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Class Struggle Unionism

An essential primer for rebuilding a militant labor movement centered on solidarity with all workers.

For those who want to build a fighting labor movement, there are many questions to answer. How to relate to the union establishment which often does not want to fight? Whether to work in the rank and file of unions or staff jobs? How much to prioritize broader class demands versus shop floor struggle? How to relate to foundation-funded worker centers and alternative union efforts? And most critically, how can we revive militancy and union power in the face of corporate power and a legal system set up against us?

Class struggle unionism is the belief that our union struggle exists within a larger struggle between an exploiting billionaire class and the working class which actually produces the goods and services in society. Class struggle unionism looks at the employment transaction as inherently exploitative. While workers create all wealth in society, the outcome of the wage employment transaction is to separate workers from that wealth and create the billionaire class. From that simple proposition flows a powerful and radical form of unionism. Historically, class struggle unionists placed their workplace fights squarely within this larger fight between workers and the owning class. Viewing unionism in this way produces a particular type of unionism which both fights for broader class issues but is also rooted in workplace-based militancy.

Drawing on years of labor activism and study of labor tradition Joe Burns outlines the key set of ideas common to class struggle unionism and shows how these ideas can create a more militant, democratic and fighting labor movement.

Reviews
  • “Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism gives us a vision of what a labor movement should and could be. Burns reminds us that unions are about more than collective bargaining. When workers take collective action into their own hands, they can change the political agenda and bring real power to the struggles for equality and a truly democratic society.”—Kim Moody, author, On New Terrain: How Capital Is Shaping The Battleground of Class War 

    “What will reignite the labor movement? Beyond organizing techniques, Class Struggle Unionism argues that a revival would require a grounding in class struggle ideology and organizing to name and confront the power of capital. Burns draws out why this has gone missing from labor, the steps to bring it back, and the solidarity and power it will build. Read it. Share it. Put the movement back in the labor movement.”—Barbara Madeloni, Labor Notes, former president Massachusetts Teachers Association

    “Class Struggle Unionism has arrived just in time. It is supremely relevant and cutting-edge smart, providing exactly what's needed at a moment when our labor movement is finally regaining its footing after decades of flat-footed, directionless wandering. Joe Burns thinks strategically like an organizer, brings the sweeping view of a historian, and writes so that workers, organizers, and allies can come away transformed by what he says. It is a book that reminds us why we have a labor movement, and what hell we can raise when we remember which side we're on.”—Ellen David Friedman, Labor Notes

    “How can we rekindle widespread working class militancy? And what should such militancy seek to achieve? In Class Struggle Unionism, Joe Burns makes the case that a combative, cohesive, and effective labor movement requires class-conscious unions expressly committed to challenging capitalist exploitation. Burns' handbook will prove invaluable to organizers who recognize that taking on the ruling class must begin with an ideological reorientation of the labor movement.”—Toni Gilpin, author, The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland

    “Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism is a must read for any labor activists or socialists concerned with the future of the US workers’ movement. He details that the ersatz social unionism of “labor liberalism”—with its abandonment of workplace organization and struggle, and reliance on professional staff and alliances with the Democratic Party—is no alternative to the discredited “business unionism” that had dominated US labor since World War II. His alternative—a class struggle unionism that builds upon workplace confrontations to challenge capitalist exploitation and oppression across society—is crucial for labor militants today.”—Charlie Post, editor Spectre: A Marxist Journal 

    “The notion of ‘class struggle unionism’ sounds like ‘duh’ until you realize how widespread is the idea that some force can save workers other than workers themselves—in Class Struggle Unionism, Joe Burns has coined the great phrase 'labor liberalism,' and makes clear why the labor movement can't survive without committing to fighting the bosses and thinking big.”—Jane Slaughter, Labor Notes

    “I appreciate theories about union organizing and socialism but I always needed something I could carry back to work. Joe Burns did it again. He explains in prose as solid and precise as a toolmaker what class struggle unionism is, how it works, and how to implement a workable solution to the chronic failure of socialist organizing: integration with the working class.”—Gregg Shotwell, author, Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream

    “Joe Burns’ new book, Class Struggle Unionism, is both timely and urgently needed for young and new fighters emerging in the labor movement today. It’s also a must-read for those union veterans who need a shot of adrenaline after many years. Winning will come from disciplined efforts and adherence to proven formulas, not from employer schemes or panaceas dreamed up by those far, far away from our reality. I commend it to all militants in the workplaces today trying to kick-start our movement again.”—Chris Townsend, organizing director, ATU International Union

    “With the public's and particularly young people's growing support for unions, Joe Burns has written an easy-to-read and insightful contribution. Class Struggle Unionism clarifies the different approaches to labor organizing and contract campaigns, staff roles and responsibilities, and most importantly, different philosophies of labor's vision and mission. Burns' prescriptions for the labor movement's revitalization build on his own years of practical experience. Anyone who aspires to be a union leader or organizer should read this book!”—Rand Wilson, former national organizer, Labor for Bernie

    “Written in a very accessible fashion, this book provides a refreshingly bold, uncompromising, and compelling reassertion of the value of the class struggle and need for a form of ‘kick-ass’-fighting-unionism, fundamentally different from what we are accustomed to today within the labor movement. It deserves to become an A-Z guidebook for activists in helping to energize collective resistance.”—Ralph Darlington, Emeritus Professor of Employment Relations, University of Salford

    "Can the union movement revive, or even survive, without winning more fights against corporate power? Joe Burns doesn’t think so. In Class Struggle Unionism, Burns makes the case for labor organizations that are militant, democratic, and membership-oriented. Drawing on his own past experience in the public and private sector, Burns provides a road map for union-rebuilding that will increase bargaining and organizing success. His latest invaluable book is essential reading for rank-and-file activists, new and old."—Steve Early, author, Refinery Town and Civil Wars in US Labor

    “Joe Burns’ Class Struggle Unionism has application to working class struggles around the world. This book shows we can address the challenges of class struggle unionism, which are capable of defeating our ruling classes. Our organizing task is historic, necessary, and urgent in today’s capitalist domination, exploitation, and ecological crisis.”—Chris White, former Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia

    "In Class Struggle Unionism, Joe Burns makes an impassioned argument for a militant labor movement. He covers a great deal of ground in this highly readable volume that challenges contemporary unions to step out of their complacency to build a more just and equitable world. "Tom Juravich, Professor of Labor Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst

    “In this new book, Class Struggle Unionism, written and published just as pundits and labor activists are hailing the resurgence of strikes, militancy, and new organizing, Joe Burns fires a well-aimed volley across the bow of ‘business unionism’ and ‘labor liberalism,’ insisting that ‘class struggle unionism’ provides a path leading not only to the revival of the labor movement but also to the transformation of the American working class into a cohesive force for social change. Class Struggle Unionism is certain to become part of the brewing debates among labor activists, scholars, socialist theorists, and union supporters as we seek to learn from history, think critically about the present, and envision a brighter future.”Peter Rachleff, Co-Executive Director, East Side Freedom Library, St. Paul, Minnesota



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  • On New Terrain

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  • Women and the American Labor Movement

    A comprehensive account of the women who organized for labor rights and equality from the early factories to the 1970’s.

  • The Long Deep Grudge

    A powerful account of the epic clash between corporate greed and militant workers in the American heartland.