Unions and the West: The Scott Walker Affair

Following a headlong confrontation over the Governor of Wisconsin, the reactionary Scott Walker, and his direct assaults on the public sector unions and their legislative achievements, much of the US left is now abuzz with the resounding failure of the campaign to recall him. In what had been seen as one of the last great revivals of the labor movement in the United States, workers officially and unofficially organized against Walker, even going so far as to occupy the Capitol building and to make the functioning of the Wisconsin legislature impossible. There were massive campaigns for opposition against the anti-union onslaught, and it was seen by many in organized labor as a decisive battle on whether the fight for union rights could be won in America. Laws undermining the public sector unions had already passed without much difficulty in Indiana and Missouri, but were defeated in Ohio. In this way, Wisconsin became something of a battleground, befitting a state which has a reputation for supplying leading politicians of both the left wing and the right wing, relative to American standards. But the Democratic Party took the leadership of the campaign together with the unions, and supplied a weak centrist called Tom Barrett against Walker – a candidate who, as mayor of Milwaukee, failed to even endorse unequivocally the union position, and who had lost the election against Walker in the first place. In the end, Barrett added about 150.000 extra votes, but Walker added 200.000 extra votes, and therefore won by a larger margin than before. For all the union efforts, the Democratic Party nationally put in no real support for the campaign, and President Obama could not be bothered to do more than post a Tweet about it. This despite his pledge, during his own campaigning, that in case of an attack on union organizing he’d “put on a pair of comfortable shoes and join them on the picket line”.

This defeat has led to much recrimination among the left, but also a lot of useful head-scratching on how it could have come about. In two excellent articles, Doug Henwood pointed out that American unions are losing not just numerically, with ever fewer members as a proportion of the working population, but also politically, in that they actually have relatively little public support and the general attitude of the non-unionized population is one of skepticism, if not outright hostility. The refusal of union stalwarts and theorists to acknowledge this is a strategic error. However convinced we may be of the merits of unions as the elementary form of workers’ organization and the class struggle, one must know one’s relative strengths and weaknesses on the political battlefield to not lose important fights like this. And things do not look good for American unions on this score. A debate between Henwood and union theorists on Corey Robin’s site revealed much of the fundamental split on this point – the union theorists sought to defend the virtues of unions and their practical activity in providing union contracts for their members in specific workplaces as an essential part of what unionism must be about, and pointed out the role of union support for various reformist measures within and through the Democratic Party.

But this misses the point Henwood made: unions need to be able to explain why they have become unpopular, beyond the ad hoc justifications about the power of money, campaign finance laws, and other nonsense – it will not do for unions to cry foul and complain about being victimized by organized forces of the right. Of course the enemy is organized and on the attack! One should expect this to be the case. Far too much political energies by the organized left in the US are wasted on worrying about the reactionaries and their efforts, whether in the form of anti-union laws, the ‘Tea Party’, the Koch family, anti-tax groups, and whatnot. The strength of the party of capital will always be in their superior finances and in their control over the information and political apparatuses. The strength of the party of emancipation rests in numbers, in the self-organization of people who know themselves to be the instruments of their own liberation. To focus on the Walkers and the Kochs of this world is a red herring – they have always been there, they were there in 1890, they were there in the 1920s, they were there in the 1950s, they will be there as long as class society lasts. We must focus on the organizations of the workers themselves, what they are for, and what they can achieve.

Unions are the most natural form of workers’ defensive organization against capital, this is as true as it has ever been. Workers organizing means they empower themselves to reassert control over their own workplaces, to defend themselves against arbitrary impositions, unsafe working conditions, speedups and lengthening of the working day, discrimination and violence against them, and to give them a voice in the struggle over production. But a union is necessarily a defensive thing, a partial thing, within capitalism. A union contract or a union negotiation deals only with the interests of the workers associated with that union. Even when, as has happened in many countries of Western Europe during the social-democratic period, unions come together collectively and negotiate with employers collectively to create settlements binding for all the workforce, they still only represent the interests of workers qua workers, as the subjects of capital. In private sector unions, this at least potentially implies the interests of the working class as a whole, as they cannot struggle against capitals there without struggling against capitalism per se. But nowadays, the vast majority of unionization in the West is in the public sector, and the interests of the public sector are more partial still. Because the capitalist interest is there mediated by the organizations of the state, the workers of the public sector confront not only the state-capitalist, but also indirectly the interests of the working majority insofar as they are consumers of the products of that particular state monopoly, whether a good or service.

Here, the possibility arises of union action by particular state workers being coming into conflict with the interests of the workers in the other sectors, which is something often seen in the Western world in recent years. This leads to divisions among the workers and allows an erosion of solidarity, leading to the general sentiment alluded to by Henwood: rather than the majority of workers supporting the public sector unions in their struggle for employment and pensions, they think “if I can’t have it, they can’t either”. This is no subjective aberration, but the result of the partiality of the interests of public sector workers. The public sector, insofar as not productive of capital (as in nationalized industries), is always parasitical on the value produced by the ‘productive’ workers, no less so than the financial sector is. The result is therefore that the largely non-unionized non-state workforce is difficult to mobilize on behalf of the public sector workers, and in fact often actively mobilizes against them. One sees this just as much in the struggles over the rights of state transport workers to strike, and so forth.

However, this analysis is still too general. It does not address the elephant in the room for the Western workers’ movements in general, and the American one in particular. For the decisive modifying factor, too often practically ignored by the nation-centric analysis of the union theorists in the United States, is the shift in the current world-system. From about the 1920s onwards, varying by country and place, the workers’ movement in the Western world was suborned by the political organizations of capital into an essentially reformist paradigm. By offering a share in the proceeds of not only their own creation of surplus value, but to a much greater and more significant extent the labor of the exploited colonies and countries subjected to imperialism, the Western working classes were by and large transformed from an essentially (if not always practically) revolutionary force into the essence of the aristocracy of labor. Now as “H.W. Edwards” has well documented, the aristocracy of labor is the mass base for the political movement of the partial, chauvinist, and relative interests of the working class as against their universal, emancipatory, and revolutionary interests.(1) In other words, it is the mass base for social-democracy, and it was in this manner that precisely because of the strength of the working class in the most advanced countries, the result was great gains for this working class at the expense of the emancipation of the global proletariat, at the expense of socialism, at the expense even of the class struggle itself in the widest sense. Capitalism’s boom period after WWII was made possible, among other things, by a great many deals across the Western world in which the unions of the working classes agreed with the state as moderator for the employers to restrain wages in return for sharing the ‘gains in productivity’, i.e. the investments and their results made possible by the exploitation not just of those workers themselves, but by the billions of workers elsewhere. The result is Western unions supporting the war on Vietnam and the global efforts of capital against Communism, when the median Western (white) worker earns as much as ten times that of your common worker in Vietnam itself. These two things are not coincidental to anyone but the most naive of progressives.

Such an imperialist labor aristocracy had already been identified in embryo by Engels in the late 19th century in the UK, when he noted how the proceeds of the oppression of Ireland, India and elsewhere allowed a segment of the British working class to objectively develop material interests contrary to those of general emancipation. This is therefore no matter of mere subjective self-conception, or of insufficient socialist propaganda, or “What’s the matter with Kansas”. This is an objective phenomenon in the sense of the historical materialist method common to Marxism (and most historiography nowadays), no less so than the analysis of the working class and unions as the vehicle for radicalism was an objective one in the first place. Moreover, in the United States and other settler countries, this has from the outset been modified by the racial factor. As J. Sakai put it, in settler societies to a certain extent “race burns class”; it does not remove the class struggle, but it modifies it.(2) The class struggle takes the form of the struggle for classes within the racial ladder that is concomitant to every settler society (to see this is true, just observe such ‘modern’ ones as Israel). The lower on the class ladder a given segment of the workforce is, the more viciously they will struggle to maintain themselves on the racial ladder, which is nothing but a caste-like ossification of the class divide. It is for this reason the Irish workers have historically been the greatest participants within the working class in the oppression of the black workers of the US: precisely because the Irish were lowest on the white class ladder, but racially set above the blacks. The same has applied in all its enormous variety to the position of Chinese and Japanese immigrant labor, to Hispanic workers in the US, and it has played the key role in maintaining the racial ladder itself and through it, capitalism’s system of class oppression specific to settler societies, as well detailed in the works of Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, and a few others.(3)

Of course, this has not been a static, unchanged thing. In Europe, the influx of immigrant workers has created newly there a segmentation in the labor market and a change in the outlook of the most reliably left-reformist of the labor aristocracy towards reaction and outright fascism, out of the shock of this confrontation. This segmentation is rapidly taking on quasi-racial form; but this process is nowhere near complete yet and may yet be halted even within the framework of reformism. Such is impossible in settler societies. In the United States, the long and fierce struggle of racial minorities in their self-organization has forced the white working class to accept them in their ranks and organizations of the immediate, national class struggle to a considerable degree. Nowhere more so than in the public sector unions, which are now notable for being one of the rare organizations in the United States mainly representing the interests of women of color. But while this glorious struggle has dealt the retrograde and utterly cannibalistic system of ‘race’ a number of severe blows, this has not thereby altered the structure of the world-system and the position of the Western working classes within it. If anything, it has broadened the scope of the labor aristocracy. The aristocracy of labor has been forced to permit from below the entry of black and Hispanic workers, many women, previous outcasts like LGBT workers and so forth, while at the same time in so doing strongly diminishing the incentive for the highest rank of the labor aristocracy, the ‘white’ male workers, to participate in and through its labor organizations.

The Scott Walker vote reflects this: white non-college males broke decisively in favor of Walker and against the public sector unions, and white men of working class position are the electoral support pillar of the Republican Party, which has allied their ultra-labor-aristocratic interests with those of the capitalists themselves.(4) Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, tend to support the Democratic Party, which represents the interests of the wider and newer labor aristocracy. But neither of these groups, locked in national struggle against each other as much as against national capitals, are able from this vantage point to change the world-system one iota. Their material interests, even those of the lower layers of this hyper-stratified system, are with chauvinism, not with anti-imperialism; with emancipation within the nation, not worldwide; with preserving the world-system, not with changing it; and thereby, whether one likes to face these facts or not, their interests are ipso facto with reformism, not revolution, and therefore with capitalism, not against it.

This is the old elephant in the room. But if one may somewhat bend the rules of style, there is a newer elephant entering the room, slowly but with determination forcing out the old, while equally unmentioned. This is the change in the world-system that has been taking place since the great crisis of the late 1970s-early 1980s. It would go too far to analyze wholly the background and causes of this change, something which has been done in detail in many works; for our present purposes it is sufficient to describe the salient points. The capitalist class has increasingly transformed in their identity as the ruling class from a group of competing national bourgeoisies to a transnational capitalist class, a class of increasingly transnationally identifying and operating elites controlling the globalized commanding heights, the great transnational corporations and institutions of finance and credit. The second great global turn of capital itself could not but bring forth such a class; but its significance rests in its opposition towards the remaining national bourgeoisies.

Previously, such a class division within the capitalist class was mainly known from the countries subject to imperialism. There, a ‘comprador’, transnational sliver often controlled the most significant capitals, while confronted with not only the working class and peasantry, but also the national-oriented bourgeoisie, generally smaller capitalists or in sectors losing the foreign competition or isolated from it. This phenomenon is now ever more dominant in the Western world itself, including (for these purposes) the major capitalist powers such as Japan, South Korea, and the Gulf absolutists. The rise of this class has operated in symbiosis with their ability to shift production globally, to make the actual competition in the production of surplus value a truly global phenomenon, and thereby to introduce a global segmented labor market. Segmented insofar as the productivity of the West still outstrips greatly that of the rest of the world, and insofar as the Western labor aristocracy is capable of enforcing its relative position through direct imperialist action and unequal exchange. But the greater the power of the transnational capitalist class, the less the incentive for this class to uphold the social-democratic turn.

The result is the current panic of the ‘white’ working class in the West first and foremost, but ever more that of the labor aristocracy in these countries in the widest sense: the historical obsolescence and downfall of the social-democracy. This is the trend that currently prevails, this is the secular trend, unstoppable by the power of the workers of the West and unstoppable by its national bourgeoisies, that is irrevokably undermining the paradigm of the past 50-60 years. It is no coincidence that as production is located more and more in China, Cambodia, the Philippines, and so forth, the West is waging more and more wars in the total absence of any serious military or ‘national security’ threat; but none of them achieve even a slight delay in the relative decline of the position of the imperialist countries and their labor aristocracies.

The results of this for workers’ power in the West is two-fold. In the short run, we should expect (and do observe) a fascist turn. The national bourgeoisies suffer from the globalization of competition, and so do especially the most privileged strata of the labor aristocracy and the so-called ‘squeezed middle classes’. Historically, this alliance leads to fascism if provoked by a severe crisis. Such a crisis is now upon us, and will last for a considerable time, perhaps never fully resolved. Already, in much of Europe there is a turn towards reactionary or even explicitly fascist positions, mobilizing against the immigrant workers who, as mentioned before, are lower on the racial ladder, but also mobilizing against the political projects and organizations of transnational capital, such as the European Union and the United Nations. Social-democracy has electorally, politically, and organizationally gone into terminal decline, and the liberals are worrying more day by day about these horrifying ‘isolationist’, ‘myopic’ etc. trends. But of course fascism has nothing to offer but war and death. In the longer run, the current crisis has sped up the process of dissolution in Western capitalism, and this may work to the favor of the revolutionary forces among the working class and their allies. In the long run, only a revitalization of the class struggle on an international, general and anti-capitalist basis can unite the interests of the new global proletariat, now unprecedentedly urbanized and educated, with that of the old.

Many of the union theorists in the West, more visionary than many of their old, white, and male members, are well aware of this, and it is greatly to their credit that in various countries they and new political organizations have started mobilizing for this challenge. But they must act quickly if they are to forestall the fascist impulse, and they can only do so if they resolutely reject the partial, chauvinist, and short-term interests of the labor aristocracy in favor of a global and generalized outlook fitting a global labor market. In the West, the unions therefore stand at a crossroads: choose the path of attempting to maintain social-democracy, choose the path of conservatism and of nostalgia, the path of chauvinism and of the least resistance, and you will be swept away. Fascism and capitalist restoration will overtake you, and there will be no future there. Or they can choose the hard path: a struggle for general emancipation even at the expense of many of the current Western workers’ partial interests, even at the expense of immediate popularity and local political power, and of easy jobs at BAE and Lockheed-Martin, against ‘patriotism’ and for internationalism, and most importantly by not lying to the workers of the West about their future. This can be done without giving up on the masses in America, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, and without liquidationism in the face of the onslaught of capitalist austerity. In such unexpected places as Iceland and Greece a new resistance is arising. There was once a time when even American workers did not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew; if the leaders of the organized working class know their historical role, such a time may come again.

1) H.W. Edwards, Labor Aristocracy, Mass Base of Social-Democracy (Stockholm 1978). http://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/contemp/whitemyths/edwards/index.html
2) J. Sakai, Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago 1983). http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2005/10/28/17790131.php
3) E.g., Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, NY 1996); David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York/London 2007).
4) ‘Wisconsin Recall Exit Polls: How Different Groups Voted’. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/06/05/us/politics/wisconsin-recall-exit-polls.html


Hi Matthis, well elaborated post. I think that it gets a bit “extreme” with phrases such as “perhaps never fully resolved.” but I found it well written, thought and documented.
Overall I see your position, but I would like to add some comments.
I think that the crisis has not changed much. The current changes, such as globalization, are tidal forces which unions do not and can not manage. The basic dilemma of a union is the following: do I protect my members or my broader group? In the good old times, the broader group referred to the national working class. With the globalization, broader group refers to world working class. Besides, I fully agree with your remarks on public unions because, after all, despite many European constitutions recognize the right to join a union, this right is only real for the most priviliged workers meanwhile it is denied to all those workers who, probably, needed the unions the most (e.g. that´s why McDonalds has no unions). In this context, unions become a lobby group to privileged labour.
Regarding the globalization tide, the solution is not necesarily an anti-capitalist alternative you mention.
First, because there are theories such as the Rodrik trilemma which I strongly recommend you. Essentially, we have three options (globalization, sovereign and welfare state) and we can´t just take two. Globalization and welfare state wouldn´t only be possible if we reject sovereign by means of federalism at a super national level.
Second, being anticapitalist is easy, but to change the system you need to know what are you having next. State socialism only works for poor countries, market socialism isn´t that different to social democracy after all. I think that we lack a real alternative project. I would bet for market socialism but it is unclear.
Finally, we have to face the fact that most of the people have become non-socialist. Even poor people do not want equality, what they really do want is to be rich.

Great blog!Sorry for the lenght of the comment!

As a UNION member and Recall volunteer I believe Scott Walker won due to TWO major voting blocks supporting him: 1. Rural communities aka older voters in small towns. 2. ONE third of union households. Both groups share a lack of understanding what UNIONS of all flavors represent in America and why they matter. The blame for that lies with the UNION movement. As a UNION steward I have personal experience seeing how little members understand about the importance of the UNION movement. They mostly seem only to care about their next pay raise and when their dues are going up. Unless or until the so called LABOR leaders push a program to show their relevance they will continue to shrink and soon won’t matter, even a little in the national conversation. Not certain my comments are theoretical or academic enough to be found relevant by your readership but as a member of the proletariat I offer them nonetheless.

Reblogged this on exval and commented:
A very good post that sums up a lot of my feelings on the state of the labor movement in the West. As a young organizer myself, I feel that we need unions that listen to the criticisms and experiences of seasoned organizers and the perspectives of new blood coming from outside. Most major unions in the West are organized hierarchically (whether formally or informally) and as such the reaction to criticism is usually of blind rejection… especially when careerism takes root. There is a tendency, I feel, to disregard criticism from the Left as somehow aiding the enemy and furthering division. While this is a possibility, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The old Maoist principle of “unity-criticism-unity” can be applied here, although in a different context:

“This democratic method of resolving contradictions among the people was epitomized in 1942 in the formula “unity, criticism, unity”. To elaborate, it means starting from the desire for unity, resolving contradictions through criticism or struggle and arriving at a new unity on a new basis. In our experience this is the correct method of resolving contradictions among the people.”


It would seem right now that the desire for unity is overwhelming the possibility of resolving contradictions. Or more plainly, the fear of utter defeat is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. My sense of this was reaffirmed after watching a recent AFSCME conference. The entire time I heard no mention of the fact that membership is at all-time lows and that private-sector representation is in an abysmal situation.

When these challenges are recognized (if at all), the blame is passed on to the right wing and the capitalist class for pushing austerity and union-busting laws.

Well no shit! As Matthijs points out in his blog, this is exactly what we should expect from the right wing! Rather than continuing to beat the dead horse of partisan politics, unions need to take a good hard look in the mirror and reflect on the core reasons behind the failures of the labor movement: the lack of genuine working class solidarity, careerism at all levels and a tendency towards sectarianism and even petty competition between unions. The fumbled response to OWS by most major unions (the 99% spring? really?) should be a clear signal that things need to be shaken up at the core. I’m not even going to get into the issue of blind allegiance to the Democratic party, but it should be noted that the extent of Obama’s support for the Walker recall came in the form of a Tweet. And people wonder why we call it the Party of Wall Street?

Wisconsin could have been the start of something new. OWS could have been the start of something new. But old habits returned. Somehow I think that Lenin’s criticism of the limits of a “trade union consciousness” was never really heard or understood, despite the main elements of that critique revealing themselves in practice. The occupations were a cry of desperation for us to go beyond that limited union mentality that defends what it has but demands very little of itself and is afraid to reach out of the bounds set by careerism and old political alliances.

In short, this is a labor movement holding onto anything it still has a grip on. It senses the brink of utter defeat is near and is in complete denial about its own mistakes and history. And that fear of self-criticism is only driving it closer to the edge.

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