We in the Milwaukee DSA want to encourage our members, and the general public, to unionize their workplaces. To that end, we are presenting a four part series of articles making the case for unionizing, the legal framework for it, the steps one needs to take to unionize a workplace, and a case study of successful unionization drive. This is the first part.
If the goal of socialist organizations is ending capitalism, then a primary focus of attention for socialists must be on the defining social relationship that constitutes capitalism, the worker/owner relationship. It’s a relationship in which almost all of us have to participate. It’s forced upon us by the fact that owners control the means of production in a capitalist society. That is, they own the factories, the shops, the buildings, the equipment in them, everything required to produce a product, except for one thing. What they don’t own outright is our labor power. They have to buy that from us on a daily basis. We turn wheat and eggs into bread, coal and iron into steel, and a six year old and a pile of books into a baker, steelworker, or teacher. However, we are not paid the full value of what we produce. We are only paid a set amount by the hour, week, or year, and the difference between the amount we’re paid and the amount that the items we produce are sold for, is (in simple terms) profit. Because our labor power is a necessary input into production, and our labor power is necessary to the formation of profit, we are indispensable to the capitalist system, and that gives us power. However, it’s conditional power. While the owners’ power is in wealth, ours is in our numbers, but only if we act in unison. While an individual refusing to work would indeed prevent their labor from being used to make profit, that laborer could easily be replaced by another individual. But we can’t all be replaced if we act together. If we overcome our divisions and recognize our common position in the capitalist social relationship, if we act consciously as a class, we can assert control over the relationship and end it, and replace it with a relationship of equals, working together to create a society for our common good. That common good, at a minimum, includes guaranteed access to the fundamentals of life, such as shelter, food, energy, education, and child and elder care.
The most straightforward tool we have to start bringing workers together to work toward a common goal is labor unions. Unions are about workers asserting their power in the workplace, at the most immediate focal point of the capitalist relationship, controlling working conditions, controlling their hours, making the workplace safe, getting job security, and getting more of the full value of their work. Forming a union, by itself, is an act of worker solidarity and requires collective action. It is a group of workers recognizing their common position and collective power, and working together to assert their power. It’s a first step forward, but not enough by itself. Solidarity is an ongoing process, not a final achievement. Keeping the union going and functioning for the workers requires the workers to continue on with the same energy and participation as it took to form the union. The more the workers are engaged, the more the union will function as a democracy, and the more the workers will see themselves in each other. If too many members become passive, the active members will by default become the leadership, and left on their own, will start acting on their own, making decisions for the members. The passive members will start seeing the active members as a “they”, and vice versa. The union will seem like something being done for them, rather than by them. They will start to see the union as something more like an investment, something in which they pay into for some benefit, and they’ll evaluate the worth of it in a similar way. The real value of a union is in developing the habit of acting in solidarity, of collective action, and experiencing the power behind it. This habit is critical for the formation of socialism. Obviously, all of this is easier said than done. It can be a problem getting people to participate when capitalism sucks up so much of our time, whether directly, through work, or indirectly through the daily things we do to get ourselves ready to participate in work the next day (including just relaxing and enjoying each other), and, of course, getting our children ready to participate in the labor force in the coming years. We need to recognize people’s limitations in time and energy, and do what we can to meet them halfway. Caring about other people’s problems is also an act of solidarity. Making sure meetings are accessible and keeping communication flowing in every direction helps. This is another sense of the phrase “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. In the end, some people will be more active than others, but we need to always be looking for opportunities to activate and engage as many as possible.
Now, unions are a building block of socialism, but they aren’t enough by themselves. As I noted, their focus is on their particular workplace, and the problems within that workplace. There’s no inherent force that will drive workers to see the big picture. Some people in a union will just be focused on making more money and getting a dental plan. Some may focus on larger workplace problems, but won’t make the connection between their workplace problems and capitalism. Some will come to see capitalism as the problem, but just an economic issue, wholly separate from larger issues like inequality, international relations, immigration, racial and gender discrimination, environmental degradation, and educational disparities. This is where socialist parties and organizations like DSA come in. If they are working properly, socialist parties and organizations should function as a sort of union of unions, and to be effective they must have the same sense of belonging and democratic participation as a good union. Just as a union shouldn’t be an organization doing something “for the workers”, neither should any socialist organization. Having members of a socialist organization within unions is a good way to start spreading the word and bringing members into the larger organization, where we can all start talking together about larger problems that are confronting our community as a whole, identifying the sources of those problems, and working toward solutions. Socialist organizations can organize mutual support for labor struggles, provide organizing training, train workers in political leadership, and provide educational opportunities. Milwaukee DSA does all of these things.
When we are talking about unionizing, then, we are talking about taking the first step in creating a fully class conscious working class. Creating a class conscious working class is the first step toward socialism. In the next article, we’ll talk about the legal foundation for unionizing, your rights, and the limitations to them.