For several decades, the state of working-class power in the United States has been bleak. Unions are weak, and millions of workers, including nearly half of union household voters, voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Seeing the weakened state of labor, many liberals and leftists have turned to other social forces — nonprofits, left politicians, or even climate-friendly billionaires — to win health care, environmental, and other progressive legislation.
In recent years, inspired by the experience of Bernie Sanders’s and others’ campaigns, the US left has recognized the strategic importance of political action: elections, legislation, and political parties. The need for political action has become common sense for today’s left: Neither mass protests nor workplace organizing alone are sufficient to build the power needed to defend workers’ interests and ultimately transform society.
Some leftists take this argument even further. Pointing to the role of politicians and legislation in the New Deal labor upsurge and workers’ decreasing structural power under “post-industrial” capitalism, Chris Maisano argues that elections may now be more important for “working-class reorganization” than workplace organizing. “The potential for making new advances today,” he writes, might be “relatively more dependent on political action than on leveraging workers’ location in the production process.”
At its best, left-wing political action can catalyze and reinforce workers’ movements while advancing legislation on their behalf, as the Bernie campaigns showed. But the excitement of election campaigns and the need to build a new political party shouldn’t eclipse the central strategic importance of workers’ own activity and organization, especially where they have the most potential power: at work.
Workplace organizing is of course hard, even more so given the defeats of the last four decades. But it’s both possible and indispensable. The Left needs to commit to rebuilding the labor movement from the bottom up, without which our reform program — not to mention democratic socialism — will remain off the agenda indefinitely.
Which Came First?
In two recent articles, Maisano argues that workers will need an “assist from public policy” in the form of progressive labor law reform like the PRO Act to create a “more favorable environment” for class struggle. Only then, he implies, will workplace organizing bear fruit again.
But this “legislate first, organize later” sequence draws the wrong lessons from the 1930s, the last time such ambitious labor law reform passed. The PRO Act is an excellent demand for labor and the Left to fight for right now, and we should hope that it passes before Democrats lose the Senate. But if it doesn’t, that would not be a surprise — major labor law reforms tend to follow upsurges in union organizing and strike activity, not the other way around.
Political scientist Michael Goldfield shows in a seminal study that massive unrest and then three major general strikes in 1934 — led in part by revolutionary socialist cadres — pushed political and economic elites to choose an ultimately successful strategy of concessions in order to placate, contain, and redirect worker rebellion into less disruptive channels. One pro-New Deal congressperson summarized the mood: “What we are trying to do . . . is save [big] corporations from communism and bloodshed.”
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) itself had limited impact on the upsurge, as the labor board it established, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), accomplished little in its first two years. It was the 1936–37 Flint auto workers’ strike victory that sparked, within only one month, 247 other sit-down strikes involving over 200,000 workers. The number of union members surged from 4 million to 7 million by year’s end, leading Goldfield to write that “the dam had been broken with little help from the NLRB.”
Maisano claims that earlier legislation, the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), helped get the union organizing “genie out of the bottle” by giving workers a “license to organize.” But Maisano also admits the toothless NIRA “went unenforced.” It was at best merely a symbolic catalyst or proximate cause. The legislation doesn’t prove much about the special role of legislation vis-à-vis organizing, as any number of things can provoke strikes, from bad bosses to inspiring examples in other factories. And regardless, mass disruption — including millions protesting for unemployment relief and successful auto strikes in Detroit — had already been underway for years before the NIRA’s passage.
Finally, Maisano talks about the central role played by “sympathetic politicians” in a few 1930s strikes. Labor activists surely benefited from this political support. But there were 4,740 recorded work stoppages in 1937 alone. In only a few of these could workers rely on sympathetic politicians. The one thing common to all of them is the action, organization, and tenacity of countless workers in the face of powerful companies or even violent strikebreakers.
Goldfield shows that mass, disruptive action by the workers tended to push politicians to be more “sympathetic”: As workers became more confident of their power, elites became increasingly hesitant to use violent repression, which was only provoking more unrest and radicalization.
Political action was of course necessary to winning New Deal legislation. But the crucial power to win those reforms was generated by workers themselves, primarily at the point of production. To win major reforms in the twenty-first century, from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal, we need to build class struggle at the workplace, and lots of it.
The Cause of Labor Is Still the Hope of the World
The reason labor is so central to socialist strategy is that it is the only social actor with both the power and the interest in taking on capital. It has an interest in doing so because it suffers systematically at the hands of capital. And it has the capacity to fight the power of capital because capital depends on labor to keep its wealth and profits flowing.
Maisano argues that, while this might have been true in earlier eras, the nature of capitalism has changed. With a relative loss of manufacturing jobs and the geographic reorganization of cities, the US proletariat has lost much of the “structural power” in the workplace that it once relied on to advance its interests. While historically “industrial workers have been the leading edge of democratic and socialist movements around the world,” recent “labor-saving technical change, outsourcing, and other pressures” have “eroded” the proletariat’s potential power.
Under “post-industrial capitalism,” Maisano suggests elsewhere, the hope of the working class might lie more in “political mobilization” (primarily through elections and lobbying) than in “leveraging the [structural] position of workers” through union organizing and direct action in the production process.
The task of revitalizing the labor movement is certainly as daunting as ever. But it’s not true that it is structurally off the table. Kim Moody shows that “the popular tropes of a fragmented, atomized, casualized working class obscure the degree to which the last three decades have in fact created new zones of centralized production, new vulnerabilities for capital, and also underplay important elements of continuity in forms of employment.”
As Jacobin’s Paul Prescod put it last month, “The industrial working class hasn’t disappeared. It’s just been transformed.” The over 4 million workers involved in logistics (transporting goods) “are the new core of the US industrial working class.” The “logistics revolution” has created whole new industrial fortresses in major urban areas, the last bastions of high union density. Moody explains that scores of “logistics clusters” in the United States, some of which concentrate over 100,000 workers, are “at the center of today’s broader production processes, much as the clusters of auto-assembly plants in Detroit or the steel mills in Gary of yesteryear.”
Amazon alone now employs nearly 1 million people directly in the United States. As one United Parcel Service (UPS) driver wrote recently in Jacobin, organizing Amazon is do-or-die for the labor movement, since their prices, wages, and conditions are determinative for the rest of this key industry. But “conditions for organizing Amazon, and achieving a revitalizing breakthrough for unionism,” he writes, “have never been better.”
The 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) has committed (under pressure from union reformers) to organizing Amazon. Especially because the more ambitious reformers supported by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) just won the elections for IBT leadership, a Teamster-led national Amazon campaign could represent the most important new private sector organizing drive in a generation. IBT’s resources would supplement grassroots organizing being carried out already by scrappier but highly committed activists (for example, Amazonians United). A potential contract fight or even strike by 300,000 UPS Teamsters in 2023 under more militant IBT leadership could also help raise US labor’s expectations in general, and Amazon workers’ interest in unionization in particular.
Besides logistics, two other sectors have been growing rapidly along with their centrality to US society: education and health care. There were 3.5 million full- and part-time public school teachers in the 2017–18 school year, a nearly 20 percent increase since 2000. The vast majority of these teachers are already in unions. A wave of largely victorious teacher strikes across the United States in 2018–19 involving nearly 650,000 workers reintroduced the idea of strikes to unions, and unions to US society. Researchers at Columbia have shown that these strikes actually increased the appeal of unions to nonunion parents and other observers.
Maisano suggests that “working-class reorganization today” will not primarily run through “workplace organizing or strikes,” but rather through political action. But the Columbia researchers highlight “the importance of strikes as a political strategy for unions: not only can they build stronger public support for the striking workers but they can also inspire greater interest in further labor action among other workers.” The teachers’ strikes confirm that, more than a conservative focus on electing and lobbying Democrats, “strikes are workers’ most powerful weapon.”
Rank-and-file reformers, radicals, and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members in the “militant minority” were essential to initiating and leading many of these strikes, just like Communist and other radical militants were in the 1930s upsurge. Rank-and-file teachers in New York City had to merely threaten a wildcat strike last year, despite New York’s ban on public sector strikes, to force their union to call for school closures in the face of rising COVID-19 infections — a demand they won, saving countless lives in a viral epicenter. Teachers’ power to force concessions at work and in the statehouse has been proven in practice.
About 20 million people, or one in seven workers, now work in “healthcare and social assistance” in the United States, the largest sector as tracked by the Census Bureau. Many of these workers are concentrated in huge hospitals and campuses. While a smaller share of workers are unionized in health care than in education, militant worker-led action and progressive union leaderships show that health care workers can play an important role in revitalizing US labor. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, workers in Cook County hospital in Chicago challenged mismanagement and understaffing — part of the “lean production” methods imported from auto manufacturing to the health care industry — with a series of successful shop floor actions.
Since then, thousands of Chicago-area healthcare workers participated in two major strikes. The first was in defiance of a court injunction, and the second won unions’ demands for higher wages and safe staffing. In the Bay Area, over three thousand county health care workers — led by Labor Notes–trained rank-and-file reformers — successfully struck last fall against austerity. Seven hundred nurses in Massachusetts have been on strike for six months for safe staffing and protective equipment. Thirty-five thousand workers at health care giant Kaiser authorized a strike earlier this month to fight, among other issues, against the introduction of a two-tier wage system.
Traditional segments of the private sector like construction and manufacturing are still important battlegrounds too, as shown by recent strikes by Washington carpenters and Nabisco workers. There are still about a million auto workers in the United States, 50,000 of whom struck against General Motors in 2019, while a national rank-and-file movement is fighting to democratize the United Auto Workers (UAW). Ten thousand UAW members at John Deere walked off the job last month, along with 14,000 Kellogg’s workers. Sixty thousand film and TV workers almost struck before a deal was narrowly reached recently.
While US labor has been disorganized by a decline in traditional industrial employment since the mid-twentieth century, there are important new openings for organizing today. Socialist advance in the twenty-first century will rest in part on our ability to make the most of these opportunities.
No Shortcuts for Working-Class Power
The socialist movement can’t remain entirely confined to street protests or shop floor fights. But this is hardly a danger right now. Most of the contemporary Left instead focuses on electoral action to the detriment of labor organizing. This makes sense: Thousands were brought to DSA by the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and AOC, and electoral organizing is more salient and accessible to a generation of young activists who grew up largely removed from a small union movement. Socialist election campaigns today raise far-reaching redistributive demands that would benefit poor and working people.
But we should be worried that our movement remains, to paraphrase Leo Panitch, working class-oriented but not working class–rooted. The best way for the Left to fix this is to help build the labor movement.
Until more workers experience the sense of power they can collectively exercise at the workplace and through their unions, it will be near impossible to root our political agenda in working-class communities. A stronger union movement and class-struggle culture — wherein firsthand experiences of collective power build class consciousness and raise expectations for millions of workers — is a prerequisite for winning majorities to left-wing campaigns like those of Bernie Sanders.
And without a revitalized working-class movement built on a strong union foundation, it’s unlikely that a socialist government could achieve major reforms. Under capitalism, the state is not merely a neutral tool to be wielded by whoever wins office. The power to transform society therefore lies not just in the state but in the economy.
Progressive reforms are of course possible, but only because disruptive movements, most of all the labor movement, make the costs of resistance greater for employers than the costs of concessions. Strong labor movements provided the powerful engine driving progressive reforms in the United States in the 1930s and 1960s and in post–World War II European social democracies.
Maisano is right that labor organizing alone was never sufficient for these wins. The existence of a national political party of the working class is a key ingredient for winning major reforms. But such a party will only be able to fight for workers’ interests if it is backed by social forces outside the state — especially organized workers who can shut down production.
Political action can supplement workplace organizing and, in some cases, encourage it. But there’s no substitute for the real thing. An overriding task of socialists today is to not only speak to and about working-class struggles, but to begin to participate in them directly, especially on the shop floor. Political action helped birth a new generation of socialist activists. The next task for today’s left is to bring some of that radical zeal and organizing experience into the union movement.
This is why democratic socialists are undertaking the “rank-and-file strategy” for transforming the labor movement from the bottom up: taking jobs in strategic sectors like health care, education, logistics (including Amazon), the building trades, and communications in order to rebuild a militant working-class movement today and win socialism tomorrow. The role of radical rank-and-file activists in recent healthcare- and education-sector militancy echoes that of radicals and revolutionary organizations that were an essential part of the “militant minority” of the 1930s upsurge.
No amount of working-class power under capitalism is enough to advance and defend the interests of the poor and the planet. There’s room for some amelioration, but it is limited and fragile while billionaires and corporations, with interests opposed to those of the rest of us, control the vast majority of resources and therefore power. Sooner or later, a successful project of reform under capitalism will come up against these limits, and the working class will have to be prepared to fight for something beyond capitalism.
But this is a distant scenario. Right now, we should be concerned with raising the low level of working-class organization and consciousness, from the shop floor on up.