KOREA COLUMN 28
Socialism and the Trade Unions
The role of trade unions in the struggle for socialism and the related matter of the role of socialists in the trade unions, have always been questions of enormous strategic and tactical importance and, moreover, ones on which a Marxist approach differs sharply from that of reformists, anarchists, syndicalists and other radical tendencies.
History shows that in almost every country trade unions are the most elementary, most widespread and broadest form of organisation adopted by the working class. Their basic function is to defend and improve the jobs, pay and conditions of working people by enabling them to act in unison against their employers.
Whether union leaders and members are aware of this or not, trade unionism’s point of departure is the class struggle: the fact that there is a permanent and fundamental conflict of interest between workers who live by the sale of their labour power and bosses (capitalists) who strive to maximise profits by increasing the exploitation of their workers.
As such Marxists give strong and active support to trade union organisation and the trade union struggle (where it is waged, as it generally is, in the interests of workers – very occasionally trade unions wage reactionary, e.g. racist or sexist, campaigns). The basic principles of trade unionism - unity is strength, an injury to one is an injury to all and so on – are principles shared by socialists and Marxists, though obviously Marxist principles go beyond trade union principles.
This enthusiastic support for trade unionism already distinguishes Marxism from various other tendencies. There have been some socialist sects (for example some of the 19th century utopian socialists) who dismissed trade unionism as unable to achieve any improvements for working people, on the grounds that any increase in wages would be met by an equal increase in prices. Marx refuted this argument in detail in his pamphlet Wages, Prices and Profit and history has clearly vindicated him, so I will not repeat the argument here.
Some would-be revolutionaries or radicals have rejected the trade union struggle on the grounds that it was merely self-interested or that by its very success in improving workers’ conditions it corrupted them and reconciled them to capitalism. For Marxists, however, the interests of the working class (taken as a whole) are the interests of humanity and they should be pursued more vigorously not less, and the revolution is not an abstract goal for which the workers should sacrifice themselves, but necessary precisely because capitalism cannot meet the needs of workers or mankind.
Of course, the dominant approach to trade unionism is that of the reformists who acknowledge a positive role for unions but within quite narrow limits. For reformists trade unions defend the sectional economic interests of workers but should leave the wider political struggle to a political party operating through parliament. Also the workers’ economic interests are seen as legitimate, but subordinate to a wider national interest which transcends class. For Marxists, by contrast, the working class struggle is always both economic and political and the centre of gravity of the political struggle is not parliament but the workplace. Moreover the notion of a common national interest is myth behind which hides the interest of the capitalist class.
Marxism, therefore, argues that socialists should work consistently within trade unions both raising the level of their economic militancy and encouraging them to take up political questions. At the same time Marxists recognise that trade unions, despite their essential role in the struggle for socialism, do have certain limitations which mean they are not the only form of organisation needed by the working class.
First, trade unions basic activity is to negotiate the terms of sale of workers’ labour power within capitalism, whereas the aim of socialism is to abolish that sale altogether. This means that trade unions by themselves are not well suited to organising the actual overthrow of capitalism. For that task workers’ councils, which represent workers not as sellers of labour power but as producers and potential rulers of society, are also needed.
Second, to negotiate effectively with the bosses, unions have to strive as far as possible to include in their ranks every worker in the relevant industry, trade and workplace, regardless of that worker’s level of political consciousness or militancy. [To every rule there is an exception, and the exception here is workers who are organised fascists, who should be driven out of the unions]. This necessary inclusiveness means that although the unions have certain educative and ideological functions they are not well suited to leading the ideological struggle for socialist consciousness within the working class or to providing political leadership for the class at times of intense conflict. For these tasks a revolutionary party, bringing together the most conscious and committed elements in the working class, across all industrial or occupational boundaries, is what is required.
The Marxist understanding of trade unions has one further crucial and distinctive feature – the analysis of the trade union bureaucracy. Much bitter experience in many different countries has shown that trade union leaders display a tendency to betray not just the socialist revolution but even the most basic economic struggles of their own members. Nor is it only the top leaders who are prone to this but also full time trade union officials in general. The tendency is far too persistent to be a matter of personal failings.
Rather it is that trade union officials come to form a definite social layer, with interests distinct from those of rank and file trade unionists, who specialise in mediating between the working class and the employers. Most union officials enjoy higher wages and better working conditions than their members, and even if they negotiate a bad deal in which jobs are lost or hours increased, they do not lose their jobs or have to work longer. It is not, in most cases, that they are total traitors or servants of the bosses, for they still need to retain the loyalty of their members (with no members they have no salary and are no u8se to the bosses either) but they continually vacillate, now showing resistance and talking left, now backing down and undermining workers’ struggles
Socialist strategy in the unions has to take this well-established tendency into account. Socialist militants have to learn how to work with union leaders and officials when they move in the right direction and how to combat them when they vacillate or sell out. This involves not only supporting the trade union struggle and working in the unions as a whole, but also building within the unions networks of rank and file activists, able to put pressure on the leaders and act independently of them when necessary.