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Business Unionism vs. Revolutionary Unionism

By Dave Neal (2011)

"When the working class unites, there will be a lot of jobless labor leaders."

--Eugene Debs, 1905 speech

Unions are a modern concept, a product of industrial society. The idea is a simple, but important one -- namely that the weak majority must organize collectively to battle the powerful minority -- the capitalist, whose will is backed by the power of the State. The individual worker is almost powerless in a non-union workplace, with the choice of obeying the boss or quitting their job for another one.

Unions upset this blissful state of affairs, when these weak, individual workers banded together against the boss, they had considerable strength indeed. Note that this right to collectively bargain was hard-won by workers -- much worker blood was spilled by capitalists (through their lap-dog, the State), in order to protect their privilege, power, and profits, which depended on a disorganized, and above all, weak workforce.

Make no mistake: unionism was a powerful, effective social force, and it has always been reviled by capitalists and management, because it cuts into their absolute workplace authority, which they seem to feel is theirs by right, in the style of kings of times past.

In the course of the fight for unionism, different schools of thought emerged -- those who looked at the big picture of capitalist society saw that no class peace with Capital was possible; others, unwilling to embrace such a radical, revolutionary agenda, felt that workers and capitalists could reach an understanding of sorts -- these folks became business unionists, represented most notably by unions like the AFL-CIO, the UAW, and the Teamsters.

With the demise of the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, and countless bloody crackdowns on radical labor organizing, the business unionism view prevailed, becoming, for a time, the most successful labor movement in history.

However, business unionism is in a bad state these days, as they find, to their dismay, their power continually being eroded, particularly as globalization is accelerated, in which Third World workers can be pitted against First World unionized ones, invariably a losing a battle for the First World workers -- the company simply says "do as we say or we'll relocate to another country" -- and business unionists are forced to take one more step backward.

It is my belief that business unionism will eventually die out, and we'll be back to where we were at the turn of the century, where Capital dictates the conditions under which we work without consideration of the consequences -- which are invariably measured in the lives of working people everywhere.

Business unionism won out in the past struggles between Labor and Capital, but in the long run, their vision of worker/owner solidarity is a false one, which is unravelling as we speak, particularly in the wake of NAFTA, GATT, and now MAI. Increasingly, it is Capital who calls the shots, and Labor who takes the lumps -- which explains why hundreds of thousands of working people have been "downsized" for the sake of corporate profits.

Before I talk about what revolutionary unionism is, it's important to first talk about what it isn't, which brings me to business unionism.


What is business unionism? It is, at root, the belief that workers and bosses have common interests, focusing on rhetoric like "getting the job done" and "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay." Business unions function to keep workers working, and profits flowing smoothly into the pockets of business owners. Business unions have long been businesses themselves, with entrenched and powerful bureaucracies, and their conduct over the years has created the image of labor unions as corrupt, inefficient, self-serving agencies (of course, this view is foisted on us by the corporate press, who are by no means neutral or objective in their coverage). Peaking in membership in the 50s, business unions have suffered a long, slow decline since then.

The heart of the business union is the labor contract, under which workers are to labor for the profit of the bosses. The contract phase of labor/management negotiations is notoriously complex, with both groups haggling over pay levels and job retention.

Business unions hold that there is such a thing as a fair wage, and work to ensure the best possible deal with management, in terms of pay and pay raises, and benefits. Business union jobs (those that are left) still remain better paid than their non-union equivalents -- this reflects the power of collective bargaining, which remains strong, despite enormous setbacks over the decades.

However, business unions pit workers against workers -- if you've ever been in a business union, you'll find a distinct hierarchy evident within the union, favoring the older, higher-paid, senior workers over the younger, lower-paid workers. Make no mistake -- if you're on the lower rungs of this hierarchy, you are cannon fodder in the event of hard negotiations -- it will be your job that is sacrificed if push comes to shove, while senior union members will retain their privileges and protections.

Even within this seniority system, there are still higher levels of hierarchy -- a business union reserves all decision-making action to labor leaders -- the rank-and-file are not to engage in independent activity, but are to remain in lock-step behind their respective leaders -- who, particularly as unions grew in power -- came to resemble management itself, more and more. All workplace initiative is kept safely at the top of the business union pyramid.

The business union has always revolved around the trade union principle of organizing. That is, they hold that each trade has its own distinct interests, which are independent of those of other workers. As such, they organize around a particular profession or trade, thereby dividing workers into manifold smaller unions, focusing exclusively on their particular interests.

The ultimate weapon of the business union is the strike. Only business union leaders are authorized to declare a strike -- when the rank-and-file do so, these unauthorized actions are called wildcat strikes, and are not looked on favorably by business union bosses, because it undermines their power.


"It was not by gold or by silver, but by labor, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased."

--Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

The revolutionary union has become a historical relic -- the last active revolutionary union is the IWW -- the Industrial Workers of the World -- which, founded in 1905, was sacked in 1919 by the US government and has not recovered since then. It's been around, but hasn't been a major force in Labor for many decades.

Revolutionary unionism remains the great untried experiment -- its vision of the world -- a world without Capital and capitalist exploitation of workers -- hasn't yet come about. We seem amazingly far from this vision as we reach the close of the 90s.

Will it come about again? Who knows? In some respects, I doubt it, at least in the way it did before, because the State has created a variety of secret police organizations, namely the FBI (created in 1919) and the CIA (created in 1948), who actively work to prevent large-scale social organizing for change. The lesson learned by authorities in response to the great labor upheavals of times past was to infiltrate and destroy popular movements before they get too powerful.

Any new radical unionism must organize under the watchful eye of these and other organizations, which will affect the way these new unions operate. It's not impossible for a new revolutionary unionism to come about -- but it will be a formidable challenge. But then, such is the case with any progressive social movement. The powerful never give up their privileges easily, or out of the goodness of their withered hearts.

Clearly, the revolutionary union view of the reality of relations between workers and bosses is more accurate than that of the business unionists, as recent history only too clearly shows, in the flood of pink slips and factory relocations which have left a devastated workforce in its wake.

So, what is a revolutionary union? It's easier to say that "revolutionary" describes the tactics and outlook of this type of unionism, which focuses on an unending battle between Labor and Capital (not an endless battle -- rather, one where either Capital wins, reducing us to the level of serfs, or Labor wins, in which case capitalism ends), and recognizes that Labor produces all that is of value in society.

The revolutionary union is centered around direct action, as opposed to the strike. The strike is seen as the last weapon of the worker, and not even the most effective one. Workers are most effective in pushing their agendas while still on the job, using a variety of direct action tactics.

In revolutionary unions, there is no status hierarchy between workers -- no distinction between senior and junior workers. Moreover, there is no union bureaucracy or leadership to decide for workers what does or does not get done. All initiative comes from below -- from the rank-and-file, who, by their own efforts, make their wishes felt and known. This approach produces a considerably more democratic union, with an active, informed membership.

Revolutionary unions practice industrial unionism; that is, the idea that instead of workers dividing themselves into manifold trades, and defending their interests to the exclusion of others, there are, instead, only two classifications in working society -- workers and capitalists. That is, those who work for a living, and those who live on others' work. Those who take orders, and those who give them.

The revolutionary unionist seeks One Big Union, instead of many little ones. The logic behind this is that capitalists tend to close ranks and defend their common class interest -- against so unified a foe, can a divided workforce possibly prevail? The history of business unionism reveals that it cannot. It was this idea that led to the IWW slogan, "an injury to one is an injury to all."

Solidarity is the glue that holds the revolutionary union together, which is both an asset and a liability. It is a liability because it depends on workers closing ranks and working together as a whole, which doesn't always occur. Scabs, or workers who cross the picket line during a strike, are always a threat to organized labor solidarity. Because unions represent large numbers of people, organizing solidarity is a daunting task, and is often unsuccessful. When it works, it works well.


The revolutionary unionist seeks more than simply increases in pay or benefits -- the revolutionary unionist pursues longer-ranging workplace changes. A long-standing revolutionary union goal was more leisure time for the worker, measured in a shorter workday. It was the efforts of revolutionary unionists that cut the 16-hour workday in half, and radical unionists today would like to see the workday cut in half yet again. This wish can only come about in the wake of intense, large-scale organizing, something which has been impossible for nearly 70 years.

However, with the continued withering away of business unions, an opening has grown for renewed radical unionism. The challenges are enormous, but the opportunity is there. This has been made possible, conversely, by the greed and machinations of Capital itself -- as the bosses seek to reduce American workers' pay, increase their hours, and slash their benefits, they have themselves created a revolutionary situation.

Management is very aware of this situation, however -- which is why there has been a proliferation of "empowerment sessions" and "team-building" initiatives in companies, where they seek to buy off the workers they still retain with union-style benefits without the unions. In other words, the appearance of empowerment, versus actual workplace empowerment. This masterful PR effort by management reveals the extent to which they'll go to see unionism finally destroyed. Companies want workers to think they're on the same team as their bosses, the way business unions believe. But it's a lie, and always will be.

No amount of bogus empowerment conferences can change the static environment in which workers operate -- where all initiative comes from above, and where their pay continues to stagnate, and they are forced to work longer hours in increasingly precarious jobs. Fear is what binds the non-union workplace, just as solidarity is what holds together the union shop.

Will this continue indefinitely? I don't believe it will. It can't, because working people are being screwed right and left by management, no matter how many happy faces they try to put on their schemes. It simply isn't part of human nature to take it on the chin so many times without wanting to take a few swings yourself. Big Business has had it coming for a long time -- with the State behind them, they've grown arrogant with power, and think they can grind people into the ground with impunity. This can't go on forever.

The challenge for the revolutionary unionist is to adapt to these new conditions and bring real improvements in the lives of workers. One thing that killed revolutionary unionism in the past was the inability of such unions to consistently bring real benefits to working people -- something business unions could do in the form of contracts and pay increases. The new revolutionary union will have to keep a focus on meat and potatoes issues at the same time it focuses on actual radical unionizing efforts.

Business unionism is dead; it just doesn't know it yet. It will keep losing as we move through this transitional period of the globalization of Capital. Does this mean there's no hope for working folks? Not at all -- it only means there is no middle ground between Labor and Capital -- a position mistakenly occupied by the business unionists. It will mean that the revolutionary union, so long considered a fossil of a bygone age, will become the only possible avenue left for working people who want a real say in what goes on in the workplace.