[Labor Voices] Loosening the Chains through Unity, by Brendan T. Burke

December 2, 2020

“Workers of the world, Unite!” That message of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels appearing in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 could not be more relevant at the present time to workers in Maine and the nation. Workers are re-discovering that by joining a union and uniting on the basis of working-class struggle, they can achieve far more against the capitalist ruling class than they can as individuals.

By engaging in collective action such as forming a union local, workers are taking that important first step toward class consciousness. Realizing that they are of the working class, and that fellow workers share this awareness, they join in common struggle. Together they can build their capacity to take back control of some of the value they created with their own labor and sweat that was lost to their bosses. This stolen part of the value is back on the bargaining table.

In other words, and at a basic level, they can obtain a wage or salary increase, increased benefits, or better working conditions. As well, union members together can build a united bulwark as protection from unfair labor practices. It allows workers to push back against the power structure of unfettered capitalism; even though it alone cannot topple it.

In September, nearly sixty workers representing nearly two-thirds of the one-hundred-person staff of the Portland Museum of Art filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. For them, this is a first step towards being recognized by Local 2110, of the UAW-affiliated Technical, Office and Professional Union, which is based in New York.  Local 2110 represents the interests of a diverse group of workers employed by colleges and universities and by the ACLU, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, book publishing houses, the Village Voice newspaper, and more.

This coming together of a diverse group of workers who don’t look like typical blue-collar unionists is a sign of a changing working class and a sign too of expanding class consciousness among working people. In a country where the capitalists exploit pre-existing class-based and economic divisions to divide the working class, unions represent an important safety device for narrowing divisions and achieving unity.  

Collective bargaining is the tool unions use to rise to the level of their bosses and negotiate legally-binding contracts. It gives workers the ability to arbitrate disputes that would normally keep the two sides apart and, in doing so, it can right some wrongs. Unions gain the power to address wrongs committed by the owners through a formal grievance process that comes into play when owners step on workers’ rights guaranteed by a collective bargaining agreement. It’s a process that unions can use to elevate worker-power to the level of power enjoyed by owners and bosses – the bourgeoisie – and even higher, when they score a victory.

Where can working-class power lead? Visionaries of the workers’ movement speak of possibilities. They are the heirs, for example, of Marxist theorist Anton Pannekoek, who in 1908, in his The Labor Movement and Socialism, observed that, “The object of the labor movement is to increase the strength of the proletariat to the point at which it can conquer the organized force of the bourgeoisie and thus establish its own supremacy.” (1)

Now, however, what’s important is to support our fellow brothers and sisters in the unions. They provide us with much-needed models of working people who are asserting their desires and rights. We must support union shops, buy products that are union made, and rely on services that are “union strong” -a term referring to efforts aimed at bringing working people together in support of their fellow laborers.

We can show our own class consciousness by supporting union workers, even in small ways. This is important now because union membership rates have been decreasing for five decades. Formerly, nearly one third ofworkers were unionized. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that union membership in the country fell last year to 10.3% of all workers – a 0.2% reduction in one year. Even so, labor unions still provide a better standard of living for those American workers who belong to one.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Among full-time wage and salary workers, the median weekly income of union members was $1,095 in 2019. For those who were not union members, the figure was $892. In addition to coverage by a collective bargaining agreement, these earnings differences reflect a variety of influences, including variations in the distributions of union members and nonunion employees by occupation, industry, age, firm size, or geographic region.” (2)

But the working-class movement is about more than labor unions. They’ve been a vehicle for moving the working class closer toward a socialist society; Lenin regarded the trade union as a “school of communism.” Working people, in the process of forming unions, have long realized that unity and solidarity within the labor movement can translate into political power. And with that power, the dream of socialism seems not so impossible.

Any new political structure, however, will take on a form quite different from the old one, which was the state the union worker had been pushing back against. There would be a transition. Vladimir Lenin, who led the 1917 Russian Revolution against the exploitative feudalist system, used his book What Is to Be Done? (1902) to trace the evolution of a revolutionary and centralized political party – a revolutionary vanguard – as it moved from its origins in the labor movement to a central role in the creation of a socialist state. He observed specifically that:

“The workers’ organization must in the first place be a trade union organization; secondly, it must be as broad as possible; and thirdly, it must be as public as conditions will allow. [Gradually] all distinctions as between workers and intellectuals, not to speak of distinctions of trade and profession, in both categories, must be effaced.” (3)

In other words, distinctions that trade unions had utilized for organizational purposes would be erased as the workers’ movement pressed on toward formation of a fully socialist society. From the beginning, the labor union was a vitally important school of sorts for gaining class consciousness. It evened out distinctions among workers and, unifying them, gave them a leg up against exploiters and the owning class. Eventually, the revolutionary party erases all distinctions and differences between participants. They are no longer intellectuals or professionals, but are now revolutionaries.

We, therefore, take note of the potential power that the American workers, politically active and aware, derive from their labor unions. We insist on the direct relevance of Marx and Engels to our struggles now, which is expressed in their message that, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” We have “nothing to lose but our chains,” they add, and indeed the trade union allows us to break that first link.


  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1908/labor-movement.htm
  2. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/union2.pdf
  3. Lenin, What Is To Be Done. (1902), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/

Brendan Burke is a fifteen year-member of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 714 based in Portland, Maine. He is a union officer, serving as financial secretary.