What the Labor Movement Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Unapologetic Socialism

Joe Burns

Bernie Sanders speaks to National Nurses United members in 2011. (National Nurses United / Flickr)

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Jacobin.

The Bernie Sanders cam­paign has inject­ed social­ism into the main­stream dis­course for the first time in decades. Young Sanderis­tas have ral­lied behind social-demo­c­ra­t­ic demands that fly in the face of forty years of neolib­er­al pol­i­cy, and polls show that mil­len­ni­als are sur­pris­ing­ly recep­tive to social­ist ideas.

The pos­i­tive response to Sanders’s avowed demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism — and to his call for a polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion — opens the door for a dis­cus­sion all but absent from today’s labor move­ment: the impor­tance of social­ist ideas to a suc­cess­ful trade union movement.

For most of the labor movement’s his­to­ry, a broad social­ist-mind­ed wing fused its vision of soci­ety with a prac­ti­cal pro­gram for labor’s future. Whether it was the indus­tri­al union­ism of the ear­ly 1900s, the CIO unions of the 1930s, or the rank-and-file anti-con­ces­sion move­ment of the 1970s and 1980s, labor’s left offered an alter­na­tive to union decline and stagnation.

Today, how­ev­er, labor unions rarely dis­cuss class issues. Dis­putes are par­tic­u­lar­ized, trans­formed into indi­vid­ual bat­tles between an employ­er and its work­ers rather than a larg­er strug­gle between oppos­ing classes.

Typ­i­cal­ly, only bit­ter and pro­longed strikes expose work­ers to the class bias of the cor­po­rate media, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB), and the courts. With indus­tri­al action at his­toric lows, class con­scious­ness has been blocked from spread­ing through­out labor as a whole.

What’s been remark­able about Sanders has been his abil­i­ty to use a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to bring class front and cen­ter. Like Occupy’s tar­get­ing of the 1 per­cent, his cam­paign has spot­light­ed and lam­bast­ed those who are the true ene­mies of work­ing people.

This should come nat­u­ral­ly to labor lead­ers — but it rarely does. They talk about greedy cor­po­ra­tions and repeat main­stream politi­cians’ tired rhetoric rather than call for more rad­i­cal change.

Many do any­thing they can to avoid con­fronta­tion, from replac­ing the term work­ing class” with mid­dle class” to embrac­ing labor-man­age­ment coop­er­a­tion schemes.

In the past, strong left-wing cur­rents in labor called out those seek­ing accom­mo­da­tion with our ene­mies. But today these lines have become blurred.

Sanders has shown how to sharp­en them once again. He decries the fact that the top one-tenth of 1 per­cent own more wealth than the bot­tom 90 per­cent. He high­lights the col­lu­sion between the media, finan­cial inter­ests, and elect­ed officials.

In short, he talks about the country’s class struc­ture and calls out its rul­ing elite.

Labor can learn a lot from Bernie. We must fun­da­men­tal­ly reeval­u­ate our rela­tion­ship to cap­i­tal; adopt an explic­it­ly class-based stance both in rela­tion to employ­ers and with­in our own ranks; and devel­op a more sophis­ti­cat­ed analy­sis of gov­ern­ment offi­cials and agen­cies that cre­ate and enforce labor pol­i­cy.

This cri­tique is low-hang­ing fruit, or at least it should be: of course labor should keep its dis­tance from man­age­ment. Of course strat­e­gy should be devised based on the knowl­edge that the inter­ests of work­ers are opposed to the inter­ests of corporations.

But when labor lead­ers con­sis­tent­ly accom­mo­date them­selves to cap­i­tal, these seem­ing­ly self-evi­dent truths bear repeating.

The Purg­ing of Socialism

Social­ist ideas did not just mag­i­cal­ly dis­ap­pear from the labor move­ment. They were purged from unions. At the begin­ning of the fifties, eleven major CIO unions were left-led. But the anti­com­mu­nist pro­vi­sions of the Taft-Hart­ley Act drove out some of the best orga­niz­ers and their social­ist politics.

With the left lead­er­ship dec­i­mat­ed, the US labor move­ment devel­oped an ide­o­log­i­cal affil­i­a­tion with main­stream Democ­rats that con­tin­ues today.

By the 1960s, the lib­er­al estab­lish­ment had ful­ly incor­po­rat­ed labor, and the­o­rists were posit­ing a tri­par­tite plu­ral­ist soci­ety where labor, cap­i­tal, and gov­ern­ment offi­cials joint­ly set policy.

Many believed that this era of rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble labor-man­age­ment rela­tions rep­re­sent­ed the end of class strug­gle. Cap­i­tal, how­ev­er, is a rest­less and relent­less force.

Even dur­ing the height of the US labor movement’s pow­er, when unions were able to nego­ti­ate robust col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments, the own­ers of indus­try amassed greater and greater wealth.

And soon after the eco­nom­ic cri­sis hit in the 1970s, they launched a coun­terof­fen­sive — spon­sor­ing anti-labor leg­is­la­tion and push­ing for greater employ­er flex­i­bil­i­ty and work­er insecurity.

A social­ist cur­rent briefly resur­faced dur­ing the rank-and-file rebel­lion of the 1970s as New Left and black lib­er­a­tion move­ment activists entered labor’s grass­roots. But social­ist ideas nev­er regained wide­spread adher­ence in the labor movement.

The fol­low­ing decade, many of these left or ex-left labor activists assumed lead­er­ship posi­tions. But they checked their pol­i­tics at the door so they could bring their orga­niz­ing skills to a mori­bund AFL-CIO that was still severe­ly anticommunist.

Since then, how­ev­er, Amer­i­cans’ views of social­ism have shift­ed. It is long past time to rein­te­grate rad­i­cal ideas into the labor movement.

Lack­ing such an analy­sis, many union offi­cials con­tin­ue to fail to rec­og­nize capital’s abil­i­ty to reshape soci­ety in its own image.

When bil­lion­aires like Bill Gates use their con­cen­trat­ed wealth to pri­va­tize pub­lic edu­ca­tion or the Koch broth­ers spend mil­lions attack­ing unions, they are engag­ing in class warfare.

With labor’s ene­mies build­ing ever-increas­ing for­tunes — for­tunes they can and will use against work­ing peo­ple — return­ing to sta­ble labor-man­age­ment rela­tions is an illu­sion. Class-strug­gle union­ism is nec­es­sary for the very sur­vival of our movement.

Labor’s Needs

Reestab­lish­ing effec­tive trade union­ism requires a num­ber of con­crete actions. We must devel­op forms of sol­i­dar­i­ty that move beyond just fight­ing a sin­gle employ­er and instead con­front cap­i­tal as a class. We must con­strain capital’s mobil­i­ty and cul­ti­vate sol­i­dar­i­ty across borders.

We must dis­re­gard the prop­er­ty rights” of employ­ers and be will­ing to flout labor law itself. We must resist the con­stant pres­sure to col­lab­o­rate rather than fight. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, we must put work­ers and strug­gle back at the cen­ter of trade unionism.

None of this is pos­si­ble in a labor move­ment that spurns social­ist ideas.

Here is the basic prob­lem: over the last eighty years, an aggres­sive cap­i­tal­ist order has reshaped trade union­ism. Col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is now con­fined to indi­vid­ual cor­po­ra­tions, so the union is cap­tive to each employer’s busi­ness decisions.

The prof­its extract­ed from work­places flow large­ly to cap­i­tal­ists, and work­ers have no say over the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the wealth they create.

While a web of rules cre­at­ed by the NLRB and the courts have grant­ed this sta­tus quo legal legit­i­ma­cy, today’s labor poli­cies are mere­ly capital’s world­view imposed on the labor movement.

With­out a social­ist analy­sis, eco­nom­ic shifts look like forces of nature rather than human cre­ations. Issues like cap­i­tal flight, sub­con­tract­ing, or cor­po­rate glob­al­iza­tion are tak­en as givens, impos­si­ble for any labor move­ment to resist.

A social­ist trade union­ism, on the oth­er hand, would demand that cap­i­tal be bent to labor’s needs.

Past moments in the labor move­ment — like the AFL’s closed-shop era, when unions con­trolled hir­ing deci­sions and work­er edu­ca­tion, or the CIO’s sol­i­dar­i­ty union­ism, which brought hun­dreds of enter­pris­es under the same mas­ter agree­ments and used indus­try-wide strikes to halt pro­duc­tion — remind us that this is possible.

And so has Sanders’s run. In a refresh­ing chal­lenge to the neolib­er­al views of Hillary Clin­ton (and much of the labor estab­lish­ment that backs her), Sanders has promised to direct soci­etal resources away from the banks to rebuild inner cities, cre­ate jobs, and pro­vide free col­lege education.

Apply­ing his vision to trade union­ism means reject­ing the idea that cap­i­tal has an inher­ent right to do what it wish­es to our jobs and our communities.

In the peri­ods of labor’s great­est growth, big ideas have fueled trade union activ­i­ty — ideas like human labor is not a com­mod­i­ty,” labor cre­ates all wealth,” and human rights are supe­ri­or to prop­er­ty rights.”

Law pro­fes­sor James Pope has writ­ten per­haps more than any oth­er his­to­ri­an on the role of these ideas in the 1930s labor move­ment. He argues that unions can­not uphold the right to strike with­out an aware­ness of human labor’s role in the economy:

The treat­ment of labor as a com­mod­i­ty sub­ject to the rules of the mar­ket­place is a defin­ing fea­ture of cap­i­tal­ism. The claim of a con­sti­tu­tion­al right to strike — a right to inter­dict the free com­pe­ti­tion of indi­vid­u­als in the buy­ing and sell­ing of labor pow­er — obvi­ous­ly imper­iled the ide­ol­o­gy and prac­tice of com­mod­i­ty labor.

The right to strike could not be jus­ti­fied with­out address­ing the ques­tion of labor lib­er­ty per se.”

Bring­ing the labor move­ment back to life will involve bor­row­ing strike tac­tics from the 1930s — like mass pick­et­ing and work­place sol­i­dar­i­ty — that are ille­gal under the exist­ing order.

To engage in such tac­tics, the labor move­ment must rec­og­nize that the gov­ern­ment and the NLRB are not inef­fec­tive pro­tec­tors of labor, but rather part of the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment Sanders rails against.

The suc­cess of the Sanders cam­paign — despite the efforts of the cor­po­rate elite, estab­lish­ment politi­cians, and the main­stream media — demon­strates that this kind of left-wing, anti-estab­lish­ment union­ism can find a base of sup­port with­in the con­tem­po­rary work­ing class.

Class-Strug­gle Unionism

Rein­tro­duc­ing class strug­gle into trade union­ism also neces­si­tates hav­ing a seri­ous dis­cus­sion about the state of labor’s reform-mind­ed wing. Sup­port­ive of dif­fuse activism, this broad coali­tion includes true reform­ers and those who, in the past, would have been con­sid­ered col­lab­o­ra­tionist hacks.

Many in labor embrace what could be called labor prag­ma­tism” — ini­tia­tives that try to fight smart with­in the exist­ing sys­tem, like the inside strat­e­gy, the cor­po­rate cam­paign, and the one-day strike.

All of these are sen­si­ble strate­gies for work­ers forced to strug­gle with­in an unjust frame­work of labor con­trol. But because they do not chal­lenge the under­ly­ing par­a­digm, they can­not revive the labor movement.

Many in labor’s pro­gres­sive wing favor the phrase social move­ment union­ism” to describe a form of union­ism that empha­sizes com­mu­ni­ty ties and rejects nar­row union­ism. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in pub­lic-sec­tor unions, which live or die based on pub­lic support.

Social move­ment union­ism is a broad con­cept that can encom­pass a wide range of activ­i­ties, from the class-strug­gle approach of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union to staff-dri­ven mod­els more akin to busi­ness unionism.

It’s time to move beyond these con­cepts and toward a more Sanders-inspired vision of labor orga­niz­ing, which puts our fight in the con­text of the strug­gle between the 1 per­cent and the rest of the population.

Class-strug­gle union­ism incor­po­rates the broad demands of social move­ment union­ism into a work­place-cen­tered strug­gle against management.

Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion, Labor Revolution

Labor’s most recent upsurge was the 1960s wave of ille­gal pub­lic-sec­tor strikes, which pit­ted pub­lic employ­ee unions against union offi­cials, the media, the courts, and pro-cor­po­rate politi­cians from both par­ties. Labor’s next upsurge will con­tend with the same forces and require a sim­i­lar anti-estab­lish­ment bent.

With­out a strong left wing to hold them account­able, nation­al labor lead­ers are large­ly giv­en a pass. While they may adopt pro­gres­sive posi­tions and embrace new forms of orga­niz­ing, they rarely dis­cuss break­ing free from repres­sive labor laws or engag­ing in a Sanders-style polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion against the establishment.

Indeed, sub­stan­tial blocks of the labor move­ment lined up behind Hillary Clin­ton. (To see which unions tru­ly con­sti­tute the Left of the labor move­ment, you only need to look at which endorsed Bernie Sanders and which backed Clin­ton.)

Now is the time for labor activists to inject a class-focused per­spec­tive into union circles.

Mil­lions have respond­ed to Bernie Sanders’s demands to end insid­er pol­i­tics, to take on the finan­cial elite that impov­er­ish­es Amer­i­can work­ers, and to cre­ate a bet­ter future.

For a labor move­ment on life sup­port after decades of busi­ness union­ism, a sim­i­lar call rep­re­sents our best and only hope. Beg­ging for crumbs from a rigged sys­tem of labor con­trol is no future — we need a labor revolution.

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Joe Burns, a for­mer local union pres­i­dent active in strike sol­i­dar­i­ty, is a labor nego­tia­tor and attor­ney. He is the author of the book Reviv­ing the Strike: How Work­ing Peo­ple Can Regain Pow­er and Trans­form Amer­i­ca (IG Pub­lish­ing, 2011) and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_CLceBbPGHH’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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