Joe Burns, Class Struggle Unionism (Haymarket Books 2022), 180pp. Joe Burns, Class Struggle Unionism (Haymarket Books 2022), 180pp.

Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism advocates militant, worker self-organising from a US context, but its lessons are useful here too, finds Kevin Crane

Discussion of trade unionism for at least three decades has largely been ‘Can it continue to exist?’. No one’s asking that now, but there is no shortage of new questions about the movement. In Britain, as I write this, there are huge tensions within the unions about whether to settle or keep fighting the Tory government, leading to deep discussions both between union leaderships and memberships, and among union members themselves. For many strikers, this will be the first time in their lives that they’ve had to engage in a real discussion about the strategy and tactics of industrial struggle, making it exactly the right time for the left to be engaging with the arguments about it. This little book is an example of such an intervention.

Class Struggle Unionism is a short, punchy book which wears its agenda on its sleeve. Author Joe Burns, both a trade unionist and writer on trade unionism of some standing, has written this book to take on what he sees as the most important discussions affecting the movement in the USA, where he lives and is active. Burns has clearly spent time tailoring the book to an audience of new, younger activists: the language is mostly very accessible, the structure is intended to break concepts down in a logical order for a beginner and, while history is referenced, the main points of argument are ones that would be pressing issues for American workers right now.

The politics are explicit from the get-go: Burns argues for a resolutely anti-capitalist approach to worker organising that looks to workers themselves to deliver the solutions. The book kicks off with a short re-cap of what capitalism basically is, who capitalists really are, and how this shapes the everyday life of workers and why the trade unions exist. This dealt with, he then defines ‘class struggle’ unionism in opposition to both ‘business unionism’ and what he calls ‘labor liberalism’. In his takedowns of both, he lays out the class-struggle approach as his alternative.

Critique of union strategies

‘Business unionism’ is absolutely something we have experience with on this side of the ocean, although we tend to term it ‘the partnership model’. Essentially, this is where a trade union limits its function to agreeing a fair level of exploitation between capitalists and workers. Burns explains that if you have a proper understanding of how capitalists make profits, this is not just a compromise, but an absurdity that ultimately fails on its own terms.

He gives examples of how unions that retain some version of a class-struggle strategy are delivering far more than unions with a business orientation. In America today, for instance, he can point to the superior performance of the International Warehouse and Longshore Union (ILWU), which has a left leadership and a strong organising tradition, counterposed to the ailing United Auto Workers (UAW), which has been an archetypal business union. This analysis is pretty easy to read over to the movement in Britain (indeed, probably any country). We can definitely make a valid criticism of a British organisation like the Union of Shop, Distribution and Allied Workers that its model of permanent cooperation with employers is no answer to the cost-of-living crisis.

The sections on what Burns calls ‘labor liberalism’ are a bit different. For starters, this is a term he seems to have coined, albeit for a phenomenon he can point to as definitely existing. It is a critical description he has for the view that trade unions are one social movement among many, alongside campaigning groups on the environment or racism and so on, and run very much like a liberal NGO. His criticism is that this approach sees unions sending outside organisers out to workplaces – usually very low-waged ones where the workers are indeed heavily exploited – and organising them in a very top-down way, in campaigns aimed too much at winning a propaganda war rather than simply beating the bosses.

He criticises, as an example, the Service Employees International Union and the millions it spent on high-profile drives to organise fast-food restaurant workers in campaigns like ‘Fight for $15’. This has not delivered much of anything. His diagnosis is that ultimately, only very small numbers of workers were actually taking industrial action in this campaign. This was not placing big fast food under significant economic pressure and really rested on Democratic Party (that is to say, thoroughly capitalist) politicians putting through legislation to secure the wage rises. Burns argues that this was always logically a hiding to nothing, and the real way to take on these capitalists is to focus on organising where they are actually vulnerable: in distribution, not retail.

These arguments have some similarity to debates in the movement in Britain, but they aren’t fully the same. It might be possible to argue that a British union like GMB has some similarities to this approach in its strategy regarding warehouse workers or minicab drivers, but the direct hope that politicians are simply going to pass pro-worker legislation isn’t something anyone’s been able to argue with a straight face in this country for years.

Bureaucracy and rank and file

Burns continues in his critiques of labor liberalism (I’ll use the US spelling for this quite American discussion). A section of the book is dedicated to critiquing the phenomenon of workers’ centres, which are externally funded campaigning groups for workers’ rights and conditions. His reasoning for why these are not an adequate alternative to proper workers’ self-organisation is sound, but this is really not a phenomenon British activists encounter.

It makes for an interesting read, however, and includes a very pithy analysis of liberal ideology. Specifically, he explains why liberal ideology and trade unionism will, ultimately, come into conflict. There is a fundamental clash between individual and collective understandings of social justice. Nevertheless, it would be the wrong lesson to take from this American debate that unions shouldn’t involve themselves in political campaigns, and alliances with social movements. It is just that they should do so as part of a class-struggle strategy, and not as a liberal pressure group.

What the book is maybe weaker on is an analysis of trade-union bureaucracies, which from our point of view is a shame because that’s really more key to what is going on here. Because Burns wants to get across to his target audience differences between unions in America – the big gap between the ILWU and the UAW for example – he downplays the tensions inside unions. The strategic orientation of the ILWU leadership may not be the key question for the American left right now, but the equivalent of that is emphatically our problem.

In Britain, the RMT has an objectively left leadership, and is culturally immersed in a class-struggle view of what trade unionism is. The RMT leader, Mick Lynch, is an avowed socialist and admirer of the Marxist revolutionary James Connolly. These aren’t business unionists, or liberals. That does not, however, mean that RMT’s strategy is perfect: RMT has stalled its confrontation on the railways for a compromise that is shaky at best, and last year actually conceded a mass attack on shipping workers by P&O Ferries without any real fight.

I am sure Joe Burns is perfectly well aware that his shop-floor focused self-organisation strategy is just as necessary in an objectively left-wing union as it is in a hopelessly right-wing one, but the contradictions within unions are not the focus of this book. As a result, for a British audience, this could certainly be described as a good read, but it’s basically an intervention into a different sort of argument from the one we’re currently having.

Business unionism/partnership has actually been in crisis for a while in Britain. The largest union, Unite, has a leader whose main programmatic pitch is worker organising. Its main rivals, GMB and Unison, have also in their own ways been shifting somewhat to the left recently. The challenge for the radical left in this country is therefore not to fight a battle against an already dying model of trade unionism, but to provide better strategic direction for a movement that is engaged in much higher-stakes conflict than it has been used to for decades.

This book would likely be essential reading for American trade unionists, even if you could debate some of the tactical or political points. For Brits, I’d say definitely read it if you have an interest in what the big debates in the wider movement worldwide are – particularly if you are relatively new to but very enthusiastic about the unions – but it’s not something I’d use to start a discussion in this country. We probably need a similar book to put an equivalent argument for our circumstances.

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