The author Joe Burns says there are two different approaches to trade unionism. These are what he calls class struggle unionists and business unionists. This extract from his book explains these two terms. Socialist Labour supports the class struggle approach to trade unionism.
Seeing the payment of wages as theft leads class struggle unionists to view our unions locked in constant battle with employers. Class struggle unionists, rather than seeing the worker-owner relationship as primarily cooperative but with occasional flare-ups, recognize that conflict is baked into an economic system that pits the interests of the working class against the employing class. This leads class struggle unionists to create a combative form of unionism that places sharp demands on employers and promotes rank-and-file activism…
Whereas class struggle unionists promote class struggle, business unionists seek to avoid it, Business unionists value their relationship with management, often identify with company concerns, and consider themselves more pragmatic than the workers. That’s not to say they won’t struggle or get into bitter strikes, but overall they tend to view these as fights against unreasonable employers…
Understanding that our unionism is a struggle between workers and owners should be considered the cardinal principle of class struggle unionism. It is a simple idea that provides quite practical advice to guide our labor work:
• Understand that powerful financial interests are lined up against our unions.
• Understand that agreements with employers are temporary truces rather than alignment of interests.
• Understand that we have opposing interests on every issue.
• See ours as a struggle between classes.
The concept of us versus them is at the core of class struggle Unionism.
In contrast, business unionists see workers’ interests as aligned with those of employers. Having accepted the narrow framework of the wage transaction, business unionists tie the fate of workers to the success of failure of the firms they work for. Rather than believing labor creates all wealth, they accept the general framework that the employer controls the workplace and the fruits of labor. This forces us to negotiate from a position of weakness against an employing class that is constantly amassing greater power.
Business unionists often see workers they represent as unreasonable and themselves as the realists. They seek a softening of struggle, they seek accommodation with owners, and they hate the unrestrained worker self-determination of open-ended strikes. Seeing their unionism not as class struggle but narrowly defined against particular employers, they often believe their role is merely to protect their members from rogue employers, rather than to fight for the entire class. This frequently leads to an exclusionary and often racist unionism that ignores the rest of the working class and sees immigrants and workers around the world as enemies rather than allies.
At the core of business unionism is class collaboration, which means these unionists see their interests more allied with management and owners than with other workers. Rather than seeing bosses as exploitative and our natural enemies, they see the unions as allies of management. This leads business unions to see workers at a plant they represent as being in competition with workers at other plants rather than sharing common interests…
For class struggle unionists this idea is simple—labor and management have opposing interests. However, powerful forces in society constantly work to undermine this key principle. Government mediators and university labor educators like to promote what they call win-win bargaining, labor-management cooperation programs, or interest-based bargaining. These concepts all share the view that labor and management share common interests and we just need to figure out how what these are.
But we know this cannot be true. On every issue in bargaining, labor and management have opposing interests. When bargaining wages, the billionaires will get a greater share of the wealth that labor produces, or the workers will. In shop floor struggles, workers will work harder and be more exhausted at the end of the shift, or work less. On safety, we want better equipment, and they want to save money. Labor’s gain is management’s loss.
Despite this, many union officials support various labor cooperation schemes promoted by management. Sometimes management does this when unions are powerful to lull the unions to sleep. But often they will employ this strategy during periods of relative weakness when they know business unionists will jump at the chance…
This allows employers to form alliances with the business union leaders to buy them off…
Class struggle unionists coalesced around a different course for the labor movement centered on labor solidarity, strike support, resistance to labor-management cooperation, and worker internationalism. Central to left-wing trade unionism in the 1970s and 1980s was fighting against what these unionists saw as “sellout” union officials. Meatpackers, autoworkers, transit workers, steelworkers, truck drivers, and mineworkers all saw significant reform movements explicitly offering member control and militancy as an alternative path forward for labor…
Class struggle trade unionism draws sharp lines between workers and employers. It engages in fierce battles, and frequently comes into conflict with the trade union national leadership.
One can tell who the class struggle unionists are by how much they fight the boss and the intensity of the struggle. When the chips are down, and the workers are fighting the boss, do they try to calm things down, or do they join in the struggle and seek to intensify it?
The above is an extract from Class Struggle Unionism by Joe Burns (2022)