MAY DAY 2024 | USA – The Labor Movement Needs Socialism

International Workers Day is a socialist holiday started by US unions during the struggle for the eight-hour workday in the late 1800s. It was adopted by the newly founded socialist Second International in 1889 as a day to “demonstrate energetically…for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat [working class], and for universal peace.” This workers’ holiday is celebrated on May 1st by many unions and workers’ political parties worldwide through rallies, protests, and strikes. International Workers’ Day is also a time to discuss and debate the way forward for the labor movement.

This Workers’ Day, the labor movement in the US and other countries has more energy than in recent years. A wider layer of workers, particularly young workers, see unions as a way to fight back against lower living standards and an economic system that offers no clear future. More workers are rightfully taking action to organize unions, and many workers in existing unions are willing to risk going on strike.

Unions developed as defense organizations of the working class, a way of fighting together to improve pay, hours, and working conditions. Why do unions still represent just 10% of US workers despite an upsurge in strikes? While there have been some recent victories in recognition and contract struggles, unions haven’t gained enough membership or union power. Union organizers, activists, and leaders need to rediscover socialist ideas and tactics that built the labor movement into a mass force for the working class.

Labor Needs a Breakthrough

Today, the labor movement needs more decisive victories. Long waits for first contracts offset important union organizing victories. Layers of workers can become disillusioned by the average of nearly 500 days for successful first contract campaigns, if the first contracts are won at all. No labor law forces corporations to settle and sign first union contracts.

Recent contract victories were the first steps to reverse decades of concessions. Now, contract struggles need to go much farther in wage gains and better benefits to continue to make up for decades of stagnant and low wages, recent inflation, and deep concessions by union leaders on pensions, time off, health insurance costs to union members, and other benefits that have been severely lost or reduced. There’s no real strategy by union leaders to stop or reverse layoffs, workplaces shutting down, off-shoring, sub-contracting, mislabeling workers as “independent contractors,” job losses due to automation, and other ways corporations use and abuse workers to steal value from the labor of the working class.

To reverse its long decline since its height in the early 1950s, the labor movement needs union organizers, activists, and leaders who rediscover the socialist ideas and tactics that built it into a mass force for the working class.

Socialism has a method for analyzing capitalism and how the system grinds on by exploiting workers and the environment to make a small number of big owners richer. That analysis leads to conclusions about the best tactics to fight back, as well as a vision of what could replace capitalism, end exploitation, and provide all workers with a good standard of living. Socialists have always been among the best fighters for working-class causes because this vision of an alternative economic system that working people could democratically control results in socialist union activists and leaders pushing the envelope with new tactics and militancy and linking individual issues and campaigns to build the maximum solidarity and unity of the working class.

The Labor Movement’s Socialist Roots

Every upsurge in the labor movement was linked with an upsurge in the socialist movement. The first US socialist and labor organizations were formed in the late 1800s. Growing monopolization extracted unprecedented wealth off the backs of a growing working class. Socialists were a crucial part of organizing and building up the first unions.

For example, the socialist International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), also known as the First International, with leaders that included Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, had connections with William Sylvis, founder and president of the first union in the United States, the National Labor Union. Sylvis was very interested in international union organizations, and he had a long and detailed correspondence with the leaders of the IWA. A labor leader in the late 1800s, Peter J. McGuire, was a socialist who, as a teenager, was active in the IWA in New York City. In 1874 he helped form the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party (renamed as the Socialist Labor Party in 1877), founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and is called the “father of May Day” for leading a campaign to establish May 1st as International Workers Day.

Many of the most active and militant union members joined as socialists or were won over to socialist ideas by their experiences in labor struggles, like Eugene V. Debs, the most well-known leader of the mass Socialist Party in the US in the early 20th century. Debs became a socialist after being imprisoned for building an industrial union for all railroad workers and helping to lead the Pullman Strike in 1894, which the US government crushed.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an attempt influenced by anarchists and socialists to build a single union for all workers, was on the leading edge of fighting for workers’ interests in the early 1900s. The IWW used new militant tactics and produced some of the most important socialist and labor activists in US history, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Big Bill Haywood.

When the working class of the Russian Empire overthrew capitalism in 1917 and began to organize the first socialist society, it had an electrifying effect on these activists, demonstrating that fighting for an alternative to capitalist exploitation and inequality was possible. Many labor activists joined new communist parties forming in many parts of the world, including in the US, and those organizations took a leading role in fighting to help build the labor movement and its unions in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Russian Revolution and the rapid development of communist parties led to the first major crackdown on socialists, known as the “Red Scare” in the US from 1917 to 1920. Capitalists fear socialism above all else because socialists tend to be the most effective fighters with the best tactics based on a proven track record. Socialism represents an existential threat to the ownership over how and what gets made, the profits, and the privileges of the rich and powerful.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the labor movement initially suffered severe losses from mass unemployment. However, new socialist and communist organizations and activists proved their worth, leading three general strikes in 1934: the Communist League of America led the Minneapolis Teamster strike, the American Workers Party led the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, and the Communist Party led the West Coast waterfront strike. These strikes were crucial to the largest breakthrough of the labor movement in US labor history: the launch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and mass industrial unionization.

The massive battles waged by the labor movement with significant socialist influence and activity in the 1930s and 1940s led to peak membership of the labor movement in the 1950s. The power of the labor movement that emerged in the 1930s and ’40s, combined with the post-WWII economic upswing, caused capitalism to temporarily concede generally higher wages, other compensation, and some expansion of social benefits.

Capitalists Target Socialists and Weaken the Workers Movement

US capitalists and the government they control sought to remove socialists from union and government positions of influence. The McCarthyist purges of the 1940s-50s, a second “Red Scare,” drove socialist leaders, ideas, and methods out of workers’ organizations or underground, pressuring many socialists to hide any socialist affiliation, analysis, or program. The loss of militant members and socialist traditions severely weakened organized labor. Corporate politicians pushed through anti-union legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act to accelerate the process, which included banning labor’s most effective weapon:  solidarity (or “sympathy”) strikes.

Socialist ideas and activists still played important roles in the labor movement from the 1950s to the 1970s. There was a socialist current of union activists in the civil rights movement, for example, A. Philip Randolph, who influenced leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There was a growing movement to organize public sector workers, and those unions, like AFSCME, had socialist leaders who were able to mobilize union members for civil rights marches and rallies. Out of the mass protest movements opposing the Vietnam War, a new generation of socialist youth emerged, with many joining unions and becoming active in the labor movement.

Socialist Ideas to Understand Capitalism and How to Fight for Workers

Socialists recognize unions as organizations founded by workers fighting for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Socialist economic analysis reveals that capitalism functions through exploiting workers’ labor power. Capitalists use worker’s labor, the source of all value, to produce commodities and services. Capitalists siphon most of the value from our labor in the form of profit, returning the smallest amount to workers in the form of wages that they can get away with. Unions force capitalists to give better wages than the capitalists want to give up. Capitalists and workers have fundamentally opposed interests.

Capitalism is driven to accumulate profits by all means, including destruction and devastation of the environment, workers’ rights, living standards, livelihoods, and even lives. Even when forced to give some concessions to workers, no reform is ever safe under capitalism because all reforms interfere with the capitalist’s constant drive to maximize short-term profits.

Most labor leaders are not socialists, so they ignore or don’t understand the fundamentals of how capitalism operates. Workers’ and capitalists’ interests are fundamentally opposed, which makes “win-win” agreements between unions and corporate bosses impossible. Many union leaders see their job as being partners with the company, saying that workers’ interests are the same as the capitalists. They are eager to avoid open conflict with the corporate CEOs and prefer backroom, concessionary deals. They lack confidence in union members being willing to protest or strike for union recognition or good contracts. Union leaders who are anti-socialist or who don’t know about socialism get too close to the bosses, underestimate the considerable money the corporations possess and lack the analysis, tactics, and vision socialism can bring to strengthen the labor movement enormously.

If pro-capitalist leadership of the labor movement can’t head off militancy, capitalists use the state to help fight against workers. This comes in the form of anti-union labor law, designed to make it more difficult to organize unions or use effective strike tactics. For example, in 2022, the US government used the Railway Labor Act to make a national freight railroad strike illegal. It forced a weak contract that the majority of union railroad workers had voted down. Labor laws are mostly anti-union and enforced through the courts, repression by the police, fines, and prison time, all to weaken or bust unions.

Socialists are aware of working-class and labor history, which includes unions’ tendency towards independent political action and the organization of their own political parties separate from the political parties, money, and control of the capitalist class.

The labor movement needs a political party representing unions and other workers, independent of capitalist money and corporate parties. This party could bring existing unions together and unite them with the broader working class to organize coordinated campaigns and action. Ultimately, socialists believe the working class must seize and wield state power, setting up a government designed to defend workers’ interests the same way that the capitalist state defends capitalist interests.


We argue that labor activists need to be socialists and get active in the fight for socialism, but also that all socialists must get involved in the labor movement as open socialists. Socialist ideas, analysis, and tactics are essential to union organizing, contract battles, and organizing independent political action of unions and the working class.

We in the Independent Socialist Group propose to union activists and the labor movement:

  • Reclaim our unions. Fight for more union democracy through one-member-one-vote, expanding the election of union representatives and organizers with the right to recall, and restricting the salaries of union officers and staffers to the average wage of the union members they represent. Organize open contract negotiations and rank-and-file controlled contract campaigns. Offer union education about labor and socialist history to rediscover the best tactics and strategies for our unions. Organize militant tactics that use the strength of a mobilized membership and supporters; don’t restrict ourselves to legal or “respectable” tactics. The bosses don’t fight fair, and neither should we. Solidarity strikes and workplace occupations (like the sit-down strikes in the 1930s) are “illegal” because they worked, and our unions would not exist today without those tactics.
  • Organize the unorganized. Unions must combine resources and use active solidarity to go after major companies like Amazon, Walmart, nonunion car corporations, FedEx, etc. Create labor-community solidarity committees and other initiatives to mobilize more support.
  • Bold, far-reaching demands and goals for contract battles. The depth of the cost-of-living crisis makes it very clear to workers that we need to fight for considerable wage increases, the return of pensions, and more.
  • Fight for the working class as a whole, not just the membership. If unions support reforms that would benefit the whole working class, especially demands on local, state, and federal authorities, they will gain even more support from the broader working class and more interest in unionizing from workers. These reforms can also complement any concessions won from individual companies to raise the standard of living of the membership. The labor movement should be at the forefront in the fight for:
    • A universal, free, public healthcare system
    • Price controls on essential goods and services like food and housing
    • Federal rent control regulations and mass expansion of public housing
    • Full funding and expansion of public education and free higher education
    • A $25 minimum wage and shorter work week with no cut in pay
    • Public jobs programs with union wages and benefits
    • Green energy and infrastructure
    • Unions should be a major part of the fight back against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of oppression
  • Form a political party for labor and the working class. Stop all support for Democrats, Republicans, and other pro-corporate parties. A dues-based, mass membership party, with membership rights for affiliated unions and organizations, could fight for pro-labor reforms and other working-class issues, independent of corporate money and interference. Measures like the right to recall and only accepting the average wage of a worker can help keep elected representatives of the party accountable to the working class. A workers’ party could also unite all the unions and the broader working class.

We need public ownership and democratic control of the major corporations that produce and distribute essential goods and services. In order to guarantee good standards of living for workers, we need to take control of the economy away from the profit-driven private companies that currently dictate our lives.

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May 2024