Capitalism, Labor Unions, and Strikes

A wave of labor strikes — the scope of which has not been seen for decades — is sweeping across the United States. In fact, more than 100,000 workers are either involved in strikes or will be if threatened strikes happen. And the militancy of the strikers themselves, and of the unions, is supercharged. Members are rejecting small concessions, and leaders are even talking about the system — capitalism — in their public narratives. 

All of this occurs against a background of a general rejection of traditional work structures, low wages, and expectations of loyalty or enthusiastic labor. For entry-level jobs and wages, it’s now often the case that nobody is showing up to work at all, despite the federal government cutting the most “generous” of Covid-era benefits. Ultimately, people are tired of working in conditions that inhibit their humanity. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, says that the bosses and mainstream media are trying to frame the current conditions as a “labor” shortage. “But that’s not what’s really going on,” Reich writes. “In reality, there’s a living wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage.” To this, I would add a shortage of system legitimacy. People are fed up with the brutal hierarchies of capitalism and are responding en masse. 

It’s not controversial, I think, to predict that these mass labor actions will win immediate gains for workers and their families, including for those workers who aren’t participating in strikes. Unions make everyone better off, except the bosses. If the dominant paradigm of contemporary capitalism is neoliberalism — a widespread assertion by the powerful that markets are always better, economic hierarchies provide benefits that “trickle down” to make everyone better off, and government policies should actively maintain such conditions — the strike is the ultimate repudiation of neoliberalism. The strike asserts that maintaining and reaffirming worker power should take precedence over maintaining “free markets”, and that egalitarianism — material equality — is more important than profit. It does all this through coordinated work stoppage, because control of work translates into political control. 

Granted, there are still barriers to the widespread success of strikes (most of which would go away if the PRO Act passes). These barriers include the simple fact that there is no right to strike guaranteed by law, that bosses can, in many instances, hire replacement workers (“strikebreakers”) without running afoul of labor law, and that the National Labor Relations Board’s ban on “secondary activities” (boycotts and strikes against companies that support the companies against which workers are striking) renders strike action much weaker than it would otherwise be.

But even with these limitations, the ability of labor to flex its muscles in the American political playing field is impressive — particularly as not long ago, economists were predicting massive permanent layoffs as a result of automation. For the foreseeable future, however, workers have leverage because of their scarcity and their militancy. Unions may even help usher in widespread climate change-inspired reforms concerning how entire industries and labor are structured.

It’s an open question and somewhat controversial, however, whether unions and strike actions can fundamentally transform the economy. The answer depends on who we ask.

The stakes could not be higher. The climate crisis is an existential one, portending widespread death, grueling refugee crises, and potentially irreversible damage to the biosphere. And Marxists believe that the working class, the most important class in history, is the agent which will address it. “[I]n the face of a worsening climate crisis,” the Trotskyist faction of the Fourth International recently posted, “we know it is necessary to develop a program based on class independence with a strategy for ending the root cause of the ecological and social catastrophes we face: the capitalist system itself . . . Only the working class and its allies have the power to build a new system which operates in the interest of all of humanity.” 

But if fixing the climate requires a wholesale restructuring of society along anti-capitalist, cooperative, and explicitly sustainable lines, it’s still somewhat of an open question whether labor unions as presently structured have an integral role to play. The reason for such ambiguity lies in the essentially reformist nature of unions. In fact, that’s why critique of trade unions and labor unions in general can be identified in the earliest iterations of Marxism. 

Take, for example, arguments by anarchists like Partisan Review editor Dwight McDonald, who a century ago argued that in England, “the great dock strikes of 1889 led by socialists like Tim Mann and John Burns” ultimately evolved into the milquetoast British Labor Party. And in Germany, “the mighty Social-Democratic trade union movement, on which Marx and Engels placed their main hope for socialist leadership” — like the CIO in the United States — went from “rebellious youth to bureaucratic senility.” Unions, the argument goes, exploit anticapitalist sentiment to gain power, then collude with the ruling class to control workers: “in each case the early struggle to establish unions had an anti-capitalist character which more and more disappeared as time went on,” observes McDonald.

Perhaps this is another way of expressing Ahmed White’s thesis in his article “Its Own Dubious Battle: The Impossible Defense of an Effective Right to Strike,” positing that labor actions are only truly revolutionary if they occur as part of a revolution — that is, at the very least, if labor refuses to stay in the narrow NLRB lines and instead engages in illegal, wildcat, and forbidden actions. White’s main argument is that “an effective right to strike is not only an impossible distraction but a dangerous fantasy that prevents labor’s champions from confronting the broader, sobering truths that this country’s legal and political system are, at root, anathema to a truly viable system of labor rights and that labor’s salvation must be sought elsewhere.” 

But I think this is ultimately a kind of question-begging argument. All influential movements in capitalist society are in some way institutionally embedded, and such groups also, quite naturally and consistently, provide the rope of their own criticism and (sometimes radical) transformation. While most socialist and communist organizations in the U.S. support unions, few do so uncritically, and some groups have gone to great lengths to democratize unions, play decisive roles in strikes, and play strong roles in union locals while explaining their structural and ideological limits. Others have done nothing but criticize labor hierarchy and invite workers to form new labor organizations, explicitly anti-capitalist and indifferent to NLRB politics. Those “outsider” theorists also have a role to play in the mosaic of the radicalization of labor.

In order to empower unions as political forces, unions need to communicate with their own set of “constituents,” and engage in campaign outreach based on an understanding of a kind of “voter base” in the politically conscious public. There are effective tools — like the email appending services offered by my client, Accurate Append — which can make this outreach easier. Ultimately, if more workplaces are unionized and more community members belong to unions, these ideological arguments will take on new form and life, and socialists, anarchists, and communists can work their differences out in common praxis against capitalism, rather than primarily against each other.