Connolly and the Serpent: What the Left Misses on Modern Unions

C.M. Lewis


There’s no shortage of prescriptions for revitalizing the labor movement. Like teachers reacting to the latest permutation of “education reform,” unionists are often wary of new strategies for righting the ship, and often for good reason. But hidden in these discussions are the seeds of an older debate—the debate over industrial unionism and socialist politics—which points to the challenge of determining a viable path forward for both union organizing and class politics.

One of the more compelling ideas, sectoral bargaining, is currently en vogue. Sectoral bargaining, commonplace in many European nations, creates systems in which workers bargain by industry or sector, rather than by workplace. The United States does have a sort of de facto sectoral bargaining in limited instances; the United Auto Workers have used an approach called pattern bargaining to leverage the “Big Three” automakers and set standards across the automotive sector.

It’s been offered as a panacea for the ills facing organized labor. Books have been written arguing that the problem with American labor is that the whole damn system is flawed (which many would not, in principle, dispute), and that sectoral bargaining is the solution. The major 2020 presidential hopefuls, from Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden, all mentioned it. Pete Buttigieg, noted for his wonkishness, offered one of the more detailed (unnecessarily complicated, in fact) sectoral bargaining proposals.

And the devil is in the details. Many have pointed out the pitfalls of an imprecise approach to sectoral bargaining, which include the risk of slipping into employer-friendly agreements and creating unionism without the workers. Tempting shortcuts and backdoor deals can result in horrifying arrangements, as evidenced in the proposal for sectoral bargaining among gig drivers in New York. Instead of building the union on the bedrock of worker organization, that arrangement funds the union through customer surcharges instead of dues and requires a bare minimum level of support for unions to represent workers. 

As Jane McAlevey has noted, successful sectoral bargaining systems, such as those in Germany, are predicated on worker power and the willingness of workers to exercise that power. In other words, they’re built on organization. That this point is poorly developed in the debate on sectoral bargaining is peculiar: it is, after all, the element most directly under our control, the element from which all else derives. Worker organization, and how workers are organized, shapes how we can exercise power just as much as the systems in which we wield it.

If we assess the terrain through this lens, we see a number of concerning obstacles. There’s little sense to how workers are organized in the U.S.—the United Auto Workers are now one of the largest representatives of higher education workers in the nation, the Steelworkers have a robust nursing department, and the United Food and Commercial Workers have made forays into organizing political campaign staff. In any given state, dozens of unions, some affiliated with the AFL-CIO and some not, represent workers of the same classification, to say nothing of the excessive number of unions that might be active in a sector.

The potential effects of these divisions are clear: unions operate at cross-purposes while bosses lean back and watch. It’s illustrative of the broader political and economic weakness of a divided movement that’s often content just to pack sandbags high and hope to ride out the storm. When we intervene politically, we rarely do so as a unified movement. The narrow self-interest of one union is often pursued at the expense of others. Conversely, politically active socialists are often left bewildered at the apparent absence of class unity: a confusion that can lead to misinformed dismissals of the value of unions.

We’re not without answers to this debate, and it does not lack for historical touchstones. This is all well-trodden territory. Labor radicals and industrial unionists have tirelessly debated sectionalism and industrial organization, recognizing the value of presenting a united front to capital. This is just as important in political action as it is in negotiations. As Irish socialist and union leader James Connolly argued, “Without the power of the Industrial Union behind it, Democracy can only enter the State as the victim enters the gullet of the Serpent.”

This gestures at a radical reimagining of the debate over sectoral bargaining, a topic often viewed as “wonkish” or bureaucratic and far removed from romantic visions of shop floor class struggle. As Connolly and others argued, industrial organization, essential to sectoral bargaining, was important precisely because it allowed for labor activity to more effectively translate into class politics.

Stitching together these threads of sectoral bargaining, industrial organization, and class politics will be necessary to provide a more comprehensive and radical understanding of a path forward for organized labor. We need to move beyond mere exhortations to greater militancy. Labor leaders are effective at preaching solidarity while continuing business as usual; labor radicals will often demand more organization, more strikes, and more confrontation, without conceptualizing how to leverage those forces into transformative changes that make possible a true contestation of economic and state power.

By revisiting the insights of industrial unionists of the past, we can not only supply a missing element of the debate on sectoral bargaining. We can also offer a vision of a movement in which labor is capable of advancing a genuine class politics, in which more is possible. It’s crucial that we imagine more instead of settling for the table scraps of capital. Connolly was right. The execrable deals struck between organized labor and exploitative gig employers have shown that, in our weakness, we’re striking Faustian bargains, to the detriment of workers. Our hands are prying the serpent’s jaws wide, hoping that they don’t shut.

The Sectional Devil

Some may think it indulgent to dither over these nuances when union organizing of any kind is such a challenge. When only about one in ten American workers belong to a union, abstract questions of organizational structure can seem like navel-gazing. But how we organize will ultimately impact our ability to organize at all, and whether we win.

Opposition to dominant craft unionism during a period of labor weakness set the stage for the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, which viewed its mission as the organization of entire sectors of the economy. As William Z. Foster wrote in 1922, organized labor suffered because of “floundering in the mud of craft unionism,” and was “progressing at only a snail’s pace.” Industrial unionism was touted as the motive force that would overcome a beleaguered movement’s inertia.

The problem, as posed by industrial unionists, was simple. The division of craft unionism was inimical to the interests of both sections of workers and broader class politics. Foster, writing later in 1937, observed that employers succeeded by “playing off one craft or one section of the industry against the others in order to keep the conditions of all as low as possible.” Their efforts to divide and conquer were aided by labor’s craft-based structure and corresponding reluctance to work across craft and organizational differences.

The name of the enemy was sectionalism: the narrow interests of craft over the broader interests of class. Sectionalism was a defining characteristic of organized labor before to the rise of industrial unionism—especially in the American Federation of Labor. The “unity of labor” was often a polite fiction, maintained by loose organizational federations without common economic or political interests. Any organization that ran counter to conservative notions of trade unionism and upset the balance of power was viewed with suspicion. For instance, the upstart unionism that became the American Federation of Teachers was well-received (to a point) by the Chicago Federation of Labor, but was met with skepticism by the broader movement.

Arguments against sectionalism were well-founded. Craft unionism incentivizes a fortress mentality, protecting the craft privileges of comparatively skilled sections of workers at the expense of everyone else. Although craft skill and the control of tight labor markets allows for some protection of working conditions and pay rates, craft organization has historically been highly vulnerable to technological changes that render prized skills obsolete. Isolated and lacking numbers, craft unions were less able to resist changes that de-skilled work or otherwise fundamentally changed its nature.

It’s not difficult to translate this issue to a modern context and theorize the practical problems it represents. Although the narrow divisions of craft are less pressing today, the balkanization of labor organization is a live issue. In the higher education sector, an organized university can have multiple collective bargaining agreements with multiple unions, representing a wide range of classifications. The University of California system maintains fourteen system-wide agreements with multiple local unions affiliated with AFSCME, NNU, AFT, CWA, and the Teamsters—to say nothing of additional, campus-specific local agreements. 

In the University of California’s case, as with other employers, problems are addressed through a specialized labor council of employer-affiliated unions, a form of de facto sectoral organization. To some degree, other unions do coordinate in their contract negotiations, understanding that what one union agrees to can set the parameters for what others can accomplish. But that’s the exception, rather than the rule. Many organized employers deal with multiple unions, and the degree to which those unions cooperate even within a single employer can vary greatly. 

Craft or Class?

This is essentially the modern face of sectionalism: entrenched balkanization, often resulting in competing interests. One group of workers can pursue their own ends at the expense of another. They can even do so while invoking the spirit of solidarity. On a national scale, unions often lobby at cross purposes, competing with one another for resources or political attention, as was the case in early discussions of COVID-19 relief. They can also take directly opposing stances, complicating success. This occurred in the conflict (since resolved) over differences on safe staffing ratios between SEIU 1199E and the New York State Nurses Association.

Connolly argued that sectionalism was an intractable barrier to acting as a class. He characterized internal division as allowing employers to “move, strike, move, and strike again with the rapidity of a serpent, while we are turning about and contorting with the facility of an alligator.” He was correct: capital operates as a class to a degree far outstripping that of labor. Capitalists, then and now, organize deftly and cohesively; too often, labor struggles to match their coordination.

Capital’s unified interests, like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, are frighteningly effective. Increasingly, they have turned to courting Democrats as well as Republicans. But even before the deliberate shift toward wooing liberals, capital was practiced at stopping Democrats from acting in labor’s interests. A Democratic supermajority proved no barrier to business interests when they were able to block the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009; now, capital is hard at work coaxing Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to block the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.

Meanwhile, unions have put wildly varying degrees of effort into advancing the the PRO Act, which is the most substantive pro-worker labor law reform since the New Deal. What coalition does exist is anchored by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Many unions have focused on their own lobbying—for things which are not unimportant, but which are narrowly focused on immediate fixes that address the short-term interests of their membership. Bigger-picture questions, like unrigging the economy, building worker power, and generally advancing the power of working people as a class, often take a back seat.

The prevalence of cynical politics and the profound lack of common purpose (an artifact, in part, of the lack of sectoral organization and cooperation) fatally undermines the advancement of a pro-worker agenda. It’s clear that this presents enormous obstacles to both the process of securing an effective system of sectoral bargaining and in the ultimate navigation of that system. Unions seeing short-term gain—like the Machinists, who have cooperated with Lyft and Uber on creating a company union—may be tempted to sell short, securing their own benefit at the expense of the common interest.

There are ways to tackle this problem. The use of specialized labor councils, as in the case of the University of California, allows for the building of enduring coalitions across job and union differences. Such an organization could lay foundations for a higher education council comprising other public sector higher education unions, like those in the California State University system. A council could be leveraged even absent a legally defined system of sectoral bargaining. In the context of higher education, it could prove the springboard for a common campaign (for example, on minimum adjunct faculty pay), raising the standards for higher education instructors across an entire sector, rather than restricting gains to a single employer.

Echo of the Battle

This question is important for reasons beyond effective bargaining. As Connolly and others argued, translating industrial organization to industrial action, and industrial action to political action, is how we make more possible. Connolly, like Rosa Luxemburg, believed there to be a close connection between industrial organization, industrial action, and political expression. Summarizing the relationship between economic and political action, Luxemburg stated, “Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action.” Likewise, Connolly characterized political action as the “echo of the [industrial] battle.”

Connolly’s thoughts on translating industrial organization to working-class power and politics are essential. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Connolly believed that industrial action alone was not enough—that although it was the direct point of struggle, formal political expression was also necessary to further class interests and contest the terrain of the state. Connolly argued that action at the ballot box strips away the lingering sectionalism of strike actions, turning them into a common political program.

Broadly, Luxemburg thought along the same lines, arguing that while strikes could be constitutive of political struggle, parliamentary action was still necessary. Here, both sharply diverged with some anarchists and syndicalists, even though Connolly had worked with many in founding the Industrial Workers of the World. To Luxemburg, the strike was the “method of motion of the proletarian class,” but was not enough in and of itself. Simply putting one’s hands in one’s pockets would not lick the capitalist class.

Connolly saw clear dangers in failing to put industrial organization behind political power. In The Re-Conquest of Ireland—arguably the first comprehensive Marxist analysis of the country—Connolly insisted that, “Labour must necessarily attack the political and municipal citadels of power,” but also signaled a note of caution. “Every effort should be made to extend the scope of public ownership,” he wrote. “As democracy invades and captures public powers public ownership will, of necessity, be transformed and infused with a new spirit.” Yet democracy “without Industrial Unionism behind it” is as doomed as the victim swallowed by the serpent.

Connolly speaks of the power of the industrial union, and he chose those words deliberately. They reflected a long-developed critique of craft unionism and the sectionalism it creates. His implicit meaning is clear: the socialist political party cannot exist without union power, and craft unionism is incapable of political expression through the socialist political party. Industrial unionism and socialist politics need each other, and each are ultimately ineffective unless pursued together. 

There is a note of warning here for the modern socialist left, which often insufficiently understands and theorizes the labor movement and its organization. Socialists will call for more grounding in the labor movement without understanding the labor movement in which they ground themselves, and the changes to its organizational practices that are necessary. Calls for a new, independent socialist party are at times totally absent actual roots in any sort of unionism, let alone industrial unionism. Critique or discussion of the labor movement rarely goes beyond debate over political control of the movement. And proponents of the unique interpretation of the “rank-and-file strategy” common among the Democratic Socialists of America often seem to assume that simply contesting control of the already-existing movement will lead to the potential for class politics.

The dangers of failing to connect political struggle and union work are already apparent. Socialist challengers are often unable to connect their campaigns to union organization—a sign of both the sectional characteristics of the movement, as well as the modern left’s weak connection to union politics. When the left wins, it often does so in spite of union opposition: Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez all defeated incumbents heavily backed by unions. Their successes can’t scale up, which presents a hard limit on the left’s prospects, a reality demonstrated by organized labor’s vigorous defense of Andrew Cuomo in 2018, and their continued defense today.

It can also be seen in union opposition to Medicare for All. The left excoriated Culinary 226 for their opposition to single-payer healthcare without understanding that it was in their interest to oppose it. To understand this, you must understand that their interests are interpreted in intensely sectional terms. It’s easy to blame unions for working counter to their own interests, but this often misinterprets what their more nuanced interests actually are. Culinary 226 is structured as a craft union and operates as a craft union. We should not be surprised when they pursue their politics as a craft union, even if those politics are at the expense of the broader working class.

It’s tempting to describe this as a function of bad union leadership that is disconnected from the rank-and-file; in fact, that’s the core conceit of many prevalent left interpretations of the labor movement. But although there’s some truth at the heart of that analysis, it’s not the whole story, or even a dominant plotline. The problems in labor are more principally a function of how unions and their membership interpret their interests. Current socialist understanding of the labor movement is weak, as is the left’s vision for both the labor movement and its political representation.

The solution, as Connolly believed, is to burn away the spirit of sectionalism by joining together the industrial union and the socialist ballot box.

The Serpent’s Gullet

The debate over sectoral bargaining has been left to the “wonks,” largely ignored by the wider left. But as past socialist thinkers like Connolly and William Z. Foster demonstrate, the question of sectoral bargaining is not only a rich vein of socialist thought, it’s an essential consideration that orients us to a viable socialist horizon.

Revisiting this debate arms us with a political language to better understand the problems in organized labor, and how those problems connect to the field of political action. It also shows that demands for sectoral bargaining are an opening that radicals should seize, rather than an abstract question we can ignore.

The ideological and political implications are clear: industrial organization and sectoral negotiations widen the terrain for class struggle and narrow or eliminate internal divisions within the working class. Further, as Connolly and others argued, the terms of the industrial war shape the potential for political action. We ignore this connection at our peril. By building industrial unionism, we create the space to bring the working class into direct industrial and political conflict with capital as a class.

How the ideological questions impact the here-and-now needs to be better understood. There are viable principles for sectoral bargaining grounded in the principle of worker power. These potentialities deserve attention. What they might mean for the left and its capacity for class politics has been left largely unaddressed.

What we do in our unions and the ways we advocate for strengthening the movement are currently disconnected from a comprehensive analysis of union organization and political action. We need concrete demands, and we need to ground those demands with an eye to the demonstrable failures in existing organizing. Romanticizing struggle and prescribing more of it as the solution is tempting but pointless. Struggle is valuable for what it produces: the potential for emancipation.

Multiple pathways lie ahead. As Connolly argued, the only viable road to working-class victory is that of industrial organization and political action. Politically attenuated internal labor politicking will not produce the movement we want, nor will political action alone lead to true working-class control of the state. Those paths lead down the serpent’s gullet, from which we will not emerge again. ♦



C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.

Consider supporting Protean Magazine on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!