Sunday, August 13, 2023

Review of Class Struggle Unionism by Joe Burns

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (03/23/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) How To Allocate Resources?, 2) The Impact of Inequality

Watch Short Review


“Despite their lack of connection to the workplace, the owners keep the product of the workers’ labor that they sell to consumers.  Now, this state of affairs is accepted as just the way things are, the natural order of the universe, or the “free market.”  Employers are considered to have invested in the business, taken the risk, or even created the company.  Under this framework workers are hired to do a job and receive wages in return, and they have no more stake in the final product than any other supplier into the production process.  Human labor is treated just like any other raw material or input into production.” – Joe Burns, Chapter 1: Shop Floor Economics, Page 6

“Coming out of the upsurge of the 1930s, workers ruled the shop floor in many industries.  If they did not like what a supervisor did, they would stop work until the problem was resolved.  These mini-strikes gave workers an incredible amount of control at the point of production.  They also infuriated management representatives who sought to regain control.” – Joe Burns, Chapter 2: Class Struggle Union Ideas, Page 34

“Labor strategy must include tactics of solidarity capable of producing industry-wide agreements, preventing the employer from closing down the plant or shifting production to a non-union area, and preventing the undercutting of union wages by non-union competitors.  As discussed previously, in an era of international commerce such a strategy must be internationalist in nature.  These considerations have all been spelled out in detail in classical union theory and were once considered commonplace among both labor activists and theorists.” – Joe Burns, Chapter 5: Class Struggle Tactics, Pages 83-84


Is This An Overview?

The superrich own the majority of resources.  Class struggle unionism seeks to challenge that position.  Class struggle unionism, is about the class system of workers and owners.  Owners who are few, but control most of the resources.  The working class need to sell their labor to survive.  Workers have little income-producing property.  It is through worker efforts that resources become more valuable, for which they are compensated by a wage or a salary.  But owners keep most of the worker’s effort when they sell the products to consumers.  Owner’s income comes from other people’s efforts. 

What class struggle unions want are large scale efforts, militancy, union democracy, fighting the status quo, and being inclusive to all.  To change the structure of the economy.  Workers need to emancipate themselves.  Worker movements need political influence to defend their interests against the superrich class.  An effective method for workers gaining power is to strike.  Strikes stop the profit-making ability of the business, therefore the workers’ demands get attention.  But there are limits to what unions can do, for many union activities have become illegal.  Breaking the laws comes with high costs, making unions hesitant about their actions.  What this book favors, is for unions to use militancy and violate labor laws.


A Class Struggle?

Owner class would not have to work another day, simply because they own the properties that produce income.  Owners generally utilize already existing physical, social, and knowledge infrastructure rather than develop the infrastructure themselves.  They just have control over the emerging and existing industries.  Part of the reason they keep a large share of the worker outcomes, is because of propaganda.  That they have more of a stake in the outcomes than workers because it was the owners who took the risk in developing the business.  To the superrich class, the works are just inputs in the production process.  They are raw material rather than human. 

Wealth is social relationships, the ability to command others.  Wealth enables the purchase of politicians, and to control the political system. 



The goals of class struggle unions can bring value to people, as the ideas about reducing inequality and being properly rewarded for the value of one’s efforts are virtuous.  The methods being used to achieve the goals, are not virtuous.  The methods are totalitarian.  The type of union that is promoted in the book, is one that controls all production activities, even through violent means.  To stop businesses from relocating or closing when they disagree with the union.  To stop workers who disagree with union decisions.  To stop non-union competitors from out pricing the unions.  The only acceptable decisions, are those given by the union, as they are perceived that they are for the benefit of the worker.  These policies have been used in various states throughout history, and have led to the devastation of their economies.

The claims of the book are about unions taking control of production capacities, of how other people produce wealth, rather than unions starting their own businesses and facing their own consequences.  The author claims that the superrich own the income producing property, but rejects programs that give workers the opportunity to develop their income producing property.  

The goals in the book are abstract, without referencing how the situation would be should the goals come about.  The practical reference comes from depowering management, for management to have less power than the workers.  It is possible that income would be distributed different.

It is possible that part of the reason that militancy is being promoted, is because other methods that unions used have become illegal.  But, rather than use militancy, the unions could fight to change the laws.  Or develop methods that are legal and effective. 

Strikes themselves are aimed at reducing production capacity, even at the cost of the very business.  As the businesses leave.  Rather, unions can create programs to enhance productivity that also enables the workers to gain the benefits. 

The author acknowledges that union workers are inefficient, for they cannot compete with the alternatives.  For this author, this means that unions need to have enough power to stop the competitors.  There is an alternative for this, which is to make the union workers more efficient.  Unions are supposed to enable workers to get benefits, which can make them union workers more productive rather than inefficient. 

The author does not want a bureaucratic union.  There are many different types of bureaucracies, and some do hurt their own members.  But bureaucracies tend to have the function of limiting arbitrary decision making.  The author wants the unions, to have the capacity for arbitrary decision making.  This can create problems, for the author references some unions which harmed their members, as they stole from their unions.  What this means, is that the unions who possess arbitrary power, would not have ways to restrict their leaderships decision making when the same power is turned against the members.  

The author supports large scale efforts, but large scale efforts have consequences that are difficult to reverse.  Small-scale efforts might not be enough to change the system, but they enable experimentation and error correction.

A claim is made that the superrich can live without working, but they do work.  They might produce the inequality, but they still work.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is class struggle unionism?
•What is the class structure?
•How is value produced? 
•What is the power of the strike?
•Why are union activities illegal?  How does their illegality effect their behavior?
•Who do unions work for? 
•What is wealth? 
•What scale should union efforts be? 
•Is there a political party in the U.S. that supports labor movements? 
•What are different types of labor unions and why are they different? 
•Why do unions want to have more power than the firms?
•Why do unions want to control member behavior?
•Why do unions want to control competitors behavior?
•Why does the author not want a bureaucratic union? 
•What are income-producing property? 

Book Details
Publisher:             Haymarket Books
Edition ISBN:      9781642595840
Pages to read:       143
Publication:          2022
1st Edition:           2022
Format:                 Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          3
Overall          2