Uniting against the bosses' attacks

Paul D'Amato explains why socialists support and participate in the trade union struggle, as part of his ongoing series elaborating the ISO's "Where We Stand" statement.

We support trade unions as essential to the fight for workers' economic and political rights. To make the unions fight for workers' interests, rank-and-file workers must organize themselves independent of the union officials.
-- From the ISO "Where We Stand"

SOCIALISTS SUPPORT trade unions because they are the most elementary form of organization of the working class.

Where We Stand: The Politics of the ISO

They are the result of the recognition by a group of workers in a single workplace, company or industry that in order to combat the concerted effort of employers to maximize profit by reducing wages and increasing the speed of work, workers must combine in order to resist.

The basis for working class combination, as we have noted, is established by the collective character of the factory system, which throws large numbers of workers together to engage in common work. The necessity for combination comes from the fact that capitalists force down wages and conditions by making workers compete with each other.

The point was laid out well by a 19th-century socialist, John Gray:

The quantity of wealth which a working-man receives is always the least that his labor can be purchased for; and the reason why he does not obtain twice the quantity he obtains at present is because if he, an individual, were to demand it, and refuse to work for a lesser quantity, he would be thrown out of employment altogether, by another individual offering to do the same work for the new quantity given--or in other words, by another individual competing with him.

Marx and Engels were among the first socialists to support trade unions. The utopian socialists who came before them looked with disdain on strikes and combinations, seeing workers merely as passive beneficiaries of their social panaceas.

Paul D'Amato, author of The Meaning of Marxism, looks in detail at the "Where We Stand" statement of the International Socialist Organization.
All articles in this series

Marx wrote the following in a critique of the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who opposed strikes and trade unions:

The first attempt of workers to associate among themselves always takes place in the form of combinations.

Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance--combination. Thus, combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist.

If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages.

For Marx, trade unions were important not simply because they helped workers to improve--or prevent the worsening of--their conditions, but also because they helped advance the fighting strength and class consciousness of workers, allowing them to move beyond local economic issues to bigger, class-wide questions.

Trade unions, it is true, cannot alter the fact of exploitation--they merely allow workers to push back against capital's constant drive to increase the rate of exploitation. The results of union struggles in economic terms are often paltry--and when more substantial, are often rescinded or whittled away again when employers get the upper hand.

But this was not the most important question, as Marx wrote:

[T]he alternative rise and fall of wages, and the continual conflicts between masters and men resulting therefrom, are, in the present organization of industry, the indispensable means of holding up the spirit of the laboring classes, of combining them into one great association against the encroachments of the ruling class, and of preventing them from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production.

In a state of society founded upon the antagonism of classes, if we want to prevent Slavery in fact as well as in name, we must accept war. 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.

Living in the United States, with its historically low strike levels and extremely low unionization rates, we can see how the weakness of the unions has allowed the employers to drive down wages, benefits and conditions for workers over the past three decades without facing a strong challenge from the labor movement.

We therefore support the growth of unions in the United States. A new wave of class struggle in the United States will both be preceded by, and give rise to, a new wave of unionization that will not only improve conditions for the class, but develop its consciousness as a class fighting for a better world.

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BUT IF socialists support unions and wish more workers to be in them, they do not therefore think that unions are sufficient to advance the long-term interests of the working class, let alone to advance the fight for socialism.

To begin with, trade unions by definition divide workers up according to trade and have historically failed to represent the interests of the less-skilled and unskilled workers. Employers have often been successful in pitting the interests of skilled trades workers against those of unskilled workers in the same industry.

Industrial unions, which unite workers by industry rather than by trade, are far more effective in representing the interests of workers, regardless of skill or pay scale, not to mention gender and race.

Yet even industrial unions have limits that they share with all unions. They are more or less permanent institutions designed not to overthrow capitalism, but to improve the conditions of workers within it. In that sense, they must negotiate the terms of exploitation, not abolish them.

"Trade unions," wrote Marx, "work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it."

So within unions, there is both a drive to struggle on the one hand, and on the other, a drive toward conservatism to preserve the organization. To survive and negotiate with the employers, unions create an organizational apparatus of full-time officials that become separated from the rank and file, and who tend to increasingly see the survival of the institution (the source of their income) as more important than the success of the struggle.

As the Polish-born revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote in The Mass Strike:

The specialization of professional activity as trade union leaders, as well as 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.

Both, however, express themselves in a whole series of tendencies which may be fateful in the highest degree for the future of the trade union movement.

There is first of all the overvaluation of the organization, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated. From this also comes that openly admitted need for peace which shrinks from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade-unions, and further, the overvaluation of the trade union method of struggle itself, its prospects and its successes.

This bureacratism has reached its apogee in the United States, where trade union officials make salaries closer to the employers they negotiate with than the workers they are meant to represent.

Here, "business unionism" has reached such proportions that workers no longer feel the union really represents their interests--or, perhaps more importantly, that they have any organizational input or say as to what the union does or does not do. Unionism became so bureaucratized and separate from the needs of workers that George Meany, the head of the AFL during the 1950s until 1979, a strong proponent of labor-capital cooperation, proudly stated that he had never walked a picket line.

This article first appeared in the January 11, 2008, edition of Socialist Worker.