Trade Unions, Working Class Consciousness, and Neoliberalism

Marx and Lenin both held that the working class was the chief agent for radical social change in society. It was only this class that was compelled by its very existence to struggle against the ruling force in society, the power of capital. Workers were forced to struggle with their bosses for things like higher pay and better working conditions, and it was this struggle that molded them into a force capable of radically reconstituting society. In 1845, Engels argued, “[W]hat gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order” [1]. Unions helped to organize the working class into a class, making them conscious of the need to challenge their capitalist masters. The lessons they learned in union struggles laid a foundation upon which socialists could build a revolutionary, anti-capitalist worker’s movement.

However, the capitalist system has changed a great deal since Engels wrote that famous passage. In the mid-1970s particularly, US manufacturing began to lag behind its competitors in Germany and Japan. This led business leaders to adopt a strategy known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism holds that the government, rather than being a potential solution to the problems of the market as in the earlier Keynesian formulations, was itself the problem. Neoliberalism is thus characterized by the weakening of central state’s’ influence over the economy, deregulation, and, crucially, union-busting. Although neoliberalism claims to detest government intervention in the economy, as I have just described, nothing could be further from the truth. While decision-making was pushed to the localities in many parts of the world (we will discuss this in more detail later), neoliberalism has actually been characterized by what many call “corporate welfare,” in which the government hands out billions of dollars in subsidies per year to industries such as banking and oil.  The bank bailouts of 2008’s Great Recession demonstrated this fact vividly: the federal government not only rescued the same Wall Street behemoths whose reckless greed caused the financial meltdown, but has since allowed these corporations to rake in billions of dollars of undisclosed profits [2]. The point here is that there is a wide gap between the professed ideology of neoliberalism and its actual practice.

Forming new organizations such as the Business Roundtable and resurrecting the viciously anti-union Chamber of Commerce, they forged a plan to drastically lower working-class living standards. As Business Week summarized at the time, “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that business can have more… Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality” [3]. This is the essence of neoliberalism: it is about stripping away the sparse gains made by the working class in the Keynesian era and building a society in which the capitalist class openly enriches itself on the backs of the workers. This was plain to see by the mid-1980s, in which corporations published texts which promised to “show you how to screw your employees (before they screw you) and how to keep them smiling on low pay—how to maneuver them into low-paying jobs they are afraid to walk away from — how to hire and fire so you always make money” [4]. Neoliberalism, therefore, is about the capitalist class enriching themselves by any means necessary, workers be damned.

Naturally, one of neoliberalism’s first orders of business was to attack unions. One crucial way in which it did this was to spread anti-union propaganda in the media. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, union manufacturing workers faced tremendous pay cuts, in accordance with neoliberal doctrine [5]. In order to justify this, the media spread a false image of the overpaid autoworker with so-called “gold-plated benefits.” This onslaught has continued to the present day. As recently as 2008,   the New York Times falsely claimed that United Auto Workers (UAW) members were earning an average of $70 per hour, including benefits [6]. When the Times made that claim, the starting wage of a newly-hired union auto worker was $14.50 an hour [7]. The media has engaged in a concentrated effort to turn the public against unions, even resorting to outright lies to accomplish their goals.

This tactic has not been as effective as the capitalists would like. According to a 2013 poll by Pew Research Center, “about half of Americans have a favorable view of unions” [8]. The relative failure of the ideological assault on unions has led the capitalist class to adopt more ruthless union-busting tactics, such as threatening to close shops if a union election succeeded. According to a working study produced by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, nearly 50 percent of all serious allegations of union busting tactics, both legal and illegal, by employers happens after workers express initial interest in a union, but before an official petition has even been filed requesting a vote on union representation [9]. Employers have become emboldened by neoliberalism, carrying out anti-worker activities that blatantly ignore the gains made by labor struggles in previous eras. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin bill that stripped unions of their basic collective bargaining rights sparked protests that made international headlines [10]. What is not typically known, however, is that this proposed law was not an isolated event. It represented a concerted strategy to attack public workers simultaneously, state by state. This initiative was spearheaded by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, but echoed in states dominated by Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York [11]. In 2017, similar bills are being considered all across the country. Kentucky house Republicans, to name one example, are currently under fire from union activists for proposing two bills that would prevent public sector workers from going on strike [12].  Neoliberalism’s anti-union strategies have continued to this day. They have also enjoyed bipartisan support, further evidence that neither major American party is grounded within the working class.

It is this climate that led to the labor movement, particularly in the United States, to being what it is now: fractured and impotent compared to the mass strikes of the 1930s. According to one study, “in 2013, there were 14.5 million members in the U.S., down from 17.7 million in 1983. The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 10.8%, compared to 20.1% in 1983” [13]. Union membership is in a dismal state in the United States, and strikes are even worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2016, there were only 15 work stoppages involving a thousand or more workers,, compared to 270 in 1947 [14].

This decline in union membership and strikes has the potential to lead many radicals away from the Marxist thesis that the working class is the primary (though by no means only) revolutionary agent in society. After all, that assertion is premised on the idea that the workers are driven to struggle in unions, and that they can become a revolutionary force on the basis of this struggle. It is within this struggle that workers learn of their true power in society: they are the ones that produce all the things we need to live. Thus, their best tactic in struggle is the strike. Strikes involve withholding labor power until demands are met. The economy will grind to a halt as a result of this, which will in turn lead the general population to accept this theory as well. As I have argued previously on this blog, workers still possess the objective ability to withhold their labor and achieve demands. But if they are not even aware of this, much less involved in organizations that would allow them to take advantage of this ability, what use is it? The decline of unionization under neoliberalism, so the argument goes, has resulted in an impotent working class that can never become conscious in a revolutionary way because they are not even conscious of their short-term interests against the bosses. There are elements of truth to this argument, but I would like to argue that it is false, premised on a misunderstanding of what Marx and Lenin meant by “trade-union consciousness.”

To explain what I mean by this, I’d like to return to the passage from Engels quoted above. The important thing about unions, he implies, is that they make workers conscious of their interests against capital, against their bosses. Lenin expanded upon this notion of trade-union consciousness, writing in What is to be Done,  “[Trade union struggles] marked the awakening antagonisms between workers and employers; but the workers, were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system, i.e., theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness” [15]. By this, he meant that trade union struggles make workers aware of the fact that they need to struggle, but do not make them aware that they need to abolish capitalism as a whole. “Trade-union consciousness,” then, is merely a shorthand for ‘worker’s organization that is not yet revolutionary.’ The institution of the trade union was the predominant way in which workers attained this level of consciousness in the time of both Marx and Lenin, hence the name. This does not mean, however, that workers cannot come to the above-mentioned realizations in other ways. Put another way, the decline of unions does not necessarily mean a decline in working-class consciousness. As I will argue, neoliberalism has not eliminated this consciousness. It has merely changed the form it takes. In many cases, I think, neoliberalism has led the working class to become more conscious of the need to struggle within the system of capitalism. The working class remains, as Marx put it “a class as against capital” [16]. Thus, it remains a potential revolutionary agent.

To begin, I think it is important to remember that although unions have been weakened hugely under neoliberalism, they are still around. We should focus on the struggles that have occurred around union-busting efforts themselves. In Kentucky, for example, “Hundreds of union workers crammed the hallways of the legislative office building,” in an attempt to prevent the anti-union bill from being passed [17]. Similarly, protests erupted over anti-union bills in Michigan. This was despite the fact that the protestors faced fines and even jail time by doing so [18]. In Indiana, “[T]housands of union supporters that packed the Statehouse this morning and spilled out onto Downtown sidewalks hoped their show of solidarity would be enough to dilute legislative support of a proposed right to work bill” [19]. This is one key problem with the “decline of the working class” theory. Not only do unions still exist, they are active in the struggle against the bosses. There are many criticisms of unions to be made, especially from a Marxist perspective, but the fact remains that mass worker’s actions have sprung up around unions. Clearly, workers retain literal trade-union consciousness, albeit in a highly reduced form. It follows from this that there is still a foundation upon which socialists can build a revolutionary working class movement. The battle in Wisconsin, as well as elsewhere, demonstrated how capitalism could once again propel workers into struggle, opening the door to rebuilding the labor movement on the basis of collective struggle. There is much work to be done, since neoliberalism has so successfully forced workers to compete in a race to the bottom on a global scale over the last three decades. The potential, however, exists.

But, as I have argued, trade union consciousness can exist outside unions. In many cases, it can go beyond unions. Unions, as Engels remarked, are strictly economic organizations. They negotiate the terms of exploitation under capitalism and, as such, are focused purely on economic demands. This is evidenced by the fact that solidarity strikes are illegal in the United States. A solidarity strike is also called a sympathy strike, in which workers strike in support of an action by another enterprise. These strikes are helpful not only in achieving the demands of workers, but also in forging unity among different sections of the working class, a necessary precondition for revolution. Despite these benefits, workers cannot engage in these strikes with the support of unions [20]. While unions can help workers learn how to struggle, they also impose limits on that struggle. Marxists have always understood this to be the case, which is why they have urged activists to develop the working class movement beyond economic struggles.

Neoliberalism has seen the masses of workers breaking away from the restrictive union form in favor of more open, advanced organizations. None of these organizations have been capable of waging a revolution against the whole capitalist system, and many have not even been interested in doing so. As such, these non-union struggles do not invalidate the need for a strong socialist presence in the worker’s movement. Due to the pervasiveness of capitalist ideology, the working class cannot come to revolutionary consciousness through its day-to-day struggles with capital. This necessitates, as Lenin argued, a vanguard party, made up of socialists and the most advanced sections of the working class [21]. Non-union struggles under neoliberalism must therefore be thought of as a more advanced form of trade union consciousness, which I will call movement consciousness.  This movement consciousness takes the form of mass self-organization that is independent of the capitalists, though not free from their influence. This self-organization transforms the workers from a class against capital and into a class for itself. It is much easier for socialists to build on this kind of organization than it is to build on union organization. Movement consciousness leads to the creation of institutions that are more radical in content than unions, though often not by much. This is what I mean when I say that neoliberalism has made workers more conscious than previous stages of capitalism. Neoliberal restructuring and austerity push the working class closer to revolutionary tendencies within the existing system. Again, though, the working class cannot completely break free of bourgeois ideology without the concerted effort of socialists. This is because bourgeois ideology is targeted specifically on the working class. It is designed to trap them. (See my posts Lenin’s Theory of the Vanguard Party and Leninism and the Mass Line for more on this).

To better illustrate what I mean by movement consciousness, I would like to turn away from the United States. Proponents of the “declining working class” theory only ever seem to focus on America. Since I am attempting to lay out an alternative theory, it is only natural that I broaden my scope beyond this. Neoliberalism has not just been about the United States. The working class in the Americas and the Global South has felt the lash of neoliberalism to a much greater degree.

The example of India is an instructive one. As of 2015, the union density in this country is nine percent (9%), even lower than in the United States [22]. If the decline of the working class theory is true, then it would follow that workers in India are less conscious, less informed of the need to struggle, as a result of this low union density. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2016, an estimated 150 million to 180 million Indian public sector workers went on a 24-hour nation-wide general strike against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans for increasing privatization and other economic policies that could be described as neoliberal in nature. This strike was led, in part, by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [23]. This group understands that unions are not the only arena in which workers can develop “trade-union consciousness.” The low union density in India, like in the United States, has not meant a decline in the struggles of the working class. The working class will always be driven to struggle, will always attempt to change the world. In the era of neoliberalism, communists and revolutionaries need to broaden their conceptions of how this occurs.

I would like to spend the rest of this essay focusing on Bolivia. This a very small country in Latin America, but it is where some of the most extraordinary struggles against neoliberalism have taken place. Bolivia’s experience with neoliberalism began in the 1980s and it was brutal. The struggle against it, however, was equally as strident. It saw the birth of new social movements that taught workers how to struggle. These movements were then built upon by socialists, showing that they generate a similar form of consciousness to the trade union consciousness spoken of by Marx and Engels.

Like many countries in the Global South, Bolivia was very dependent on a small number of commodities for export. In Bolivia, the export of tin was crucial to the survival of the economy. In the 1980s, the price of tin collapsed. This was not the result of overproduction, but rather international speculation [24]. With the collapse of tin came the collapse of the Bolivian Peso. In 1985, the inflation on Bolivia’s currency ran at twenty thousand percent (20,000%) [25]. Clearly, drastic measures needed to be taken to revitalize the economy. Enter neoliberalism. The project of Bolivarian neoliberalism was initiated by the head of state, Estenssoro. He found allies in Gonzalo Sanchez, the owner of Bolivia’s biggest mine, and the University of Chicago economist Jeffrey Sachs. Economists pegged the peso to the US dollar in order to control inflation. Thirty-five thousand state workers were fired in an effort to cut government expenditures [26]. To put that in perspective, imagine if one million public sector workers had been laid off in the United States. Immediately after neoliberalism came to blight Bolivia, it accrued huge human costs.

The core of the Bolivarian worker’s movement prior to the advent of neoliberalism had been the tin miner’s union, which had an incredible thirty thousand members. Twenty-three thousand of them lost their jobs in one year. Twenty-five thousand rural teachers lost their jobs, and one hundred twenty factories closed after state subsidies were withdrawn [27]. By the end of the 1980s, there were one million Bolivarians who had fled to Argentina seeking work [28]. The total population of Bolivia at the time was about ten million. An astounding ten percent (10%) of the country was gone, and those who could still work were not organized. The State also played a part in smashing old unions. In 1985, 143 leaders who had led strikes against neoliberalism were placed into internal exile. They were dispersed to shantytowns in Cochabamba, El Alto, and elsewhere [29]. From good jobs in the mines, workers were reduced to harvesting cocoa in the fields. By the 1990s, income from cocoa producers supported around fifty thousand families. In a sense, cocoa had replaced tin as the central commodity in the Bolivarian economy [30].

The “decline of the working class” theory would hold that there was no hope for socialism in Bolivia. Workers, without trade unions, could not hope to organize themselves and resist neoliberalism. In the absence of such self-organization, socialists could never intervene and build a strong anti-capitalist movement. As we will see, nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Although the tin miners had been driven into the cocoa fields, they still had experience in organizing. The cocoa growers, many of them displaced tin miners, became neoliberalism’s biggest opponent. They formed a social movement (the Chiperi) rather than a union [31]. This movement eventually gave rise to a Party. By 2002, this had become the second-largest political party in the region [32]. This shows that workers can still organize without a union. They are driven to struggle under all forms of capitalism, and will always achieve some form of consciousness upon which socialists can build.

As I said above, a key component of neoliberalism involves weakening the central state so that it cannot interfere in the economy. In Bolivia, there was a massive push to decentralize and push decision making to the localities. The mass of the population was situated here. What’s more, they were indigenous, and had been excluded from the process of decision making for generations. The local mobilized indigenous communities took advantage of neoliberal industrialization to become (in many cases) heads of the municipal governments that were formed at the time. Campesino and indigenous representatives were elected to twenty-nine percent (29%) of seats in 200 municipalities [33]. One of these parties, which called itself the Assembly for Indigenous People’s Sovereignty served as the immediate precursor for the Mas, the movement towards socialism, of which Evo Morales is the most well-known figure [34]. Socialists in Bolivia have recognized the role of social movements in the development of working-class consciousness. The old center of popular resistance, the unions, had been weakened. A new one, made up of ex-miners, the unemployed, urban poor, and cocaleros, had emerged as an alternative. This was a deeply working class movement embedded in indigenous notions of community and rights. In which the working class became aware of itself as an agent for social change. They went on to seize political power on a scale that has never before been seen in America. This level of consciousness was only possible because of neoliberal restructuring. It led to a near-revolutionary situation throughout Bolivia. On October 7, a mass demonstration blocked the twin cities of La Paz and El Alto, leading to clashes with security forces. In the ensuing violence, fifteen people died [35]. By October 17, the police were siding with the demonstrators and the head of state had fled to the US [36]. There was nearly an insurrection in the country.

This marks a return-or rather a continuation-of working class self-organization. This was probably the most successful neoliberal attack in the Americas at the time, smashing the preexisting organizations of the working class. Over the next fifteen years, working class organizations remerged in new ways. There were no traditional trade unions, and yet the workers achieved extraordinary levels of consciousness and struggle. The unions were smashed, but the emergence of ex-miners working alongside rural laborers were able to threaten the whole political system of the country. Even though old labor was gone, labor was not. There were thousands of exploited people who found new ways of organizing, created new institutions. This was the key to victory. Far from declining as a force for social change, neoliberalism has caused the working class to become more militant than ever. The over-reliance of some socialists on the trade union form as the originator of consciousness has made them blind to this. The working class of Bolivia created myriad unemployed organizations, women’s organizations, and indigenous organizations, based on mass meetings of thousands of people. These, rather than trade unions, were what taught the working class to struggle. They generated a new form of preliminary consciousness among the workers. Nevertheless, it served the same function as the trade union consciousness of Marx and Lenin.

The experience of Bolivia-and that of India-shows us that the working class will always self-organize. Just because this organization does not take the form of the trade union does not mean it does not exist. If socialists broaden their definition of trade union consciousness, as I have argued, they will realize that there is always something to build upon. Trade union consciousness is not merely “that consciousness which is attained in trade unions.” Trade union consciousness is that which teaches the workers to struggle, and struggle effectively. It can exist outside of trade unions. In Bolivia and elsewhere under neoliberalism, this consciousness most often takes the form of social movements. Recognizing this is key if we want to win the fight for a better world.

  1.  Karl Marx, “Value, Price and Profit,” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 20 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), 146.
  2. Jia Lynn Yang, ”Corporate profits hit record rate,” Washington Post, November 23, 2010.
  3. Quoted in Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein, Washington Babylon (New York: Verso, 1996), 11.
  4. Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2006), 231.
  5. Andrew Ross Sorkin, “A bridge loan? U.S. should guide G.M. in a chapter 11,” New York Times, November 17, 2008.
  6. Ibid
  7. Art Levine, “Smart ways to a bailout—step 1: stop demonizing the UAW,” Huffington Post, November 24, 2008.
  8. Drew DeSilver “Job categories where union membership has fallen off most.” Pew Research Center, 27 Apr. 2015,
  9. Lila Shapiro “Union-Busting Tactics More Pervasive Than Previously Thought: Study.” The Huffington Post,, 28 June 2011
  10. John Nichols, “Tens of Thousands Rally in Wisconsin to Declare: ‘This Fight is NOT Over!’” Nation, May 16, 2011.
  11. Danny Hakim and Tomas Kaplan, “Cuomo Urges Broad Limits to N.Y. Public Pensions,” New York Times, June 8, 2011.
  12. Adam Beam “2 bills targeting labor unions advance.” The Courier-Journal, 4 Jan. 2017.
  13. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Union Membership Summary” Jan 24, 2014
  14. “Table 1. Work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1947-2016.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
  15. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive.
  16. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 211.
  17. CJ, Marty Pearl “Union workers protest ‘Anti-Union, anti-Worker’ legislation.” The Courier-Journal, 7 Jan. 2017.
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. H Collins, KD Ewing and A McColgan, Labour Law (2012) 693
  21. Lenin, V.I. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” Marxists Internet Archive. Op. Cit.
  23. Madan, Karuna (September 2, 2016). “Strike call evokes mixed response in India”. Gulf News India.
  24. Monique Plesas, “The Effects of Neoliberalism and its Hegemony in Bolivia” Glendon Journal of International Studies, 2013
  25. Ibid
  26. Ibid
  27. Margolis, Mac (14 September 2016). “Latin America Has a Different Migration Problem”. Bloomberg.
  28. Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988) 72
  29. Peter D. Little, Living Under Contract (Wisconsin University Press, 2006) 75
  30. Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988) 81. Op. Cit.
  31. “Bolivia’s ‘communitarian socialism.'”
  32. Sivak, Martín (2010). Evo Morales: The Extraordinary Rise of the First Indigenous President of Bolivia. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 35
  33. Ibid
  34. Benjamin Kohi and Linda C. Farthing, Impasse In Bolivia, Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (Zed Books, 1988), 90. Op. Cit.
  35. Ibid
  36. Ibid.

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