In the nineteenth century, the period of capitalism’s greatest prosperity, the working class - often through bitter and bloody struggles - built up permanent trade organisations whose role was to defend its economic interests: the trade unions. These organs played an essential role in the struggle for reforms and for the substantial improvements in the workers’ living conditions which the system could then afford. They also constituted a focus for the regroupment of the class, for the development of its solidarity and consciousness, so that revolutionaries could intervene within them and help make them serve as ‘schools for communism’. Although the existence of these organs was indissolubly linked to the existence of wage labour, and although even in this period they were often substantially bureaucratised, the unions were nevertheless authentic organs of the class to the extent that the abolition of wage labour was not yet on the historical agenda.
In 2014 we published an article on the fast food workers’ struggles in the USA, ‘Capitalist astro-turfing finds its way to the trade unions’, () by a comrade in the USA who appeared to share our view of the trade unions as organs of capitalist control. Subsequently the comrade has revised his view of the trade union question and has asked us to debate this with him. The following response, written by a close sympathiser, is an initial contribution to a discussion which we think is a central one for revolutionaries.
In the first part of this article looked at the controversy within the German trade union movement and the SPD
(Social Democratic Party) that led to the creation of the Free
Association of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung Deutscher Gewerkschaften,
FVDG), the organization that would be the precursor of German revolutionary
In the 19th century workers fought in the streets in order
to defend their union organisations and to impose their right to exist on the
ruling class. Today, the governments of the ruling class fight to prevent
workers in struggle from going beyond the unions and to stop them leaving these
organisations. Are the unions today organisations which defend the
interests of the working class? Can the unions in our epoch prevent or even limit the
permanent attack on the living conditions of the workers?
The lesson of the 1984 miners' strike for the working class today is that all unions, with their rule books, their bureaucracy, sectional and corporatist set ups, and relations with the Labour Party, are part of the state and work against the self-organisation and extension of struggles under the control of workers themselves.
Dear Internationalism. I've read your series on how decadence affects
capitalism in the International Review. Even though the union movement is
portrayed as being progressive in the 1920's and 30's, it had moved away from
being a worker's movement and became a hindrance on the working class. In
the US, the situation was different...
In this series we have examined the struggle of the working class in Britain to organise itself against capitalism during the period of capitalism's ascendance, looking in particular at the growth of the trade unions as defensive organisations against the attacks of capital.
Between 1850 and 1880 British workers fought for, and won, real gains from the capitalist system: rises in real earnings, improvements in working conditions, reductions in the working day, and electoral and trade union rights. But these gains were won at a price; whereas in the previous period reforms had been wrested from the bourgeoisie only on the threat of violent insurrection, now these improvements were won largely through peaceful struggles led by the trade unions and political alliances with parliamentary factions of the bourgeoisie, which encouraged illusions in the eternal correctness of such methods and the absence of a need for a revolutionary struggle in Britain...
What is to be done outside times of open struggle? How should we organise when the strike is finished? How to prepare the struggles to come? Faced with this question, faced with the problems posed by the existence of committees, circles, nuclei, etc, regrouping small minorities of the working class, we have no recipes to provide. We cannot choose between giving them moral lessons (‘organise yourselves like this or that’, ‘dissolve yourselves’, ‘join us’) and demagogically flattering them. Instead, our concern is this: to understand these minority expressions of the proletariat as a part of the whole class.
We have recently received a letter from Iran
that raises a number of issues. In this response we will focus on the part of
his letter that deals with the unions. We have made some minor changes to the
text but have left the language unchanged.
this issue, we continue the article begun in International Review
n°122, where we highlighted the change in period which formed the
backdrop to the events of 1905 in Russia, as capitalism entered the
watershed between its ascendant and decadent periods. We also
described the conditions that had favoured the radicalisation of the
struggle in Russia: the existence of a modern, concentrated and
highly conscious working class confronted by the attacks of a
capitalism whose situation had been worsened by the disastrous
effects of the war with Japan. The working class was thus led into a
direct confrontation with the state in order to defend its living
conditions, and organised in soviets to undertake this new historic
phase in its struggle. The first part of this article recounted how
the first workers’ councils were formed, and what needs they
answered. This second part analyses in more detail how the soviets
were formed, how they were linked to the movement of the whole
working class, and their relationship with the trades unions. In
fact, the unions – which already in 1905 no longer corresponded to
the organisational needs of the working class in the new period, only
played a positive role inasmuch as they were pulled along by the
movement’s dynamic, in the wake of the soviets and under their
The AFL-CIO is primed for a
possible split at its upcoming quadrennial convention.A coalition of unions, led by the Services
Employees International Union (SEIU) and including the Teamsters, Laborers,
United Commercial Food Workers, and UNITE HERE are threatening to leave the
federation if it does not adopt a broad set of “reforms” ostensibly designed to
once again make the union movement a powerful force in national and
A century ago on June 27, 1905, in a
crowded hall in Chicago, Illinois, Big Bill Haywood, leader of the militant
Western Miners Federation, called to order “the Continental Congress of the
Working Class,” a gathering convened to create a new working class
revolutionary organization in the United States: the Industrial Workers of
the World (IWW), often referred to as the Wobblies.
The defence of the
October revolution has always been a central duty for revolutionaries. The task
takes on renewed importance confronted with the international campaign about
the ‘death of Communism’, since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.This defence is not confined to combating the official lies of the
bourgeoisie. Since 1917 Communists have also had to defend the revolution and
the Bolsheviks against the attacks of anarchists and modernists, who, while
claiming to support the revolution regurgitate the capitalist lies about
Bolshevism leading to Stalinism.
What is the role of trade
unions in modern capitalist society? Two facts stand out clearly: that
governments all over the world, faced with a deepening economic crisis which
brings with it the growing threat of social
chaos, are calling on the trade unions to help preserve the fragile equilibrium
of capitalist society; and, that wherever the working class attempts to resist
the effects of the crisis, the trade unions are amongst its most determined and