By Maria Svart
What is a union? Put simply, it’s a collection of workers who decide they have a common interest, an interest that is in conflict with their boss.
More precisely, it is the organization those workers form so that they can negotiate with their boss collectively, instead of individually, over the terms of their employment. They do so by threatening to disrupt their boss’s accumulation of profit, by withholding their labor. But their power goes beyond just one workplace and one employer. Unions are the only enduring institutions in the United States that are dedicated to being run by and for the working class—through pooling of dues money—to advance their class interests in the economy and in the formal political arena.
Is it any wonder that the capitalist class seeks to destroy them? Or that democratic socialists defend them?
When I was at the People’s Summit in June, I used my time on stage to tell the story of the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Some 20,000 textile mill workers struck for better wages, led by immigrant women speaking more than 30 languages. In the words of James Oppenheim’s poem written the year before and linked to the strike, the workers wanted bread, “but we fight for roses, too.”
They didn’t just want to survive, they wanted to thrive. I think of our organizing as democratic socialists in much the same way: we’re demanding not just a fair share of the fruits of our labor, we’re demanding control of our workplaces, our institutions, our families, and our economy.
By telling that story in front of a progressive audience, I could join a radical vision of democratic control of the workplace to a vision of democratic control of society. I could also explain the central role of multi-racial working-class organization to disrupt the capitalist system and win change. It didn’t hurt to connect the Bread and Roses strike with the DSA rose emoji that members use on Twitter, either!
As we go into a period where many unions are struggling to prepare for national “right to work” and other anti-union moves by the federal government, DSA is a unique place for union members and other working people to make sense of the changing economy and engage in collective action to make it more democratic.
Major sectors of the economy are being privatized or automated by the capitalist class, both of which have devastating effects. As socialists, we can analyze these trends and fight back, whether with our coworkers as union members or in solidarity as supporters. Our national Labor Working Group supports the self-organization of union members inside DSA and can serve as a focal point for those efforts.
As always, our strategy has three prongs depending on conditions and context: in this case, offensive struggle to organize more workers; defensive struggle to protect unions and the most exploitable, such as migrant workers; and ideological struggle to challenge the very logic that says the bosses can and should control our lives and labor. We can do better, and that’s why we fight!
Maria Svart is National Director of the Democratic Socialists of America.
This essay from the Fall/Labor Day 2017 issue of Democratic Left.
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