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  • Writer's pictureAlexander Riccio

Labor’s Identity Against the Enclosure of History*

The following is an excerpt from a longer essay to be published by The Institute for Anarchist Studies.

In his book, The Life and Death of American Labor, Stanley Aronowitz issued a convincing argument that the US labor movement’s current woes are not due to a lack in the number of unionized workers—even with small union percentages in the public and private sector there are millions of union members in the nation—but due to a lack in the radical imagination. He urges the labor movement to embrace its radical roots, particularly its militancy and regular use of the strike as a tactic, but understands that the constraints on labor’s collective imagination prevent its revitalization. A radical vision is not impossible if unions commit to reassessing their preconceptions. In what follows I hope to challenge the common narrative on organized labor’s identity (i.e. industrial white male workers), and how reassessing the realities of working-class social life can redirect the overarching strategies and aims of the US labor movement.

Unions have experienced a heavy blow in the Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME. Local unions representing public workers saw immediate cuts in operating revenue, sometimes as high as 50%, the day the decision came down. However, in a twist of irony so common amid the contradictions of capitalist modernity, Janus could prove to be a rupture which renders visible more cracks in the system than before.

Rather than posing a threat to the very survival of unions, Janus exposes the limits of one particular form of unionism—business unionism. Indeed, business unionism, the standard in organized labor today, has been a walking zombie for decades unaware (or possibly in denial) of its own undead condition. Now the necessary task is to lop off the zombie head once and for all.

Partly to explain the existential dread amid many a unionist today is their inability to imagine union models outside the narrowed parameters of wage increases and grievance filings. Described as “Gomperism,” or “business unionism,” this approach to union organizing is geared toward winning contracts at all costs and fixated on membership numbers without much consideration over what role members should have in their union. Gomperism, too, fails to acknowledge the fundamental conflict between capital and labor assuming instead that a bargain can be brokered with capitalists. This analysis exposes why the prevailing political interventions made by organized labor today are narrowly focused on tweaking existing labor laws and abandoning any pretense of becoming politically independent of the Democratic party. It is a shallow politics circumscribed by nationalistic allegiances, and, at best, seeks to slightly improve the status quo. To obliterate business unionism, organized labor today needs to shift its mission from representation of its members to organizing as a class against the owners of capital.

Labor union efforts must extend beyond the worksite. Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gapasin write in their book Solidarity Divided, that “if class struggle is not restricted to the workplace, then neither should unions be.” They conclude that unions should not limit their strategies to organizing workplaces or industries but should organize entire cities.

In her book No Shortcuts, Jane McAlevey complements their framework by conceptualizing “whole worker organizing,” which shucks the narrow Gompersian focus on “workplace issues” by recognizing that workers do not experience their lives in neatly broken up arenas—struggles with child care, housing needs, food insecurity, and more are all felt inside and outside the worksite. McAlevey’s approach places importance on drawing on the whole lived experience of workers, where their social and familial relationships are sites upon which to draw organizing support.

Broadening the horizon of where to organize also requires broadening conceptions of who qualifies as a worker. “When we restore a sense of the social totality of class,” writes Tithi Bhattacharya in Viewpoint Magazine, “we immediately begin to reframe the arena for class struggle.” Under capitalist regimes ideas of value are primarily quantifiable. Only what can be measured and held is considered valuable. Therefore, what is viewed as a form of labor, or of productivity, has tended to ignore the labor of social (re)production (which is not solely invested in the production of things but rather of human beings). Theorized by Marxist-feminists such as Silvia Federici and Lise Vogel, (re)production refers to child-raising (which guarantees future labor supplies), food cultivation, care work, general housework, emotional or interpretive labor and all such activities which are necessary for reproducing the entirety of social life and energies which enables wage workers to generate more material production for the appropriation of capitalists.

Opening up conceptions of what is work expands the imagination allowing for light to be shined on other forms of invisibilized labor—such as prison labor disproportionately undertaken by Black and Brown working-class people. Janaé Bonsu, in an article for Dissent, urges us to “imagine if prison laborers were entitled to a minimum wage, overtime pay, and workers’ compensation when injured on the job.” The outcome, they suggest, would effectively strike against the core of today’s New Jim Crow. Bonsu argues that prison laborers should not be overlooked in unionization campaigns, and persuades readers to understand that if prison workers were seen as a centerpiece of organized labor’s strategy the prospects for revolution would dramatically increase. Here, as well, Bonsu offers a view of finding the interconnections between different movement groups.

Shifting strategic organizing—at the scale of a city and inclusion of non-unionized workers—is possible if organized labor becomes more reflexive in understanding its own self-identity. Currently, as Bill Fletcher writes in They’re Bankrupting Us!, 45 percent of union membership in the US is made up of folks who identify as women,** yet mainstream commentators rarely consider the labor movement as part of the feminist movement. Additionally, Black workers are more likely to be members of a union than white workers. These two realities alone provide the potential for the union movement to move toward self-identifying as feminist and anti-racist. Indeed, the future of the labor movement hinges on it becoming a movement guided by anti-racist feminism.

One starting point for changing labor’s self-identity is within the annals of its own history. “In every era,” writes Walter Benjamin, “the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Much like other liberation movements, the story of organized labor has often been watered down to fit the narrative as shaped by the AFL-CIO or other liberal commentators wishing to claim the entirety of workers’ victories in the US as their own. But labor unions are not the singular story of craft unionism, stained as it is with racist and sexist past (and present) practices. It is also the story of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit who advocated for autonomist workers’ organizations to fight both racist bosses and racist unions. It is also the story of the Industrial Workers of the World, formed in 1905 to advocate for “revolutionary industrial unionism” informed by socialist and anarchist philosophies and expressly open to Black workers, women workers, and immigrant workers. And it is also the story of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), who staged 477 sitdown strikes in 1937 helping inspire the later “sit-ins” launched by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement. Organized labor is the totality of workers who have collectively attempted to shape the conditions of their work, therefore it is these stories and so many more.

Beyond internal demographics, which do not in themselves determine political identities, the process of shaping all of organized labor into an anti-racist feminist force is already underway. Beginning in late February 2018 and spanning multiple states across the country, including West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, and North Carolina, public school teachers have launched a series of successful strikes against austerity and privatization schemes. Not recognized enough is how these strikes have been led primarily by women, and, as Tithi Bhattacharya argues, constitute “a feminist project.” In an article for The Guardian she writes,

These strikes are for wages and benefits, but they arise from a social landscape scoured by gender and racial inequalities. The leaders of the strikes are thus not simply workers shaped only by conditions of work: gender marks them.

These are women fighting for dignity and security in the most commodious sense of those terms. Their gender is not incidental to this strike, their narratives of fear about their families and health, are not backstories to what is merely a wage struggle.

It is time to consider these “backstories” as central and constitutive of the strike wave.

Women’s strikes are spanning the globe generating prospects for a new “wave” of international feminist struggle, as argued by Cinzia Arruzza in Viewpoint Magazine. The new wave represents a deepening of movement knowledge, hitherto turning on a fallacy which viewed social struggles as separate formations—i.e. there is the labor movement, then the feminist movement, then the environmental movement, etc. “Within this framework,” writes Cinzia Arruzza, “one wondered how to unite these movements with each other.” In her estimation, this new wave resolves the question through understanding these struggles as already interwoven resulting in the formation of “feminist class struggle” (emphasis in original).

Other encouraging developments are taking place for a radical imagination to reinsert itself into organized labor. Since the 1990s the rise of “worker centers” has increased from approximately 10 locations to over 250. This is a welcome development, as worker centers operate to encourage the creation of cooperative businesses, recreational spaces, educational support services, and more. Efforts to build worker centers have been primarily taken up by undocumented workers in the United States (again highlighting the need for a more reflexive self-identity within organized labor) as a necessary means for channeling resources and mutual aid into sites outside of standard labor arenas.

Where some segments of organized labor have made strategic advances toward liberation struggles it now must become understood by the entirety of unions how their fight contains the aforementioned struggles along with fights for, in the words of Tithi Bhattacharya, “cleaner air, better schools, against water privatization, against climate change, or for fairer housing policies,” as these represent “social needs of the working class that are essential for its reproduction.”

Strategic maneuvers toward gaining power in both the spheres of production and reproduction are ultimately contestations over the shape of daily life, which is precisely the source of these strategies potential resilience, militancy, and ultimate victory. The experiences of workplace domination shape a person’s expectations, and effectively circumscribe the imagination over what types of change are possible. Victories against the boss are transformative for workers. They cultivate a sense of new possibilities and openings previously viewed as impossible. The task, then, is to expand the arenas where victories take place. In this way, what may begin as a strategic victory against bosses can lead to one against landlords and contains the potential of enlarging its imaginative capacities to become the pathway where a recognition is made that voting in one manager of capitalism for another is insufficient, and nothing less than a global revolution against settler-colonial capitalist heteropatriarchy will do.

*I take inspiration for this title from AK Thompson’s insight that history, in its entirety, constitutes a commons always at risk of enclosure. AK Thompson, “The Battle for Necropolis,” Premonitions: Selected Essays on the Culture of Revolt (Chico: AK Press, 2018), 197-218.

**The category of "woman" used throughout this piece is not intended as self-evident. I appreciate the succinct summary provided by Holly Lewis in The Politics of Everybody, "the use of the term 'woman' always outlines the parameters of people in a social category at a concrete point in history. It is not a description of the trials and vicissitudes of a universal gender essence, nor does it assume that the gender identity of individuals matches their social gender assignment." p. 132

Further Reading:

Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (London: Verso, 2014).

Cinzia Arruzza, “From Women’s Strikes to a New Class Movement: The Third Feminist Wave,” Viewpoint Magazine, December 3, 2018, available at (accessed December 4, 2018).

Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path Toward Social Justice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Tithi Bhattacharya, “How Not to Skip Class: Social Reproduction of Labor and the Global Working Class,” Viewpoint Magazine, October 31 2015, available at (accessed December 8, 2018).

Janaé Bonsu, “A Strike Against the New Jim Crow,” Dissent, Winter 2017, available at (accessed December 3, 2018).

Bill Fletcher Jr., “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012).

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 255.

Tithi Bhattacharya, “Women are leading the wave of strikes in America. Here’s why,” Guardian, April 10 2018, available at (accessed December 3, 2018).

Kim Bobo and Marién Casillas Pabellón, The Worker Center Handbook: A Practical Guide to Starting and Building the New Labor Movement (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2016).

Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2006).


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