Joe Burns’ latest book is a valuable tool for approaching our present moment and others like it sure to come

Review by Herman Rosenfeld / November 18, 2022 by https://canadiandimension.com/

In October 2021, 10,000 John Deere workers struck plants and warehouses in Iowa and Illinois, as well as smaller facilities in Kansas, Georgia and Colorado. Photo by Jordan Chariton/Twitter.

Joe Burns’ new book, Class Struggle Unionism, reads like pamphlet, with a clear call to transform the union movement in the US (although it is still applicable to Canada). The model for change is one that has deep roots in the radical socialist and anarchist traditions of working class movements from early in the 20th century that has continuously raised it head over the past 120 years or so, in the face of repression, defeats of the left and various forms of ideological and political confusion.

Needless to say, it is sorely needed today.

As such, the book is inspirational, educational and, in spite of today’s weak, crisis-ridden and ideologically and organizationally wounded labour movement, provides an optimistic, longer-term vision of a fighting, adversarial and effective labour movement. Its strength, is his description of class struggle unionism, its history, logic, ideological basis, tactical and strategic approach, its general political orientation, and thoughts on how to build it.

In the process, he critiques different forms of unionism, such as business unionism and labour liberalism. His description and critique of the latter is sharp and cogent, given its popularity around the community of left liberal and social democratic union reformers. He includes insights from a number of socialist and radical labour activists and thinkers across various left tendencies and approaches, avoiding the kind of sectarianism that he justly criticizes.

The book calls for building a form of unionism that is rooted in the basic antagonism between the working class and the capitalist class (which he refers to as the ‘billionaires’), and it uses that orientation as a guide for rebuilding, transforming, and growing the union movement. In doing so, he doesn’t avoid dealing with some difficult challenges and contradictions.

The book has some important weaknesses. The political analysis—while rooted in a class struggle, anti-capitalist orientation—is contradictory and comes close to a kind of left populism at times. How worker participation in struggles can lead to the development of class consciousness and a deeper political understanding of the system is also unclear as is the role and nature of working class political organization and electoral participation and how they relate to class struggle unionism.

His view of political institutions and the state tends to be brittle and unidimensional. Finally, there is no reference to one of the critical components of class struggle today—the climate emergency and the role that class struggle unions need to play in transforming societies as eco-socialists.

Class struggle unionism

Burns roots his description of class struggle unionism, in the labour theory of value, and Marx’s description of the theft of surplus value that underpins the production of commodities. But impressively, he goes beyond the usual, rather simplistic description of the basis of exploitation by citing Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin in Solidarity Divided, which describes how an entire social surplus is produced by workers yet appropriated by capital for its own power and accumulation and continued reproduction.

The basic antagonism between labour and capital is embedded in capitalist society and serves as the underpinning for class struggle unionism. But Burns is not a class reductionist and doesn’t underestimate the strategic importance of forms of discrimination, linked to systematic racism, sexism and oppression against immigrants.

Class struggle unions see this antagonism, and the struggles driven by it as a continuing, ongoing characteristic of the system, and class struggle unionists see collective agreements, or periods of relative labour quiescence, as temporary truces in an ongoing war (this reminds one of some of the materials produced by the Third International in the 1920s, such as A. Lozovsky’s “A Strike is a Battle”—“La Greve est un Combat”).

Burns argues that this “cardinal principle” of class struggle unionism guides the way such unions operate in reality. “The concept of us versus them is at the core of class struggle unionism,” he writes. That is reflected in everything a class struggle union does, from its approach to the overall system, to everyday workplace and community issues. Class struggle unionists promote an understanding amongst the membership of this reality.

This approach to unionism involves: constantly challenging the interests, prerogatives, and practices of employers in the workplace and in society as a whole; fighting to transform working conditions and power in workplaces (which tends to be ignored today by most unions), and not just industrial workplaces; opposing team concept and worker-management “co-operation” programs; advocating militant and collective forms of union action, especially open-ended strikes; a belief that workers should lead their struggles and their unions; challenging the labour bureaucracy—people on the staff of unions and top leaders, especially those who call for accommodation with capital and unprincipled compromises; building rank and file caucuses; and a great deal of scepticism and opposition to reliance on governments and the state.

The constant reference to the importance of workplace struggle and power is a critical and refreshing piece of this picture of class struggle unionism that needs to be emphasized, particularly in modern workplaces of all kinds.

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