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Bernie and Labor

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Sanders picketline_1

One more postmortem of the 2016 primary. Joe Burns writes in Jacobin that what labor needs to learn from the Sanders campaign is to reintegrate radicalism into its thinking. A lot of it is just revisiting the anti-communist purges of the CIO and decrying the lack of radicalism in the labor movement, underpinned with anger that the unions backed Hillary Clinton instead of Bernie Sanders.

Reintroducing class struggle into trade unionism also necessitates having a serious discussion about the state of labor’s reform-minded wing. Supportive of diffuse activism, this broad coalition includes true reformers and those who, in the past, would have been considered collaborationist hacks.

Many in labor embrace what could be called “labor pragmatism” — initiatives that try to fight smart within the existing system, like the inside strategy, the corporate campaign, and the one-day strike.

All of these are sensible strategies for workers forced to struggle within an unjust framework of labor control. But because they do not challenge the underlying paradigm, they cannot revive the labor movement.

Many in labor’s progressive wing favor the phrase “social movement unionism” to describe a form of unionism that emphasizes community ties and rejects narrow unionism. This is particularly true in public-sector unions, which live or die based on public support.

Social movement unionism is a broad concept that can encompass a wide range of activities, from the class-struggle approach of the Chicago Teachers Union to staff-driven models more akin to business unionism.

It’s time to move beyond these concepts and toward a more Sanders-inspired vision of labor organizing, which puts our fight in the context of the struggle between the 1 percent and the rest of the population.

Class-struggle unionism incorporates the broad demands of social movement unionism into a workplace-centered struggle against management.

So what would a “Sanders-inspired vision of labor organizing” really look like?

Reestablishing effective trade unionism requires a number of concrete actions. We must develop forms of solidarity that move beyond just fighting a single employer and instead confront capital as a class. We must constrain capital’s mobility and cultivate solidarity across borders.

We must disregard the “property rights” of employers and be willing to flout labor law itself. We must resist the constant pressure to collaborate rather than fight. Fundamentally, we must put workers and struggle back at the center of trade unionism.

None of this is possible in a labor movement that spurns socialist ideas.

Here is the basic problem: over the last eighty years, an aggressive capitalist order has reshaped trade unionism. Collective bargaining is now confined to individual corporations, so the union is captive to each employer’s business decisions.

The profits extracted from workplaces flow largely to capitalists, and workers have no say over the distribution of the wealth they create.

While a web of rules created by the NLRB and the courts have granted this status quo legal legitimacy, today’s labor policies are merely capital’s worldview imposed on the labor movement.

Without a socialist analysis, economic shifts look like forces of nature rather than human creations. Issues like capital flight, subcontracting, or corporate globalization are taken as givens, impossible for any labor movement to resist.

A socialist trade unionism, on the other hand, would demand that capital be bent to labor’s needs.

Past moments in the labor movement — like the AFL’s closed-shop era, when unions controlled hiring decisions and worker education, or the CIO’s solidarity unionism, which brought hundreds of enterprises under the same master agreements and used industry-wide strikes to halt production — remind us that this is possible.

And so has Sanders’s run. In a refreshing challenge to the neoliberal views of Hillary Clinton (and much of the labor establishment that backs her), Sanders has promised to direct societal resources away from the banks to rebuild inner cities, create jobs, and provide free college education.

Applying his vision to trade unionism means rejecting the idea that capital has an inherent right to do what it wishes to our jobs and our communities.

OK, I guess. But this feels a lot more like sloganeering than really analyzing the critical issues with the labor movement. It also papers over a lot of history–the AFL unions that controlled hiring halls used them to exclude black workers, for instance. Flouting labor law is fine, but sometimes can lead to the president crushing your entire union and setting the entire labor movement back. I obviously agree that constraining capital mobility is absolutely central for the ability of the working class to survive. I wrote a book about that very topic. And a socialist analysis does provide some ways forward on these topics. On the other hand, so does our current legal system, which is very much not socialist and not used to socialist ends, but could be used to accomplish some of these policy goals. A labor movement committed to socialism might be useful, but then the labor movement is already committed to a lot of socialist policies if they could be enacted, although there’s no question that unions will often make short-term decisions that undermine the long-term interests of the working class, such as working for minimum wage carve-outs for its own members.

Moreover, I just don’t really see what Bernie Sanders had to do with an entirely new radical approach. Is he calling for the illegal occupation of corporate property? I just feel that there’s a whole lot of projection on the left to Sanders, who see in him what they want to see instead of what he actually is–a good left-liberal on most policy issues with a talent for a certain kind of rhetoric that appeals to 60s radicals and their descendants. And that’s fine I guess, but I’m still struggling to see how Bernie Sanders is that far to the left of Hillary Clinton on most policy issues. He’s a bit to the left on many and the proposal for free college tuition is a good goal, even if the details really need to be spelled out. But she’s not a monster and he’s not a savior.

Finally, I need to know how this actually works on the ground if unions start occupying buildings, ignoring labor law, defy the NLRB, etc. I also need to know how to explain the very real risks involved to rank and file workers.

I guess all this means is that I’m a bad leftist for wanting policy analysis and complexity in my social movements instead of sloganeering. If we just had more solidarity, everything would be better! But those Big Labor bureaucrats sold out the working class once again by supporting Hillary over a man who has similar beliefs on many issues, just a different way of talking about them. And that’s of course a lot of what this whole article is about–the endless battle within the labor movement between pragmatism and radicalism that radicals almost never win because they struggle to bring the rank and file of the unions around to these vague ideas of action and solidarity.

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