Labor Branch Perspectives — Towards a Socialist Chicago

Labor Branch Perspectives — Towards a Socialist Chicago

National Terrain

As the working class suffers from the economic fallout of last year, the ruling class has only expanded their collective wealth. The nation’s 719 billionaires added an astounding $1.6 trillion (over a thousand and a half billions) to their coffers since the start of the pandemic. 

While the percentage of workers in a union rose to a four year high of 10.8% at the end of 2020, this number is misleading, as the total number of unionized workers dropped by over 320,000. The relative boost to union density wasn’t a result of new organizing, but due to the 9.5 million workers laid off last year. The RWDSU’s failed union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is indicative of a larger problem: while Americans overall approve of unions 2 to 1 in Gallup polls, this doesn’t translate into increased membership. Sentiment and organization are two very different things. 

Pandemic layoffs hit Black and Latina women the hardest. In January their unemployment rates were 8.5% and 8.8% respectively, compared to 5.1% for white women. The service industry—hotels, restaurants, retail, education—was disproportionately affected. With 41% of Latina and 67% of Black women acting as primary income earners in their households, their layoffs will create significant ripple effects throughout the working class. 

Organizing a union in an Alabama warehouse dominated by African American women, when this same demographic is being hammered economically, comes with some understandable difficulties. The confidence of workers to organize and fight back can sometimes be tempered when people feel they have more to lose than they can gain through struggle. But, dependence on a top down strategy also hampered the effort, and represents the failures of union leadership more broadly. 

To summarize an overall national picture, the economic situation remains difficult for most workers, and the labor movement, by and large, is in a weaker position than it was a year ago. Labor’s typical methods of organizing the unorganized have largely gone unchallenged over the decades, as its influence continues to wane. 

Biden’s Stance 

While Biden publicly supports the PRO Act, it will be a significant challenge to reach the filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority needed to push the legislation through an evenly split Senate. If history is any guide, it will take a much greater level of social disruption and class struggle to win legislation this antagonistic to business interests. 

Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package (though still far too little) has temporarily lifted the boot off the necks of poor and working people. The administration plans to spend another $4 trillion on infrastructure with the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, which will also expand welfare, education, and healthcare. Taxes on the top 1% are slated to help pay for these programs— they can certainly afford it.

The shift towards a more “Keynesian” model is significant, but, make no mistake, Biden is not motivated by some great concern for the well being of working people. These plans, as well as the feverish push to reopen schools and restart the economy, are part of a larger effort to shore-up the US’s competitive advantage over China. Biden has explicitly said, “we are in a competition with China to win the 21st century;” a sentiment shared by a leading segment of the ruling class whose primary concern is re-establishing profitability for US corporations threatened by the rise of Chinese capital. 

The Fight in Chicago 

Closer to home, a recent study by UIC outlines the racial aspect of Chicago’s wealth gap. White families in the study tended to be far better off economically, with higher average incomes, higher home ownership rates and less debt. Black and Latino families were more likely to be “treading water” or on vulnerable economic footing. COVID has only exacerbated these conditions. 

Mayor Lightfoot has largely gotten away with channeling much-needed relief money into CPD coffers to pay overtime bills to one of the most racist, murderous organizations in the country. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Federation of Labor—dominated by the conservative building trades—provided little resistance. 

For several years now, Chicago’s public sector unions have been at the head of the movement locally, organizing strikes, staging mass action, and generally standing on the side of working people. The Chicago Teachers Union has been a national model for union democracy and consistently bargained for the common good, both in their 2019 strike and last year’s reopening fight. This approach has also, to some extent, pulled along other unions and mobilized significant sections of the working class communities they serve. HB 2275 has restored CTU’s bargaining rights, significantly expanding the Union’s ability to fight for common good issues. It also represents a concession by J.B. Pritzker and desire of the state Democratic party to restore labor peace.  

The Winter’s reopening fight was incredibly difficult, as CTU and SEIU 73 went up against one of the most ruthless and petty anti-union Democratic mayors in the country. Workers are still reeling from this fight, a contentious agreement, and the trauma of bargaining over their own lives.

Last year, the Illinois Nurses Association struck at hospitals in Joliet and across the University of Illinois Health System, joined by SEIU 73 for the latter. In another example of bargaining for the common good, National Nurses United is in the midst of a contract fight with Cook County Health and Hospital System, who SEIU 73 also took a one day action against last December. Even with an influx of relief cash, CCHS is crying poverty and cutting healthcare on the South Side for the Black working class that continues to face the brunt of the pandemic.  

Though bold, these fights have been dampened by the current labor market. In 2019, CTU won significant concessions in pay and working conditions, while last year the workers at UI Health had to wage an equally aggressive fight simply to prevent cuts, without major positive victories. 

Private sector unions have been less active with the notable exception of SEIU HCII’s recent strike against nursing home owners and Unite Here’s major mobilization in 2018. A slight uptick in new worker organizing is present in a number of arenas, including some smaller battles at non-profits, a successful drive in the newly legalized weed industry, the national Colectivo Coffee contract, and growing discontent in the service industry. One of the nation’s nastiest employers has also faced opposition, with Amazonians United taking a number of direct actions while collectives at Whole Foods begin to accumulate. Largely, however, these fights remain small and disconnected, receiving little leadership from the moribound union bureaucracy. 

In short, the Chicago landscape is similar to the national picture in terms of the economic situation and overall state of labor. Even the handful of unions who have had success will be fighting on difficult terrain as high unemployment persists and the Mayor’s office continues to push austerity. 

Confrontation and the Common Good 

It is not by accident that the unions which have tended towards struggle are the same ones which have a left leaning political leadership. We are especially supportive when workers take action beyond their own narrow material interests and struggle for the greater good of the community—as these fights show the potential power that workers have to change the priorities of a society. Consider the interaction between the call to defund CPD and the struggle to get police out of public schools; the need for hospitals in austerity-plagued communities; and the fight of healthcare workers for decent conditions.

The CTU, in particular, has been a leader in bargaining for the common good, combining strong internal democracy, political outlook, and fierce community advocacy. The CTU certainly fights for its own members, but the fight for more nurses and social workers in schools, against racist inequities, and against reopening in the pandemic are parts of much broader fights. CORE’s leadership of the union was the product of years of work beforehand, and, for a decade, they have navigated the tension between leading a union which represents all its members with one that also fights for their communities as a whole. 

Last summer’s rebellion—likely the largest mobilization of the country’s working class since the Civil Rights Movement—has only heightened the dynamic between workplace and community organizing. In each of the past year’s major labor struggles, anti-racist slogans were central to messaging and mobilization. Even the CFL was pushed to make a statement miming support of the movement, while the sclerotic AFL-CIO leadership went so far as to develop a report on police reform (one that, of course, fails to confront racist police “unions” in any way). If the labor movement in this city or nationally, hopes to revitalize itself it will have to find a way to tap into the propulsive energy of last summer. 

As CDSA, our involvement in social movements around housing, defunding CPD, healthcare for all, or public utilities (to name only a few) are in a dynamic relationship with workplace fights. Workers are informed by the conditions and political ideas around them and bring those ideas into their workplaces and unions.

CDSA’s Role 

The Labor Branch this year has taken on ambitious projects and expanded, formalizing our Rank & File Committee and Strike & Solidarity Committee, as well as local chapters of the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee and Restaurant Organizing Project. The committees were formed in an effort to broaden the scope of our work and create new places for members to plug in beyond monthly meetings.  

Externally, for the UI Health strike, we mobilized picket captains and brought out a significant chunk of the Branch. During the school reopening battle, CDSA/CTU members played leading roles in the Union’s organizing, while the Branch made important contributions building support in the city and for rank-and-file 73 workers. We’ve also helped support smaller actions like workers in the Fight for 15 campaign and Experimental Station Union. Like much of our chapter, we struggle with capacity and membership development, and need to develop ways to better engage members beyond mobilization efforts. 

In particular this year, we supported struggles that call into question the larger contradictions within our city and society as a whole. As socialists, we see the struggles of workers to better their working conditions as an embryonic fight of people organizing to better their world. Part of our task is to help push the labor movement into political struggle, beyond bread and butter issues. Educationals we’ve hosted over the past year around the Fraternal Order of the Police, care work, and housing justice have helped advance this perspective.

Taking on a concentrated rank-and-file strategy (similar to what helped form the CIO in the ‘30s) is currently too ambitious for the Branch without a stronger middle layer of membership. Low union density makes securing a union job difficult, and moving from member to militant requires significant support, training, and a strong socialist analysis. Salting and new workplace organizing is just as (if not more) difficult, demanding a clear strategy, concentration in numbers, and intense support. Besides CTU, most of our unionized members are scattered across locals in ones and twos, often in different workplaces. They do noble work in their Locals, but we need to improve our ability to support and connect these members. 

Our orientation to formal union leadership and the larger bureaucracy is complicated and needs clarification. They allow us access to membership, have leverage and power, and are eager to work with us when it also benefits them. That said, they are not a substitute for the workers we seek to win, and even progressive leadership is not immune to the pressures of the capitalist Democratic party and the expectation to “play ball.” 

Despite these difficulties, we must defy pessimism and take a long view of our work in this Branch. Labor is central to the socialist movement; an indispensable school of struggle and our sharpest weapon against capital. It is also at the heart of what we fight for— ownership over the means of production and the ability to fully enjoy the full fruits of our labor. At its core, our task is to identify and activate our own “schools of struggle”: organizational forms that engage with workers in midst of class struggle, while also developing the confidence and socialist analysis of our membership, in order to equip us for the immense struggle ahead. 

Where We Go From Here

-Prioritize Member Development: Strike support is important, but it is certainly not enough to pull the labor movement in a certain direction. And our work in the rank-and-file, while vital, demands a strong socialist analysis to form its backbone. In the next year, we should re-tool our new committees to ensure member development is a part of all our work. In the next months, a revamped Labor 101 program will help provide basic political education on the importance of labor in a socialist organization and plug members into the Branch.

What areas of political education are most vital to our members and our movement? Labor history? practical organizing skills? Labor theory? All this and more? How can we encourage and support member-led political education initiatives?

-Build the Rank-and-File from the Bottom-Up
The current labor movement is extremely top-down and bureaucratic, wed to the Democratic party, and far too skittish of confrontation— all losing strategies. To reshape the movement, we must implant ourselves in the multi-racial working class and make our organization hospitable to the militant edge of workers.

How does our role in the labor movement help build a multi-racial organization? How do we navigate our relationship with union leaders who are themselves aligned with a Capitalist party? Can we make a meaningful difference without clear coordination and support from a socialist organization and workers’ political party?

The rank-and-file committee should position itself as a political home for our unionized members, where they can discuss strategy and train themselves on practical organizing skills. EWOC will be a focal point for new organizing and important tool for building connections between workers across industries.

How do we make our committees attractive to unionized members, while recognizing that much of their contribution happens in the workplace? What can we do to support those who are seeking to organize their workplace for the first time, and how do projects like EWOC build more workplace organizations and more socialists? How do both help us expand our presence into strategic sectors.

We should also learn from other successful organizing models. We should aim to replicate the approach of CTU and CORE in our own unions and workplaces. What the CTU is today is the product of conscious work that started years ago— the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

What can we do to encourage members to see their workplace, no matter the industry, as a site of struggle? What structures are necessary to support our members as they engage in a potentially years long effort to either unionize their workplace or transform a backwards local?

-Lead with Politics
We should be consciously thinking about how we can win more unionists and workplace activists to a vision of socialism and the utility of joining a socialist organization. To win a world based on human need, not profit, will take a mass politicized workers movement. We should combat siloing and work more collaboratively with other campaigns and working groups to make sure our legislation and elected officials are optimal organizing tools to activate the working class.

What do we bring to strikes and workplace struggles, specifically as socialists, beyond winning a union or a contract battle, but towards winning a world free from exploitation? How do our Strike and Solidarity efforts not simply help workers win fights, but also advance socialist ideas? Beyond join panels or educationals, what meaningful projects can we take on with other CSDA campaigns?

-Prepare for 2024
One loadstar for our branch is the expiration of CTU’s contract in 2024. CTUs contract battles have consistently been fulcrums of struggle in the city, and, with HB2275 passed, this could be one of most expansive struggles we’ve seen yet. As we develop branch structures, we should keep our eye to 2024, and begin developing a support plan that engages with coalition partners far in advance.

What groundwork needs to be in place as a prerequisite to a successful support campaign in 2024? What campaigns can we engage in and learn from to prepare ourselves? How can we better support our rank-and-file CTU members in their union work? And what strategic insight do they have for the larger branch?

-Assess Collectively
Towards a Socialist Chicago is an important moment for our chapter to come together as a whole to assess the terrain of struggle and develop a strategy. Collective assessment is an essential part of a democratic organization and member development. We should seek to emulate these practices in the branch as well as the workplace. Our branch meetings already prioritize discussion of important political questions facing the labor movement; we should also bring in more conversations about branch structures and direction.

Beyond the opinion of the SC, what is our assessment of our committees— Strike and Solidarity, Rank and File, EWOC, and Restaurant Organizing?  What have we learned and how can we build on those lessons? Where do we think the next key union or workplace struggles will manifest themselves, and how can we potentially contribute to those fights? How do we take assessments we make in the branch and translate them into practical strategies to implement in our own workplaces?

This perspective is a living, evolving document, still in the process of development. We’ve already brought this document to the Labor Branch for discussion and debate among the general membership, and will be using that conversation as we edit this perspective into an official proposal for the TaSC document. If you are a CDSA member engaged in any facet of our labor work, we welcome your input! Submit suggestions, question, and inquiries to Jordan W at