Many revolutionaries rightly recognize that the labor movement is weak and decimated. Unions are under siege, losing their last strongholds to the forces of capital one by one. This requires us to address difficult questions concerning the state of the unions: are labor unions still working class organizations? Can they be revolutionized to become the militant arm of the proletariat? Are their fate already bound by the current leadership and the legal and practical relationship of force? Our positions on these questions can only emerge from a theoretical debate, which accounts for the potential (rather than only the reality) of unions.
More than 100 years ago, the labor movement undertook a transition from craft unionism to industrial unionism. Revolutionaries and Marxists knew the former to be an outdated model, which was detrimental to the worker’s interest in general, and to the socialist movement in particular. The craft form served as an obstacle to class consciousness by dividing its workers across pre-industrial skill occupation. Revolutionaries upheld industrial unionism as the new stage of proletarian organization, which would unite all members of the working class into entities capable of catalyzing the full power of labor.
Today, some revolutionaries dismiss labor unions as genuine working class organizations, and refuse to see them as anything else than organs of the capitalist state. Unfortunately, these dismissals are not based on an analytical criticism of an outdated model of organization. They are based solely on the contemporary factual observation that unions are, currently, far from revolutionary, barely militant, and are subjugated to bourgeois politics. From these observations, the conclusion is that these organizations must be dismissed, rejected and repudiated in their very essence.
It is foolish to believe that we should get rid of the concept of direct working class organizations until the heat of the struggle, where mass organizations will appear out of nowhere. Where will the struggle arise from when all the workers are divided, not even per craft, but per their own individual person? This is the contemporary reality of the American working class. Unions serve the potential to educate and revolutionize the working class through the practice of struggle with the owners of capital. They will also be the most efficient entities to organize the proletariat in preparation for, and during, the revolutionary struggle. The failure of the labor movement to achieve any of these tasks does not allow for a dismissal of the very mode of organization, and of the need of a direct and sustained union of the working class.
If some wish to genuinely criticize the current labor movement, and I do not believe that it should ever be exempt of criticism, it must be with one of two aims. One is to analyze and eventually correct the errors of the union, determining how to minimize bourgeois and reformist influence, and revolutionize the membership. The second is to condemn the current form of unionism and aim to replace it with a new, more advanced stage of organization which suits the current historical mode of production. Simply undermining the meaning and role of unions’ existence, however, is an unproductive and effortless way to deny our failures, and avoid our responsibilities.
The labor union is, by nature, a working-class organization in its form; its content can vary but its essence will always be linked to the workers it organizes. The bourgeoisie will invariably attempt to control and/or subjugate these organizations. Their very nature is a threat, albeit a distant one, to the capitalist domination of production. This will take several forms: placing and supporting pawns at the top of unions, implementing laws that will destroy the very possibility of legal unionism, spreading smear campaigns to undermine the reputation of labor organizations… What shall we do in the face of such vilified attacks against the last direct and legitimate representatives of labor? Condemn these organizations from the left and let them die, with all the workers they represent, into the hand of the unchecked bourgeoisie? Or shall we, as revolutionaries, respond to the call, and reclaim these unions from the capitalist class and their pawns?