Growing up, I knew unions were good. Family members could see that the union had improved their wages and working conditions. I learned that “no one looks out for the little guys, so we need to stick together.” But I didn’t fully grasp the critical role of labor unions until I became a democratic socialist. Now, with experience as a union organizer, a socialist, and a historian, I see even more clearly that the labor movement is the only organized force capable of counterbalancing the power of capital in our economy—and in formal politics. But unions can’t do it alone.
Unions struggle because at their best they challenge capitalism, and capital doesn’t like being challenged. It doesn’t like uppity working-class people who want higher wages or who demand respect in the workplace or who want to make decisions about the work they do. It definitely doesn’t like working people who pressure the state to enact policies that put people before profits.
The steadily declining proportion of workers who are in unions and the increasing attacks on unions—in workplaces, in popular discourse, and in Congress, state capitols, and the Supreme Court—is a crisis for us all. If we are to have a fully democratic society and economy, both the labor movement and the socialist movement must learn from each other and work together.
A broad movement against corporate power will succeed when large majorities of union members can articulate why working people are struggling and how they can change those conditions, and when they put themselves on the line to fight for the entire working class.
Socialists must also think big. We, too, often neglect to organize the unorganized. The greatest contribution we can make to the labor movement is our active participation, as open socialists, in pro-union activism. That’s why DSA local chapters support union recognition and contract fights as well as broader campaigns to lift up the entire working class. That’s why we’re working on get-out-the vote campaigns so that the Scott Walkers, Rick Snyders, John Kasiches and Rick Scotts of the world will not be able to gut collective bargaining and destroy the gains for which so many died over the last century.
When rightwingers claim that unions are a “special interest,” DSAers organize community forums to undermine that lie. We turn out for picket lines. At the same time, we bring a socialist critique that, while recognizing the crucial role of labor, also recognizes its connection to other social movements. In this issue of Democratic Left, we explore that interconnectedness, from the impact on the whole country of the struggles of Southern workers to the rejuvenation of coalitions of people of faith, civil rights activists, and feminists to the renewal of international solidarity as unions work across borders. It’s true that the union makes us strong. And for that to happen, we in DSA must help make the unions strong.
|Maria Svart is national director of the Democratic Socialists of America.|
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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