By Maria Svart
A union is a group of individuals who get together with their co-workers and approach their boss about conditions at work—together. These individuals are practicing freedom of association. Yet in the capitalist mind, they’re engaged in economic extortion. That’s not a completely wrong analogy, because workers who form a strong union are capable of forcing the boss to share the results of their collective labor more equitably than are non-unionized workers. That’s one thing I learned in my years as a union organizer before joining the staff of DSA: it’s all about power.
That’s why democratic socialists love unions: we want to expand working-class power and restrict capitalist-class power. Unions are where people learn to fight back and win. Strong unions can fight for political reforms. Those political reforms can affect the structure of the economy, thus making it more democratic. This makes unions dangerous to the capitalist class.
Hence, the current attacks on labor. This September, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that challenges the right of a public-sector union to collect dues from everyone covered by its collective bargaining agreements. If the CTA loses, then the 26 states that still permit unions to collect such dues could become “open shop” states, and public-sector unions could hemorrhage funds.
But the truth is, this is just the latest in decades of assaults on the gains of working people. Governor Scott Walker’s successful rampage in pro-union Wisconsin demonstrates that when big money backs the most extreme version of capitalist ideology, we are unprepared. We have to find new ways to fight back.
How do we organize in the age of the “new normal”? In the Labor Day issue of Democratic Left, you’ll read about glimmers of hope in very dark times.
In the last issue, I talked about the need for solidarity, about acknowledging and building on our differences in order to create a powerful and democratic movement. Even as we come together in solidarity, we need to walk with vision. Capitalists have a vision of endless accumulation for themselves. They either do not know or do not care that the end game is destruction of the planet and of “civilization” as we know it.
To me, walking with vision means fixing my democratic socialist ideals in my sights despite the difficult times. I fight every day in immediate battles to protect Social Security, to defend workers who are standing up for their union rights, to gain full civil and voting rights for everyone, to stop racist police violence. This is how to build power. But I do so while also building a community around me that values cooperation and brings strategic, socialist thinking to the front lines. Our end game is not a planet devastated by greed and ceaseless war. Our end game, in the words of James Oppenheim’s famous poem, “is a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
Maria Svart is the national director of DSA.
This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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