A DRAFT PROGRAM FOR THE U.S. LABOR MOVEMENT
To coordinate the mass work of our members concentrated in common sectors of social struggle, CounterPower organizes sector committees. Each of these committees is tasked with drafting a program, elaborating CounterPower's assessment of the present situation and the urgent tasks facing the sector in question. The following document is a draft program produced by our Labor Committee, and will be paired with "An Analysis of the U.S. Labor Movement Today" (forthcoming). Prior to our organization considering this document for official adoption as CounterPower's labor program, this draft program will be circulated among comrades for discussion and debate.
The core issue facing unions, today and throughout history, is the fundamental difference of interests between workers and employers in the capitalist system.
—Them and Us Unionism, United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE)
From the wave of wildcat strikes launched by public education workers in 2018-2019 to the unionization of Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffee shops in 2022, there are signs of resurgent militancy among U.S. workers. Yet the U.S. labor movement remains in serious crisis after decades of decline. Following more than a century of anticommunist repression and class collaboration on the part of labor's misleaders, the official labor movement has lost sight of its historic mission: to wage a class struggle against capital in order to improve material conditions for working people, while laying the groundwork for a global socialist revolution capable of overthrowing and abolishing capital's social domination and liberating working people from all forms of exploitation and oppression. Instead, we hear labor's misleaders calling for greater collaboration with the bosses, extolling the virtues of “peace” and “cooperation” between labor and capital.
In order to transform the exploitative and oppressive conditions which prevail today, working people must recognize the existence of an irreconcilable conflict of interest between workers and bosses. Founded in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World have historically placed the class struggle at the center of their organizational project. They outline this class-struggle perspective in the preamble to their union constitution:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.
We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
As a new generation of communists begins to emerge from the wreckage of over a century, and as capital’s recurring economic crises continue to create both new opportunities and dangers, we must follow in the steps of our revolutionary forebears and adopt an equally bold approach to resolving the crises of the U.S. labor movement. We must take our positions on the frontlines of the class struggle against capital, and work tirelessly for the ultimate overthrow and abolition of the global system of capitalist-imperialism by means of a global socialist revolution. Capital has always been and will always be at war with labor: it is due time for the working class to strike back!
II. CounterPower in the U.S. Labor Movement
CounterPower is a communist political organization. This means we struggle to overthrow capitalist-imperialism while laying the groundwork for a new world. We organize for a socialist transition to communism: a society in which human needs are met, human capacities are developed, and our planetary ecosystem is protected. In a communist society, class exploitation, gender and sexual oppression, racial and national oppression, and the state no longer exist, because the social relations and institutions of private property, markets, the wage, hierarchical divisions of labor, heteropatriarchy, and colonialism have been overcome, replaced by working people's democratic planning and coordination of all social activity. We struggle for a world that respects cultural diversity and community self-determination as more than liberal window dressing, but as governing principles of a communist society. Our communist horizon posits a world in which many worlds fit.
CounterPower is also a cadre organization. This means the central criteria for membership is active participation in the mass social struggles of workers and all oppressed peoples. We organize together, support one another in our respective sectors of mass work, and engage in regular learning and reflection in order to constantly improve our practice. We don’t operate through obedience to dogmatic principles, but through collective inquiry, experimentation, struggle, and self-critical evaluation. This document is a product of that ever-evolving process, arising from our organization’s Labor Committee. At present, this committee includes more than a dozen CounterPower members who are active within the U.S. labor movement.
Most of us are members of established labor unions, others are involved in workers' centers and cooperatives, and many of us are involved in multiple organizing projects. We strive to cultivate a militant minority within the labor movement that can catalyze mass collective action on the shop floor and win the majority of workers to a communist program. Armed with a revolutionary analysis, vision, and strategy, we work to strengthen, democratize, and politicize workers' organizations. At present, members of our committee are involved in local unions affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, United Campus Workers, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, Service Employees International Union, and the Industrial Workers of the World, as well as non-union workers' organizations such as local workers' centers and the New York State Poor People's Campaign. As we continue our mass work in these sectors of the labor movement, we will further expand this program.
Labor organizing is largely rooted in the official labor unions and autonomous efforts to directly organize exploited workers to win material improvements in the terms and conditions of our employment on the shop floor. This is achieved by leveraging our collective power in the workplace through the refusal of work. While this is the mode of organizing that we primarily discuss below, we want to acknowledge that this is not the only—or even always the most important—way in which workers organize and lay the groundwork for the self-emancipation of our class. Here we clarify our understanding of "workers" as anyone who does not own means of production, and whose activity generates value for capital, whether that activity is waged or unwaged, productive or reproductive. Some workers have jobs that grind them to the bone, other workers are excluded from the formal workforce through a number of interlocking forms of institutionalized oppression, and most workers find themselves grappling with some combination of both. Whether we're contributing to a union struggle to redefine the terms and conditions of our work, an anti-racist and decolonial uprising targeting repressive state institutions, or a feminist movement confronting heteropatriarchy in defense of bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom, our question always remains the same: how can we contribute to proletarian struggles in ways that allow these movements for autonomy to mutually reinforce one another in a united—albeit multi-faceted—battle against capitalist-imperialism and for the creation of a new world?
These conversations are a work in progress—and what follows is not meant as a finished or comprehensive program in any sense. Rather, this text is an invitation to join us in a process of determining how to be effective communists in the labor movement. At present, this draft program focuses most directly on organizational work within formal labor organizations—specifically labor unions—as that is where our committee's shared experiences are currently anchored. As this program continues to grow and evolve, we anticipate new sections being added, existing sections being revised, and more and more comrades joining with us in a shared process of inquiry, action, and self-critical reflection.
III. The Role of Labor Unions in Capitalist Society
As institutions that operate within and depend upon the capitalist world-economy, and outside of exceptional situations of revolutionary upsurge, labor unions are generally reformist in character. While they serve to protect workers on the job and improve both working and living conditions, they do so by negotiating the terms and conditions of labor's exploitation by capital. Though winning material improvements in working and living conditions is of great importance for all working people, we understand that unions will not spontaneously make the jump from negotiating contracts with the bosses to waging a struggle to overthrow all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Indeed, many union bureaucrats and even rank-and-file union members with a vested interest in maintaining business as usual will oppose efforts to reorient union organizing towards the creation of a revolutionary labor movement. These forces will often juxtapose bread-and-butter struggles for the very real and immediate improvement of workers' economic conditions with a broader struggle to abolish capitalist-imperialism and lay the groundwork for a socialist transition to communism. We view this as a false dichotomy, fueled by a range of reactionary historical forces operating within the ranks of the labor movement.
Despite their inherently reformist role within capitalism, labor unions are crucial defensive and educational institutions for working people, serving as sites for the development of working-class consciousness, self-organization, and self-activity. Through our mass work in the labor movement we can fight to win concrete material gains while simultaneously accompanying rank-and-file workers in the development of their own revolutionary class-struggle praxis, helping to uproot all chauvinistic and oppressive ideas, behaviors, and practices within the working class itself.
In the U.S. context, established labor unions are overwhelmingly bureaucratic organizations, meaning union officers and staff are institutionally separated from the rank and file. This is particularly true at the state and national levels of union organization, where no meaningful relationship exists between the union's officers and staff on the one hand, and the rank-and-file workers they supposedly serve on the other. This union bureaucracy effectively dominates these institutions, typically with minimal oversight and accountability, unilaterally determining union policies, strategies, and tactics. The lifestyle and material living conditions of union bureaucrats tend to more closely align with the petite bourgeoisie, managers, or labor aristocracy, as opposed to the working-class majority. The employing class seeks to establish a close working relationship with the union bureaucracy, bringing bureaucrats into their orbit, telling them that they have a seat at their table (and even at times appointing union officials to government positions), all while they work to systematically destroy what remains of the labor movement's power.
The union bureaucracy is a natural outgrowth of the role unions play in negotiating the terms and conditions of labor's exploitation by capital. However, we believe that this reformist character is not written in stone. Unions can also be instruments of revolutionary class struggle and serve an important educational function in the development of workers' revolutionary consciousness and capacities for self-organization and activity. For communists, democratizing and politicizing unions is thus of central importance. The organizational life of the labor movement must be transformed if it is to serve and empower the working class. It is not enough to replace one group of labor bureaucrats with another, however progressive they may seem (or in fact are!). The organizational structures of unions must themselves be radically transformed.
At the level of the workplace and local union, the organizational power of the union bureaucracy is typically less solidified than at the state, national, and international levels, and the lifestyle and living conditions of local union officers and staff tend to be closer to that of the rank-and-file union members they represent. This opens opportunities to democratize the local union. This could entail building a democratically-elected network of union stewards, or the formation of a rank-and-file caucus, either of which can make moves towards mass mobilization and militant direct action. At the local level, it is possible for an organized rank-and-file movement to drag the union bureaucracy into the trenches of the class war. In his memoir Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs—a member of the Communist League of America and rank-and-file militant of Teamster Local 574—recounts the deployment of such a flanking tactic during the 1934 general strike in Minneapolis:
The key to such a tactic lay in a contradiction faced by the union bureaucrats. In their fundamental outlook they were oriented toward collaboration with the capitalists, but they were of no value to the ruling class unless they had a base from which to operate in the unions. To maintain such a base they had to deliver something for the workers. In the campaign about to begin, however, they would be put up against leadership responsibilities they couldn’t meet. Thus the indicated tactic was to aim the workers’ fire straight at the employers and catch the union bureaucrats in the middle. If they didn’t react positively, they would stand discredited.
By raising class consciousness and fanning the flames of class struggle among their fellow workers, it is possible for an organized cadre of communist union militants to drag the local union bureaucrats into the ensuing battle, or mobilize the masses to sweep away labor’s misleaders in the event of their capitulation to the capitalist class.
IV. The Role of Communists in the Labor Movement
As communists, we fight for the creation of a classless, stateless, and free society organized for the direct satisfaction of human needs, the integral development of human capacities, and the sustainable stewardship of our planetary ecosystem. We aim to build a fighting labor movement by sinking deep roots in the working class and participating in the everyday social struggles of the class, all while looking towards a future in which capitalist-imperialism's global system of exploitation and oppression has been overcome. We fight for the dignity of all workers and at the same time grasp the capitalist organization of work as fundamentally undignified.
For mass work in the U.S. labor movement, we identify several key strategic priorities for communists:
Having been successfully transformed in accordance with these strategic priorities, the labor movement can provide a seed from which revolutionary forms of struggle can emerge. A communist current within the labor movement can lay the organizational groundwork for the revolutionary people’s movement to mount a successful political challenge to capitalist-imperialism’s social domination at the point of social production and reproduction. Furthermore, communist workers can help transform the mass organizations of the working class into laboratories of experimentation during the socialist transition, inspiring the labor movement with a revolutionary communist vision, and encouraging a creative praxis of self-organization and self-activity among the multitude of workers.
We frame this as a process of constructing class-struggle workers’ organizations, workplace-by-workplace, industry-by-industry, and neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Much of this work happens within struggles to reform the established labor unions, but it is also possible, and important, to build class-struggle workers’ organizations that are adjacent to or entirely independent of the established unions. This might include building unemployed councils, solidarity committees, workers' assemblies and councils, social centers, worker cooperatives, and other autonomous projects that support and sustain working-class struggle within and beyond the workplace. Indeed, we all live within capital’s social factory: a system of social organization in which capitalist social relations have permeated all aspects of everyday life. The class struggle is thus a comprehensive and global social struggle, from the workplace to the kitchen to the prison; from the city to the suburb to the savannah. So long as we have an expansive understanding of the many ways that lives and energies of working people are usurped by capitalist-imperialism, we will be able to understand how and why a broad spectrum of organizing projects are required to build proletarian counterpower.
While acknowledging this necessary diversity of organizational forms, we point to the central importance of engaging with labor unions and efforts to organize people whose labor-power is exploited by capital via the formal wage relationship. We see two main strategies to outline:
We do not see these approaches to labor organizing as mutually exclusive. All of the aforementioned approaches—both within and beyond the formal labor sector—have merit in our present conjuncture. We should be working towards the eventual unification of all class-struggle workers' organizations through local, national, and international coordinating efforts, forging class solidarity through difference as we build a unified class-struggle labor movement. There is no one-size-fits all answer to the problems confronting the proletariat: any particular strategy adopted by organizers should be determined on the basis of a close examination of the concrete conditions, class composition, and correlation of class forces within the particular region, workplace, and industry. These are not prescriptive matters, and we remain wary of anyone who declares a single, universally correct line in this regard. There is a wide space of possibility to experiment with methods of organizing that generate organs of counterpower and develop a collective revolutionary leadership within the masses. Accordingly, we highlight the central need for ongoing inquiry and self-critical assessment as a primary component of labor organizing.
While we should strive to create new independent labor unions where necessary and appropriate (especially when the established reformist unions have proven themselves to be unable or unwilling to organize the unorganized!), it is important to avoid creating new labor unions which are open only to self-identified revolutionaries. Unions must be broad enough to combine masses of workers in the fight for daily economic demands against the employers, thereby creating a space in which communists can accompany the masses in class struggle and gradually win them to a revolutionary praxis and program by waging a battle of ideas against all reformist and reactionary trends within the unions. However, there is an ultra-left line in the labor movement that proposes the creation of "unions" which are in fact hybrid organizations, sloppily combining the functions of both union and party. This adds significant confusion to the labor movement by confounding the distinct roles played by mass organizations such as labor unions, intermediate organizations such as rank-and-file caucuses, and party organizations such as the workplace units formed by members of a communist political organization concentrated in a common industry or sector.
We must also avoid hiding or suppressing our politics, or preserving the organizational unity of the established labor unions at all costs, and refusing to pursue new independent initiatives in the class struggle. Here, the words of Marx and Engels prove instructive: "The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions."
One thing is certain: we must prove ourselves to be knowledgeable, competent, and effective leaders in the trenches of class struggle. The best place from which to do this is the shop floor. Wherever possible, we encourage our comrades to become rank-and-file union workers in order to build a critical mass of revolutionaries within the labor movement who can set the masses in motion and win them to revolutionary action. We can only win our fellow workers to a revolutionary praxis by patiently earning their trust and leading by example, demonstrating in practice that mass participatory democracy combined with militant direct action will empower our fellow workers while winning real material improvements in working and living conditions. By instituting a degree of workers' control on the shop floor—however limited—the labor movement can prepare the ground for working people to eventually challenge capitalist-imperialism for the right to govern society.
V. Operational Context of the U.S. Labor Movement
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 only 14 million workers in the U.S. were members of a labor union (the nationwide union membership rate is 10.3%, a massive decline since the high tide of 34.7% in 1954). Among U.S. union members, 33.9% work in the public sector. Hawai'i and New York have the highest union membership rate in the country, whereas states in the U.S. South—specifically North and South Carolina—have the lowest unionization rates in the country.
This lack of working-class organization is often misattributed to the "deindustrialization" of the U.S. However, the U.S. is second only to China in terms of industrial manufacturing capacity, and despite employing fewer workers in both absolute and relative terms compared to previous historical periods, the manufacturing sector has in fact expanded between 2010-2018, adding around 1.15 million new jobs (a figure excluding more than a million temporary workers employed in the manufacturing sector). Much of this growth is concentrated in the U.S. South and Midwest, in states with anti-union "right-to-work" laws (~74%). Indeed, the U.S. South is the largest geographic region of the country, with a workforce of more than 44 million, of which only 2.4 million workers are union members. Furthermore, 57% of the Black population and 40% of the Latinx population are concentrated in the South. Increasing the number of unionized workplaces and industries, as well as union membership overall, is an urgent task. Given the political economy of the U.S. empire, much of this work will need to be concentrated in the South and Midwest, which will pit us in battle against the most reactionary political forces the U.S. imperialists have to offer.
This will require, in part, targeted engagements challenging an unjust legal system and supporting labor-friendly legislation. In the U.S. South and Midwest, we must make the repeal of anti-union "right-to-work" laws and the reinstatement of collective bargaining rights a priority. Indeed, these laws have their roots in racist slave codes and Jim Crow laws, and overturning them would advance both Black liberation and the labor movement. For the country as a whole, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and the reinstatement of the right to organize and strike for workers of all sectors and industries will be essential. The Democratic Socialists of America have put a great deal of organizing effort behind the passage of the PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act—and it is clear that this legislation could expand possibilities for building class-struggle workers' organizations.
However, while supportive of these efforts, we remain wary of putting too much of our energy into legislative reforms and electoral work. Part of the risk here is that in the absence of a militant labor movement with significant shop-floor power, an organized communist movement, and an independent working-class electoral front, such efforts will likely be tethered to and dominated by the Democratic Party. Furthermore, such campaigns tend to reproduce top-down structures that are anathema to building democratic organization. Too often paid professional organizers and expert bureaucrats take on central roles defining legislative priorities, only then turning towards the rank and file for a rubber stamp and their support in "getting out the vote." Such approaches must be turned on their heads. In building class-struggle workers' organizations, we highlight the need to embed any legislative work—when such work is in fact necessary—in practices that center mass democratic participation of workers as creative planners and coordinators, not merely passive supporters. Finally, as historian Michael Goldfield emphasizes in his book The Southern Key, progressive labor reforms are typically the product of militant grassroots class struggles waged in workplaces and communities, not their prerequisite.
Class-struggle workers' organizations must return to the roots of the militant labor movement, establishing organizing committees in every workplace—clandestine if necessary—in order to lay the groundwork for mass democratic participation of workers in the planning and coordination of the class struggle. We cannot wait for changes in labor law to rebuild a fighting labor movement. Instead, we need to build a labor movement with the willingness and capacity to violate labor law by organizing wildcat strikes and other direct actions from the shop floor, which have proven in practice to be the most effective means of winning legislative changes.
We should target key strategic sectors of the capitalist economy, concentrate our forces at these chokepoints, and transform our unions into bases of working-class counterpower. This will entail an influx of militants and organizers into logistics, transportation, construction, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, service, education, and so on. The challenges presented by each industrial sector will be unique in terms of the material, cultural, and ideological aspects of struggle. We must develop creative strategies to organize these industries in ways that empower the most marginalized and precarious sectors of the class, overcoming divisions between workers as we build a united front. With this perspective in mind, we find inspiration in new organizing projects such as Amazonians United, Amazon Labor Union, and Starbucks Workers United.
VI. Class-Struggle Unionism
The first labor unions were formed as economic self-defense organizations, protecting workers and their communities against bosses and their mercenaries while fighting to win material improvements in working and living conditions. These early labor unions were formed on the basis of craft unionism. Workers employed by the same company were organized into separate unions on the basis of skill and trade, reflecting the artisan character of early capitalist production. This often led to the development of a narrow, parochial, and corporatist approach to union organizing that excluded people of color, immigrants, and women, thereby leaving the workers’ movement weak and divided. However, the increasing concentration and centralization of capital in the hands of industrial and financial oligopolies compelled the labor movement to undergo a process of political recomposition with the formation of industrial unions. The industrial unions were founded on the principle that regardless of skill or trade, all the workers of a given company should be members of a single union for purposes of waging a united class struggle against the employing class. In the twentieth century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) exemplified this model.
In the years leading up to the Great Depression, labor militancy in the US was at a high point, even while seeds were already being sown for its eventual demise. In 1886, Samuel Gompers became president of the AFL, and in 1900 the AFL adopted a class-collaborationist and overtly white supremacist approach to trade unionism. In the wake of the Great Depression and through the legislative reforms we know today as the New Deal, this collaborationist and exclusionary tendency was reinforced and transformed into what we now call business unionism. Through the creation of the National Labor Relations Board and related legal reforms, the rank-and-file militancy of the labor movement was disciplined and tamed. The collective refusal of work was now only officially allowed—or endorsed by the labor bureaucracy—in the context of bargaining for increasingly complex and legalistic contracts. Staffers effectively took control of unions, acting like management and ceding control of the labor movement to the labor aristocracy and coordinator class. The hallmark features of business unionism are class collaboration with management and the state instead of waging a militant struggle of class against class, the absence of rank-and-file democracy, the discouragement of member initiative, and virulent anticommunism. Business unions have a tendency to eschew the task of organizing the unorganized, and to treat unionized workplaces and industries operating under their umbrella as fiefdoms to be ruled and managed by union bureaucrats. Business unionism predominated among the craft unions of the early AFL, and reasserted its hegemony in the AFL-CIO following the wave of anticommunist repression and expulsions in the aftermath of World War II.
While business unionism persists in many labor unions, the dominant mode of unionism in the U.S. today is labor liberalism. Evolving from within the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and appropriating the language of social justice, labor liberalism's defining feature is the abandonment of both rank-and-file workplace organization and direct action tactics such as mass strikes. Instead, the labor liberals favor protest politics and collaboration with Democratic Party politicians. While more progressive on certain social issues than traditional business unionism, labor liberalism is in fact more conservative when it comes to winning material improvements in the lives of workers via shop-floor organization and militant direct action.
As an alternative to both business unionism and labor liberalism, we uphold the tradition of class-struggle unionism, which seeks not only to organize workers on the shop floor, but to unite all sectors and strata of the working class—including unwaged workers, the houseless, the unemployed, and the unemployable—as a class-wide workers' movement. Class-struggle unionism builds upon the wall-to-wall, "one big union" approach of earlier generations of industrial unionists, rejecting the division of the labor movement along lines of craft, paid vs. unpaid, formal vs. informal, as well as any attempts to separate daily demands for improved wages and benefits from broader social questions affecting the class as a whole, such as racism, decolonization, reproductive freedom, and environmental justice. This tradition is kept alive by independent unions such as UE and the IWW, by new organizing projects such as Amazonians United, and by various rank-and-file caucuses formed within the established unions in which business unionism and labor liberalism reign hegemonic.
Further complicating matters, many unionists label their approach to organizing social justice unionism. We avoid this term as it tends to blur divisions between labor liberalism and class-struggle unionism, and both currents can rightfully claim to be orienting their work towards the achievement of social justice. However, while both labor liberals and class-struggle unionists share a commitment to social justice, they differ radically on questions of strategies and tactics deployed to fight for and win concrete material gains for workers. In particular, this contradiction between the two currents is revealed in the tension between labor liberalism's emphasis on advocacy and mobilization on the one hand, and class-struggle unionism's emphasis on rank-and-file democracy and proletarian counterpower on the other.
Understanding these distinctions is crucial, and often boils down to diverging conceptions of union democracy. For the labor liberal, democracy is about a formal electoral process—voting leaders into power, voting for contracts, and occasionally voting to take collective action—while the deliberative and creative work of devising and establishing strategy is to be conducted behind closed doors, and often led by staffers. Even if an election is uncontested, so long as there was an election, that's enough democracy for their liking. By contrast, class-struggle unionists believe in substantive and participatory democracy—often structured through intermediate forms of organization such as workplace committees, assemblies, and councils that can provide the rank and file with more direct means of engagement with the formulation of union strategy and the selection of tactics. For class-struggle unionists, democracy happens through engagement prior to and independent of any official electoral process. In a class-struggle union, elected leaders and staffers alike understand that their role is to listen to and follow the will of the membership. For class-struggle unionists, democracy is about transparency, communication running in all directions, and the patience to allow spaces for rank-and-file deliberation (not only because the rank and file possess intelligence, but because enabling the collective intelligence of the rank and file to flourish builds the confidence, capacity, and power of the working class).
Labor liberals, by contrast, often level threats of "urgency" to shut down deliberative spaces, or to defend decisions made without rank and file input. When that's not possible, they attempt to control deliberative spaces with top-down agendas that might include inspirational videos, carefully planned "team-building" exercises, or well designed slideshows that promise superficial commitments to rank-and-file empowerment, perhaps highlighting individual examples of exemplary rank-and-file members that implicitly establish a sort of 'model citizen' norm of what it means to be a good unionist. In other words, they transform spaces of democratic deliberation into pep rallies: the workers become like spectators at a Super Bowl halftime show; a pause for celebration interrupting the 'real' work done before and after by supposed professionals and experts.
In all of our work within the labor movement, we grasp the necessity of taking a firm stand against every manifestation of injustice and exploitation in the workplace and society, rallying our fellow workers to support one another, defending our class from attacks by employers and their mercenaries, and promoting acts of mutual aid and class solidarity. Labor liberals in particular are adept at coopting and deploying the language, imagery, and history of radical union struggles. We do not fall for their pseudo-leftist slogans, social media posts, t-shirts, or office posters. We assess union stewards, staff, and leadership on the basis of their actions, especially concerning contract negotiations, rank-and-file empowerment, organizing the unorganized, strike readiness, and militant action in defense of workers.
Working within the labor movement, members of CounterPower must, first and foremost, fight for daily demands put forth on the shop floor, while always linking them to our communist platform and program. Such demands could include:
This will inevitably entail connecting workplace demands (for wages, health and safety, dignity, etc.) with struggles to delink wages, benefits, and job security from capitalist productivity and planetary ecocide (i.e., from the demands of capital accumulation). To the greatest extent possible, class-struggle workers' organizations must unwaveringly demand that the capitalists pay the bill for such changes, either through government subsidies paid for by higher taxes on the rich or through lower profit margins, while always asserting that so long as society is divided into classes, the working class will remain exploited and oppressed by capital, the organization of socioeconomic activity will remain chaotic and irrational, and global socialist revolution will provide the only route of escape for humanity.
We also look for ways to increase workers’ control over the production process and the product of our collective social labor, emphasizing that workers should have direct input in what we produce and how we produce it. Experiments in workers’ control at the local level prove that the working class has the potential to consciously plan and coordinate social production and reproduction. While ultimately we fight for workers' control of production, distribution, and consumption as globally integrated systems, in the meantime class-struggle workers' organizations can play a crucial role as schools of communism. Through participation in labor unions, workers gain important experiences as militants and organizers, become conscious of their power as a class, learn the harsh realities of which side the bosses and the state stand on, and learn organizational and administrative skills that will be essential in the revolutionary socialist transition to communism.
All this will inevitably demand the use of direct action tactics such as slowdowns, pickets, strikes, and occupations, and will require building deep relations of trust, accountability, and class solidarity among workers. It will also require a decisive break with the social chauvinism and opportunism on display in the mainstream union federations, specifically the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win: Strategic Organizing Center (CTW-SOC). Lastly, we will need to break the organized labor movement’s dependency on establishment politicians—principally the Democratic Party—at the local, state, and federal levels, and provide support for independent working-class political organization and action.
VII. Class Struggle and Decolonization
The U.S. empire is a racist, settler-colonial society built upon white supremacy. Initially, white nationalism served to justify the settler-colonial state's claims to the status of empire, the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement and super-exploitation of African peoples, the theft of Xicanx land and super-exploitation of the Xicanx people, and the super-exploitation of immigrant labor. White supremacy today functions as part of a global system of capitalist-imperialism, through which the peoples and nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are super-exploited by the multinational corporations and nation-states of the imperial core in order to extract super-profits. Within the U.S. labor movement, white supremacy, white chauvinism, and national chauvinism have been the central obstacle to achieving proletarian class unity and an internationalist praxis. Communists must seek to actively cultivate the unity of decolonial liberation struggles of Black, Xicanx, and Indigenous peoples with the labor movement. We should also seek to consciously cultivate organizational ties with revolutionary labor movements internationally, facilitating the participation of U.S. workers in international labor conferences, and organizing labor actions in solidarity with the global class struggle.
We can draw inspiration from organizations such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the revolutionary union movements they created among the Black workers in Dodge, Chrysler, and Ford plants, as well among Black workers in healthcare, logistics, and media. Through these revolutionary union movements, the League helped Black workers organize against racial oppression in the workplace and the union, while laying the foundations for a revolutionary struggle against capitalist-imperialism led by a united front of the multiracial and multinational working class.
VIII. Class Struggle and Feminism
Heteropatriarchy is an institution of capitalist-imperialism, and gender oppression constitutes a key line of division within both U.S. society and the labor movement. Yet mainstream political discourse concerning gender liberation is dominated by liberal feminism, and the rhetoric of liberal feminism has been adopted by key sections of the U.S. ruling class. This rhetoric is used to justify imperialist war and neoliberal economic policies, all in the name of "liberating women" and "protecting human rights." In contrast to liberal feminism, communists in the labor movement uphold a proletarian feminism. We must raise demands which challenge the unwaged and invisibilized labors of social reproduction in the household, unite the feminized labors of social reproduction as an integral component of the U.S. labor movement, and struggle against all forms of heteropatriarchal chauvinism and bigotry in the workplace, labor movement, and society. Struggles for reproductive freedom, gender autonomy, and sexual liberation are not separate from the proletarian class struggle. Rather, the unification of these diverse axes of struggle is a necessary condition for effective class unity.
Historically, proletarian feminist organizations have taken the struggle for working-class women's liberation much further than liberal feminists, stemming from their combined experiences with class exploitation, racial oppression, and gender oppression. For example, it was women of color feminists who launched the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in 1966, which fought for issues such as compensation for caregiving labor through paid parental leave, poor and working women's right to income sufficient to meet basic needs, and the political rights of welfare recipients.
In 2018, the strike wave in public education was led by women, and concentrated in proletarian school districts. 77% of public school teachers in the U.S. are women. As a form of carework, teaching has been feminized by heteropatriarchal capitalism, viewed as "women's work." As with all feminized labor processes under capitalism (including healthcare, childcare, and education), devaluation enables lower wages, fewer benefits, meager pensions, deskilling, surveillance, bureaucracy, and the capitalist state's offensive against public sector funding and the rights of public sector unions. Indeed, the states where these women-led public sector strikes exploded also tended to have high rates of female incarceration, restrictions on reproductive freedom, and open attacks on the rights of queer and trans people, especially trans youth.
Within the broader cross-class feminist movement, communists must aim to achieve proletarian hegemony and class leadership. Within the working-class movement, communists must aim to increase representation of workers who experience gender and sexual oppression, struggle for reforms which advance the cause of gender and sexual liberation, while also transforming the organizational culture and praxis of the labor movement in accordance with feminist principles.
IX. Class Struggle and the Environment
Workers face environmental challenges on a number of scales—from immediate workplace health and safety issues, to community-level environmental threats, to shifts in broader regional ecologies, to the planetary climate crisis. Especially in the face of a rapidly accelerating climate crisis, understanding the interconnections between capital’s exploitation of the working class and the broader web of life is an essential component of the class struggle, and essential for building towards a viable (and desirable) ecosocialist transition to communism.
However, just as it can be hard to build from workplace solidarity to class solidarity, the same can be true in helping workers develop an ecological praxis in the class struggle. Too often, the working class is either framed as an obstacle to change or a passive foot soldier in technocratic climate “solutions” led by the capitalist or coordinator classes. Uniting class-struggle unionism with anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist environmentalism is a crucial task facing the labor movement.
Building these connections will likely shift in accordance with particular workplaces and struggles. Complicating this, many aspects of the climate crisis and ecological question—spanning issues such as degrowth, geoengineering, energy systems, urbanism, and the contours of sustainable food systems—are still open debates, even for ecosocialists in the environmental movement. Our job as communists is not to tell our fellow workers what should be done, as if the issue has been settled. Rather, we must apply the mass line method of leadership development in order to empower workers to find their own voice and formulate their own programs, and enable workers to provide a proletarian analysis, vision, and strategy in a field that is too often dominated by the politics of “green” capitalists and professionals. With such a critique in mind, we offer some possible elements of a proletarian environmentalism:
Unless we can lead the labor movement to launch an offensive against imperialist capital itself, then profit-motivated and reformist attempts to “green” global capitalism will use the climate crisis to further erode working-class counterpower while consolidating capitalist class power. Such an outcome will not only ensure the ongoing exploitation of the global working class, but leave capital’s irrational and unsustainable system of social organization intact.
X. Intermediate Workers' Organizations
One way to build union democracy that empowers rank-and-file union members while infusing the labor movement with a revolutionary political orientation and praxis is through the formation of intermediate workers' organizations. These organizations operate in the space between labor unions and communist political organizations. Their specific configuration will vary according to circumstances, and will require the development of programs and strategies in response to every unique situation encountered. However, their general aim should be to unite and coordinate a militant minority within the official labor movement, leading by example in order to win the rank-and-file majority. Intermediate organizations can also prefigure and scaffold broader systems of counterpower—such as workers’ councils—by building democratic structures such as workplace assemblies and committees, with stewards and delegates directly elected by, and accountable to, the general union membership.
Historically, intermediate organizations have taken a variety of forms. Formed in 1920 under the auspices of the Communist Party, the Trade Union Educational League (TUEL) formed local committees and rank-and-file caucuses within the established labor unions in order to develop a revolutionary class-struggle tendency within the broader U.S. labor movement. They did this through educational publications and events, the production of industry-specific action programs and newsletters, and direct participation of TUEL militants in building workplace organizations, leading rank-and-file struggles against the bosses, and struggling against reformists and reactionaries inside the labor movement.
During the 1969-1979 wave of working-class militancy in the coal fields of West Virginia, communist and progressive workers created the Miners Right to Strike Committee (MRSC), largely through the initiative of cadre from the Revolutionary Union (RU). This intermediate organization did more than advocate for the legal recognition of the miners' right to strike, but organized wildcat strikes, defied injunctions, and led mass pickets. An intermediate organization might also be formed among a specific group of workers facing particular forms of oppression, as was the case with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which sought to fight racism in the union and society. They fought to democratize union organizations, leading militant struggles from the shop floor, and ultimately merging communist politics with the labor movement. From 1972-2004, workers at the Opel factory in Bochum, Germany, formed the Trade Union Opposition Group in order to reactivate and transform their official union. More recently, the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) organized to challenge and transform the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU), culminating in the mass strikes of 2012 and 2019, and the establishment of a nationwide network, the United Caucuses of Rank-and-file Educators (UCORE).
In order to advance class-struggle unionism within the established labor unions, organizers should work to build rank-and-file caucuses. The aim of rank-and-file caucuses must be to democratize unions by scaffolding democratic organizational infrastructure (such as workplace committees and a system of union stewards), while simultaneously organizing workers for militant direct action (principally strikes) in order to win material improvements in the working and living conditions of the working class.
Such caucuses must also set their sights on the conscious politicization of workers' economic struggles. Indeed, in the absence of a new politics, many well-intentioned reform caucuses have ended up reproducing the same practices of the old union bureaucrats—even becoming the new union bureaucrats themselves! We list the following ingredients as key aspects of a successful intermediate workers’ organization:
Beyond this internal structure, it's also important for the caucus to develop its own platform and program, clarifying its relationship with the union, the labor movement, and the broader class struggle. While the specifics of a caucus platform and program will vary according to context, we list the following as general principles to consider:
On a very practical level, through intermediate organizations such as rank-and-file caucuses, communists can bring valuable skills and resources into the labor movement by producing leaflets, pamphlets, flyers, posters, newspapers, podcasts, and films, as well as organizing press conferences, informational pickets, car caravans, and popular democratic assemblies. Through intermediate organizations, tactics that would be otherwise shunned by the official union leadership can be reintroduced into the ranks of the labor movement. The strategic importance of this tactical edge must not be underestimated: we need to build a labor movement with the courage and audacity to defy unjust labor laws and injunctions, breaking free from the hold of collective bargaining agreements which structurally tether unions to the co-management of capitalist-imperialism. This is the practical utility of having intermediate organizations, which can exist independently of the union bureaucracy, raise the bar of militancy for the labor movement as a whole, and enable communist cadre to openly share their perspective and analysis.
XI. Organizing the Unorganized
We must not content ourselves with organizing the active membership of the established unions: we must constantly be growing union membership and unionizing new workplaces and industries. By organizing the unorganized, we further develop the strength and unity of the working class. We can think of the unorganized as falling into two categories: workers who are not part of any labor organization whatsoever, and workers who are members of a labor union or workers’ center but who are not active participants in the collective life of the organization. Organizing both groups will be necessary to revive a fighting labor movement. In this section, we will focus on the first group.
In any collective effort to organize workers, we should essentially apply the same strategic praxis, fostering a democratic organizational culture and militant tactics. However, the selection of a specific issue and the deployment of particular tactics will vary according to context. The key is to build relationships with our coworkers, fostering a practice of class solidarity, mutual aid, and direct action. This must be done in such a way so that divisions within the class can be overcome without dismissing the immense cultural diversity of peoples which compose this class.
We can join together with coworkers to address grievances at the workplace. On your own or with the assistance of outside organizers, strategies can be developed to reach out to fellow workers in an intentional manner, taking into account the social dynamics of the particular workplace and industry. Here it is key to already have made an effort to build real relationships with coworkers, and have a sense of the relationships that already exist between various groups of workers. To earn this trust will require communists to be reliable coworkers who never leave their colleagues on the line.
Beyond individual workplaces, comrades can join together with other workers in the same industry to discuss, bring attention to, and take action on issues affecting the entire industry. This could take the form of a neighborhood or citywide workers’ assembly that unites rank-and-file workers and mass organizations from multiple industries, an industry-specific organizing committee, or a grassroots community organization. Such spaces could allow comrades to invite coworkers, eventually leading to the unionization of their workplaces. Or if the conditions are not ripe in our areas of concentration, comrades can assist other workers in other workplaces with doing so.
The strategic role of the “outside agitator” in organizing the unorganized should never be forgotten. We can learn from the traveling IWW organizers of the early twentieth century who would ride the rails and ramble through factory towns across the country, organizing workers into the union along the way.
The nucleus of any new campaign is the organizing committee. Ideally, each person on the initial committee will be linked to a group of workers who see them as a trusted and capable comrade. The committee structure allows for democratic decision-making and effective action, as well as protection against retaliation from the bosses. The goal should be to organize as many workers in a workplace as possible into the organizing campaign and committee structure. Furthermore, from slowdowns to strikes, direct action is our best friend regardless of how small or large the issue.
Whether newly-organized workers decide to join an existing union, form an independent union, or establish some other type of workplace organizing, the basic organizing framework should remain largely unchanged: keep it real, keep it democratic, keep it militant, and keep on organizing and politicizing the class struggle until the working class is united for socialist revolution.
XII. The Refusal of Work
The collective refusal of work is the main weapon in the worker’s struggle against the employing class. This can mean slowdowns, sick-outs, sabotage, wildcat strikes, and officially sanctioned strikes during contract negotiations. There is simply no weapon more powerful for the labor movement. This is exactly why the right to strike has been heavily regulated and constrained within specific legal bounds determined by the employers and the capitalist state. Labor liberals and business unionists are usually reluctant (if not outright hostile!) to engaging in collective refusals not ordained by the established anti-labor laws which regulate union activity. Often, union leaders are most directly threatened by the bosses with repercussions for such actions, and they in turn amplify those threats to the rebel rank and file: "This is illegal!" "You can't do this!" "You'll destroy the union!"
In order to build the power of the working class, the labor movement must be prepared to violate the draconian labor laws that govern the U.S. We must be prepared to enter into open conflict with the official leadership of the established unions, who have staked their careers on the existing legal framework. For example, public sector unions must be prepared to organize strike action without the permission of the capitalist state, which shows no signs of reversing the unjust laws prohibiting public sector work stoppages in most states. Indeed, the education workers' strike wave of 2018-2019 has shown that a militant grassroots workers' movement with a sufficient level of self-organization and popular support doesn't need to wait on the official misleaders of labor for permission to take strike action. Once the strike is on, the union bureaucrats will be reluctantly dragged along or left behind in the dust.
Whether legal or not, any decision to collectively refuse work needs to be undertaken with careful scrutiny by the rank and file. Unlike the fake publicity strikes called by labor liberals, the initiation of a mass strike requires a lively debate and popular vote by the union’s general membership. The rank and file need spaces to discuss these actions, voice their confidence and their fears, and to democratically participate in any decisions that are made. In fact, the strike authorization process can and should be participatory democracy in action.
Strikes generally serve as key moments in the political development of workers, raising class consciousness in ways that no protest or collective bargaining agreement ever could. When out on strikes, workers form strong bonds of solidarity, practice mutual aid, and see clearly the lines of battle between the working class and the capitalist class. Intermediate organizations such as the caucus, reinforced by the cadre of a communist political organization, can play a crucial role during strikes by helping to mobilize the rank and file, coordinating mutual aid efforts, conducting social investigation and publishing analyses, and instilling the picket line with a sense of confidence, purpose, and proletarian class solidarity. To the extent that business unionists and labor liberals have abandoned the mass strike, it now falls to revolutionaries and rebel workers to revive it.
For example, in 1972 at Mead Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia, the Rank-and-File Workers' Caucus—led by members of the October League, a revolutionary communist organization—launched a seven-week long wildcat strike, against the wishes of the official union leadership. The strike was launched by Black workers against racial discrimination, unsafe working conditions, and the established workplace grievance procedure. The company, the union leadership, and Atlanta's local ruling class resorted to anticommunist red-baiting. Yet the striking workers of Mead were steadfast, reelecting the communist-led strike committee with a 95% vote of confidence. This was because the communist organizers in the plant operated in a decidedly non-sectarian fashion, always emphasizing that their goal was to transform the union, not divide or destroy it. Unfortunately, this non-sectarian and democratic style of work would not characterize the October League, nor the New Communist Movement as a whole, in its later years.
XIII. Union Stewards
Stewards are delegates elected by the union membership in a workplace to represent them in conflicts with management, enforce the collective working agreement, and maintain an open line of communication between the union leadership and the rank and file. Stewards should act as the tribunes of the working class, defending and advocating for both individual union members and the working class as a whole. They serve on the frontline of the class struggle between workers and bosses, providing a crucial point of contact for workers facing contract violations, health and safety issues, harassment, and abuse. At their best, stewards can form a network of competent, caring, and militant leaders that are ready to mobilize their fellow workers. At their worst, they merely file grievances and defuse militancy in the service of labor liberalism or other reformist agendas. However, having a steward system is better than the alternative, as union stewards are also susceptible to rank-and-file pressure from below. Corrupt, ineffective, or class-collaborationist stewards can be overthrown by an organized rank-and-file rebellion, and an inactive or dysfunctional steward system can be revitalized and transformed by an intermediate workers' organization.
In his memoir Fighting Times: Organizing on the Front Lines of the Class War, Jon Melrod reflects upon his time working at an American Motors Corporation (AMC) factory in Milwaukee as a member of Local 75 of the United Auto Workers (UAW):
At AMC our stewards and head stewards stood for election each year. That went a long way toward preventing ossification and bureaucratization of the leadership. We had one steward for every thirty-five workers, and one head steward in each department, regardless of size (departments varied in size, from as few as forty to as many as eight hundred workers). Collective action depended on consensus built from the bottom up. Workers took their issues to their stewards, who then took the complaint to the head steward.
If the matter couldn't be resolved in the department and was of plant-wide importance, the dispute moved to the chief. The chief steward had the power to call for direct action as they saw fit, whether a grievance, a work stoppage, or a strike. Such was the chain of command that no one crossed the chief steward. To defuse shop-floor militancy, the international had maneuvered responsibility for final resolution of grievances away from the chief steward to the local's executive board, which consisted of fifteen area reps.
Our aim should be to build and maintain such steward systems, relying upon militant shop-floor action to win and defend gains. The steward system can become the primary class-struggle organization within the workplace, becoming synonymous with "the union" on the shop floor. We list here a few key elements of an effective steward system:
Historically, situations of dual power based on workers’ councils were often scaffolded by networks of revolutionary shop stewards. We believe that by developing a steward system in the workplace, it then becomes possible for these stewards to convene mass assemblies of workers during periods of systemic crisis. These assemblies can then elect councils of recallable delegates from among the workers’ ranks to lead the class struggle and enforce the workers’ demands. These councils can then be federated, eventually cohering a class-wide united front, capable of effectively contending with the capitalist state for power. With the seizure of power by the people’s movement, these councils can subsequently constitute the main organs of workers’ autonomous administration and coordination in the socialist transition to communism, being well-positioned to collectivize the means of social production and reproduction, radically transform the division of labor, and establish a system of democratic economic planning.
XIV. From Labor Unions to Workers' Councils
Regardless of the particular strategies and tactics chosen for a given workplace or industry, communists aim to heighten economic struggles for the material improvement of daily working and living conditions into a general political struggle for the liberation of the working class and all oppressed peoples. As previously mentioned, we do this in part by forming intermediate organizations inside the established unions and building new independent labor unions, as well as by politicizing the labor movement through systematic communist agitation and education. However, labor unions are organized to wage struggles for material improvements in the daily working and living conditions of the working class within capitalism. In contrast, workers’ councils emerge in the midst of systemic crises to establish workers’ control of social production and reproduction beyond capitalism. In the course of the protracted revolutionary struggle, communists in the labor movement must consciously agitate, educate, and organize for the creation of workers’ councils as the means and ends of working-class self-emancipation.
Historically, workers’ councils were formed in response to two types of situations. One instance was in response to a particular crisis faced by workers concentrated in a specific workplace, as in the case of a factory occupation assembly launched in response to the threat of a plant closure. Such localized experiments in workers’ control are only likely to spread throughout the social fabric in the case of the second type of situation: a systemic crisis, as in the case of the councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants formed in response to the horrors and deprivations produced by inter-imperialist wars during the twentieth century (e.g., the Russo-Japanese War sparked the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the formation of the first workers' councils, World War I sparked the October Revolution of 1917 and with it the formation of councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants). In the case of the latter situation, we have also seen the parallel formation of consumers’ councils and cooperatives to ensure proletarian control over distribution and consumer input in economic planning and coordination.
In anticipation of a revolutionary situation, workers’ councils that emerge from the infrastructure generated by class-struggle workers’ organizations will be well-positioned to build upon established democratic structures and practices, layering expanded roles, responsibilities, and political purpose upon a solidly democratic base. Conversely, to the extent that labor unions remain firmly in the hands of reformist bureaucrats and a reactionary labor aristocracy, workers’ councils may need to emerge outside and against the official union organizations, and will need to develop autonomous systems of communication, cooperation, and coordination in order to effectively challenge capitalist-imperialism.
XV. The Role of Communists in Union Leadership
Communists have a special responsibility to develop a new organizational culture and style of leadership within the labor movement. When we say "leadership," we refer not only to the actions of those communists elected to official positions within the unions, but also to the development of new leaders at every level of the union organization and the labor movement as a whole. We want to develop a union membership who can think and act for themselves, for in the final analysis, it is the masses of working people who are the real makers of history. As Ella Baker said, "Give light and people will find the way." Good leaders create more good leaders.
Yet the reformist and reactionary labor bureaucrats view voices of dissent as a threat, disrupting the status quo of the union and endangering their position in relation to the bosses. Even well-meaning and otherwise effective union leaders will fail to develop new leaders from the rank and file because they don't know how. At all levels of a labor union, we believe facilitation, notetaking, and other responsibilities should be rotated, that a system of co-chairs should be used, and mentorship programs must be established to provide leadership and support to new union members, with the eventual aim of training them to fulfill leadership responsibilities. We believe the diverse cultures of the peoples and nationalities who compose a given union should be actively integrated into the life of the union's social activities, and the union should work to actively build solidarity with the local community and mass organizations. The union's contract negotiation committee for collective bargaining, as well as all other union committees, should be composed of rank-and-file members; the collective bargaining process should be open, actively involving both rank and filers and members of the local community; the working agreement should be collectively owned, understood, and militantly enforced by the rank and file; and strike authorization votes should be taken by popular democratic assemblies of the membership.
When communists are elected to positions of leadership in a union—such as president, vice president, or a member of the executive board—their first priority should be to serve as an effective leader who is responsive to the needs and demands of both the union's rank and file and the global working class as a whole. Communists are likely to be elected to union leadership in one of two ways. They can be elected as a member of a growing opposition movement internal to the union, as when they run as a member of a slate put forward by a rank-and-file caucus. This is the ideal scenario, as they will be elected with a clear mandate endorsed by the union's membership, and supported by the infrastructure of the intermediate workers' organization.
Alternatively, they can be elected because they have proven themselves to be an effective fighter on the shop floor, and the union membership views their personal leadership as necessary. This is not always bad, but poses a number of problems. First of all, in the absence of an intermediate workers' organization like a rank-and-file caucus or a workplace cluster of a revolutionary party, there are fewer mechanisms to hold the comrade accountable. The comrade elected to union leadership in such a scenario should be in regular consultation with their communist political organization in order to troubleshoot issues as they arise, and to ensure they are held accountable to the organization’s platform, program, and praxis. In the absence of an intermediate organization, there will likely be a smaller support base to mobilize for the defense of the leadership from reactionary attacks. In this situation, the leader should, to the greatest degree possible, use their position to scaffold democratic decision-making mechanisms in the union, as well as plant the seeds for the eventual formation of a rank-and-file caucus. Comrades in this situation should be careful, as pursuing a class-struggle policy and program without a popular mandate from the membership, and in the absence of an intermediate organization's support, may result in a loss of control over the organization, and in the worst case scenario could result in the local union being placed in trusteeship by the parent union.
Given the bureaucratic character of established unions, most opportunities to run revolutionary candidates for union office will be limited to the local level. However, as the class-struggle current within the broader labor movement grows and develops, it will be better positioned to contend for union leadership at the state and national levels. At any level, the overall strength of the rank-and-file caucus should largely determine the decision to run a slate for union office. While a union election campaign can help build a caucus, it is preferable for the caucus to be established on the shop floor first, playing an active role in waging mass struggles against the bosses.
All candidates for union office should run openly on the platform and program of the caucus as a whole. No candidate should be allowed to sidestep important or controversial issues which the caucus members have taken up in order to broaden their appeal. Struggles against racial and gender oppression must remain at the forefront, and there can be no opportunistic capitulation to reactionary positions. Candidates should be chosen on the basis of their understanding and application of class-struggle unionism; this is another reason why establishing the caucus first is preferable, as it ensures experienced, accountable, and battle-hardened candidates.
The caucus should also be sure to establish a program of union reforms to raise during the election campaign, addressing issues such as the reduction of union staff salaries to that of the average union member, the right to democratically recall union officers, and the political independence of the union. To the maximum degree possible, the organizational life of the caucus should reflect these priorities. All election campaigns run by the caucus should be used as political education opportunities. If nothing else, the campaign will have raised the consciousness of our fellow workers, as well as expanded the organizational capacities and overall stature of the caucus in the union.
Finally, if successful, the newly-elected officers should be held directly accountable to their caucus (and communist political organization where applicable). The officer should expect disciplinary action up to and including expulsion should they fail to execute their mandate. An organized rank and file is the most effective, though by no means foolproof, strategy for preventing sell-outs, opportunists, and corruption. In situations where the caucus is running alongside progressive independent candidates against incumbent bureaucrats, the caucus should assess whether pursuing a united front in the form of a joint slate with the independent candidates is a viable option, as Teamsters for a Democratic Union chose to do with their endorsement of the Teamsters United slate in 2021.
We must never underestimate the role that revolutionary union leaders can play in developing proletarian counterpower in a given workplace or industry. From the standpoint of a union steward, the character, orientation, experience, and quality of the elected union leadership can make or break the possibilities for shop-floor organizing and militant direct action, as a revolutionary union steward facing a hostile union leadership will often find their range of action restricted.
XVI. The Role of a Communist Union Staffer
Our focus in this text has been on rank-and-file activity, as we believe this is central to rebuilding the U.S. labor movement as a leading contingent of a revolutionary people’s movement. However, employees of labor organizations must also figure into the equation, and some comrades may elect to take paid positions within a reformist labor union with the aim of transforming it from within. This is a difficult path to follow, for it is rife with contradictions.
While mass organizations may require permanent administrative staff, this need not translate into staff having the power to dictate the life of the union. Union staff often receive higher wages than the rank and file, and they are paid by the union. Furthermore, they are not subjected to the same capitalist work discipline as ordinary workers. This means union staff can become easily detached from realities on the shop floor, and adopt more conservative positions so as not to threaten their own salaried employment. They are not directly affected by the collective bargaining process, as their wage is dependent upon the union, not negotiations with the employer. Union staff have a tendency to display an attachment to formal bureaucratic procedures. They are often willing to compromise in contract negotiations so as to avoid militancy (specifically strikes), and they can also display a commitment to maintaining capitalist-imperialism and defending "their" nation-state (thus aligning themselves politically with the labor aristocracy).
The role of the union staffer expands when the high-tide of class struggle recedes, as when a strike wave comes to an end. During these periods the union staff help to maintain the union organization, enforce the contract, and settle disputes. But when a new cycle of struggle erupts that same staff can become an obstacle to class struggle and the political autonomy of the working class.
Union staffers are subordinate to the official union leadership in a way that rank and filers are not. This can tie their hands, as pressure will be exerted over them to refuse association with any revolutionary intermediate workers' organization and to denounce openly revolutionary political positions. Higher-level union staff are more likely to be bought off by capital directly at the state, national, and international levels, invited to take a seat at the bosses' table, often receiving minor concessions (or simply promises) in exchange for mobilizing union members to "get out the vote" for the reelection of their choice candidates.
However, if communist union staffers maintain collective discipline as members of a communist political organization, abiding by their organization’s political platform and program, they can act as a check on reactionary union bureaucrats and help make way for the rebel rank and file. They can organize study groups with the rank and file to raise political consciousness by examining the history of global class struggle, the U.S. labor movement, and their union local. They can join and provide assistance to rank-and-file movements and intermediate organizations that align with a revolutionary program. If there is no steward system in the union, communist staffers can help build one. If the steward system is reformist or reactionary, communist staffers can help rebuild it as an instrument of class struggle. If there is a need for an opposition caucus to challenge entrenched misleaders, communists staffers can help build the initial network. They can build connections with working-class community organizations, thereby laying the groundwork for the emergence of a united front. Instead of discouraging militancy, communist union staffers can encourage members to take direct action in defense of their material interests, and model the effective deployment of militant tactics.
In many instances the established union bureaucrats or elected union officers may launch reactionary campaigns to crush rank-and-file caucuses. Acknowledging the high probability of these occurrences, union staffers can become key allies to either defeat or neutralize these counterinsurgency campaigns. This also means—perhaps most importantly—that communist staffers must put politics in command, prioritizing the development of class-struggle unionism over their own job security. Just as the rank and file accept risks in fighting to better their working conditions, the communist union staffer must also accept the risks involved with fighting to radicalize the union, even if that means opposing their bosses within the labor movement.
While it’s critical that we recognize the structural function and objective limitations of staff positions, we acknowledge the possibility for staff to play a role in the development of revolutionary class struggle. Working in collaboration with intermediate organizations, the staffer can help neutralize reformist union bureaucrats (both rank and file leaders and other staffers), transforming the union into a class-struggle workers' organization.
XVII. Workers' Centers
At their best, workers' centers are organizations formed to educate and train rank-and-file workplace organizers, provide legal support for workers, lobby for legislative reforms, and mobilize workers and their communities in struggle against wage theft, layoffs and firings, racial and gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, verbal and physical abuse, and unsafe working conditions. Workers' centers have often formed among workers whose prospects for rapid unionization are more limited due to structural factors, such as undocumented immigrant workers employed in low-wage agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors who face the threat of detention and deportation. However, workers' centers are not labor unions, and thus operate outside the legal restrictions placed on labor organizations by the National Labor Relations Act and Taft-Hartley Act. While this offers workers' centers some flexibility—for example, a workers' center can legally organize secondary boycotts and pickets against employers, while unions cannot—they are legally prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining and can only call for strikes in response to violations of federal labor laws. Nonetheless, for working-class immigrant communities, workers' centers can provide important legal defense and mutual aid services, as well as assist the formation of workplace organizing committees that can fight back against management's abuses. Recent historical examples of workers' centers in the U.S. include the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, Pioneer Valley Workers Center in Western Massachusetts, and Chinese Staff and Workers' Association in NYC.
Yet we must acknowledge that workers' centers have shown themselves to be highly susceptible to the ideological hegemony of the non-profit industrial complex, cultivating a relationship of dependency on wealthy donors and adopting a top-down, staff-driven approach to labor organizing. While many workers' centers initially described themselves as "pre-union formations"—stating formal unionization of their social base as a long-term objective—rarely has this been the outcome. Indeed, the dependency of most workers' centers upon private financial contributions has led them to temper and control rank-and-file militancy in order to appease petite bourgeois and bourgeois donors. In accordance with their class interests, donors will not fund direct organizing in any meaningful way, which means workers' centers inevitably shift their priorities in order to secure funding. Furthermore, staffers have a material incentive to maintain this relationship of financial dependency, as their salaries and benefits are dependent upon the center's ability to keep the donor money flowing.
As rank-and-file members or staff, the main task of communists involved with a workers' center should be the empowerment, politicization, and unionization of that center's social base. Communists can develop a unionization drive from within the organizing committees attached to the workers' center, establishing a dues payment system among members to independently finance the center's work, and waging a battle of ideas to break the center free from the hegemony of the non-profit industrial complex and solidify the center's position within a fighting labor movement.
Similar to the ways in which we must struggle to democratize labor unions by mobilizing the rank and file against the union bureaucracy, we must also organize the membership base of workers' centers to place democratic control of these institutions into the hands of their members, not careerist staffers and wealthy donors. As with the established labor unions, we must organize to put workers' centers on a class-struggle basis, or otherwise establish autonomous workers’ centers imbued with a class-struggle orientation, and linked to labor unions and community organizations through the united front.
XVIII. Building a Communist Tendency in the U.S. Labor Movement
First things first: if you have not done so, we encourage you to first join a communist political organization. There is no such thing as a revolutionary without a revolutionary organization. Such an organization not only provides political education and organizational training, but serves as a vital center from which to sustain our mass work in various sectors of social struggle, such as the labor movement. Once a member of a communist political organization, we encourage comrades to pursue one of the following options:
XIX. Programmatic Objectives
CounterPower's Labor Committee aims to pursue the following objectives within the U.S. labor movement:
XX. Immediate Demands
As emphasized by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, "The communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement." Through our mass work inside the labor movement, members of CounterPower raise the following demands to be adopted by all workers' organizations—not merely as a means of ameliorating intolerable working and living conditions, but as the means for developing the consciousness, confidence, organization, and fighting capacities of the working class, which will be necessary prerequisites for the working class to directly challenge and ultimately overcome capitalist-imperialism's social domination:
We stand for unconditional proletarian internationalism, and advocate for such a position and corresponding praxis within the U.S. labor movement. As proletarian internationalists, we understand capitalist-imperialism as a unitary global system, and thus view the class struggle waged by workers in any one part of the world as constituting one front in a global class war against imperialist capital. Equipped with such an orientation, members of CounterPower seek to consciously create international solidarity among national labor movements beyond the divisions imposed by the borders of nation-states. We seek to consciously develop a revolutionary internationalist praxis within the U.S. labor movement by taking a principled stand against all forms of imperialist warmongering, racism, jingoism, and xenophobia. We should proudly and courageously inscribe upon labor’s banner:
Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains! We have a world to win!