Venture syndicalism: can reviving the strike revive mass unionization?

A short article by Nate Hawthorne on the prospects of AFL-CIO unions taking bigger risks to halt the decline of unionization rates.

It’s surprising how small a fraction of U.S. workers are actually in labor unions. Just over 7 million government employees are union members and slightly fewer private sector employees are in unions. This means that just under 12 percent of public sector workers and less than 7 percent of private sector workers are in unions. These numbers keep falling.

If unions want to reverse their decline, they need to return to powerful strikes that stop businesses completely. That’s what Joe Burns argues in his recent book, “Reviving the Strike.” It’s a good book and I recommend it highly to all IWW members (it would pair very well with “Labor Law for the Rank and Filer” by Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross). Burns supplies a concise and clear argument about the role of labor law in the decline of unions. The labor law system doesn’t work for unions, so if the unions want to continue to exist, they need to start breaking the law, he argues. There are big risks to breaking the law, though. Burns suggests that unions can get around this by setting up and funding fully independent organizations that will have fewer resources, and less to lose as a result. We may be seeing versions of this already, with the strikes against Walmart warehouse subcontractors, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organizing against Walmart and fast food respectively and union support for workers’ centers.

We might call this “venture syndicalism,” named after venture capitalism. Venture capital firms are companies that advance money to businesses that are in their very early stages, when they have little money, lots of risk of failure yet a high potential for success. The funds spent are a great deal of money for the startup company but only a small amount of money for a large financial company. Venture syndicalism is the union version of this, where the mainstream and wealthier unions fund more confrontational efforts than they can afford to carry out on their own.

Radicals have an important role to play in this effort. Both venture capitalism and venture syndicalism rely on a lot of initial unpaid hours by volunteers excited about the project for reasons beyond short-term financial gain. Burns suggests that most people join unions if and when it’s in their economic interest to do so. Unions in the United States are not going to have the power to win much unless there’s a threat of really serious economic harm to employers. That means unions are unlikely to act in ways that make the benefits of forming a union outweigh the costs for most people.

If people join unions based on costbenefit analysis then there’s little reason why anyone would ever take such actions. There’s a sort of “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” quality to all this; most people won’t join unions unless there’s some benefit to doing so, yet the law is set up so that unions behave in ways that limit the benefits of unionization. Breaking the law will have huge costs, so why would people break the law?

The solution to the puzzle is that some people need to take militant action despite the risks, and not primarily out of a narrow cost-benefit analysis. I think this is part of the role that radicals can play in helping set off movements to enliven the existing labor movement. Some people might run the risks of initial militancy despite the consequences. In doing so, they push against the current prevailing forms of governing capitalism. If these initial efforts succeed, larger numbers can join in and the rules of the game will change, encouraging larger numbers of workers to form unions. That is to say it is often not in workers’ short-term interests, narrowly understood, to form unions. People who act bravely against short-term interests might change this condition, to make it so that unionization becomes more in keeping with people’s short-term narrow interests. This is basically what happened in the 1930s. It may be happening again, or may be coming in the near future.

If all of this is happening or begins to happen soon, we should welcome it but also ask: yes, revive the strike, but for what purpose? To put it another way, let’s say the unions “revive the strike,” as Burns has called for. Then what? What Burns argues is that this could lead to greater unionization. Is that what we want? Should we measure success by rising rates of unionization, and in dollars and cents won on the shop floor?

We’re a revolutionary union. In my view, we should have an organizationwide conversation about different ways to organize a post-revolutionary society, what we think a revolution would look like in the countries where we operate and what activities might move a revolution closer. I’m not convinced that a militant labor struggle alone moves the working class toward a new society. What I’ve been calling venture syndicalism might be an effort by the labor movement to revive the strike in order use it to advocate for a new and “better” capitalism. We shouldn’t think that the militancy of a strike alone is a measure of how much it brings us closer to a new society.

More to the point, if we see the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor groups begin to aggressively break the rules of labor law, we should welcome this, but will it change our understanding of those unions? If this happens we may be asked to stand with their struggles, and we should do so. But we should do so in ways that put us in contact with the members of those organizations, not primarily their staff and officers, and that will create conversations about what a good society would look like, not simply to address the issues of winning the short-term struggle. Otherwise we’ll be little more than unpaid volunteers in the venture syndicalist project..

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker (June 2013)