Union Organizing and Revolution

Shamus Cooke

A revolution by definition is a sudden change in circumstances, applicable to nature, relationships, government, society, and the workplace. The following article attempts to contrast the “sudden changes” that occurred at our workplace during a union organizing campaign to those that take place during a social revolution.

What makes such a comparison possible is that, under capitalism, the workplace reflects the actual economic class relations that are at the foundation of capitalism — owner and worker. The form of this workplace relationship varies from enterprise to enterprise, while also applying indirectly to other institutions — state run facilities, non-profits, cooperatives, etc. — where the government or bureaucratic managers take up the fight usually reserved for the owners. In all workplaces, the following contradictions exist: the dictatorship of the boss and subservience of the workers, the struggle of the workers to improve their working conditions and the conflict that emerges with the interests of the bosses.

Like society in “normal” times, where most people are not engaged politically, our workplace functioned without outward discord. Our co-workers grudgingly accepted their subservience to management: their grievances were not addressed, they had little if any “rights” at work, and they were mistreated and ignored. When there were big problems on the job, we were encouraged to vent our frustrations and try to work through the normal channels — our supervisors or their bosses. We were often promised that things would improve. New, more sympathetic supervisors were appointed who claimed change was just around the corner. Experience taught us that nothing, except the most surface appearances, was bound to actually change and that our opinion mattered very little indeed.

When our work situation became especially intolerable, individuals or small groups of workers valiantly tried to correct the problems, only to be forced out, fired, or disillusioned and burnt out. The members of our workforce were angry and ready for change but had no effective way to channel their energy and see their interests represented. The directionless action that resulted had a demoralizing effect, but some of us had already begun organizing for a real alternative.

Talk of forming a workers’ union had gone on at the workplace for perhaps years; we were the first ones that had actually contacted and begun working with one. Unions are organizations that were first created by workers to defend themselves from bad working conditions. They were born alongside capitalism, in response to the new social relationship of owner and worker, and especially the new, deeper economic interdependence that required an owner to make profits off the labor of the workers — the harder and longer a worker labored, the bigger the profits. It is this relationship that justifies the existence of unions, why they are indispensable to workers in any area of work, and why they were especially equipped to help us with our specific problems. Once we had the backing of a large, worker-based organization, we were able to free ourselves from the influence of the bosses and organize independently to see our specific interests were met. The reaction from the workplace was overwhelmingly favorable; a new epoch was about to be born.

The above flow of events at our workplace can be generally applied to society at large, where the majority of people are prone to accept their disempowered place in society, and are only compelled to become politically engaged in exceptional periods. Likewise, when a mass, revolutionary movement begins, the people must usually learn from experience about how to maneuver politically so that their interests are met and not funneled down the pseudo-radical channels that lead back to the status-quo. Under capitalism — and in the U.S. especially — the electoral system is dominated by political organizations that serve the interests of the rich. It usually takes experience for people to learn that the traditional political parties are, like the bosses at our workplace, coming from a perspective that conflicts with their own. These political hacks will promise the moon and the stars and do precisely the opposite. Eventually people tire of the lies, become radicalized through worsening conditions, and declare “enough is enough”: the need for a political organization that is able to represent the interests of average, working-class people — versus that of the corporations — becomes the demand of the day. If such an organization fails to be created during a revolutionary epoch, the energy of the people is either dissipated through aimless riots (and consequent state repression), individual terrorism (and consequent state repression), or funneled back into mainstream political parties (with the aide of state repression). This goes for the workplace as well. If no independent, worker-orientated organization is created, the boss will ultimately regain complete control (after discarding the more unruly employees, of course).

The demand for a working class political party was met in prior revolutionary epochs on an international scale with the formation of Labor parties — political organizations that have the unions as their base. U.S. workers are unique in that they were never able to achieve this; but the failure had a definite cause. Many international Labor Parties were built during World War I, under severe social and economic upheavals. The U.S., being not only the richest country in the world but geographically isolated from the war, was, as a consequence, able to offer its workers slightly better wages and conditions than elsewhere.

In the 1930s the demand for a Labor Party became one of the slogans for the new labor upsurge headed by the CIO that broke from the bureaucratic, conservative unionism of the American Federation of Labor. It took government social programs, minor concessions from corporations, and historic treachery from labor leaders to stop the movement towards a Labor party (career-orientated labor leaders found — and still find today — that the two-party system is comfortable status quo for them).

Thus, the demand for a Labor Party or any mass, political organization/party that represents the working-class is still as relevant as it has ever been. A Labor Party is necessary for society at large for the same reasons that my coworkers demanded a union at our workplace: the existence of unions are based on a real conflict of social classes, and as such, a Labor Party that has the unions at its base would represent — by its very nature — the interests of the overwhelming majority of people in any country, since this relationship exists everywhere capitalism does.

A quick investigation into the Labor Parties of the world will make some people second guess the above paragraph, as Labor Parties — and other working class-based parties — have often been complicit in the crimes orchestrated by that country’s ruling class. The latest and perhaps most disgusting example is England’s Labor Party, which, with Tony Blair at its helm, led the country into war with Iraq while also implementing laws that have been unfavorable to workers.

How is this to be explained? For starters, any working class party automatically reflects the labor movement at that point in time. In “normal” times, workers — including those that comprise Labor Parties — are not actively engaged in politics. The less active a union’s membership is, the more powerful the union officialdom becomes, until it hardens into a seemingly unbreakable bureaucracy, interested only in its own privileged interests and the status quo.

When the workers become radicalized by worsening conditions, their fiercest opponent is often their own union leadership. The clash of interests between worker and bureaucrat can, depending on the militancy and perspective of the workers, result in a variety of different directions: transformation of the union into a worker run, radical institution; the formation of a completely new union that splits from the old; or the defeat of the workers by their “leaders” and the resumption of the status quo. It is a law of revolution that this battle will take place; it is impossible to foresee who will win. However, workers must be encouraged to cleanse their unions of bureaucrats and careerists. In the process, at a critical point, the opposition may grow large enough to where a transformation or split is inevitable. This cleansing process, which normally takes place only in a revolutionary epoch, will inevitably find expression in the larger Labor Party, where the cob-webs of generational opportunism and class-collaboration can be swiped away, or a completely new organization is born in its ashes.

Although this process has happened numerous times in the last century, the most recent example is in present day Venezuela where, under pressure from the ongoing revolution, the hugely conservative worker’s union of the CTV was virtually shattered and a radical union, the UNT, was born out of the struggle.

However, the complete rejection of unions and labor parties as arenas for social change remains an easy conclusion to make, especially in the richer nations where the corruption/collaboration is rigidly institutionalized, and more importantly because there has not been a mass labor movement — in the U.S. especially — in decades. Indeed, if one were to take a snap-shot of society as it is now and based all further political strategy on it, the unions would fare poorly. A union organizing campaign is thus, on a micro-scale, an instructive phenomenon to help combat this hasty conclusion.

Many coworkers at our workplace who were first approached with the idea of a union simply pointed to the work environment and declared the idea impossible — the workers appeared apathetic, divided, scared, powerless, and lulled into routine. Convincing them that we could unite and overcome these conditions seemed quite utopian and outrageous. It was not easy work. The different shifts had become accustomed to blaming each other for mistakes and undone work; half of the workplace functioned completely independently of the other, and as a consequence, the workers never interacted. The very idea of the union began to erase some of these barriers, while hard work managed to unite the workforce in full.

Before long the entire workplace was turned on its head. Workers from every shift were meeting outside of work on a regular basis, where they were teaching, being taught, and recruiting and organizing new members. Coworkers that no one expected to care became great leaders, and many people who’d never before interacted became not only friends, but intimate teammates of sorts engrossed in a heated campaign. Under pressure from the boss and being forced to fight, the workplace became radically transformed — those who’d quit or were fired only months before were astonished when they heard about the development of the union and the giant changes that were taking place at the workplace.

The relationship between management and the workers had changed as well, mainly because the workers were no longer afraid of the bosses. Our organizing campaign was overwhelmingly popular, so the boss had limited resources to combat our ideas. “Captive audience” meetings were set up to intimidate and give misinformation about the union, but were shouted down by captive union members in the audience. Every offensive by management led to a redoubling of anger and effort by our coworkers.

The Question of Leadership

Our example shows how a static, conservative body of workers can be transformed into a dynamic force for change. In revolutionary epochs, this same energy overtakes workers on a national level, and produces similar results. But more is needed than a mass, workers’ organization. The “correct” Leadership and direction are equally crucial. In this case, “correct” simply means any perspective within the worker organization that is able to lead the revolutionized workers out of the social crisis produced by capitalism; the same crisis that inevitably is responsible for the radicalization of the workers and their collective search for a solution.

Revolution is often correctly described as a path. When the majority of people in a society suddenly become politically engaged and actively fight for a solution to their problem, they can be said to be entering the “path of revolution.” Once they enter on this path, the old system cannot be sustained; the equilibrium of power is upset, and the old government becomes unstable. Only two outcomes for workers can then result: victory or defeat. Thus, a “correct” revolutionary perspective is one that leads the workers on their path to victory and not defeat.

Crucial to a victorious revolution is having a leadership that understands what victory looks like. While on their revolutionary path, workers began to learn from experience that there is a consistent, counteracting force to their social progress. All of the levers of power controlled by the employer class are focused and directed at the destruction of the revolution. Thus, the first pre-condition of a victorious revolution is nullifying this threat, which, if allowed to fester, evolves into a military coup, fascism, or another cancerous form of counter-revolution. Disarming this immense threat consists of taking from them the basis of their power — the media, the banks, industry, and the replacement of the standing army by the formation of peoples’ militias. Once this is done and organs of popular power — traditionally called “soviets,” “communes,” or “popular assemblies” — replace the bureaucratic government of the rich, victory is achieved, and only then does a progressive restructuring of society begin — commonly referred to as socialism.

Some will bemoan the proposed need for leadership, relying instead on revolutionary “spontaneity” as a solution for the working class. Unfortunately, capitalism has created not only inequality in wealth, but in education and free time as well. Thus, many people are left nearly politically illiterate and/or heavily burdened by work or domestic duties. Also, the great masses of people have only their wretched experience with capitalist politicians as a guiding force for them — they consequently know what they do not want, but usually do not have a clear, defined notion of what they do want, nor how to get there. Getting there takes a conscious leadership, which consists of the most self-sacrificing, active, and dedicated portion of the working class. Although there have been numerous examples of treacherous working class leaders in the past, concluding from this that all leadership is bad is tantamount to disarming the working class in the face of a well organized and powerfully led opposition.

Our experience in union organizing adds credence to the need for leadership in the politics of the working class. A crucial part of the well worked out formula for a successful union organizing drive is the organizing committee — the leadership of the new union. Experience has proven time and again that a well-educated and committed organizing committee is crucial to the success of an organizing drive. And whom does the organizing committee consist of? The leaders of the worksite; the workers who have the respect of their co-workers and whom others follow when there are questions or crises. When it comes to union organizing, there are no debates on the necessity of leadership; countless organizing campaigns have proved what works and what doesn’t, and leadership remains an essential component.

The goal of the organizing committee is simple: leading the workforce towards a successful union. To accomplish this, the organizing committee must become professional unionists — something that doesn’t come naturally, but must be learned. Once the organizing committee is fully formed, time is spent educating themselves and preparing for the upcoming revolution that will soon overtake their workplace: they must know the ins and outs of unionism (the legal process, elections, contracts, etc); they must also know what strategy the boss will use to stop them in order to prepare and educate their co-workers on how to counteract the inevitable attacks; they must understand the issues of the workplace and the individual workers so that the appropriate agitation can be applied for the appropriate situation.

When many of the workers were dedicating their free time to their usual recreational or domestic duties, the organizing committee was attending meetings and planning the next steps to take. Above all, the organizing committee must understand that there is no other solution to the problems of the workplace; they must patiently explain that you cannot plead with, or pressure the boss, but only collectively organize to make them submit.

It becomes clear why trade unionists understand better than the average person why there is a need for political leadership. All of the above characteristics of a union organizing committee apply with equal weight to the leadership of a working class political organization on a national and even international level. If such an organization is worth anything, it will be able to help guide the working-class through the obstacles inherent in a revolutionary situation towards victory, i.e. through the resistance of the employer class and toward the establishment of a democratic socialist society.

Once again, understanding how this is done doesn’t come by intuition. It takes conscious effort in studying the history of capitalism and the revolts against it, including the strategy and tactics that both worked and failed, andunderstanding the fundamental class differences between capitalist and worker. The capitalist class has a wide variety of politicians who advocate for and defend their class interests; the working class, too, needs leaders capable of performing similar duties for their own class.

Ultimately, a revolution cannot be successful unless there exists a working class organization that offers a way out of the impasse of capitalism, much like a union without an organizing committee cannot be successfully created — no matter how favorable the situation is otherwise. Like our co-workers who bravely tried in vain to correct the problems at our work through individual action, their fate is similar to those who try independent action to end capitalism.


Unions are not ends in themselves, as the bureaucratic top layers would have you think. Under capitalism, unions will remain chiefly defense organizations: protecting their members from attack; trying to maintain their share of the company’s revenue; striving to maintain their minimal voice in the decision-making process, etc. Ultimately, the corporation remains in control, and the workers remain workers while stockholders do nothing but collect dividends for no services rendered.

A revolutionary era typically begins when the profit rates of corporations shrink and the owners attempt to shift this burden onto the back of the workers. This disrupts the status-quo of union/corporate collaboration, since the workers will only concede so much. When the workers start making demands, the union bureaucrats insist on patience and compromise. Yet if the union is to remain relevant, it must eventually transform itself from a defensive to an offensive organization. Such a drastic change, however, requires a complete revolution in perspective: the transition from worker-management collaboration to that of an independent, working-class perspective, leading inevitably towards an anti-capitalist, socialist perspective.

Unionism without an independent political orientation — that is, without a firm working class perspective — is inevitably brought under the influence of the corporations, whose only interests are submissive workers and large profits. Working class independence means counteracting the philosophy of capitalism (the interests of the capitalists) with the philosophy of socialism (the interests of the workers). This remains the issue of the day for workers everywhere. 

Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com