Socialists and trade unions

February 3, 2012

Unions are the basic defensive organizations of the working class.

COMPETITION UNDER the capitalist system both divides and unites workers. It pits workers against each other for limited jobs, especially in times of high unemployment.

But because they are powerless as individuals, workers are forced to unite to fight back. They form unions to resist, as Karl Marx wrote, "the encroachment of capital."

Unions and union struggles are more than just a means to win a wage increase or defend working conditions. They're training grounds that give workers confidence in their own collective power of resistance.

Marx criticized ruling class "philanthropists" and even some socialists of his day who opposed strikes because they often achieved few gains. He wrote:

In order to rightly appreciate the value of strikes and combinations, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the apparent insignificance of their economical results, but hold, above all things, in view their moral and political consequences.

But Marx also understood that unions were "fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects...they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady."

In other words, unions seek to change the terms of wage slavery, not to abolish it. The way unions are organized mirrors this reality.

First of all, unions don't organize workers as a class--but by a particular craft or industry. Second, unions tend to reinforce the separation between economic struggle and political struggle.

So walkouts that make political demands on the government--for a shorter workday, against child labor, to oppose a war--are practically nonexistent in the U.S.

The strongest weapons of the unions--the strike--is reserved for economic issues. Politics typically consists of union leaders mobilizing their members to vote for a bourgeois candidate.

Unions therefore overcome some of the divisions imposed by capitalism--but they reflect some of them too. Because unions counter the effects rather than the causes, of exploitation, they require a full-time officialdom whose job is to negotiate with the employers.

The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, writing more than 100 years ago, summed up the general outlook of this layer. She wrote:

The naturally restricted horizon which is bound up with disconnected economic struggles in a peaceful period, leads only too easily, amongst trade union officials, to bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook.

This results in "the overvaluation of the organization, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a previous thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated."

THIS EXPLAINS why workers of different unions experience the same things from their leaders--a reluctance to "risk" the organization in serious confrontations with employers, the tendency to prefer "peaceful" negotiations over a strike, the preference for limited strikes over bigger, more general confrontations.

In extreme cases, some union officials become so separated from the rank and file, so bloated with high salaries and so accustomed to hobnobbing with employers that they are incapable of defending their members.

This doesn't mean that unions can't or won't fight. Caught between the interests of the rank and file and employers, union leaders are often forced to lead battles simply to defend their organization.

But, to quote one British socialist, "their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions." The role of socialists in the unions flows from this analysis.

First, socialists need to support and promote the building of unions as elementary organs of struggle. Second, socialists should promote union democracy and shop-floor representation as a means of mobilizing the real power of the unions--their rank and file.

Third, socialists have to support union officials who seem more willing to fight, while understanding that the nature of unions puts limits on how far they will go. Fourth, socialists have to build the confidence and organization of the rank and file to act, if necessary, independently of union officials.

Finally, socialists need to build a layer of militants in various workplaces who are capable of linking together workers in different industries and struggle--so they can move from separate battles toward class-wide confrontations and, ultimately, to challenge the system as a whole.

First published in the May 26, 2000, issue of Socialist Worker.

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