A Bureaucratic Revolution in the Labor Movement?

Jason Koslowski

February 27, 2022

A contribution to a critique of U.S. union bureaucracy since 1980.

After decades of defeat, union leaders recently found themselves holding leverage over the bosses they hadn’t had for decades. In theory, they seemed poised to win major concessions. It hasn’t happened.

Teacher unions are just one example. During the pandemic, they stood at a key chokepoint of the economy. The bosses needed workers back to work, but closed schools meant many workers needed to be home with their children. Many unions did fight unsafe school reopenings — in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere — under Trump. Then Biden accomplished what Trump couldn’t: opening schools, and keeping them open, even as the pandemic death count in the U.S. approached 1 million.

Nurses’ unions, too, have been a linchpin in the U.S. pandemic response. The pandemic flooded hospitals, straining the U.S. healthcare system, and the workers who prop it up, to their limits. In return, nurses were hailed as “heroes” — and told to get back to work. Tens of thousands of nurses authorized strikes or went on strike, but there was no coordinated, national wave of healthcare worker actions.

Why, with all their leverage, haven’t unions won far more? Why was 2021 a year not of mass, militant worker action, but yet another of tepid strike numbers — numbers that even fall below those of 2018 and 2019? A crucial part of the answer is the U.S. union bureaucracy.

During the last few years’ historic health and economic crises, union leaders refused to build any coordinated struggle — like national or even regional strikes — to protect the lives and health of workers. Instead, they pushed their members to vote for a Democratic president bent on reopening the economy at any cost. In other words, the union bureaucrats didn’t just fail to use their new leverage for badly needed union gains. They betrayed their members in service to the Democratic Party and capitalist “normalcy.”

These betrayals did not translate into mass, rank-and-file revolt. But there have been some rumblings of rank-and-file discontent. For example, over the last two years, when some union leaders brought their members insulting offers from the bosses, members shot them down — sometimes repeatedly. And last October and November, union members drove a slight uptick in labor actions, dubbed “Striketober.” But all this is a far cry from the mass wildcat actions of the 1970s.

The problem of the union bureaucracy today, then, acquires fresh urgency. How has it been able to maintain such a strong hold over its members — even amid historic crises of the capitalist system?

A closer look reveals seismic changes in the bureaucracy since the 1980s. Those changes have been both quantitative and qualitative, amounting to a kind of revolution from above — a “bureaucratic revolution.” Union leadership and its staff have grown far bigger, more powerful, and more efficient than ever before. And that has meant becoming a far more powerful servant of the Democratic Party — an arm of the ruling class — inside organized labor, advancing its imperialist, capitalist interests. But that development has been riven by contradictions and new potentials for the struggle against the ruling class.

Astonishingly, though, there has been little systematic analysis on the Left of these major developments inside unions. In fact, much of the Left is deeply uncritical of the bureaucracy, or naive in its hopes to infiltrate, influence, or outfox it. But in the face of the bureaucratic revolution inside unions, the Left has to fundamentally rethink much of its labor strategy. Even the so-called rank-and-file strategy that the DSA officially endorsed as its ideal approach to unions (passed by a paper-thin margin) fails almost completely to address those developments. Of course, the same has to be said of the DSA’s actual labor strategy today: acting alongside, and coordinating with, layers of the bureaucracy itself.

Only a rank-and-file fight to dismantle the bureaucracy, and to sever ties entirely with the Democratic and any other capitalist party for independent class struggle, can break the hold of the ruling class over the labor movement.

Current State of the Question

The union bureaucracy has been seriously neglected by the Left in recent decades. That is, as the bureaucracy has grown in size and power, the Left critique of the bureaucracy has been withering away.

There are exceptions, like Kim Moody’s important body of work, which traces the bureaucracy’s birth and development. Even that work, though, is limited. It mostly ends its analysis of the size of the bureaucracy in the 1970s, and doesn’t systematically examine how some of the most basic structures of bureaucracy — how it controls members — have been changing since the 1990s. It focuses mostly on “surface” developments like union mergers and splits, the lack of union democracy, and bad decisions of union leaders. It pauses only for a moment, here and there, on the transformations to the inner structure of unions.1See especially Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (London: Verso, 1988); U.S. Labor in Trouble and Transition: The Failure of Reform from Above, the Promise of Revival from Below (London: Verso, 2007); and the landmark pamphlet The Rank and File Strategy.

For its part, the DSA — the largest socialist organization in the U.S. — has spectacularly failed to grapple with the question of the union bureaucracy in any serious way. In 2019, Jacobin’s pages were filled with a debate about the values of a “rank-and-file strategy” (taken partly from Moody) — that is, the value of organizing in unions from below to pressure union leaders, rather than trying to work primarily through union staff and officers. Both sides lobbed around abstract ideas about “the union bureaucracy,” but the idea that it could have changed since the 1970s never came up. Today, the main labor strategy of the DSA seems to consist of coordinating with union staff and officers.

Because there is so little concrete analysis of recent changes, major problems arise. Moody’s rank-and-file strategy, for example, calls on rank and filers to push from below for more shop floor militancy and better union democracy. The major tool seems to be the reform slate, given Moody’s constant reference to Teamsters for a Democratic Union. But that approach doesn’t grapple with the union bureaucracy’s historic growth; its tight and increasing control over — and growing ability to tamp down — rank-and-file struggle; and its increasing capacity to co-opt reform slates. And crucially, Moody never seriously addresses the political problem of bureaucracy — at a time when the bureaucracy has made a leap in its ability to keep workers firmly in the grip of the Democratic Party and in support of imperialist slaughter, exploitation, and profit.

1930-1980: “Primitive Bureaucratic Accumulation”

To understand recent developments in union bureaucracy, we first have to understand the way it emerged out of its “primitive bureaucratic accumulation.”

The labor bureaucracy is that layer of paid officials and staff in unions charged with decision-making and execution — forming union strategy; bargaining new contracts; filing grievances or lawsuits; lobbying Democrats; and so on. The bureaucracy stretches across multiple levels: for instance, international and national leadership (president, vice president, treasurer, etc.); a periphery of staffers to assist them; officials and staff at the state and local levels; officials and staff in centers of political coordination; and so on. The bureaucracy includes, then, both elected leaders and appointed employees like full-time organizers, office workers, and part-time workers hired (or volunteering) to knock on doors and so on.

Marxists have long pointed out that union officials, especially at the top of the chain of command — like presidents and vice presidents — occupy a position far removed from the rank-and-file workers whom they claim to represent. This is because of their material position: for instance, they take salaries far greater than most in their unions (in 2020, the head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, reported a gross salary of $272,250); they move in the rarefied air of millionaire politicians; and so on.

The 20th-century history of that bureaucracy repeats, in a way, the early days of capitalism. As noted by the historian E. P. Thompson, capitalism in its early days had to discipline workers to accept certain “rules of the game.” Bosses had to discipline workers to show up for work after a Sunday or holiday; then they had to instill in workers a respect for the clock and for hourly productivity goals, etc. In line with this process, as Hobsbawm points out, worker struggle evolved from a fight against the basic rules of work (in the form of rioting and smashing workplace machines) to a fight over those rules (strikes for better hours or pay, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries). All this was key for capital’s “primitive accumulation,” the gathering of the power and resources needed to establish a new mode of global production.

We see something similar in 20th century U.S. labor bureaucracy. It, too, faced the enormous task of controlling unruly struggle. Up to the 1930s, unskilled workers tended to mobilize in explosive outbursts unguided by national leaders, like the massive strikes of the 1870s, and even more seriously, the auto plant strikes in the mid-1930s. Between the 1930s and 1970s, bureaucrats in the CIO, and the later AFL-CIO, fought to discipline the rank and file so it would defer to union leaders. A disciplined workforce meant leaders could plausibly promise bosses and Democrats that they could control the rank and file — offering “labor peace” in exchange for concession, and establishing the power of the union leaders themselves.

Union officials used a wide range of tools for this task, like multiyear contracts and no-strike clauses. Moody points out that by 1950, the UAW’s international office was monitoring all union local newspapers for signs of dissent.2Moody, An Injury to All, 47. When labor leaders promised Democrats their unions wouldn’t strike in World War II, it was a key chance to speed up the centralizing of the power at the top over union locals.

In other words: Democrats were a driving force in the process of disciplining workers. From 1935 to 1947, they set up a national system of labor law to which unions would accommodate themselves — this included the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This new system was to help deliver “labor peace” amid a tide of rank-and-file struggle, a peace that benefited Democrats and increased the power of union staffers and leaders over their members. When Democrats and Republicans passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 — demanding a witch hunt for communists and socialists in unions — CIO leaders were only too happy to comply. It was a chance to attack any union opposition under the label “communist.”3Moody, An Injury to All, 50-51.

All these developments called for more and more bureaucrats. They were needed to enforce the will of international and national offices in locals — like to monitor and edit local union newspapers. But they were also needed to grapple with emerging arbitration law and grievance processes; to handle more complicated, longer lasting contracts; and to curry favor with Democrats for better labor laws. Those officials, in other words, were the ones making sure unions stayed “inside the lines” of ruling-class laws, and were tasked with keeping the rank and file from organizing themselves in more militant ways.

By the 1960s, the U.S. labor bureaucracy had become truly massive — the biggest, it seems, in the world. Mike Davis points out that “by 1962 … there were 60,000 full-time, salaried union officials in the United States (one for every 300 workers), as contrasted to 4,000 in Britain (one for 2,000) or 900 in Sweden (one for 1,700).”4Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1986), 117. The bureaucracy’s massive size, then, isn’t just an odd quirk of U.S. labor history. It was a strategic necessity to strangle rank-and-file struggle and install unions more fully beneath the power of one of the two parties of the ruling class.

At first, union leaders were only partly successful. The rank and file had too strong of a tradition of self-mobilizing, driving unions into large, combative strikes. That militancy helped ensure that the period stretching from the 1930s to the 1950s saw the largest strikes in the history of the U.S. labor movement. Still, labor leaders were unevenly achieving their aims. As Moody points out in An Injury to All, by the 1950s strikes had become more choreographed and staid affairs, as compared with the roiling strikes of the 1930s.

By the late 1960s and 1970s, however, the rank and file were becoming more restless with the increasingly top-down, bureaucratic leadership, while facing speedups and other attacks by the bosses. The period exploded with wildcat actions. But since communists and socialists had been purged by and large — though there were, and are, exceptions — there were few organizational alternatives to the top-down, bureaucratic model. Those at the top of unions could mostly ignore the wildcat actions — or, as in the UAW, openly attack the strikers. 5Moody, An Injury to All, 83–94, 93.

The 1970s and early 1980s were a turning point. A crippling economic recession threw labor onto its back foot. The ruling class leaped at the chance to ramp up its attack on unions, ushering in the period that would become known as “neoliberalism.” But that period was also crucial for the labor leadership. The recession and the neoliberal wave of attacks gave it the chance to consolidate its power. Neoliberalism has been, in many ways, a boon to the U.S. labor bureaucracy.

1980 to Today: Bureaucratic Revolution

That earlier period — 1930-1980 — showcases the development of what Gramsci calls the “integral state”: the capitalist state’s extension of its influence across society to ensure the hegemony of the ruling class. As Albamonte and Maiello point out,

The statization of mass organizations and the expansion of bureaucracies within them is one of the fundamental elements, with its double function of “integration” to the state and fragmentation of the working class. … The workers’ bureaucracy has been (and is) the advance detachment to “organize” bourgeois hegemony within the organizations of the proletariat. This objective is pursued by employing both ideological and coercive means in different combinations depending on the circumstances.

That period, though, was a period of preparation. Since then, the bureaucracy has come into its own. The current period — roughly 1980 to today — is marked by both the massive growth of the bureaucracy and its inner professionalization, removing it to an unprecedented degree from the control of the rank and file while consolidating its power over them.

The labor bureaucracy grew, almost across the board, from 1961 to 1985. That growth sped up in many cases. In the UAW, for example, from 1961 to 1973, the ratio of all staff (including officers) to members — its “bureaucratic composition” — grew by just 0.6 percent. And yet from 1973 to 1985, the bureaucratic composition grew by 55 percent. In the SEIU, the bureaucratic composition increased 63 percent from 1961 to 1973. From 1973 to 1985, though, it increased 89 percent.6Paul Clark, Journal of Labor Research 13, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 384, 386.

Current numbers on the labor bureaucracy, however, are hard to come by; it seems no longer fashionable to chart its growth. A sampling of locals in various unions, though, offers some clues. To measure the bureaucracy’s growth we can use, as an approximate benchmark, Davis’s estimation that in the 1960s unions had a ratio of about one officer to 300 members.7Davis’s estimation focuses on full-time officials, while the numbers below, taken from the LM-2 forms of the Department of Labor, calculate bureaucratic composition based on all paid staff. However, this way of approximating development seems the most accurate. Davis’s analysis occurred before the “bureaucratic revolution” analyzed here, and, so it would seem, before a widespread increase in the number of staff and rise of a layer of “professional unionists” that began to seriously develop after 1980. So while the Davis benchmark is certainly approximate, it can still be used to chart changes in bureaucratic composition.

The AFT, for its part, looks to have a bureaucratic composition that falls well below the level of the 1960s: about one local staffer for every 850 members. The Teamsters, however, exceed the benchmark: one staffer for about every 239 members. The SEIU is more shocking: about 184 members for every local staffer — that is, a bureaucracy that is proportionally almost twice as big as the one Davis reported in the 1960s. Yet none of these numbers account for the massive bureaucracies at the state and national level. The AFT, SEIU, and Teamsters each have about 600 to 700 people working in their national office, and many more at the state level.

The UAW is one of the most astonishing cases. It seems to boast a ratio of one staffer for about every 15 active members. In fact, there is one national-level bureaucrat in the UAW for around every 500 active members: the UAW has about 800 people working in its national office in a union of about 400,000 active members.

Not only has the union bureaucracy grown — unevenly but spectacularly and, at least at times, at an accelerating clip — since the 1970s. The bureaucracy has taken advantage of the post-1980 pause in rank-and-file struggle to qualitatively shift how it exercises power.

That shift began in earnest in the early 1980s.8Paul Clark and Lois S. Gray, “The Management of Human Resources in National Unions,” Industrial Relations Research Series: Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Meeting, New Orleans, January 3–5, 1992. As late as the 1970s, union leaders rarely structured their organizations on corporate models. By 1990, however, union leaders had started reorganizing unions for efficiency in ways explicitly mirroring corporate management technique.9Lois S. Gray, Paul F. Clark, and Paul Whitehead, “Evolution of Administrative Practices in American Unions: Results from a 20-year Study,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2016, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2016/article/evolution-of-administrative-practices-in-american-unions.htm.

The reorganization occurred along four axes: strategic planning around organizational goals; budgeting to meet those goals; internal evaluation of union practices (what corporations call “quality control” or “quality management”) relative to the goals; and the “management of human resources” to ensure union personnel are adequately pursuing them. Just as for capitalist firms, these axes require extremely rigid bureaucratic centralization that extends down the chain of command.

The linchpin of this corporate-style reorganization has been adopting the “human resource management” (HRM) model to create a staff to carry out union leaders’ goals with maximum efficiency. Since the 1980s, unions have increasingly hired staff specifically for HR purposes, establishing policies for the evaluation and disciplining of that staff.10Lois and Gray, “Management of Human Resources,” 1992. By 1992, Stratton-Devine could note that “unions need to incorporate human resource considerations in their planning, as they need personnel who can understand and implement whatever strategies they formulate.”11Kay Stratton-Divine, “Unions and Strategic Human Resource Planning,” Industrial Relations Research Association Series: Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Meeting, New Orleans, January 3–5, 1992, 425.

This turn to HRM is highly ironic. Union leaders are copying a model of workforce control that was designed precisely to defuse workplace struggle — to homogenize staff consciousness around the goals set by corporate leaders as far as possible. HRM serves a similar function in unions now: professionalizing the staff to increase the control of union leaders over members of the union as a whole.

This process of union professionalization has also been driven by the rise of specific training programs. For instance, the AFL-CIO leadership offers “Organizing Institute” trainings in locals. Until recently the federation ran a “Labor College,” the George Meany Center, which opened in 1971, just before the new era of union bureaucracy was dawning. By the early 1980s, almost every affiliate of the AFL-CIO had sent members to the Meany Center for training.12Lois S. Gray, “Unions Implementing Managerial Technique,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 1981, 7. Trainings for union staff at all levels focus on collective bargaining, the grievance process, arbitration, and so on. The sheer number of staff hired by unions gives such “official” activities ever-greater weight as a focus of union work.

Professionalization has led to the emergence of “professional unionists” as a new, and important, layer inside unions — a large, and apparently growing, cadre whose primary qualification is precisely their training as organized by union leadership and within universities. In recent years, unions have decreasingly made membership in the union a condition for joining the staff. What matters more and more is the bureaucrats’ level of education — rather than their experience with shop floor struggle — and their subsequent training in the corporate-model system of unions themselves.

All this is to say: the process of professionalization is a leap in how union leaders centralize and concentrate their power — utilizing a massive army of staff trained to maintain that power. It has meant the building of the most sophisticated union system in history for keeping the rank and file trapped inside the capitalist legal system (arbitrating and grieving, for instance) rather than struggling for power against the ruling class.

This centralization and concentration of power has only been spurred along by the attacks of the ruling class on unions and by union mergers. As union membership and density have been sharply declining, union mergers have become more and more common. That has meant even more concentration of the power (financial and otherwise) of union leadership. Mergers or splits in organized labor, then — for example, the Change to Win federation, which split off from the AFL-CIO — do not really reverse the new era of bureaucratization, since they do not challenge the top-down, professionalized structure of the bureaucracy.

The quantitative and qualitative changes in union structure have brought unions ever more firmly under the influence of the Democratic Party. If the main field of struggle is not the shop floor or the streets, and if the main field of struggle is collective bargaining and the laws surrounding it, then the main strategy of labor, more than ever before in its history, is to pressure Democrats to pass better laws. The huge army of staff exists to ensure that that remains the focus. No wonder the number of large strikes has collapsed since 1980.

Union leaders have been astonishingly successful at ensuring the Democratic Party’s hegemony in the labor movement: not just driving rank and filers to vote Democrat but also following the discipline of the union bureaucracy — and by extension, that of the Democrats — in refusing to strike in wildcat actions, in refusing to seriously fight the use of scabs (outlawed by the ruling class), and so on.

Bureaucracy, Wall Street, “Labor Imperialism”

The growth of the numbers and power of the union bureaucracy is rooted in the financial base supporting that upper crust. For instance, the AFL-CIO’s net assets at the end of the reporting period in 2000 were $45,355,030. Its total assets amounted to $95,359,352. By the end of the reporting period of 2021, its net assets were $60,626,912 — an increase of 34 percent. Its total assets were $119,257,721, a growth of 25 percent.

Those numbers are fairly modest. More shocking is the increase of the financialization of power in the bureaucracy. That financialization has been proceeding rapidly. In 2000, the federation’s marketable securities (other than U.S. Treasury securities) were valued at $13,436,056; by 2021, that number was $22,275,123, an increase of 66 percent. In 2000, “other investments” amounted to a total of $16,431,172; by 2021, they amounted to $30,570,143 — nearly doubling with an increase of 86 percent. In 2000, the investments examined here represented 31 percent of the AFL-CIO’s total assets. By 2021, they added up to almost half — 44 percent — of total assets.

In fact, the financialization of the bureaucracy’s power is speeding up. Between 2000 and 2005, the AFL-CIO’s investment in marketable securities and “other investments” stayed more or less the same. From 2005 to 2010, they actually declined. Then, from 2010 to 2021, they increased at an extremely rapid clip — increasing by 103 percent and 116 percent respectively.

This financial “base” — growing at an accelerating rate — means the bureaucracy is becoming more independent of control by the rank and file, and the dues that they pay, than at any other time in its history. This financial power over the rank and file has only been deepened by employers’ use of 401(K) investment plans in place of pensions in recent decades. Indeed, the union bureaucracy exists in major part to manage its investments. That bureaucracy is — as the AFL-CIO calls itself — a “steward” of capital. And now more than ever before, it seems, the bureaucracy rests on an independent financial basis itself rooted in the international capitalist stock market, and dependent on the success of capitalist growth — which is itself based on the exploitation of workers, the source of all profit.

This financial power can’t be separated from the role the bureaucracy plays in furthering the U.S.’s imperialist agenda abroad. That role, too, has been changing, precisely as a result of the financialization of the labor leadership’s power.

In a very different context in 1916, Lenin’s close collaborator Zinoviev traced one of the main supports of imperialism to the labor bureaucracy — an idea developed further by Lenin in his 1917 pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Zinoviev writes,

The caste of opportunist leaders of the labor movement still consists today, unfortunately, of formally recognized “representatives” of the working class. But in its essence this caste has become the tool of an enemy class. The members of this caste who formally possessed full power in the working class are in reality the emissaries of bourgeois society in the camp of the proletariat.

Trotsky develops the same idea further in an unpublished 1940 essay. “There is one common feature in the development,” he writes, “or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.” That link connecting union leaders and imperialism is forged by monopoly capitalism. Union bureaucrats beg at the feet of the imperialist state in hopes of protection and favors in the battle with monopoly power. That is, labor bureaucracy is not imperialist by accident; its imperialism is not rooted simply in bad leaders; it belongs to the very nature of labor bureaucracy in the imperialist core of world politics.

Astonishingly, Jacobin claims the bureaucracy’s role in imperialism is mostly an issue of the past — not the present. Jeff Schuhrke holds that whatever imperialist residue still exists from the AFL-CIO’s past, it is no more than a “matter of concern.” In fact, he says, the AFL-CIO looks to be turning an entirely new leaf.

Schuhrke is certainly right that the U.S. union bureaucracy has been a key player in U.S. imperialism. The leadership of the AFL-CIO, for instance, worked hand-in-hand with the CIA to divide and weaken leftist-led unions internationally; helped to orchestrate large strikes to cripple leftist governments; and cheered on the U.S.’s imperialist adventures throughout the Cold War and beyond. And the AFL-CIO’s “Solidarity Center,” which connects it to labor unions in the developing world, is funded by the imperialist U.S. government via the State Department, USAID, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). As Schuhrke points out, “NED is known for meddling in the democratic processes of other countries and promoting ‘regime change’ to maintain global dominance, including in Venezuela, Haiti, Ukraine, and multiple Central American nations.”

But the bureaucracy’s “labor imperialism” is hardly just an evaporating residue from the past. The fact that the bureaucracy is more and more dependent on Wall Street — in fact, its dependence on Wall Street is accelerating — means that it bases itself more and more on the success of the U.S.’s role in the global, imperialist order. And today, the bureaucracy’s links to imperialism are also becoming far more direct. Labor leaders are apparently increasingly drawing revenue immediately from imperialist projects to support their existence — and their independence from the rank and file.

By 1997, for example, the AFL-CIO was the largest non-Jewish holder of Israel State Bonds in the world: its ISBs added up to $300 million. This is not to mention the bonds held by affiliates within the AFL-CIO. The AFT alone holds at least $200,000 in such state bonds (both bureaucracies, though, have been careful to avoid disclosing the current level of such investment). Israel is not just a brutal colonizer of Palestine. It is also a key component in the U.S.’s imperialist hegemony in the Middle East. The AFL-CIO’s investment in Israel means drawing funds from colonial and imperialist power. It’s hardly an accident, then, that the AFL-CIO leadership, and the leadership of AFT, have opposed so completely any concrete acts of solidarity with the people of Palestine, and sit on their hands as Republicans and Democrats alike provide money and weapons for the slaughter of Palestinians.

All of this means that the union bureaucracy has become radically more integrated into U.S. imperialist capitalism — both via the stock market and direct investments in imperialism.

Contradictions of the Bureaucratic Revolution

But this bureaucratic revolution is riddled with contradictions.

It’s important to note that a “Left bureaucracy” has begun to make its presence felt over the period of the bureaucratic revolution. That “Left” is often characterized by a relatively greater attention to union democracy — meaning more representative democracy compared to other unions. And it is also often marked by a relatively greater willingness to strike, even on a somewhat large scale.

A typical example is Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and next in line to replace Richard Trumka as head of the AFL-CIO. For instance, Nelson was vocal about the need for labor disruptions to combat some of Donald Trump’s policies. Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union, too, and of a number of nurses’ unions, also show a greater willingness to strike for better working conditions and pay. But the status of a “left bureaucracy” is fluid; even apparently “conservative” union leaders at the local or national level will occasionally turn to large strikes under increased pressure from rank and filers, employers, or both — like when Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, gave nominal support to teacher “safety strikes” during the pandemic.

And yet this fluid “left bureaucracy” also serves an important function in the labor bureaucracy: as a safety valve of the union movement. More raucous elements of rank-and-file revolt are channeled and — so far — mostly contained within definite and rigid limits. For instance, the question of large solidarity strikes is hardly ever broached; nor is the militant stopping of scabs used to try to break strikes. Both would collide with the labor law established by Democrats and Republicans.

Most tellingly: this “left bureaucracy” never challenges the political hegemony of the Democratic Party. Nelson was a vocal supporter of Joe Biden’s candidacy in 2020; the CTU leadership refuses explicit stances against Biden or the Democratic Party; and Weingarten swore to Biden that schools would remain open amid some of the deadliest days of the pandemic. In this sense we also have to include, as part of a contradictory “left bureaucracy,” organizations like Labor Notes. The latter offers trainings to build militancy in unions. And yet it refuses nonetheless to broach seriously the question of independent working-class political organization, or to challenge the labor bureaucracy’s support for Democrats and imperialism.

However, it is increasingly hard for union leaders — “left bureaucrats” or not — to avoid the political implications of their struggle. Those implications, in turn, threaten to turn into rank-and-file revolts not just against the bosses, but against the bureaucrats and capitalism’s parties themselves.

For example, during the pandemic, it is no secret that union bureaucrats worked hand-in-hand with the Biden administration to make sure that the economy remained open even as the body count mounted. Here and there, union members pushed their leaders into more confrontational stances. In 2022, the Chicago Teachers Union, for example, held a vote in which the membership refused, overwhelmingly, to return to the classroom — pitting the local union’s president against the Democratic mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot.

This clash did not give rise to a widespread rank-and-file struggle to split from the Democratic Party; indeed, the CTU leadership ably used a labor action to channel, then defuse, the struggle from below. But the clash does showcase the deep political tensions that arise from a union bureaucracy in bed with the Democrats. Those tensions abound. In Philadelphia, the public transportation union (TWU 234) has gone on strike repeatedly against a Democratic Party-controlled city trying to attack its funding. In Democrat-controlled New York, public sector unions are forbidden to strike for their rights via the Taylor Law. This in turn puts the bureaucracy in the direct position of undermining militant tactics from members, in allegiance to the Democrats. And as abortion rights sit on the Supreme Court’s chopping block, both the Democrats and the union leadership are encouraging members to stay on the sideline and simply vote for more Democrats, despite the fact that that tactic is nonsensical: Democrats now control Congress and the White House and are refusing to fight.

The last forty years show that these political tensions will not automatically turn into open political revolt. Indeed, the bureaucratic revolution has made that less likely than ever, with its sophisticated system of centralization of command, its use of strikes to defuse revolt and of the HRM model to control staff, and so on. However, those tensions build — in an accumulation of flammable material — and offer an opening for socialists to help ignite the contradictions that emerge and to fight for real class independence from the Democrats.

Lenin writes in What Is To Be Done,

The working class spontaneously gravitates towards Socialism, nevertheless, the more widespread (and continuously revived in the most diverse forms) bourgeois ideology imposes itself spontaneously upon the working class more than any other. (42–43)

Lenin here describes, in a very different context, that labor movements contain an inner clash between proletarian struggle and the co-optation, diffusion, and capture of that struggle by the ruling class. But out of that clash come brief “openings”: moments of revolt that temporarily — if implicitly — call into question the political power of the rulers over the workers, and point to the need for workers’ political independence. The inner development of the bureaucracy today cannot avoid these openings.

In fact, the bureaucracy’s very centralization of power is increasingly helping produce these kinds of openings. This is because union leadership must increasingly try to enforce the rule of the Democrats within the unions. And it must do so at a time of intensifying contradictions of capitalism: outbreaks of revolt over racist policing; the real possibility of the gutting of abortion rights; the need for the capitalists to extract more profit amid the pandemic and a slowing economy. The ruling class faces the prospect of anemic economic growth and shrinking profitability — and so increasingly needs the bureaucracy both to subdue revolt and shepherd workers beneath the wing of a Democratic Party that aims to help protect profits and capitalism above all else.

The bureaucratic revolution, then, shows how crucial it is for socialists to fight inside our unions to widen these political openings and struggle for total class independence. And the new union bureaucracy itself contains elements, in its lower reaches, that could be key allies in this fight.

This is because that leadership structure relies, more and more, on low-paid or volunteer union workers. This lower level is treated in much the same way as contingent workers at fast food restaurants or elsewhere: driven to maximum efficiency for a minimum of compensation. That means maximum speed in distributing leaflets, getting signatures, and so on. We see the signs of exactly this development in the rise of unions for union staffers themselves.

What’s more, this bottom level of union staff comes, typically, from a sector of youth that is idealistic, ready (abstractly) to struggle against the ruling class in some way. In moments of political “opening,” then, the lowest level of the most exploited union staff, and the unions of that staff, represent a natural ally for socialists. They may form a key force — if they can be “broken away” from the power of the upper reaches of the bureaucracy — to fight alongside rank and filers for real control of unions.

But the new bureaucracy faces another danger too: the huge masses of nonunion workers.

The convulsions of the pandemic, decades of stagnant wages, mass death in the pandemic, and economic and climate crises make possible a wave of militant union struggles of the unorganized. That kind of struggle would add a layer of militant and “untrained” union fighters inside the workers’ movement. Just as, in the history of capitalism, those who are newly proletarianized are often the fiercest fighters against the bosses, so a wave of newly unionized workers could serve as a basis of a challenge, from below, to the stately, tightly controlled unionism of the bureaucracy. That kind of wave would not automatically result in a new and revived union movement. The power of the bureaucracy is far too great for that. But a new layer of militant workers would offer another opening for socialists to build the fight for class independence.

Conclusions for Struggle

The “bureaucratic revolution” calls a socialist strategy that fights for political independence from the Democrats, and for direct worker control of our unions in mass assemblies — a kind of control that would therefore dismantle the bureaucracy.

To see why, we have to recognize just how successful the bureaucratic revolution has been at defusing bottom-up revolt through the concentration and centralization of leaders’ power. We see that success not only in the collapse in the number of large strikes, but also in the collapse of large wildcat actions too. There have been exceptions, like the 2018 teachers’ strikes. But they are exceptions that prove the rule.

In light of that success of the “bureaucratic revolution,” the Left’s approaches to the labor movement today are fatally limited. We often hear outpourings of a naive leftist hope that there will soon be a spontaneous, automatic revival of militant strike waves that could push the labor movement past “bread and butter” concerns toward a struggle against the ruling class as a whole. Or Leftists call for a “rank-and-file strategy” to revive shop floor revolts and push for greater union democracy — leaving the political fight to sever unions’ ties to the Democratic Party, and for class independence, to one side.

But in its “revolution from above,” the bureaucracy has made a leap in its ability to defuse, co-opt, and destroy rank-and-file struggle. It is extremely unlikely that union struggle will spontaneously turn into conscious class struggle. It is just as unlikely that unions will, on a large scale, spontaneously throw their weight behind social movements like Black struggle or the pro-abortion movement — which would pit them against the Democratic Party’s call to limit all politics to voting for completely ineffectual Democrats. The BLM uprising of 2020 was a case in point. If the revival of the union movement in the U.S. can’t be spontaneous — if it can’t grow naturally out of small-scale economic struggle — then the pathway to a revived union movement must pass through the political fight to liberate significant parts of labor from capitalism’s parties.

And yet unions’ “bureaucratic revolution” shows that calls merely for “union democracy” are radically limited. Typically, a call for union democracy is a call for greater power for union members to run and win via reform slates; and it means making union democratic processes more representative. But these measures are not enough to address any of the problems analyzed above. What’s called for instead is a far more radical struggle for union democracy — one that fights not just for this or that new slate, but for the dismantling of union bureaucracy itself.

This means fighting from below to ensure the direct election of recallable union officials, and that no union official makes more than the average workers’ wage. But crucially, it must also mean organizing in our unions by building mass worker assemblies — dismantling the bureaucracy by taking all major union decisions into our own hands, and fighting to make sure leaders only carry out the mandates of the majority vote. That kind of radical union democracy would be necessary to build links to social movements — for Black lives, against imperialism, for abortion rights — and take action below and beyond the bureaucratic leaders of unions and social movements. The work of socialists in other militant unions around the globe point the way — like the PTS in Argentina.

All these are key tasks for socialists today. We gain nothing by closing our eyes to the power of the union bureaucracy. We have a world to win by dismantling it.


Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.