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Now More than Ever, the Working Class Needs Independent, Democratic Unions

Recently, discussions about unionization have become a national conversation. New workplaces are unionizing and the question of how to ensure their democratic functioning is the order of the day.

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Long maligned and misunderstood, labor unions are suddenly all the rage, particularly among young people. New unions are being organized by Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, Starbucks workers at more than 210 stores across the country, and now workers at Apple Store, Chipotle, and Trader Joe’s, and they’re inspiring others to do the same. This exciting and unprecedented new wave of grassroots unionization, if successful, could reshape the labor movement as we know it.

But success is far from guaranteed.

These workers and their new leaders are up against some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the country. Amazon, for instance, has waged a massive, multimillion-dollar campaign to weaken the new labor union and to stop further unionization attempts at its warehouses, an effort that so far seems to be working. Meanwhile, Starbucks and Chipotle have both adopted scorched-earth tactics, firing organizers and supporters, and sometimes closing down entire stores in order to break the fledgling unions. Even companies that have long been unionized, such as UPS, have been brazenly firing worker-activists in advance of new contract negotiations. These attacks are designed to weaken the morale of union supporters and dissuade workers from further organizing. Unfortunately, the boss is not the only threat to these initiatives. The big bureaucratic unions (such as the AFL-CIO and SEIU) and their national leaders have a long history of absorbing and co-opting such grassroots unionization efforts, diverting direct conflict with the bosses into lukewarm media campaigns (such as the SEIU’s so-called Fight for $15), legislative struggles, and get-out-the-vote efforts for Democratic politicians, all while weeding out and displacing more militant rank-and-file leaders with bureaucrats and staffers. And these same pressures exist in more established private and public sector unions everywhere.

Consequently, if we want to truly win greater power for working people, we will need to build fighting, rank-and-file unions that can directly challenge not only the boss but also the system of exploitation and state repression that stands behind every employer. This means rejecting the old models of bureaucratic business unionism and instead building politically independent organizations that are democratically organized and run by working people themselves, from the bottom up.

As we organize new unions, and as those new unions grow, workers will feel the intense pressure to conform to old models of organization, to play along to get along, and to work within the state system. Already, the Democratic Party and even the president himself have sought to co-opt the Amazon labor movement, promising political and legislative support in exchange for labor peace and a good working relationship with the state’s own National Relations Board (NLRB). Defeating these efforts will require nothing less than a revolution within the labor movement, and that revolution begins by making our unions truly democratic spaces for the struggles of working people.

Unions as Organizations of the Working Class

Though it may not always feel like it, unions are fundamentally organizations of the working class, for the working class. They are some of the most important spaces where working people can come together to fight collectively over the use of their labor. And by withholding that labor, workers can win incredible gains. Unions are also defensive organizations, confronting and pushing back the attacks of the bosses, who constantly seek to squeeze more profit out of each worker. At the same time, unions are a tool to fight for broad class interests and against state repression and austerity.

Understanding why unions matter requires that we understand the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism. The bosses’ wealth comes from exploiting our labor. They hire us and use our labor for their own interest, but they pay us only a fraction of the value we produce. Consequently, they are always seeking various methods to increase their profits at our expense, whether by increasing levels of exploitation, speeding up production, reducing our wages and benefits, or creating new technologies to replace us. This means workers and bosses have inherently counterposed interests. Confronting these bosses and the state that defends them, therefore, requires the collective organization of the working class as a class. To do that, we have to make our unions into instruments of class struggle.

But we also have an obstacle in our own house: union (mis)leaders are well known for their top-down and undemocratic way of conducting themselves. Therefore, to build new fighting unions and to put our current unions at the service of workers, there are two fundamental principles we must adopt: maximum union democracy and total independence from the state and the bosses.

Union Democracy

Ask any labor bureaucrat about the importance of democracy as a principle of union organization, and they will inevitably tell you that democracy is essential to building a strong union. But the so-called democracy that now exists in our unions is, with few exceptions, little more than a fiction. It is a farce performed every few years to vote on a proposed contract or new leadership. The day-to-day decision-making and organization of our unions are frequently left to a very small group of misleaders and full-time staffers whose interests are often only tangentially aligned with the rank-and-file workers they claim to represent. For these bureaucrats, maintaining the union’s dues base is often their first priority, and anything that threatens the continued stability of the union and its ongoing happy relationship with the state, such as sympathy strikes or other supposedly “illegal” work actions, are treated as existential threats. In such a “democracy,” debate, organization, and labor struggle are all limited and tightly controlled. The decisions of when and whether to strike or take other work actions are frequently brought to rank-and-file workers only after the leadership has decided on them. And this often goes double for contract proposals related to wages, benefits, and working conditions. When presented with weak contracts by their leaders, for instance, workers are often told that this is the best they can win, and without a democratic forum to actually discuss and debate the merits of such contracts, or the real conditions of struggle as they exist, workers rarely get the chance to fight for anything better.

Real workers’ democracy, on the other hand, looks very different. To build truly democratic unions, we must empower the rank-and-file members as much as possible, for that is where the power of any union lies. This means creating open, democratic assemblies for regular discussion, debate, and decision-making among all members of the workplace. It means open and transparent bargaining and the direct election of shop stewards and bargaining committee members, subject to immediate recall by a majority of the shop or the union. And it means the direct election of local and national union leaders from within the workplace who are committed to the interests of the working class, subject to immediate recall, and who earn no more than the annual wage of the average worker.

The first of these necessities, the assembly, is at the heart of workers’ democracy. The argument for workers’ assemblies follows from the idea that the actions a union takes should be decided by the workers themselves and grounded in debate and discussion. By creating and maintaining regular assemblies of the workers as the sovereign body of all decisions, worker militancy can be developed and maintained, even in the face of attacks from the bosses or the state. Furthermore, these assemblies must, whenever possible, unify all workers under one fist. Involving every worker in the workplace in these assemblies, whether in the union or not, and sometimes even workers from outside when in solidarity with the union, ensures that the union represents all workers’ interests, and thus undermines the bosses’ attempts to divide us. And most importantly, perhaps, these spaces allow workers to bring conversations to the table that go beyond the workplace, and beyond wages and benefits, such as how to organize to fight to defend abortion rights, or to confront racist police violence in our communities. For workers’ assemblies to function they must be based on full democracy, freedom of political tendencies and opinion (that defend the interests of workers), and voting on resolutions that must be carried out by the union and its members. In other words, the rank-and-file workers are the ones who have to make the decisions: from when to take work actions and what demands to fight for, to the constitution of the union itself.

These kinds of spaces won’t come from above; we will have to fight for them. Those of us in existing unions will have to fight for the authority and the right to call meetings, issue statements, talk to the press, organize events, etc. And as we form new unions, and as those unions grow, it’s imperative that we continue to agitate for the broadest possible discussion and debate among the workers themselves. Those who work and form the rank and file of the union are the best ones to determine their own destiny, a fact that challenges the notion that unions are something external to workers and somehow meant only to provide services. It is in fact completely the opposite; workers made unions, and unions are supposed to be tools for struggle.

In addition to these assemblies, we also need smaller bodies of delegates and leaders to help organize, to bargain directly with the boss when necessary, and to carry through the decisions of the assembly. But these delegate and leadership bodies, however constructed, have to be chosen directly by the rank-and-file members themselves and wholly accountable to them. The reason for holding these positions should be out of a dedication to the workers’ struggle and not to enrich themselves or accumulate power. Therefore, elected positions in a union have to guarantee their rotation to make room for new leaders. The positions should be for a short period of years, after which leaders return to their jobs. We cannot continue to allow our leaders to occupy positions for decades while making six-figure salaries far and above what the members make. Therefore, all elected officials and leaders must be chosen for their commitment to the union and their fellow workers and to the working class more broadly. Furthermore, they must be subject to immediate recall by the rank and file at all times, and those who receive salaries should receive no more than the average wage of the average worker. Limiting the privilege and salaries of union leaders in this way helps keep them directly connected to the struggles and interests of the members they represent.

In almost all unions, members’ activities tend to revolve around bargaining, but workers should be able to fight for their demands at any point. Whatever the situation is, we need to fight for open bargaining. Bargaining should include all the membership — not just updates but access to the daily negotiations and to the most complete and current information. This will allow the negotiations to be discussed at rank-and-file meetings, so that every worker can decide on the best steps for the struggle to take with full transparency.

All this is totally opposed to the top-down approach of the current unions, where decisions are made at a small table, in a closed room, and in general with the presence of “experts” and lawyers from outside consulting firms that have little to do with workers’ lives or interests.

Political Independence

While democracy is essential for the workers’ movement, equally important is political independence from the state and the bourgeois parties. The state has increasingly co-opted the labor movement since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and the Taft Hartley Act in 1947, laws that, respectively, legalized and limited union activity. Because these laws brought unions under the formal jurisdiction of the federal government, union leaders and bureaucrats have poured more and more money and effort into negotiating with the state over mostly legislative issues and spent less and less time organizing the rank and file for struggle against the bosses. This process has, over the last 80 years, reduced many national labor unions to little more than lobbying agencies committed to negotiating for the rights of labor within the narrow framework of what the capitalist state will allow. The failure of this strategy of coolly negotiating with the enemy is evidenced by the decades-long decline in unionization rates and the shrinking number of major work stoppages each year, not to mention the general decline in working conditions, standards of living, and even life expectancy for most working people.

To build real power for themselves, working people must break the ties between our unions and the parties of the rich, namely the Democrats and the Republicans. The leadership of both of these parties is composed of millionaires and businessmen. It is in their interest to maintain our current system of exploitation and to tightly control and limit the power of labor, either through repression or, just as frequently, co-optation. The Democrats may claim to represent the workers, and President Biden may claim to be the most pro-union president ever, but in reality their interests are not aligned with those of working people. During their electoral campaigns, they receive millions of dollars from the very corporations that we are fighting. For example, the Democratic Party has received huge donations and endorsements from union-busting executives like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and Amazon contributed almost $11 million to Democrats and $2 million to Republicans in 2020 alone. The Democratic Party also often works with and employs the same law firms and polling firms that help corporations like Amazon and others run union-busting campaigns in our workplaces. Meanwhile, they refuse to fight on key issues that affect working and oppressed people, like abortion rights or the right not to be murdered by cops.

Some more progressive union leaders, left bureaucrats, and even some young activists nonetheless still believe that we can use the Democrats for our own interests while remaining loyal to the needs of working people and unions. They believe we can use so-called progressive Democrats like Sanders and AOC to draw attention to our struggles, to pass legislation like the PRO Act, and to win more popular support for the ongoing unionization efforts of workers everywhere. But threading that needle is not easy. Such strategies inevitably lead to co-optation, as we’ve seen time and time again. Worse still, they will sow political confusion among the class, distracting working people from the real tasks of building power through working-class tactics of struggle and organization. By working with and withholding criticism of the Democratic Party or certain of its members, and by failing to make clear at every opportunity the need for class independence, such organizing efforts run the risk of marching our unions even further into the arms of the state. This is why the Democratic Party remains the graveyard of both social movements and workers’ aspirations. The party’s real interests are shown in its complete failure to pass even moderately progressive reforms such as the Employee Free Choice Act or the PRO Act, which labor unions have spent millions of dollars and countless hours of effort to lobby for. As we build new unions, we must be on guard not to reproduce the bureaucratic structures and class collaboration that have led us to this current impasse.

The bureaucratic leaders of our unions see it as their job to maintain their close ties to the political establishment by delivering labor peace and attempting to keep rank-and-file workers in line. Every two years our union leaders, from the AFT to the Teamsters, endorse bourgeois politicians without any kind of real consultation with the membership. They then promise us partial improvements in our workplaces — decided by them and not by the workers — in exchange for supporting their candidates with money, endorsements, and get-out-the-vote efforts that build political and ideological bridges between the most active and often most well-intentioned union workers and the Democratic Party establishment. In the same way, they defend and justify such state institutions as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), presenting them as fair and impartial arbiters, as if the state does not function to defend the wealth of the capitalists. The recent fine imposed by the NLRB on mine workers in Alabama is a perfect example of why we cannot rely on the state to arbitrate our disputes with our class enemies. Unions should be created and organized according to workers’ interests, but instead they have to comply with the state’s many restrictions. The capitalist (and imperialist) U.S. state determines whether a union can exist, what’s legal about its functioning and what’s not, how it should proceed to negotiate, what labor actions are legal and illegal, and whether and when it is allowed to strike. As Marx and Engels said a long time ago, “The executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that our interests amount to anything more than a tactical consideration for the ruling class.

Bourgeois parties are willing to tolerate (some more, some less) the existence of unions, as long as these are limited to fight for minor concessions and maybe, for a time, a slightly “bigger piece of the pie,” as they say. But these parties are interested in workers only insofar as those workers help maintain the capitalist economic system. They will never accept and would certainly never support any union that explicitly questions or challenges the foundations of capitalist exploitation. They want to use our unions for their own interests, to have a grasp on the workers movement from “inside,” and that’s possible thanks to the role of the union bureaucracy. In that sense, we have to see unions as a terrain of political struggle and dispute, and we need to fight to recover them for a working-class strategy.

Working-Class Politics

The profits of the bosses depend on continued exploitation and coercion of the working class, and therefore our interests are deeply opposed to those of our bosses. In that sense, there is no such thing as a “fair share” of the pie. So long as there is a class of people living off the work of others, we will continue to live in an unequal society grounded in exploitation and oppression of the many for the benefit of the few.

But even as we fight for higher wages, better benefits, and more humane working conditions here at home, we must not forget that we live in a society that benefits not only from our exploitation but also from the ruthless exploitation of our fellow workers internationally. Many times, the concessions that workers can get here in the United States are a consequence of imperialist policies. U.S. capitalists can compensate for the loss of some profits here while exploiting natural and human resources from other countries, and even taking advantage of the immigrants that are forced to flee their countries to be exploited here under even worse working conditions than native workers. In that sense, our unionism must also be internationalist and anti-imperialist, and union democracy is the only way to push and fight for that political perspective.

Our demands go beyond what we can fight for in our workplace and against our own bosses; we need to unite with other workers and movements to fight for broader goals. We need to fight racism, sexism, xenophobia, and every type of discrimination and bigotry. We need to fight for free and public healthcare and education. We need to fight for reproductive rights, immigrants rights, housing rights, and much more.

To strengthen our struggle inside and outside the workplaces, we must recover our own methods of struggle. We need to organize walkouts, strikes, and picket lines. Hurting their profits by withholding labor is one our most powerful tools. If there is one thing that the pandemic made clear, it is that we are the ones who run this society. We produce the wealth, and we should be the ones deciding what to do with it.

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James Dennis Hoff

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.

Luigi Morris

Luigi is a freelance photographer, socialist journalist and videographer. He is an activist for immigrants' rights.

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