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LSJXXX10.1177/0160449X19832711Labor Studies JournalEditorial

Labor Studies Journal
2019, Vol. 44(1) 5­–7
Introduction to Special © 2019 UALE
Article reuse guidelines:
Conference Issue on sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0160449X19832711
Socialism and Labor: journals.sagepub.com/home/lsj

Theory and Praxis

Here’s a tantalizing almost imaginable counter-reality to the political shock of

November 6, 2016: the AFL-CIO and nearly all-major unions endorse Bernie
Sanders for president. Backed by the foots soldiers, organizational capacity, moral
force, and Political Action Committee dollars of organized labor, he goes on to win
the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Sanders then captures the 20 to 30
percent of voters who chose Donald Trump but said they would have voted for the
Vermont Senator if they had the option. Sanders also wins the votes of a majority of
manufacturing-based union members and by some anecdotal accounts the roughly
42 percent of building trade union members who picked Trump. He wins a majority
of union members in Ohio instead of the 41 percent that Clinton earned. Instead of
third-party candidates winning more total votes than Trump’s margin of victory in
Wisconsin and Michigan, Sanders collects all of the progressive anti-Clinton ballots
in those states. He also earns, like Obama in 2012, an 18-percentage point national
Democratic voting advantage among members of union households.
You can actually see this happening, right? It’s certainly plausible. Sanders, a
Socialist (Democratic Socialist to be exact) is elected the 45th President of the United
States. But alas, the most progressive labor-friendly major party presidential candidate
in history was not championed by organized labor and Trump became president.
Inquiring why this moment was lost can take you down a plethora of paths. One
possibility is that labor unions in the United States still have an ideological opposition
to anything that frightens capitalists. The reluctance of labor to back left candidates
may be only less pronounced in Canada.
Sanders near-miss and his sizeable support from rank-and-file union members,
along with the rising popularity of socialism in America, inspired Labor Studies
Journal (LSJ) to invite papers on socialism and the labor movement in the United
States or in a comparative perspective. We’re pleased to have three distinct articles to
feature in our annual Special Conference Issue.
In the first article, Victor G. Devinatz has written an historical piece examining the
ways that labor unions and worker organizations served as a vehicle to promote anti-
capitalist ideas and policies in the United States. In “Left-Wing SPA-Led and CPUSA-
Led Unions and Worker Organizations as the Vanguard of US Social Democracy’s
Left-Wing, Circa 1935 to 1950,” he argues that while the Socialist Party of America
(SPA) and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) never exerted the kind of political
power as their European counterparts “left-wing SPA-led and CPUSA-led unions and
6 Labor Studies Journal 44(1)

worker organizations were the vanguard of the left wing of US social democracy (the
New Deal) from the mid-1930s to approximately 1950.”
Contrary to the conventional wisdom that because socialist party membership was
relatively small, a left ideology never flourished within the American labor movement,
Devinatz notes that SPA and CPUSA members and their supporters attained “signifi-
cant influence in US trade unions and related workers’ organizations, circa 1930 to
1950.” His piece utilizes and reviews several recently published volumes of union and
worker organizations to demonstrate how it was “necessary for left-wing political
radicals to work through the trade unions and other worker organizations in order to
serve as the vanguard in the efforts to defend the New Deal and push it to the left.”
The absence of mass-worker parties in the United States is not merely an historical
curiosity. Sanders did not represent the inevitable ascendancy of Karl Marx’s revolu-
tionary party, but his presidency would have advocated for more protections for work-
ing-class people than any provided since the 1930s. It’s a head scratcher why so much
of organized labor made the choice it did in 2016. But every four years there’s another
presidential election. Devinatz thinks that socialism still offers a better path: “While
the connection between socialism and labor might be more tenuous than in the early to
mid-20th century, this relationship has not been severed and still exists as a possibility
for reviving trade union movements at the start of the 21st century’s third decade.”
If socialism writ large is unlikely, then perhaps something more modest can inspire
radical labor movement change. A second article co-authored by Micah Uetricht and
Barry Eidlin offers an intriguing thesis that what’s missing is not a revolutionary party
(although that would be helpful) but the need for more worker collective action at
work. Worker activism, they point out, has never relied on a mass-worker party.
Instead, it has historically been the job of a “militant minority” of workplace activists
(often leftists) who inspired union militancy. Their article, “United States Union
Revitalization and the Missing ‘Militant Minority,’” focuses a lens on how labor
inspired social movements in the United States were based in the “workplace, relying
on workers’ ability to join together, withhold their labor, and forcibly extract conces-
sions from corporations and governments.”
Uetricht and Eidlin make the invaluable point that workers’ resistance “sustained
the union as a vital, ongoing presence.” And most importantly, the core of that resis-
tance was a small layer of workplace activists (“militant minority”) who were strongly
influenced by left-wing ideologies. Who made up this minority of workers with a
“vision and a strategy for how to organize, fight, and win”? They were workers who
helped transform their fellow workers from a class in itself to a class for itself.
It seems that Marxist critiques of capitalism have been essential to building the
American labor movement. Why then, according to the authors, does today’s labor
movement largely lack a militant minority? The authors survey the reasons and con-
clude that rebuilding militancy is central to labor’s revival. But like the conclusion
reached by Devinatz’s, that militancy likely won’t happen without socialist and other
leftists inspiring union activism.
Our final article examines the consciousness-raising impact of Socialist teaching on
workers in Canada. At the beginning of Jordan House and Paul Christopher Gray’s
Editorial 7

“The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council: Renewing Workplace Organizing and

Socialist Labor Education” is the following beautiful expression of how Socialism’s
ethical project diverges from labor’s: “Socialists look ahead to a society in which
labour is no longer a commodity, unions live to deal with that commodification.” The
quote is not the authors but it nicely sets up the story they tell of a small Canadian
airport-wide workers’ organization, the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC).
The TAWC is not a union. According to the authors it’s a “workplace-based organiza-
tion that challenges the constraints imposed on unions by the Canadian labor relations
system, combining the class rootedness of unions with the class focus of socialists by
organizing airport workers as members of the broader working class.”
Frustrated by the way that neoliberal restructuring of the airline industry at Pearson
International Airport has “fragmented workers’ solidarity,” the Socialist informed
group has pushed beyond the conventional reach of organized airport unions. They
had good reason to consider another strategy. In 1981 neoliberal labor relations took
brutal shape at airports as Ronald Reagan fired striking members of the Professional
Air Traffic Controllers Organization. House and Gray describe TAWC’s participatory
structures, direct action strategy, and significantly, how it provides opportunities for
“socialist-led workplace organizing training and political education.”
Their account of left-led activism highlights the theme of this special issue: the
need for worker organizations to provide their members with a class-based analysis
of the relations of production. In the case of Toronto-based airport employees, its
recognizing that neoliberalism is a “political project to restore the class power and
profits of capitalists.”
What these three intriguing articles remind us is that to provide workers with the
transformational education and training to confront corporate power, labor unions will
need left-activist leaders with a Socialist perspective on capitalism. They won’t need
many. Just a few exceptional brothers and sisters.

Robert Bruno
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA