After decades of decline and stagnation, U.S. Labor stands at a crossroads. On one side is the same old path of the labor bureaucracy that has sold its soul to the Democratic Party and which has no vision for a renewed labor movement beyond further entrenching itself in the U.S. state. On the other side are the thousands of new young activists and workers marching to the beat of a new grassroots unionism who have the potential to build a national movement to organize millions of workers from below. The formation of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and the victory at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, as well as the hundreds of new Starbucks stores that have formed unions in the last four months show the power and potential of rank-and-file organizing.
It is in this context that the biggest Labor Notes conference ever began today in Chicago. More than 4,000 workers, unionists, activists, labor journalists, and scholars are coming together to debate the strategies and tactics for taking the labor movement forward. And the outcome of those debates has never been more relevant. As part of this important discussion, we offer suggestions for how to make the most of this new moment in order to build a labor movement that relies on its own forces and develops the revolutionary potential of the powerful, multiethnic U.S. working class.
The Dead End of the Union Bureaucracy
This year’s Labor Notes conference comes just one week after the AFL-CIO held its own national convention in Philadelphia. Attended by thousands of staffers and bureaucrats, the AFL-CIO convention, complete with a speech by President Biden, was a chauvinistic, flag-waving advertisement for everything wrong with the U.S. labor movement today. While the convention provided a platform for the President, it made no room for the new wave of young grassroots union activists from Amazon, Starbucks, or Apple who are making headlines every day across the country. This failure to include even one representative from this new movement clearly shows the gap between this dynamic new labor movement and the ossified and bureaucratic leadership of the AFL-CIO.
But this is nothing new. For decades, the AFL-CIO has collaborated and compromised with the U.S. state in order to control and limit the activity of the working class, pursuing a strategy of business unionism grounded in the nationalist idea that what is good for big business and the U.S. state is good for labor.
In his speech to the convention, President Biden, who cynically describes himself as “the most pro union president ever,” heaped praise on the late Richard Trumka, the former head of the AFL-CIO. As both Secretary Treasurer and then later as President of the federation, Trumka dutifully accepted, often in lockstep with Democratic politicians like Biden and Barack Obama, the Reagan-led neoliberal offensive against labor and openly endorsed and defended the policies of U.S. imperialism. But Trumka was merely the most well-known of a whole class of labor bureaucrats who have grown increasingly out of touch with the basic needs and interests of the working people they are supposed to represent.
These so-called labor leaders have historically been nothing more than co-opted tools of the bosses’ offensive against the living conditions of working people everywhere. Their task, nine times out of ten, has been to defang and neutralize the real power of the working class by discouraging militant workplace struggle and by agreeing to laws and contracts that limit the ability of unions to strike and to strike together. Not even in the Pandemic, when millions of essential workers were sent to “war without a gun,” to catch Covid and die, did the union bureaucracy lift a finger to defend workers’ interests.
And while millions of young people across the world took to the streets to decry the racist police murder of George Floyd, these leaders continued to allow the police to organize in defense of Floyd’s murderer within the federation by refusing to kick the cops out. Indeed, so important is maintaining control of the organized labor movement to the leadership of the AFL-CIO that it blocked the proposal put forward by the Vermont chapter of the federation to have the leadership directly voted on by the rank and file.
At a time when the unorganized and precarious working class is growing increasingly interested in labor unions, it is crucial that we fight the labor bureaucracy in order to reclaim our unions as spaces of radical resistance and tools for the defense of our collective interests and rights. In this context, the Labor Notes conference presents an opportunity to strategize and discuss how to challenge the traditional union bureaucracy. At this conference, we must discuss how we are going to recover our organizations for the rank and file, how we can continue to build a grassroots union movement, and how we can democratize our unions in order to break the bureaucracy’s control over the working class.
“Generation U”: An Opportunity to Grow and Democratize Workers’ Organizations
The renewed interest in labor unions and working class organization, particularly by young people, is being driven by a whole host of crises that have only increased since the 2008 economic collapse. The profound economic inequality and rampant speculation that led to that collapse revealed the failure of capitalism to an entire generation of young people coming into the workforce, and the increasing interest in socialism that followed has led young activists to turn again toward the organization of the working class as a solution.
More recently, the pandemic taught workers that they were essential, and the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020 taught them the power of self-organization and made clear the connections between exploitation and racial oppression. As a consequence, a whole new generation of working people are waking up to the importance and value of labor unions and collective organization, joining and forming new unions at a rate that has not been seen in decades.
The most interesting and profound aspect of this new labor movement, however, is the extraordinary energy, determination, and courage of the new wave of low-wage rank-and-file workers and activists building unions at workplaces like Amazon and Starbucks. A new worker-activism, grounded in shop floor organizing and solidarity is challenging the union bureaucracies, and these workers are winning unionization votes even where the big unions have failed.
While the rank-and-file nature of these organizing efforts is precisely what has made them successful, avoiding the pitfalls of bureaucratization and remaining independent of the parties of capital — particularly the Democratic Party, which has managed to co-opt the rest of organized labor — will not be easy. One of the ways to avoid such bureaucratization and co-optation is to build truly democratic unions, grounded in solidarity and led by the mass of the workers themselves.
Against this backdrop, the Labor Notes conference is bringing together thousands of new unionists from all over the country seeking alternatives to organize with fresh ideas. It is vital that in this process we move forward boldly and determined to make the most of the current wave of unionization. Therefore, our first and perhaps most urgent task now is organizing the solidarity unfolding within the labor movement to support and to defend all ongoing unionization attempts with militant action. We must fight to spread the unionization wave to every Amazon warehouse and every Starbucks store across the country, while also building new movements for rank-and-file organizing in the logistics industry, the Airline industry, at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s, restaurants, and other private sector workplaces where unionization rates have been declining for decades.
At the same time, while the developments put forward by this emergent grassroots unionism are promising, we still lack real rank-and-file bodies and self-organization. New unions like the ALU and Starbucks Workers United (SWU) have the opportunity to set a precedent for the entire labor movement, building unions where the rank and file is active and decision making comes from the bottom based on direct and horizontal democracy. This means, among other things, regular and deliberative local shop floor assemblies of all union members to make workplace decisions. It means, unlike the AFL-CIO, the direct election of leaders and delegates who are paid the wage of the average worker and subject to recall by a majority of the membership. And it means making contract negotiations transparent and open to all union members. It also means operating completely independent of the influence of capital and the Democratic Party.
An Injury to One Is an Injury to All: Retaliation, Firings, and Union Busting Practices Must be Stopped
Along with the broadest internal democracy, the new unions must set a combative example even before their first contract negotiations. The powerful bosses we face at workplaces like Amazon and Starbucks are fully deploying their anti-union arsenal and openly retaliating against unionists now before they have even had a chance to begin holding regular union meetings. As of today, at least six Amazon union activists in Staten Island have been fired, as have dozens of organizers at Starbucks. Meanwhile, these companies continue to take advantage of the anti-union practices enshrined in labor law and endorsed de facto by the Republican and Democratic Parties to stall union recognition and contract negotiations for as long as possible.
There have already been many attempts to fight this retaliation, but this conference must strengthen this struggle with concrete measures to reinstate the fired workers. This means building solidarity campaigns across unions as well as organizing and preparing for work actions and strikes at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island. Most of all, this means building the kind of real union culture that takes seriously and regularly puts into practice the old adage that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” This is why it is so important to fight these firings now: it has the opportunity to create the organizational, institutional, and cultural structures for future struggles. We must work to make this unionization wave a tsunami that sweeps away all the anti-union and anti-strike laws that keep the labor movement in its grip.
Uniting Social Movements and Labor
The other highly promising aspect of this new labor activism is the connection between exploitation and oppression that is materializing in the struggle. Forged in the fire of the Black Lives Matter movement and the uprisings of 2020, this new generation of worker organizers understands the connections between their lack of power and agency at work and their lack of freedom and safety on the streets. They know that the state, and the police in particular, do not share their interests, and they know that they can use their labor power to fight for more than wages and benefits for themselves.
This new generation of workers, many of them members of oppressed groups, are making it clear that they want to build organizations that are willing to defend the most oppressed sectors of the working class — immigrants, Black folks, and people of color, and queer folks — at a time when the trans rights and reproductive rights are both under assault from the Far Right.
Despite this incredible potential and promise, we have yet to see the full development of a common struggle against exploitation and oppression. However, there are some small but significant examples that illustrate what could be possible if the labor movement were to seriously take up the militant defense of the hardest hit sectors of the working class. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), for instance, has a long history of radical labor action around issues of oppression and social justice. In 2020, they went on strike on Juneteenth in support of Black Lives Matter, and they have also regularly gone on strike against the Israeli occupation and destruction of Palestine. That same year, unionized bus drivers in Minneapolis and New York City also stood up for Black lives by refusing to cooperate with police to transport detained protesters to jail. Meanwhile members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in California are organizing a campaign to kick cops out of the AFL-CIO.
Many of the workers and organizers at Starbucks Workers United are queer and trans people who are organzing to protect and defend trans-inclusive healthcare for themsleves and their fellow workers. Holding a strike or walkout against attacks on trans rights, particularly in states where vicious anti-trans laws are being passed, would be a logical next step in the process of building militancy and organizing further stores and could be a beacon for other labor activists and unions to follow.
The same applies to the fight for abortion rights. In New York City, where the big unions like the AFL-CIO have utterly failed to turn out to support the reproductive rights, several of the new Starbucks workers unions have joined the coalition — organized by Left Voice, Socialist Alternative, NYC for Abortion Rights, Tempest Collective, CUNY for Abortion Rights, and other organizations — for a rally and march at Union Square on the day that the Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade. This is in stark contrast to the silence by Planned Parenthood and its failure to organize any significant fightback. While endorsing such rallies is a strong beginning, defeating the Far Right and winning a national law that makes abortion free, safe, and legal on demand for all will require strikes and walkouts by the major unions across the country.
Figuring out how to connect labor struggle and the struggle against oppression is central to the future of the working class. And learning again how to use the methods of working-class power, such as strikes, walkouts, and mass demonstrations against both exploitation and oppression, has to be one of the primary goals of this conference, and of every worker and unionist across the country in the coming period.
Class Independence Matters
While labor unions and other organizations of working people have enormous power to fight both the exploitation and oppression of capitalism, the state is always seeking to co-opt, limit, and control that power. And the Democratic Party is one of the main weapons of the ruling class in this process. Unfortunately, both the traditional bureaucracy and the so-called independent unions have ties to the establishment or progressive wings of the Democratic Party. Our union leaders use our dues to campaign for and support Democratic politicians and almost never consult us, except in the most obligatory ways, when endorsing candidates. And those candidates, even when they claim to care about working people, always support U.S. capitalism and almost always endorse war and imperialism abroad.
As they have shown time and time again, the Democrats do not care about the interests of working people and they are largely incapable of acting in the interests of working people even if they wanted to. If we wish to win any meaningful gains in the future and learn how to use our power again, the rank and file must fight for control of our unions and the independence of labor unions from the Democratic Party. That does not mean that we workers should not do politics — it means that we must have our own politics, independent of that of the capitalists and the bosses. Instead of defending the system and the super rich, we need a party that defends the workers and the oppressed and does not make compromises with either the Far Right, the GOP, or the bosses.
While the Labor Notes conference is a great opportunity to organize, debate, and discuss, the fact that Bernie Sanders has been invited to speak, while the socialist Left is banned from even handing out pamphlets or newspapers at the event, is a sign that even the radical wing of the labor movement has still not fully grasped the importance or centrality of political independence. As we have explained before, Sanders is an enthusiastic supporter of imperialism and does not stand on the side of working people at home or abroad. And as a decades-long supporter of the Democratic Party, he and other members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have helped to provide cover for the party’s anti-worker policies and misled workers into believing that the party can be reformed from within. Since he was appointed Chairman of the Budget Committee, Sanders has also worked closely with the Biden administration despite its refusal to take any steps to meaningfully address the multiple crises afflicting working people.
If we ever expect to build a labor movement worthy of the name, a movement capable of bringing about revolutionary change, we will have to break from the stranglehold of the union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party, its politicians, and its politics. We will also have to break free from our reliance on the legal protections of the state and the compromises it demands. The only way forward is through the independent organization of the working class, free of the influences and interests of the bosses and the state. That challenge is enormous, but our task now, more than ever, is to figure out how to make it happen.