Beyond Reform: The Limits of the New Labor Bureaucracy

James Dennis Hoff

April 19, 2024

Rank and file reform caucuses are pushing the union bureaucracies into struggle, but building real working class power requires more than reform.

The 2008 financial crisis and the great recession that followed was by every indication a low point for U.S labor. Already weakened by decades of falling unionization rates, declining strike activity, and the near total hegemony of business unionism, organized labor was forced to make even further concessions in order to prop up corporate profits and stabilize the economy. In 2009, for instance, the UAW gave concessions to the Big Three automakers worth more than a billion dollars a year, including significant reductions to retiree health care, the elimination of essential cost of living increases, and massive wage and benefit reductions for those hired after 2009. Despite these givebacks, or perhaps because of them, unions were rewarded with the lowest public approval ratings ever recorded by Gallup. Only 48 percent of Americans polled in 2009 said they approved of labor unions, a drop of more than ten percentage points from the year before. Since then, unionization rates have fallen by more than 2 points from 12 percent of the working population in 2009 to just 10 percent last year. 

But the 2008 financial collapse, as bad as it was for organized labor, also marked the beginning of the end of the ideological legitimacy of neoliberalism, which had played an active role in weakening the U.S. labor movement since the late 1970s. The myth that liberal capitalism could be endlessly reproduced and reformed without crisis was shattered; and in the decade and a half since, we have witnessed a significant upsurge of working-class consciousness and interest in unions. The most recent Pew report showed that people in the U.S. under 30 preferred socialism to capitalism, and that more than 40 percent of those under 50 had positive views of socialism compared to just 29 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, union approval rates are now the highest they have been in more than 60 years, and, though union density has continued to decline, the number of new workers represented by unions skyrocketed in 2022 and 2023. 

Whether it’s the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, the massive teachers strikes of 2018 and 2019, the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, or the wave of new organizing and strikes that followed the pandemic, working people across the country have been drawing conclusions, organizing, and fighting back. The pandemic and the fierce street protests of 2020 in particular revealed the importance of independent working class organization. The multi-racial protests against police violence, though co-opted by the Biden campaign, inspired a whole generation of young people, who then took that energy and enthusiasm and those fights against oppression into their workplaces. Likewise, the pandemic not only forced many workers to take more militant actions to protect their health and safety, it showed them just how essential their labor really was. Out of these struggles came the formation of new labor unions, such as the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United, in industries that were previously seen as impossible to organize. 

This wave of growing class consciousness, class struggle, and organization, alongside skyrocketing inflation and economic uncertainty, has in turn led to several high profile labor actions that have emboldened union members and intensified working people’s desire to keep fighting. The UPS strike authorization and contract struggle, the strikes of Hollywood writers and actors, and, of course, the massive and highly popular UAW strike against the Big Three automakers all reveal the power of the U.S. working class. More recently, the movement for Palestine and union campaigns for an end to the genocide in Gaza have raised once again the important question of how to use our unions and control of our labor to fight not only for wages and benefits, but also to resist the oppression and violence of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad. 

Such newfound militancy, however, is not an end in itself, nor can we just assume that it will continue to develop unchallenged. Indeed, if the history of U.S. labor has taught us anything, it is that the state (including its allies in the bureaucracies of the unions and the social movements) will do everything it can to contain, co-opt, and otherwise weaken the power of working people wherever it develops. Replacing these bureaucrats with newer, slightly more progressive leaders will not solve this problem; and believing that we can reform our way out of this dilemma is a dangerous illusion. Furthermore, though there has been a decided and very positive uptick in new unionization, as Eric Blanc has shown, unionization rates are still very low, and we will not be able to solve this problem by simply increasing union membership. That’s why we need to focus on building unions that can fight for and alongside the whole class, including the nonunionized and the unemployed, against all forms of oppression and exploitation. That requires class independence, real rank and file democracy, and international working class solidarity that rejects the logic of capitalism and imperialist domination.

Rise of the Reformists 

The recent upsurge of working class consciousness, union organizing, and rank and file resistance to the old and moribund union leaderships has given rise to a new reform bureaucracy that is at once both amplifying and seeking to contain this newfound militancy. 

These new leaders recognize that winning workers over to unions again after decades of setbacks and defeats requires that at least some moderate concessions be won. This means putting the threat of a strike back on the agenda. But the politics of these reform leaders and the caucuses that brought them to power, their still largely economistic outlook on labor struggle, and their close ties to the imperialist state via support for and from the Democratic Party ultimately limit the development of working class power. The politics of the bureaucracy, and this includes even the new reform bureaucracies, is grounded in the logic of endlessly bargaining with the owners of capital and the ruling class for better wages and working conditions, rather than building the power necessary to ultimately confront them for the control of production. This political horizon not only weakens the potential for workers’ power in the short term — e.g., limiting the scope and duration of strikes with little organizing from below — but sows illusions in the idea that working people and those who exploit them can live peaceably together, or that the bourgeois state can act as a fair arbitrator of class conflict, when in fact its very purpose is to defend and reproduce the system of capitalist exploitation. In this respect, these new bureaucracies, though brought to power by rank and file anger and militancy, are not just impediments to further action. They are, like other labor leaders before them, actively channeling workers’ anger away from independent class struggle and into support for the parties of U.S. imperialism.

Led by a small but growing sector of mostly rank and file activists, labor reformists have been building a movement to elect local and national leaders that better represent the new militancy of the rank and file. In 2021, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), along with allies from the old Hoffa regime, managed to take over the Teamsters in a shocking landslide victory against the Teamster Power slate aligned with and endorsed by the old guard. In 2022, the UAW held elections where, for the first time, members were able to directly vote for their leadership, rather than that leadership being chosen by elected delegates. As a consequence, the UAW Members United slate, which included Shawn Fain and several younger reformists endorsed by the UAW’s own Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) movement, narrowly beat out the old Administration Caucus, which had run the union for decades. 

While these election victories were the product of years of rank and file organizing, much of this work has also been supported by socialists and labor activists affiliated with the DSA or Labor Notes. Originally founded in the late seventies to create a worker-led space for socialists to organize within, early Labor Notes activists (including Kim Moody and Dan La Botz) used Labor Notes to attempt to build what Moody later called a “militant minority,” that is, a cadre of rank and file activists who could reinvigorate labor from within. They were also active in building the TDU and other reform caucuses and helped to prepare the ground for the 1997 UPS strike. Though Labor Notes remained small for most of its history, it has grown considerably over the last several years, and attendance at its annual conference has continued to break records. More recently, as it’s grown, Labor Notes has become more attached to the strategy of building reform caucuses like the TDU and UAWD, and has played an important role in organizing to help promote and elect several high-profile reformist leaders, including Sean O’Brien, Shawn Fain, and the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) Sara Nelson. Nelson and O’Brien have both been featured speakers at Labor Notes conferences in the past, and Fain is scheduled to speak at the conference in Chicago later this month. 

All of these new leaders talk tough and have advocated and helped lead  some of the more militant labor struggles of the last several years. Nelson, for instance, won accolades from the Left in 2019 when she called for a general strike of airport workers to end President Trump’s government shutdown. O’Brien and Fain, meanwhile, led two of the most high-profile contract struggles in years at UPS and UAW, respectively. Fain in particular, borrowing from the populist rhetoric of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, has used his role as leader to criticize the “billionaire class” and to encourage labor to take up more ambitious demands. These include massive new unionization efforts, a 32 hour workweek, and organizing unions to prepare to strike collectively on May Day in 2028. Fain has also defended migrants and publicly criticized President Trump, saying that “Trump doesn’t give a damn about working-class people.” 

The defeat of the old bureaucrats and the rise of these new reformists and the reform caucuses that support them shows that there is a whole sector of labor that is sick of the decades of quiescence and betrayal and which is ready to strike out on a new path. This is an historic development. However, though these new leaders have publicly advocated a more militant approach toward the boss, helped lead some important struggles, and often challenged or rejected the Far-Right, as is the case with Nelson and Fain, their limited reformist vision and the vast and growing bureaucracies they oversee remain a major impediment to the growth of real working class power. Furthermore, their often chauvinist politics and their alliances with the Democrats provide cover for many of the same policies that gave rise to Trump and the Far Right in the first place. Like the old bureaucrats before them, these leaders and the bureaucracies they oversee are an essential part of what Antonio Gramsci called the “integral state” and, therefore, regardless of their rhetoric, are structurally more closely aligned with the interests of U.S. imperialism than the project of building independent working class power. 

And these limits and contradictions have been on full display lately. O’Brien’s push to settle the UPS contract without a strike and without real gains for part-timers, even as the UAW was lining up to walk out just two weeks later, reveals the degree to which these leaders remain contained by their ties to the state. As former Teamster and labor writer Joe Allen said about that contract struggle:

The big winner I think in the contract right now, the TA, is the Joe Biden administration which has continued its role — much more covertly this time — trying to prevent major national strikes of major economic significance … They used more behind the scenes politics to make sure there wasn’t a strike this year. So the Biden’s administration is getting pretty much everything they wanted.

A year earlier, O’Brien had also helped negotiate, alongside President Biden and then Secretary of Labor, Marty Walsh, an end to what could have been one of the most disruptive rail strikes ever. Meanwhile, Fain used his role as president of the UAW to put forward a top-down strike strategy that, though innovative and largely successful, also had a much smaller impact on the national economy than an all-out strike across the whole industry, avoiding major production disruptions that may have threatened supply chains or exacerbated inflation. This allowed Biden to maintain the image of “a return to normal” that he has tried to cultivate during his first term, while at the same time selling himself as the “most pro-labor President ever” by joining the picket lines alongside Fain. 

Of course, these bureaucrats do sometimes clash with leaders of the Democratic Party, but they always do so as loyal critics. Fain, for instance, had harsh words to say about the limits of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, but this did not stop him from enthusiastically endorsing his re-election campaign. Worse, though these bureaucracies have promoted political forms of unionism that occasionally pander to the idea of class struggle or international solidarity (such as statements supporting a ceasefire in Gaza), they are limited by their ties to the economic interests and imperialist program of the United States. However genuine their intentions might be, the role they play is, ultimately, to contain the discontent of the working classes and channel it back into support for the state, a role that has become all the more essential for the reproduction of capital in a period of declining U.S. economic and military hegemony abroad. 

Nowhere is this idea more evident than in the increasingly cozy and very public relationship with the state enjoyed by reform leaders like Fain, O’Brien, and Nelson, all of whom are being used to once again channel working class anger away from the picket lines and the streets and into the electoral arena this year. As the 2024 elections become a battle for the hearts and minds of U.S. workers, these union leaders have gained unprecedented access to both candidates. Fain’s high-profile endorsement of Genocide Joe in January is perhaps the most obvious example, but O’Brien’s visit with Trump in Mar-a-Lago and the $45,000 the Teamsters donated to the Republican National Committee show that the Teamsters’ leader is seeking favor and access even among the Far Right. Although the Teamsters have not endorsed a Republican candidate this century and it’s likely they will eventually endorse Biden, O’Brien’s flirtations with the Trump campaign reveal his own opportunism as well as the limits of the TDU’s opportunist and unionist approach to building power in the Teamsters. Nelson, meanwhile, enthusiastically endorsed Biden in 2020 and has close ties to Bernie Sanders and other so-called progressive Democratic politicians. She was also a contender for Labor Secretary, and Forbes even advocated for Biden to select her as his running mate in 2020. 

On the surface these seemingly close ties to national political figures like Biden and Trump may seem like a sign of labor’s increasing influence over the decisions of the state, but working class power does not derive from endorsements or having a seat at the table. While labor has certainly enjoyed an increased level of influence in the realm of public opinion, and while some small policy gains have been made, for instance, at the National Labor Relations Board, the bureaucracies’ relationship with the Democrats has done nothing to strengthen the power of working people or unions. Indeed, it has had the very opposite effect, perpetuating the idea that the purpose of unions is to seek ever more influence in the affairs of the state in an endless cycle that has so far left labor empty-handed and weakened. And any argument that this time could be different is mere fancy.

The Democratic Party has successfully courted the union vote and union endorsements for decades and has offered nothing in return. Despite control of the executive and the two houses of congress in both 2009 and 2021, the Democrats have not even passed laws granting elementary rights, such as automatic card check that would make it significantly easier to unionize, and have done little to limit corporations and bosses from using their wealth to undermine union drives or to break unions. They even failed to pass their own proposed, and already highly compromised, PRO Act, despite major drives by unions, the DSA, and the progressive wing of the party. And of course, unions have failed to force Democrats to pass, and sometimes even actively resisted, basic bread and butter working-class reforms like a national public health care system or tuition-free higher education.   

This is why it is so important for the new labor movement and rank and file activists to break with the labor bureaucracies that would seek to limit and control our struggles, to loudly proclaim our independence from the parties of capital, and to reject the idea that unions have anything to gain by lobbying or otherwise seeking influence with these parties or their representatives. The true power of labor unions comes not from our capacity to successfully petition the state, but from our ability to organize and to strategically withhold our labor to force the boss and the state to make concessions. The successful UAW strike against the Big Three is one example of that power, but, as the ones that make the world run, we can win so much more if we organize as an entire class. And it is to that horizon that we must always be looking if we wish to build a fighting labor movement in the United States. 

Class Independence, Union Democracy, and Working Class Hegemony

What exactly is the purpose of a union and what do we want our unions to be? These are questions that are rarely, if ever, directly raised when activists gather to discuss labor organizing. That is, activists and union members who want to improve their unions are often so caught up in organizing that they forget what they are organizing for. A strike, a good contract, a higher rate of union participation, the construction and successful election of a reform caucus, more unions? These things are good, but they are not ends in themselves. Unions are important tools that working people can and must use to build our power. However, as labor unions have drawn closer to the state over the decades and come to depend upon the state for their continued survival, they have taken on an increasingly contradictory class character. Consider the AFL-CIO, whose leaders  have conspired, and still conspire, with the U.S. government to undermine foreign leaders and defeat working class movements in countries across the world, including Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela. These same leaders, who claim to represent more than 12 million workers, also continue to affiliate with and represent tens of thousands of police officers, whose primary purpose is to repress the working class in service of capitalist stability and profit. And of course, the AFL CIO continues to hold millions of dollars in Israeli Bonds, directly contributing to the unfolding genocide in Gaza. 

Even otherwise progressive labor leaders like Fain and Nelson continue to reproduce these chauvinist politics by supporting Democratic Party politicians like Sanders and Biden and offering praise and support for U.S. imperialism. When Nelson leaped to public attention by threatening to help organize a strike of airport workers to put an end to the government shutdown in 2019, she passionately talked about the many soldiers “fighting for our country right now,” who were not being paid, as if the U.S. military could ever fight for the interests of working people. Likewise, in a speech delivered the same day of Biden’s visit, Fain referred to the former manufacturing site of B-24 bombers for the U.S Air Force as the “arsenal of democracy.” Fain has also modeled himself on the UAW leader Walter Reuther, a close ally of Franklin Roosevelt who proudly oversaw plans for the UAW to produce 500 planes a day for the U.S. military in 1940, and who championed a no-strike clause during the war in order to keep wildcat strikes in check and corporate profits flowing from the war machine. All of those union activists who had supported Reuther were therefore also inadvertently contributing to the stability and firepower of the same imperialist state that only five years later used a different kind of bomber manufactured by Boeing to murder hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

But labor’s ongoing ties to the state are not the product of this or that individual labor leader and therefore cannot be solved by electing better reformists. Instead, they are the result of long-term material shifts in the nature of capitalism that have allowed labor unions to become captured by the imperialist state. As Leon Trotsky explains in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” the intimate relationship between the state and monopoly capitalism, which defines the epoch of imperialism, forces unions to turn to the state for protection.

Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.

This, however, is not a reason for labor militants to reject or turn away from union struggle; rather, this explains the terms upon which such struggles have to be waged. In order to build democratic unions, where workers’ power is no longer limited by what the state and the bureaucracy will allow, we need to simultaneously break our unions away from the influence and control of the state. Again, as Trotsky put it:

[T]he trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class… The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.

Union democracy, in other words, has to be built, at the very least, upon a program of class independence and can only truly be realized when that independence is achieved. And such democracy has to be about more than just the election of national leaders and votes on tentative agreements. 

Real union democracy means empowering rank and file union members to participate as much as possible in all aspects of the decision-making process at every turn, from discussions of local grievances and working conditions, to bargaining with the boss, to deciding whether or not, when, and how to go on strike. It means direct election of labor leaders from among the workers at all levels who are fully recallable by a majority vote of the membership and who earn no more than the wage of the average worker. Such democracy also has to include and be informed by regular debate and discussion across as wide a group of workers as possible. This has to include regular assemblies of all the workers in a workplace (unionized or not) and, in some instances, community members or workers from outside the workplace who are in solidarity or who are directly affected by the actions of the union. The TDU’s tradition of including spouses as voting members of the caucus is a step toward the development of this kind of wider organization, which is essential for the success of strikes and other militant actions. 

Such broad forms of democratic organization, as opposed to narrow bureaucratic structures designed to contain and limit workers’ power, not only encourage greater union participation, but create space for organizing that goes beyond wages and benefits, connecting our unions to the struggles of the broader class and of all people who suffer from exploitation and oppression. However, as Trotsky makes clear, any vision for our unions that does not include a vision for working class hegemony is incomplete. This means building unions that are capable of leading strikes and struggles for the entire class, both the organized and the unorganized, employed and unemployed, nationally and internationally, but it also means confronting and refusing to adapt to the ideology of capitalism and the limits of reform. Whether it’s striking to shut down production or distribution of weapons destined for Israel, marching to defend abortion rights, or organizing to resist police repression, we must fight to build the power of working people everywhere, not as an end in itself, not as a process of permanent struggle, but as part of a larger struggle to liberate ourselves and build a world controlled by working people and an economy based on the fulfillment of human needs rather than profit. 

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.