Unionism and Workers’ Liberation

Class struggle wasn’t a figment of Marx’s imagination. A struggle between workers the classes that dominate them is a consant, an on-going reality. This struggle happens because of structures in society that give certain groups power over other groups.


Class is about power that arises in the system of social production. Apart from work that we do at home for ourselves and members of our own families, there is a vast network of work relations where people are doing things for other people. This is what I mean by social production. This isn’t just manufacturing. Transporation, systems of tele-communications, public utilities, retail stores, health care and other services — these spheres of work are all part of social production.


We are warranted in supposing that class exists because it is a powerful tool for understanding what actually happens in society, for explaining differences in patterns of behavior of different groups of people, helping us to  account for many things we find in our own experience.


Class systems arise because of structures that give certain people power over others, and over the wealth created, in social production. Of course, some people are children, not yet actively engaged in the social economy in most cases. Others are retired or unemployed. When I talk about social classes I assume that children are a part of the social class of their parents. I assume that retired people are still a part of the class they were in before they retired. This makes sense because the class that people grow up in shapes their life prospects and their loyalties. A person’s class situation before retirement will affect things like how long they are likely to live or how economically secure they will be in retirement.


There are two structures in contemporary America that create a division into classes. First, there is the property system. A small investor class owns means of production, banks and companies of all kinds, land and buildings. This ownership of the means  to life gives the investor or capitalist class a kind of monopoly. The rest of us are forced to rent our time, our abilities, to their firms in order to live. There are very great differences within this owning group in the amount of capital they have, and thus the economic and political power they have. A huge proportion of the country’s private capital is concentrated into the hands of an extremely wealthy and powerful elite — the American plutocracy. Some economists estimate the size of this dominant class at about 2 percent of the population. This group often has little direct contact with the workers who perform the work. They are focused on large-scale money-making strategy. The smaller capitalists have fewer employees and typically do the day-to-day management of their small businesses. Howard Sherman estimates this small business segment at about 6 percent of the American population(1).


A second structure that creates class division became more pronounced about a century ago when capitalism evolved into its advanced, corporate form. The big concentrations of capital that came together at the end of the 19th century had the resources to attack the control over technology and work that had been the possession of the traditional crafts. “Efficiency experts” like Frederick Taylor advocated systematic analysis of the tasks in jobs, removing the conceptual and decision-making tasks from the shopfloor and concentrating them into a newly elaborated hierarchy of management and professional positions. The purpose of this was to shift the balance of power to the advantage of management. This did not happen smoothly as workers fought back.


From the 1890s to the 1920s the changes to the organization of production pumped up a new class of professional managers, and engineers and other professional advisors to management. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have suggested that we call this class the coordinator class(2). The growth of the state in the 20th century was another source of jobs for this class. Managers are 12 percent of the population in the USA(3). But the coordinator class also includes professionals who assist management in the control of labor. Engineers design jobs, software and equipment to control workers. Lawyers look out for the legal interests of the corporations and help to break unions. The bosses workers deal with directly are typically either coordinators or small business owners.


The capitalists had to cede some power to the coordinator class at the beginning of the 20th century because their ventures had grown too large for the owners to manage directly. Controls over workers crafted by the coordinator class are typically sold to the stockholders as a way to raise profits, but in reality this is not the only purpose at work.  The concentration of control in their own hands empowers the coordinator class and makes them central to the system of production. Connections, accumulation of expertise, and university degrees are part of the basis of their position. A meritocratic ideology is characteristic of this class, justifying their power in virtue of their expertise, education and management experience.


Recognizing the existence of the coordinator class helps us to explain who the ruling class is in the various Communist countries. The Leninist revolutions eliminated the capitalist class, creating systems of public ownership of means of production, but the working class continued to be subordinated and exploited. These revolutions revealed that the coordinator class has the power to be a ruling class.


The working class is that section of the economically active population who are subordinate to management power, with little or no formal power over the definition or control of their work, and no supervisory power over other workers. Michael Zweig estimates that the working class is 62 percent of the American population(4). This group is varied in pay levels and other conditions — from secretaries or administrative assistants in offices, carpenters and electricians on building sites, to airline baggage-handlers, bus and train drivers, vehicle mechanics, meatcutters in packing plants, and checkers and baggers at the local supermarket.


Classes are not static. Powerful capitalist or coordinator groups may seek to cut down the independence of some groups. For example, Michael Zweig  suggests that RNs, despite their four-year college degrees, have working class jobs due to the degree of control they are subject to. I have worked in software firms where large projects are Taylorized, with engineers assigned responsibility for coding some narrow fragment, with little or no input on the overall design. In school systems, teachers can find themselves up against administrators and educational consulting firms that want to put in place a more corporate-style division of labor: Curriculum and teaching methods would be defined in advance, and teachers would be expected to just execute a pre-cooked agenda. On the other hand, in defending their conception of professional autonomy, teachers may be reluctant to identify too closely with cafeteria and janitorial workers and others in the working class.


In other cases, powerful groups try to mask the real power relationships with changes in formal titles or legal arrangements. Employers of taxi and truck drivers, for example, have used the idea of “independent contractor” status as a way to reduce the power the drivers can achieve through union organization. But the formal contractor status doesn’t free the drivers from the real power of the employers.


The dynamics of economic change and conflict make the class line fuzzy. Thus between the coordinator class and the working class there are a large number of people in lower-level professional positions who share some of the features of the coordinator class, such as college educations and greater autonomy in their work, while also being subject to management power. Teachers, writers, commercial artists, and programmers are often in this sort of position. Sometimes these groups form unions and struggle with management. The proletarianization of professional groups often puts them into a more worker-like position. Given their situation, the lower-level professionals are potential allies of the working class(5).


The working class and the lower-level professionals together are at least three-fourths of the population of the USA. The capitalist and coordinator classes are no more than one fourth(6).

Liberation and Organization

The strongest ethical arguments are rooted in human nature, in the capacities and needs of human beings. The human capacity for self-management provides us a strong argument against the class system.


We all have the ability to foresee possible courses of action into the future, to think out steps to realize our aims, to develop skills to carry out our plans, and to carry out those plans through action under our own control. This is self-management. To be self-managing is to be self-determining. This is freedom in the positive sense of the word. To be self-managing, to control our lives, is a basic need that human beings have because this is how we ensure that our actions serve our own aspirations.


The laissez faire ideology, so prominent in American society at present, defines freedom only as absence of formal legal constraint. Workers are alleged to be free because we have the legal freedom to quit a tyrannical corporate master and seek out another. This use of “free” is sort of Orwellian: “Servitude is freedom.” By this logic, people in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia would have been free so long as they could emigrate. Another argument of flaks for capitalism is that the freedom of workers is not infringed because individuals in the working class can move into management, professional or business-owner slots. Such slots are only available for a minority, however. That leaves servitude as the fate of the majority. Personal mobility for some doesn’t end the existence of the structure of subordination, and thus the forced denial of self-management.


In both the capitalist and Communist countries working people are forced to labor to fulfill the plans of others, exploited for the benefit of elites. This denial of our human need for self-management, our subordination to the power and profit-seeking of elites, is oppression. Workers’ liberation requires putting an end to this condition of subordination to elite classes.


Ownership of the means of production by the capitalists is only one of the structures that tramples the self-management of working people. The coordinator class’s relative monopolization of conditions for control of work also subordinates the working class. Thus changing the ownership structure of the economy, from private to public ownership, would not be sufficient to liberate the working class. The power of the coordinator class over the working class would also need to be dissolved. To do this, the working class would need to replace the existing corporate and state hierarchies with economic and political institutions that would embody their collective self-management of production and control over social affairs.


A society with class subordination and other structures of oppression forces people into certain patterns of behavior, shaping their consciousness in certain ways. Managers and professionals who control the design of jobs and the activities of others acquire specific skills, as well as a sense of their entitlement to run things. Facing powerful control structures as individuals, subordinated workers often develop a sense of not having any power to change this, a fatalistic acquiescence. Our potential to design and control our own work, and to attain mastery over the production process, is under-developed by a system that doesn’t call upon us to make the decisions.


If the working class is to liberate itself, it must overcome fatalism and internal divisions (such as along lines of race and gender) and acquire the unity, organizational strength, self-confidence, self-discipline, personal skills, vision, and high levels of active involvement in struggle needed to mount a fundamental challenge to the elites.


Apart from the control structures of the dominating classes, the organizations that workers create themselves also affect their sense of power to change things and the personal strategies they use to navigate their way through life. That’s because organization affects the ability of working people to mount collective actions and resistance which can force the corporations and government to respect their aspirations.


How much collective action and solidarity we see around us will affect our beliefs about our power to change things. If a person faces the corporations and the state as a lone individual, they may believe “you’re on your own.” If people standing up for each other begins to become more common, and we see an increase in collective action against those who have power, we will be more likely to start thinking in terms of collective action as a solution to the problems that affect us instead of looking only to individual solutions.


If we are to create a society in which the people can directly control their lives, a society in which workers run the industries where they work, the process of self-management must emerge in self-management of mass organizations of working people. The self-managed mass organizations prefigure self-management of social production by workers and the direct self-governance of society by the mass of the people.


Mass organizations directly controlled by their participants give people a means of collectively self-managing struggles within capitalist society, and help to develop in people a sense of their power to run things. Through a more or less protracted process, the working class can break longstanding habits of acceptance of the various structures of class, race and gender domination, create power through growing horizontal solidarity, and gain the self-confidence needed to run society. The working class thus develops the actual capacity to challenge the elite classes for control of the society.

Arguments for a New Labor Movement

Mass organizations of workers rooted in the struggles in workplaces are central to the potential power of the working class to make changes in society. A union is a mass organization through which workers force the employers to do things the employers would rather not do, or force the employers to avoid doing things they would like to do. Through their solidarity and force of numbers, and their ability to bring work to a halt, workers “in union” with each other can bend the will of the employers, forcing them to do what they would otherwise rather not do.


But the currently dominant type of trade union in the USA — the unions of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win (CTW) federations — are a very inadequate type of union for the empowerment of workers. The failure of American unions to be an effective means of collective resistance to the corporate assault of the past quarter century, their top-down structures, their narrow vision, corruption  and CEO-level salaries are features that hold back the development of a sense of collective power, self-confidence and capacity for struggle within the working class in the USA.


In what follows I’m going to argue for a major effort to develop new union organizations outside the top-down hierarchies of the AFL-CIO and CTW unions.


1. A top-down apparatus of paid officials and staff tend to monopolize expertise and levers of decision-making in AFL-CIO and CTW. This disempowers the members and prefigures continued subordination and exploitation of workers.


The relative monopolization of decision-making and expertise in the control of the labor process is a defining trait of the coordinator class, and is a part of the subordination of the working class in the social economy. The relationship of the paid apparatus of the unions to union members is quite analogous, and it is also disempowering for workers. Of course, the institutional techniques that lead to control by the paid apparatus of the union — and their degree of control and the level of participation and activism of members — vary among unions.


Paid officers and staff accumulate information and experience about the ins and outs of the contract, the technicalities of labor law, connections with politicians and community leaders and labor lawyers, dealings with the media, negotiations with management, and skills like public speaking and running meetings. If the members lack these experiences, skills and connections, then they become dependent on the officials and staff. Apathy and lack of involvement of the members is the flip side of domination by the paid apparatus.


Robert Fitch uses the label “fiefdom syndrome” for the system that makes the membership of the union dependent on, and under the thumb of, the paid machine in the traditional AFL trade  This is a kind of political machine where the leader is the patron who controls access to the jobs — union staff jobs, hiring hall jobs, promotions in the workplace — and the union members are clients of the union boss. The AFL was built up originally at the end of the 19th century by the creation of “job trusts” — exclusive control over jobs in various niches where groups of workers had particularly good leverage, either due to skill or due to the central importance of an industry, such as transportation. Monopoly contracts — excluding other organizations — give the union control over access to the jobs. Dependence of the workers on the union leaders is rooted in both the union’s monopoly of the jobs and the union institutions for control over access to the jobs — apprenticeship systems, hiring halls, the business agent system.


Job trust unions often have little incentive to broaden their membership through organizing. If more members are brought into the union, this may mean that there are merely more workers competing for the same jobs, sitting on the benches in the hiring hall. Because the AFL’s traditional strategy was to exclude other workers from their craft, this often took the form of excluding women or African-Americans, as in the construction trades. Corruption — endemic in various parts of the traditional AFL international unions — is facilitated by the domination of the paid leaders, the inability of the workers to escape the union’s monopoly control, and the lack of effective involvement and control by the members(7). (American unions are called “internationals” because they typically have sections in Canada, and sometimes in Puerto Rico.)


In the competition between the AFL and the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, the AFL unions were largely successful in beating back the CIO challenge. This was helped by the Wagner Act of 1935 which legalized “monopoly bargaining rights.” Once a union gains recognition from the employer, their monopoly of bargaining rights makes it harder for workers to form a mass organization to compete with the recognized union. Employers in the 1930s and ‘40s were often willing to sign deals with the more corruptible and pliant AFL unions as a way of keeping out the CIO unions. This illustrates how monopoly bargaining rights is an anti-worker feature of the Wagner Act.


To see how an AFL “fiefdom” works, it’s worth focusing on a particular example. So let’s look at the United Transportation Union (UTU) at the Los Angeles MTA. The UTU is a garden variety AFL kleptocracy. The two UTU international union presidents prior to the current president are currently serving prison terms for embezzlement of union funds.


The Los Angeles MTA operates a vast transit network throughout Los Angeles County, with 16 bus divisions and four subway and light rail lines. There are about 5,000 bus and train operators in the UTU. The widespread de-industrialization and closing of unionized industrial plants in Los Angeles in the ‘70s and ‘80s has left the MTA’s transit oper

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