Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism

Against the Current, No. 220, September/October 2022

Marian Swerdlow

Class Struggle Unionism
By Joe Burns
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2022, 180 pages, $17.95 paperback.

Sara Nelson (center, green mask), president of the Association of Flight Attendants, with Starbucks workers at the 2022 Labor Notes conference.

MORIBUND, DECREPIT, SCLEROTIC — all describe the current state of the U.S. labor movement. Labor activists have been seeing “green shoots” for decades. Today, they are pointing to the growing number of Starbucks shops that are unionizing and an independent union’s victory in a certification election in one Amazon facility.

In the past, admittedly, somehow these “shoots” have never grown into a healthy forest, and, although one hopes this time is different, it is possible that these victories will get bogged down in the much more difficult struggle to wrest a contract from recalcitrant and powerful employers.
Joe Burns believes the cure is class struggle unionism. He sets out to explain what it is, and the forces — sometimes not the usual suspects — that stymie its development. Finally, he attempts the far more difficult task of discussing how it may be advanced.

The author, a veteran labor negotiator and attorney, is director of collective bargaining for the Association of Flight Attendants, Communication Workers of America. Class Struggle Unionism is well worth reading, despite its shortcomings, for any activist in the labor movement.

What is Class Struggle Unionism?

“Rather than for a ‘fair wage,’ [class struggle unionists] are fighting for control of our workplaces, of the wealth we create, for our class in general,” writes Burns. This means “an anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-immigrant stance must be at the core of the class struggle union, along with issues that benefit the entire class.” Further, “class struggle unionists are true internationalists.” (14. Page references in this review are to Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism except where noted.)

At the same time, class struggle unionism is rooted in worker leadership of workplace struggles and in the “refusal to cede control of shop floor conditions to management”: “unionism should flow upward, from the shop floor.”

This eschews the logic of the United Auto Workers’ “Treaty of Detroit,” which gave up shop floor control in exchange for rising productivity (i.e., speedup) to fund higher pay, effectively linking the fortunes of the union and its members to the profitability of the employer.

Rather, class struggle unionism is based on the idea that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” as the preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) puts it. Therefore either class can only gain as much as the other class loses.

Burns also joins other critics of most labor leaderships: “Full-time staffers have different material interests than those of the members,” as well as being constrained by “legitimate concerns about the institutions they represent.” Notice Burns’ formulation that labor leaders represent “institutions,” not members. (28)

The labor movement faces a state that, Burns emphasizes, is always on the side of the employer class. Yet labor leaders have pinned their hopes for the advancement, or at least survival, of the labor movement on the Democratic Party. Burns scorns this.

“The Democratic Party is not a labor party or a socialist party and it does not challenge the [existing] system of exploitation … ” Class struggle unionists believe that the labor movement “needs politics which is [sic] completely free from the influence of the employer class.” (76)

Yet Burns wavers on what this implies for support of the Democratic Party, accepting that there are “differences” among the people he considers class struggle unionists: “Some believe we need our own labor party, while others believe we should not focus on politics at all but build a powerful labor movement at the point of production.”

He concludes, however, “all agree . . . we must break free from the stranglehold the Democratic Party has over the labor movement.” They simply don’t agree on what that means in practice.

Critique of Labor Liberalism

Perhaps the most important and original part of Burns’ book is his critique of what he terms “labor liberalism.” While he follows many others in excoriating business unionism, he goes after a relatively new form of unionism that “focuses on organizing techniques and ties to community.”
The prime example he gives is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

While labor liberalism may improve conditions for workers and increase union density, it does not allow shop floor militancy, or space for worker self-organization, or recognize the need for worker control in the workplace, and is not in “overall opposition to the system of capitalism.” (2)

Instead, “workers are merely props for union staffers, trotted out to give scripted remarks” as part of tactics planned and directed from above, such as strikes called for one day — “carefully controlled affairs” — or corporate campaigns.

“Labor liberals look outward, not to workers’ own power” for solutions to workers’ problems, including raising the minimum wage and protective legislation. Relying on politicians, “unions become a mixture of social advocacy group and pressure group on the Democratic Party.”

The party, Burns notes, has been an unreliable ally, failing workers more often than not. But labor liberals are “operators on the left fringes of the Democratic Party, who believe they are smart enough to play around the edges” of a rigged system. (58)

Labor liberalism is “centered in non-profits … in academia, and among the staff of unions, particularly those without much rank and file control,” not in the workplace. It “has more in common with non-profits rooted in the middle class than … with worker-led unionism.” When it comes to “struggle with employers, it is often more conservative” than business unionism.

Labor liberals not only abandon sharp class conflict, they “propose partnership with the employers.”

“It puts no demands upon the leadership of the national unions and turns attention away from the key problem of the labor movement, its timidity and class collaboration.” (137)

But because labor liberalism does unionize workers, improve pay and working conditions, and take progressive positions on political and social issues, Burns is concerned that it has co-opted the progressive activists who once were, or who should be now, attracted to class struggle unionism.

Social Justice Unionism

Although it advocates that unions work with community groups and embrace broad social demands, Burns does not consider social justice unionism an adequate alternative either to business unionism or labor liberalism: “U.S. social justice unionism deviates significantly from its roots in militant third world unionism.”

He also finds it problematic to use the term “social justice unionism” to describe any U.S. union: “Within the big tent of social justice unionism are staff-driven projects that form alliances with non-profits and foundation-funded workers’ centers close to the Democratic Party,” alongside unions Burns considers to be class struggle unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

It becomes too complicated to distinguish between the types of social justice unionism. Furthermore, the term “misses sharp class-on-class struggle, connection to the workplace, union reform …” Its use should be abandoned. Each union that uses it to describe itself is better viewed as one of the three types of unions Burns describes. (68-69)

Burns points out that another new form of organizing, workers’ centers, are generally “not funded by workers, but in large part by billionaire-created foundations” that provide the funding for the staff.

“They are set up as non-profits with legal control … residing in a board of directors that selects itself. Some think nothing of calling for strikes or boycotts of entire industries” without any consultation with the workers affected.

He gives the Restaurant Opportunities Center as an example. He allows that there may be some that are worker-led. But in Burns’ view, like labor liberalism, workers’ centers and social justice unionism have proven attractive to progressives, diverting them from class struggle unionism.

Class Struggle Unionism Strategy

What would class struggle unions actually do differently from business unions or labor liberalism? According to Burns, they would use different tactics.

Since labor “cannot win within the framework of existing labor laws” or rely on the Democratic Party to change laws in labor’s favor, class struggle unions must be “capable of violating labor law” and must instill in their members “a wholesale repudiation of employer property rights” as well as “a commitment to organizing the key sectors of the economy through militant tactics.”

As in his 2011 book Reviving the Strike,(1) Burns outlines what it takes for a private sector strike to succeed: basically to prevent the production or distribution of goods or services in order to impede the owners’ profits. Militancy is needed — to the point of coercion when necessary — solidarity that extends beyond national borders, and many tactics that violate labor law. “We have had to confront repression from the government … violence …” (Reviving the Strike, 90)

But this is perfunctory. History shows that the costs of violating laws and injunctions, especially in the private sector, have gone far beyond fines and jailing of union leaders: rank and file workers have faced firing, blacklisting, physical attacks by police, paramilitary organizations, the National Guard and even the U.S. Army.

Strikers, their friends and supporters, are risking life and limb when they violate labor laws and injunctions. Even victorious strikes have had martyrs.

His chapter “Class Struggle Strategy” has three sections, “Building Class Struggle Tactics,” “Building a Class Struggle Trend,” and “Put No Demands, Expect Nothing.” Regarding the first, tactics are not strategy.

The second section, whose limits will be explored later, discusses how to develop a class struggle unionism trend. The final one addresses what tasks are appropriate while that trend is still relatively small and isolated.

None of this tells us what strategy a class struggle union would pursue. Burns implies it bargains for contracts, like existing unions do, and uses contractual language to maintain worker control of the workplace, not direct action, as the IWW attempted to do.

Beyond using militant and even illegal tactics, how would one go about organizing the unorganized? Certification elections? Recognition strikes? Minority unions? Neutrality agreements with employers? Would it engage in collective bargaining based on absolute gains or on relative gains?

Burns argues for building a class struggle trend by publicizing the ideas among people already the most receptive to it, “pulling together like-minded people . . . ” to establish and build “an ideological pole.” (133, 137) These people will be found, he believes, in such venues as Labor Notes conferences and trainings, and in conferences organized by social unionists.

Since the numbers of class struggle unionists are small, “one of our tasks is to influence the course of the labor movement overall,” for example, by publishing, as Burns himself has done.

They should put demands on the labor leadership, such as organizing what Burns describes as “key industries” that are currently largely or entirely non-union: manufacturing, logistics, trucking, meat packing, and construction. But is there value in simply adding more workers to top-down, bureaucratized, staff driven unions, even those that already have an “organizing approach?” Burns’ own discussion of labor liberalism would seem to cast doubt on this.

Besides building a class struggle unionism ideological pole, and putting demands on labor leaders, class struggle unionists “seek to integrate with the working class … and help spur action … [they] are agitators and oppositionists and strategists [who] believe in the capacity of workers to organize themselves … Folks are actually quite creative about organizing themselves, if given space … ” (111)

Burns makes clear he means integrate as rank and file workers, not as union staff. However, it is a weakness in Burns’ vision that he does not mention class struggle unionists as rank and file organizers of shopfloor fights against speed-up, abusive bosses, or arbitrary discipline. By organizing in the workplace, they could both raise the level of struggle, and win more workers to class struggle unionism. As per Burns, less conscious workers will organize themselves, and class struggle unionists will be the most dedicated and militant activists.

Burns warns that in the absence of a broader movement, “rank and file work can end up narrowly focused on workplace issues . . . this can be depoliticizing.” (124)

On the other hand, he claims that the self-defined class struggle unionists who took rank and file jobs during the 1970s were overly political and neglected workplace issues. This seems like a great overgeneralization.(2) There is no discussion of how workplace and political issues can be thoughtfully and carefully knitted together.

What is the relationship between the class struggle unionism of Burns, of 1970s radicals, the rank and file strategy, and the idea of a “militant minority?” These terms have more history than Burns explores.

Burns starts from the present problem of the decline of the U.S. labor movement and class struggle unionism is his solution. The left class struggle unionism of the 1970s was developed to address problems for socialists: the gulf between the working class and the socialist movement, the related lack of a working class movement and the small size of U.S. socialism.

The 1970s left unionists called upon socialists to take working-class jobs, organize workers there, and to recruit the most advanced workers to socialist ideas and a revolutionary party. The 1975 International Socialist (IS) pamphlet Class Struggle Unionism(3) says, “It is vital . . . that we go about building a self-conscious left-wing in the working class and a revolutionary party …” (4)

It lays out seven “Principles of Class Struggle Unionism,” which it describes as “a bridge from today’s consciousness . . . to Marxist ideas,” and which have similarities to Burns’ concept.

It asserts that “an individual who in a serious way internalizes these concepts will rapidly move [emphasis added] in the direction of our total politics” and “we want politically serious workers, who are clear on the questions of class struggle unionism and have drawn revolutionary conclusions, to join the IS and learn the rest of their politics inside the organization.” (Ibid, 18)

The rank and file strategy was developed by the groups descended from the IS, based on the recognition, over the quarter century after Class Struggle Unionism was published, that the level of working-class consciousness and struggle had declined.

The newer strategy still attempts to address the same problems. Similarly, it calls upon socialists to take working-class jobs, to organize workers there, includes propagandizing for class unity, that is, against racism, sexism and nativism, and organizing struggles against the boss.

But unlike the strategy laid out in Class Struggle Unionism in 1975, acknowledging the changes in the conjuncture, it does not include recruiting workers to socialism, let alone to a specific left group.

In Solidarity’s 2000 pamphlet, The Rank and File Strategy,(4) six tasks of socialists in the labor movement are laid out, and then the pamphlet notes that “each of these points begins with ‘building’ because the kind of socialist politics we are talking about involves building movements, struggles, and organizations that can make a difference.” (The Rank and File Strategy, 31)

That implies the acceptance that the level of working-class and socialist organization have declined since the 1970s. And the goal of winning workers to socialism is much more long-term and conditional than the 1970s class struggle unionism:

“If we carry out this rank and file strategy intelligently, if we can win large numbers of leftists and union activists to this strategy, and if socialism becomes the outlook of more and more of these activists, we can put socialism back on the political agenda in the United States.” (Ibid, 32)

The Militant Minority

Burns’ description of the militant minority both as a strategy and a layer is confusing. For one, he quotes William Z. Foster from The Principles and Program of the Trade Union Education League (1922):

“The fate of all labor organization in every country depends primarily upon the activity of a minute minority of clear-sighted, enthusiastic militants scattered throughout the great organized masses of sluggish workers. These live spirits are the natural head of the working class, the driving force of the labor movement, who really understand what the labor struggle means and who have practical plans for its prosecution.”

On the other hand, on the very next page, Burns quotes Rick Fantasia:

“Who constitutes the militant minority may very well depend upon what the issue or the struggle is . … In general, the militant minority is the section of a workplace, a union, or the broader labor movement who want to fight …”

Clearly, Foster’s militant minority has much more than simply the desire to fight. It’s a problem that Burns has more than one concept of who is part of the militant minority.

But Burns also writes, “the key point to the militant minority strategy [emphasis added] . . . is putting the labor movement on a class struggle basis … It is fundamentally an oppositional strategy geared to transforming the labor movement;” it “developed as a way of dealing with the weak and ineffective AFL [American Federation of Labor] craft unions last century; and it “is seen by many in today’s labor movement as key to labor’s revival …” (106)

He goes on to discuss the “militant minority strategy [as] originally developed by French syndicalists as a way of transforming their conservative union,” which “was imported to the US by William Z. Foster,” and how Foster helped to establish the Trade Union Education League (TUEL).

A problem with describing the militant minority as a strategy for “dealing with the weak and ineffective AFL craft unions last century” is the fact that the IWW, which described itself as a militant minority on the one hand, and Foster’s TUEL, which Burns and other contemporary writers consider a militant minority, on the other hand, had two very different strategies.

The IWW believed, basically, in dual unionism, in creating “one big union” completely outside of the AFL structure. The TUEL rejected dual unionism. Its strategy was amalgamation of existing AFL craft unions into industrial unions.

What both had in common, however, was the idea of creating an organization (the IWW, and the TUEL, respectively) that would unite all workers across lines of occupation, race, gender, or nationality. This challenges the idea of the militant minority as “a strategy” and suggests it is one element of different possible strategies.

However, Burns also writes, “the core of building the militant minority strategy [emphasis added] in a local or industry involve[s] putting out a program [emphasis added] for revitalization.” This is propaganda work, not active organizing.

Does Burns mean building a militant minority as a layer of workers? Or carrying out a militant minority strategy? Burns’ description of militant minority as both a strategy and a layer is confusing. And what would be the content of this program?

Burns claims that “some people talk about the militant minority … as if it pre-exists in the workplace. But it is something that is built through struggle.”

One problem with this formulation is that at different moments in history, a militant minority may or may not pre-exist in the workplace. While the IWW described itself as a militant minority, the term seems to have fallen out of usage after World War I, Foster and others use the idea, but not the term, during the 1920s, and the upsurges of the 1930s and 1940s.

The term reappears only in the late 2010s, during which left labor writers(5) begin to use it again, and apply it, ex post facto, to TUEL and to leftists — both organized and unaffiliated — who led the labor rebellions from the Great Depression to the passage of the Taft Hartley Act in 1947. However, it is generally agreed that this layer was gone by the beginning of the “long seventies.”

Even — or especially — when a militant minority already exists in the workplace, struggle develops it, that is, allows it to grow. Both Foster and Farrell Dobbs are very clear about this. Foster writes:

“The campaign can succeed only if thousands of workers can be organized directly in the enrollment of members …. (T)heir main task is to organize the most active workers among the masses in great numbers to do the recruiting.”(6)

Dobbs writes:

“Ray [Dunne] and Carl [Skoglund] … both … knew how to teach younger leaders by precept and example. Under their guidance … militant young workers … began to develop as leaders during the struggle.”(7)

Although it is clearly not, in and of itself, a specific strategy, the development and coalescence of a militant minority layer in the working class and in the labor movement seem to be a precondition for both the revitalization of the labor movement(8) and for the development of a working class-led socialist movement
, and so form part of both a class struggle unionism strategy and a rank and file strategy.

What Kind of Program?

Burns’ clarity on the problem of the labor bureaucracy is a valuable part of his book. It leads him to question “how much effort to place into running union reform efforts.” Still, he believes class struggle unionists should “build left wing caucuses … we do too little of that: but in doing so, we need a big-tent approach, along with a bit of humility … you work with people where they’re at to help move the struggle.” (113) This seems blurry: should a caucus be “left-wing?” or should it “work with people where they’re at?”

Many workers who are ready to fight the boss and the labor bureaucracy are far from left wing. Furthermore, as we can see from the experience of the New Directions caucus in New York City’s Transport Workers Union Local 100, the “big tent,” and even the leftists in it, can move toward electoralism and top-down unionism.

Burns is also quick to point out that “in the absence of a class struggle program and movement, any new leadership will face exactly the same problems as those they replaced.” The pressures that create labor bureaucracies and the reformers’ responses will replicate those of the bureaucrats they replaced. “[It] will not resolve the … divide between union staff … [and] front line workers.” (114)

His call for a “big tent” is difficult to reconcile with the necessity of “a class struggle program.” Furthermore, even if the “big tent” can agree on a class struggle unionism program, a set of ideas alone seems scarcely adequate to counteract the pressures to bureaucratize that new leaders will be subjected to, regardless of the best intentions and political consciousness.

Ironically, although Burns begins with an analysis of the labor bureaucracy as a layer based on social position, his solution rests on an unexamined switch to assuming it can be a political layer based on a shared ideology.

Burns has been emphatic that class struggle unions will be anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-immigrant, and fight for issues that benefit the entire working class. How would class struggle unions leaders convince members not only to overcome these divisions among themselves, but to actively fight on these issues in the wider society?

Burns acknowledges the difficulties of achieving this, but writes that this can be accomplished by “developing a theory of labor rights that justifies militancy.” But theory alone does not seem adequate for this task. And since Burns insists that class struggle unions be controlled by the rank and file, a class struggle leadership is not possible without a class struggle rank and file.

Another issue that comes into play when considering whether class struggle unions are possible is the degree of repression, discussed above, that class struggle tactics faced in the past, and are likely to in the future.

Many unions with these tactics, such as the IWW, succumbed completely to repression. Others, like the Electrical Workers Union, shrank yet survived, in part by moderating their tactics and positions at critical junctures. My own conclusion is that class struggle unionists and class struggle unionism are both more realizable and more important than “class struggle unions” as institutions, which are unlikely to be either long-term or widespread.

Building a class struggle unionism tendency within the labor movement is a step towards changing the movement. Unions, as institutions, may not be capable of having all the characteristics of a class struggle union.

However, unions are more than institutions: they are organizations of workers, and they don’t only have official leaders, they have informal rank and file leaders. A union where there is a significant class struggle tendency striving for bottom up control will be different from one where top down control is uncontested.

Crucially, elements of a new class struggle unionism will need to rise from struggles as they develop, not from a conceptual model. This is why Burns’ overlooking class struggle unionists as rank and file organizers presents a big weakness in his discussion.

Struggle itself produces changes in union organization and practice. Class struggle unionists can lead initiatives from the shop floor that turn discontent into fights that win gains, change consciousness, and have an effect on the culture of unions. This, in turn, can develop moments of upsurge into periods of transformative struggles.

Class Struggle Unionism and Socialism

Burns starts out by defining the goal of class struggle unionism as “abolition of the billionaire class.” However, in later chapters, he acknowledges that “trade unionism, in and of itself, can never eliminate the billionaire class or exploitation.” He is not a syndicalist: “The point of unions is not to try to overthrow capitalism.”

So the goal of class struggle unionism is something that class struggle unions cannot achieve. Burns tries to square this circle, however sketchily, by saying “class struggle unionists see class struggle unionism as part and parcel of a larger struggle against exploitation.” But “broader theories” of the connection “are beyond the scope of this book,” and “class struggle unionists do not have to agree on these larger political questions.” (125)

“But even if unions don’t bring about socialist revolution, they pay an important role in furthering solidarity and class consciousness,” Burns asserts. The trouble is that unions, especially craft and business unions, do not always further solidarity, even within their own ranks, and class consciousness cannot develop without solidarity.

Joe Burns’ penetrating analysis of labor liberalism is essential for understanding today’s labor movement, and for the failure of a “class struggle unionism” pole of any sort to develop within it. Burns is also clearer about the destructive and obstructionist role labor leadership plays than adherents of 1970s class struggle unionism or almost all present proponents of the rank and file strategy.

The corollary of this view — his questioning of the efficacy of reform caucuses and electoral strategies for changing union leadership — poses important and urgent questions of how to create bottom-up, fighting unions. Finally, although Burns himself has no clear answers, he challenges us with the questions he leaves open — what role can unions play in eliminating the billionaire class, and ending exploitation? What steps can we take toward getting them to play that role?


  1. Burns, Joe, Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America (IG Press: New York, N.Y, 2011).
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  2. See for example Warren Mar, “Organizing in HERE,” Against the Current #215; Rob Bartlett, “My Life as a Union Activist,” and Wendy Thompson, “Working 33 Years in an Auto Plant, Against the Current #216; Mike Ely, “Young Reds and the 1970s Right to Strike Committee, Against the Current #217; Elly Leary, “On the Line in Auto,” and Jon Melrod, “Organizing in ’70s Wisconsin, Against the Current #218.
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  3. International Socialists, Class Struggle Unionism (Sun Press: Highland Park, Michigan, 1975).
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  4. Moody, Kim, The Rank and File Strategy: Building a Socialist Movement in the U.S.A. Solidarity Working Paper, 2000.
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  5. See Post, Charlie, “The Forgotten Militants,” Jacobin, 8/8/16; Moody, Kim, On New Terrain (Haymarket Books: Chicago, Illinois, 2017); and Utrecht, Micah and Barry Eidlin,“U.S. Union Revitalization and the Missing ‘Militant Minority,” Labor Studies Journal, 3/19/19.
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  6. Foster, William Z., Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, (Workers Library Publishers: New York City, 1936), 13-14.
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  7. Dobbs, Farrell, Teamster Rebellion (Pathfinder Press: New York City, 2004), 60.
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  8. For example, Burns 2022; Utrecht and Eidlin, op. cit.
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  9. For example, Post, op. cit., Moody: 2017.
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September-October 2022, ATC 220

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