by Gabriel Donnelly
Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which had a brief resurgence in the Spartacist group, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed virtually to erase the name of Blanqui, though it had been the rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding century. Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren. —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
Thus, when the miners were first confronted with the continuous miner in 1949, John L. Lewis disregarded their general strike and announced instead that the union was for “progress.” The working force in the mines was literally cut in half.
When Automation reached Ford, Reuther told the auto workers to consider “the future” which would bring them a six-hour day, and not to fight against the present unemployment. Meanwhile, there has been no change in the working day since the workers, through their own struggles over decades, won the eight-hour day. —Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, p. 265
In the past year, workers organizing their workplaces have challenged the entrenched trade union leadership, faced the decrepit state of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and caused a resurgence in American union elections with worker-led grassroots campaigns. Well-publicized union drives at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, and, most recently, Home Depot are a large part of this resurgence. But the well-publicized drives are only part of a broader trend. The NLRB reported that, in the 2022 fiscal year, union election petition filings were up by 53%.
According to the report by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowering, a report prepared for the self-declared “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” support for unions is way up across several demographics: “Support for a union in their workplace rises to 74% for workers aged 18 to 24, 75% for Hispanic workers, 80% for Black workers, and 82% for Black women workers (the highest of any race and gender group).”
This polling is not indicative of much, other than the simple fact that the recent resurgence in unionizing activity is correlated with an increase in union popularity. Another, much different, statistic to consider was released in the beginning of 2022 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the BLS, union membership is at the lowest since measurement began with only 14 million Americans holding union membership.
A snarky, and not entirely baseless, connection could be drawn between these two bits of data: American workers hold the highest opinion of unions when they’re not actually in unions. If this relation between high union popularity and low union membership is genuine, it could help to explain why the explosion in organizing has involved a significant increase in new unions that are formed by workers themselves. Much of this organizing has been done by workers who are aware of the problems with preexisting unions and are trying to carve out something new.
How Did We Get Here?
In a recent public statement made in the aftermath of Congress’s suppression of the potential railroad strike, a member of the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) wrote, “Don’t fall for the Republican talking point about ‘union bosses’ as somehow being pro-labor: you can’t be pro-worker & anti-union.“ This rhetoric frames unions in a way that flattens and elides the contradictions within the labor movement. There can be no conflict between the rank-and-file and the union bosses in the eyes of the DSA. For them, the rank-and-file does not exist.
This flattening obscures the disconnection and, in some cases, the fierce fighting, between union rank-and-file and labor leadership, which the suppressed railroad strike highlights beautifully. The railroad unions’ leadership presented a contract to the rank-and-file, which expressed its dissatisfaction with the contract by voting it down.
Some members of Congress have sought to launder their vote to break the strike by saying that the labor leadership encouraged them to vote that way. This serves only to obscure the fact that the rank-and-file of multiple railroad unions voted down the tentative contract, but Congress and the labor leadership eagerly steamrolled over that vote.
Since at least World War II and the rise of automation, American labor leadership has largely been at odds with the rank-and-file. Dunayevskaya wrote in Marxism and Freedom (p. 262)
if World War II succeeded, as it did, in helping to transform the American labor leadership, hothouse fashion, into a labor bureaucracy … the workers were even faster in learning to hate the labor bureaucracy on a par with management.
The emergence of labor bureaucracy is not unique to the American trade-union sphere. It has happened around the world. In most cases, the trade union bureaucracy fetishizes organization and sneers at the “unorganized,” which serves to disconnect it, not just from revolutionary philosophy, but also from the broad mass and depth of the proletariat. Gone are the days of, for example, the Minneapolis Teamsters standing arm in arm with the unemployed in their great general strike of 1934.
With cushy office jobs, the labor leaders benefit from the status quo, and have no interest in a revolutionary philosophy that could challenge production as it exists. Union reformers, as admirable as some of them may be, are caught in a trap like the Elvis song. They are fighting to replace existing union officials or to change undemocratic parts of union by-laws, and they are so occupied by this fight that they fail to consider a philosophy that can transcend this trap. It’s a treadmill for sapping goodwill and energy. The need for a philosophy of change, for the movement of a revolutionary proletariat, is hidden by the gains of “practical demands.” As those gains have become more and more scarce in recent years, the normal pitch of traditional trade-unionism has become untenable. This is why union membership is at an all-time low and union growth has been nonexistent. Until now.
Independent, Non-Affiliated Unionism as Alternative
The flashpoint for this resurgence seems to be the Amazon Labor Union’s (ALU’s) victory in the JFK warehouse election on April 1, 2022. That win was no joke. Together with the unexpected victories of Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) in Buffalo and many other locations, it energized the surge in unionization. The ALU victory stands in direct contrast to two failures of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in Bessemer, Alabama. While the affiliated, traditional union failed, the new, independent union succeeded. Whereas the RWDSU had visits from sitting Democratic Congresspeople and fleets of union staff and resources, the ALU’s campaign was led by fired Amazon workers.
The initial loss in Bessemer—which was challenged and deemed illegal by the NLRB, leading to the second election—is what inspired the formation of the ALU as an independent union. ALU president Chris Smalls said, “if established unions had been effective, they would have unionized Amazon already. We have to think about 21st century-style unionizing. It’s how do we build up the workers’ solidarity.”
Veteran labor journalist Stephen Greenhouse has identified the people driving this wave of unionization as younger, tactically distinct, and estranged from what he calls “the old guard.” In a May 2022 op-ed, Greenhouse wrote that
in recent months, it suddenly seems that there are really two labor movements. One is young and dynamic, growing rapidly. The other is older, richer, well-established and far larger, although often jaded. That established movement has tried year after year to halt labor’s decades-long slide, but it has failed, with some union leaders all but giving up and hardly doing any organizing.
Greenhouse was referring to the stagnancy, low membership, and piddling organizing efforts that characterize many AFL-CIO unions.
Moreover, his notion of “tactical distinctness” between the “two labor movements” should be elaborated on. Greenhouse argues that the main organizational method employed in the resurgence of union organizing—by the ALU, SBWU, and other independent unions—is “worker-to-worker organizing.” This is in contrast to the way that organizing is done in most other cases, in which outside-the-shop-floor labor organizers, employed by preexisting unions, facilitate and run the union drive. It is certainly a distinction between the two groups that Greenhouse identifies, although he may have slightly overstated its significance.
An encouraging aspect of the estrangement between the “two labor movements” is best reflected in the recent election filing in Philadelphia by Home Depot workers, who formed an independent union explicitly inspired by the ALU. Although they eventually lost their election, the fact that they attempted to organize Home Depot—a company with such a Trumpist and anti-union culture—is notable.
Even the affiliated unions recognize the need to appear independent and non-affiliated to capitalize on this wave. An interested worker would have to do a lot of digging to recognize that SBWU is an arm of Workers United Upstate, which is affiliated with the SEIU. All of these manifestations of new, independent unionism are articulations of a burgeoning alternative to the AFL-CIO, which could be forged into something greater.
Amazon warehouse workers demonstrate outside offices of the National Labor Relations Board. Source: Wikimedia.
Whether or not that alternative will emerge is still to be seen. Major impediments remain. Crucially, what assurances can be made that independent unions won’t go the way of their older counterparts? While they may be rooted in the workplace, run by the workers themselves, and responsive to the demands of their members now, the history of trade unionism is a testimony to how quickly all that responsiveness can transform into its opposite. What can be done to prevent the bloated bureaucratization and corruption that characterizes trade unionism? There are no easy answers, and the threat of the development of a bloated bureaucratic apparatus is not being taken seriously by the new unions. The leaders of the new unions seem to view themselves as immune to such developments merely because they are new and sincere.
The resurgent unionism is reaching into the past for inspiration and for examples as well as counterexamples. While the counterrevolution of the 1940s and 1950s is important for understanding how we got here and what these workers are responding to, the inspirational aspect of the union struggle of the early 1930s is crucial as well. As Walter Benjamin indicated (in the epigraph at the start of this article and in much of his work), the proletariat in movement is always in dialogue with its own history.
The most common historical touchstone invoked by today’s new unionist workers is the industrial unionism of the early twentieth century. These mass movements, like the Minneapolis strike mentioned above, avoided the insularity and, in many cases, the racially segregated nature of the craft unions, by mobilizing workers who had been otherwise ignored. Those workers mobilized to create the new industrial unions. Black workers, the unemployed, and deeper layers of the proletariat were involved in the fight. Women were not just involved, but were often thrown up into positions of leadership and central to the struggle.
The militancy of the 1930s was a response to the Great Depression, just as the current resurgence seems to be, in part, a response to COVID. And it was fueled by an innovation in working class activity: the sitdown strike. Dunayevskaya wrote, again in Marxism and Freedom, that “the 1929 crash, which shook the world to its foundations, cut sharply across the American mind” (p. 278). On the one hand, what emerged from the crash were the New Deal planners, who wanted to reorganize production to save capitalism. On the other hand, Dunayevskaya continued,
the rank and file workers tried to reorganize production on entirely new foundations by demanding that those who labor should control production. They too had but one word to describe how to do it. It was SITDOWN. The very spontaneity of the action created the CIO. What had been a top committee within the AF of L overnight became a Congress of the greatest mass concentration of industrial workers. [emphases in original]
Dunayevskaya went on to contrast the vibrancy of the early-1930s workers’ movement with the stagnancy of the American intelligentsia: “While the workers were creating organizations of their own, characteristically American and specifically working class, the American intellectual was rudderless, drifting into the Communist-created Popular Front” (p. 278). The initiative and creativity was on the side of the workers.
This aspect of Dunayevskaya’s analysis provides another potential parallel with our current moment. What is so exciting about the resurgent union movement is that workers are not sitting on their hands while facing political deadlock, trade union stagnancy, and the rise of Trumpism. While everyone else twiddles their thumbs, they are taking inspiration from the past.
The Flint sitdown strike of 1936–1937. Source: Wikimedia.
All of that said, the new unions of the past two years are not the first to find inspiration from the labor history of the 1930s. Nor, I expect, will they be the last. If gains are to be made and lessons are to be learned, we should consider what happened to prior so-called inheritors of that example.
For example, in 2005, Andy Stern, as president of the SEIU, led the union out of the AFL-CIO and championed the formation of the Change to Win coalition, which set organizing unorganized workers as a major goal, as opposed to the slow-growing and stagnant AFL-CIO. The SEIU had some major victories, organizing otherwise-ignored workers in the service industry like janitors and nursing home staff. At the time, the period’s new forms of organizing were frequently championed. Breathless copy was produced by labor journalists that was not unlike Greenhouse’s discussion of “worker to worker organizing.” But eventually, that organizing effort also stagnated. Very few major gains materialized and, in some cases, the dues paid by newly organized workers were greater than the wage increases they won in contract disputes.
“New forms of organizing” and new methodologies for getting unions off the ground are exciting enough, but it would be wrong to fetishize them as the be-all, end-all of a rejuvenated trade-union movement. Similarly, it would be wrong for rank-and-file reform initiatives to make replacing corrupt officials their end goal. The mass movement of the 1930s understood this. It possessed a theoretical and philosophical understanding of itself and of its own articulation of worker organization.
There are certainly individuals within the resurgent movement who have a radical understanding of how trade unions could and should function. Some are even willing to voice this privately. But few organizations are willing to embed that understanding into their practice. Until that happens, there is a very real risk that this energy could run aground again.
Workers Face the Remnants of Past Victories
One victory secured by the workers’ movement of the early 1930s, which paved the road for many other victories, was the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the creation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). By winning the right to collective bargaining, it became easier for workers to organize and a little harder for bosses to bust unions.
As many of those victories have been whittled away and diminished during the past 90+ years, the NLRA has held on, but just barely. The counter-revolution of the 1940s and 1950s saw the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which severely curtailed union activity. Taft-Hartley banned sympathy strikes and boycotts, and also prevented communists from holding elected offices in unions. Still, the NLRA has held on, through decades of budget cuts and administrative neglect.
Recently, the NLRB has become more and more explicit about its own diminished state. In a striking press release on July 15, 2022, the board describes its current status with stark language:
The increase in cases comes during a period of critical funding and staffing shortages for the Agency. The NLRB has received the same Congressional appropriation of $274.2 million for nine consecutive years as costs have risen. Adjusting for inflation, the Agency’s budget has decreased 25% since FY2010 [fiscal year 2010]. Overall Agency staffing levels have dropped 39% since FY2002 [fiscal year 2002] and field staffing has shrunk by 50%.
This may account for the quagmire that NLRB cases often become. It is not unusual for months to pass before workers who file Unfair Labor Practice Charges against union busting or abuse receive a ruling on their case. The board brags that “the median processing time between the assignment of a Board case and issuance of a decision” was only 78 days in 2022, but in a union drive, that kind of delay can be gutting.
Massive corporations, like Amazon and Starbucks, have legal departments and clout to throw around. Their policy has been to employ illegal union-busting tactics at such a rate that the campaigns are inevitably defeated before the NLRB has even issued a single decision. Starbucks has taken to dramatically cutting the hours of pro-union workers, to pressure them to quit. So even before the NLRB has received a filing for a union election, many of the pro-union workers have already quit in search of work that gives them enough hours to survive. Amazon also seems to have declared war on the NLRB, flagrantly ignoring at least one of its rulings.
The NLRB’s sorry state raises another open question as well: how should workplace organizing relate to the federal government? When Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Wagner Act legalized unions, this permanently changed how workplace organizing is conducted in America. The watchful eyes of the NLRB have gone unquestioned. It has been accepted as the ultimate arbiter. But now that the board is barely functioning, workers must begin to ask about an alternative and about what form it may take.
Workers may be forced to construct an alternative on a timetable that is not their own. The Supreme Court has a case on its upcoming docket that could result in gutting the power of the NLRB. In Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the far-right justices will be deciding whether bosses can sue unions for strike damages in state courts, or whether the NLRA, a federal law, preempts such state-level lawsuits.
Ironically, the late AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka commented, all the way back in 1987, on the possibility of the NLRB losing preemption in these cases:
This is the world I envision: the world without preemption and the expert agency. It is a world of struggle within the political and social arenas and of jury trials in the legal arena. We do not need an expert agency anymore. It only hurts labor and working people. I say abolish the Act. Abolish the affirmative protections of labor that it promises but does not deliver as well as the secondary boycott provisions that hamstring labor at every turn. Deregulate. Labor lawyers will then go to juries and not to that gulag of section 7 rights .…
It would not be surprising if the far-right Supreme Court brought this world to pass. However, were the Court to do this, it would be failing to account for an ascendant working class. Such a class could take this opportunity to move beyond the NLRB and potentially even the Wagner Act itself. Recently, some union advocacy groups have called for more funding of the NLRB; some have even held protests about this. So perhaps a miracle may occur and the NLRB will be fully funded and staffed. On the other hand, as I discussed in a prior article, the SBWU made a protest hashtag “#NoLaborRightsBoard,” which was meant to highlight the inadequacy and management-friendly nature of the NLRB; “The NLRB is definitely part of the problem. Always has been.” This seems like a slightly more realistic attitude.
Workers inspired by the fights of the 1930s have a choice. Do they fight to try and preserve, fund, and, essentially, resurrect the NLRB, a product of that era? It may be worthwhile to fight to protect and expand the NLRA, for now, but the sorry state of its present existence is another factor that reminds workers where their efforts may lead. How can they move beyond compromises? How can we leap into the new? Again, this crucial question remains to be answered.
The Power and the Dream
While workplace organizing has been surging, the AFL-CIO has been slow to respond. Of course it has. Newly-elected Teamsters president, Sean O’Brien, has made a lot of noise about going after Amazon, but that has amounted to nothing. The energy behind the organizing surge has been that of the young, and it is an energy that the old, big unions are struggling to capture.
As Dunayevskaya noted in the epigraph at the start of this article, Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers (UAW), only offered pipe dreams of a better future; meanwhile, working conditions got worse. The union bosses of the present day can be found offering similar platitudes. While these union bosses are busy selling their conciliatory trade-unionism, the young, black, and queer working class that has led this resurgence of unionism has not forgotten what has been won in the past through the self-activity of workers like themselves.
It could be that when one in four Americans report that “nothing made them hopeful“ about the future, the platitudes of the union bosses have less power than they did before. With faith in all institutions way down, the diminished state of the NLRB and the irreparable stagnancy of the traditional unions is an easier reality to accept, and perhaps even to move beyond. The youthfulness of the workers involved in the new unionization campaigns, many of whom are part of Generation Z, has led to the coining of the cringeworthy term “Generation U.” Cringeworthy or not, it points to something genuine. It is among the very young that faith in institutions is at its lowest. In this time of hopelessness, the working class may do well to turn away from illusionary tales of the future and remember the unrest of the past.
It goes without saying that trade unions, like nonprofits, are flypaper for well-intentioned would-be revolutionaries. Unions take hold of sincere energy and ensnare it in the cogs of bureaucracy and under the thumb of class-collaborationist leadership. To do so, the unions have developed internal structures to prevent, or at least impede, rank-and-file rebellion or reform. Ironically, Trumka’s description of the NLRB works just as well here; unions are a gulag for rank-and-file energy and struggle. The traditional paths to trade unionism that young workers may take are well-managed and well-guarded. Yet these young workers are not taking traditional routes. The political thinking of “Generation U” seems to have been awakened by resistance to Trumpism, Black Lives Matter (BLM), and other recent movements that are far beyond the sphere of old-fashioned trade-unionism.
The connection between the BLM movement and the union drive was addressed by a lead organizer of a unionization drive at a New Orleans Lowes home-improvement store, who sent me the following email:
We started organizing in April. A Starbucks across town had just unionized, so I figured, why not our Lowe’s here? It had been on my mind for a while, not only because of the organizing that was going on at Amazon and Starbucks, but also because of the movement for racial justice that popped off in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by the police. A lot of folks at our store recognize that the fight for economic justice and the fight for racial justice are inseparable. New Orleans is one of the most economically and racially unequal cities in the US, and Louisiana has an extremely high incarceration rate.
These young workers began workplace organizing not because of nostalgia for a long-dead movement, but after living through movements far outside the control of the entrenched trade-union leadership. And when they looked to the past, they did not do so in the manner of those who treat its lessons as dictates—they do not stand on a stage and repeat lines from a script. In these early moments of its dialogue with the past, the new resurgence of unionism is questioning and skeptical, as much as it is inspired.
I am not saying that a sophisticated critique of trade-unionism has emerged in the past year. However, the resurgent unionism is groping towards big, important questions. Can the gulag of traditional trade-unionism be surpassed? Can the gulag of struggling within the confines of federal collective-bargaining law and regulation be surpassed? What could a working class organization in 21st century America, run by and for workers, actually look like?
Chris Smalls, president of the ALU, has the username @Shut_downAmazon on various social media platforms. I point to this rhetoric to note that the ALU has voiced a stronger critique of Amazon than almost any other union has voiced regarding firms in their own industries. ALU is moving toward a critique not only of pay and benefits, which are no doubt important, but also of the process of production itself. Marxist-Humanist Initiative wants to encourage workers to work out such weighty critiques, and to transcend the dead ends in traditional trade-unionism and collective-bargaining law. But how?
When faced with such a big question, I am tempted to try to cheat. I passed high-school math only by peeking at other people’s test papers. However, when one looks around at the so-called left, there are few answers to be found.
The Jacobinites are so eager to ingratiate themselves to the labor leadership that they are unwilling to voice any critique of the old guard. All they are willing to do is issue platitudes and cheer on workers from the sidelines. We can surely do better than that.
There has been a somewhat interesting development coming out of the otherwise laughable Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party (SEP). Since the COVID pandemic, it has made an about-face on unions and has now called for the construction of “the International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees.” The SEP’s pitch is that, since labor activity has upsurged in tons of places across the world, and across multinational supply chains, the rank-and-file involved in that upsurge should have a place to compare notes. It says that these committees can aid the working class to “coordinate its struggles in different factories, industries and countries in opposition to the ruling class and the corporatist unions.” Yet, in typically surreal SEP/Trotskyist style, it also puts forward a different motivation for the formation of these committees: to encourage opposition to the aiding of Ukraine.
What I like about this approach is that it allows workers to compare notes and communicate with each other. That kind of communication has to be encouraged for workers to be able to transcend the aforementioned restrictions. What I don’t like is that it is the SEP’s initiative, and that it is using these committees to push its Trotskyist agenda.
One is reminded of Charles Denby’s description, in the appendix to American Civilization on Trial, of Maoist activity in trade union black caucuses:
The one thing the young black workers may not fully realize is that every time a black independent movement has appeared, the “politicos” who have rushed in to take it over, have helped reactionaries like Reuther to kill it before it can get off the ground. … It is not so much that the so-called “radicals” come rushing in but every time they come rushing in they want to take control and direct it. [emphasis in original]
The new movement that has led and inspired a 53% increase in union elections is not something for us to patronize, but something for us to learn from. Our engagement should begin with a desire, not to push an agenda, but to encourage and help facilitate truth-seeking, expansions of human dignity, and further movement.
There are many siloed fights going on right now. Rank-and-file fights are happening in the bowels of the unions. For example, in Denby’s union (the UAW, which innovated the sitdown strike in Flint, Michigan), the union’s constitution has recently been changed, in keeping with the results of a referendum championed by the rank-and-file. UAW officers are now elected by a “one member-one vote” system, instead of by delegates. This democratizing change has already caused shocking election results, inspired by “a desire for broad change … corruption scandals … [and] an inability to win broad wage and benefits improvements over the last decade as the three Detroit automakers rang up significant profits.”
Replacing disliked officials and democratizing union processes are undoubtedly good things, but they cannot serve as the final goals. The rank-and-file workers involved in this fight are no doubt energized by the activity and passion they see being channeled into the formation of new, independent unions. I’ve shown here that a link exists between this organizational resurgence and earlier mass movements, like the 2020 BLM uprising. All of these efforts can be in dialogue and coalition. Ultimately, I believe that we should try to connect these siloed fights and facilitate communication among these workers. They can learn from each other, understand the flaws of trade unionism, and, with some work, unite theory and practice. Such a development would mean the proletariat transcending the twin “gulags” and moving itself toward revolution.