Rediscovering Socialist Unionism

By Elaine Bernard

With all that is being written in the mainstream press about the 2016 election season, an important aspect of the massive turnout and public support for Bernie Sanders seems to have gone unnoticed.  Among the thousands of unionists drawn to the Sanders campaign, there’s new interest in talking about democratic socialism.  For some, it’s an exciting new inquiry—what does it mean to be a socialist and a trade unionist?  For others, with sad memories of U.S. labor’s cold-war red-baiting, it’s an opening to reexamine our union history and reclaim the broader, transformational agenda that socialists have fought for both in their unions and in society at large.

Simply put, to be a socialist is to be for democracy, but a radical democracy that seeks to eliminate racism, sexism, and the multiple forms of chauvinism and oppression that undermine solidarity and compassionate human relations. To be a socialist is to join the struggle on the side of equity-seeking groups against the oppressive poisons that divide us and choke off the creation of a truly democratic and just society.

For socialists, democracy isn’t just about the right to vote for representatives every two or four years.  Democracy is about the right to participate in decisions that affect us every day, and many of these decisions are made at work. That’s why socialists support building powerful organizations of producers of goods, services, and care giving—unions—that act in solidarity with customers, clients, and patients.  The world of work is an important terrain where workers can challenge the power of capital and the role of markets in controlling our lives.

Socialists work to build unions that are democratic and to create a community of interest with each other and the community.  Socialists also seek to expand the mission of unions, so that they are not just representing their current members.  Unions must champion the solidarity philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to all” and promote a unionism that supports and gives aid to those who are struggling for worker rights and human rights wherever they are organizing or under threat. 

Socialists advocate a union practice that reaches well beyond workplace relations and joins with people struggling in the wider community.  In recent years, this type of unionism is sometimes referred to as “social unionism.”  This term stands in sharp contrast to a narrower union perspective that deals only with wages and benefits and ignores the many other problems facing working people. 

For socialists, bringing democracy into the economic sphere is a priority.  Economic inequality condemns millions to poverty and starvation while a tiny minority dictates how the productive capacity of society will be used.  Socialists, however, are interested in more than just an equitable distribution of the wealth produced by all of us.  For socialists, the narrow focus on the redistribution of goods after production ignores the waste, destruction, and harm done in the profit-driven production process.  Under capitalism, profits, not human needs, drive production and the economy and even cloak the human decision-makers with an aura of deniability (the boss has no choice, the market dictates!).

Distribution decisions are important and worth fighting for.  But until human needs, environmental justice, and sustainable development eclipse profits, we will not have a truly just and democratic society.  Socialists join the fight for economic justice and equality at every opportunity, in every venue, and recognize that we will never be a democratic and just society until human priorities drive the economy.

DSA member Elaine Bernard is the executive director of the Labor & Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. 

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