Today’s Labor Movement Needs a Revolutionary Outlook

by Patricia Conner

This talk was given at the Abolitions Conference of the University of California Washington Center, May 6-8, 2023. Recorded sessions can be accessed at

As a Metro transit worker in DC and a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689 representing over 10,000 bus operators, train operators, mechanics, custodians, landscapers of Metro, and hundreds of paratransit workers, I wanted to share thoughts about building a revolutionary movement in my workplace. I was a shop steward and executive board member at my bus garage for six years and am a member of the Progressive Labor Party, a revolutionary communist organization. I want to share the frustration that we workers have had in trying to abolish the various forms of racism, sexism, and exploitation in our industry. The system we face is rigged against us at every turn. That is why we communists try to build among our fellow workers an understanding of the need to go beyond trying to abolish the various travesties inflicted on us by the bosses, and try to build a revolutionary party that can both strengthen the labor movement in its day to day work while simultaneously creating the movement and institutions to overthrow the entire capitalist system. For me, abolishing capitalism means building a communist world of equality and collectivity.

For many, this idea seems far-fetched. Some feel that capitalism cannot be defeated in the U.S.  But never forget that famous comment from Rosa Luxemburg, the German revolutionary:  ”Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.” We should recognize that capitalism is an inherently unstable system, generating wars among the imperialists like today’s increasingly volatile conflicts among the US, NATO, Russia, and China and their spheres of influence. Economic crises are likewise endemic to capitalism. ”Business as usual” is actually not that usual! By building the understanding among workers now that revolutions against capitalism/imperialism around the world constitute the pathway to a better world, we will prepare ourselves and our class for the storms that await us.

The Contradictions of the Labor Movement

The labor movement in the U.S. has historically embodied the conflict between reform and revolution. The 19th century Chicago Central Labor Council favored the abolition of capitalism and at the same time campaigned for the 8-hour day. The Haymarket Affair of 1886, with a general strike and substantial militancy, was attacked by the police, and the leading revolutionary figures of Chicago’s labor movement were executed by the government for their role in fighting capitalism. But their example inspired the launch of May Day as the international working-class revolutionary holiday a few years later.

Other parts of the labor movement also took a revolutionary approach, including the International Workers of the World (IWW), the early Socialist Party, and the Communist Party USA through its mass organizations, the Trade Union Unity League and the Trade Union Educational League.  Later it gave powerful leadership to several new industrial unions in the 1930s. At the same time, unions then and now typically function within the framework of capitalism and their leaders often are unwilling to go beyond simple business unionism. We must return to the days of labor militancy and an open communist presence pointing the finger at capitalism as the racist, sexist, killer of workers that it is.

Transit Unions and Struggle

The ATU is an international union and has historically been less militant than the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), which led a major transportation strike in the US when New York city transit workers walked out for three days in 2005. We unionists are in a period of growth as more and more workers want to join a union and have a collectively bargained contract. We communists are trying to use this momentum to build a labor movement capable of leading the fight to abolish capitalism/imperialism with communist revolution.

Unions are structurally limited to negotiate the terms of workers’ exploitation. So even if you do that militantly and in an antiracist fashion, if it isn’t about building a party to destroy capitalism, then at the end of the day all you are doing is trying to get better terms for your exploitation.

Consider, though, both the potential power and limitations of the labor movement. Bertolt Brecht wrote a moving poem illustrating the potential power of the workers:

“General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

General, your bomber is powerful.
It flies faster than a storm and carries more than an elephant.
But it has one defect:
It needs a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He can fly and he can kill.
But he has one defect:
He can think.”

Those drivers are the members of the working class. The workers in major industries such as transportation have the power to dramatically stop production, therefore, the economy and the flow of profits to the capitalists. This power has always been recognized and feared by the ruling class, which they have dealt with in several different ways. Union jobs in key industries tend to be higher paying and have better benefits, therefore making union workers less interested in class struggle. Union leadership positions are a way to not have to operate a bus or turn a wrench anymore, and can be well paid, which lessens their desire to take the personal risks in fighting back. The ruling class has also passed laws making it harder for unions in this country to strike through no strike clauses and no solidarity (“secondary boycotts”) strike clauses.

The current state of workers power in the US and internationally has been dramatically hurt by the lack of communist leadership around the world. Efforts by the ruling class to channel workers outrage into the Democratic party in the US has led to weakening of class consciousness and militant fight back. Union leadership has for the most part abandoned strikes, and when the workers demand strikes, the union leadership and politicians undermine or sell out these efforts as quickly as possible. Without disciplined communist leadership, these rank-and-file movements get misdirected and sold out. Without a class analysis of companies extracting profit from the workforce, unions can be quick to settle for “good enough” contracts. Without the idea fighting racism and getting involved in larger societal issues, unions can end up supporting the idea of more police to enforce fare evasion. Without a broader analysis of international politics, unions can be won to supporting more funding for imperialist war efforts.

Communist Organizing at Metro

Our organizing work as communists at Metro has shown the limits of reform within the labor movement.  We have won many reform battles and helped push the conversation within our union towards the left. We led fights against the criminal background check that limits hiring of those with records and punishes those already employed. We led teach-ins and anti-war contingents in protests in DC. We have saved co-workers jobs through the grievance procedure. We organized many rallies outside of Metro headquarters around proposed cuts to our benefits, contracting out, and proposed fare increases on our riders. While these struggles have improved lives and raised class consciousness, we are still facing the same attacks we have for the past twenty years. We need a sustained disciplined party organization to continue to raise these issues and build for a better future, otherwise Metro and other companies will continue to chip away at what small gains we have made.

Failures of the Union Leadership

In Loudoun County, Virginia, our union recently led a strike for a better contract for commuter bus operators. We were on the picket line for two months in the middle of winter. The union leadership had thought that rubbing elbows with the County Executive would lead her to find funding for the transit contractor to meet our demands and end the strike. A pitiful example of wishful thinking. When it became clear that this “friend of labor” was not going to make it happen, the union began to maneuver to end the strike. We communists pushed for the strike to be expanded to other transit workers, such as the Silver Line train operators, or public-school teachers in Loudoun County who were also facing a tough bargaining opponent. But the union leadership was unwilling to take that sort of risk. Why? Either from lack of confidence in the working class, or from fear of losing, or from an unwillingness to continue to pay strike benefits. The rank-and-file workers on the picket line wanted to continue the strike, but the union leadership made it clear that a “suspension” of the strike until the next funding cycle was the best strategy. Workers went back to work without a contract, essentially losing the strike. This will have a serious demoralizing effect on those workers and ATU members in general for years to come. 

In August our union led a strike in Prince George’s County, Maryland  against a contractor operating the paratransit service MetroAccess. The workers were on strike for two weeks, at the end of which they won a subpar contract. Many workers wanted to continue the strike, but at the union leadership’s urging, voted to accept the contract. The contract was better than it would have been without a strike but was still not a real improvement to the quality of life for those workers. As communists on the picket line, we tried but were not able to win the majority of workers to continue the strike in the face of the union leadership’s opposition. This, despite the agreement of most workers that  much more was needed in the contract to keep up with inflation and secure enough benefits to be able to retire.

Seven years ago, the KKK planned to hold a demonstration downtown in downtown DC. The Klan members were going to take a Metro train into the city for their rally. We held an emergency meeting at the union hall to discuss our union’s position on transporting racists to this event. Many train operators attended and said we should shut down the train in the middle of the tunnel. Others said we should do a sick out. The energy was electric in the room that day. Ultimately, the General Manager (GM) of Metro said that the Metro system would not provide a train for them. Since when do we believe the lying bosses? The union leadership believed him!–and then the KKK boarded a GM-provided Metro train and were safely taken downtown for their rally.

These examples show how unions can undermine the militancy of the working class by giving them an avenue towards enacting limited change and then controlling how that change happens. We need the organization of the union to fight collectively but the union is ultimately a reform organization that essentially props up capitalism. Our union leaders spend thousands of dollars of union dues supporting politicians and hardly any money on building a fighting organization that can take a stand on any number of social issues facing the working class today.

A determined core of revolutionary fighters can turn this around. They can make unions become leaders of multiracial fight back, which is key to abolishing capitalism.

Workers Can Be Won to the Left

I also believe, based on my over a decade of organizing at Metro, that workers can be won to the analysis that a disciplined party is necessary to abolish capitalism. In fact, as a result of our party’s engagement in these militant campaigns and strikes discussed earlier, we have been able to swell the ranks of our party group at Metro. So despite the setbacks in the struggle for reform due to conservative union leaders, we have succeeded by painstakingly building the core of an organization at Metro that can respond to the inevitable crises of capitalism. We will respond with more militancy, more unity, and more leadership for the eventual revolution in the US that will crush our exploiting bosses and their state – permanently — with workers power.

The fight for revolution seems impossible in the course of the day-to-day struggle for many reforms. The historical experience, however, is that revolutions are propelled forward by major crises of the capitalist system. With a communist party, however limited in scope, World War I led to the Russian Revolution and a greatly expanded worldwide communist movement. Similarly, World War II led to the Chinese Revolution and the global anti-colonial revolutions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. 

Let’s learn from history. Reforms usually go nowhere, and when they succeed are usually reversed later. Revolutions can change the world, and abolish capitalism with its police, prisons, anti-immigrant hatred, racism, exploitation of our class, and so much more! Let’s learn from the triumphs of past revolutions and analyze their errors so that we can build a society by and for the working class.

Patricia Conner is a transit worker and union activist in Washington, DC

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