Marxism, unions, and class struggle

The future in the present
Protester in Wisconsin

Part 1: The neoliberal war on unions 
KARL MARX observed in 1865 that wage levels can only be “settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labor, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction.”1 Indeed, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the opening to the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”2

History since they wrote those famous words has validated their observation. Only the enormous strike movements of the Great Depression finally broke the stranglehold of the intransigent corporate class in the United States and legalized the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively. For decades after the New Deal, corporations accepted the legitimacy of unions in the collective bargaining process, even if they did not welcome their presence.

That era ground to a halt in the mid-1970s, validating the other side of Marx’s formulation. When the U.S. economy’s long postwar boom began to sputter, U.S. manufacturing productivity lagged behind that of its main competitors, Japan and Germany in particular. Business leaders in the United States united around a strategy to restore their competitive edge on the backs of the working class. As such, they embarked on a long-term campaign to shift the balance of class forces—decisively—in their own favor.

Forming new organizations such as the Business Roundtable and resurrecting the viciously antiunion Chamber of Commerce, they forged a plan to drastically lower working-class living standards. As Business Week summarized at the time, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that business can have more… Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality.”3 That new reality became known as neoliberalism.

Far from the rule of the “unfettered free market” claimed by its advocates, neoliberalism is actually a system of corporate welfare, which always welcomes government intervention when it is on the corporations’ behalf. The bank and corporate bailouts of the Great Recession of 2007–2008 demonstrated this fact vividly: the federal government not only rescued the same Wall Street behemoths whose reckless greed caused the financial meltdown, but has since allowed corporate profits to return to the stratosphere.4

Thirty-plus years of neoliberalism have brought nothing but misery to the core of the global working class. This consequence is not the by-product but the intent of neoliberal policies, in a one-sided class war that required the destruction of workers’ only means of defending their living standards, labor unions. The elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled the triumph of neoliberalism, illustrated by Reagan’s firing of striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), breaking their union within months of taking office.

Ever since then, the U.S. corporate class has enjoyed the support of both political parties in its neoliberal project, as Democrats and Republicans together have enabled an unrelenting attack on workers and the poor. President Barack Obama’s decision in December 2010 to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the rich is evidence that Democrats as well as their more openly contemptuous Republican counterparts continue to play their part in neoliberal rule.

It is no coincidence that levels of class inequality today mirror those of the laissez faire capitalism of Gilded Era of the late nineteenth century, when robber barons enriched themselves by fighting tooth-and-nail against every attempt by workers to organize into unions. Likewise, union-busting has been a central feature of today’s neoliberal agenda, with tremendous success. By the mid-1980s, U.S. corporations were spending an estimated half-billion dollars on union-busting firms, which issued texts with promises such as, “In Chapter Two we will show you how to screw your employees (before they screw you) and how to keep them smiling on low pay—how to maneuver them into low-paying jobs they are afraid to walk away from — how to hire and fire so you always make money.”5

Just as the (false) image of “welfare queens” living it up on taxpayer dollars provided the ideological justification for eliminating “welfare as we know it” during Bill Clinton’s tenure as president, the (equally false) image of the grossly overpaid autoworker with “gold-plated” benefits has provided the ongoing justification for demanding pay cuts of union manufacturing workers. As recently as 2008, the New York Times falsely claimed that United Auto Workers (UAW) members were earning an average of $70 per hour, including benefits.6 When the Times made that claim, the starting wage of a newly-hired union auto worker was $14.50 an hour.7 Union membership in the private sector has been in a downward spiral throughout this period, covering only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers in 2010, down from 7.2 percent the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.8

Having conquered the private sector, policymakers and media pundits have more recently taken aim at public sector workers as an ideological battering ram, using the image of the “overpaid and incompetent” public sector worker as the scapegoat, while slashing social spending. With a unionization rate of 36.2 percent,9 it is (falsely) claimed that public sector unions, along with Social Security and Medicare, are responsible for swelling government deficits, concluding that union bargaining rights must be dismantled to balance state budgets. “Wisconsin is one of 41 states where public employees earn higher average pay and benefits than private workers in the same state,” claimed USA Today on March 2, in a transparent attempt to pit private and public sector workers against each other.10

But coming so soon after the 2008 bank bailout, millions of workers who continue to face long-term unemployment and falling living standards well into the “recovery” phase of this business cycle have been unreceptive to this latest ruling-class maneuver.

Wisconsin: the future in the present
The battle to defend Wisconsin’s public sector unions that erupted in February unleashed the broadest and most determined outpouring of class solidarity in many years. More than 100,000 protesters turned out at various points in the struggle, while thousands of workers and students loudly occupied the Capitol building in Madison for a period of weeks.

In a clear identification with the Egyptian revolution that had just ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, Wisconsin workers carried signs such as, “Fight like an Egyptian” and “Hosni Walker,” while the rotunda occupation itself bore more than a passing likeness to Tahrir Square. Chants of “General strike” filled the Capitol rotunda as the occupation continued, while workers and students debated strategies and tactics for moving the struggle forward, in a show of democracy rarely seen in the U.S. labor movement.11 The Wisconsin workers’ struggle likewise inspired protesters in Cairo, illustrated by a February photo of a Tahrir Square protester holding a sign reading “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers—One World, One Pain.”12

Union workers and their non-union supporters alike recognized that the survival of Wisconsin’s public sector unions required defeating Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s legislation that stripped them of their most basic collective bargaining rights.13 Moreover, Walker’s attack was by no means isolated, but represented a concerted strategy—spearheaded by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, but echoed in states dominated by Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York14—to attack public sector workers simultaneously, state by state.

As the battle in Wisconsin was unfolding, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that public opinion on a national scale opposed weakening the bargaining rights of public sector employees by a margin of nearly two to one.15 And Wisconsin workers were not alone in their attempts to stave off this latest assault. Tens of thousands of workers protested in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere against their own state legislatures’ plans to impose similar anti-union bills. In both Wisconsin and Indiana, sensing the fury of their constituents, Democratic lawmakers fled the state for a period of weeks in order to deny Republicans, who held a majority, the easy ability to pass the legislation.

Wisconsin’s public sector unions had already agreed to all of Walker’s wage and benefit cuts and readily announced that they were fighting only over the attack on collective bargaining rights. Unions were prepared, however, to mobilize their members by the tens of thousands to protest in Madison, and even some unions unaffected by the legislation, most notably firefighters, were enthusiastic participants in the Capitol occupation. Key union leaders launched workplace action early on. Although public sector strikes are illegal in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) called on teachers to call in sick on February 17 and 18 and instead join the protests in Madison, shutting down dozens of school districts. The AFT-Wisconsin (formerly the American Federation of Teachers) followed suit—giving confidence and hope of victory to Wisconsin workers.

The human material clearly existed to broaden workplace action—if anything, the anger and scale of the protests were self-propelling the struggle forward. But even as the protests grew massively, union officials seemed unsure whether to escalate or retreat—and ended up doing both. By Monday, February 21, WEAC president Mary Bell had ordered teachers back to work.16 Soon thereafter, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), the umbrella organization for unions representing 45,000 workers in the six-county area around Madison, posted the following statement on its website: “The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his ‘budget repair bill.’” This statement strongly suggested a coming escalation on the part of unions, but none materialized. Indeed, union leaders remained paralyzed on March 11, the day that Walker signed the bill into law.

Republicans successfully rammed through the anti-union measures, not only in Wisconsin but also in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. It would be mistaken, however, to regard this recent episode of class struggle as merely a flash in the pan before class relations return to business as usual. Rather, it has the potential to mark the opening battle in a new era that lies ahead. Although no strikes took place at all in Wisconsin throughout the month of February—the mass character of the struggle in Wisconsin brings forth images of some of the great historic high points for U.S. labor.

Indeed, the struggle is far from over in Wisconsin, evidenced by the 15-20,000 protesters who again amassed at the Madison Capitol building on May 14 to declare, “This Fight Is NOT Over!”17 Several Wisconsin court rulings struck down the constitutionality of the passage of the new laws, as the case winds its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Union activists have embarked on recall campaigns to remove the same Republicans who so zealously jumped on the union-busting bandwagon. And at the time of this writing, union activists and supporters have set up a tent city outside the Capitol building, named “Walkerville”—modeled after the “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression—vowing to remain throughout the state budget process.18

Part 2: Marxist theory of labor unions under capitalism
As activists seek to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom up, the Wisconsin battle demonstrates both the great potential and the enormous limitations of trade unions. The struggle in Wisconsin emerged out of a crisis for the U.S. labor movement, decades in the making. The number of strikes fell to their lowest point on record in 2009 and to the second lowest in 2010.19These figures demonstrate the extent to which labor leaders have been unwilling to use labor’s most effective weapon, the strike, even as union membership plummeted to just 11.9 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2010, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier—and 24.1 percent in 1979.20 Decades of concessionary bargaining—at first, claimed to be a temporary phenomenon—have made wage and benefit cuts routine aspects of union negotiations, thereby enabling the deterioration of working-class living standards.

History has shown that the rate of union membership corresponds to the rise and decline in the level of class struggle. If the current balance of class forces can only be reversed through a revival of class struggle, then the key challenge facing union activists is how to transform their unions into fighting organizations. For Marxists, this necessarily entails, step by step, strengthening the fighting capacity of workers in general, and union workers in particular.

The contradictory character of unions
Unions are workers’ front line of defense against their employers under capitalism. But as vehicles for struggle, they are also crucial to the future self-emancipation of the working class. But there is also a contradiction: unions both negotiate the terms of exploitation of workers under capitalism and also provide the vehicle for struggle that can prepare the working class for revolution. Marx and his lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, were able to articulate unions’ contradictory role in the revolutionary process while capitalism was still in its infancy.

“Divide and conquer” has long been the watchword of the ruling class. Capitalism forces workers into competition with each other—native vs. foreign born, skilled vs. unskilled, etc.—exploiting every opportunity to keep workers divided. Organizing into unions, which present the opportunity for collective struggle against the employers, thereby reduces competition between workers. In 1845, Engels argued,

But what gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order.21

Although Marx and Engels expected the revolutionary process to advance much more rapidly than history has proven, they identified not only that reducing competition between workers by organizing into unions was the key to advancing working-class struggle, but also that capitalism propels workers back into collective struggle even after periods of setback. As they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “This organization of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier.”22

Socialist historian Hal Draper likewise remarked, “To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to ‘believe in’ the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton to fall from an airplane. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so.”23

In this context, the battle in Wisconsin demonstrated how capitalism could once again propel workers into struggle, opening the door to rebuilding the labor movement on the basis of collective struggle. There is much work to be done, since neoliberalism has so successfully forced workers to compete in a race to the bottom on a global scale over the last three decades. The potential, however, exists.

The revolutionary process
Shifting the balance of class forces is, of course, of immediate urgency for the U.S. labor movement. But for Marxists, a new era of class struggle also provides a path to working-class revolution—by preparing workers not only to overthrow the system but also to rule society collectively. Marx stated clearly in the German Ideology, “[T]he revolution is necessary therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”24

Marx and Engels regarded class struggle as the means through which the working class advances from a class “in itself” to a class “for itself,” as a necessary precondition for their own self-emancipation. As Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers.… The mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and continues itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.”25

The tremendous class solidarity expressed in Madison in February and March marked a leap forward in establishing a working class “for itself”—including union and non-union workers from the public and private sector, students and supporters from all over the U.S. committed to defending public sector unions in Wisconsin.

Engels argued that unions, and the strike weapon in particular, are “schools of war” that train workers in class struggle, as a necessary precondition to their own self-emancipation:

These strikes, at first skirmishes, sometimes result in weighty struggles; they decide nothing, it is true, but they are the strongest proof that the decisive battle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is approaching. They are the military school of the workingmen in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided.… And as schools of war, the Unions are unexcelled.26

Draper added to this formulation, “The trade-union movement is a school or training ground of the proletariat in a less warlike sense too, including that of preparing cadres of workers capable of administering society. Engels pointed out that ‘the working people, in the management of their colossal Trade Societies’ also prove themselves ‘fit for administrative and political work.’”27

Thus, while unions exist to negotiate better terms for workers under capitalism, the additional goal for revolutionaries is always to strengthen the fighting capacity of the working class, with the aim of expanding and deepening revolutionary leadership among rank-and-file workers. As such, each phase of struggle—whether a victory or a defeat—marks a particular moment in the revolutionary process. This is not a wooden formula, but involves shifting strategies and tactics appropriate for every stage of the class struggle, which will be discussed further below.

Negotiating the terms of exploitation
At their best, unions are indispensible vehicles for the class struggle. But since their essential function under capitalism is to negotiate the terms of exploitation on behalf of their members, their preservation depends on the continuation of capitalist class relations. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein argue, “The improvement of workers’ conditions within capitalism—not the overthrow of capitalism—is the common guideline of trade union activity in normal times. In reality unions tacitly accept the framework set by the system and tend either to exclude political issues from discussion or to support reformist political parties that do not challenge the present order of society.”28

At various points in Marx and Engels’ lifetimes, unions led the class struggle far forward; at others, they restrained the movement. In times of union retreat, Marx and Engels complained bitterly about the state of the trade unions. As Engels wrote in 1871, “The trade union movement, among all the big, strong and rich trade unions, has become more an obstacle to the general movement than an instrument of its progress.”29

The Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin echoed Marx and Engels’ changing attitudes toward trade unions. But he too was reacting to the historic role of the unions themselves, reflecting their vacillation. In 1899, Lenin wrote, “Every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the worker’s mind, thoughts of the struggle of the entire working class for emancipation from the oppression of capital.… This is the reason that socialists call strikes ‘a school of war,” a school in which the workers learn to make war on their enemies for the liberation of the whole people.”30

Just three years later, Lenin’s polemic What Is to Be Done? described the politics of trade unionism in singularly negative terms: “There is much talk of spontaneity. But the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology...for the spontaneous working-class movement is trade-unionism…and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”31 Yet three years after that, during the 1905 revolution, Lenin returned to his earlier argument, commenting that “the working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic [socialist].”32

The commentary above appears contradictory but represents Marxists’ theoretical understanding of the contradictory role played by trade unions in day-to-day class relations. A second aspect of the role of unions limits their explicitly political role under capitalism. Unions represent (or seek to represent) all workers of a particular trade or within a particular industry—the more workers a union can organize into one organization, the stronger its ability to wield its economic power through strikes and other workplace actions.

So a bigger and broader union reduces competition between a larger section of the working-class. But this economic strength imposes political limits on unions. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pointed out,

The trade union embraces broad masses of workers, at different levels. The broader these masses, the closer is the trade union to accomplishing its task. But what the organization gains in breadth it inevitably loses in depth. Opportunistic, nationalist, religious tendencies in the trade unions and their leadership express the fact that the trade unions embrace not only the vanguard [most militant workers] but also heavy reserves. The weak side of the unions therefore comes from their strong side.33

For this reason, unions cannot be transformed into revolutionary formations. This historic political role can only be fulfilled by explicitly revolutionary political organizations and parties.

The trade union officialdom
Cliff and Gluckstein, with the benefit of more recent experience, elaborated on the role of trade union officials:

To believe that pressure from below can force union leaders on to a revolutionary path is to misunderstand the nature of the bureaucracy, to spread illusions in it, and to blunt workers’ consciousness and action. Trade union leaders may be induced to obey some wishes of the rank and file, but they will never be able to substitute for the collective action of the masses. The self-activity of the workers is therefore paramount.34

Marx and Engels (and other Marxists since) frequently directed their frustration at trade union leaders. Indeed, Marx and Engels repeatedly complained about craft union leaders who refused to broaden the union movement beyond their particular trades.35 “It seems to be a law of the proletarian movement everywhere that a section of the workers’ leaders should become demoralized,” wrote Engels in 1869. “The leadership of the working class of England has wholly passed into the hands of corrupted union officials and the professional agitators,” echoed Marx in 1878.36

If unions function to negotiate the terms of exploitation under capitalism, then union officials act as the negotiators for their members. Their class position is thus itself contradictory. Full-time union officials are not workers themselves, and the contracts they negotiate on behalf of their members do not affect their own salaries and working conditions. If the contract agrees to layoffs, union leaders still keep their jobs. If wages are slashed or a speedup imposed, union officials will maintain the same salaries and working conditions as before.

Thus union leaders are neither workers nor capitalists, but mediators between the two. In the absence of pressure from below, they are likely to adapt to pressure from above. As German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg described,

The specialization of professional activity as trade-union leaders, as well as the naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period, leads only too easily, amongst trade-union officials, to bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook.… There is first of all the overvaluation of the organization, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated. From this also comes that openly admitted need for peace which shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade unions, and further, the overvaluation of the trade-union method of struggle itself, its prospects and its successes.37

To be sure, the business cycle imposes some objective limits to unions’ ability to negotiate favorable terms for workers under normal conditions of capitalism. During the boom phase of the economic cycle, capitalists are far more likely to grant union demands, while in periods of recession—and high unemployment—the tables are reversed. This certainly contributes to the pattern of advances and retreats in the class struggle. But the decline of wages and union membership over the last three decades cannot be explained by the business cycle, as the current “recovery” demonstrates all too clearly. This decline can only be explained by the scale and duration of the neoliberal assault on the working class and the conservatism of the entrenched U.S. labor bureaucracy.

The conservatism of the U.S. labor bureaucracy in recent decades is distinguished not only by union officials’ demonstrated abhorrence of struggle, but also by labor’s long-standing ties to the Democratic Party, a self-proclaimed pro-capitalist party. Both Clinton and Obama, for example, made significant campaign promises to unions that were quickly broken upon taking office. Neither Clinton’s promise to ban the use of permanent replacements of striking workers, a favorite strategy of corporations in defeating unions, nor Obama’s pledge to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, enabling “card check” voting in union recognition, ever saw the light of day.

Yet support for the Democrats has continued unabated even as union membership and wages reached a crisis point over the last decade. Each election year Democratic Party candidates can continue to count on unions’ massive political and financial support for their campaigns, while delivering little or nothing in return.

The reluctance of top union officials to challenge the status quo is certainly reinforced by their enormous salaries, which equal those of many corporate executives. As Nelson Lichtenstein wrote, comparing U.S. and European union officials, unions in the U.S. grew to employ

The largest and best-paid stratum of full-time salaried officers in the labor movement world.… Functionary worker ratios in the United States were something like one in three hundred at the end of the 1950s, while the European average was about one full-time office holder per two thousands unionists. The U.S. had sixty thousand full-time union officers in 1960, compared to just four thousand in Great Britain.38

As Mark Brenner reports in Labor Notes, union officials “earning more than $100,000 a year tripled between 2000 and 2008, the latest year with complete data, and the number earning more than $150,000 also tripled.… In 2008, nearly 10,000 union officials or staff brought home salaries greater than $100,000, costing a total of $1.2 billion.” Indeed, five of the top union officials “received more than half a million dollars just in salary, and everyone in the top 15 earned more than $400,000.” Brenner also noted, “Officials earning more than $150,000 found themselves among the richest 5 percent of American households. Meanwhile, the typical union member earned $48,000 in 2008; the overall average U.S. income was $40,000.”39

The weight of this past weighs heavily on the labor movement today, even as the working class becomes ripe for struggle.

Theory and practice
Union workers will be key to turning the tide, and a union orientation must be central in formulating a political perspective today. Socialists must participate in their unions, however ossified their union bureaucracy or undemocratic their practice.40 As Lenin advised revolutionaries in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder,

You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found. The trade unions and the workers’ co-operatives (the latter sometimes, at least) are the very organizations in which the masses are to be found.41

Union democracy is of paramount importance, with the aim of strengthening the fighting potential of the unions’ rank-and-file members. But there is no predetermined series of stages that must be passed through to accomplish this goal.

Nor do union leaders’ formal politics necessarily determine their role in the class struggle. Mineworkers leader John L. Lewis, judged by his formal politics—a staunch Republican and anti-communist—might have seemed an unlikely candidate for spearheading the struggle for industrial unions in the 1930s. Yet Lewis recognized that the American Federation of Labor (AFL), in refusing to organize unskilled workers, was holding back organized labor from growing. He led a split within the AFL, effectively unleashing the strike wave that built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).42 Lewis intended to run the CIO in the same top-down manner as he did the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). But the scale of the class struggle often prevented Lewis from reigning in rank-and-file workers leading strikes and factory occupations on the ground, particularly in the auto industry in 1936 and 1937.

Marxism provides the theoretical foundation for understanding the vacillating character of trade union officials. Below, Cliff and Gluckstein lay out the basis in practice for “common action between a revolutionary party leading sections of the rank and file, and the trade union bureaucracy—both the left wing and sometimes the right”:

This common action can be useful in developing the working-class struggle, for although even the most left elements of the bureaucracy remain unreliable and unstable, a temporary alliance of revolutionaries with them can weaken the hold of the bureaucracy as a whole. A revolutionary party must know how to exploit the division between left and right bureaucrats, between those who are prepared to make militant speeches (even if they will not act upon them) and those who are openly wedded to conciliation at all times. Through using this division the independence, initiative and self-confidence of the rank and file may be strengthened, on one condition: the party must make clear that the rank and file cannot trust the left officials or put their faith in radical rhetoric. The party must always remind trade unionists that even if bureaucrats put themselves at the head of a movement of insurgent workers, they do so in order better to control that movement.

An alliance with left bureaucrats is only a means to broad action. Even the best and most radical speeches should never become a substitute for the action of the mass of workers themselves. Such an alliance, like every other tactic in the trade union field, must be judged by one criterion, and one criterion only—whether it raises the activity, and hence the confidence and consciousness of the workers.43

Trotsky made the same point, writing about Britain, “With the masses—always, with the vacillating leaders—sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses.”44

This begs the question: should socialists run for union office45 to replace these “vacillating leaders?” This question is answered in Cliff and Gluckstein’s formulation above, which bears repeating here: all trade union tactics should be measured by “one criterion only—whether it raises the activity, and hence the confidence and consciousness of the workers.”46 In a revolutionary period, when a majority of workers are already exercising their fighting capacity and revolution is on the agenda, the answer is straightforward, since revolutionary union leaders can easily act in sync with the revolutionary movement.

But in less tumultuous times, this decision is far more difficult. Over the last three decades many of the labor movement’s most dedicated radicals have taken on leadership positions in trade unions, and their efforts have born some important results—even in the absence of a significant rise in class struggle. Due to widespread and insistent pressure from antiwar union activists, for example, the 2005 AFL-CIO Convention voted in favor of a resolution calling for a “rapid” return of all U.S. troops from Iraq—reversing many decades of uncritical support for imperialism in the U.S. labor movement.47

Socialists cannot be indifferent to the election of reform slates in union elections and must actively support any and all other concrete steps toward winning union democracy. Nevertheless, it is also the case that holding a full-time union office always brings forth substantial pressure to compromise with employers. This pressure from above can easily lead to conservatism even among the most well-meaning union leaders, particularly without the counterbalance of pressure from the rank and file below.

Because above all, revolutionary leadership is not measured by title, but by deed—in ensuring that the most militant workers are able to organize and lead the struggle from below, with or without the agreement of the existing union officials. If this group of militants remains a minority among the union’s membership, then strengthening their confidence and influence might well prove the most effective tactic, which would certainly not be accomplished by taking full-time leadership positions.

Helping to cohere this militant minority can be achieved in a number of ways, from forging alliances with other workers willing to stand up for union rights in individual workplaces to standing with those who vote no on a concessionary union contract. Even if the membership vote for a contract is 90 percent in favor and just 10 percent opposed, socialists could be far more effective in focusing on cohering, and expanding the influence of, this small but militant minority than on formal union leadership positions.

Cliff and Gluckstein also described the necessary discipline imposed upon members of a revolutionary party working inside unions:

[T]here must be collective control by the party over the individual and his or her subordination to the party cell in the workplace or the local party branch.… [T]he struggle for the election of any official should supplement and not supplant the activity of the workers. Elections in the union should enhance the power of the rank and file, and not substitute for it.48

The importance of perspectives
Marxist theory provides a starting point, but only a starting point, for socialists in unions today. There is no formula for applying the Marxist method in individual unions at specific points in the class struggle that lie ahead. Unions do not negotiate in a vacuum and union leaders alone do not dictate the future of the class struggle. Strategies and tactics need to be determined in practice, and adapted to the many factors that determine the balance of class forces—which are not static, but ever-changing—at any given moment. Those sectarians who at all times view the “treachery of the union bureaucracy” as the key obstacle to advancing the class struggle (accompanied by incessant calls for a “general strike” no matter what the actual state of class relations) have strayed far from the Marxist method. As Luxemburg articulated in the Mass Strike, written shortly after the 1905 Russian revolution,

If, therefore, the Russian Revolution teaches us anything, it teaches above all that the mass strike is not artificially “made,” not “decided” at random, not “propagated,” but that it is a historical phenomenon, which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability. It is not, therefore, by abstract speculations on the possibility or impossibility, the utility or the injuriousness of the mass strike, but only by an examination of those factors and social conditions out of which the mass strike grows in the present phase of the class struggle—in other words, it is not by subjective criticism of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is desirable, but only by objective investigation of the sources of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is historically inevitable, that the problem can be grasped or even discussed.49

Strategies and tactics must be determined through an assessment of both objective and subjective factors at each particular phase of history. James P. Cannon, founder of the U.S. Trotskyist movement, described the importance of this process as follows: “The first point is the question of perspective. Where are we going, what are the factors in the situation, and what is the general trend? Clarification on this point is necessary first.”50

Anticipating the future direction of the class struggle is crucial to developing a perspective. In the same article, Cannon laid out the importance of the Communist Party’s trade union resolution adopted in May 1928—which anticipated “the growing industrial depression and its radicalizing effects upon the workers” years before the rise of industrial unions during the Great Depression. Cannon continued, with remarkable accuracy,

The resolution predicts a growing unrest of the workers and sees a prospect of big struggles, particularly in fields where the workers are unorganized, such as the automobile, rubber, textile and meatpacking industries. Great masses of workers are employed in these industries, they are fiercely exploited, the existing trade unions offer them no protection, and their mood for struggle is growing.

These factors determine our orientation. The only possible line for the Communist Party in the present situation is to calculate upon a growing unrest of the workers and an increasing will to struggle and to put the main emphasis and center of gravity in its trade union work on the organization of the unorganized and the preparation for strikes.51

Recognizing when the time is approaching for a surge in class struggle is essential to preparing for its arrival. The outbreak of class struggle in Wisconsin, and indeed throughout the Midwest, marks the opening battle of a future era of class conflict. It takes place in the context of a protracted and severe economic crisis that began with the onset of the Great Recession and still shows no sign of significant rebound, despite the restoration of corporate profits. The excesses of neoliberal policy caused the financial meltdown of 2008, yet neoliberalism persists. The corporate class will continue its assault on workers until the class struggle forces a shift in the balance of class forces.

There will be many challenges, victories, and defeats ahead of us. These are inevitable in the revolutionary process, during which the revolutionary party prepares itself to lead the self-emancipation of the working-class—while the working class prepares itself to not just overthrow the system, but also to rule society in the interests of the vast majority of humanity.

  1. Karl Marx, “Value, Price and Profit,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 20 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), 146.
  2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Phil Gasper, ed., The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 39.
  3. Quoted in Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, Washington Babylon (New York: Verso, 1996), 11.
  4. Jia Lynn Yang, ”Corporate profits hit record rate,” Washington Post, November 23, 2010.
  5. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 231.
  6. Andrew Ross Sorkin, “A bridge loan? U.S. should guide G.M. in a chapter 11,” New York Times, November 17, 2008. Sorkin’s wage claim was refuted by Art Levine, “Smart ways to a bailout—step 1: stop demonizing the UAW,” Huffington Post, November 24, 2008.
  7. Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter, “Cutting wages won’t solve Detroit 3’s crisis,” Detroit News, December 4, 2008.
  8. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Economic News Release: Union Members Summary, January 21, 2011.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Dennis Cauchon, “Wisconsin one of 41 states where public workers earn more," USA Today, March 2, 2011. This and other false claims are refuted by Petrino DiLeo, “Seven deadly lies about public-sector workers,”, March 10, 2011.
  11. Aongus Ó Murchadha, “Workers draw the line in Wisconsin,” Socialistworker,org, February 16, 2011. Lee Sustar, “Do or Die in Wisconsin,”, March 10, 2011.
  12. Phil Gasper, “Class Struggle in Wisconsin,” International Socialist Review, Issue 77, May–June 2011.
  13. Walker’s bill strips public-sector workers of the right to bargain collectively over anything other than wages; ends the automatic payment of union dues; and forces unions to hold votes each year to recertify their status as bargaining units. See Lee Sustar, “Class war in Wisconsin,”, February 18, 2011.
  14. See, for example, Danny Hakim and Tomas Kaplan, “Cuomo Urges Broad Limits to N.Y. Public Pensions,” New York Times, June 8, 2011.
  15. New York Times/CBS News poll, published February 28, 2011.
  16. News report, NBC 15, Madison, Wisconsin.
  17. John Nichols, “Tens of Thousands Rally in Wisconsin to Declare: ‘This Fight is NOT Over!’” Nation, May 16, 2011.
  18. “Walkerville tent city—we shall not be moved,” Defend Wisconsin. Available at
  19. Akito Yoshikane, “Quiet on the Labor Front: 2010 Strikes and Lockouts Were Second Lowest on Record,” Working In These Times, February 9, 2011.
  20. BLS, op cit. And BLS,
  21. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 4 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 507.
  22. Marx and Engels, “Communist Manifesto” (Gasper edition), 53.
  23. Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of RevolutionVolume II: The Politics of Social Classes (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 42.
  24. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 53.
  25. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 211.
  26. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, in Collected Works, Vol. 5, 512.
  27. Draper, 98.
  28. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 (London: Bookmarks, 1986), 32.
  29. Draper, 107.
  30. V. I. Lenin, “On Strikes,” Collected Works, Vol. 4 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 315.
  31. V. I. Lenin, What Is to be Done?Collected Works, Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 384. It is worth keeping in mind that Lenin was arguing against “economists” who underestimated the need for revolutionary politics in the class struggle.
  32. V. I. Lenin, “The Reorganization of the Party,” Collected Works, Vol. 10 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 32.
  33. Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, 30.
  34. Cliff and Gluckstein, 31.
  35. While this article is meant to outline in broad strokes the key contributions of Marxism to a theory of trade unions under capitalism, it is worth mentioning, Marx and Engels’ confusing formulation of the “aristocracy of labor” to describe craft unions in advanced capitalist economies (this formulation was repeated later by Lenin). Sometimes the labor aristocracy referred to craft unions’ unwillingness to organize the mass of unskilled workers. At other times, Marx and Engels appeared to develop a theory (again, echoed by Lenin) that workers in advanced capitalist societies reaped some benefits due to imperialism. See Draper, 105-08.
  36. Richard Hyman, Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism (London: Pluto Press, 1971), 9.
  37. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions, in The Essential Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2008), 177.
  38. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 125.
  39. Mark Brenner, “Unions’ Top-Heavy Salaries a Drag on Organizing,” Labor Notes, March 15, 2010.’-top-heavy-salaries-drag-organizing.
  40. In the first decades of the twentieth century, participation in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the exclusionary craft union federation that dominated the U.S. labor in the early twentieth century, was a source of harsh debate among labor radicals. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed as an explicitly revolutionary alternative to the AFL.
  41. Lenin, Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in Collected Works Vol. 31, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), 53.
  42. The CIO was formed as the Committee for Industrial Organization, out of a split within the conservative American Federation of Labor over opening unions’ doors to unskilled workers. In 1937, the CIO formally separated itself, becoming the Congress of Industrial Organization.
  43. Cliff and Gluckstein, 31-32.
  44. Trotsky, Writings on Britain (London: New Park, 1974), Vol. 2, 191.
  45. This refers to full-time office, although the same criteria apply to positions on union negotiating committees and other positions within the apparatus.
  46. Cliff and Gluckstein, 31-2.
  47. U.S. Labor Against the War press release, “AFL-CIO says, ‘Bring the troops home!’” July 27, 2005.
  48. Cliff and Gluckstein, 34.
  49. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 117–18.
  50. James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism. Selected Writings and Speeches, 1920-1928 (New York: Spartacist Publishing Company, 1992), 513.
  51. Ibid.



Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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