class. Most common
is the claim that the industrial working class has
disappeared with globalization and deindustrialization. In this schema, the mass-production

industries whose workers formed the backbone of

unionism have either disappeared or moved to the
Global South.
The reality is much more complex. For starters,
manufacturings role in the US economy has actually
grown the final production of goods rose from
22percent of real gdp during the 1960s and 1970s
to 28percent in the 2000s, and inched upwards
to 31percent by 201012. While it is true that the
percentage of manufacturing workers has been
declining, this decrease began in the late 1890s.
Even more importantly, industrial union membership has fallen more rapidly than manufacturing
employment: Between 1994 and 2013 (as a result of
rising productivity and industrial restructuring), the
number of production workers decreased 33percent, while industrial union membership dropped
Nor can shifts in the labor process account for
the fall-off in working-class combativeness. Despite
claims that deskilling through computerization has
eliminated industrial workers ability to stop production, there is clear evidence that these workers still
retain potential social power. In fact, the spread of
just-in-time inventory systems which eliminate
reserves of parts and materials has increased the
ability of industrial workers in logistics to disrupt

The Fight for Eight Hours

A graphic distributed by the Industrial
Workers of the World around
the turn of the century advocates
the eight-hour workday.
Everett Historical


Jacobin Summer 2016

The Forgotten Militants

Unruly Justice

Its also unclear whether computerization has

actually reduced manufacturing workers to gauge
readers. Even if these claims were true, computerization puts enormous power in the hands of
the workers who set up and maintain these new
machines. Deskilled workers could halt production
by staying at their machines, a twenty-first-century
version of the 1930s sit-down strikes.
Perhaps the most widespread explanation on the
contemporary left for the decline in working-class
militancy is that full-time, long-term employment
has been supplanted by part-time, temporary
jobs. The growth of the precariat, in this view,
has undermined workers power at the point of
These claims, however, are showing up everywhere but in the data. While the number of
precarious workers (performing temporary agency
work, on-call work, and involuntary part-time work,
or laboring under a short contract or as an independent contractor) grew by 3million between 1995
and 2005, the percentage of precarious workers
has increased only three-tenths of 1percent, from
15.2percent to 15.5percent. Similarly, a 2015 report
by the Government Accountability Office estimated

Striking auto workers beat a scab

crossing their picket during a 1941 strike
at the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn,
Milton Brooks / Detroit News

that those classified as core contingent (agency

temps, on-call workers, etc.) made up around
7.9percent of the workforce.
Even the growth of part-time employment
(especially in retail and health care) hasnt reduced
these workers attachment to a single employer. The
number of years these part-time workers stay with
a single employer has not significantly decreased in
the past twenty years.
For a more persuasive account of workers flagging militancy, well need to look elsewhere.

The Crisis of Strategy

As Mike Goldfield, Kim Moody, Joe Burns, and others have noted, a change in the relationship of class
forces, beginning in the late 1950s and intensifying

Rank and File


Not Asking
Between 1965 and 1975, wildcat
strikes shook American industry
as workers connected their
workplace struggles to the
militant social movements around
Sanitation Workers Strike
In the winter of 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers in
Memphis walked off the job, protesting low pay
and dangerous working conditions. Just a few
days earlier, two workers had been crushed to
death in a garbage compactor because of rules
prohibiting them from sheltering from the rain
anywhere but inside their trucks. The workers
wanted to join the American Federation of
State, County, and Municipal Employees
(AFSCME), but the white union leadership was
hesitant to support the black workers most
militant demands. By connecting their struggle
for workplace dignity to the nationwide struggle
for civil rights, the workers won the support of
national leaders like Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
King was assassinated while in Memphis to
support the strike, but the struggle ended in
victory the workers won union recognition and
higher pay.

Dodge Revolutionary Union

Movement (DRUM)
Beginning in 1968, the Dodge Revolutionary
Union Movement (DRUM) a militant
organization of black workers in Detroit led a
series of wildcat strikes against Chrysler,
preventing the production of thousands of cars.
DRUM fought on two fronts, posing a militant
challenge to the companys authority while also
struggling against their own unions leadership
on behalf of black autoworkers, who made up
70 percent of the workforce in some factories.
As the movement grew, workers in nearby auto
plants formed other Revolutionary Union
Movements (RUMs), coming together in 1969 to
form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers


Jacobin Summer 2016

a revolutionary rank-and-file organization

rooted in workplaces and committed to
antiracist struggle inside and outside the labor

Baltimore Municipal Strike

In 1974, a strike by several hundred sanitation
workers snowballed into the Baltimore
Municipal Strike, as city workers walked off the
job, protesting insufficient wages and poor
management. The strike included sewer
workers, prison guards, park workers, crossing
guards, even zookeepers. Eventually, the police
also joined the strike, generating controversy
inside the labor movement. In the years before
the strike, many of the citys wealthier white
residents had left Baltimore for the suburbs,
and by 1970 the citys workforce was almost
entirely black. Facing a loss of population and
tax revenue, Baltimore refused to pay adequate
wages or allow city workers to unionize most
municipal workers only made about three
dollars an hour. Civil rights figures threw their
support behind the strike, but labor leaders
were less sympathetic AFSCME initially
opposed the action, and when the union
president announced a renegotiated contract
following the strike, he was booed off the stage
by his own members.

US Postal Workers Strike

In 1970, almost a quarter million US postal
service workers went on strike in violation of
federal law. It was the largest wildcat strike in
American history. There had been widespread
discontent among postal workers prior to the
strike, but the immediate trigger was a
congressional decision to raise mail carriers
salaries by only 4 percent, while members of
Congress received a 41 percent raise. President
Nixon called in thousands of National Guard
and military personnel to break the strike,
declaring a national state of emergency and
authorizing the military to deliver mail. The
stock market took a nosedive, and some feared
the New York Stock Exchange would have to
close altogether. After eight days the strikers
returned to work, but the Postal Reorganization
Act signed into law later that year granted
many of their demands, including a reorganized
postal service and a collective bargaining

The Forgotten Militants

after the late 1970s, created a crisis of strategy for

the official leadership of the afl-cio.
Since the late 1940s, labor officialdom in the
United States had acted within the framework set
out by the nlra.
New organizing took place through National
Labor Relations Boardsponsored elections, which
determined the composition of bargaining units
(often only a fraction of the workforce in a given
firm or industry). Routine bargaining with target
employers produced multi-year contracts that then
set patterns for the rest of the industry.
Institutionalization severely blunted worker
militancy. Strikes were limited to periods after the
expiration of contracts and were restricted in tactics (no secondary boycotts, no factory occupations,
etc.). During the life of the contract, all workplace
struggles were channeled into the grievance procedure, which compelled workers to keep doing unfair
or dangerous tasks while the complaint proceeded
through the lengthy process of hearings and arbitration. Finally, labors political activity began and
ended with supporting the Democratic Party.
For a few decades, the afl-cios strategy paid
off in some respects. Unionized industrial workers
won wage increases that generally kept up with
inflation, enjoyed private welfare states in the
form of employer-provided health care and pensions, and were protected from the worst abuses of
management by complex job categories and work
rules. Some industrial unions (e.g., the United Auto
Workers and United Rubber Workers) successfully
organized new plants in the generally nonunion
South before the late 1970s.
Even at the strategys peak, however, there were
significant drawbacks. For one, the labor bureaucracys alliance with the Democrats secured few federal
policies that benefited all workers, sharpening the
division between organized and (disproportionately
female and nonwhite) unorganized workers.
In addition, the viability of this bureaucratic
business unionism was premised on the existence of
a capitalist class that could and would make concessions in exchange for uninterrupted production. The
crisis of profitability that began in the mid 1960s and
intensified global competition in the mid 1970s transformed capitals relationship to organized labor.

Faced with falling returns and unprecedented

challenges to their postwar global dominance, US
capitalists went on the offensive. They began to
demand concessions in 1979. The afl-cio leadership, prisoners of their strategic alliance with the
nlrb and the Democrats, responded by agreeing
to givebacks and attempting to convince employers
that they were potential partners who could make
US corporations more profitable and competitive.
Conciliation was a disaster. Organized labor
declined across the United States, and wages, benefits, and working conditions deteriorated throughout
the economy.

The Missing Piece

The crisis of strategy is a necessary but not a sufficient explanation for the decline of working-class
resistance in the United States.
Theres a reason why, as Robert Brenner and
others have pointed out, labor officialdom clings
to its failed strategies. But what explains the lack
of struggles from below? Why havent the labor
rank and file repelled the employer offensive with
more gusto?
In short: the dwindling size and political disorganization of the militant minority. Without a
layer of workers with a vision and strategy for how
to organize, fight, and win, labor officials have been
free to pursue their near-suicidal approach.
The uneven development of working-class
consciousness is rooted in the necessarily episodic
character of class struggle under capitalism. Mass
struggles that involve mounting confrontations with
employers and the state are necessary to developing
working-class radicalism and consciousness. But
because workers rely on selling their labor power for
wages to survive, most cannot permanently engage
in strikes, demonstrations, occupations, and the like.
Only during brief upsurges are large segments
of workers swept into struggle most of the time,
theyre too busy just trying to get by. While the
labor bureaucracys privileged condition of life is the
basis for its unconditional commitment to reformist
strategies (routine bargaining, grievance procedures,
Democratic Party electoral campaigns, etc.), the
mass of workers conditionally support these efforts

Rank and File


How Do We Fight?
Workers just dont strike like they used to but that can change.


The Pullman Strike, led by Eugene

V. Debs, brings the American
railway system to a standstill.

The United States joins the war in Europe.

The AFLs ranks swell as President Wilson
establishes protections for organized labor
to smooth wartime production.


Jacobin Summer 2016


The Forgotten Militants


The AFL organizes coordinated strikes

across several industries, hoping to
institutionalize wartime gains. Almost
all of them fail.

A strike wave led by the

CIO punctuates the war
effort. Autoworkers,
steelworkers, packinghouse
workers, and others
demand higher wages.


The Wagner Act affirms the collective

bargaining rights of private sector

All major unions affirm a

nationwide no-strike pledge
during World War II, as union
membership grows dramatically.
By wars end, 36% of the
American workforce is unionized.



The Great Depression leaves a

quarter of American workers


The Flint sit-down strike halts

production at General Motors
and leads to the unionization
of the US auto industry.


Rank and File


60,850,000 worker days idle


14,000,000 workers involved in strikes

New York City mayor Robert
Wagner recognizes public sector
unions by granting city workers
collective bargaining rights.

President Kennedy grants

collective bargaining rights to
federal workers, contributing to
the rapid development of public
sector unions during the 1960s
and 1970s.


470 work stoppages



The Taft-Hartley Act diminishes the

power of organized labor by outlawing
solidarity strikes, secondary boycotts,
and other tactics, while providing the
opening for right-to-work legislation.

Jacobin Summer 2016

The Delano grape strike (known as

La Huelga) unites thousands of
immigrant farmworkers in California
and leads to the rise of the United
Farm Workers.

Almost a quarter
million federal postal
workers go on strike.


The Chicago Teachers Union goes

on strike, linking workplace
grievances to community outrage
over school closures.

President Reagan fires
11,345 striking air traffic
controllers all members of
the Professional Air Traffic
Controllers Organization
(PATCO), one of the few
unions to support Reagans

185,000 Teamsters strike against UPS,

costing the company $600 million.

A bitter struggle against unionbusting legislation in Wisconsin

pits Governor Scott Walker
against union members and
social movement activists.




Rank and File


Flashes of
In a period of labor
decline, workers have
struggled despite tough
In 1985, 1,500 meatpacking workers at
Hormel in Austin, Minnesota went on
strike, protesting low pay. Facing stiff
competition and falling profits during
the recession, Hormel had frozen
wages in 1977, only to demand a
23percent wage cut in 1985. After ten
months, the strike ended in defeat
the company succeeded in hiring
permanent replacements for even
lower wages.

Between 1993 and 1996, union
militants dubbed central Illinois the
war zone. Following years of
escalating tension over workplace
safety, managers at the Staley corn
processing plant in Decatur locked
out their entire workforce on June 27,
1993. Soon after, workers at nearby
Bridgestone-Firestone and Caterpillar
plants went on strike themselves, and
for two and a half years rank-and-file
workers in central Illinois waged a
coordinated campaign for union
rights and workplace safety.

In 1997, 185,000 teamsters walked off
the job at UPS, costing the company
$600 million in lost revenue. After
sixteen days of picketing, the
company accepted the workers
demands, agreeing to stop replacing
full-timers with temporary workers
and authorizing greater workplace
decision-making powers for the

Jacobin Summer 2016

In 2005, transit workers in New York
City walked off the job just five days
before Christmas, bringing the
Metropolitan Transit Authority to a
standstill during the busiest shopping
week of the year. The city responded
aggressively Local 100 president
Roger Toussaint was sentenced to ten
days in jail, and the union was fined
2.5 million dollars.

In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union,
led by the Caucus of Rank-and-File
Educators, went on strike. Connecting
their workplace grievances to larger
social issues like school closures,
institutional racism, and the
privatization of public education, the
teachers were able to mobilize
popular support for the strike and
establish the union as a prominent
advocate for Chicagos poorest

The Forgotten Militants

in the hopes of improving their conditions without

the risk of struggle.
Along with the full-time, paid officials of the
labor movement and the passive mass of workers
fighting to survive, there is a small segment of
workers who, in the words of the late Ernest
Mandel, [do] not abandon the front lines of the
class struggle, but [continue] the war, so to speak,
by other means.
This pivotal group politically heterogeneous
and comprised of shop stewards and other workplace
leaders who have led shop-floor struggles and promoted radical politics in the working class is the
militant minority.

In the long economic expansion before World

Wari, these militants (skilled industrial workers,
garment workers, and miners) cohered around the
left wing of the Socialist Party and joined the Industrial Workers of the World the most important
organization of the pre-1917 militant minority.
Postwar repression did not eliminate this crucial
group, but saw its reorganization into the Communist Party (cp) and the Trade Union Education
League (tuel), a united front of labor radicals that
sought to transform the existing afl unions and
organize the unorganized.
By the early 1930s, syndicalists, left socialists,
and communists of various stripes had embraced

A Brief History
In the 1870s and 1880s, massive strike waves in the
United States left in their wake two distinct layers
of the labor movement: an officialdom of business
unionists who secured urban monopolies on the
supply of skilled labor, and a militant minority of
workers grouped around the flourishing local labor
press and the fragmented socialist and anarchist left.

Bread or Revolution
An attendee at an April 1914 Industrial
Workers of the World rally in Union
Square, New York City.
George Grantham Bain / Library of

Rank and File


The Revolutionary Age

Supporters of former Communist Party USA
general sectretary Jay Lovestone assemble for
the 1934 May Day parade in New York City.

a strategy that called for independence from labor

officials, militancy in confronting employers and the
state, solidarity with other workers struggles, and
democratic industrial unionism. They put it into
practice with great effect in the mid 1930s, leading
the strikes that would create the cio.
At the time, the cp laid claim to being the militant minoritys most important organization. While
politically subordinate to the Soviet leadership
beginning in the late 1920s, the party boasted the
largest slice of radical workers. The cp was especially
influential during the brief interregnum between the
ultra-leftism of the Third Period (192833), when
it abandoned work in the existing unions, and the
reformism of the Popular Front (post-1936). For
those three years, the cp provided a genuine alternative to the afl.
But the cps embrace of the Popular Front
strategy clipped the cios and militant minoritys
wings immediately. The Communists were transformed from advocates of working-class political


Jacobin Summer 2016

Daniel Nilva / Tamiment Library, Robert F.

Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

independence into foot soldiers for Roosevelts 1936

reelection campaign.
Under the new strategy, the cp linked arms with
labor leaders John L. Lewis and Philip Murray
whom the cp viewed as progressive for their support
of Roosevelt and a collective security agreement with
the USSR and the emerging cio bureaucracy. To
maintain this alliance and win staff jobs for their
members, Communist unionists used their influence
in the cio unions to block the spread of sit-down
strikes. Their smothering of the militant tactics and
forms of organization that had been crucial to the
cios successes in 193637 contributed to the defeat
of the Little Steel strike in 1937 and the end of the
cios first wave of growth.

The Forgotten Militants

During World Warii, the Communists integration into the lower and middle ranks of the
cio bureaucracy deepened, further isolating them
from the rank and file. When the leaders of both
the afl and the cio signed a no-strike pledge, the
Communists didnt merely lend their own imprimatur they became its most zealous enforcers.
The Communists denounced, for instance, the
United Mine Workers strike in 1943. Even more
tragic was the role of Communist shop stewards,
local officers, and regional staffers in the auto, steel,
and rubber industries throughout the war. Communist union officials, often elected as militants, stood
shoulder to shoulder with management to reprimand
and fire workers who launched unauthorized strikes
over wages and working conditions. By the end of the
war, the Communists role as labor disciplinarians
had created a gulf between them and cio workers.
The advent of the Cold War cut short the cps
integration into the cio bureaucracy. As the US
ruling class assumed leadership of the capitalist
world, it broke its wartime alliance with the USSR
and sought to contain Communism.
At home, both Democrats and Republicans used
the specter of Communism to root out all forms of
domestic radicalism. The leaders of the cio succumbed to the zeitgeist as well, purging Communists
and other radicals in the late 1940s and 1950s out of
allegiance to the Truman administration.
In the decades after the afl-cios 1955 merger,
the divorce between socialist politics and working-class life protected the labor bureaucracy from
significant opposition.
While bureaucratic business unionism secured
increased wages and benefits for members, unions
reliance on the grievance procedure weakened their
ability to challenge the intensification of work and
deteriorating workplace health and safety standards.
From 1965 to 1975, many young workers
especially workers of color emboldened by the
social movements of the period led thousands of
unofficial strikes, initiated electoral challenges to
entrenched union leaders, and forced labor bigwigs
to call national strikes against employers.
Yet the absence of a nationally organized
political organization like the tuel rooted in
workplaces and capable of knitting together these

rebellions into a cross-union network meant the

leadership could rest easy.
When the explosion of activity ebbed and the
employers resumed their offensive soon aided by
the 198082 recession labor officialdoms capitulations elicited relatively little opposition from the
rank and file.

A One-Sided War
The decades since have witnessed the occasional
efflorescence of mass struggle, but no broad-based
militant minority.
Teamsters for a Democratic Union (tdu) persevered as the only nationally organized opposition
in an existing union. Various rank-and-file reform
movements emerged, most notably New Directions
in the New York City Transport Workers Union and
the Coalition of Rank and File Educators (core) in
the Chicago Teachers Union.
However, most of the attempts to build rankand-file opposition to labor leaders policy of retreat
were defeated, disorganized, or isolated in a single
local. These are the bitter fruits of the militant
minoritys disappearance.
Today, rebuilding a militant minority committed
to a politics of solidarity, democracy, and political
independence is the key to reviving working-class
resistance and radicalism in the United States.
Indeed, its telling that the only successful strikes
of the past thirty years were the products of independent organizing by rank-and-file reform groups
like tdu and core.
Socialists need to prioritize rebuilding this
layer of worker activists, which is today gathered
around Labor Notes and its newsletter, books, Troublemakers Schools, and biannual conferences. A
project to grow this militant minority will need to go
beyond the nlrb framework by reviving workers
willingness to break the law in order to build successful resistance and organize the unorganized.
While this work will be difficult and prolonged we should not expect quick and easy
breakthroughs it is essential if we are to see a
reversal of the relationship of class forces and the
creation of a mass audience among workers for
political radicalism.

Rank and File


From Class to
Special Interest
Why are US unions less powerful
than their Canadian counterparts?


Wildcat Control
An image from the
cover of a 1948 Mine
Mill union pamphlet
attacking the
Taft-Hartley Act.

riting in the Washington Post last September, the unimpeachably mainstream economist Larry Summers proclaimed,
We... know that stronger unions are not just good for their
members, they are good for our country and our descendants.
Strengthening collective worker voice has to be an important
component of any realistic American inclusive growth agenda.
His record as one of the leading architects of business-friendly Clintonomics
notwithstanding, Summerss call for stronger unions was a welcome change
from the more education and training nostrums and tax-policy fixes usually
on offer from mainstream liberalism. Summerss focus on unions highlighted
the real problem underlying growing inequality: the vast power imbalance
between labor and capital.
But the fact that even someone like Summers is concerned about labors
weakness shows how dire the situation has become. After forty years of relentless
attacks, union ranks have dwindled from a peak of one-third of workers in the
1950s to just over one-tenth today (including 6percent in the private sector).
The decline in density has been matched by a decline in unions social, economic, and political clout. In the decades after World Warii, master contracts in
auto, steel, mining, and trucking set the pattern for wages and working conditions
in other major industries. Labor leaders like United Mine Workers head John
L. Lewis, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther, and Amalgamated
Clothing Workers leader Sidney Hillman were household names whose actions
were considered worthy of regular mainstream news coverage.
Today, many union leaders cite nonunion competition as a rationale for
accepting wage and benefit cuts, and few receive much attention outside the
world of labor scholars and activists. Even in leftist and progressive circles,
unions have fallen out of favor as a topic of conversation.
How did we get to this point, where unions are so feeble that Summers and
like-minded elites no doubt concerned with the systemic instability produced
by capitals unchecked power are fretting about the withering of labor? And

Rank and File


while unions have declined across the industrialized

world, why has the drop been so sharp and so dramatic in the United States?
For people like Summers, as well as much of the
labor leadership, the answer is US labor law. As a
2008 policy brief from the afl-cio argues:
The National Labor Relations Board (nlrb)
representation process has become a virtually
insurmountable series of practical, procedural
and legal obstacles. Instead of a protective
shield, the nlra now acts as a sword that is
used by corporations to frustrate employees
freedom of choice and deny their right to
collective bargaining.
This legalist explanation is often buttressed with
reference to Canada, where many workers are employed by the same companies and are members of


Jacobin Summer 2016

the same unions as their US counterparts, yet have

not suffered the same fate.
A 1985 afl-cio report makes the case well:
Canada has roughly the same type of
economy, very similar employers and has
undergone the same changes [i.e., labor
market shifts] that we previously have
described with respect to the United States.
But in Canada, unlike the United States, the
government has not defaulted in its obligation
to protect the right of self organization;
rather Canadas law carefully safeguards that
More than thirty years later, much of this remains
true. While Canadian unions arent in great shape,
31.5percent of workers are still covered by union
contracts, compared to 12.3percent in the United

Collision Course

From Class to Special Interest

A 1979 demonstration in New

York City by Amalgamated
Transit Union bus drivers.
Sam Reiss / Tamiment Library,
Robert F. Wagner Labor
Archives, New York University

way around. Examining the driving forces behind

that role reversal offers important clues as to why
US labor is so emaciated today.

Distant Cousins
In the middle of the twentieth century, Canadian
unionists envied their southern neighbors. US workers, they thought, were the beneficiaries of more
robust labor laws that allowed them to better their
conditions with greater ease. There has been a more
positive attitude toward collective bargaining in the
United States than in Canada, the noted Canadian
industrial relations scholar H.D. Woods argued
in 1962.

States. (In 1985, those numbers were 39percent and

18percent, respectively.)
But the Canada-US comparison is more
revealing if less favorable to partisans of the
labor-law explanation when we look even further
back. There was a time when Canadian unionists
looked to US labor with admiration not the other

The Great Divergence

Union density was pretty similar in the US and Canada until the
1960s when the two countries sharply diverged.



Union Density, US
and Canada, 1911-2011












Rank and File



While such statements are striking today, they

didnt come from nowhere. Union density was higher
in the United States than in Canada throughout the
1940s, and for much of the twentieth century, the
two countries density numbers were quite similar.
It wasnt until the mid 1960s that the familiar gap
took shape.
However, this chasm didnt open up because of
some sea change in labor law. Many of the measures
that ostensibly account for Canadas higher union
membership were only adopted in the 1970s and
1980s a decade or more after the divergence was
under way.
Why, then, did the United States and Canada
part ways?
The answer to that question lies in the 1930s
and 1940s, a period more associated with worker
unrest and progressive New Deal legislation than
with US labors decline. But it was precisely the US
governments response to that worker unrest and
the structure of the resulting political coalitions
and policy frameworks that ultimately weakened labor.

Comparing the United States to Canada draws

this out. In Canada, workers had to fight longer to
win basic labor rights. While President Roosevelt
and his New Deal administration quickly responded
to labor unrest with legislative reforms like the 1933
National Industrial Recovery Act and the 1935
National Labor Relations Act (also known as the
Wagner Act), successive Canadian governments
steadfastly rebuffed labors demands.
In the early 1930s, Conservative prime minister
R.B. Bennett responded to labor with what he called
the iron heel of ruthlessness. His government
jailed or deported prominent organizers, banned the

A Worthy Example
Canadian teamsters rally on
Parliament Hill against back-to-work
legislation pushed by Stephen
Harpers conservative government.
Karl Nerenberg /


Jacobin Summer 2016

From Class to Special Interest

Strike Spike
When their lawmakers refused to acquiesce to labors
demands, Canadian workers grew more militant.



Strikers as Percentage of Total Non-Farm

Employment, US and Canada, 19112011
(5-year moving average)







Communist Party, censored radical literature, and

disrupted meetings. The unemployed were rounded
up and shipped to remote work camps. When the
Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King replaced
him in 1935, his approach to labor differed only in
its lighter touch. As labor militancy escalated, King
placed ever-tighter restrictions on workers ability
to strike and refused to pass legislation compelling
employers to bargain with workers.
It wasnt until 1944, nearly a decade after the
Wagner Act, that King enacted a Canadian equivalent called p.c.1003. Even then, he did so under
duress. A wartime strike wave threatened Canadas
ability to supply its army, and a series of unexpected








electoral defeats and near misses at the hands of an

insurgent farmer-labor party called the Cooperative
Commonwealth Federation (ccf, the precursor to
todays New Democratic Party) forced his hand.


Class Conflict
By the end of World Warii, the states reaction to
worker militancy had reorganized politics and labor policy in both countries, but in different ways.
Roosevelts reforms convinced unions to abandon
any effort to form an independent labor party and
instead join the New Deal coalition. In Canada, the
ruling parties repressive and dismissive attitude

Rank and File


toward unions pushed them reluctantly into the arms

of the fledgling ccf, paving the way for a Canadian
labor party after decades of fits and starts.
On paper, the two countries legal frameworks
were quite similar. p.c.1003 was even modeled on
the Wagner Act. However, the conditions under
which the two frameworks were formed gave rise
to distinct organizational goals and disparate trajectories over time.
The US approach was aimed at articulating and
promoting labor rights; the Canadian rules sought
to contain class conflict.
This produced two key differences. First, US
policymakers designed their administrative structure to mimic the court system. Adjudication of labor
questions was kept separate from dispute resolution and conciliation, while enforcing labor-board
decisions was left to the regular courts. By contrast, Canadian policymakers created a system that
blended adjudication and conciliation and granted
greater autonomy to labor boards to enforce their
own decisions.
Second, the United States adopted a nonpartisan structure, with National Labor Relations Board
(nlrb) members appointed by the president to serve
as ostensibly impartial judges. In Canada, however,
the labor regime was generally a tripartite structure,
with designated representation on federal and provincial labor boards for labor, management, and
These structural differences shaped the way
that class conflict translated into the political realm.
Canadian labor law focused on enforcing industrial
peace and therefore understood class conflict as
such. In addition, the establishment of the ccf at the
federal and provincial levels lent legitimacy to labor
issues and imposed electoral costs for ignoring them.
Labor militancy prodded lawmakers into passing
reforms, which strengthened Canadian labor law
over time.
In the United States, that process was blocked.
Episodes of class conflict were mistranslated
either as questions of legal rights that had to be balanced against competing employer rights, as the
narrow special interests of a key Democratic Party
constituency, or as personal problems unrelated to
politics. In each case, this mistranslation diffused


Jacobin Summer 2016

the political effect of worker unrest and weakened

US labor law.

The Legal Trap

In the United States, channeling class conflict into
a legal-rights framework created comparable incentives for both employers and unions: Management
lawyered up and looked to exploit technical loopholes, while unions focused more on sharpening
their legal arguments than educating and mobilizing members. Additionally, by creating a statutory
equivalence between the opposing parties, the rights
framework obscured the inherent power imbalance
in the employment relationship.
At the same time, tighter integration with
regular courts exposed the nlrbs decisions to
substantive judicial review. This engendered a
dynamic where judges would weigh employees
recently established collective rights (as enshrined
in the Wagner Act) against employers more deeply
entrenched property rights. Needless to say, property rights have tended to win out.
That concern with balancing worker and
employer rights also led to the establishment of
the employer free speech doctrine. Theoretically
intended to allow workers to hear both sides before
deciding to join a union, this innocuous-sounding
provision allows employers to systematically
threaten and intimidate employees to prevent them
from unionizing.
The situation was different in Canada. There,
the emphasis on mitigating class conflict produced
a more interventionist labor-law regime that
prioritized quickly settling disputes over legal proceduralism. While this placed serious constraints on
labor, it also constrained employers, who were less
able to drag out labor negotiations and otherwise
thwart unions.
On top of this, state intervention prevented
union leaders from developing the idea common
in the United States that the government protected labor rights. By making class conflict more
of a political issue, the state put a target on its back.
Across firms and industries, workers recognized
that the governments actions might directly affect
them, perhaps adversely.

From Class to Special Interest

Canadian labors closer ties to the political left

reinforced this perspective.
The combination fostered a more independent,
more oppositional union movement that could call
bull on Canadian employers charges that the laws
were tilted in labors favor.

Special Interest?
US labors political alliance with the Democratic
Party, along with the structure of the labor boards,
meant that unions were often cast as a narrow special interest housed within the Democratic Party.
Ironically, their special-interest hue was a consequence of the nlrbs ostensibly nonpartisan

No Accident
A photo from LaGuardia Airport in New
York. Professional Air Traffic Controllers
Organization (PATCO) workers and
supporters blocked exit ramps with cars
during their 1981 strike.

structure the Wagner Acts authors wanted to

prevent the board from factionalizing along class
lines. What they got instead, starting with President
Eisenhower, was a body that factionalized along
party lines. nlrb appointees no longer represented
the public, but rather the political agenda of the
president who appointed them. Labor law became
a political football, with Democratic and Republican appointees taking turns reversing each others
But the back-and-forth bent in a pro-management
direction. The courts that reviewed nlrb decisions
favored narrow readings of the law that privileged
employers property rights over workers collective
rights. In addition, labors special-interest identity
meant that calls for pro-labor reforms were dismissed as political payback rather than being seen
as a legitimate way to pacify class conflict.
By contrast, Canadas tripartite structure gave
labor, capital, and the state a stake in maintaining
its long-term legitimacy while preventing US-style
political polarization. Symbolically, the triumvirate
framework reinforced labors identification as a
class representative at the same time it undermined

New York City Central Labor Council /

Tamiment Library, Robert F. Wagner Labor
Archives, New York University

Rank and File


employers ability to portray business interests as

synonymous with the public interest.
A legitimated labor-law framework, a state
intent on enforcing industrial peace together they
generated a postwar dynamic whereby labor unrest
led to state intervention, which then culminated in
legislative amendment of labor laws. For Canadian
unions, this dynamic reinforced the importance of
mobilizing members to win demands. And for capital
and the government, it reinforced the importance of
a strong labor regime to discipline workers.

Class Conflict or Alienation?

As inflationary pressures sparked employers to reassert their right to manage starting in the late
1960s, strike rates soared in both countries. But
while the initial uptick in industrial unrest was comparable in the United States and Canada, the impact
was different.
For Canadian labor, increased worker militancy
had a galvanizing effect. Unions greater political


Jacobin Summer 2016

independence through the New Democratic Party

(ndp), coupled with closer organizational ties to
other social movements, encouraged it to think of
itself (and act as) a class representative. Labor continued to fight for broader social reforms while also
mobilizing political pressure outside the halls of
Parliament. As a result, Canadian unions were better
equipped to withstand the increased employer and
government attacks on labor beginning in the 1970s
and 1980s.
In the US, worker militancy deepened divisions
between a restive rank and file and an increasingly
conservative union leadership. Labor leaders alliance with the Democratic Party, combined with
Cold War isolation from the left and social movements, encouraged them to think and act as an
interest group. Constrained by a conceptual and

From Class to Special Interest

organizational straightjacket, labor sought economic

improvements at the bargaining table while trying
to win political reforms using inside influence and
The US labor leadership saw the surge in
rank-and-file combativeness as a threat, not an
opportunity. But as labors cachet within the Democratic Party eroded and employer and government
attacks intensified, labors underlying organizational weakness was exposed allowing employers
to engage in what United Auto Workers president
Douglas Fraser (197783) despairingly called a onesided class war.
As for the state, Canadian government officials responded to the uptick in class conflict in the
time-honored manner: they introduced legislative
reforms that shored up the labor regime.
US government officials, however, interpreted
the crisis as the product not of class conflict but
of individual worker alienation in postindustrial
society. The legislative tweaks they proposed
involved improving human-resources practices
rather than labor law so the legal environment,
already tilted toward capital, continued its antilabor slide.

Reversing the Decline

What lessons can we draw from this brief comparative sketch?
The main one is that revitalization strategies
based on pursuing labor law reform or getting
more sympathetic politicians elected mistake the
symptoms of labors decline for its cause. Canadian
labor extracted its early legal victories from a hostile state. It was able to protect and build on those
victories not because it had political friends in high

A Losing Battle
A 1947 New York protest against the
Taft-Hartley Act.
New York City Central Labor Council /
Tamiment Library, Robert F. Wagner
Labor Archives, New York University

places, but because it retained more of its independent strength as a class actor.
In the US, the initially more pro-union response
to working-class revolt ultimately paved the way
for labors subsequent nosedive. Instead of giving
unions a seat at the table, labors absorption into the
Democratic Party yoked it to a coalition that would
undermine it at key moments and leave it vulnerable to charges of being a narrow special interest.
Efforts to conceal class conflict behind a veil of legal
formalism made labor law an additional means of
tightening the special-interest straitjacket.
Reversing this decades-long trend is no easy
task. It starts with an accurate assessment of the
sources of labors strength. At bottom, unions
power starts in the workplace and flows from their
ability to disrupt business as usual. The very fact
that many modern workplaces and employment
arrangements are so diffuse and contingent tells us
that employers understand this fundamental truth.
It also requires rethinking labors relation to
politics. While it might be too much to expect large
portions of the current US union leadership to break
openly with the Democrats and restart abortive
attempts to build a labor party, the fact that so many
have cast their lot with Hillary Clinton against the
vastly more pro-labor Bernie Sanders underlines just
how much their political imagination is constrained
by the blinders of electability and lesser evilism.
Unfortunately, this narrowed field of vision
seems to have crept northward as well. Canadian
unions have embraced tactics such as strategically
voting for Liberals while doing little to fight the
rightward drift of todays ndp. Although Canadian
unions were able to preserve the fruits of their 1970s
militancy, that combativeness is rarely on display
today. Canadian strike levels have followed those
in the United States to historic lows, and too many
Canadian unions have acquiesced to US-style concession bargaining.
Despite these shortcomings, the Canadian
example highlights the role that workplace militancy and class independence can play in rebuilding
the labor movement. It may not be the kind of labor
movement that Larry Summers would like to see,
but its the only one that stands a chance of pushing
the scales back in workers favor.

Rank and File


The Long Road

to Crisis
The dismantling of autoworker gains
was a class project, not the inevitable
result of globalization.


merican workers are losing the class war. Private-sector union

membership is in the single digits, and hiring this quarter is the
worst since 2010. The low unemployment rate is more a sign
of people withdrawing from the labor force than of the jobless
finding work. And while the rich continue to make money hand
over fist, real hourly and weekly wages have fallen since the 1970s.
A recent Federal Reserve poll found that nearly half of Americans would have
to essentially beg, borrow, or steal if faced with an unexpected $400 expense.
Two out of three respondents in a recent Pew survey said they believed the next
generation would be worse off financially, while a poll gauging consumer confidence finds only a quarter of respondents believe jobs are plentiful.
There are, however, developments that challenge this depressing picture.
Precarious work is rising in the United States, but full-time, long-term employment still drives employment in most sectors. In recent years, workers centers,
the immigrants rights movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement
have crafted innovative organizing techniques. Struggles to increase the minimum wage are on the upswing. Nurses have proven themselves a force to be
reckoned with, and militant teachers have demonstrated how to build community-labor connections. Just recently, Verizon workers won concessions from
their employer.
These considerations havent done much to wash away the gloom, however.
Powerful workers, especially powerful unionized workers, are presented as an
anachronism from a bygone era before globalization and deindustrialization
pulled the rug out from under the US working class.
American workers have certainly taken a beating, but popular explanations for why particularly those that focus on nebulous developments like
globalization often obscure the central role of class struggle. Globalization is
significant, but its not a natural outcome of technological advances or market

Rank and File


Everybodys Working on the

Chryslers Jefferson North Assembly
Plant in Detroit, which has recently
adopted a schedule that evades
overtime pay and cuts into weekends.
Jim West

evolution. Globalizing processes are political and

ideological part of a decades-long class project to
dismantle the gains of American workers.
Developments in the US auto industry show
this project at work.

Assumed Obsolescence
Perhaps the best demonstration of labors assumed
obsolescence is the contrast between the extensive media coverage of the United Auto Workers
union election loss at the Chattanooga, Tennessee
Volkswagen plant in 2014 and the modest coverage of the victory of the Communications Workers
of America and the International Brotherhood of


Jacobin Summer 2016

Electrical Workers against Verizon this spring.

Dozens of doleful thinkpieces dissected the
uaw s defeat, pondering whether it spelled the
end of the once-mighty union or of organized
labor as a whole.
The focus on Chattanooga makes sense in some
respects. The US South is a site of new investment,
particularly manufacturing investment, and there
is a certain nostalgia when it comes to both automobile manufacturing and its unions. Cars signify

The Long Road to Crisis

independence, power, and sexuality and have always

had a special place in American culture. The uaw
itself is also iconic. In its heyday it represented the
powerful potential of the working class, for better
or worse.
The story of how the uaw lost in Chattanooga
is also retold because it seems like a straightforward
allegory, conveying in a nutshell everything thats
gone wrong for the American working class.

Unlike the disastrous 2001 uaw election at

Nissan in Smyrna, Tennessee (which the union lost
by a two-to-one margin), the Volkswagen election
was supposed to be in the bag. The union spent two
years and millions of dollars on the campaign. It
played nice with the company and promised to care
about creating value. It assured workers that it would
do right by them and, in the weeks leading up to the
election, a majority of workers signed cards.

More for Less

The productivity of American industry has accelerated
even as manufacturing jobs have declined.
Gross Value of Goods (Trillions)


Number of US Manufacturing Jobs (Millions)












Jim West Photo

Rank and File


Blood From a Stone

Growing productivity hasnt meant growing wages workers
are just squeezed harder.












Entire Economy










Percentage Change in Output

Percentage Change in Real Hourly Compensation





Jacobin Summer 2016

Sparks Fly
Worker welding at a 1960s jobsite.

The Long Road to Crisis

Sam Reiss / Robert F. Wagner Labor

Archive, New York University

But as the election neared, and Volkswagen (at

least publicly) maintained its neutrality, local politicians stepped in. Senator Bob Corker boasted
about his insider knowledge of Volkswagens plans
to build a new suv in Chattanooga if a no vote
prevailed. State senator Bo Watson threatened to
deny Volkswagen fresh state and local subsidies,
while Governor Bill Haslam fretted in the press
about whether a union victory would deter future
investment in the state. Anti-tax activist Grover
Norquist won the prize for most bombastic, posting
anti-uaw billboards that featured images of abandoned Detroit factories.

Threats and Rumors

Fear of capital flight wasnt the only reason the uaw
lost. For one, the uaw s tiered wage structure
which pays new and younger workers significantly
less for the same job hampered its efforts. At
the time of the election, new Volkswagen workers
in the nonunion South made more than new hires
at Big Three plants and had the same benefits. In
addition, the unions promise not to make home
visits to autoworkers during the organizing drive
was puzzling, to say the least.
But globalization and worker insecurity loomed
large in the narrow defeat. The threat that Volkswagen could move to Mexico seemed credible the
company has been building cars south of the border
since 1967, when the first Bug rolled off the Puebla
assembly line.
Mexican automobile production is growing at
a rapid clip. 2015 was a record-setting year, with
over 3.5million vehicles produced in the country.
While more than 70percent of its exports were
destined for the United States last year, Mexico has
also significantly expanded its trade relationships.
It currently has more than forty different free-trade
agreements, making it an increasingly attractive
export platform for the world market. Companies
like Nissan, Honda, Mazda, Audi, and bmw have
all built new assembly plants in Mexico in the past
few years investment that has helped make it the

worlds fourth-largest auto exporter, after Germany,

Japan, and South Korea.
The notion that low-wage locales like Mexico
were beckoning capital fits seamlessly into the
broader mainstream narrative about jobs leaving
the United States. Theres a good deal of truth to it:
jobs in small electronics, shoes, apparel, and household-goods production have largely fled the country
for cheaper shores.
To make matters worse, companies bandy about
the nuclear option of plant closure at every opportunity. Facing a strike last year, management at the
Wisconsin-based Kohler Company vowed to shutter
the plant and relocate if workers didnt agree to
concessions. This spring, Verizon declared that it
would move its call-center jobs to the Philippines
if workers didnt cooperate.
As the labor experts Kate Bronfenbrenner and
Stephanie Luce have shown, these widespread, regular threats are debilitating to unions attempting to
organize new members or just negotiate a decent

Persistence in the Face of Change

Yet the globalization explanation for worker
weakness is as problematic as it is instructive.
Bronfenbrenner and Luce also find that companies
rarely follow through on their threats to leave and
while manufacturing jobs have certainly declined in
the United States, they have also declined in virtually
every country (especially China).
Today, the United States has roughly twelve million manufacturing workers one in ten, rather than
one in four as in 1960. Yet, in the past six decades,
domestic manufacturing output has increased fivefold and manufacturing output per employee has
risen year after year (outside recessions); in 2014, it
was more than $170,000 per factory worker.
Most of what Americans buy is still made in the
United States. A 2011 study by the Federal Reserve
Bank of San Francisco found that 88.5percent of
US consumer spending is on goods and services
made in the United States. Products with the made
in China label account for only 2.7percent, and
just 1.2percent of that amount reflects the actual
costs of the imported goods (the rest goes to services

Rank and File


The Enemy Is at Home

UAW members at a Ford Motor
Company smash a 1975 Toyota
Corolla during a March 1981
rally against foreign-made
Paul Cannon / AP Photo

The Golden Age

Workers assemble Buick
cars on a Detroit assembly
line in the 1950s.
C.P. Cushing

At the Barricades
Front pages of the Flint
Journal during the 1937
Flint sit-down strike.


Jacobin Summer 2016

The Long Road to Crisis

produced in the United States to deliver those goods

to the consumer).
The auto industry is a good example of how
fixating on globalization can obscure more than
it illuminates. US autoworkers produced roughly
three out of four cars globally in 1950; today they
make a little more than one in ten cars worldwide.
But global production has increased dramatically,
and after smoothing out the bumps, US workers
actually make roughly the same number of cars today
that they did the year James Dean got his break and
North Korea captured Seoul.
In the United States, foreign firms like
Volkswagen, Daimler, and bmw are all boosting production. Even domestic automakers are flourishing,
seven years after the US Treasury frog-marched gm
and Chrysler through an undignified structured
bankruptcy. Ford pulled in more profits last year
$10.8billion than it has in fifteen years, while gm
is spending billions to expand plants in Spring Hill,
Tennessee; Arlington, Texas; and Bowling Green,
If anything, the churning and changing since
the financial crisis highlights the dynamic nature of
the auto industry. Looking back at the past seventy
years of production, both globally and in the United
States, it is clear that the industry is never up nor
down for long. Hypercompetitive battles to win
customers in Americas replacement market and
the current dominance of localized production
models undergird a landscape of perpetual creative
This creative destruction hasnt involved a
straightforward funneling of production out of the
Midwest to the US South and Mexico. Instead,
growth and decline have occurred simultaneously
up and down the US auto production corridor.

changes. The power of globalization to undercut

workers cant be understood outside a much broader
process of restructuring.
Capitalism, of course, is always restructuring,
and history is not composed of distinct periods,
each with a coherent set of policies and practices.
Critics of capitalisms neoliberal turn often focus
on the reversals of the Reagan era, contrasting it
with the comparatively prosperous and harmonious
Keynesian era.
There is certainly some truth to this story.
Neoliberal policies and projects were greatly
strengthened by Reagans and then Clintons
policies. But the Keynesian bifurcation is often overplayed. Continuity is the watchword.
The militancy of US unions, even strong unions
like the uaw, was always strictly limited. Unionized
autoworkers were on the defensive from the start,
and deep-seated intra-workforce tension plagued the
union and the working class more broadly. Because
the uaw never managed to gain control over the
shop floor or the production process, it was bound
to get worn down eventually.
Continuity notwithstanding, the late 1970s is
a good anchor point. By the end of that decade the
country was engulfed in what sociologist Greta Krippner describes as a simultaneous social, fiscal, and
legitimation crisis. The United States had overextended itself trying to manage both its domestic
and overseas geopolitical projects. Military defeat,
unrest at home and abroad, and increasing competition from European and Japanese firms led to
skyrocketing inflation and rising unemployment.
It was the first major crisis since the Great
Depression. The way that workers, companies, and
the state responded laid the groundwork for the
present landscape of defeat.

A Broader Crisis

Stimulus and Response

Treating globalization as an isolated, implacable

process in which companies pulled up stakes and
moved overseas as soon as communication and transportation technology enabled them to do so creates
a confusing picture.
Globalization is a political and ideological
project as much as a set of logistical or technological

Today, many scholars date the birth of neoliberal

capitalism to the convulsive 1970s. At the time, however, policymakers werent so sure about what was
coming next. They groped in the dark for solutions
and weighed conflicting ideas about how to restore
business confidence. In the end, the US state combined monetary solutions like Volckers shock

Rank and File


and austerity interest-rate hike and deregulation

(particularly of the financial sector) with attacks on
the welfare state and concrete measures to roll back
the gains of social movements.
Many of these strategies were ad hoc. Washington phased out Regulation Q ceilings in 1980,
liberalized markets, and moved more aggressively
toward constructing a global free-trade architecture.
Yet Reagan also bowed to pressure from auto companies and implemented voluntary export restraints
on Japanese assemblers in 1983, leading to an influx
of greenfield investment by Japanese assemblers
and component suppliers in the late eighties. His
administration, along with local governments, also
gave domestic automakers a leg up by maintaining
a bevy of protectionist taxes and laws and easing
regulations on average fuel economy.
Companies worked through the crisis in an
equally haphazard way. Following the Chrysler
restructuring, which forced major (Treasury-led)
givebacks from unionized autoworkers, gm and
Ford eagerly sought their own concessions. When it
became clear that the Japanese were not going away,
US assemblers began reconfiguring their production
footprint after a long lull in the fifties and sixties.
They moved investment to the interior to be closer
to the countrys transportation nerve center, shifted
more low value-added production to low-wage sites
in Mexico, and ceded the small-car segments to
Japanese and European manufacturers, focusing
on much more lucrative large cars and light trucks.


Jacobin Summer 2016

These moves were combined with pricy internal

restructuring schemes, a buying spree in digital technology and niche brands, and an increased emphasis
on making money outside of manufacturing, particularly in sectors like finance.
But all this restructuring didnt necessarily make
things better. The Detroit Three earned record
profits in the late 1980s, found themselves near the
brink of collapse in 1990, and then rocketed back
to the top by 1994 prompting Paul Ingrassia and
Joseph White to pen the story of Detroits comeback. The turbulent year 2001 brought decline and
then recovery, but only for foreign automakers. (Tellingly, Ingrassias 2011 book is called Crash Course.)
Today, the sun is shining for automakers once again.
The Detroit Threes undulations, in the context of a broader attack on workers, proved highly
destabilizing for unionized autoworkers. What had
been unthinkable in the 1960s that American
companies could credibly threaten to mass-produce
American cars for the American market outside
of the United States suddenly seemed possible.
The companies began ransoming jobs for concessions; the state seemed uninterested in the fate of
For the first time, though, US auto companies
also appeared vulnerable. Japanese assemblers and
suppliers were building factories in the United
States, and as the share of nonDetroit Three cars
(imports plus those domestically produced) ate away
at Fords, Chryslers, and especially gms market

The Long Road to Crisis

Buy American
Sections of the US labor
movement embraced
nationalist slogans in the

shares, it seemed like US companies were genuinely

on the run. The uaw suddenly faced a choice: align
with the working class or align with the companies.
Unionized autoworkers, for the most part,
chose their companies, framing the Japanese as the
mortal enemies of working Americans. For years
Local659 in Flint, Michigan had a sign in its parking
lot that read: The parking of any foreign made
autos on Local659 property is absolutely prohibited.
Violators will have their auto towed at their own
expense. (Flint City Halls underground parking
garage sported a similar sign in the nineties). A popular 1980s bumper sticker read: Toyota, Datsun,
Honda Pearl Harbor!
The union also began drawing ever tighter
boundaries in a bid to hold on, first around unionized autoworkers instead of all autoworkers or all
workers then around unionized assembly workers
(abandoning parts workers), and finally around older
assembly workers with more seniority.
This process didnt happen overnight, but the
long-term effects have been stark. The industrys
union density has now dipped below 20percent
certainly higher than in the private sector overall,
but a substantial drop from even a few decades ago.
In 1985, roughly 60percent of autoworkers were
unionized. That number had dropped to 44percent
by 1995 and continued to spiral downward, reaching
29percent in 2005.
Today, many unionized autoworkers struggle
to make a living wage. The uaw agreed to expand

and standardize tiered wages in its 2007 agreement

with the Detroit Three, and during the financial
crisis that began in 2008 the Treasury Department
forced it to loosen the terms even further, raising
its cap on the number of workers who get cut-rate
pay and increasing the number of flex workers,
temporary workers, and workers on temporary
assignment all of whom constitute, in effect, a
third tier.
Alternative work schedules alternating day/
night, weekday/weekend shifts that wreak havoc on
sleep cycles, parenting duties, and overall quality of
life are a major bone of contention. When these
schedules are combined with enormous workloads and worsening health and safety conditions,
work life for many autoworkers becomes close to
Nonunion autoworkers are also suffering. The
average nonunion auto wage today lumping
together assembly and supply workers is only
$16.60 an hour for grueling work. Nonunion assembler wages vary greatly between companies like
Toyota and Hyundai, and many supply workers,
as well as contract and temporary workers, barely
clear minimum wage. The waning strength of the
uaw has meant that newer assembly plants in the
South feel little pressure to offer wages comparable
to those of the Detroit automakers.
Moreover, while many union locals keep a radical flame burning, the broader union structure has
become ossified and bureaucratic. In the struggle for
something better, that structure seems more like a
roadblock than a vehicle for change.
Granted, the dismantling of autoworker power
has been punctuated by courageous moments of militancy. In the late 1990s, the uaw staged the costliest
work stoppage in gm history to protest outsourcing.
Delphi parts workers showed serious resolve after
the company declared bankruptcy in 2005 and
demanded that workers and pensioners give up
everything. Following the 2009 restructuring, Ford
workers stood up to demands for more givebacks.
In last falls contract negotiations, militant rankand-filers demanded concrete steps to abolish tiers
and forced the union back to the bargaining table.
There are many examples of autoworkers saying
no to power.

Rank and File


But considering the losses working families in

the auto industry and elsewhere have experienced,
confrontations have been muted and few. The companies are winning the long game with a time-tested
strategy: Buy off the older workers, cultivate fear,
and divide and conquer. In auto, the result is a hollowed-out union not a hollowed-out industry.

Winning the Class War

The Left should resist the temptation to pronounce
the present morass a foregone conclusion guaranteed by globalization or the internal drives of
capitalism or competition. Its more productive to
look at the trajectory of auto and of US workers more broadly as the accumulation of specific decisions by states, companies, and workers
operating in an uncertain and constantly shifting
Situating the auto-industry restructuring in the
context of multiple intersecting processes globalization, neoliberalism, and financialization also
highlights the central role of class struggle. Far from
being the product of faceless shifts in the global
economy, the dismantling of the uaw was a concrete
class project that sent workers reeling.
For some, the restructuring of manufacturing
resembles the restructuring of agriculture long ago:
higher productivity and fewer workers, but the same
centrality to the economy.
This may be so. Workers shed from manufacturing arent, for the most part, jobless. Theyve
moved into the service sector and other jobs. But
the trauma of this move underscores how thoroughly
capital has been able to dictate the terms of nearly
four decades of restructuring.
The pervasive fear and insecurity created by the
restructuring of manufacturing has seeped into the
economy as a whole.
Most jobs dont produce something you can
drop on your foot, and most jobs cant be moved
elsewhere at least not easily. Yet the feeling that
the working class is lucky for the crumbs it gets is
ubiquitous; the neoliberal mantra of there is no
alternative shows no signs of quieting.
Take the university. Both cash-strapped state
universities and private universities flush with


Jacobin Summer 2016

funds have moved with gusto to create a two-tiered

workforce similar to the system created in auto.
According to the American Association of University Professors (aaup), 50percent of classes today
are taught by part-time faculty (like adjuncts and
graduate students), and 70percent of instructional
staff appointments in higher education are non
tenure track.
Just like on the tiered assembly line, these
instructors perform essentially the same role as
tenured faculty but get paid peanuts. They have no
job security and often no health insurance. They
cobble together classes, often at multiple universities, to make poverty wages in the hopes of one
day landing a tenure-track gig. Meanwhile, comparatively better off tenure-track faculty members
have seen their conditions deteriorate as well. Their
workload has increased dramatically because fewer
permanent positions means that advising students,
committee work, and curriculum duties fall on
fewer people.
Some universities are truly in financial trouble,
but that excuse doesnt hold for universities writ
large. Private universities are spending billions on
new facilities and more administrators, and the
aaup notes that the greatest growth in contingent
appointments occurred during times of economic
The model of dismantling autoworkers gains
maps neatly onto the university campus. Theres no
fear of capital flight, nor even a profit to be made in
most cases. Yet the pressure, workload, insecurity,
and devaluation of work are identical.
The striking similarities reveal the limitations
of dominant narratives that chalk up labors defeat
to vague processes like globalization.
The feelings of economic anxiety and pessimism
that continue to dominate the public consciousness
arent misguided. Theyre reactions to real shifts in
political economy. But theyre also the product of
real battles, concrete wins and losses in the age-old
dynamic of class struggle. Capital is ready to take
anything and everything, any way that it can, and
it will never stop.
Until we stop it.
After all, cars cant be made without autoworkers,
and universities cant run without instructors.

Interpreting the world

in order to change it
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor,
From #Black Lives Matter
to Black Liberation

Danny Katch,
The Democrats,
Party of the 1%

Sharon Smith, Black

Feminism and

Jen Roesch, Socialism in

the Air: Getting from
a moment to a Movement

Lee Sustar,
Neoliberalism and the
Changing Working Class
brings together
hundreds of audio/
video presentations
on radical history
and politics, Marxism,
the struggle against
oppression, art
and revolution, and
much, much more.
Sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change, which
publishes Haymarket Books and the International Socialist Review.

of the World
The potential for workers to resist
capital is as strong as ever.

Beverly J.

rade unionists in the 1920s didnt have much reason for optimism. Labor membership, which had shot upwards amid
postwar unrest, crested and then plunged. Observers fretted
that technological and cultural changes had rendered the labor
movement obsolete and workers apathetic. Our younger members, especially, have gone jazzy, one union official lamented in the mid 1920s.
A decade later, strikes were blocking production across the country, and
union density was skyrocketing.
After years of malaise in the labor movement, is a similar upsurge possible
Renowned labor scholar Beverly Silver thinks so. Chair of the sociology
department at Johns Hopkins University, Silver has been a radical advocate for
workers her whole life. Her award-winning work, including her pathbreaking
Forces of Labor, deals with profound questions of labor, development, social
conflict, and war. In a recent interview with Jacobin she explained what labors
past can tell us about the present state and future of working-class struggle
around the globe.

The last few decades have seen a profound restructuring of the working class
in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries. What are the
broad contours of that restructuring process, and what are the forces
driving it?

We Built This City

Construction workers
at a 1960s project.
Sam Reiss / Tamiment
Library, Robert F. Wagner
Labor Archives, New York

Capitalism is constantly transforming the organization of production and the

balance of power between labor and capital restructuring the working
class, remaking the working class. So to answer this question I think we need
to take a longer-term view. It makes sense to go back to the mid-twentieth
century to the thirties, forties, and fifties. Thats when we first see the
emergence of a very strong mass-production working class in the United
States, most paradigmatically in the automobile industry but also in sectors

Rank and File


New Foes

like mining, energy, and transportation, which

were central to industrialization and trade.
Pretty much right out of the gate after the
Second World War, capital moved to restructure reconfiguring the organization of
production, the labor process, sources of labor
supply, and the geographical location of production. This restructuring was in large part a
response to strong labor movements in manufacturing and mining, in logistics and transportation.
An expanded version of David Harveys
concept of the spatial fix is helpful here for
understanding this restructuring. Capital tried to
resolve the problem of strong labor movements,
and the threat to profitability that labor posed, by
implementing a series of fixes.
Companies utilized a spatial fix by moving to
lower wage sites. They implemented technological fixes reducing their dependence on
workers by accelerating automation. And they
have been implementing what we can think of as a
financial fix moving capital out of trade and
production and into finance and speculation as yet
another means of reducing dependence on the
established, mass-production working class for
profits. The beginnings of this shift of capital to
finance and speculation was already visible in the
1970s, but it exploded after the mid 1990s,


Jacobin Summer 2016

Front page of the Inner-City Voice, the

League of Revolutionary Black
Workerss newspaper, announces the
death of UAW head Walter Reuther.

following the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act

during the Clinton years.
So what looked like a sudden collapse in the
power of organized labor in the United States in
the eighties and nineties was actually rooted in
decades of restructuring on these multiple fronts
that began in the mid-twentieth century.
Of course, it is important to point out that
there is another side of the coin. These capitalist
fixes unmade the established mass-production
working class, but they simultaneously made new
working classes in the United States and elsewhere. These new working classes are emerging as
the protagonists of labor struggles in many parts
of the world today.
It is no secret that the traditional forms of
working-class organization, like trade unions in
the United States and social-democratic parties
in Europe, are in the midst of a severe crisis. How
has capital succeeded in undermining and taming
these organized expressions of working-class

Workers of the World

If we look back in history at high points of labor

militancy, particularly those moments involving
left movements tied to socialist and working-class
parties, a recurrent set of strategies to undermine
the radical potential of these movements is
apparent. They can be summed up as restructuring, co-optation, and repression.
So, the kinds of restructuring or fixes I
mentioned above geographical relocation,
technological change, financialization certainly
played an important role in weakening these
movements. In the meantime, the co-optation of
trade unions and working-class parties their
incorporation as junior partners into national
hegemonic projects and social compacts also
played an important role. Finally, repression was
an important part of the mix all along.
Just taking the United States as an example, in
the postWorld Warii decades we see McCarthyism and the expulsion of left and Communist
militants from the trade unions. Then, in the
sixties and seventies, strong factory- and community-based movements of black workers the
Black Panther Party, drum [the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement] were brought under
control by out-and-out repression. And today
with the militarization of local police forces and
the endless war on terror creating a hostile
environment for the mobilization of immigrant
and black workers coercion continues to play a
major role.
One of the big debates today is whether the
defining dynamic shaping the global working class
is exploitation workers being squeezed at the
point of production or exclusion workers being
essentially locked out of stable wage labor. What
are your thoughts on this debate?

I see them as equally important. Certainly it

would be a mistake to write off the continuing
importance of struggles against exploitation at the
point of production. Indeed, one outcome of the
spatial-fix strategy has been to create new
working classes and labor-capital contradictions
wherever capital goes. In other words, workers
resistance to exploitation at the point of

production has followed the movement of capital

around the globe over the past half-century.
Indeed, we are witnessing the latest manifestation
of this dynamic with the massive wave of labor
unrest now taking place in China.
Once it became clear to corporations that
simply moving factories to low-wage sites could
not solve the problem of labor control, capital
came to rely more heavily on automation and
financialization. Automation, while hardly new,
has recently been expelling wage workers from
production at a rapid clip, increasing the visibility
of the exclusionary dynamic. A recent glaring
illustration is the news that FoxConn has actually
followed through with its threat to introduce a
massive number of robots into its factories in
Likewise, the movement of surplus capital
into finance and speculation is also contributing in
a major way to the increasing salience of exclusion. Finance especially those financial
activities that are not adjuncts to trade and
production absorbs relatively little wage labor;
more importantly, it derives profits primarily
from the regressive redistribution of wealth
through speculation, rather than the creation of
new wealth. Hence the link made by Occupy
between obscene levels of class inequality and
Automation and financialization are leading
to an acceleration in the long-term tendency of
capitalism to destroy established livelihoods at a
much faster rate than it creates new ones. This
was always the predominant tendency of historical capitalism in much of the Global South, where
dispossession tended to outpace the absorption of
wage labor, and thus where workers increasingly
had nothing to sell but their labor power, but little
chance of actually selling it. While this tendency is
nothing new, both its acceleration and the fact
that its negative effects are being felt in core
countries and not just in the Third World
help explain why the exclusionary dynamic has
come to the fore in current debates.

Rank and File


To frame the question differently, does it even

make sense to think of exclusion and exploitation
as separate processes?

Well, Marx certainly didnt view them as separate

phenomena. In the first volume of Capital, he
argued that the accumulation of capital went hand
in hand with the accumulation of a surplus
population that wealth was being created
through exploitation, but at the same time big
chunks of the working class were excluded or
made superfluous to the needs of capital.
For most of the twentieth century, there was
an uneven geographical distribution in terms of
where the brunt of exclusionary processes was
felt. Indeed, until recently, one of the ways capital
maintained legitimacy within core countries was
by pushing the weight of the exclusionary
processes onto the Third World as well as onto
marginalized sections of the working class within
the core. The world working class was divided,
with boundaries very much defined by citizenship, race, ethnicity, and gender. Today these
boundaries are still quite salient, however.
Particularly after the 2008 global financial crisis,
the weight of exclusionary processes is being felt
more heavily in core countries than in the
past with all sorts of political implications.
In your work youve thought a lot about the power
of workers and the working class. You distinguish
between different sources of worker power. Can
you talk more about that?

Yes, a major distinction is between structural

power and associational power. Associational
power is the capacity to make gains through trade
union and political party organization. Structural
power is the power that comes from workers
strategic location within the process of production a power that can be, and often has been,
exercised in the absence of trade union

Why is it useful to make these distinctions?

Well, take structural power, for example. There

are two main types of structural power: workplace
bargaining power and marketplace bargaining
Most of the time, people think about marketplace bargaining power to understand worker
power more broadly. If theres high unemployment, your marketplace bargaining power is low,
and vice versa. Workplace bargaining power
the ability to bring interconnected processes of
production to a halt through localized work
stoppages is less emphasized, but is perhaps
even more important for understanding sources
of workers power today.
This is because, if you look at long-term
historical trends, workers power at the point of
production is undoubtedly, on balance,
increasing. This is surprising to people. But this
increased workplace bargaining power is apparent
with the spread of just-in-time methods in
manufacturing. In contrast to more traditional
mass-production methods, no buffers or surpluses
are built into the production process. Thus, with
the spread of just-in-time production in the
automobile industry, for example, a relatively
small number of workers, by simply stopping
production in a strategic node even, say, a
windshield-wiper parts supplier can bring an
entire corporation to a standstill. There are plenty
of recent examples of this in the automobile
industry around the world.
Likewise, workers in logistics transport and
communication have significant and growing
workplace bargaining power tied to the cascading
economic impact that stoppages in these sectors
would have. Moreover, notwithstanding the
almost universal tendency to think of globalization processes as weakening labor, the potential
geographical scale of the impacts of these
stoppages has increased with globalization.
What about associational power? If workers have
no unions or labor parties, doesnt that undermine
their structural bargaining power?


Jacobin Summer 2016

Workers of the World

Not necessarily. Take the case of China. Autonomous trade unions are illegal, but there have been
some major improvements recently in minimum-wage laws, labor laws, and working
conditions. These changes have come out of a
grassroots upsurge that has taken advantage of
workers structural power, both in the marketplace and, even more important, in the workplace.
I think we also have to be honest about the
ambiguous structural position of trade unions. If
theyre too successful and deliver too much to
their base, capital becomes extremely hostile and
doesnt want to deal with them and so moves to a
more repressive strategy.
Capital will sometimes make deals with trade
unions, but only if trade unions agree to play a
mediating role, limiting labor militancy and
ensuring labor control. But in order to effectively
do that, unions have to deliver something to their
base, which brings us back to the first problem.
Ultimately, the question is: in what kind of
situations does this contradictory dynamic
between trade unions and capitalists play out to
the benefit of workers?

What do you think about arguments that

struggles are shifting from the point of production to the streets or community?

This brings us back to the earlier question about

the relative importance of exploitation and
exclusion in shaping the world working class.
Looking at the world working class as a whole
today, I dont think it would be accurate to say
that struggles are shifting predominantly to the
streets, especially if we are talking about struggles
that have a serious disruptive impact on business
as usual. Struggles at the point of production
continue to be an important component of overall
world labor unrest. At the same time, the
excluded the unemployed and those with weak
structural power have no choice but to make
their voices heard through direct action in the
streets rather than direct action in the workplace.
The coexistence of struggles at the workplace
and struggles in the street has been a feature of
capitalism historically, as has the coexistence of
exploitation and exclusion. Sometimes these two
types of struggles proceed without intersecting in

Carpool Lane
A road sign during the 2005
New York City transit strike.
strikejacket / Flickr

Rank and File


Race to the Bottom

Union membership has declined dramatically in all
sectors of the economy.


Private Construction
All Wage & Salary Workers
Private Manufacturing
Private Non-Agriculture




Jacobin Summer 2016







Workers of the World

solidarity with each other, especially since,

historically, the working class has been divided
both within countries and between countries in
the degree to which their experience is primarily
shaped by the dynamics of exclusion or the
dynamics of exploitation.
But if we think of major successful waves of
labor unrest, they combined, in explicit or implicit
solidarity, both of these kinds of struggles. Even
the Flint factory occupation and subsequent 1936
and 37 strike wave a movement that was
fundamentally based on leveraging workers
power at the point of production was made
more potent by simultaneous struggles in the
streets of unemployed workers and community
solidarity. Or, if we think of a recent mass
movement that was widely seen as taking place
almost entirely in the streets Egypt in 2011 it
was when the Suez Canal workers leveraged their
workplace bargaining power with a strike in
support of the mass movement in the streets that
Mubarak was forced to step down. It is also
interesting to note that the April 6 youth movement that initiated the occupation of Tahrir
Square was founded in 2008 to support a major
strike by industrial workers.
So a fundamental problem for the Left today,
which is also not new, is to figure out how to
combine workplace bargaining power and the
power of the street to find the nodes of
connection between unemployed, excluded, and
exploited wage workers. This is almost certainly
easier when the excluded and exploited are
members of the same households or the same
communities. In the United States, we can see
glimmers of these intersections with the 2015
dockworkers strike in California in support of
Black Lives Matter mobilizations in the streets,
and with the way the community and workplace
struggles of immigrant workers intersect.

Sam Reiss / Tamiment Library,

Robert F. Wagner Labor
Archives, New York University

In the United States today, it seems like a major

focus of labor organizing and activism is on the
lowest-wage workers in the service sectors. What
do you make of this? Is this where we should be
focusing our energies? Or should we be looking at
different kinds of workers in different industries
and sectors?

Its not a mistake to place a big emphasis on these

workers. If youre going to raise the conditions of
the majority of the population, you have to raise
the conditions of these workers.
I think part of the skepticism inherent in this
question is that so far this strategy hasnt been
very successful. Again, thinking about workplace
bargaining power is useful here. At Walmart, for
example, it doesnt make a lot of sense to hit the
retail side. You have to hit the distribution side.
The same goes for fast food. If you hit the
distribution side, then you can leverage workplace
bargaining power. Otherwise, you are left with a
struggle that is confined to the streets. But this
also leads us back to the question of how and when
workers with strong workplace bargaining power
exercise that power in support of broader
transformational goals.
Along with Giovanni Arrighi, you have argued that
the trajectory of the workers movements in the
United States and other national contexts are
profoundly influenced by their relationship to
broader movements in global politics, wars, and
international conflicts. How have recent geopolitical shifts affected the strength of labor in the
United States?

This is a very big and important question. I think

a lot of the discussion of labor movements tends
to focus on the economic side, but the geopolitical
side is equally, if not more, important for understanding the prospects and possibilities for
workers and workers movements, historically
and going forward.
Fifteen years ago, right before September 11,
it looked like we were on the verge of a mass
upsurge of labor unrest in the United States, with
a strong epicenter among immigrant workers.

Rank and File


There were a number of major strikes that had

been planned or were in progress, and then the
dynamic shifted. The war on terror gave a major
boost to coercion and repression in maintaining
the status quo, and not just in the workplace, in
terms of employer hostility to trade unions, but
more broadly, in terms of the impact of the
permanent war environment on the prospects for
Coercion and repression seem to be fundamental
to capitalism. Whats different today in the
relationship between workers, workers movements, and geopolitics?

Well, I think to answer this question it is

important to place the current permanent war
environment within the context of the broader
crisis of US world power and hegemonic decline.
And we need to look at the long-term historical
relationship between workers rights and the reliance of states on the working class to fight wars.
Lets discuss the latter first.
One of the well-known, but not widely
discussed, roots of labor strength or at least the
institutionalization of trade unions and the
deepening of democratic rights in the United
States and in Western Europe, and to some extent
globally was the particular nature of war in the
twentieth century, including the industrialization
of the means of war and mass conscription.
To fight this type of war, the core powers, the
imperial powers, needed the cooperation of the
working class, both as soldiers fighting at the front
and as workers keeping the factories going.
War-making depended on industrial production
for everything from armaments to boots. Hence
the common wisdom during both world wars was
that whoever kept the factories running would
win the war.
In this context worker cooperation was key,
and the relationship between war-making and
civil unrest was unmistakable. The two biggest
peaks of world labor unrest in the twentieth
century, by far, were the years immediately
following the First World War and the Second


Jacobin Summer 2016

World War. The troughs of labor unrest were in

the midst of the wars themselves.
Its also no coincidence that the beginning of
the Civil Rights Movement was in the aftermath
of the Second World War and the Korean War,
and that the height of the Black Power movement
came during and after the Vietnam War.
States sought to secure the cooperation of
workers through the mobilization of nationalist
and patriotic sentiments, but this was not
sustainable without tangible advances in workers
rights. Thus, expansions of the welfare state went
hand in hand with expansions of the warfare state
in the twentieth century. Put differently: workingclass nationalism could only trump workingclass internationalism if states showed that winning
wars meant rising standards of living and
expanding rights for workers as both workers and
Do you think this is still the case today, in the
context of seemingly permanent warfare?

The nature of war has changed today in many

respects. Just like capital reorganized production
in response to the strength of labor, so has the
state restructured the military to lessen its
dependence on workers and citizens to wage war.
The mass movement against the Vietnam War,
and the refusal of soldiers at the front in Vietnam
to go on fighting, was a turning point, triggering a
fundamental restructuring of the organization
and nature of war-making.
We see the results of this restructuring today
with the end of mass conscription and the
increasing automation of warfare. With the
growing reliance on drones and other high-tech
weaponry, US soldiers are being removed from
direct danger not entirely, but much more than
in the past. This is a different situation than the
one that linked workers movements and warfare
in the twentieth century. The welfare and warfare
states have become uncoupled in the twenty-first
century. Whether, under these changing conditions, working-class internationalism will trump
working-class nationalism is a critical but
unresolved question.

Workers of the World

I have focused on the United States in this

discussion, but the transformation in the nature of
war-making has broader impacts. In the
mid-twentieth century, many colonial countries
were incorporated into the imperial war process
as suppliers of both soldiers and materials for the
war effort, leading to an analogous strengthening
and militancy of the working class. Today, in
country after country in a wide swath of the
Global South, you have a situation in which
modern US war-making is leading to the wholesale disorganization and destruction of the
working class in places where high-tech weaponry
is being dropped. The current migrant crisis,
both its roots and its repercussions, is a deeply
disturbing blowback from this new age of war.
In previous periods, rising tides of militancy and
organization have tended to bring with them new
and powerful organizational forms. In the
nineteenth century it was the craft union, in the
twentieth century it was the industrial union. Are
these forms doomed to historical oblivion, and if
so, what might replace them?

Theyre certainly not doomed to historical

oblivion. In the United States, for example, some
of the most successful unions today in terms of
recruiting new members and militancy are the
ones that have their roots in the old afl, in the
craft-worker tradition. Some people say elements
of that old organizing style are more suitable to
the horizontal nature of current workplaces,
rather than the industrial unions associated with
vertically integrated corporations.
But this doesnt mean industrial unions are
dead, either. The types of successes that were
characteristic of the classic cio unions the
Flint sit-down strike in the engine plant and the
strikes beyond that relied on the strategic
bargaining power of workers at the point of
production. I think that there are still lessons to
be learned from these successes.

Clearly neither of these forms succeeded in

touching the fundamental problems of capitalism,
however. As I already mentioned, the problem
with trade unions is that, to the extent that they
are too effective, capital and the state have no
interest in working with them and cooperating.
Yet, to the extent that they and this is largely
whats happened dont deliver a serious
transformation in the life and livelihoods of
workers, they lose credibility and legitimacy in
the eyes of workers themselves.
I think we constantly see both sides of this
contradiction. The trade unions are part of the
solution but are not the full solution.
One of the ideas that Marx advocated for is
imploring trade unions to connect with the
unemployed in a single organization. Is that an
option in places like the United States?

I think that its certainly the ideal its what

Marx and Engels were talking about in the
Communist Manifesto in terms of the role of
communists in the labor movement.
It also brings us back to the questions about
the relationship between processes of exploitation
and exclusion and about the relationship between
struggles at the point of production and struggles
in the street. For trade unions seeking to follow
Marxs directive, it means thinking strategically
about the conditions under which workers with
stable waged employment can be drawn into and
be radicalized by the struggles of the unemployed
and precariously employed, and vice versa.
What are the prospects for labor revitalization in
the United States? Do you expect to see an
upsurge in militancy and organization in the near

On the one hand, let me say that I do, just on

theoretical grounds, expect an upsurge of labor
militancy in the United States, and not just in the
United States. On an empirical level, since 2008,
we have been witnessing an upsurge worldwide in

Rank and File


class-based social unrest, which may be seen in

retrospect as the beginnings of a longer-term
This assessment goes against the prevailing
sentiment. Its interesting to compare the current
pessimism to what was being said by experts in
the 1920s. At that time, they were looking at the
ways in which craft workers were being undermined by the expansion of mass production, and
they were claiming that the labor movement was
mortally weakened and permanently dead. They
were saying that right up until the eve of the mass
wave of labor unrest in the mid 1930s.
They didnt understand that, while it was true
that a lot of the craft-worker unions were being
undermined, there was a new working class in
formation. We see the same thing today a
situation where there is a twentieth-century
mass-production working class thats being
undermined, but there is also a new working class
in formation, including in manufacturing. Its
important not to just wipe manufacturing out of
the consciousness of whats happening even in the
United States, much less in the world as a whole.
Nevertheless, each time new waves of labor unrest
erupt, the working class looks fundamentally
different, and the strategies and mobilization
again are fundamentally different.
Who do you think would lead the upsurge this
time around?

Its hard to say. What is clearer are the critical

issues facing labor today, and to some extent these
point to the mass base and leadership needed for a
next upsurge that is transformational. Were in
a situation where capital is destroying livelihoods
at a much faster pace than its creating new ones,
so were experiencing on a global scale, including
in core countries and the United States, an
expansion of the surplus population, and particularly what Marx referred to in Capital as the
stagnant surplus population: those who are really
never going to be incorporated into stable wage


Jacobin Summer 2016

Contingent workers, temporary workers,

part-time workers, and the long-term unemployed
this whole group is expanding, leading us down
the road to pauperism. Notwithstanding the deep
crisis of legitimacy this is creating for capitalism,
theres nothing, no tendency within capitalism
itself, to go in a different direction. If we are going
to change directions, its going to have to come
from a mass political movement, rather than
something coming out of capital itself.
There are two other important points to
consider. One is that capitalist profitability,
throughout its history, has depended on the
partial externalization of not only the cost of
reproduction of labor, but also the cost of
reproduction of nature. This externalization is
becoming increasingly untenable and unsustainable, but theres also no inherent tendency within
capital to redirect this. Moreover, since the
treatment of nature as a free good was a pillar of
the postwar social compact tying mass production
to the promise of working-class mass consumption, no simple return to the so-called golden age
of Keynesianism and developmentalism is
Second, the historical tendency in capitalism
to resolve economic and political crises through
expansionist, militaristic policies and war is
something we have to take seriously, particularly
in the current period of US hegemonic crisis and
decline. Getting control over oil, grabbing
resources, fighting over sea lanes in the South
China Sea these struggles have the potential for
incredibly horrific outcomes for humanity as a
whole. To avoid this, a renewed and updated labor
internationalism will have to overcome the visible
tendencies toward a resurgent and atavistic labor
So a consideration of geopolitics examining
the links between militarism, domestic conflict,
and labor movements is where we need to
begin and end any serious analysis. The old
question of socialism or barbarism is as relevant
today as it has ever been.
Thanks to Ricardo Jacobs for his help preparing
this interview.

Flint, Michigan
Strikers guarding window entrance
to Fisher body plant number three.
Dick Sheldon, 1936
Office of War Information
Photograph Collection
from the Library of Congress

Abandoned Factory,
Hoosick Falls, NY
Jack Norton, 2016

Duquesne Power Plant Strike

United Mine Workers archives
from the Penn State Special

Abandoned Mine, Tilcon,

Dutchess County, NY
Jack Norton, 2016

USWA strikers and their children

United Steelworkers of America
archive from the Penn State
Special Collections, 1952

Republic Steel, Lyon

Mountain, NY.
Former site of Republic Steel
Jack Norton, 2016



Everything Old
Is New Again
Rebuilding the labor movement will take
organizing, not just mobilizing.


ower comes in many forms, but for the working class it always
boils down to the same fundamental ingredient: unbreakable
solidarity. In my two decades of organizing across the United
States, we almost always win when workers are in the drivers
seat. We lose when we forgot about solidarity and think we
might succeed with easier, less confrontational activities like lawsuits, policy
mobilization, and cozying up to elected officials.
Todays struggle for social change requires the same worker-focused strategies and methods that built enough power to achieve the amazing social and
economic gains made by ordinary people from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Everything old is new again. Think the gig economy is something fresh and
exciting? Think again. It promises (and delivers) the same endless insecurity,
lousy benefits, extreme power inequality, and demoralizing treatment faced by
our grandparents who labored in the coal mines and garment factories of the
1920s. Granted, the bathrooms are a lot nicer now, and if you work for a tech
company you sometimes get free m&ms.
Workers and worker-organizers in those times knew that they could not
address the depredations of ruthless employers without confronting the question
of power both in society at large and on the shop floor itself. Building real
workplace democracy is about identifying the already existing, organic leaders
of the working class and helping them move into position to successfully lead
their coworkers into battle.
The goal is what 1930s-era radical labor organizer William Z. Foster called
systematic mass participation. Building that kind of mass participation should
still be the principal goal of rank-and-file and staff organizers today.

The Class Struggle Theory of Power

Daniel Nilva /
Tamiment Library,
Robert F. Wagner
Labor Archives, New
York University

Capitalism has changed over the past eighty years, but certain things remain the
same. People get up in the morning, go to work, and find out that they live in
the same old nasty world where you can be fired for any reason or no reason

Rank and File


at all and someone is always cutting your benefits

and messing with your schedule.
The basis for organizing workers today, then, is
the same as its always been. In my years as a labor
organizer and negotiator, I do this by adhering to a
class struggle theory of power, in which I identify
and mentor organic worker-leaders by engaging
in hard fights and constant testing. I cant do this
on the shop floor because paid staff are legally
barred from private-sector workplaces before
the union is formed (and often through the first
contract-negotiations period); I do it by demystifying power and teaching workers how to get it for
Organizers, whether paid or unpaid, are
leaders, defined as people with real followers who
trust them and support them not employees or
colleagues. A true leader can only serve with the
active support of their community or other workers.

Most social-change activists, by contrast, are not

Organic leaders are ordinary people inside and
outside the workplace who are already leaders before
anyone sends them to some leadership development workshop. These leaders are the essential
ingredient to building power by developing unbreakable solidarity a solidarity that will not back down
in the face of adversity and will do what it takes to
The most critical skill of an organizer, then, is
to be savvy about identifying the most respected
workers and persuading them to support the union
or fight for any other cause. The role of organizers
is to identify the organic leaders and coach them
through the inevitable fight with the employer,
which is often ugly and difficult. Organizers can
only find these leaders by having serious conversations with all of the workers.

The Difference a Union Makes

For all but the very highest paid workers, union membership means better pay.
Bottom 10%

Bottom 25%



+ 35.3% increase in hourly wage


Hourly Wages

+ 45.5%

Median Worker

Top 25%

Top 10%

Top 1%



Jacobin Summer 2016

+ 39%

+ 21.5%

+ 5.1%

- 14%

Dignity at Work

Everything Old Is New Again

For service-sector workers, belonging to a union is the best

way to get adequate pay and benefits.

Hourly Wages





All Workers


Low-Wage Jobs




Health Insurance
All Workers

Low-wage Jobs











All Workers

Low-wage Jobs












Rank and File


By the same token, mass participation only

happens when thousands of organic leaders rise
up from the ranks and help their fellow workers to
understand their own power to change their lives for
the better. Any labor organizing strategy that puts
power in the hands of consultants, union staff, pollsters, political operatives, or backdoor deal-making
by top union leadership is doomed to failure. Unfortunately, this characterizes much of what passes for
organizing these days, in both labor and community arenas.

The Chicago Example

Unions in the United States are in decline, for sure.
But it doesnt have to be this way. To see what solidarity and real working-class power look like today,
look to the 2012 mass strike called by the Chicago
Teachers Union (ctu) and the extraordinary worker
leaders who led that strike.


Jacobin Summer 2016

Their 2012 strike (and this past Aprils one-day

walkout involving nearly thirty thousand teachers)
demonstrates the promise of working-class power.
A strike is a boot camp for learning about solidarity
and power. Strikes develop leaders like no single
other tool (certainly better than the expensive, feelgood leadership seminars so fashionable in todays
movement). The best labor leaders, like ctus Karen
Lewis, are fearless and unapologetic, and they are
often women of color.
The ctu strike showcased from-the-base
organic worker leadership at its best, women and
men who exercise all manner of brilliant decision-making and leadership as part of their daily
routine: They are educators. When they bring that
intelligence and life experience to a fight with the
bosses, watch out.
As the ctus example shows, the bad news about
union decline is also the good news: The biggest
factor in the decline of working-class power lies

Our Enemies in Blue

A scene from the Memorial Day massacre of
1937, which occurred during the Little Steel
Strike. The Chicago Police Department shot
and killed ten unarmed demonstrators.
National Archives and Records Administration

not in the changes we see in contemporary political

economy, formidable as they are, but in our own
decisions about how to build worker power.
The labor movement was once led by enough
people who believed so deeply in the human capacity
to act that it would have been unthinkable to speak
on workers behalf without their participation. But
today, among the unions that regularly engage with
the broader progressive community referred to
here as New Labor union officials think that they
can act alone, working out big problems for the poor
benighted masses. Actual workers are not welcome.
New Labor discourages meaningful worker participation. Peter Olney, the longtime organizing
director for the International Longshore Workers
Union (ilwu), summed this viewpoint up succinctly
when I interviewed him: Just before the split at
the afl-cio, the conversations [that New Labor
was driving] were about how workers really got in
the way of organizing. We [the national organizing
directors] would actually sit in rooms, in annual
meetings about the state of organizing, and the discussion would be that workers often got in the way
of union growth deals.
Twenty years ago, it was obvious to New Labor
leaders and everybody else that winning union
elections and running strikes was getting more challenging. They declared they would rebuild the ranks
of unions by organizing the unorganized. But in this,
their most important task, they failed.
Instead, pollsters, public-relations firms, and
secret negotiations replaced face-to-face organizing.

Strategic Sectors
These days, New Labor leaders have zeroed in on the
lowest-wage sectors of the workforce. Prioritizing
the lowest-wage workers as the key strategy for
labors revitalization is understandable in some respects. Workers wages at the lower rungs of the
labor market are far too low in this country and need
to be raised dramatically, and low-wage workers
have long been ignored by much of American labor.

Everything Old Is New Again

But focusing simply on a workforce because it

earns low wages is strategically misguided. It will
not succeed in rebuilding organized working-class
power in this country on a mass scale. Simply put,
workers in some sectors are better placed to build
working-class power than others. As power is whats
urgently needed, we need to be focused on organizing those strategically key sectors today.
The brilliant organizers of the cio understood
that within the industrial economy of the mid-twentieth century, steel, coal, and other key industries
mattered more than other industries. Within the
service economy today, education and health care
are the strategic sectors. For at least the next couple
of decades, there can be no exit threat: Schools and
colleges, nursing homes and hospitals, clinics, and
many other components of the always-changing
education and health care delivery system cant be
moved offshore, automated, or relocated from a
city to its suburbs or from the North or Midwest
to the Sunbelt.
That is why the corporate right is campaigning
tirelessly to change the legal structures that govern
labor through the cases it brings before the Supreme
Court. Immune (for now) to the exit threat, education and health care are also especially strategic
terrain for organizing and movement building
because of their social and geographic placement
in the community: They arent walled-off industrial
parks, and the nature of the services they provide
creates an intimate relationship between the workers
and their community.
These workers are still difficult to replace and
often (though not always) have some savings in the
bank all factors that enable them to successfully
take high-risk actions like real, production-disrupting strikes.
Some unions have organized strikes with these
groups of workers in recent years. But perhaps
such strikes should be put in quotation marks.
In my book, a strike happens when the majority of
workers walk off the job. But in todays pr-driven
world, unions strikes are often temporary work
stoppages by a few workers, who then stand on the
sidewalk handing out leaflets or doing tv interviews.
Unfortunately, this can be seen most clearly in
the Fight for 15 campaign, in which workers in most

Rank and File


cities are taking incredibly brave action in walking

off the job, but arent walking off with enough of
their coworkers to cause significant disruption to
the businesses theyve left behind.
New Labor likes to claim that it wants to
empower workers, but in practice its the opposite. The focus on highly vulnerable, easily replaced
low-wage workers allows labor movement professionals people like Workers Lab founder, seiu
leader, and media darling David Rolf to be in
charge and stay in charge. Instead, we need people
like Karen Lewis in charge.
The Karen Lewises of the working class are
smart. They understand that in order to win, solidarity has to be developed not only between workers
at work but outside the workplace, too. When Chicagos teachers struck, they changed Chicago, not just
their union. Like the union organizers of the 1930s,
they understood the importance of a broader class
struggle not just the needs of their own members.
They built a base both inside and outside the schools
through dogged, determined, and methodical work.
Theyve raised expectations that the working class
deserve more and can win it for themselves if they
To be clear, there are plenty of full-time staff
working with the rank-and-file educators in Chicago and elsewhere. The issue is not staff versus the
rank-and-file; its the roles that staff and members
should play in the union. Strikes that involve an
overwhelming majority of the workforce rather than
a small handful of particularly courageous workers
make it easier to ensure that workers themselves are
calling the shots and that staff are there to support
them. But in the always hostile workplace terrain, it
does take experienced staff to nurture and prepare
workers to build toward and succeed at real strikes.

Whole-Worker Organizing
We need to go back to whole-worker organizing.
This is what got the goods back in the days of
the cio. The ctu strike shows that it still works,
but so do other recent examples. In eastern Pennsylvania, a small independent union called pasnap
(Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied
Professionals) has pulled off a string of incredible


Jacobin Summer 2016

organizing wins without any of the top-down deals

of which some other health care unions are so fond.
Health care workers have been picking ferocious
fights with the bosses and winning all of them. And
pasnap, like Chicagos teachers, routinely employs
all-out, open-ended strikes where the vast majority
of workers decide together to walk off the job.
Winning a strike is not impossible today. It all
comes down to a fundamental strategic choice
should we organize and put the levers of power in the
hands of ordinary workers, or should we mobilize and
put power in the hands of professional staff activists?
Organizing is a high-participation, movement-building, long-term approach that emphasizes
building the power of workers to challenge the power
of capital; it helps people through a transformative
process of self-discovery, leading to the realization
that solidarity is both essential and beautiful.
Mobilizing, on the other hand, is a campaign-focused, short-term approach that does not build
the kind of power that can change the structure of
elite power. It aims to replace bad elites with more
responsive ones who can be counted on to say the
right things (but, all too often, not do them).
Mobilizing has gone from being one of the tools
in the organizers toolkit like big flag-wielding
demonstrations to being labors weapon of
choice. Organizing is based on the already existing
worker leaders, not professional activists, paid
staff, and other do-gooders. They might do a lot of
good, but they are not building worker power. The
job of staff is to help the already existing worker
leaders learn to organize, not substitute their own
too-clever-by-half pr schemes for genuine worker
New Labor, following the example of community organizer Saul Alinsky and his acolytes in the
labor movement, has created a model where the
full-time organizer is not a leader who answers to
the thousands of grassroots people they recruit, but
a professional staff person primarily accountable to
their supervisor or national leadership. They call it
organizing, but the results speak for themselves:
Staff organizers and official leadership are mostly
unaccountable to union members, and unions and
workers are weaker now in relation to the owners of
capital than at any time in the past century.

Everything Old Is New Again

Separating something called community

organizing from the unitary process of class organizing both at work and at home bastardized the
original cio model. That model brought class into
the community through the workers themselves. A
one-dimensional view of workers as solely workers,
rather than as whole people, limits good organizing
and prevents organic worker leaders from effectively
building power in every aspect of their lives.
In previous periods of working-class strength,
workers built these relationships inside and outside

the workplace. William Z. Foster devotes an entire

chapter of his 1936 pamphlet Organizing Methods
in the Steel Industry to what he calls special organizational work. The chapter is divided into four
sections: Unemployed wpa, Fraternal Organizations, Churches, and Other Organizations.
Under Churches, for example, Foster argues, In
many instances, strongly favorable sentiment to
the organization campaign will be found among the
churches in the steel towns. This should be carefully
systematized and utilized. Foster also argued that

Means and Ends

A 1949 poster from a
International Union of Mine,
Mill and Smelter Workers local
condemns the perceived
excesses of the suicidal CIO.
Wagner Poster and Broadside
Collection / Tamiment Library,
Robert F. Wagner Labor
Archives, New York University

Rank and File


the union should set up committees inside ethnic and

other community-based organizations in order to
systematically recruit their steel worker members
into the steelworkers union.
The cios organizing methods incorporated
an appreciation of power inside and outside the
workplace. They were systematic about the broader
community in which the workers lived. Yet today,
most good unions that organize inside the shop mobilize outside it, in the broader community deep
inside, shallow outside. Its as if they cant see the full
extent of the battlefield or the vastness of their army.
These relationships, built by workers with the
support of staff not by the staff themselves can
help build the power of the working class through a

Consumers of the World, Unite

A 1972 action by the New York Hotel and
Motel Trades Council tried to win public
support by appealing to the sensibilities
of consumers.
New York City Central Labor Council /
Tamiment Library, Robert F. Wagner Labor
Archives, New York University


Jacobin Summer 2016

mutually supportive relationship that improves the

unions visibility and reputation and the power of the
broader working class. Sadly, even the few unions
that are strong on workplace organizing leave the
community work to activists who are not intrinsically part of working-class struggle. They end up
with community allies who are largely symbolic
rent-a-collar do-gooders, rather than influential
leaders in the broader working class and community.
If we want to restore power to the working class,
we need to leave behind the false divisions created by
mobilizing and get back to whole-worker organizing.

What Teachers Unions Teach Us

The success of the war on teachers has been dramatic. Today, its not uncommon to hear liberals say
that they support unions but not teachers unions. In
Chicago, the teachers showed that a workplace struggle embedded in a broader community struggle can be
transformational for the whole of the working class.
Karen Lewis would never have become a more
popular figure than Rahm Emanuel in that city
without a successful strike. Chicago changed
not just the teachers, not just the parents, not just
the students and its working class gained real
power in an all-out fight for good public schools,
led by teachers who care deeply about all aspects
of their students lives. In the process, the citys
working class also changed its view of teachers,
schools, racism, neoliberalism, and the citys slick
neoliberal mayor.
That doesnt happen through a pr campaign
or a mobilizing model. It happens through real
organizing by teachers themselves, with their
coworkers, with their students and parents, and in
their communities.
We have to go back to basics and follow an organizing model that is consistently strong, both inside
the workplace and outside the shop, based on the
way our forebears did it in the 1930s.
The good and bad news is that there are no
shortcuts. If we do it right, we can build power and
win. If we dont, just look to the last few decades of
declining union membership and even more rapid
shrinking of ordinary peoples power to change their
own lives for the better.

After the
Friedrichs Scare
US public sector unions have gotten
a reprieve. Will they use it to rebuild,
or squander the opportunity?

he sudden death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia earlier

this year has seemingly granted a reprieve to the US labor movement. Just one month before his death, during oral arguments for
Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, Scalia made clear
he was ready to join a majority in overturning a 1977 precedent
that allows unions in more than twenty states to collect so-called fair-share fees
from the public-sector workers they represent, whether those workers join
the union or not. Had Scalia lived, the court undoubtedly would have allowed
government workers in every state to become free riders, a move that might
have dealt a devastating blow to unions finances, morale, and political clout.
To envision the damage a negative decision in the Friedrichs case might have
caused, consider what has happened in Wisconsin since 2011. When Republican
governor Scott Walker signed Act 10 into law that year, he effectively stripped
most of Wisconsins government employees of collective bargaining rights and
deprived unions of the ability to collect fair-share fees or use a dues check-off
system. Within two years the number of union members in the state fell by fifty
thousand, and the share of government workers who claimed union membership dropped from 50percent to 37percent. By 2015, overall union
density in Wisconsin had fallen to 8.3percent roughly half of what
Come Gallows Grim
it had been ten years earlier.
In 1969, District Council 37 chief
The Friedrichs case could have precipitated a similarly damaging
organizer Lillian Roberts was jailed
result nationwide. The states that offer broad protection to negotiate
for two weeks for defying New
contracts with fair-share provisions boast more than two-thirds of the
York governor Nelson Rockefeller
nations 14.6million union members. By imposing right-to-work on
and leading a strike against three
those states, Friedrichs might have cost the labor movement nearly
mental hospitals.
10percent of its total membership within months.
New York City Central Labor
Fortunately for the labor movement, none of that came to pass.
Council / Tamiment Library, Robert
Lacking Scalias vote, the court announced in March that it was
Joseph A.

F. Wagner Labor Archives, New

York University

Rank and File


deadlocked on the case; the lower courts ruling

supporting the unions right to collect fair-share
fees would stand. Some in labors ranks believing
that President Obama or a potential Democratic successor will fill Scalias empty seat with a sufficiently
pro-labor justice have concluded that the existential threat posed by the Friedrichs case has passed.
But labor has little cause to breathe a sigh of
relief. As a review of recent history makes clear,
the anti-union momentum that led to Friedrichs has
not been dampened. Until unions directly challenge
the forces that set the stage for Friedrichs in the
first place, the assault on public-sector unionism
will continue.

A Long History
Friedrichs did not come out of the blue. The line of
attack that union opponents took in the case dates
to the formation in 1973 of the first organization
dedicated solely to fighting the growing influence
of government workers unions, the Public Service
Research Council (psrc). The groups ideological
godfather, libertarian law professor Sylvester Petro,
was a prominent anti-unionist dedicated to combating what he saw as the dangerous character of
public-sector union militancy.
Like most anti-unionists, Petro had been surprised by the sudden rise of public-sector unions
in the 1960s. Although he had opposed the first
statewide public-sector collective-bargaining law
in Wisconsin in 1959 and condemned John F. Kennedys 1962 executive order allowing a limited form
of collective bargaining for federal workers, it was
not until government workers began acting militantly in the mid to late 1960s that Petro began
to see the movement as a real threat. Prior to this,
Petro had focused his attention on the private sector,
building a libertarian critique of the National Labor
Relations Act by arguing that it encouraged strikes
and labor violence. He had elaborated this argument in testimony before Congress and in books
that gained a following in anti-union circles, such
as The Kohler Strike: Union Violence and Administrative Law (1961). In the early 1970s, Petro
reworked his libertarian argument to address the
threat he now perceived in public-sector unionism,


Jacobin Summer 2016

focusing on the growing militancy of public-sector

The twenty states that had legalized collective
bargaining for government workers by the early
1970s, Petro argued, were encouraging an explosive
wave of strikes. This militancy in turn was undermining the very basis of democratic self-government,
he contended, for government unions were striking
to win demands that infringed on government sovereignty. Unless this militancy was turned back,
citizens would soon have to take to the hills and the
fields and the caves once more, as our ancestors have
frequently had to do when integral sovereign
government has broken down.
It was to advance this argument that Petro
helped create the psrc in 1973. It promptly unfurled
a decade-long campaign against public-sector collective-bargaining laws, arguing that they promoted
destructive strikes. That argument resonated among
anti-unionists because it pointed to an undeniable
phenomenon. Between 1963 and 1973, the number
of public-sector strikes increased tenfold, and militancy was still growing in the mid 1970s.
Public-sector militancy in this period sprang
from several causes. Undoubtedly, inflation was
one trigger; government workers generally lacked
automatic cost-of-living adjustments, so they went
on strike to protect their purchasing power.
But militancy also grew because it played a
crucial role in public-sector collective bargaining
by disciplining both sides of the bargaining table.
Neither unions nor employers had an interest in
seeing prolonged strikes. Long walkouts inflicted
lost wages and mounting fines on strikers (since
most public-sector strikes were illegal) and incurred
rising anger directed at public officials from those
who relied on interrupted services. However, strikes
also inoculated both sides against criticism. Union
leaders were better able to argue they had gotten
the best deal possible for their members if a fight
had preceded the settlement; politicians were better
positioned to deflect claims they had given up too
much if they had shown they were unafraid to take
a strike.
Both the public and the courts seemed to grasp
these nuances in the mid 1970s. A 1974 Harris poll
found that the public supported the right to strike for

After the Friedrichs Scare

Neither Snow Nor Rain

The Postal Service is the nations second largest civilian
employer and a bastion of public sector unionism.


Union Membership









all government employees even firefighters and

police officers and eight states legalized walkouts
for at least some public-sector workers by 1977. Even
Warren Burgers court understood the complexities
of the issue, as it showed in its precedent-setting
1977 decision in the case of Abood v. Detroit Board
of Education the very decision that the Roberts
court considered overturning in Friedrichs.
In the Abood case, Sylvester Petro argued for the
plaintiffs, a group of disgruntled Detroit teachers
who objected to a Michigan law that compelled
them to pay union dues in return for the collective






bargaining the union did on their behalf. Petros

argument reiterated his well-rehearsed ideas. He
contended that any effort by a union to exact mandatory payments from the teachers it represented
violated their free-speech rights, because it forced
them to pay for political speech through the collective-bargaining process. The Supreme Court
disagreed. In a unanimous decision, the justices
drew a distinction between collective bargaining
and politics: While unions couldnt use mandatory
fees to engage in electoral activity, workers covered
by labor agreements could be required to share the

Rank and File


The Last Redoubt

Though private sector union density has plummeted,
public sector unionism is relatively stable.


Union Membership










costs of bargaining, contract administration, and

grievance processing.
The courts rationale in the Abood decision was
largely a response to the labor militancy of the 1970s.
In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Potter
Stewart admitted that an employee may very well
have ideological objections to a wide variety of activities undertaken by the union in its role as exclusive
representative, and that mandatory payments could
have an impact upon their First Amendment interests. This impact was justified, he said, because of
the desirability of labor peace. Union security,
Stewart implied, could deliver that peace.
However, once government workers militancy
began to dwindle in the 1980s and ensuring labor


Jacobin Summer 2016





peace was no longer a concern, public-sector unions

found themselves vulnerable to attack not for their
militancy but for their political activity. It was this
attack that led them to the brink in Friedrichs.

New Salvos
The story about declining union power over the last
several decades is usually told in terms of plummeting union density. But workers willingness to
confront their employers with a strike tells us even
more about the balance of power in labor relations.
By that metric, the scales have tilted drastically
since the Abood era. Between 1960 and 1980, the
number of major work stoppages held steady at

The Spread of Right-to-Work

After the Friedrichs Scare

First passed in Florida in 1943, right-to-work has since

spread to a majority of states in the union.

Wisconsin union membership before and after right-to-work















Indiana became a
right-to-work state
in 1957, repealed it
in 1965, and then
reinstated it in 2012.

Rank and File


an average of 283 per year. That number plunged

70percent in the 1980s and hasnt stopped plummeting since: In the 1990s, the annual average was
thirty-five work stoppages, in the first decade of
this century it was twenty, and since 2010 it has
been fifteen.
There were many causes for declining militancy,
including the effects of globalization and plant closings, the introduction of new technologies, and
employers increased interest in busting unions.
Ronald Reagans presidency played an important
role in promoting that interest in union-busting.
Not only did Reagan appoint anti-unionists to
the National Labor Relations Board (nlrb), he
crushed the 1981 strike led by the Professional Air
Traffic Controllers Organization (patco) by permanently replacing striking air traffic controllers.
His spare-no-expense, show-no-mercy suppression of that federal-sector walkout encouraged
private-sector employers to break strikes even as it

chilled public-sector labor relations. Panicked by

the thought of, as one leader put it, thousands of
little Ronald Reagans across the country in every
town saying, Fire them whenever public employees
confronted them in a labor dispute, public-sector
unions also called fewer strikes. The number of
worker days lost due to government strikes dropped
by 50percent between 1980 and 1982 and never
again returned to pre-patco levels.
Public-sector unions had good reason to adopt
a less assertive style in the Reagan years. Not only
did walkouts invite attacks by Reaganite politicians,
government workers found it harder to gain public
support for their demands once private-sector
workers began seeing their own pay and benefits
stagnate or shrink.
Beginning in the 1980s, public-sector unions
increasingly relied on political action to advance
their members interests, creating a pattern that
persists to the present day. Where possible, unions

Battle Royale
Reagans 1981 confrontation with PATCO
was used to successfully undermine the
bargaining power of US workers.
New York City Central Labor Council /
Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive


Jacobin Summer 2016

After the Friedrichs Scare

looked for Republican allies and showed a degree

of political flexibility that would have made Samuel
Gompers proud. In 2004, for example, the Service
Employees International Union (seiu) boasted that
it was the largest donor to both the Republican and
Democratic governors associations. Over time,
however, public-sector unions came to rely increasingly on Democrats, for the post-Reagan Republican
party offered little sympathy for unions.
The labor-Democratic alliance by no means
created a harmonious fusion of interests. When it
suited their perceived political needs, Democrats
regularly disappointed their union supporters. Yet
without strikes spotlighting conflicts in the public
sphere, disputes between these allies usually played
out in electoral campaigns and behind-the-scenes
legislative and budgetary negotiations. The lack of
open conflict between unions and Democrats fed a
perception that they were simply engaged in mutual
By the time Barack Obama entered the White
House in 2009, Republicans widely viewed public-sector collective bargaining as nothing more than
a scheme whereby Democrats ensured funding for
a loyal Democratic constituency group. Sylvester
Petros fear that union militancy was undermining
government sovereignty had by then been replaced
by a new specter in the minds of anti-unionists:
public-sector labors dangerous political influence.
Anti-union academic Daniel DiSalvo is among those
who have tried to define this new threat. In his
2015 book Government Against Itself: Public Union
Power and Its Consequences, DiSalvo argues that
an iron triangle has emerged in government in
which unions, politicians, and government agency
managers use collective bargaining to collude to
protect each others interests at the expense of
the public interest. Public unions, DiSalvo argues,
are fundamentally political entities that merely
exploit collective bargaining to advance their political interests. Because this is so, he concludes, laws
that allow unions to compel workers to support collective bargaining through fair-share fees amount to
infringements on free political expression.
Arguments by DiSalvo and his allies provided
the intellectual ammunition for the Friedrichs
challenge. In his 2014 opinion in Harris v. Quinn,

Justice Samuel Alito cited DiSalvos work to signal

his intention to reverse the Abood precedent. No
doubt DiSalvo would have been cited favorably once
again had Antonin Scalia lived long enough to join
Alito in the Friedrichs decision.

Seizing the Moment

While unions appear to have dodged the Friedrichs
bullet, it would be unwise to mistake this providential deliverance for a long-term reprieve. Publicsector unions are now operating in the most hostile
legal and political environment theyve faced since
they first won bargaining rights. Even if the Supreme
Court lets the Abood precedent stand for another
generation, state-level efforts to undermine union
security provisions will continue, fueled by the arguments of DiSalvo and other critics of union political influence. The American Legislative Exchange
Council, better known as alec, is currently supporting paycheck protection bills that would terminate
fair-share provisions in Pennsylvania, Missouri,
and Louisiana. Similar efforts are sure to follow in
other states.
To be sure, Friedrichs served as a wake-up call for
many in the labor movement. Unions scrambled into
action, convinced that a negative decision was likely.
seiu, the American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees (afscme), the American Federation of Teachers (aft), and the National
Education Association (nea) all launched vigorous
internal organizing campaigns to convert fair-share
fee-payers into full union members in anticipation of
a post-Friedrichs world. The unions believed they
could avert big membership losses if they reached
out to members and fee-payers alike and began to
cultivate a higher level of engagement and loyalty
among those the unions represent.
This approach makes sense. If workers feel
invested in the unions that bargain on their behalf,
they are more likely to continue to support them
whether the law compels it or not. Moreover, the
progress unions have made in converting fee-payers
into members actually leaves them in a stronger
position now than they were a year ago.
But if better internal organizing is all unions
take away from their recent brush with disaster,

Rank and File


Taking a Stand
Mobilizations in the lead-up to the 2012
Chicago Teachers Union strike.
Chicago Teachers Union

they will remain vulnerable going forward. By

merely adopting a more effective form of fortress
unionism, public-sector unions leave unchallenged the economic and political forces that have
increasingly isolated them over the past thirty-five
years forces that will continue to undercut them
and the rest of organized labor unless directly
Public-sector unions must use this moment to
advance a broader vision. They are the most organized and politically potent defenders of the idea
that a democratic society requires a vibrant public
sector that operates outside of the profit-seeking
imperatives of the market. If they do not begin to
take risks on behalf of that idea, they will imperil
their own future and organized labors no matter
how adept they become at internal organizing and
no matter who wins the presidency in 2016.
Part of that risk-taking should involve reviving
direct-action militancy. Unions gradual replacement of militancy with political action and lobbying
since the 1980s has trapped them in a cul-de-sac
where they are dependent on unreliable Democrats,
under attack from increasingly anti-union Republicans, and vulnerable to the charge that they are
simply political rent-seekers. Unions should rely
less on electoral politics and remember that political
leverage can be gained in the workplace and in
the streets as well as at the ballot box.
However, reviving public-sector union combativeness cannot mean returning to past models.
Times have changed. In the early 1970s, public-sector unions could engage in civil disobedience
and violate strike bans with the confidence that they
held the moral high ground and enjoyed broad public
support. In those days, they were merely seeking


Jacobin Summer 2016

the same things that unionized private-sector

workers had won. Going forward, militancy will
only succeed to the extent that it clearly advances
the common good not just the interests of public-sector workers.
Fortunately, some unions are beginning to grasp
this truth. The most prominent recent example is
the Chicago Teachers Union (ctu). Led by a newly
elected reform slate, the ctu launched a strike in
2012 against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in which the
unions partnership with community allies proved
pivotal. In that strike, the ctu drew on energy crystallized by the Occupy movement of the previous
year, targeted the millionaires who dominated the
Chicago school board, and put unconventional new
demands on the bargaining table. They insisted
that Chicago claw back public subsidies from the
Hyatt hotel chain and the Chicago Board of Options
exchange, and that the Chicago Public Schools sue
Wall Street firms to recover tens of millions of dollars lost in toxic interest-rate-swap deals.
Flouting legal statutes that permitted teachers
to strike only over wage and benefit issues, the ctu
insisted on a wide range of demands to improve
public schools, including smaller class sizes, social
services, and more. While the ctu and its allies did
not win everything they wanted, the bonds the union
forged with parents and the broader community
allowed it to outflank Emanuel in the strike. The
Chicago struggle helped illuminate how neoliberal
policies have eroded the health of public institutions;
it also helped develop a blueprint to confront the
forces of financialization that are driving growing
Other unions have since adopted versions of
the ctus approach. In May 2014, unions and

After the Friedrichs Scare

allied community organizations from seven states

convened in Washington, DC, to construct a collaborative called Bargaining for the Common Good
that seeks to spread this new bargaining model.
They exchanged ideas, learned from those who had
already spearheaded similar campaigns, and planned
ways to apply the model to their next contract
Locals from afscme, aft, nea, seiu, and
the Communications Workers of America have all
been involved in this effort. In 2015, Fix LA, a coalition of Los Angeles labor unions and community
organizations, led a successful bargaining campaign
inspired by the Bargaining for the Common Good
model. There, city workers and community allies
held demonstrations to publicize the fact that Los
Angeles was paying more in fees to Wall Street
firms than it was spending to maintain the citys
streets; they leveraged the bargaining process to

seek accountability in the citys finances and restore

public services to pre-recession levels. And they
won, securing the hiring of three thousand municipal
workers and spawning new efforts to reconfigure the
citys dealings with the financial sector.
It is too soon to know how far Bargaining for
the Common Good might spread, but its proponents undoubtedly have the right idea. Since its
earliest days, the success of the US union movement
has depended on its capacity to engage in effective
collective actions and its ability to elicit broad support for its struggles. The passing of the Friedrichs
threat offers labor an opportunity to rebuild both its
capacity for action and its credibility as a defender
of the common good.
It is now up to the unions to decide whether to
content themselves with having defended the walls
of their fortress against the most recent attack or
to seize the opportunity this moment presents.

Beyond Social
Bringing together weak unions and weak
social movements isnt enough. We need
a new kind of socialist party.

usiness unionism is out, social movement unionism is in: On this,

North American union activists agree. Theyre confident that,
after decades of givebacks and setbacks, labor can finally turn
itself around if it starts thinking more like an expansive movement and less like an agglomeration of hidebound institutions.
To a cynics ear, such declarations do not excite. They resemble a call to
arms full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But while skepticism regarding the actual practice of social movement
unionism is warranted, complete dismissal is not. Debates around labor revitalization strategies use this concept as shorthand for the best we might aspire to:
a unionism that is militant, internally democratic, committed to social justice,
attuned to class, and part of larger social and political mobilizations.
The trick is to sort out the genuine commitments from the smoke and

No Gods, No Lords, No
Workers from the Retail,
Wholesale and Department
Store Union support a 1979
organizing drive.
New York City Central
Labor Council / Tamiment
Library, Robert F. Wagner
Labor Archives, New York

Proponents of social movement unionism have found inspiration in the explosion of mass industrial unionism during the Great Depression. Its not hard
to see why. With the morale and dynamism of unions at historic lows today, it
seems reasonable to revisit what went right for workers in a period even more
challenging than the contemporary landscape.
For labor activist and writer Jane McAlevey, the Communist-led deep
organizing of the 1930s was especially significant. This strategy was rooted
in the capacities of rank-and-file workers to act as organizers in both their
workplaces and their communities. Workers sat down in their workplaces, prevented banks from evicting people who were behind on their mortgages, and

Rank and File


marched with the unemployed. In Minneapolis and

San Francisco, community solidarity with teamsters
and longshoremen helped shut down the city.
Against the exclusivity of craft unionism, deep
organizing favored working-class organizations that
crossed boundaries of skill, race, and gender. Above
all, this approach grasped the importance of building
a cadre of committed organizers who could give
confidence to the rank and file and assist in developing its organizational and political wherewithal.
Workers and practitioners didnt label their
organizing strategy social movement unionism.
They simply took it for granted that the workplace
and the community overlapped and that employers
ferocious resistance to the new unionism made worker-community alliances a necessity. Precarity didnt
describe just the plight of a specific group of workers,
but the circumstances (with certain exceptions) of
the working class as a whole. In this context, it was
superfluous to add the qualifier social movement
to the word unionism. Union organization was the
periods paradigmatic social movement, as it would
be for decades to come.
Another source of inspiration for what is now
known as social movement unionism were the struggles in Global South countries during the 1970s and
1980s. In South Africa, Brazil, South Korea, and
the Philippines, unions were at the forefront of the
fight to win basic liberal-democratic freedoms and
union rights.
These mass workers struggles whose aims
extended to defeating capitalism itself may seem
miles away from the organizing in the developed
capitalist countries today. But the Global South
militants success in democratizing their societies
and legitimizing unions lent an aura of credibility
to their organizing framework, particularly as it
concerned membership participation and the development of a mass community base for unions. It
was out of these struggles that the concept of social
movement unionism was in fact born (though in
some cases a more accurate moniker, given the revolutionary currents within them, might have been
socialist movement unionism).
A third inspiration emerging out of the failures of traditional unionism in the face of new, more
aggressive attacks on social programs and the labor


Jacobin Summer 2016

movement is more recent and homegrown. Its

exemplar is the Chicago Teachers Union (ctu).
Buoyed by new leadership which won power in
2010 and included socialists from a variety of political traditions ctu members fully grasped that
the battles they waged couldnt be confined to collective bargaining, electoral activity, and lobbying.
Addressing the Chicago public school systems
seemingly intractable problems depended above
all on education workers and parents of students
confronting systemic racism and class inequality.
Crucially, the militants who took over the ctu didnt
forget the essential precondition for successful community outreach: building and consolidating a solid
base among their own members.
Its not surprising that social movement
unionism has gained near-universal credence in
the North American labor movement. Because there
are concrete examples, it seems reachable in a way
that socialism which remains an abstract and overwhelming ideal to many is not. Moreover, given
the exceedingly precarious position of organized
labor, moving toward social movement unionism
might seem like common sense to union members
and leaders alike.
Yet, in contrast to the sit-down strikes of the
1930s and the mass protests of the 1960s and in
spite of the brutality of neoliberal capitalism social
movement unionism remains localized, partial, and
sporadic. While there are pockets of hope, as exemplified by the ctu, there has been no mass explosion
of substantive social movement unionism in North
America. Why not?

Clues, if not answers, to this apparent paradox can
be found in the very successes of unions, which dramatically altered both the contexts in which they
operated and their internal organizational dynamics.
As the industrial unionism of the 1930s attained organizational self-sufficiency and institutionalization
through collective bargaining, the need for strong
and organic community links faded.
This was especially true in the 1960s. The militancy of that decade led to initial gains for specific
subsectors of workers, most notably in the public

The Militants
Open battle between
striking teamsters armed
with pipes and the police in
the streets of Minneapolis,
June 1934.
National Archives and
Records Administration

Excessive Force
Staley workers peacefully
protesting the lockout of
their corn processing plant
in Decatur, Illinois are
pepper sprayed by police
in 1994.
Jim West

Chicago 1937 Memorial

Day Massacre
National Archives and
Records Administration

Rank and File


One Nation
A New York sympathy
parade supporting the 1916
West Coast dock strikes.
Everett Historical

sector. The apparent consolidation of these gains,

however, isolated these workers from the rest of
the working class at the very moment capital was
launching its neoliberal counteroffensive. The
focus on contract unionism left unions fighting
on narrow terrain, armed with strategies that
were no match for the broader economic changes
under way.
In countries formerly ruled by authoritarian
regimes, winning liberal-democratic rights also
altered the nature of the movements. The legacies
of earlier struggles did not disappear, but the relatively clear-cut enemies of the past gave way to
more ambiguous realities: the competitive pressures
of globalization, the restructuring of the economy
and fragmentation of the working class, geographic
mobility and the breakdown of historic communities,
the seductions of consumerism.


Jacobin Summer 2016

The changing environment has driven wedges

between formerly close allies. In Brazil, unions
that fought the military regime as part of the larger
struggle for socialism have seen their base integrated
into capitalism and a workers government that
imposes neoliberalism and austerity. In South Africa,
labor joined forces with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to
bring down apartheid, but now finds itself with
two parties that have accommodated themselves
to neoliberalism.
As for the ctu, despite its impressive response
to the exhaustion of contemporary trade unionism,
it continues to confront the limitations of social
movement unionism in one union. During their
2012 strike, Chicago teachers received very uneven
support from the rest of the citys labor movement;
the ctu remains a minority within the American

Beyond Social Movement Unionism

Federation of Teachers at the state level. Even with

community support, the union failed to block the
school closings that immediately followed their
extraordinary victory. Today, teachers and education
workers face budget cuts and pension threats that
can only be adequately dealt with through struggles
that go beyond Chicago and even Illinois to the
larger structures of US capitalism.
In progressive circles, social movement unionism
is conceived of as the melding of two separate and
fundamentally different formations: social movements and unions. This understanding tends to
overstate the current capabilities of social movements, however. While the many shortcomings
of unions are readily discussed on the Left, social
movements are generally handled with kid gloves.
Yet there are few (if any) mass social movements
in North America, and their resource base pales in

comparison to that which unions enjoy. Though

movements raise the banner of participatory democracy, their institutional weaknesses often result in
less-than-democratic internal procedures. Where
they focus on particular identities or single issues,
their political outlook is often just as narrow (sometimes even narrower) than those of unions. Their
anticapitalist lan often entails radical protest tactics, but they rarely consider what it would actually
take to confront the capitalist state and overcome
the inertial power, resiliency, and resoluteness of
the capitalist class.
The chief obstacle to real social movement
unionism is resistance within unions to the all-encompassing changes it would require. Social
movement unionism is not about labor supplementing what it is already doing (for example, with
better policy proposals or new departments) or

Generation CPO
Young supporters of CPUSA (Opposition) rally in
New York for the 1933 May Day demonstration.
Daniel Nilva / Tamiment Library, Robert F.
Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Rank and File


establishing external alliances with other movements. Rather, its about sparking a revolution
inside unions above all, by infusing them with
class politics.
Such a transformation would entail overhauling
virtually every facet of how unions function: how
they relate to their members, other unions, and
the community; how they allocate resources across

Workers Without Borders

A scene from a 1980s anti-apartheid protest in
New York.
Daily World / Tamiment Library, Robert F. Wagner
Labor Archives, New York University


Jacobin Summer 2016

departments and between locals and the center; the

kinds of research they do; the role of staff and the
content of staff training; their bargaining priorities;
and the tactics and strategies they employ to win
those priorities.

For many, the social in social movement unionism
distinguishes it from the old Marxist and socialist
traditions that focused on class relations and class
struggle. More promising, however, is the orientation of those still sympathetic to the Marxist tradition, such as Kim Moody and Marta Harnecker. For
Moody and Harnecker, social movement unionism
is attractive because it emphasizes and builds on
Marxists traditional attention to class. Their outlook is based on the following premises:

A recognition that workers occupy a subordinate

position within capitalism. An independent working-class perspective implies an anticapitalist
politics, however vague.

Respect for working people as potential agents

of change. This stems from both the working
classs strategic location in the economy and the
potential development of workers capacities to
analyze, strategize, organize, and act as a class.

A broad definition of working class. The

working class encompasses all those people
dependent on wages and salaries or social programs: unionized and nonunionized, employed
and unemployed, including the disabled and
chronically poor.

An awareness that because class is expressed in all

spheres of workers lives, building the class involves
more than workplace resistance. Links to the
community should not be viewed as pragmatic
ties to others but as ties to fellow members of
the class and as incorporating additional dimensions of workers lives.

A commitment to internal equality. To speak of

a coherent class is to insist on the underlying
equality of its members and to struggle actively

Beyond Social Movement Unionism

against racism, sexism, homophobia, and all

other barriers to full internal equality.

An insistence on the deepest democracy within

working-class institutions. Fostering the broadest
possible participation from members is fundamental to winning any lasting gains. Likewise,
building structures that facilitate working-class
democracy is central to challenging the notion
that hierarchical and bureaucratized decision-making is the only way to organize complex

How might this look in practice? Public-sector

workers would assume leadership in the struggle
for high-quality, democratically administered social services.
Meanwhile, workers in the private sector would
fight for production and democratic planning that
serve ecologically sustainable, peaceful ends.
More specifically, autoworkers could push to
rejigger their workplaces so they could make the
goods needed to confront the ecological crisis. Steelworkers could fight for the renovation and expansion
of public infrastructure. Construction workers could
demand public housing and the green retrofitting
of existing housing stock.
For all unions, organizing low-wage service
workers would involve building the class, not competing for members and their dues. Mutual suspicion
would give way to cross-union cooperation, providing a foundation for expanded organizing at the
local level and new forms of solidarity, like citywide or regional unions and workers assemblies.
Laid-off union members wouldnt drop off the radar
screen but would become fixtures at union halls
forming the natural base for campaigns to organize
the unemployed.

$15 and a Union

A protester holds up a sign at a labor
march on the one-year anniversary
of Occupy Wall Street.
Michael Gould-Wartofsky

The Left
Social movement unionism shouldnt be conceptualized as a single variant or a set of boxes that
need to be checked off. It is better understood as an
orientation to unionism that varies across time and
place, a dynamic reaction to the failures of existing
unions that involves complex and profound changes
in the very nature of trade unionism.
Rank and File


Four Futures
of Labor
by Chris Maisano
The US labor movement is perched precariously
between revitalization and ruin. There have
been some promising signs of revival in recent
years, such as the Chicago Teachers Union strike
and movements to improve low-wage jobs, but
organized labor is weaker and more vulnerable
than it has been in a century.
If not for Justice Antonin Scalias death, the
Supreme Courts decision in Friedrichs v.
California Teachers Association would have
imposed national right-to-work in the public
sector, crippling the unions that fund
campaigns like Fight for $15 and workers
centers. The immediate judicial threat may have
passed, but labor remains open to attack in the
workplace and in state legislatures.
There are four potential futures awaiting the
labor movement: NGOization, statization,
collaboration, and revitalization. These
processes arent mutually exclusive. It is likely
that future developments will contain and
combine aspects of all of them. The question is
which combination will predominate
something that will be determined by the
strength of progressive, rank-and-file currents
within the movement.

A process by which labor organizations move
away from dues-paying membership as their
main source of funding and towards
foundations and wealthy donors. This is bound
to entail an even further turn from workplace
organizing to electoral activity, lobbying, and
public relations. Union participation in the
Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive
donors, could be a sign of things to come.

A process by which unions effectively become
wards of the state. This has long been a
tendency within the labor movement ever since
unions became enmeshed in the legalbureaucratic apparatus of the National Labor
Relations Board (NLRB) and state-level


Jacobin Summer 2016

collective bargaining agencies. But the extremely

difficult environment unions confront may push
them even further in this direction.
Public sector unions in states and cities dominated
by Democrats will likely be most susceptible to
these pressures as traditional forms of legalinstitutional support continue to be attacked. This
would be especially problematic for unions in the
public sector, as statization would essentially mean
transformation into company unions largely
reliant on government employers for support. At
the height of the Friedrichs scare, state legislators
in Hawaii introduced a bill that would have funded
public employee unions directly from the state
treasury. Expect to see similar moves in Democratic
strongholds if the right-to-work threat returns.

A process by which labor drops confrontational
postures toward capital in favor of a
collaborationist one. Of course, this is nothing new,
but the current weakness of many unions will likely
encourage this behavior. It seems likely that some
prominent unions will attempt to revive the union
label concept for the sharing economy in order
to encourage consumer preferences for certain
approved or certified employers willing to
accept some level of unionization. The SEIUs failed
deal with Airbnb shows how live this possibility is.

A process by which unions come under democratic,
rank-and-file control, strive to build strong
workplace-based organizations that seek to
confront employers whenever possible, and move
toward independent political activity. There have
been some notable moves in this direction,
especially among education and health care
workers, but it remains a minority approach.
Radicals in the labor movement will remain largely
isolated for the time being, and our efforts may be
set back (at least temporarily) if anti-labor forces
succeed in further crippling unions through
legislative or judicial means. Still, despite the
massive challenges confronting labor activists in
the United States, the possibilities for revitalization
are real. If the Bernie Sanders campaign has taught
us anything, its that there is a large and growing
audience for class politics. Its those tens of millions
of largely unorganized workers not the
officialdom that chose to support Hillary Clinton
instead that have the capacity to make the labor
movement great again.

Beyond Social Movement Unionism

The Marxist left has always viewed the organized

working class as the critical (though not the only)
agent of social change. While the Marxist tradition
recognizes unions as a necessary vehicle for working-class self-defense, it has also stressed the limits
of unions as revolutionary actors. The current crisis
of unionism, however, raises something more disturbing. It suggests the possibility increasingly
apparent since the end of the rank-and-file rebellions
of the 1960s and 1970s that unions, by themselves,
cannot fulfill this elementary defensive role.
Still, pointing out labors shortcomings doesnt
exonerate social movements. Indeed, the problem
with most proposals for social movement unionism is
that they tend to underestimate the depth of unions
internal problems and overestimate the strength of
movements. Stitching actually existing unions and
social movements together may yield some positive
results, but such loose alliances are essentially pragmatic and temporary. The sum of their inadequate
parts remains an inadequate whole.
What is desperately needed is the support of an
additional institution (or institutions) that explicitly

addresses the question of state power. This isnt just

a call for another party. Instead of engaging exclusively in electoral activity, this institution would
work to bring out the best in unions and movements
alike, facilitating their coordination while building
the broadest political capacities within the working
class: analyzing, evaluating, strategizing, organizing.
Such an institution standing with feet inside and
outside unions, possessing an explicitly socialist
vision is indispensable to making social movement unionism a generalized source of working-class
Consider the experience of the ctu. A crucial
element of its success, however overlooked, has been
the concentrated presence of socialists within the
union. They brought a broader analysis, strategic
insights, and years of community contacts to the
struggle. When victory seemed improbable, they
played a crucial role in raising the confidence of
their fellow workers.
The limitations of the ctu also underscore the
need for a new institution. Though activists are
fighting to spread the ctus approach to unionism

CTU Kids
The Chicago Teachers Union enjoyed
popular support despite the
disruption it caused to the citys
Jim West

Rank and File


In South Africa, the Congress of

South African Trade Unions
(COSATU) played an important
role in the anti-apartheid
struggle, mobilizing black
workers against their white
employers and against white
unions that helped maintain the
countrys racially divided labor
force. But since the fall of
apartheid, COSATU has worked
to bolster neoliberalism in South
Africa as part of a tripartite
alliance with the ruling African
National Congress (ANC) and
the South African Communist
Party (SACP). Following the 2012
massacre of striking miners in
Marikana by the ANC
government, the powerful
National Union of Metalworkers
of South Africa (NUMSA) split
from COSATU with the intention
of forming a new political party
to represent South African labor.
In Brazil, organized labor played
an important role in the wave of
popular resistance that
ultimately toppled the military
dictatorship in 1985 seven
years earlier, future president
Luis Inacio Lula de Silva led the
first strike since military rule
began in 1964, winning an 11%
wage increase and emboldening
the burgeoning anti-dictatorship
movement. Brazilian labor
leaders, including Lula de Silva,
went on to form the Workers
Party (PT) a promising
social-democratic force, but one
plagued by internal corruption
and an aversion to grassroots


Jacobin Summer 2016

Beyond Social Movement Unionism

In South Korea, organized labor

played a famously raucous and
militant role during the 1980s
and 1990s union members
often appeared in the streets
wearing their signature red
headbands and wielding pipes.
Labor militancy only intensified
during the Asian economic crisis
of 1997, as many large
companies attempted to
dismantle unions hardwon
gains, including guaranteed
lifetime employment.
But in recent years, Korean
unions have acquiesced to
neoliberal demands in 2008, a
new union federation was
formed to pioneer a softer
approach to labor negotiation,
and the chairman of the Korean
Confederation of Trade Unions,
once the most militant labor
organization in the country,
announced that there was no
longer a place for pipes and
headbands in the union

In the Philippines, unions faced

severe repression from the
dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos
(1965-1986), which even
targeted Filipino dissidents
inside the United States in
1981, two Filipino labor
organizers were assassinated
outside a union hall in Seattle.
Since the end of Marcoss rule,
some things have gotten better
for Filipino workers, as
subsequent administrations
have repealed some of the
former dictators most
repressive labor laws. But the
Philippines remains a dangerous
place to be a union organizer
repression continues, and is
likely to intensify under the rule
of the new president, Rodrigo

Rank and File


within the American Federation of Teachers and the

Chicago labor movement, their success will depend
on whether they can secure broader organized support from those with the time, resources, skills, and
contacts to do what one union and its fringe of allies
cannot. The ctus ability to maintain its momentum
and membership morale increasingly depends on
larger political battles that cannot be won without
an organization (or organizations) specifically dedicated to such battles.

A Party of Our Own

The widespread interest in social movement unionism is obviously welcome, as is labors interest in
developing closer connections to various social
movements. The problem is, theres little reason
to expect that a substantive move in this direction
will arise from the internal dynamics of unions as
currently constituted. There are certainly exceptions, and they point to larger potentials. But what
is so striking about these exceptions is just how exceptional they really are.
The solution, it seems, is a socialist party one
defined not so much by its policies but its focus on
class building and its commitment to counteracting
unions propensity to advance or defend immediate
gains for specific groups of workers. To make social
movement unionism a reality, we need an organization that can strengthen working-class capacities
and propose long-term strategies for winning and
exercising power. While Marxists have traditionally
assumed that a socialist party is the preeminent
vehicle for overthrowing capitalism, today it appears
that such a formation is no less important to developing the ability to win, sustain, and generalize
major reforms within capitalism.
If the spontaneous development of social movement unionism can only go so far, and the existence
of a coherent left is key to its proliferation, then
simply blaming unions for its absence misses the
point. The real failure here lies in the absence of
a left. A mass-based social movement unionism is
impossible without a reconstructed class-based left
and its institutionalization in a socialist party.
This might seem fanciful considering the current level of social struggles and the weakness of the


Jacobin Summer 2016

radical left. But by now, it should be clear that it is

even more fanciful to think we can enact a social
movement unionism worth the name without a
new institution. This isnt a matter of choice. Its
a necessity.
As such, we cant leave its emergence up to
chance or assume that, if times get worse, it will
magically appear. Building an institution that can
take on our formidable adversaries can only come
out of a collective determination to construct it. If
creating such an organization isnt immediately possible, then we need to begin the widest and deepest
discussion about what we can do to make it feasible
down the road.
Two examples might help clarify the argument
being made here.
The campaign to raise the standards of precarious workers has put their plight on the agenda and
boosted wages in a number of states and cities. But
in the case of Walmart workers, where seiu and the
ufcw have played such a crucial supporting role,
can we expect a new dawn for labor by replicating
the kind of unionism that the Left has so sharply
(and correctly) criticized? Furthermore, while the
demand for a $15 minimum wage has gained impressive political traction, how does it build the capacity
of workers to affect their working conditions, benefits, job security, and social programs?
The Bernie Sanders campaign has also generated
an enormous amount of excitement in the United
States, but the big question is whether the energy
and expectation surrounding it will endure after its
over. Will his campaign encourage illusions about
next time and reinforce peoples cynicism about
electoral politics? Or will it, at long last, make it
clear to millions that real movement toward radical
change can only be accomplished when we go beyond
the Democratic Party?
Campaigns and struggles are ephemeral. The
momentum they generate can only be sustained
through an ongoing, organized commitment institutionalized in a party to developing the ability of
working people to act as a collective force. Only then
will social movement unionism become not simply
an aspirational alternative to business unionism,
but a radical force capable of bringing about transformative change.

New from

Pluto Press


Slapstick, Fordism and the International Communist

Owen Hatherley
The Chaplin Machine traces an enjoyably idiosyncratic path back and forth
between film studios and factories on opposing continents. Its wide embrace of
cinema, architecture, politics, design and engineering offers intellectual excitement as well as rigour.Guardian
Cloth $27.00


How We Fell into It and How We Get Out of It

Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker
It is time to change what is possible. Rents are too high. Rights are minimal. The
market has failed. Walker and Jeraj have explored all the possible escape routes
and found the way out.Danny Dorling, author of All That is Solid
Left Book Club
Paper $22.00


William A. Pelz
In this lively and engaging book, Pelz takes the reader through a thousand years
of European history from below. This is the not the story of lords, kings and
rulers. It is the story of the ordinary people of Europe and their struggles against
those lords, kings and rulers, from the Middle Ages to the present day. Written in
a lucid and accessible style, A Peoples History of Modern Europe is a fine introduction to the subject which will be appreciated by students and activists alike.
Socialist History
Paper $28.00

Distributed by the University of Chicago Press

Where collective
bargaining is forbidden,
freedom is lost.
Ronald Reagan