By Cmd Rojizo
Union organizing is gaining traction in left media circles, but is it gaining revolutionary ground in the workplace? With the explosive spread of Starbucks Workers United, a national campaign by Service Employees Industrial Union to unionize airports wall to wall and the ground-breaking formation of the Amazon Labor Union many leftists are doubling down on the labor organizing to proletarian revolution discourse. The Old Left still sees the industrial proletariat of the “USA” as the principal revolutionary force, which must be harnessed by them and “woken up”.
Some Old Left even posit that union organizing IS revolution, and that standing up to the boss is the highest form of struggle. If we, revolutionary sympathizers, would simply propagate more unions, then the US would eventually topple through general strike attrition or a national moment of insurrection. This belief is founded on the idea that unions are, for all intents and purposes of the argument, Revolutionary. However, history shows us that the majority of White labor organizations in Amerika are reactionary, and happily collaborate with the imperialist bourgeoisie in exchange for a slice of the colonial pie. Every additional wave of Europeans that immigrated to Amerika bringing syndicalist theories around trade unionism eventually joined with the White Supremacist capitalist class, and abandoned all pretense of international solidarity with colonized people and therefore proletarian revolution. This is exemplified in the oldest examples of unions founded in this settler state:
“So when Euro-Amerikan labor, greatly revived by the massive reinforcements immigrating from Old Europe, reorganized itself during the Civil War, it was not any strengthening of democratic forces; rather, it added new formations of oppressors, new blows being directed against the oppressed. Just as the petit-bourgeois workingmen’s movements of the 1840’s and 1850’s, these were “white unions” for settlers only. So that when the representatives from eight craft trades met in Louisville in 1864 to form the short-lived “International Industrial Assembly of North America”, there was no mention of the emancipation of Afrikan labor.”1
The class collaborative racist politics are not the only reason the aforementioned theory doesn’t find a mark in modern Amerika. The idea that unions would win a revolutionary victory over the government ignores that most unions are recognized, authorized and permitted by the federal government. In exchange for the government’s blessing, unions in the US have voluntarily surrendered their ability to strike, on pain of imprisonment! Labor Notes clarifies:
“For more than 75 years, the labor movement has been enclosed by law and custom by collective bargaining, whose goal is to achieve a contract that seals in wages, benefits, a grievance procedure, and work rules. In return, workers and their union agree, crucially, to surrender their right to withhold their labor.”2
The entire movement has been stripped, through federally recognized labor peace contracts, of the only weapon that unions really have: the ability to withhold their labor. The evidence of their class stand is made even clearer in the incessant ruling class electoralism, which has dulled their members’ revolutionary consciousness, and in their inability/disdain to root out social conservatism amongst even their hired staff. Given the complete capitulation of the settler unions to the white supremacist patriarchal imperialist state, how would any prospective proletarian revolutionary claim to find an ally among these racist, sexist, and overpaid bureaucrats?
Should we throw the baby out with the bath water? No, but neither should we ignore what’s right in our faces. Revolutionaries must use dialectical materialist analysis of the union movement. We must do so to identify aspects that can be useful to the movement for international proletarian revolution. Focusing down on the issues of the colonized nations is the primary task of Amerikan revolutionary union organizers because we recognize that national contradictions are primary in this settler-colonial state. When Black workers at auto plants were left behind by the United Auto Workers (UAW), who allowed their discrimination and firings to go uncontested, they formed the Revolutionary Union Movement;
“In 1969, seven activists organized the various RUMs into an umbrella organization, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). The LRBW had a socialist philosophical underpinning, and its goal was the removal of the roots of oppression in American society. The LRBW sought to transform the UAW from within, arguing that it should be the sole negotiator for black autoworkers, and it called for blacks to be hired into leadership positions at GM and at the UAW. The UAW eventually hired blacks with moderate positions into leadership positions.”3
Aspirant union organizers looking further into The Revolutionary Union Movement will also find it was a cautionary tale. Though it set out on the correct path towards a revolutionary front; RUM/LRBW undermined by liberal politics and distinct indecisiveness that paralyzed the organization. When members began seeking self-gratification over revolution, the leadership stood by. This led to capitulation to business interests, and eventual dissolution. The LRBW’s main fault leading to their downfall was the inability to resolve internal contradictions through struggle. The leadership of a revolutionary organization MUST enforce revolutionary ethics and discipline to maintain democratic centralism. In the absence of a true vanguard Communist party to strengthen and support a revolutionary unionization effort today, greatest attention should be given to the principle of unity struggle unity. Do not let members simply flake off and sell out. A united organization operating in a centralized manner is much less susceptible to the outside contradictions that beset all revolutionary formations. Some of the key points should be an effort to popularize a proletarian feminist/anti-imperialist stand in the union, through bylaws and other means, to correctly orient the organization towards a revolutionary goal but also to establish a home for Colonized Women who are by far the broadest sector of the Amerikan proletariat today.
Which unions will be most useful in bringing the proletarian revolution relies utterly on the creativity of those involved in applying the correct political line. Whether you are employed at Starbucks, Amazon, or the Airport all industries in Amerika contribute to patriarchal imperialism in a dialectical sense. Start by researching your role in the machinery, discover where your corporation stands in the hierarchy. Let’s use an example of someone who works for the airport. There are hundreds of jobs with important responsibilities, and each grants access to privileged information in some way. If baggage handlers or ramp agents refused to load military supplies bound for conflict zones the entire operation would be stalled out! We do not have to imagine, because it has been done, specifically in Pisa, Italy where workers discovered weapons and ammunition disguised as humanitarian aid bound for a warzone. They talked it over, banded together and refused to ship it. Rallying around the slogan “From Tuscany: Bridges of Peace instead of Flights of War”, they organized a work stoppage, which resulted in the airport agreeing to no longer ship weapons.4
There are many other ways to act out proletarian politics such as providing information on war profiteers, military movements, and actions of the Military Industrial Complex to anti-imperialist organizations such as your cities’ For The People branch or Anakbayan. Information like this would give these formations flashpoints to struggle around. If that’s not possible, simply organizing union events against imperialist wars and encouraging customers to support colonized nations could go a long way. The Italian and Greek union movements are prime example of this. When workers of those nations heard about the egregious spending by their governments to propagate the war in Ukraine they were outraged! In May 2022 the word went out, “Italian workers are set to walk out tonight in a 24-hour general strike in protest against the country’s arming of Ukraine as they demanded ‘lower your weapons, raise your wages.’ Rallies will take place across the country today in most major cities including the capital Rome with the walkout affecting both the public and private sectors.”5 Even debating with your fellow workers about an event like this is a step on the long road to building revolutionary consciousness as a class. Whether you successfully convince your fellow workers to organize an event against patriarchal imperialist violence, or otherwise get them thinking in the right direction of collective proletarian feminist action is a positive experience that can provide long-term results.
The union movement is not the great hope for proletarian revolutionaries in the imperial core, but it is not a battleground we should cede to the corporations either. It is a long, uphill battle, and without a revolutionary vanguard to support and link individualized sites of struggle. While foolhardy to assume that the labor aristocracy will coalesce into a fervid internationalist ally of the greater world proletariat, it is still a decent home for grounded organized fellow travelers and Communist sympathizers. A revolutionary mass movement among unions would certainly benefit the ultimate goal, however we must be careful not to mistake unions as place where revolutionary ideas are latent or implicit. Unions are largely defanged tools for the interests of capitalists while the best interests of the colonized nations and oppressed genders go ignored. Reject bosses-workers alliances, advance the Revolution!
- .J Sakai. https://readsettlers.org/ch4.html
- S. Aronowitz. https://labornotes.org/blogs/2011/12/no-strike-clauses-hold-back-unions
- E. Greve. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dodge-revolutionary-union-movement-1968-1971/
- S. Zinnstein. https://www.leftvoice.org/italian-airport-workers-stop-arms-shipment-to-ukraine-under-guise-of-humanitarian-aid/
- S. Sweeney. https://mronline.org/2022/05/21/italian-workers-strike-over-military-spending-on-war-in-ukraine/