Rethinking Anarchism

“Poor Workers’ Unions” by Vanessa Tait

When most people think of unions, they think of middle-aged white men, dreary, underpopulated picket lines, heavy industry, and the 1930s. In “Poor Workers’ Unions,” author Vanessa Tait shows that there is more to the labor movement than these outmoded stereotypes. Relegating the business union establishment to the fringes of her narrative, she tells a story of the continual resurgence of independent workplace organizing initiatives since the Civil Rights movement.

Over the course of seven chapters, each covering a different time period, Tait sketches the outlines of an organizational form that she calls “Poor Workers Unions.” Based in sectors of the working class that are excluded from the union establishment, or even excluded from the protections of labor law, Tait’s “Poor Workers Unions” are member-driven organizations that embrace disruptive direct action tactics. In part because they are made up of those who are excluded from the traditional AFL-CIO unions, poor workers unions often are rooted in a particular racial or ethnic segment. Workers turn this specificity into a strength, drawing on specific traditions of struggle and resistance in organizations like the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, or Black Workers for Justice, or the many “workers centers” that serve as organizing hubs for immigrant workers.

The history of Poor Workers Unions is incredibly inspiring. Again and again, workers who have been excluded from unions decide to organize. Sadly, once these new organizations grow and  stabilize, they are absorbed back into the business union establishment, losing much of their radical edge in the process.

Tait argues throughout her book for a reorientation of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win to organize poor workers. I would argue instead for a reorientation of poor workers away from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. These organizations are a graveyard for organizing, and are incapable of defeating the bosses, let alone abolishing capitalism. After building their own organizations through bitter struggle, poor workers deserve more than the high dues, lack of democracy, cooptation and purple t-shirts the business unions offer.

Tait is not the first historian to study poor workers unions. German theorist Karl Heinz-Roth studied the immigrant workers movement in Germany from the late 19th century to the 1970s. He claimed that the workers movement is actually two movements- the established trade union movement and its parliamentary corrolary, the Social Democrats, and the “Other Workers Movement,” made up of workers excluded based on trade, ethnicity, race, or gender. According to Roth, the Other workers movement remains dormant most of the time, only to explode in spontaneous self-activity, throwing up democratic organizational forms in grassroots unions, wildcat strikes, riots, and even insurrections. Occasionally, the movement is able to build sustainable organizations to carry on the struggle beyond spontaneous uprisings. The historical IWW is an example.

Tait shows us that poor workers are more than capable of forming unions and fighting. It is now up to radical labor to show that workers can achieve greater goals than access to the sinking ship of reformist trade unionism.