The NABTU Conference and the Rank-and-File Strategy

From April 5 to 6, North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) — an AFL-CIO affiliated labor federation of 14 unions including the Teamsters, IUPAT, IBEW, the boilermakers, the carpenters and more — held its annual legislative conference, where labor leaders laid out the unionized building trades’ legislative victories and objectives; politicians from both parties delivered speeches; lobbying and service projects were conducted; and more. It was, in many ways, a show of strength for the building trades, with thousands of local leaders and organizers gathering at the Washington Hilton. Unfortunately, it was also a demonstration of labor’s weakness as an agent of class struggle — and a call to action for socialists everywhere. 

The theme of the conference, “Our Movement, Our Moment,” referred to many things, including the high approval of unions in the American consciousness — but more than anything else, the “moment” in question focused on the recent passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law and the opportunity that the implementation of $1.2 trillion in infrastructure funds presents for the unionized building trades. Along with emphasizing wins for labor under the Biden administration — including an executive order requiring Project Labor Agreements for expensive federal projects and the inclusion of multiemployer pension protection in the American Rescue Plan — NABTU President Sean McGarvey and nearly every other speaker at the conference pointed to the infrastructure law as a time for the trades to act: to seize upon the work to come and use that work to expand their memberships. 

There are minor heartening elements to this mentality. McGarvey and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler each hammered home the point that this represents a chance to organize: to seize control from corporations, management and the so-called “open shop” in order to bring more workers into the unionized workforce. Encouragingly, McGarvey, Shuler, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh and others recognized the importance of organizing proactively to bring all workers into the fold — more women, more people of color, more LGBTQ+ workers, more formerly incarcerated workers — in order to better represent the working people of America (something labor certainly hasn’t always done). One can also argue that the conference’s political lineup, which included those seeking to hold onto power — Biden, Pelosi, Schumer — and those seeking to attain power — aspiring governor Stacey Abrams and xenophobe Tim Ryan — is an indicator that unions hold more legislative sway than they have in recent years.

But from a socialist perspective, the conference largely serves as a metaphor for a somewhat aimless movement that is not militant or focused enough to truly build working-class power — and that is willing to sacrifice its principles to accommodate positions and politicians, such as Ryan, Senator Lisa Murkowski and others, that are friendly to jobs in the unionized trades’ sectors. 

Looking at the lineup of NABTU speakers — and the sponsors, including the American Petroleum Institute — it’s hard to ignore the sense that the established major unions are still beholden to the Democratic party and any other institution that promises jobs to trade members. Nearly every Democratic speaker, including Biden, hammered home the point that this is the most pro-labor presidential administration in recent history. That’s probably true — but mostly because the bar is so low. There is no Build Back Better. There is no PRO Act. There is no $15 minimum wage. Student debt hasn’t been canceled (yet). And still the refrain from the major unions continues to be “promises made, promises kept.” Lobbying is always happening behind the scenes, of course, but for the most part it seems that the major building trades are unwilling or unable to publicly push the Biden administration, and the (for now) Democratic-held Congress, for any type of bold action on behalf of workers. During the conference, Schumer and company promised, once again, to fight for Build Back Better legislation and the PRO Act — just like they did in 2020 and 2021, to no avail. The major unions can’t just accept this without pushing back, without asking for more, and without taking some initiative themselves.  

Perhaps more worryingly, the conference demonstrated that the focus of major international labor unions is far too narrow. Over and over again, from politicians and labor leaders alike, NABTU attendees heard about how the passage of the infrastructure bill symbolizes a future full of work for building trades members, as well as the opportunity to expand membership to grow the “skilled” workforce. That’s all good and well: more opportunity for building trades members is a good thing for those workers, and if it leads to greater union membership and density, that’s great too. But the all-encompassing concentration on work shows that the building trades care mostly about jobs, jobs, jobs — no matter the job, whether building a bridge, a highway or, crucially, a pipeline — and not the general well-being of the working class. For example: the infrastructure bill represents no real progress when it comes to fighting the climate crisis; in the view of many of the trades, that matters less than expanding the unionized trades’ market share, including on devastating fossil fuel projects

More generally, if mainstream labor’s focus remains exclusively on growing the “skilled” workforce — instead of organizing the working class to seize more power, instead of leading the push for a just transition into a sustainable future — we run the risk of abandoning workers at-large in favor of a unionized-but-sectorally divided workforce that constantly competes for more and more jobs until we work our way into an unlivable future. 

However, the labor movement is not dead. Far from it, as the Starbucks and Amazon JFK8 campaigns illustrate. If a lively rank-and-file can emerge from this time of relative worker militancy, it seems reasonable to hope that the presidents of the building trades, many of whom rose through the rank and file, can be compelled to support a more militant, holistic approach towards organizing and fighting against corporate power — especially more progressive presidents like IUPAT’s Jimmy Williams and the newly elected Teamsters reform president, Sean O’Brien, who himself rode a wave of rank-and-file enthusiasm to victory. O’Brien, as well as AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, recently met with Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, president and vice president of the Amazon Labor Union. The ALU represents, if not a road map, than certainly a short-term objective for DSA members and trade unionists everywhere: a worker-led, worker-focused, fighting union that shuns bureaucracy and legislative deal-making in favor of an “every worker” — and anti-capitalist — approach.  

The members are the union. That’s the most important principle to keep in mind as we move forward and try to rejuvenate labor into a position of class struggle. For that reason, the recently released Democratic Socialist Labor Commission rank-and-file strategy pamphlet is required reading for any socialist seeking to reinvigorate the struggle of the working class — and bring more workers to socialism. Correctly identifying the fact that, despite their weaknesses and all their flaws, unions contain the largest number of organized workers in America, and — even at their most bureaucratic — at least nominally embrace some form of class war, the rank-and-file strategy calls for a holistic engagement by socialists with the labor movement: at every level of every union, but especially focused on the general membership. As the pamphlet reads: “Even in labor’s diminished state, there are more than 14 million union members in the United States. That’s a solid base to start with, and few other organizations can match the resources that unions have.”

This is our best shot to organize the unorganized, increase labor militancy and bring the labor movement to a place of class warfare against capital. “We need to help create a ‘sea of class struggle for socialists to swim in,’” the pamphlet reads. “And we also need to rebuild the link between socialists and the majority of the working class.” In other words, only with a genuine worker-powered movement and a mobilized union membership can we as socialists hope to bring the labor movement from legislative conferences to real victory, legislative and otherwise — and only then can we hope to realize socialism in America. 

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