Letter to the Editors: How Do Revolutionaries Deal with Unions?

How should revolutionaries deal with unions? How should we deal with union reform movements like Labor Notes and movements to develop “union democracy” in unions? It seems as though workers who are initially politicized in the workplace want to develop a union or become affiliated to one. In my own workplace there has been a lot of excitement amongst a few workers about the news that there is a unionization drive in one of the company’s facilities in another state of the country. What should we say towards these sentiments? Even though unions have a history of betraying the workers’ interest I often struggle with what to say as an alternative to them.

-A worker

Greetings fellow worker,

Your short letter exposes some of the most critical contradictions in our time as workers struggling in the United States—workers who are beset on two sides with a hostile boss amplifying exploitation and a totally capitulationist labor movement which tends to be a team of firefighters for the bourgeoisie. It will not be possible to answer your questions definitively in one article, and we must make no pretense about that.

Starting from the point of ideology, it becomes apparent that the labor reform movement, despite whatever positive attributes it may have, is a reformist movement attempting to rehabilitate the most degenerated and corrupted unions, yellow bourgeois unions, which are themselves reformist. This poses objective limitations. These movements suffer from a type of subjectivism; they mainly only see the struggle for economic demands and sometimes the struggle for political demands, but they remain completely blind to the struggle for political power.

Fighting union bureaucracy is a requirement for any worker who finds him or herself in one of these unions—this is not up for debate. The essence of the matter is the political line which guides the fight. The history of class struggle in the US is rich with positive as well as negative lessons. These struggles must be studied, especially those which were the most violent. One major impediment to taking a clear position is a lack of practice. The current generation of the US “left” is mired in postmodernism and has more or less ceded the labor struggles to the reformists and bourgeoisie, for a superficial focus on vague and ‘intersecting’ ‘oppression,’ in which they take up any and every petty-bourgeois cause, all while ignoring the principal contradiction in the country—that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, a contradiction based on exploitation, which forms the basis of oppression.

The past errors of militant labor struggles centered around two issues: dual unionism and entryism. With dual unionism, in which revolutionaries sought to form red unions (some of which did initiate and lead great struggles), the problem was the artificial construction of alternative unions which were ill-suited to compete with the larger, bourgeois-led unions. This strategy was criticized by the Communist International in part for splitting the working-class struggle as well as failing to conquer leadership over the workers’ struggle as a whole. While the strategy of dual unionism did not prevent Communists from penetrating the bourgeois labor unions, it relegated this task to a secondary position. It could not meet its basic objective and was finally moved away from. Entryism was the other approach: instead of waging militant class struggle inside and outside of the union, the entryists sought most often to play by the rules of the unions, which were ultimately the rules of the boss. In essence, when the Communists shifted away from dual unionism, the right opportunists of the Party consolidated their leadership and liquidated all the militant struggles they could. Even while they played the docile pet, anti-Communist hysteria still resulted in mass expulsion of revolutionaries from the union movement.

Today, revolutionaries, in spite of how things sometimes appear, have every reason to be optimistic. Strikes have gone up, and membership in the unions (which today are all yellow unions) has gone down. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only just over 11% of the US workforce is unionized, and in most places revolutionary workers will not be confronted by the one-two punch of the boss and the yellow union. Hence the union itself will not be the most pressing factor in workplace struggles. In many important industries union membership is a requirement, and in these the workers should struggle politically on two fronts.

Workers are not wrong for desiring a union—this desire must be politicized and driven forward to include the question of struggling for power. Proletarians in the US lack all major organic forms of struggle, including unions which serve their interests (part of the United Front), their own Army, and the Communist Party. The workers must be organized in their day-to-day struggles. A union is but one tool, and the strike is the workers’ most useful tool. In any event, the Communist Party must lead unions, and the artificial separation between the two must be dispelled.

For the revolutionary worker, it becomes a question of politics in command, more specifically a question of whose politics are in command. The revolutionary worker must carry out political work among her or his class, specifically those they work beside. While the bourgeois union bureaucrats hate the strike, work stoppage, etc., the revolutionary worker loves resistance and lives for struggle. It is the role of the yellow union to prevent active and organized class struggle among the workers, so that the bourgeoisie can exploit in peace. Their inclination is to seek the most miniscule concessions from the bourgeoisie to appease the workforce. Workers, who certainly must snatch every conquest they can from the ruling class, must also be educated against the role of union bureaucracy so that they can fight their battle on two fronts. This does not mean placing false hope on the union nor avoiding unions—it means fighting on the terrain in front of you.

Through political education and taking up the existing struggles in earnest, the class consciousness of the worker can be brought forward. If the struggle is for a union and the boss does not want one, fight for one with no misconceptions regarding what kind of union you are fighting for and the limitations of the existing ones, which can only be surpassed with class consciousness derived from struggle, and understand that the fight must continue from within and without. Use whatever the struggle to advance the understanding of the workers toward more and more revolutionary conclusions. Surpassing trade-union consciousness for revolutionary consciousness is a practical task which will not be accomplished with a few meetings, but over a protracted fight that is based on and centers Communist ideology.

Optimism, great optimism, resides in the fact that there exist class-conscious revolutionary workers, whose every shift is mass work. These workers have the most valuable role to play and are distinguished among the otherwise petty bourgeois ‘left’ of the intellectuals and professionals. The latter groups must be educated too and unified behind proletarian leadership, which will only be realized through class struggle, and only fully realized in the reconstitution of the Communist Party, which is the principal task of all genuine revolutionaries in the US.

-Editorial Board, Tribune of the People