The coronavirus is causing a major global social and economic crisis. In the United States, the government’s response to this crisis has been disastrous, and employers are showing, as usual, that they have no qualms about putting their own profits above the health and safety of their workers and of the public.
Strikes and other forms of on-the-job organizing have kicked off all over the country. But workplace militancy on a much greater scale will be required to force a humane pandemic response from corporate owners and policymakers, both to win the kind of measures we need to fight the disease, like Medicare for All, and to slow the disease’s spread.
The labor movement has a key role to play in this. Unfortunately, labor’s strength is at a historic low. The percentage of workers in unions was 10.1 percent in 2019, the lowest rate since 1983 (when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data). There was a revival of strikes in 2018, with the most workers going on strike since 1986. But that number is mostly confined to public education and still way below the historic heights of the Great Depression and World War II era, or even the 1960s and 1970s, when public-sector strikes kicked off in large numbers.
A fighting labor movement is one of the only forces that can prevent needless misery and death during this outbreak and in coming capitalist-created crises. Socialists need to understand why labor is so weak — and what we can do to bring it back.
Reversing Labor’s Decline
Micah Uetricht and Barry Eidlin write about this conundrum in a 2018 article for Labor Studies Journal. They argue that there are three principal approaches to understanding labor’s relative weakness in the United States and what to do about it. Understanding these approaches, and what’s wrong or missing with them, is critical for formulating a successful strategy to revitalize the labor movement today.
One approach says that labor is being held back by unfriendly policies, and that the solution to the labor movement’s woes is to reform labor law. Another approach holds that labor’s problem is due to union leaders using flawed organizing strategies; the solution, then, lies in improving those strategies. The third, related to the second, argues that labor has suffered from the absence of elected officials who are friendly to labor, and that rebuilding the labor movement requires electing more pro-labor politicians.
Uetricht and Eidlin argue that all three are not so much fully wrong as misguided in their emphasis. Labor-friendly policies have generally been the effect, not the cause, of upsurges in labor militancy. The often illegal and occasionally violent strikes of the early 1930s, for example, spooked legislators into passing the Wagner Act, which institutionalized collective-bargaining rights through new labor laws. Leaders’ adoption of new organizing strategies, usually emphasizing research and communications over building power on the shop floor, has failed to revitalize unions. And for decades, unions have tried to strengthen themselves by using connections with the Democratic Party — again, to little avail. Even with Barack Obama, who campaigned on pro-labor policies like the Employee Free Choice Act, in the White House, unions failed to make significant gains.
All of these views, Uetricht and Eidlin argue, rest on a flawed theory of how worker power is built. This theory sees worker power as being granted from the top down, whether by union bureaucrats, politicians, or laws. But the history of the US labor movement shows that power must be built from the bottom up, through rank-and-file workers organizing and taking action themselves. That is because workers’ ability to organize and engage in disruptive action on the shop floor is labor’s ultimate source of power.
Rebuilding rank-and-file worker organization must be labor’s priority. And central to that project will be recreating and strengthening a core of class-conscious workplace activists: the militant minority.
The Militant Minority and Workplace Radicals in the Depression Era
What is the militant minority? Charlie Post defines it as the “layer of workers with a vision and strategy for how to organize, fight, and win.” The militant minority consists of the rank-and-file workers who are fiercely and consistently committed to organizing their coworkers to fight the boss.
In the period stretching from the end of World War I through the Great Depression and World War II, these workers were essential to the formation of class consciousness and militancy in their workplaces. Although the militant minority of this era included many non-leftists, radical leftists played a central role. Communists, socialists, Trotskyists, and other radicals took the lead in forming and maintaining first workplace militancy, then strong worker-led unions across the country. These organizing efforts were critical to the massive wave of victorious strikes in the Depression era, including in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis.
Uetricht and Eidlin identify five important contributions of these workplace radicals. First, they infused their workplace organizing with class-conscious ideology. Unlike other unionists, leftists’ “beliefs in the illegitimacy of management’s authority on the shop floor led to their refusal to cede control of shop-floor conditions to management.” Radicals’ willingness to challenge the bosses’ authority helped them build fighting, democratic unions. For instance, communists were extremely influential in the formation of the radical longshore workers’ union that eventually sparked the 1934 San Francisco general strike.
Second, workplace radicals were the most dedicated and became the most experienced organizers. Their commitment to class struggle motivated them to organize and fight even under threats of firing and violence. Communists and others organized throughout the 1920s, when employers successfully crushed most efforts at unionization. But the organizational infrastructure leftists built and the experience they gained during this period paid off in the 1930s, when worker unrest exploded.
Radical leadership and organization channeled worker energy into victorious mass strikes in 1934. Communists helped lay the groundwork for the San Francisco general strike, while Trotskyists and socialists affiliated with the American Workers Party led victorious mass strikes in Minneapolis and Toledo, respectively. Later in the decade, radicals played key roles in the massive wave of wildcat sit-down strikes at auto plants, devising strategy and keeping the strikes going when union leaders wanted to shut them down. Communists and socialists also led the drive to organize meatpacking and other industries.
Third, leftist organizers connected workplace and community struggles. Radicals did not organize just to win better wages or conditions for a particular workplace, or even a whole industry. As Uetricht and Eidlin put it, radicals saw union organizing as a “means to organize the entire working class.” That perspective led leftists to build solidarity between workers and their broader communities.
The importance of this sort of organizing can be seen in the 1934 Toledo strike, for instance, in which radical-led groups of unemployed workers joined picketing autoworkers to fight strikebreakers and police. The alliance with the unemployed was crucial to the strikers’ eventual victory. In Austin, Minnesota, socialists, Trotskyists, and communists led the charge in organizing the Hormel meatpacking plant that dominated the city, and then turned to helping workers across the city and region in various industries win union recognition.
Fourth, radicals were very active in the day-to-day life of their unions. That day-to-day participation involved building extensive networks of shop stewards, which allowed rank-and-file workers greater influence on union leadership. Leftist organizers also prioritized education and agitation, especially through newspapers. Publications like the Organizer in Minneapolis, the Waterfront Worker in San Francisco, and the Unionist in Austin, Minnesota, provided both news and analysis of issues affecting workers from a class-struggle perspective. These newspapers helped stoke the militancy that led to historic worker victories in all three cities.
Radicals’ involvement in day-to-day union life was directly connected to their fifth contribution: the development of democratic unions in which workers actively participated. Their commitment to challenging management’s authority over working conditions led leftists to build rank-and-file worker power as a counterweight to union leaderships, which were usually happy to cede control to management in exchange for higher wages.
Through the shop-steward networks just mentioned, radicals created channels of communication among workers and between workers and union leaders, ensuring the leadership’s responsiveness to the rank and file. This was true, for example, in the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union and the United Packinghouse Workers of America, which remained democratic and responsive to worker concerns even when they came under the control of the undemocratic Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Rebuilding the Militant Minority
The post-WWII “Red Scare” resulted in the purging of communists and other radicals from unions. The severing of the connection between American labor and the Left meant the disappearance of the militant minority. As Post observes, “[T]he divorce between socialist politics and working-class life protected the labor bureaucracy from significant opposition.” Without committed rank-and-file organizers around to challenge conservative union leaders, unions embraced a strategy of attempting to secure better wages and benefits through grievance procedures while avoiding the disruptive strikes typical of the Depression era.
This approach worked well enough during the “boom years” of the 1950s and early ’60s, when owners were willing to make concessions to workers. But when a crisis of profitability set in in the mid-’60s, capitalists began to roll back gains made by workers. Conciliatory union leaderships made little effort to resist capital’s offensive, and rank-and-file workers were ill-equipped to fight back.
Although the wave of wildcat strikes that erupted in the late ’60s and early ’70s won significant gains, without a sizable militant minority to channel this upsurge into durable workplace organization, conservative union leaders were able to reassert control when the strike wave died down. And capital has continued to extract concessions from workers since. The result has been a continuous decline in union membership and workplace militancy.
Bernie Sanders’s two presidential campaigns, the teacher strike wave, and now the coronavirus pandemic have breathed new life into the Left and the labor movement. Sanders has revived socialism as a popular idea in American life. His campaigns helped spur the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which now boasts close to sixty-six thousand members and elected officials throughout the country at all levels of government. Teacher strikes in West Virginia and Arizona — themselves guided by a militant minority — ignited a national strike wave unlike any seen in decades. And now, the coronavirus outbreak is pushing workers to protest and go on strike to shut down nonessential businesses, to win paid leave and safety protections, and to ensure hospitals have adequate staffing and protective equipment to handle the disease.
Socialists should seize on the opportunities offered by the twin revival of labor and the Left to reconnect the two. That is the point of the rank-and-file strategy, which aims to rebuild the militant minority. One way we can start doing that is by taking jobs in strategic sectors (such as logistics) and companies (like Amazon), either to unionize nonunion workplaces or to reform corrupt and undemocratic unions. Labor Notes, which has been building a network of class-conscious rank-and-file activists since the 1970s, provides an excellent model for socialists trying to build organization on the shop floor.
While a critical mass of leftists working in strategic industries may be needed to cohere a new militant minority, getting jobs in these sectors is not the only way socialists can help build worker power. Socialists can also help workers organize for safety during the pandemic through the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, a joint project of the DSA and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.
They can also support the struggles of rank-and-file workers locally. Members of my own DSA chapter have done this for health care and fast-food workers, amplifying their struggles and joining their picket lines and protests. And through campaigning for class-struggle politicians like Bernie Sanders, socialists can help raise the expectations of working people and inspire them to fight their bosses (just as Sanders’s 2016 campaign inspired important leaders of the red state teacher revolt).
Radicals’ contributions to workplace organizing were once crucial to labor’s strength and fighting spirit. With socialism again a prominent current in American life and the need for a strong labor movement clearer than ever, it’s time for the Left to go to work.