After three decades of the waning of trade unions as a social force, their generally anaemic response to the Great Financial Crisis cannot but be registered. With the failure to build on the golden opportunity offered up by Occupy’s demonstration that audacious action can touch a populist nerve – punctuated by the eventual defeat of Wisconsin labour’s recall electoral strategy over a year after its exemplary occupation of the state assembly (which predated Occupy Wall Street by six months) – the left today confronts a more discomfiting question: does the rejuvenation of unions still really remain possible, or are unions now exhausted as an effective historical form through which working people organize themselves? To be clear, the issue is not whether unions and union-led struggles are about to disappear. Unions will stagger on, sometimes very heroically. They will carry on organizing, bargaining and filing grievances. And they will continue to strike, march, demonstrate and on occasion remind us of working-class potentials. But trade unions as they now exist no longer appear capable of adequately responding to the scale of the problems working classes face – whether the arena of struggle is the workplace, the bargaining table, the community, electoral politics or ideological debate.
Although a recent symposium on unions in developed capitalist countries concluded that ‘the declining trend is visible everywhere’, this essay will focus on the impasse in US labour. The last time the US working class faced a comparable economic and internal crisis, during the 1930s, industrial unionism came to the fore. What new form of working-class organization might explode onto the agenda this time? Then, communists and socialists were vital to the formation and orientation of unions, at a time when radical organizers were inspired by the notion that workers could become the historical agents of a new society and unions might become schools for socialism. Is it still credible, in light of recent history, to believe that working people might one day be at the centre of radical social transformations?
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