Real Progressives

Episode 97 – Solidarity with Joe Burns

You don’t have to be a Marxist to know the vital importance of labor. Workers hold the key to social change. They keep us fed, clothed, and provided for; they’re the only force with actual leverage over the ruling class. No wonder unions are such a threat. 

Joe Burns isn’t just a labor lawyer and negotiator, he’s a student of labor history. He joins us to talk about the past, present, and future of the movement. For the challenges faced today, it is instructional to look back. For example, the gig economy is not so different from the early days of the auto industry, when employment was often temporary. The sprawling nature of trucking was used by employers as a barrier to organizing. When unions saw past those conditions, they were able to grow and achieve results. 

Joe talks about the historical significance of national unions as we look at today’s international economy. Early unions were local or regional, but as transportation and trade developed, so did national manufacturing and product markets, so labor had to be organized on a national scale. 

And I think if we fast forward to today, we’re really in a similar situation where labor and product markets are global in nature. So it doesn’t match the employers’ structure and scale if we’re still organized only on a national basis. Right? So we need a global labor movement that’s able to confront global capital. Now, that’s not an easy task. And frankly, the labor movement over the years has done a horrible job at it. For decades, the labor movement basically operated as an arm of the United States State Department. 

When talking about solidarity, we don’t have to look into the distant past to see examples of it.  While working-class solidarity may or may not exist naturally, it can build rapidly through struggle. Joe brings up the “red state teachers’ strikes” of 2018, which sprang from discussions by a handful of teachers on Facebook. After sharing their grievances (as one tends to do on social media) someone suggested a strike, and it spread like wildfire. West Virginia teachers went out and, despite its illegality, they were granted concessions. Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma followed suit; and then it spread to blue cities and states. 

You can’t talk about labor without discussing class, and Joe briefs us on the two basic trends in the early years of organizing. There was class struggle unionism, represented by the IWW, International Workers of the World, and the business unions, typified by the AFL, American Federation of Labor. From the 1930s through the ‘60s, they achieved a grand bargain, gaining a little bit for a lot of workers. 

But at the same time, we didn’t really contest this control over the workplace and society, and employers got more and more powerful because they accumulated more and more profits. And then eventually they turn it against the workers. Right? And against our movement. So if we’re going to revive the labor movement, we really have to look to socialist union theory. It’s hard to envision a labor movement that doesn’t actively contest the power of capital in the workplace and society succeeding. 

Unsurprisingly there has also been a long debate about race among union organizers, with many believing they could talk about workers’ unity without involving race in the discussion, especially in the South. The leftist unions of the ‘30s and ‘40s confronted the special oppression of black workers head-on. 

Throughout the episode, Joe continues to look to the past for understanding of the present and lessons for the future. 

Joe Burns is a labor lawyer and negotiator. He is the author of “Reviving the Strike” and “Strike Back.” Look for “Class Struggle Unionism” in 2021. 

Check him out on Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/Reviving-the-Strike-168598319827846 

Buy his books
https://bookshop.org/books/reviving-the-strike-how-working-people-can-regain-power-and-transform-america/9781935439240 

http://www.igpub.com/strike-back/

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You don’t have to be a Marxist to know the vital importance of labor. Workers hold the key to social change. They keep us fed, clothed, and provided for; they’re the only force with actual leverage over the ruling class. No wonder unions are such a threat. 

Joe Burns isn’t just a labor lawyer and negotiator, he’s a student of labor history. He joins us to talk about the past, present, and future of the movement. For the challenges faced today, it is instructional to look back. For example, the gig economy is not so different from the early days of the auto industry, when employment was often temporary. The sprawling nature of trucking was used by employers as a barrier to organizing. When unions saw past those conditions, they were able to grow and achieve results. 

Joe talks about the historical significance of national unions as we look at today’s international economy. Early unions were local or regional, but as transportation and trade developed, so did national manufacturing and product markets, so labor had to be organized on a national scale. 

And I think if we fast forward to today, we’re really in a similar situation where labor and product markets are global in nature. So it doesn’t match the employers’ structure and scale if we’re still organized only on a national basis. Right? So we need a global labor movement that’s able to confront global capital. Now, that’s not an easy task. And frankly, the labor movement over the years has done a horrible job at it. For decades, the labor movement basically operated as an arm of the United States State Department. 

When talking about solidarity, we don’t have to look into the distant past to see examples of it.  While working-class solidarity may or may not exist naturally, it can build rapidly through struggle. Joe brings up the “red state teachers’ strikes” of 2018, which sprang from discussions by a handful of teachers on Facebook. After sharing their grievances (as one tends to do on social media) someone suggested a strike, and it spread like wildfire. West Virginia teachers went out and, despite its illegality, they were granted concessions. Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma followed suit; and then it spread to blue cities and states. 

You can’t talk about labor without discussing class, and Joe briefs us on the two basic trends in the early years of organizing. There was class struggle unionism, represented by the IWW, International Workers of the World, and the business unions, typified by the AFL, American Federation of Labor. From the 1930s through the ‘60s, they achieved a grand bargain, gaining a little bit for a lot of workers. 

But at the same time, we didn’t really contest this control over the workplace and society, and employers got more and more powerful because they accumulated more and more profits. And then eventually they turn it against the workers. Right? And against our movement. So if we’re going to revive the labor movement, we really have to look to socialist union theory. It’s hard to envision a labor movement that doesn’t actively contest the power of capital in the workplace and society succeeding. 

Unsurprisingly there has also been a long debate about race among union organizers, with many believing they could talk about workers’ unity without involving race in the discussion, especially in the South. The leftist unions of the ‘30s and ‘40s confronted the special oppression of black workers head-on. 

Throughout the episode, Joe continues to look to the past for understanding of the present and lessons for the future. 

Joe Burns is a labor lawyer and negotiator. He is the author of “Reviving the Strike” and “Strike Back.” Look for “Class Struggle Unionism” in 2021. 

Check him out on Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/Reviving-the-Strike-168598319827846 

Buy his books
https://bookshop.org/books/reviving-the-strike-how-working-people-can-regain-power-and-transform-america/9781935439240 

http://www.igpub.com/strike-back/

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