Freedom News

Review: Class Struggle Unionism

by Joe Burns
Haymarket Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781642595840

In recent years, there have been a fair few books written diagnosing the decline of the union movement and making suggestions for how it can be reversed, most prominently the work of Jane McAlevey. Joe Burns’ new book, Class Struggle Unionism, is a welcome and distinctive addition to this literature, and one that may be of particular interest to anarchists and syndicalists.

A lot of discussion about how unions can organise better, from mainstream unions through to the IWW, often tends to focus on tactics. In contrast, Burns takes a broader look, insisting on the importance of a fundamental class struggle perspective that refuses to accept the legitimacy of capitalism, the legal system, and the bosses. He defines this perspective in opposition to both traditional “business unionism” and the newer “labor liberalism” that may support progressive causes, but ultimately sees workers as a kind of stage army that can be marched out for photo opportunities while the union pursues its real work of lobbying politicians. While Burns’ book is focused on the US context, UK readers will be able to think of plenty of relevant examples from our own unions to illustrate the critiques of both bureaucratic, exclusionary business unionism and of toothless, publicity-obsessed labo(u)r liberalism.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Class Struggle Unionism is the implicit critique Burns makes of McAlevey: while McAlevey is never mentioned by name, the arguments Burns makes for rank-and-file workers’ control rather than staff-driven unionism, and the importance of workers needing to take disruptive action and win instead of just being signed up as union members, seems like a pointed rebuttal to some aspects of the organising model that has grown up around McAlevey’s work, or at least around some interpretations of it.

Class Struggle Unionism is an excellent book, with a lot that anarchists can learn from. But like anything, it’s not without its problems. One that stood out to me is that, for a book about class struggle, it never seems entirely clear about what definition of class it’s using: the first chapter sets out a very clear “two-class” model, pitting workers against “the billionaire class”. So far, so clear. But throughout the rest of the book, when describing the union movement’s many flaws and failings, Burns tends to criticise “middle-class leftists” who hold union jobs but come from outside the working class, although this middle class is never defined in the sketch of the class system that opens the book, and at one point he explicitly states that professional workers such as journalists are part of the working class. 

I don’t think there’s any inherent contradiction in seeing society as being fundamentally divided between workers and employers, and also getting annoyed at union full-timers who come into workplaces without having any background in that line of work, but it’s good to have some theoretical clarity about who those people are and what the problem with them is. From one perspective, the stress on the class background of union full-timers can be said to be a distraction, when the real problem is to do with their role: a union official coming from the most salt-of-the-earth, proper prole background imaginable would still be faced with the same dilemmas between obeying the law and union rules, and so keeping their job safe, or encouraging workers to take effective action, which will often mean breaking both.

Burns sets out a (again, US-focused) tradition of class struggle unionism that includes the IWW, the Communist-led unions of the 1920s and 1930s, and much of the early CIO, along with more recent rank-and-file union reform movements. There’s much to be inspired by in this heritage; it’s also very obvious that people who might be described as “class struggle unionists” disagree on a lot of things.

Burns touches on some of the major points of contention, such as the debate over forming new unions versus trying to reform existing ones, but largely avoids giving any hard answers. He does say that class struggle unionism needs to be internationalist, which is a point that’s easy to agree with, but harder to define what it means – after all, there are people who could be described as class struggle unionists who believe that internationalism means “defending Russia against NATO imperialism”, and ones who’d say it means supporting Ukrainian resistance to the invasion, and others who believe it means refusing to take any side in wars between states.

For anarchists, perhaps the most frustrating part of Burns’ ambivalence is his agnosticism on electoralism – he makes a clear and scathing case against the Democratic Party, but chooses to contrast this with countries where “labor movements have formal or informal ties with political parties that explicitly challenge the system of wage exploitation”. When looking at the record of our own Labour Party, or that of the French Parti Socialiste, PASOK in Greece, the Spanish PSOE and so on, it’s hard to see that much of a difference between parties that have come out of the workers’ movement and the Democratic dead-end that Burns rightly condemns.

For those who want books with clear unambiguous answers, Burns’ reluctance to come down on one side or the other of arguments like electoralism or forming independent unions may be frustrating. But there’s another way to look at it: one of the great challenges of unionism, a difficulty that’s potentially a great source of strength and growth, is the way that it forces us to work with people who we might normally prefer to have nothing to do with. It’s hard to imagine getting the majority of your coworkers on your side while preserving arbitrary lines of purity. Building a class struggle current within the union movement is inherently going to be a more controversial project than just simple union organising, because its very nature involves arguing against other visions of unionism. However, it too is likely to require some kind of a broad church, since it’s hard to imagine how the entire union movement could be transformed by anarcho-syndicalists or anarcho-communists alone, let alone those who agree with a specific interpretation of those visions. When looked at from this perspective, Burns’ willingness to just point out difficult debates without claiming to offer an answer can seem like less of a failing, and more like a small way of modelling the kind of ability to live with difference that will be needed – along with a lot more – in rebuilding unions that are able to go beyond the law, take effective action, and win.

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