Building a Liberatory Labor Movement


In the United States, we can see the roots of an emerging militant labor movement. Though in its infancy, rank-and-file initiatives are becoming more common as traditional Labor continues to fail us. A militant labor movement will be comprised of (or at least should be) self-managed workers’ organizations; subsequently, labor activists focus on organizing the rank-and-file workers. This much I think we can all agree on. However, there is disagreement on what the role of a militant labor movement and organizing around class has in the context of greater societal change. I think that much of the disagreement stems from, in general terms, how we conceptualize how societal change happens, and who are the agents of change. It is this question that I will try to address, presenting a complementary and holistic approach that recognizes the centrality of non-class oppressions, along with class, in the struggle for radical societal change.

In all human societies there are four spheres of social activity: economic, political, cultural/community, and kinship. And in each sphere there are different oppressions based on various factors: In the economic sphere, there is class oppression; in the political sphere, there is oppression based on the order giver/order takers relationship, usually embodied in the authoritarian state; in the community/cultural sphere, oppression is based on race, ethnicity, and religion; and in the kinship sphere, oppression is based on sex, gender and sexual identity and orientation, and age . If we think that societal change, a liberated society, is going to arise mainly from radical economic change, because that has the most influence, then we will identify workers as the central agent of change. Someone can have this view and still be sensitive to the existence of, and need to combat, other forms of oppression. Therefore, you don’t necessarily have to be "economistic" or a "workerist" to hold this view; but even though you may recognize other oppressions, class is held as the most central and critical to change.

Following this line of thought, strategies arise about how to deal with other oppressions, such as sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. Two are most common. There is the "Unite and Fight" argument: race, gender, etc. only divides us, so let’s put that aside and unite as the working class. The other is a bit more subtle and strategic: race, gender, etc. are important and the oppressions that stem from them are real and they need to be addressed because the working class is heterogeneous, and not to do so would inhibit class unity. The latter is better than the former but it’s still a problem.

Now, things change if we look at how to make radical change from a different angle. Instead of holding economics as central (even if we acknowledge the importance of other spheres of life), we look at change in a more complementary and holistic way. In this view, radical change is looked at in the context of all four spheres-understanding how parts of the whole are interdependent and relate to one another. Therefore, with this analysis, who are the agents of change? In the economic, it’s the working class. In the political, it’s citizens/current order-takers. In the cultural/community, it’s oppressed ethnic groups and people of color; and in kinship, it’s women, transfolk, queers, youth and older folk. However, these spheres do not exist independently from each other, obviously. But, rather, they are highly entwined. The hierarchies in each sphere are so embedded that they can actually define and shape the institutional roles and relations of the other spheres. For example, in the workplace we have seen how the division of labor has been shaped by sexist and heterosexist societal norms (among others). We see that the constructed role of women as caretakers and nurturers within the family has resulted in them occupying positions like nurses and hostesses, overwhelmingly. We see there is actually a sexual division of labor that is not necessarily inevitable in a given economy.

If we take this approach, a much different strategy evolves, and the way we view workers organizations will, also. And, ironically, we’ll also see that even if you think class is central, by ignoring the equal importance of the other spheres, you get class wrong.

As far as strategy goes, with this approach, instead of trying to merely unite workers along class lines, we appeal to class interests, as well as giving oppressed groups autonomous spaces within the workers movement, such as caucuses. Not only does this provide space where oppressed groups can possibly get together to talk about and air grievances, but it actually allows the workers movement to be better able to address the ways that hierarchies in other spheres have shaped class and the economic realm. Also, we will be better able to organize workers because we will not be telling people which oppression they feel and which they shouldn’t! We no longer only worry about how other oppressions divide the working class, but rather we will have a better understanding of how race, gender, sexuality, and authority shape class relations. It will help the labor movement become more strategic in how we approach workers-avoiding reproducing oppressive norms within our organizations-and will inform us on what reforms to fight for. For example, the labor movement could fight to overcome the sexual and racial division of labor in the workplace. This approach will also have implications for movement building in general. No longer will we feel the necessity to assimilate women’s, queer, national minority, etc, movements into the workers’ movement as the sole movement. Rather, we have Autonomy within Solidarity, with each movement setting the agenda for its respective area of influence for the larger "Movement of Movements."

Now here is the ironic part I briefly mentioned, and, I believe, to be the most important. Say you think that everything that I just said is wrong and muddleheaded, and you believe issues like gender are secondary to class-whether this is theoretical and/or strategic. You believe that class is central and it radiates its influence to all other spheres (which I believe it does, but so do the others), then it becomes ever more important that you focus on the other spheres because they are are going to be shaped by oppressive class norms and hierarchies!! For example, since kinship relations were adapted to and shaped by class rule, they actually have the ability to reproduce the same oppressive economic hierarchies. Therefore, if we have an economic revolution-where the fundamental economic institutions are replaced with truly classless, participatory ones-but the oppressions within kinship are not given as much attention as they should and still remain unscathed, we run the risk of the same oppressive class hierarchies and norms coming back into existence in the economic sphere, rolling back the gains that were made. Why? Because the institutional roles within kinship have been shaped and defined by oppressive class relations to the point where these relations are reproduced by the kinship sphere. Hence the irony. By putting secondary importance to issues like gender, the class advocate actually gets class wrong. This holds true with oppressions in all four spheres.

What I have argued up to this point, is not to say that all workers must be anti-racist, feminist, queer liberationist, non-ageist, ant-authoritarians right off the bat. In fact, this would fly in the face of the analysis I am putting forth. What I am saying, however, is that if a militant labor movement is going to come to being that can actually challenge economic hegemony by the ruling few, and build a classless society, then we are going to have to address the oppressions that stem from political, community and cultural, and kinship relations. We cannot have a labor movement that reproduces the hierarchies of oppressions based in other spheres of life. We will need to do this in order to organize workers in the first place, and to ensure that when we do win fundamental economic change, it will be truly liberatory and long lasting. Some organizations are taking the steps down the right path; however, if we are to build a militant labor movement-with a complementary and holistic approach-that is part of an ever greater Movement for a participatory society, much work is to be done. And I hope what I have presented will contribute at least something to this.

John J. Cronan Jr. lives in New York City, where he is restaurant worker and a recent graduate of Pace University. He is also an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), as well as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Food and Allied Workers Union I.U. 460/640


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