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A Socialist Looks at Unions

Views: 26 What should be the attitude of socialists toward trade unions? this not a mere academic question. There are well-informed Marxists who contend that unionism should …

by World Socialist Party US



7 min read

"Immigrant Workers Union" by kouk is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

What should be the attitude of socialists toward trade unions? this not a mere academic question. There are well-informed Marxists who contend that unionism should regarded in much the same light as reforms, since unions, like reforms, cannot abolish the ills of capitalism. Regarding unionism, the following proposition was posed by a socialist recently

“The evils which exist within present society. Be they war, crime, poverty. Or exploitation, have no solution other than the abolition of private property relationships. To fight anyone specific evil is not only a losing battle in itself, but a divergence from the real fight. Hence the only job of a socialist organization is to make possible the speedy introduction of socialism and destroy with one fell swoop the cause of war, crime, poverty and exploitation.”

According to this proposition, the emphasis put by Marx on union activity was misplaced, in as much as such activity was “a divergence from the real fight.” it is not the purpose of this article rationalize the position taken by Marx. His position on unions may have been wholly incorrect. Or, again, his position may have been valid in the nineteenth century and yet he completely untenable today. Marx’s formulations were not infallible. They must be tested in the light of reality, do the present economic and social conditions warrant that socialists look at unions in the same perspective that Marx did?

What Were Marx’s Views on Unionism?

The workers have discovered that the union is the only way for them to withstand the overpowering pressure of capital

– Karl Marx

Everyone who is acquainted, with the life of Marx and with his writings knows that he took a keen interest in developments of the trade union movement in almost every country, coming out openly with letters on the actions taken by unions when engaged in strikes, making suggestions, correcting mistakes. It was Marx’s idea that trade unions should be affiliated with the first international and he made it his business to keep in dose contact with locals of the british unions. So important did Marx deem union activity that he felt it urgent to clear away any theories likely to inhibit the struggle of workers on the economic field. Minutes of the first international record that Marx took up the cudgels against that “fine old scout” and old “Owenite named Weston” who propagated the paralyzing doctrine that strikes for higher wages are futile since any increase in wages will of necessity be offset by a corresponding increase in prices — a doctrine, by the way, which is still heard so much today, out of the Weston controversy came the pamphlet Value, Price and Profit. An incisive brochure whose theoretical and practical conclusions apply today as much as they did when they were written. In this pamphlet Marx phrased his stand on unionism in succinct language. After pointing out that “trade unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital” he warned:

“At the same time and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working- class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects. But not with the causes of these effects; they are retarding the downward. Movement but -not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought. Therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerrilla fights increasingly springing up from The never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms. Necessary for an economic reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto. A fair days wage for a fair days work! They ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword abolition of the wages system!”

– Karl Marx

Why did Marx place so much value on union activity, not withstanding the fact that he was au too aware of the limitations of such activity? The answer, obviously, is that unions function at the focal paint of the economic phase of the class struggle – at the paint where the fight occurs over the division of the labor product. Unions are the workers most effective means of defense under capitalism. In the absence of unions, the workers have no way of braking the downward pressure on their living standards and their working conditions. Only by means of their combined numbers in labor unions are the workers able to put up same form of resistance against the insatiable drive of capital for mare land mare surplus value. Only through unions can the workers ease the strain on their nerves and mussels in the factories, mills, and mines. Since surplus value is produced at the point of production, the most violent manifestations of the class struggle break out at that paint.* At that point the organized resistance of labor meets the combined onslaught of capital. So important is organization that in a letter to Bebel, dated March 18, 1875, Engels wrote in reference to the Gotha Program:

“Nothing is said about the organization of the working class, as a class. By means of trade unions. This is a very important point, because these, as a matter of fact, are the real class organizations of the proletariat, in which the latter wages its day to day struggle against capital; in which it schools itself, and which even today, under the most ruthless reaction (as now in Paris) simply can no longer be knocked to pieces.”

– Friedrich Engels

The history of the American movement is rich with examples of the importance of unions to Workers. The struggles waged and the Gains won by workers in the auto, steel and needle trades industries afford excellent case studies of improvements through organizing on the economic field. Before the united automobile workers union was farmed, conditions in the auto industries were far worse than are today. The speed-up notorious and the slogan “too old at forty” was a guiding policy of Supervision. When a worker approached that age and could no longer keep up with the fierce pace an the production line, he was usually laid off and his place taken by a younger man. Health hazards in the industry took a alarming toll. Many workers in the metal body departments became afflicted with lead poisoning, a disease which the patient never wholly recovers. Respiratory diseases and speed-up neurosis fetched a larger percentage of victims than is the case today, it must not be assumed that the union succeeded completely eliminating industrial hazards. As long as profits are given priority rating over human welfare, industrial health and safety hazards will remain to menace workers.

Before the union, wages were substandard levels, since unemployment ran into the tens of thousands and manufacturers could hold wages dawn by taking advantage of the desperate competition for jobs. In the absence of ,any kind of seniority, a worker could be fired at the slightest whim of the foreman. Consequently boss favoritism was rampant. To ingratiate themselves with supervision, a considerable number of workers would their foreman drinks or repair his garage, or perform other services gratis, the auto workers toiled under conditions characterized by no check on their exploitation save the natural limitations of their endurance. It was under such circumstances that they spontaneously rebelled, and by strength of their organized numbers formed a union, compelling one corporation after another to engage in collective bargaining and to sign contracts which netted substantial wage increases, a measure of security through seniority, amelioration of the speed-up and the end of “red-apple polishing” or boss favoritism.

Lessons of the Class Struggle

The history of the labor movement proves the Marxian contention that wages are not regulated by any “iron law” but can be modified by organized militant action on the part of the workers, the value of the workers labor-power is not only determined by biological limitations of the human organism, but also by what Marx calls historical ad social factors. One of the most weighty of these factors is the relationship of the class forces, the interplay of social conflict. A comparison of the Living standards of organized to those unorganized workers tells the story in a nut-shell. The us bureau of labor statistics issues statistics showing a breakdown of figures proving that wages are lowest in those occupations in which the workers are not organized or are at best only partly organized.

Those socialists who argue that unions are only institutions of capitalism are correct, but they miss a salient point. Unions are class struggle institutions, and a s such serve as a fertile field for socialist education and propaganda. To a self-styled middle class citizen living in a typical american community, the police are guardians of law and order. But organized workers who have been victims of police brutality on the picket line have no illusions as to whose side the police are on. School teachers may believe the text books which say the interests of labor and capital are identical but the workers of general motors, us steel and even American telephone and telegraph company know from their struggles that their interests conflict with those of their employer. Editorial writers may rhapsodize on the subject of individualism, but the men and women in the auto plants know that as individuals they would be as helpless before the mighty corporation that hire them as a canoe in the path of a battle ship. Abstract preachments about the desirability of labor unity regardless of race or nationality seldom impress anyone. But the necessity of native born whites and foreign workers, negroes and whites, to march together on picket lines, work together in strike committees and hold out together until their demands are won – all this constitutes an object lesson in class solidarity.

To be sure, participation in the class struggle does not automatically make workers class conscious. And this brings us to the question of the role of the socialist in the trade unions. As a union member the socialist can participate in union affairs and in the course of doing so he can clarify events for his fellow workers in the light of socialist knowledge. No matter what issue happens to be under consideration, the socialist can explain it from the standpoint workers of class interests. Is the union engaged in negotiating with management for a wage increase? Then the socialist can make clear that wages represent only a portion of what workers produce, and that the unpaid portion is surplus value appropriated by the employing class.

Is seniority next on the agenda? Then here is an appropriate occasion for the alert socialist to take the floor and explain that seniority is at best a necessary evil in an economic system that breeds job insecurity and unemployment. After laying bare the roots of the trouble the socialist can indicate the cure. Or perhaps a union brother rises to bring to the attention of the union membership the existence of a grave case of discrimination in his department. This ought to provide the socialist an occasion to show how racial discrimination arises out of economic conditions, out of the struggle to get jobs and to hold them after they have been obtained.

And when the top ranking union bureaucrats seek to line up the members in support of the democratic party – or any other political party dedicated to perpetuating capitalism – the socialist can expose that party, pointing out to the workers that their only real hope lies in joining and working for the abolition of the wage system. “unions fail partly from the injudicious use of their powers” wrote Marx, and the socialist can and should warn their fellow unionists what pitfalls are in store for them and their class if they give their time, money and votes to a party which can only work in the interests of their masters.

Oppose Bureaucracy

Another duty of socialists in the union is to wage an unceasing fight against the trend towards bureaucracy, urging the workers to be eternally vigilant in the defense of their democratic rights, opposing high salaries for the officials , proposing limited tenure of office, insisting that all major decisions be ratified by the membership – in a Word demanding that the the unions be conducted of, for and by its members in fact as well as theory. To the extent that a union gets settled with dictatorship, free expression is restricted, the rights of the membership are treated with contempt, major policies are formed at the top, and the bureaucracy tends to increasingly to act as a disciplinary agents for the employers, using such devices as the check-off and no-strike provisions to hold the workers in line. Socialists should consistently impress upon the workers the urgency of restoring the union to the membership, in whose democratic control it belongs.

The leadership fetishism propagated by certain so-called left wing groups who would have the workers believe that everything depends on the “right kind of leaders” must be vigorously combatted. Blaming union officials and yelling “labor fakirs” when incorrect policies are followed will solve nothing, a union is no better than the members who form it. The character of the leadership is to a large degree a reflection of the maturity or lack of maturity of the rank and file. For this reason socialists should seek to raise the understanding of the rank and file, to imbue them with an awareness that their elected representatives should be the servants, not the masters, of the membership.

There is one thing that socialists should avoid like the plague in their union activity, namely, the unfortunate practice practiced resorted to by avoid bolshevik groups of maneuvering and conniving to use unions as their vehicle for carrying out their political “line”. Unions are first last and all the time economic organizations operating within the framework of capitalism. Attempts to use them for purposes other than this can only react to the detriment of the unions and their members. The tragic consequence that follows when communist s gain control of a union is a matter of sorry record. The unions should belong to the members, and not be dominated by any clique, political or otherwise. Sometimes such cliques rationalize their drive to worm their way into key union posts on the grounds that once in top positions they will be better able to advance the cause of socialism. Actually the only thing they advance is their party “line” or else themselves. Such “vanguard” outfits care not a whit about educating the workers, but are only interested in indoctrinating them and mobilizing them in accordance with the latest party shibboleths. They are not concerned wit making the workers class conscious but only slogan conscious.

The socialist does not sloganize workers, nor do we use the union simply as a soapbox from which to harangue the membership. We participate in the union, seek to give good account of our actions, and when issues arise we offer a class conscious interpretation of them. Fortified by the socialist outlook, we do not succumb to opportunism, and never cease to do what we can to make socialists out of trade unionists, instead of allowing he union to water down our socialism. By keeping clear of underhanded deals and political shenanigans, by taking a principled stand on controversial questions, however unpopular such a stand may be at the moment, by fearlessly opposing proposals inimical to the workers interests, and, finally, by judiciously presenting the socialist analysis of day-to-day problems confronting labor – this constitutes socialist activity in the union.

When workers are lock in combat with their employer, through strike action, socialists as an organized group should assist their fellow workers in whatever way they can, such as writing articles and leaflets from the workers point of view, speaking on pertinent working class issues when invited to do so at union meetings; offering the party headquarters to strike committees, etc.

The suppression of labor unions in any country usually signifies the suppression of all organized working class resistance. This fact should make apparent how deserving unions are of socialist support.

This is the answer to the question what attitude should a socialist take towards unions.

R. Parker

* However, the exploitive nature of capitalism gives rise to the in need for unions wherever workers labor for wages.

Western Socialist, June 1947

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