Henry De Groot offers a critical analysis of Joe Burns’ ‘Class Struggle Unionism,’ available via Haymarket Books.
The boss needs you, you don’t need him!, Anonymous (1938)
Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism is quickly becoming a favorite book of the left wing of the trade union movement. The text offers a powerful critique, both of business unionism and what Burns calls “labor liberalism,” calling instead for left wing activists to push unions towards genuine confrontation with employers and the wider billionaire class. Although the text is in many ways a useful introduction to the newer layers of the labor left, the ideology that Class Struggle Unionism promotes is insufficient for socialists and a step down from revolutionary Marxism.
The book mainly takes the form of a series of short references to books, articles, and historical episodes that many will be familiar with, including Moody’s “The Rank and File Strategy,” Kelly’s Hammer and Hoe, William Z. Foster and the TUEL, the Minneapolis Teamster Strike as covered in Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion, the rise of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the red wave teachers’ strikes, and Uetricht and Eidlin’s “U.S. Union Revitalization and the Missing ‘Militant Minority.’”
Reading the book is like sitting through a series of DSA labor meetings, with the same series of issues raised: the need to push unions towards militancy, the importance of logistics, the need to be willing to take illegal action, the role of the militant minority and the rank-and-file strategy, the importance of unions in fighting racism and xenophobia, etc. In this sense, it perhaps is the best representation of the current ideology of the left wing of the labor movement. In addition to providing a valuable, easy-to-read summary of all of these important points, Burns’ critique of labor liberalism is perhaps the best developed so far.
“Some of the most difficult conversations are among friends. Arguing with our enemies is easy, but for those who have worked within unions and social organizations, we know that dealing with contradictions among the people is one of the most difficult but important things we do. This is especially true when it comes to the critique of labor liberalism.”
We might add that it is doubly so challenging to offer a friendly critique of Class Struggle Unionism. Nonetheless, from a Marxist perspective, the text has profound limitations which mirror the ideological limitations of the current stage of our movement.
The ideology which Burns puts forward, “class struggle unionism,” papers over important differences between both historical and contemporary trends on which Burns draws. His analysis of both business unionism and labor liberalism is in some parts reductive, and his representation of the ideology of Foster’s TUEL and the Minneapolis Trotskyists is inaccurate and borderline misleading. And ultimately, while he draws on some of Marx’s economic considerations to inform his ideology, he ignores others which lead him to ignore the question of a rupture with capitalism, the true importance of unions in the fight for socialism, the need to fight for open socialist leadership of unions, and the necessity of pointing towards a workers’ government.
In this sense, Class Struggle Unionism is a good, although in some ways problematic, text for socialists or trade unionists who are just beginning their journey on the left of the trade union movement. But at the same time, it offers little but a confirmation to those already active in DSA’s labor work, and is undeveloped, inaccurate, or misleading on precisely the questions which are just beginning to present themselves to the most advanced layers of our movement. Ironically, in this way, it offers the perfect foil for an exploration of those questions and the Marxist view on unions and the class struggle.
The Strengths of Class Struggle Unionism
In less than 150 pages, Class Struggle Unionism offers a review of many of the main considerations of the left-wing of the labor movement, doing so in plain language which is accessible to all. Its great strength is as a popular reader which can quickly “catch-up” any new socialist or trade unionist to the current discourse of the labor left.
Burns begins with a brief exposition of Marx’s labor theory of value, highlighting that profits derive from the difference between the value workers create through their labor and what they are paid in wages. Upon this economic consideration, he shows that business unionism takes this relationship for granted, fighting only for a higher share, while class struggle unionism challenges that framework, and ultimately1
“…challenges the control over our society by the superrich… …every part of class struggle unionism, from the guiding ideas to strike tactics to organizing techniques, is shaped by an understanding of this class struggle.”
From this, Burns reviews the importance of strikes, breaking from the Democrats, the necessity of breaking the law, the need to challenge the “divide and conquer” tactics of bosses exploiting divisions of race, gender, and immigration status, the need to root unionism in the shop floor, the necessity of workers leading their own liberation, the need to understand that the state and social institutions are not neutral but serve the billionaire class, and the necessity of putting demands on the union leadership and building organizations which can contest power within unions rather than the left trying to solve problems by ourselves.
Although these considerations are familiar to those already highly active on the labor left, they remain new and important lessons to a much larger layer of newly radicalized socialists and trade unionists. Burns links them in a comprehensive way under the banner of “class struggle unionism,” arguing:2
“In the absence of a class struggle framework, for the last decade activists have focused on pieces of a correct strategy: new methods of organizing, union democracy, socialist electoral politics, and the like. Even my previous books focused on reviving the strike and militancy with less focus on the comprehensive viewpoint necessary to accomplish that. We need the whole package: an explicit analysis of the billionaire class, a class wide approach, class struggle ideology, and class struggle tactics.”
In this sense, the call to combine these strategies into an overarching framework or ideology is one of the most valuable contributions of the work.
Although mostly the work combines familiar arguments, Burns does develop two angles that are a valuable addition to the current discourse.
The main innovation of the work is developing a critique of what Burns calls “labor liberalism.” He writes that beginning in the 1980s, veterans of the social movements of the 1960s raised important but limited critiques of business unionism. These critiques, led especially by SEIU, challenged the racism and conservatism of business unionism, and called for a renewed alliance with the progressive left and for a reinvestment in organizing. Burns highlights how labor liberalism relies not on empowering workers to struggle at the point of production, but rather engages most in a “media air war” focused on influencing policy makers to pass legislation or corporations to accede to public pressure. Joe mostly uses Fight For 15 as an example, but the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign could also be seen as proto-typical of this kind of organizing.
Burns offers a powerful critique of this model. He points out that this model relies not on the self-liberation of workers, but rather on “smarter organizing” done by college-educated staffers; he points out that often these campaigns merely use workers as props, launching one-day publicity strikes which do not challenge the profits of capitalist enterprises, and that such a model leaves labor reliant on the capitalist Democratic Party. Furthermore, he explores how this model’s focus on improved organizing tactics does not really challenge business unionism, and in some ways is even less democratic than business unionism, for example how SEIU combined small locals into massive locals covering entire regions, which makes worker control of leadership or running alternate slates far more challenging. He extends this critique also to worker centers which are reliant on foundation funding.
A second, smaller addition to the discourse is Burns’ considerations on what it will take to actually break labor law, which he had earlier developed in his 2004 book Reviving the Strike. He reviews several injunctions in which unions were fined millions of dollars for taking illegal strike action, pairing a critique of the bureaucratic fear of taking illegal action at the cost of potentially losing their jobs with the genuine concern that we cannot afford to risk our union treasuries being decimated by the courts. He proposes the novel idea of the AFL-CIO funding proxy organizations to conduct secondary strikes and other illegal activity, providing organizational distance which may shelter them from legal liability. This discussion is particularly important as the U.S. Supreme Court considers its ruling on Glacier Northwest Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which may overturn precedent allowing employers to sue unions for expenses imposed on them during strikes.
Before offering a critique, it should again be affirmed that the text will serve as a powerful popular introduction to these important considerations for the new layers of the labor left, and also a useful summation to those already on the labor left. The book is a much-needed tool for our movement, and the critiques below are mostly offered for those in the most advanced layers of the labor left who are considering contradictions in our work which are just beginning to present themselves.
On Business Unionism
While Burns’ text is valuable as a summary of the current discourse and for its contributions on the above two points, from a Marxist perspective it also has some modest and some profound limitations.
First, Burns’ contributions to business unionism and labor liberalism are in some ways limited.
Burns mainly sees business unionism as resulting from what others have called a “sociological lens” – that is, the different material interests between workers and the staffers and paid union officials. While this diversion of interests does create a tendency towards business unionism, it is not the full story.
Burns briefly touches on the relations between the ruling class and the right-wing of the labor movement, including the relations of the CIA and the AFL-CIO. But he profoundly understates the extent to which the ruling class has had a hand in orchestrating business unionism and of exploiting the tendency of staffers and elected leaders towards laziness and conservatism into a definite ideology and faction. The state did not merely collaborate tangentially with the AFL-CIO, but rather the state ran massive surveillance operations on leftists and left-led unions, collaborated with labor bureaucrats during McCarthyism to purge leftists, made it illegal for left-led unions to access the NLRB, and even installed CIA agents in leadership positions at the AFL and later the AFL-CIO to an extent that the CIA was running the American labor movement’s international arm.
In fact, in the two years between the dissolution of the Office of Strategic Services after World War II and the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947, it was the AFL which held down anti-communist labor organizing in Europe, led by Jay Lovestone, a former leader of the communist movement.3 Joseph Godson, Labor attaché at the US embassy in London, was involved in a plot to expel left-wing Labour Party leader Aneurin Bevan from the party.4 Joseph’s son Roy Godson, who was deeply involved in the private CIA-booster network led by William Casey and later implicated in the Iran-Contra Scandal, in the late 1960s founded and led the International Labor Program at Georgetown with the AFL-CIO and helped to develop its overseas anti-communist programming.5
There is much more that could be said about the collaboration between business unionism and the agents of the ruling class. But the main point is that we cannot understand business unionism from a purely “sociological angle,” based on the material interests of staffers and union officials. In Marxist terms, we could label this an over-emphasis on economic factors which ignores the “subjective factor” and the role of ideology.
In Misleaders of Labor, Foster writes that as soon as the employers realized they could not completely shut out labor unions, they “consciously and assiduously followed their program of establishing an influence and control over the conservative trade union leadership.” The employers accomplished this negatively by trying to crucify militant leaders like Debs and Haywood, and positively “by pouring their favors on pliant tools” including AFL leader Samuel Gompers.6
Foster does recognize the sociological tendency for a division between the bureaucrats and the rank-and-file workers, writing:7
“There is a strong tendency, universal in capitalist countries, for the trade union leadership to develop certain group interests of its own antagonistic to those of the workers. The leaders tend sharply, by their manner of living and by their general outlook, to become to all intents and purposes a section of the lower middle class.”
But we should not confuse a tendency with an outcome. Throughout his pamphlet of over 300 pages, Foster almost never discusses trade union leaders generally, but always refers to a specific wing of “conservative trade union officials.” The tendency of the trade union officials to diverge from the rank and file was just a tendency, and not the fundamental essence of union officers – the tendency had to be actively exploited by the capitalist class to produce a fully developed conservative wing in the labor movement.
On Labor Liberalism
On labor liberalism, Burns’ main contribution to the discourse, there are also limitations. First, he draws a bit of a false equivalence between business unionism’s mindless tailing of the Democratic Party with labor liberalism’s use of political pressure campaigns.8 While he is right that both are reliant on the Democratic Party, at least the labor liberals sometimes deliver reforms through their campaigns.
Additionally, several times he critiques the 2019 Uber strike as an example of labor liberalism, because it was not voted on by workers, was a publicity strike, and ultimately relies on a legislative solution. If Burns had more closely applied his own standards of what differentiates a militant worker center from a liberal one,9 he would have found that the Uber strikes of 2019 and 2021 were in fact called by Rideshare Drivers United, which unlike other driver groups in the space, is in fact a worker-led, democratic driver group which does ultimately seek unionization and actively opposes the trends of labor liberalism and also company unionism in the gig worker space. I should know, because I helped to lead the 2021 strike.
At a larger level, Burns does not give enough credit for the ways that strategies short of full unionization are necessary steppingstones in industries where traditional union organizing is not possible at this time without an unlimited war chest. He does not acknowledge directly enough that although we cannot rely on politicians or legislation, it does make a difference whether we have a weak liberal regulatory system or an outright anti-union one. Many of the strategies used by labor liberals can also be taken up by class struggle unionists, albeit with different political trajectory. Nonetheless, his critique of labor liberalism remains a sharp and useful contribution to the discourse.
Papering Over Key Questions
With those two points aside, we can get into the real heart of the critique of Class Struggle Unionism, which is the contradiction between class struggle unionism and revolutionary Marxism.
Burns presents class struggle unionism as an ideology, but in fact he mostly papers over important differences between the trends of anarchism, social democracy, and Marxism which are crucial to arming our movement with the right analysis, program, strategy, and tactics. And when he does weigh in definitely, it is often on the wrong side.
This papering over will be most obvious to the reader on the question of unions and electoral politics. He writes:
“Class struggle unionists believe that the labor movement needs class struggle politics, which is completely free from the influence of the employing class. Some advocate that we need our own labor party, while others support the Bernie Sanders / Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party. But many others believe we should not focus on politics at all but build a powerful labor movement at the point of production. Regardless, class struggle unionists understand that to build a powerful labor movement we must break free from the stranglehold that the Democratic Party has over the labor movement.”
Needless to say, a summary of different viewpoints is not its own viewpoint; this is Joe’s book, we want to know what Joe thinks. At the very least Burns could condemn the trend exemplified historically by the IWW to “not focus on politics at all,” as socialists know that the electoral struggle is a crucial arena for winning power for working people.
Burns also equivocates or ignores important differences in his reviews of the IWW, Foster’s TUEL and Communist Party, and the industrial strategy of leftists of the 1970s, suggesting by default that these are not important questions. His “both-and” view on the role of independent unions and the importance of working within the AFL-CIO merely presents the contradictions between these two approaches, rather than actually resolving them. The curious reader will find a far more precise formulation of how socialists should relate to established and independent unions in chapter three of Foster’s Organize the Unorganized.
At times Burns’ narrative takes the form of an outright misrepresentation of history. Similar to Moody, and as I have explored elsewhere, Burns presents a false history of the ideology of Fosters’ TUEL and the Minneapolis Trotskyists in Teamsters local 574. He mentions several times that Foster took his ideas on the militant minority from French syndicalists,10 and uses one of my favorite quotes from The Principles and Program of the Trade Union Educational League, which, as Burns quotes it,
“The fate of all labor organization in every country depends primarily upon the activities of a minute minority of clear-sighted, enthusiastic militants scattered throughout the great organized masses of sluggish workers. These live spirits are the natural head of the working class, the driving force of the labor movement. They are the only ones who really understand what the labor struggle means and who have practical plans for its prosecution. Touched by the divine fire of proletarian revolt, they are the ones who furnish inspiration and guidance to the groping masses. They do the bulk of the thinking, working, and fighting of the labor struggle. They run the dangers of death and the capitalist jails. Not only are they the burden bearers of the labor movement, but also its brains and heart and soul.
But in fact, the quote begins:
“One of the latest and greatest achievements of working class thinking, due chiefly to the experiences in Russia, is a clear understanding of the fundamental proposition that the fate of all labor organization…”
Foster and the ideology of the TUEL was directly drawn from and developed in collaboration with the Bolshevik Party of Russia, and is not the strategy of the French syndicalists. Burns does a disservice to the reader by failing to mention that fact, and borders on intentionally misleading the reader by pointing to French syndicalism and cutting up quotes so that they hide the influence of Bolshevism.
Foster and the TUEL’s strategy of the “minute minority of militants” is nothing but the Leninist view on the role of the vanguard as applied to the work of Marxists in the labor movement. Compare this to Burns, who writes:11
“Foster focuses on the militants who are the inspiration and who understand the plan to fight the bosses… …Those who have been involved in struggles know what I mean. Through the process of fighting, new leaders step forward. During strikes, the strike committees are often composed of new folks who then form the militant minority. Some people talk about the militant minority as if it pre-exists in the workplace. But it is something that is built through struggle… …In general, the militant minority is the section of a workplace, a union, or the broader labor movement who want to fight.”
For Foster and the Bolsheviks, the minute minority of militants is much more than just the most militant members of a given workplace – although of course he would recognize their potential – but rather the most advanced members of the labor movement as a whole, a few hundred or thousand socialist unionists scattered throughout the country. For the TUEL, the key was organizing these socialist militants into one national network, and then uniting them with the second group of less conscious but also militant workers on the shop floors.
A Rupture With Capitalism
In its work, the TUEL did not lower the consciousness of the minute minority, but rather tried to raise the consciousness of the shop floor militants to its level. One of the most important parts of this above-quoted program of the TUEL, which Burns totally ignores, is that the TUEL is
“firing the workers’ imagination and releasing their wonderful idealism and energy by propagating the inspiring goal of the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a workers’ republic.”
In other words, the TUEL never lowered the Marxist call for the necessity of a dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx himself saw as one of the key components of Marxism.12
Burns’ failure to include the call for a workers’ government in his Class Struggle Unionism is in part based on his limited embrace of Marxist economics. He rightly embraces Marx’s labor theory of value, but he does not embrace Marx’s view that capitalism, and specifically the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall,” leads to economic crises which pose revolution as the order of the day. He calls on us to “take on” the billionaire class but doesn’t make clear that we need to overthrow them through a socialist revolution.
Although Burns acknowledges that unions cannot solve all problems and that we need a larger struggle against the system, he is at his worst when he writes that “we need to be clear. The point of unionism is to fight for better conditions for the working class – not to overthrow the capitalist system.”13 Burns is right that unions need to be rooted in the concerns of workers for improvements of their conditions. But for socialists, we know that we can only deliver real, lasting change for workers when we replace capitalism with socialism, and socialist strategy tells us that winning unions to a revolutionary position is one of the most crucial tasks of the socialist movement. Compare Burns’ approach with one of the documents which informed the TUEL’s work, Zinoviev’s writing in The Tactics of the Communist International.14
“The new tactics of the Communist International are characterized by the following… To the masses… down into the depths of the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses. Participation in the minor daily struggles, even if carried on for the most insignificant improvement of the standard of living. Participation in all workers’ organizations from the workers’ councils to the athletic clubs and musical societies. Persevering propaganda for the ideas of the dictatorship of the proletariat in all these organizations. Conquest of the majority of the working class for Communism. Systematic, determined, and persistent preparation of the working masses for the coming struggles. Careful work in the creation of illegal organizations. Patient, indomitable work for the arming of the workers… …Above all … Conquest of the trade unions.”
Zinoviev identifies the contradiction between improving the standard of living and revolution. He makes it very clear that it is the job of Marxists not to favor one over the other, but to unite the two. By dismissing the revolutionary role of unions, Burns all but apes the “fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” mentality of business unionism that his entire book is written to condemn. In this way, the ideology laid out in Class Struggle Unionism is just the most militant form of trade union consciousness which Lenin critiques in What Is To Be Done? The socialist movement cannot take up the task of fighting for leadership of the trade unions without first clearly setting that objective as its task.
Socialists and Rank and File Caucuses
Burns’ overly “sociological approach” and poor representation of Marxism is also on display on the question of rank-and-file caucuses and union leadership. This approach sees the material position (ranks vs. tops), not the ideology (left vs. right), as the fundamental division within the labor movement.
In critiquing the sectarian excesses of the 1970s, Burns borders on denigrating the necessity of socialist leadership of the labor movement:
“As Ebaum writes, ‘the dominant tendency in the early 1970s saw the key to building ‘class struggle unions’ as developing opposition caucuses in which communist cadre largely determined the caucus’ program and held dominant organizational influence.’”
Burns writes that “the problem with this approach is that the militant minority becomes little more than an extension of the left-wing groups.”15 What Ebaum outlines and Burns rejects is precisely the formulation of the role of socialists in the trade unions, although of course work should not be carried out in a sectarian way. But it is important to realize that the entire raison d’etre of the TUEL was precisely to turn the militant minority into an extension of the Marxist movement, not to develop some independent existence for the rank and file.
In contrasting how “labor liberals see themselves as the indispensable work-place organizers,” whereas “class struggle unionists believe in the capacity of workers to organize themselves,” Burns confuses the issue on the need for socialists to not only be “agitators, oppositionists, and strategists,” but also definite leaders of the movement. As James P. Cannon writes in “Two Articles on the Slogan: Rank and File Leadership,”
“The mission of the communists is to educate the workers, not to muddle and confuse them; to aspire, frankly, to lead them in their struggle, not to trail behind them and cater to ignorance and prejudice with demagogic slogans…
This principle of leadership by the most conscious and resolute elements applies to strikes and other daily struggles as well as to the class struggle as a whole. The agitation for “the leadership of the rank and file” negates this principle and sows confusion.”16
For theoretical backing, Burns quotes the founding document of the First International, that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”17 Of course, this quote is correct but in this sense is being abused; consider the obvious fact that Marx and Engels were not workers, but rather sons of the lower bourgeoisie, and Engels himself worked in management at his fathers’ textile mill. Was their leadership role in the movement not a violation of this principle? Consider also the contradiction of a “rank-and-file” caucus which wins leadership – how can one be simultaneously an elected leader and also a rank-and-file member?
Instead of socialist leadership of the reform movement, Burns calls for a big-tent approach, or in other words for socialists to all but hide their politics within a popular front. Compare this equivocation on the subject with Trotsky, who affirms the key role of the party in the union struggle, writing that
“Those who, in principle, counterpose trade union autonomy to the leadership of the Communist Party, counterpose thereby – whether they want to or not – the most backward proletarian section to the vanguard of the working class, the struggle for immediate demands to the struggle for the complete liberation of the workers, reformism to Communism, opportunism to revolutionary Marxism” (1929).
For more on the subject, comrades can turn to Communism and Syndicalism by Trotsky and Two Articles on the Slogan: Rank and File Leadership by Cannon.
Burns’ overall approach, a denial by obfuscation, neglect, or outright rejection, to these important theoretical questions and foundational principles of Marxism is not unique to his work. Rather, it is part of a certain tendency of Marxism (or rather a tendency to abandon Marxism) which deserves further exploration at a later time.
All these criticisms aside, I believe that for many new socialists and trade unionists, Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism is a step in the right direction. I do not expect to convince all or most to the position I have laid out in this review, and indeed, I think more will be arriving at Burns’ standpoint than moving beyond it in the coming period. But nonetheless, I hope that I have shown in a friendly way the contradiction between Class Struggle Unionism and revolutionary Marxism, as well as laid out the questions which will inevitably present themselves to our movement as our struggle progresses.
Liked it? Take a second to support Cosmonaut on Patreon! At Cosmonaut Magazine we strive to create a culture of open debate and discussion. Please write to us at CosmonautMagazine@gmail.com if you have any criticism or commentary you would like to have published in our letters section.
- Burns, page 1
- Burns, page 100
- Griffin, page 52
- Griffin, page 79
- Griffin, page 101-104
- Foster 1927: 30
- Foster 1927: 271
- Burns, page 79
- Burns, page 122
- Burns, pages 107, 117
- Burns, page 109
- Marx to J. Weydemayer in New York, 1852
- Burns, page 125
- Zinoviev, 1921
- Burns, page 113
- Cannon, 1932