Toward a renewal of the labor movement

US labor after the Chicago teachers' strike

IN PART One of this article, published in ISR 88, LEE SUSTAR looked at the restructuring of the US economy and its impact on the working class and organized labor. This article looks at the significance of the Chicago Teachers Union strike for a labor movement that has continued to lose members and political clout even as the economy recovers.

The CTU strike and its importance for the labor movement
In the midst of this gloomy scene for labor came the biggest and boldest example of social unionism in decades—the strike by some 27,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union. Launched a few days after a raucous Labor Day rally that put thousands of teachers and supporters into the streets, the strike began with some 20,000 CTU members swarming downtown Chicago, immobilizing traffic and leaving Mayor Rahm Emanuel sputtering. Daily mass rallies, including ones in predominately African American working class neighborhoods, highlighted the popularity of the strike, which was confirmed in opinion polls that found that 66 percent of students’ parents backed the teachers.1 It was almost certainly the most popular big-city teachers’ strike in US history. Working-class Chicago not only identified with the teachers’ demand for fair pay and the defense public education, but also saw the teachers as fighting for the dignity and respect of working people generally.

The CTU strike was reported on extensively in the mainstream media as well as left-wing publications such as the ISR and Socialist Worker. Those accounts are essential reading for union activists today. The focus here, however, is on the lessons of the struggle for union activists across the labor movement:

  • Building a viable reform caucus takes time and some hard political lessons. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was founded by teachers who had been through the experience of an earlier reform leadership that was turned out of office after one term for having negotiated a concessionary contract. The activists who formed CORE drew the conclusion that the previous reform president, Deborah Lynch, had focused on winning office, neglected building a base in the schools, and was out of touch with the membership when it negotiated the contract. When the contract was voted down, the union threatened a strike—but had made no preparations for one. The membership, skeptical of Lynch’s ability to lead a strike, voted to accept a somewhat improved contract but then turned her out of office months later. It took two disastrous, scandal-ridden terms of the old guard before CORE won union elections.2
  • Winning union office brings enormous pressures to compromise—but rank and file pressure can be a counterweight. In negotiations over state education legislation, CTU President Karen Lewis initially supported the law known as SB7 that imposed a requirement that 75 percent of union members must vote to authorize a strike. But CORE members on the executive board rejected that decision, as did union delegates. While the legislation passed anyway, the CTU’s rejection of SB7 sent an important message that CORE would not compromise on its principles.3
  • A union that pours resources into organizing the rank and file can get results. CTU officers cut their pay and put money into internal organizing, chapter by chapter. Training for delegates and other CTU members went well beyond the usual network of activists to create an organizational backbone of 1,000–3,000 teachers and paraprofessionals who led discussion about contract demands and made the argument that a strike would be necessary.
  • Preparing for a serious strike takes months. By the time most union leaders call strikes, defeat is in the air as panicked negotiators realize too late that management won’t budge. Where the bosses are prepared with union-busting operations, the unions lurch into action at the last minute. The CORE leadership of the CTU, by contrast, began making the case that a strike would likely be necessary almost as soon as they took office. Thus when the school board and the mayor took aggressive action against the teachers, the CTU’s perspective was vindicated and the rank and file was prepared.
  • Social movement unionism is essential, especially for public sector workers in struggle. CORE’s first activity as an opposition caucus was a campaign against school closures that take place almost exclusively in African American and Latino neighborhoods. Once in office, CORE put substantial union resources into developing that alliance. At the same time, it campaigned politically around its well-researched document, The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve,which highlighted “educational apartheid” in the city.4 By the time the teachers took to the streets, they were seen as popular defenders of social services while the mayor’s popularity ebbed.
  • Union democracy is indispensable to building a fighting union. By a vote of union delegates, the CTU strike was extended two extra days after a tentative agreement was reached in order for delegates to take the deal to the picket lines for debate. Hours-long meetings on sidewalks around the city examined the contract in detail. By contrast, strikes in the United States are usually suspended days before members ever get a chance to see even highlights of a tentative agreement. In the CTU’s case, taking the deal to tens of thousands of members enabled the union to end the strike with a sense of unity and victory.
  • Socialist politics make a difference. The role of radicals and socialists of various political traditions in the CTU was important in many aspects of the strike, from organizing picket lines to framing negotiations, to politically preparing the union from the attacks by labor’s Democratic Party “friends.” Starting from a perspective that the union’s power is in a self-activated rank and file, the left in the CTU succeeded in creating networks of militants that went well beyond the union’s formal organizational machinery.

This is not to claim that large numbers of Chicago teachers have embraced socialism. Rather, the point is that labor militants, including socialists, worked systematically to revive class struggle unionism that gave voice to the basic demands of teachers for dignity and respect as well as just compensation. At a time when union leaders who cling to labor-management partnership are presiding over one disaster after another, Chicago teachers were prepared to follow a left-wing leadership which argued that a failure to fight meant certain defeat—and that taking a risk was necessary to win.

The politics of labor’s decline
The dramatic success of the CTU strike stands in contrast with the record of most unions since 1995, when the New Voices slate led by John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO. The promise Sweeney made then was to build up labor’s political muscle in the Democratic Party, step up efforts to organize the unorganized and revive labor-management partnership on the basis of a more active union membership—the “mobilization” model that he had backed while president of the SEIU.5

The full employment economy did give labor some leverage in the early years of the Sweeney administration. Besides the popular and victorious UPS strike of 1997, workers won big strikes at Verizon’s predecessor company and most of a series of local strikes in the auto industry. Organizing efforts slowed the decline in union membership and eventually boosted it by the turn of the century, but not enough to stop the decline in the percentage of workers represented by unions. The recession of 2007-09 then pushed the unions back into an absolute decline in overall numbers and an even sharper drop in union density, that is, the percentage of workers who are members of unions.6

The more hostile the terrain for contract bargaining and organizing, the more unions have looked to politics to rescue them from irrelevance. Sweeney had some political success in his own terms, boosting the percentage of voters from union households to 24 percent in 2004. But by the 2012 election, the figure was down to 18 percent.7 It was the focus on politics and its diminishing returns that was a motivating factor in Change to Win’s split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. But by 2012, the SEIU, the dominant force the breakaway group, itself doubled down on political spending, putting $33.4 million into the elections.8 While political spending and participation surged, the SEIU’s vaunted organizing machine was stalled: forms the union filed with the US Department of Labor reflected an increase of just 5,000 members and 2,000 agency fee payers between 2011 and 2012, perhaps the smallest gain in the union’s history.9

Despite labor’s fulsome support for Democrats, they are increasingly likely to attack the unions rather than attend to their interests. The most obvious example was the ignominious fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which labor leaders saw as a ticket to fast-track organizing by removing some of the harshest pro-employer provisions of the laws governing union representation elections. Backed by Obama on the campaign trail, EFCA went nowhere in a Democratic controlled Congress until banished by the Republican comeback in the 2010 elections.

Even if EFCA had passed, it would have not have been the magic bullet to reverse labor’s decline, argued the late Jerry Tucker, the former dissident UAW regional director who was the most outstanding labor strategist of his day. “I would take it back to labor’s culture—its actual activity and what it represents to workers,” he said in 2008. “Organized labor doesn’t represent a movement at this point that workers can attach themselves to—where they feel a certain sense of upsurge or upward momentum.”10

Many union activists hoped that Richard Trumka would bring the sense of movement back to organized labor when he took over the AFL-CIO from Sweeny in 2009. As president of the United Mineworkers in the 1980s, he’d led a combative strike victory over the Pittston coal group, and was known for his fiery speeches. But under Trumka the AFL-CIO has only further retreated from any kind of industrial strategy and moved even further into Democratic Party politics. Despite the EFCA debacle and a range of anti-labor policies pursued by the Obama administration and Democratic governors, Trumka has apparently concluded that being attacked by labor’s supposed friends is better than being annihilated by the Republicans. The idea of a labor-based political alternative seems beyond consideration. Thus, the AFL-CIO Executive Council is pressing state and local affiliates to better integrate themselves into electoral campaigns by hiring “professional campaign managers.”11

As Chris Townsend, the longtime Washington representative of the independent United Electrical workers put it:

The labor leadership and staff of today increasingly consist of middle class and professional elements who have no vision or experience beyond the conservative, timid, and limited Democratic Party worldview. They fear the intensifying battles with the employers and politicians—to the extent that they even understand the nature of them—and cannot imagine a political action strategy beyond just more money and more votes for Democrats. The unions methodically adopt a sort-of “reverse syndicalism” policy where traditional workplace union functioning is abandoned in favor of a political campaign-style of unionism. This systematically reduces the union to a political campaign vehicle, and as a result liquidates the union ability to extract concessions from the employer.

At the very moment when workplace union structures are needed more than ever they have been replaced with political campaign machinery which cannot withstand the attacks of the employers. This political-action-style of work also redirects the union struggle away from collisions with the employers in the workplace and off into frequently vague or remote political pressure campaigns. An entire generation of union leadership is now being trained to think that the union goal is to pressure politicians and “raise consciousness” via the media, and not compel employers to deliver tangible changes in the workplace.12

Labor, the left, and the renewal of US labor
Labor’s disarray has, understandably, provoked an urgent discussion among labor intellectuals that was featured in a recent issue of the magazine Logos. Longtime labor and racial justice activist Bill Fletcher makes the case that the revival of the left is essential to the renewal of organized labor. The roots of labor’s decline, he argues, date from the 1940s when, “more than anything else organized labor refused to accept the inevitability of class struggle and instead insisted that the elimination of the left-wing in labor helped to ensure that a productive relationship could be built with capital.”13 Labor’s unwillingness to organize the South—and to confront racism in that region—allowed “right to work” laws to stymie union organization to this day, undermining the labor movement as a whole, Fletcher notes. Labor’s renewal will be difficult and will depend on the ability of the movement to follow the example of the Chicago teachers’ strike with an inclusive social movement unionism that takes up political issues as well, he concludes.

Writing in the same journal, labor historian Melvyn Dubofsky doubts whether such a comeback is even possible. “Given the current alignment of forces domestically and globally, I find it hard to conceive of any tactics or broader strategy through which the labor movement might reestablish its former size, place, and power,” wrote the author of the classic history of the Industrial Workers of the World and co-author of a biography of miners’ leader John L. Lewis.

A regrowth of the labor movement will not emerge from leaders or forces within the movement as currently constituted. Only a shock of the magnitude of the Great Depression of the 1930s or World Wars I and II is likely to stimulate a rebirth of the labor movement.Such a shock, however, might this time be as likely to produce greater repression of labor as to bring a New Deal for workers. Today it is far easier to maintain “pessimism of the intelligence” than “optimism of the will.”14

Is Dubofsky’s prognosis correct? Certainly the raw numbers underscore labor’s weakness, with unions about as weak in the private sector as they were in the heyday of the IWW that Dubofsky chronicled. But the character of the labor movement today is very different than it was in the early twentieth century, when the old AFL, run by the arch business unionist Samuel Gompers, was dominated by craft unions that based their power on the exclusion of African Americans, women, immigrants, and unskilled workers. Arne Swabeck, a US delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 could report that: “We in the United States have a very backward and reactionary workers movement. For many years, the leadership of these unions has remained in the same hands, with hardly any challenge. These leaders have adopted with their whole being a policy of labor collaboration.”15

Today, by contrast, US unions represent a higher proportion of African Americans than the population at large. Of the 14.3 million union members in 2012, 6.3 million were white men, 4.9 million were white women, 1 million were African American men, another 1 million African American women, 1.1 million were Latino men, and 834,000 were Latinas.16 Even if we grant that the second-largest union, the SEIU, is increasingly unaccountable to union members with its multi-state and industry-wide union “locals” and concessions to business, it nonetheless includes a large percentage of low-wage workers of color among its 1.8 million members. That in turn shapes the politics of the unions with regard to immigration, for example. While the SEIU and other unions are all too ready to cut deals with corporate interests for immigration reform that could create guest worker status and include harsh enforcement, that’s a far cry from the AFL’s nativism of a century ago. This is not Sam Gompers’ labor movement.

Moreover, the unions today, however bureaucratic and ineffective, nevertheless reflect the diversity of the US working class like no other institution. Just as important, they are the result of workers’ organization at the point of production—where wealth is generated in capitalist society. It is from this that unions derive their power, even if it is more potential than actual today. If the Occupy movement showed the possibility of building a mass movement against the wealthiest 1 percent, it is in the workplace that workers can act collectively to make concrete gains in that struggle. The Chicago teachers strike, the walkouts at Ford, and the battle on the docs in Longview, Washington, are reminders that unions—whether existing ones or new formations—will continue to play the central role in labor’s inherent conflict with capital.

Nevertheless, one aspect of Swabeck’s assessment of US labor in 1922 still rings true: “The policy of labor collaboration” by union officials. While business unionism has failed to deliver the goods for decades, the US left has yet to overcome the Cold War anticommunist purges of the unions in the 1950s. The unraveling of business unionism won’t, however, lead to an automatic revival of the left in the unions. The decline of the left since the 1970s and the four-decade assault on labor right-wing offensive can make the partnership, pro-Democratic Party politics of the labor leaders can still appear to the majority of workers to be the only viable perspective for unions. After all, wouldn’t the Republicans be worse? The only available choice appears to be between a slow demise under the Democrats or a summary execution by the Republicans.

Further, the absence of a labor party in the United States, unique among the Western advanced countries, leaves the dominant ideology of American individualism largely unhindered within the working class. Labor leaders themselves try to reconcile workers to this outlook rather than challenge it. Certainly unions take more progressive positions on racism, sexism, LGBT rights, and other issues than they did just 20 years ago. Even so, these positions are left in the realm of civil rights rather than being seen as the foundation of a strong, principled, and united labor movement.

The union leaders’ ideology flows from their social role as mediators between labor and capital. As a strata removed from the day-to-day pressures of the workplace and enjoying considerably more pay and perks than those they represent, union officials appeal to capital for “fairness” for the “middle class” rather than speak frankly to workers about the inevitability of class struggle and preparing for bitter conflicts in the era of endless austerity. This class collaboration approach was already disorienting and demobilizing even when labor was far stronger decades ago. In the face of today’s relentless employers’ offensive, such a policy leads from one disaster to another.

Reviving a socialist current in the unions
Since the anticommunist purges of the unions in the 1950s, socialists have fought to reestablish themselves as a significant current in the labor movement. In the mid-1960s, Stan Weir, veteran labor activist who was a member of the Independent Socialists, a predecessor organization of the International Socialist Organization, wrote an article called USA: The Labor Revolt which discussed the early stages of the rank-and-file rebellion that would peak a few years later.17

The roots of the rebellion, Weir argued, was, on the one hand, the retreat of the union from the shop floor and the abandonment of the right to strike during the life of contracts; on the other, the pressure of constant push for productivity and a rising cost of living that had begun to squeeze workers despite the overall rise in living standards. The locus of the rebellion, Weir argued, would be what he called the informal work groups at the point of production. It was there that workers would rediscover their power against the employers and push union leaders into action:

In thousands of industrial establishments across the nation, workers have developed informal underground unions. The basic units of organization are groups composed of several workers, each of whose members work in the same plant area and are thus able to communicate with one another and form a social entity. Led by natural on-the-job leaders, they conduct daily guerilla skirmishes with their employers and often against their union officials as well….

For the first time in over three decades, the United States faces a period in which the struggles of the unionized section of the population will have a direct and visible effect on the future of the entire population.

Weir was correct: the years 1965 to 1974 saw the biggest strike wave since the 1940s. In 1969 the Independent Socialists, by then known as the International Socialists, moved their center from Berkeley to Detroit to try and link up with the rank-and-file movement in the auto industry led by African American workers in the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.

Kim Moody developed Weir’s views into a wider perspective for socialists in 1969, titled “The American Working Class in Transition,” an essay that will appear in a forthcoming collection of his essays from Haymarket Books.18 Moody noted that  inflation driven by the Vietnam War, higher taxes and speedup on the shop floor resulted in

a total attack on the living standards of the working-class [that] is national in scope and increasingly political in nature. Unlike the problems of the 1950s which are still operative, those that have emerged in the second half of the 1960s affect all sections of the working-class—even if in varying degrees. Furthermore, the rooting of the current instability in the permanent arms economy tends to expose the interpenetration of the state and the corporations, and to destroy the myth of government as an independent force.

Moody stressed that African American workers were at the center of the rank and file rebellion, owing both to the impact of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement as well as Black workers’ disproportionate representation in basic industry: “In general this growing movement is both class and race conscious. It is part of the general rank-and-file revolt against deteriorating working conditions and income, as well as union bureaucratism. At the same time, the growing number of Black caucuses and organizations are struggling against the special oppression of Black workers.”

Dan La Botz summarized the IS perspective:

The [union] officials’ failure to respond to the employers’ challenge would create the need for an alternative. Radicals would therefore have an opening to organize a class-struggle tendency within the labor movement by organizing rank-and-file caucuses within the different unions. The caucuses would lead workplace struggles over grievances, contract fights, and other collective actions, which were seen as changing workers consciousness—of their relationship to the employers, as well as the state—and to developing their sense of power and self-confidence. Through such struggles, workers would become open not only to more militant action and the fight for democracy in their unions, but also to socialist ideas. These caucuses, as they become stronger, would challenge the bureaucracy, pushing it forward or pushing it aside.19

The IS based its trade union work on the experience of the Trade Union Education League (TUEL), an initiative of the Communist Party (CP) during its revolutionary years in the 1920s. Through the TUEL, the CP built an alliance of militant local union leaders and rank-and-file activists to take up the struggle against the employers’ anti-union “open shop” drive. The emphasis was the building of rank-and-file organization that could carry the struggle forward whether or not the union leaders were willing to fight. While the CP was not opposed to seeking and holding union office, capturing such a position was not an end in itself, but a means to increase the level of rank and file activity—and CP members in official positions were expected to be disciplined to the party.20 (This approach was jettisoned in the 1930s, as the CP adapted itself to the rising bureaucracy of the CIO.)

Following the example of the TUEL, the IS was able to help build or initiate rank-and-file groups in several industries, including auto, Teamsters freight drivers, UPS workers, and the telephone companies at time when workers could look to a model in Miners for Democracy, a reform group that had won control of their union. At the same time, the IS was able to recruit a number of militant workers to socialist politics. It was a significant achievement and disproved the notion that US workers were closed to radical politics.

The employers’ offensive that began in the mid-1970s defeated that rebellion. The layer of rank-and-file militants who had led the struggle were under pressure not only from employers but also from their union leaders, who sought to isolate them or get them fired. The restructuring of industry and unemployment was a shock to industrial workers who had never experienced a deep recession. The closure of US Steel’s South Works plant in Chicago in the early 1980s epitomized the problem: The plant had been the home base of Ed Sadlowski, who lead the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign that nearly defeated an entrenched bureaucracy in the 1976 union elections. The IS and other socialists had played an important role in that campaign. Now the base of the movement was being broken up the restructuring of the steel industry, a process that was also taking place in auto, mining, and freight.

All this created a crisis of perspective for socialists. The ISO was formed in 1977 following a debate in the IS over where socialists should focus in these much more difficult circumstances. Those who remained in the IS, who would go on to help found the organization Solidarity, concluding that the most relevant contribution that socialists could make in the labor movement was to build rank and file and reform union caucuses without the expectation of an audience for socialist politics for some time. The emphasis instead would be placed on broader union-oriented publications like Labor Notes and that magazine’s biannual conferences that gather union militants across the country.

For its part, the ISO, while in solidarity with the Labor Notes project, also attempted to maintain a socialist presences in the labor movement, however small. This often took the form of solidarity activism around for important labor battles, such as the “War Zone” struggles at Caterpillar, Bridgestone-Firestone and Staley in central Illinois in the mid-1990s and the UPS strike of 1997.

In the past 15 years, however, the generational transition in the working class, a shift in political attitudes in the post-Cold War labor movement, and a diligent work by socialists in the unions, however modest, has opened new possibilities for a revival of a class-struggle current in the unions.

In fact, the role of the left in the Chicago teachers’ strike has not gone unnoticed. The strike has become a reference point for teacher militants everywhere, and has inspired or reinvigorated teacher union reform efforts in other cities. The AFT and NEA together are the largest group of unionized workers in the United States, and they are being aggressively targeted. The teachers’ unions will continue to be at the center of class conflict—not only over teacher pay and conditions, but the defense of public education against privatization. The left’s advances in building social movement unionism in Chicago can become a model for a fightback by other teachers.

To carry out this work in the labor movement generally, socialists need to recover the lessons of previous generations of revolutionaries in the unions, from the TUEL to the Trotskyists in the Teamsters in the 1930s to the IS experience of the 1970s. The challenge is to build the rank-and-file organizations that can sustain what used to be called the class struggle wing of the labor movement. Socialists must build in the rank and file at the workplace, because that is where labor’s power ultimately lies. This means alliances with others in the labor movement, like the leaders of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who break with labor-management partnership and see the strike weapon as key to labor’s advance.

As socialists sink roots in the labor movement, a number of questions that were once rather abstract have become very practical. For example, socialists have traditionally drawn a distinction between rank-and-file groups, which are oriented on building workplace power and are organized independently irrespective of who holds union office, and more pragmatic reform groups that tend to see winning office as the means to establish a more democratic and assertive union. Socialists have played a key role in rank and file organizations because they help provide a framework for understanding the vacillations of the trade union bureaucracy, which mediates between capital and labor and is under constant pressure from above and below. The political contributions of socialists are key to rank-and-file movements, too, when it comes to challenging union leaders’ reliance on the Democratic Party.

Today, however, the terms “rank and file group” and “reform” are often used interchangeably on the labor left. The distinction is made here not out of a desire to be aloof from reform efforts—they should be supported. The goal of socialists, however, is to win co-workers to the perspective of building an independent rank-and-file organization based in class struggle, social movement unionism and committed to union democracy. This is not a moral question: Given the ferocity of the attack by employers, such organizations are essential if the unions are to remain a force capable of defending workers’ interests.

The difficulty with implementing the rank-and-file strategy today is that the restructuring of industry, a generational transition in the workforce and the weakness of the left has made it difficult to for militants to even find one another, let alone collaborate to build the struggle. As described earlier, the latest phase of the employers’ offensive is intended to further weaken the informal work groups described by Stan Weir in the 1960s to try and snuff out unions once and for all.

That’s why the Wisconsin labor uprising and the Occupy movement were so important. At a time when unions were absorbing heavy losses amid a retreat, the protests showed labor activists that there are tens of thousands of union workers who want to stand and fight, even if union officials squandered that opportunity. Where they felt isolated and unable to resist concessions at their own workplaces, union militants discovered a sense of power and solidarity in a mass mobilization. The task for socialists is to connect that emerging militancy to the struggle at the point of production. The CTU strike provided an example of how this can happen—and it gave a sense of what socialists can contribute to building a fighting union.

The CTU strike also raised the question of whether and when socialists should run for union office. It is one thing to run a campaign to promote basic ideas of militancy and action. It’s quite another to run with the possibility of winning office. There is no space here to examine the issue in detail. The main criteria is whether or not there is a sufficient political base in the rank and file for the leadership to take the struggle forward, and whether the winning slate is sufficiently militant and cohesive to withstand pressure from both the international union and the employers. There are many cases in recent decades of union reform groups winning office on an anti-incumbent, “throw the bums out” basis, only to find themselves isolated and ineffectual once in office. Winning office prematurely can destroy years of work in building rank-and-file organization.

For most socialists, of course, the question is not when to run for union office, but how to get into the labor movement at all. The possibilities for doing so are improving.

The economic recovery, albeit slow, and the mass retirement of baby boomers are creating job openings at unionized workplaces. The manufacturing revival opens the way for hiring in basic industry in on a scale unseen in decades.

The revival of the labor left since the Wisconsin struggle points to new possibilities for workplace organizing. The challenges will be many: even many unionized workplaces today have a near totalitarian atmosphere, and indiscrete Facebook posts can flag someone as a troublemaker who should be fired at the first opportunity. In addition, building a base at work takes time. It begins with learning the job well and getting to know one’s coworkers—identifying the informal work groups that Stan Weir argued were the key to power in the workplace. It is in this process that class struggle unionism can take root.

Socialist politics can find an audience through this effort too. In the 1930s, many thousands of trade union militants were inspired by the prospect of a socialist alternative to a world wracked by severe economic crisis and war. The same possibilities exist today: linking workers’ fights today to the struggle for a society based on democratic workers control and meeting human needs can appeal to working people who are appalled by endless austerity, resurgent racism, chronic wars and ecological crisis even as they tackle the most immediate issues around wages, healthcare, pensions—if they’ve got a union, and organizing one if they don’t.

Socialists will doubtless continue to play a role in efforts to organize the unorganized, as they have historically. It isn’t clear whether the big unions that have backed organizing efforts of low-wage workers are prepared to undertake long-term organizing efforts. In any case, the project has already highlighted the willingness of many retail and food service workers, from Wal-Mart to McDonald, to use the strike weapon to push for a decent wage. Then there are more strategic long-term campaigns, such as the Warehouse Workers for Justice campaign initiated by the United Electrical workers to organize warehouses that supply Wal-Mart in the Joliet, Illinois, area outside Chicago. An inspiring three-week warehouse strike there in the wake of the CTU strike forced management to stop disciplining workers who complain about poor working conditions and to pay workers for their strike days.21 The importance of this effort should be underlined: Chicago is the center of the nation’s freight transportation network, and an organizing breakthrough in the warehouses could open the way for labor to reenter the supply chain that’s critical to both the manufacturing and retail sectors. (The Teamsters and Change to Win have undertaken a parallel effort to organize Southern California port truckers.)

Other examples could be cited. The point here is that despite the defeats inflicted on labor, there are possibilities to begin rebuilding basic union organization and, at the same time, revive the socialist current in organized labor. Even if Melvyn Dubofsky is correct that labor won’t fully revive without some future “shock,” the prospects of future success amid such tumult depend on the preparatory work undertaken today. That is the lesson of the 1930s, when the upturn in struggle came only after years of bitter setbacks in strikes in which communists and socialists played a key role.

Further, organized labor’s comeback will depend on its connections with wider working class struggles, from the resistance to racial profiling by police to opposition to home foreclosures and a defense of women’s rights. The rise of public sector unionism in the 1960s, inspired in large part by the civil rights movement, is an important reference point.

The historic weakness of US labor—a focus on “bread and butter” issues to the exclusion of social issues—must be overcome if the unions are to be relevant to a multiracial working class whose view is shaped by crisis, austerity and Occupy. Labor’s more progressive positions on such issues must be turned into practical support for those struggles. That in turn, opens the way for wider popular support for unions in struggle, as the popularity of the Chicago teachers strike shows.

The labor movement in 2013 faces a stark choice: continued accommodation to employers and gradual decline into irrelevance, or a turn to struggle in which victory is far from assured and the possibility of a major defeat is considerable. In many circumstances, a serious struggle can mean betting the survival of the union, whether by calling an illegal strike in the public sector or by physically challenging scabs during a strike.

The example of the ILWU struggle in Longview, Washington, is a case in point. Failure to take on the employer would have meant a devastating blow the union’s pension system. But calling a coast-wide solidarity strike would have exposed the unions to hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. In the end, the company backed down because local union members—many of whom had been arrested for blocking trains—made it clear that they were willing to stop the scab cargo by any means necessary. Yet the battle is far from over, as grain employers use the agreement in Longview to try and drive down pay and conditions in other ports. And the grain contract, in turn, is a pilot for the shipping bosses’ demands in the upcoming Pacific Coast longshore contract. The struggle continues.

Similarly, the Chicago Teachers Union had to risk failure in overcoming the limitations on their ability to strike and the possibility that Mayor Emanuel would succeed in getting a court injunction. But by preparing the ground for the strike for more than a year—not only among union members, but also with labor and community allies—the CTU was able to politically isolate the most powerful mayor in America. When Emanuel finally did seek an injunction, the judge said no.

Not every labor battle will assume such high stakes, of course. But the long-term character of the economic crisis and the consolidation of the low-wage economy mean the intensification of class conflict. This will take many forms: defending union activists from wrongful discipline or termination;patiently organizing for months or years to prepare for a contract campaign and a possible strike; forming union organizing committees at nonunion employers and more.

With business unionism threatening to lead organized labor into terminal decline, working class militants inside and outside of the unions are looking for an alternative vision and strategy to take the movement forward. In this new era, class struggle, social movement unionism—and socialist politics—will be relevant to a much wider labor movement audience than it has in decades.

1. Liz Goodwin, “Will the Chicago teachers strike have national consequences?,” Yahoo! News: The Lookout, September 14, 2012. accessed March 15, 2013.

2. Lee Sustar, “Shock waves in the CTU,”, May 25, 2010.

3. Lee Sustar “How can the Chicago Teachers Union win?”, June 26, 2012.

4. The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve is available at the CTU’s web site:

5. Lee Sustar, “A new labor movement?” International Socialist Review No. 1, Summer 1997.

6. “Union membership, coverage, density, and employment among all wage and salary workers, 1973-2012,” available at

7. Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement, “Can unions save the white working-class vote for Democrats?” Washington Post, November 20, 2012.

8. “Service Employees International Union,” The Center for Responsive Politics,

9. U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Labor-Management Standards. Available at

10. Lee Sustar, “What can turn labor in a new direction? An Interview with Jerry Tucker,”, April 11, 2008.

11. “Winning for working families: Building grassroots power,” AFL-CIO, February 27, 2013. Available at

12. Email to the author, February 1, 2013.

13. Bill Fletcher, “Now what? Labor unions and class struggle,” Logos: a Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Winter 2013, Vol. 12, No. 1. Available at

14. Melvyn Dubofsky, “Does organized labor have a future?” Logos, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2013.

15. John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Haymarket Books, 2012).

16. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by selected characteristics,”, March 15, 2013).

17. Stan Weir, Singlejack Solidarity (University Of Minnesota Press, 2004), 294-309.

18. The article originally appeared in the British journal International Socialism in October/November 1969. Available online at

19. Dan La Botz, “Tumultuous teamsters of the 1970s” in Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow, eds., Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s (Verso, 2010), 214.

20. James P. Cannon, “Our Aims and Tactics in The Trade Unions” (1924). Available at

21. “Wal-Mart warehouse strikers to return to work with full back pay,” Warehouse Workers for Justice, October 6, 2012. Available at


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story