What Is Class Struggle Unionism?

By Jason Koslowski

Joe Burns’ new Class Struggle Unionism comes at a key time. That’s because the long-slumbering union movement looks like it could be starting to stir again.

Class Struggle Unionism by Joe Burns

Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2022

Almost 70 percent of people approve of unions. That’s the highest number in 50 years. And a wave of unionization is sweeping the U.S. The last year saw a jump of 57 percent more petitions sent to the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) to form new unions—the highest level in a decade. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won a historic victory at Amazon in Staten Island. Workers are unionizing at Starbucks; over 150 stores have already been unionized and over 300 have filed for elections. The struggle’s being led by young, often queer, organizers, dubbed “Generation U.” Labor Notes—an event where union activists gathered to share ideas and strategies—had its biggest conference in its history this past summer.

But the labor movement is facing huge dangers, too.

First, the bosses are doubling down on union busting. They’re firing organizers at Starbucks and Amazon. Second, the Democrats are looking at the new unions like the ALU and licking their chops. They have been betraying labor for decades—they helped channel workers’ fights into safe, narrow, legal boundaries and have encouraged union leaders to abandon disruptive strikes that would disrupt the profits of the bosses.

Now, though, they want photo-ops with union leaders to make Democrats look good for unions—to channel our energy and power back into “get out the vote” campaigns instead of fighting for ourselves, at work and in the streets. They’re especially desperate now, as they’re facing difficult midterm elections coming up.

That’s where Burns’ new book, Class Struggle Unionism, comes in. Burns, who is director of collective bargaining with the CWA-AFA (Communications Workers of America—Association of Flight Attendants) union, calls for class struggle unions. He blasts the Democratic Party’s constant betrayal of the labor movement. And he calls for unions to put their faith in the working class’s own weapons, like strikes, rather than politicians. These would be unions that strike even when it’s illegal, make strong picket lines that stop scabs, defy injunctions, and link up in their strikes and in the streets, across racial and gender lines, to unite the working class as a whole against the bosses exploiting them.

The book is a reminder we badly need today: yes, we definitely need more unions, but we also need fiercer, more powerful ones that aren’t afraid to fight using strikes—one of the strongest weapons they have—and that reject their false “allies” in the Democratic Party.

Burns’s book has some important limits too. He stops just short of calling for our unions to sever all our ties to the Democratic Party for the political independence we need, even though he’s shown how treacherous the Democratic Party is for workers. And the book misses important changes inside the labor movement, changes we need to take stock of if we’re going to build up real democracy in our unions.

But still, it’s a powerful jog to our memories that better unions are possible—class struggle unions are possible. Workers built those kinds of unions in the past, and we can build them today. We just have to push Burns’ ideas even further than he does.

What is class struggle unionism?

The first thing to notice is just how different this book is from the vast majority of books on unions that have come out in at least the last 25 years. Chapter 1 points out an idea that’s totally ignored by a more mainstream writer on unions like Jane McAleevey. It’s this basic idea: the source of all the bosses’ profits is us—the working class.

Burns explains it in terms of simple math. Let’s say a boss hires me for $20-an-hour. In an eight-hour shift, I get $160. The boss also puts out some money for machines, rent, etc., and maybe some benefits like health insurance for me (probably not.) That brings the total amount the boss is spending during my shift to about $500.

But when I’m working—whether I’m making coffees, or shipping boxes in an Amazon warehouse—I’m making far more money than that for the bosses. The boss is spending $500 on me. But in my shift, I’m serving enough coffees or packing enough boxes to make the boss $800, $1000, or more. When I was working on a factory line in Reading, PA a few years ago, I was moving hundreds-of-thousands of dollar’s worth of pies in a shift that got me $58 bucks. That difference is the whole point of hiring workers.

Where’s that extra money go, the money that only the workers are creating through our work? “The billionaires call this profit,” Burns writes. “Class struggle unionists call it theft.”1 In other words, the entire foundation of work is this exploitation: we work so bosses don’t have to, and so bosses can get richer. And the bosses will always look for ways to increase their exploitation and kneecap worker power to fight back. Work, in other words, is part of the class struggle: the fight of the billionaire ruling class to exploit the people who have to sell their labor to live.

All of this means a few things. First, we need unions so workers can protect themselves and fight back. That’s why unions exist. And this basic battle between “them” and “us” means there’s no agreement our unions could come to with the bosses to overcome it; there’s no cooperation that could make the bosses our friends. It also means that one of the strongest weapons we have as workers is refusing to work—striking to fight back, to defeat the bosses’ attacks, to get more power over our work, and wring more concessions from bosses. So, this “us and them” starting-point, then, that has to be the very foundation of union struggle.

So why isn’t it?

In the early chapters of the book, Burns explains why union leaders have overwhelmingly refused this idea of “us” vs. “them”—mostly abandoning, along with that, the use of real, militant strikes to fight back and win real concessions from bosses.

The main way of running unions in the U.S. for many decades, he points out rightly, has been “business unionism.” It’s the model that dominates most of the AFL-CIO, the country’s biggest union federation. The AFL-CIO is highly bureaucratic and top-down. It doesn’t have much need, then, for rank-and-file struggle or democracy—those things would be too disruptive to power at the top. Burns shows how that approach is driven by union leaders’ links to the Democratic Party. Those leaders mostly refuse to use workers’ most important weapon—the strike—to squeeze the bosses. Instead, they sit on their hands, because they’re counting on Democrats for better laws and busying themselves with “get out the vote” campaigns. Bureaucrats and Democrats, in other words, work together to keep workers in line.

This approach has been a total failure. And that’s because, when workers don’t build power to strike and disrupt the flow of profits, two things happen. Bosses and politicians walk all over unions and workers lose faith in unions, too. And that’s exactly what has happened. Between 1980 and today—the heyday of “business unionism”—strikes plummeted; the ruling class dismantled unions; unionization numbers dipped from 20-30 percent to about 11 percent today.

But one of the most interesting, and important, insights Burns has into unions today is regarding the “left-wing” that’s developed inside union bureaucracies—and the ways it has failed, too.

In the 1990s, Burns notes, union leaders developed another (failed) approach. He calls this “labor liberalism.” It was born out of the failures of business unionism, and it’s the model we see, for example, in the SEIU. Labor liberalism tries to fight back against the decline of unions with a wider appeal to things like anti-racism and gender equality. In other words, the goal is to broaden the movement as a way to bolster unions.

It’s crucial for unions to champion those things, but “labor liberalism” uses it as a way to avoid real fights with the ruling class. Instead, it appeals to an abstract “community power,” relies on symbolic actions, pairs up with non-profits that can’t really disrupt the flow of profits, and so on—instead of battles on the shop floor where the exploitation of workers, and the bosses’ weaponizing of racism and sexism, is happening. In so doing, labor liberalism also has little need for building up rank-and-file, bottom-up struggles in the workplace or real rank-and-file, democratic control of union decisions as a whole. And like business unionism, it doesn’t take the fight to the bosses through militant strikes.

Neither of these bureaucratic approaches can help us today, Burns says. And he’s absolutely right. We see proof, for example, in the failure of the RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) in organizing an Amazon warehouse. The leaders of the RWDSU look like the textbook version of “labor liberals.” They denounce racism and call for solidarity against discrimination—which is a good thing. But in Alabama we got a glimpse of a labor liberal approach to organizing that couldn’t beat the bosses. From the reports coming out of Alabama at the time, the method looked mostly top-down, lacking deep connections to large-scale, on-the-ground struggle of the workers there.

Burns is reminding us there’s another way to organize in a union. Its golden age was during the roiling mass strikes of the 1930s that terrified the ruling class; Burns calls it class struggle unionism.

It’s rooted in the “us and them” attitude discussed earlier; the workplace is a site of class struggle, of bosses trying to increase the rate of exploitation of workers, and workers trying to fight back. Class struggle unionism has a bottom-up approach to building union power because it’s built on rank-and-filers’ own, daily battles with bosses in the workplace. And it’s a kind of unionizing that has to be politically independent, he says; when we kowtow to Democrats and wait for them to save us, we give up our power to fight for ourselves at work and in the streets.

As Burns points out perfectly, striking has to lie at the heart of class struggle unionism. That’s because workers stand at a key chokepoint of capitalism: we produce all profits. So, the strike—refusing to produce profit for the bosses—has to be our unions’ key weapon (even though the bureaucratic unions have mostly abandoned it.) But building powerful strikes, he reminds us, means doing what unions have avoided for decades: breaking the law. Labor law is designed to keep us from winning. For example: state laws like the Taylor Law in New York forbid public sector strikes. National labor law forbids solidarity strikes—where one union will go on strike to support another union that’s walked off the job. And it forbids militantly stopping scabs from taking over our jobs during strikes. All of these laws aim to gut the power of unions to fight and win. That’s why winning means breaking these laws.

Burns shows that building that kind of strike power means uniting workers across our differences—across the class, inside and outside workplaces. In other words, we need the kind of anti-racist unionism that is also fiercely fights against gender oppression, racial oppression, and every other form of oppression too—since racism, sexism, and homophobia divide workers and undermine their collective power. Where labor liberals say that they want that kind of power, the goal of class struggle unionism is to make it a reality: to link across our workplaces to fight all kinds of oppression with strikes. This is a key to increasing the power of both at our own jobs and the fights of our diverse class outside of the workplace.

Burns’ proposals have only become more urgent in recent weeks. We know the ruling class is ramping up its attacks on working-class and oppressed people; not only is union busting at Starbucks and Amazon and elsewhere in full swing, but also in the overturning of Roe v. Wade since it’s the working class, people of color and the poor who will suffer most from lack of abortion care. Bodily autonomy is at the core of worker rights. Burns is exactly right that we face the urgent task today of moving our unions past the bureaucratic, staid, and stately unionism that won’t lift a finger to really fight oppression—of building fighting unions willing to go to battle in the streets and our workplaces. Our power as workers and in unions comes from the fact that all profits come from us. Shutting off the spigot of profit—striking—is how we use that power.

The problem of the Democratic Party

But Burns’ important book is also marked by a key contradiction that runs through its length.

On the one hand, Burns points out—relentlessly and in detail—the role that the Democratic Party has played in weakening and betraying the labor movement. In this, too, Class Struggle Unionism is a very different book than most on unions in the last few decades. (There’s nothing even close to this critique in other major books like Lichtenstein’s State of the Union from several years ago, or any of Jane McAlevey’s2 books. Kim Moody’s works are a key exception.)

For example, Burns points out that union leaders in the U.S. have made it the central plank of their strategy for unions to beg Democrats for better laws, and in return, endorse and donate to Democratic candidates. He shows again and again what a complete disaster this has been for unions. To name just a few examples since World War II: Democrats have been key to passing damaging labor law (like Taft Hartley in 1947, which severely restricted when and how unions can strike.) Democrats fought viciously against unions on strike (like against the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 and 2021.) It was Democrats who spearheaded the brutal repression of the anti-racist uprising in the summer of 2020. The Democrats refused to take real steps to codify abortion rights in the last 50 years, and now refuse to fight to reinstate them. The list goes on and on.

In maybe his sharpest critique of the Democratic Party in the book, Burns writes:

“Now, one could argue that putting millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours into a party that constantly betrays labor’s interests is a waste, and one could argue that if that were it, while bad, labor could deal with it—after all, we waste money on all kinds of things. But that’s not it; the close reliance on the Democratic Party allows the ideas of the billionaire class into the labor movement. Rather than the class struggle ideas discussed in chapter 2, the alliance with the Democratic party encourages moderation, support of U.S. corporate foreign policy, and cooperation with and a reliance upon the very government that is set up to protect the billionaire class. It is a conservatizing force and offers an alternative to labor militancy. This is far worse than mere wasting of resources on elections, as it sets a wrong direction for labor.3

He continues:

“But despite all the evidence to the contrary, the leadership of unions still holds out hope that someday they can elect Democrats and reform labor law. Even though this will never happen, it is a way of avoiding labor’s crises. Even worse, this alliance with Democrats is used as a kind of outlet valve. When sharp struggle flares up, the business unionists are frequently caught off guard and are not in control. Typically, they try to divert struggles back into the safe haven of electoral politics.4

And Class Struggle Unionism shows exactly why this is no accident or mistake on the part of the Democratic Party. It’s a party of, and for, the ruling elite; when it convinces us to “get out the vote” instead of fighting against our bosses in the workplaces and marching in the streets, it has done its job perfectly.

But this is where the contradiction comes in. Everything in the book points to a key lesson for building up real class-struggle unions: we have to break the hold of the Democrats over our unions.

Even though the entire book points to this lesson, it shies away from it. For example, when Burns lists four tactics unions need to become more militant, a fight for political independence from the Democratic Party doesn’t make the cut (page 86 and again on 133)—even though he says that “these tactics would be opposed by Democratic and Republican judges and politicians alike” (page 89.) In between his sharp critiques of the Democratic Party, Burns quotes Bernie Sanders as an authority on class struggle unionism (page 16.) He ends the book with a statement of support for AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and Bernie, both representatives of the Democratic Party (pages 142-143.) In fact, he constantly seems to say Democrats could help us build class struggle unions. At various points, the book seems to try to actually build our faith in the party that it just showed is so harmful to class struggle.

It’s definitely true that Sanders and AOC have helped inspire many leftists in the U.S. Bernie’s appearance at Labor Notes this year, for example, shows that he’s admired by many of the committed militants fighting in the left wing of the union movement, who are looking to him as a champion of labor. But this situation is full of contradictions, too, and it’s crucial we don’t close our eyes to them.

Whether Bernie and AOC want to or not, they’re serving a key role in the Democratic Party. They’re gathering up the left wing of the labor and social movements and scooping them back into the party—delivering them to party leaders like Biden. They’re helping paper over the Democratic Party’s role as the graveyard of social movements, the constant betrayer of unions.

One example helps show just how deep this problem is when it comes to Burns’ book. It was the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, and beyond that cracked down on the anti-racist protests in 2020—a movement led by Black and Brown young people, overwhelmingly from the working class. It’s a party that has long championed the racist, murderous police. But amid all this in 2020, Bernie Sanders was a pole of attraction for many activists—in unions and outside them—who wanted a radical change in the United States. Gathering their support, he then did his duty—he endorsed Biden and called for us all to vote for him to solve our problems. That helped coopt the massive energy in the streets and in the workplaces, delivering it to a politician who opposes every one of the major demands of the uprising and has only ever betrayed unions. Biden then turned around and called for more police and a bigger military. Is any of this close to the kind of anti-racist, internationalist, class struggle unionism Burns is calling for?

Why this contradiction in the book, then? Part of the reason has to be Burns’ own contradictory position. He is part of a union’s leadership: he’s “director of collective bargaining” in the flight attendants’ union CWA-AFA (led by Sarah Nelson.) That’s one of the more militant and inspiring unions in the United States. But it’s also a union tied to the Democratic Party, too. For instance, it endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2015, and then Biden in 2020. Burns’ book embodies that duality.

There also seems to be something bigger and more important in all this, too. The contradiction in this book seems to register a kind of discontent or development inside organized labor, among the rank-and-file, in recent years.

For example, at the massive 2022 Labor Notes conference, a Left Voice member put the point directly to Sarah Nelson herself—Burns’ boss in the CWA-AFA, who also wrote a blurb at the beginning of the book praising it. The Left Voice comrade called for real independence of our unions from the Democrats. That call was met with mad applause in a huge, overcrowded hall of union activists. But Nelson’s answer was telling. She didn’t defend the Democrats—in fact, in her talk in that panel, she blasted their track record on labor, like Burns does. But she refused to call for a break.

This seems to be a sign of something big developing at the level of the rank and file, causing something of a shift at the top of the union itself—a shift that expresses itself as this contradiction.

But that means that now, more than ever, is the time to fight to cut all political ties between our unions and any capitalist party. Building real class struggle unions demands it.

Transforming our unions

Burns’ book is also crucial for its championing of union democracy. But here too, we have to take Burns’ ideas further than the book itself does.

Class Struggle Unionism points out, again and again, how hostile unions today tend to be towards real union democracy. Not just the “business unionism” model, but also “labor liberalism” too, have little need for union democracy. That’s because of how dangerous real bottom-up power would be to these models.

The goal of both business unionism and labor liberalism is mostly to avoid the shop-floor, day-to-day battles of the rank and file, which could quickly get out of their control. Instead, the goal is to channel that kind of energy into voting and into the limiting grievance process, dealing with conflict in the narrow confines of labor law, and so on. These kinds of unions are driven, not by the workers themselves, but by an army of bureaucrats.

Burns points out, rightly, that as a result, building class struggle unions has to mean transforming our unions themselves—making them far more democratic—in order to put the power into the hands of rank-and-filers.

One of the key tools for better democracy is running reform slates for better leaders:

“Even in its weakened state, the labor movement includes millions of workers, and local and national unions have resources that could be used to take on employers. Having control of the resources of the union would give the platform to implement class struggle politics for these reasons, getting new leaders is a necessary step in moving the struggle forward.5

And yet these kinds of challenges to more bureaucratic union leaders must be paired with strong and militant rank-and-file organs of struggle. Burns insightfully points to the limits of reform slates themselves: “Although union reform sounds radical, it is actually a fairly conservative approach because it is essentially saying the problem is just bad leaders.”6 The problem, however, is deeper—it lies in focusing unions on supporting Democrats and on staying “inside the lines” of the ruling class’s labor laws, instead of fighting to shift the balance of power between bosses and workers. The center of gravity in building class struggle unions must lie in bottom-up struggle against the bosses.

When rank-and-file struggle becomes the foundation, we can “catch the union bureaucrats in the middle” (page 115.) In other words, it’s organizing at the level of rank-and-file battles with bosses that taps the energy and anger of workers being exploited on a day-to-day basis, and can push union leaders into helping mobilize on a wide and militant scale, and into preparing to strike, to break labor law that would rob us of our power, and so on.

In this call for unions based on real union democracy and bottom-up struggle, Burns’ book is an extremely important intervention today. We’ve seen in recent months an upsurge in new unionizing efforts at Amazon, Starbucks, and beyond. In this new upsurge of unionizing, the reminder of the need for robust worker control of our unions, to resist the bureaucratizing tendencies at the top of our unions—can’t be underestimated.

At the same time, though, Burns’ book doesn’t wrestle with this question of union democracy fully enough.

In particular, the book doesn’t grapple with major changes in the union bureaucracy in the last forty years and how they undermine union democracy. At one point in the book, Burns says: “With union density at six percent in the private sector, we don’t have a powerful labor leadership to critique.”7 But this misses a crucial point: in recent years union bureaucracies have fundamentally changed how they undermine and destroy bottom-up power in unions.

Since about 1980—as unions have become weaker and weaker under the blows of neoliberal assault—union bureaucracies have become far more massive. They even accelerated their growth dramatically. And they have centralized and concentrated their power at the top, and against rank-and-filers, to a degree we’ve probably never seen before in history. In part, union leaders have done this by using the “human resource management” techniques that corporations use.

This is a big part of why we haven’t just seen a collapse in union membership and strikes since 1980 (collapses that Burns points out.) We also see a collapse in the number and size of rank-and-file wildcat actions. In other words, the bureaucracy has become much better at coopting the “militant minority,” making sure rank-and-filers stay inside the tight legal limits set up by the Democrats and Republicans, like the ones that outlaw some public sector strikes; that forbid solidarity strikes, and strikes during the life of a contract; that forbid stopping scabs; and so on.

Not only have there been fewer strikes, but the new bureaucracy that emerged in the 1980s has also honed the art of the highly “professionalized” strike. Strikes, as Kim Moody points out, became more staid and stately affairs after the roiling struggles of the 1940s. But they’ve become even more formulaic and “safe” through the new bureaucracy. This is especially clear in the ideas of the professional organizer Jane McAlevey.

McAlevey is the spokesperson of a new layer of professional unionists that has been growing since about 1980. It’s a layer that recognizes that unions really do need to strike occasionally. So, they offer a model of how to do that while staying inside the boundaries of capitalist law: never during a contract; no solidarity strikes; no militant stopping of scabs from crossing picket lines; etc. Her influential books make it clear, too, that this is a model that bends over backwards in order to not disrupt the Democratic Party, even when fighting Democrats (Her books No Shortcuts and A Collective Bargain, for example, are really clear: she sees unions as means to support the Democratic Party and secure it a congressional majority.) By staying inside labor law, these “professionalized” strikes offer the minimum of disruption to a Democratic mayor, governor, or president.

But that new bureaucracy isn’t just better at stopping or channeling strike energy, and keeping rank-and-filers in the boundaries of labor law that robs us of our power to strike. Labor unions are also a key tool that links the labor movement to the Democratic Party (as McAlevey makes clear.) They’re the ones driving “get out the vote” campaigns, lobbying Democrats, and on and on, endlessly. They’re the main link between unions and the Democratic Party; they’re the political police inside unions trying to force us to toe that political line.

In light of these changes, it’s not enough to call for more union democracy. We need a more radical approach: not just the fight for democracy, but the fight for radical union democracy. That would mean, for example, not only radically limiting the amount bureaucrats are paid, and how long they serve. It would also mean fighting to make the main decision-making body of the union regular mass worker assemblies—truly putting the power of the union in rank-and-filers’ hands. This in turn means not just fighting the bureaucracy of our unions. Building class struggle unions will likely have to mean fighting to dismantle the bureaucracy that limits us, replacing it as far as we possibly can with the mass democratic decisions by the workers themselves.

Our union strategy to build class struggle unions, then, has to have a plan for how to deal with these changes in the bureaucracy. For this, it will be important to take an international perspective. It’s definitely true that we have to learn from the radical unions of the 1930s, during the heyday of the CIO (which, for Burns, is a constant source of inspiration.) But more recently, too, Argentina has seen powerful experiments in building class struggle unions we can learn from.

In the 1990s, rank-and-filers at the Zanon ceramics factory in Argentina began a battle with their union bureaucracy, a battle led by Trotskyist militants like Raul Godoy. In that battle, the workers began dismantling the union bureaucracy itself—installing the workers’ assembly as the highest decision-making body of the union rather than union officials, making sure all elected leaders were recallable at any time and setting term limits for them, and so on. One key part of the union statutes that emerged out of this battle was the political independence of the union from all parties of capitalism. As Godoy points out, the workers’ assembly played a key role in the upheavals in Argentina in the years that followed. In 2001, amid a social and economic crisis, the Zanon workers occupied the factory, placing it under worker control, and dubbed it “Fabrica sin Patrones” (Factory without Bosses.) In FaSinPat we see the possibility of a class struggle unionism we badly need in the United States.

What is to be done?

Burns is exactly right: we need class struggle unionism. And his book is an inspiring call for fiercer, stronger unions ready to fight the ruling rich.

Still, we’ll need to take Burns’ ideas further than Burns does. For class struggle unions, we’ll have to fight to sever our unions’ ties to the Democratic Party and to any party of the capitalists, and to outmaneuver and dismantle the union bureaucracy that serves the Democrats—all for a real, internationalist class struggle. It’s all the more crucial to have a strategy to build that pole of power, as the Democratic Party tries to woo the new union movement like the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU.)

But it’s also not enough to reject the Democrats. We badly need a rallying cry, a different vision of the world, to build up different kinds of unions—not just a negative message (against the Democrats and bureaucrats) but a positive one of a different, liberating, revolutionary politics.

This is one major reason we need our own political party for the working class and oppressed. It would be a place to help coordinate our own organizing skills, share them, and help build up groups or cores of class struggle union organizers in our unions. And it would be a center of gravity, a pole of attraction away from the parties of the ruling rich, like the Democratic Party.

Burns’ book is inspiring and powerful. The task now is to take his ideas further than he does—and fight for a militant, radically democratic labor movement that severs all ties to any capitalist party, that fights the ruling class itself in the name of the working class and oppressed.

Left Voice, July 17, 2022

1 Burns, Joe. Class Struggle Unionism. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2022 (pp. 9-10.)

2 Jane F. McAlevey is an American union organizer, author, and political commentator. Since June 2019, McAlevey is a Senior Policy Fellow of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. She was also named Strikes correspondent for The Nation magazine.

3 Ibid. 79-80

4 Ibid. 81

5 Ibid. 114

6 Ibid. 115

7 Ibid. 102