Forum topic: Struggles in Spain: Why do the unions always lead us to defeat?

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Forum topic: Struggles in Spain: Why do the unions always lead us to defeat?
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Struggles in Spain: Why do the unions always lead us to defeat?. The discussion was initiated by Fred.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

This article by the Spanish

This article by the Spanish section of the ICC, does an excellent job of exposing the machiavellianism - if that isn't too mild a word for their schizophrenic posturing - of the abominable and loathsome Trades Unions. A good sample here.

A first task of trade unions is to organise mobilisations which, in reality, only demobilise and divide workers. The "struggles" led by the CCOO and UGT only serve to dampen their spirits. The union appeals are systematically inopportune: when people are eager to struggle, the unions demobilise and make no appeals, whereas when people are tired and disoriented, they want to step up the "militant activity". Many people are sick of the posturing with the "general strike days", the "protest marches", the isolated struggles confined to one particular sector or to one particular company.

Dampening workers' spirits, as a prime function of unions is spot on. If we're "pissed off and angry" that's good; but "dampened" is a real downer for us workers and very depressing. Similarly, the tactic of putting us off and diverting us when we're in the mood for trouble, but urging us to action when we're fed up and wondering whether anything is worth the effort in this fucked up capitalist society, just shows how clever the union bureaucrats and bourgeois arse lickers are at using their primitive psychology against our interests. The unions used to be bourgeois arse kickers at one point in their existence; but those days are long since gone, and KICKING replaced with servile LICKING, and boy do they know how to do that. But then they've had long years of practice; and their lords and masters, the bourgeoisie, understand well enough the destructive effects of unionism on us workers now, as capitalism stinks and decays, and makes sure the union bureaucrats get well-rewarded for their sinister activities.

We no longer need the unions, they can do nothing for us anymore; they just blind us to what we have to do now, and sooner rather than later. And this is: see ourselves for what we are: the working class: the revolutionary class whose job is to get rid of poisonous deadly capitalism and replace it with our own infinitely better system: COMMUNISM: the satisfaction of humanity's needs and our release from the punitive hell of wage slavery. Comrades unite!

this is something i wanted to

this is something i wanted to ask about actually. I agree that the trade unions often (perhaps usually) function as a brake on the struggles of the workers and end up holding people back for example Unison voting for a pension deal after a massive strike against pension reforms. However if the bourgeoise support trade unions so much how come there are all these repressive anti-trade union laws and how come people have been put in jail for going on strike and this sort of thing?

Also in a country like the UK where if you're not a member of the trade union and you go on strike you can legally be sacked, what are people supposed to do? Surely a union does offer some sort of protection, since not everyone is actually in a position to be able to do this? Also unions help people sometimes with strike pay and so on?

I agree with what you say about the trade union structure at the top but at the bottom union reps and so on are just like any other worker and a lot are seriously victimised for their trade union work? Also what are people supposed to do on november 30th and other strikes called by trade unions (which are actually called by their members voting for them). are they supposed to go to work anyway?

I apologise if this is not your position but I really don't understand what your views are on this topic and I think that in the current period saying that people should abandon the trade unions is a bit unrealistic to say the least?

basic agreement

I think that there's some basic agreement there to begin with commiegal, but it's a big question. So just to start off on a few points:

There's a myth that Thatcher and the Tories weakened the trade unions - they didn't. Their actions weakened the working class and they drove this home with repression and legislation but they also strengthened the unions. The legal departments of trade unions, already swollen, were bloated, stuffed with lawyers. My personal experience with trade union legal departments, and I've had some over the years, is that they are no different from the company or state lawyers with whom they more closely identify with. They may win the odd case for the workers but no more so - and even less in many cases - than if the workers got themselves a decent brief on their own account. How union legal departments can also rip off workers is shown in the relatively recent scandal over the Beresford case and the NUM - pocketing millions while miners dying of lung disease got peanuts.

In addition to their massive legal departments, which the workers are paying for out of their "dues", the unions in Britain continue to receive millions in subsidies from the state and, at local and national level, continue to sit on various state bodies up to the highest levels.

There are situations when the bourgeoisie can do without the unions and one example say is Pinochet's Chile - here the repression was total hitting "moderate" as well as "militant" trade unionists (as well as the general population). But it was the left-wing and Allende's unions that paved the way for this attack. In general, here in western world - and increasingly in China- the state needs the unions to act as a constant line of defence against the working class, as a police force at the place of work.

The ICC doesn't say to the workers "abandon the unions" - such a slogan is pointless. What it does do is insist on the needs of the workers deciding themselves, on self-organisation and extension of the struggle. Both of these the unions actively fight against. And when the workers do vote for strikes - and look at the number of strikes that have been called off these last years because of court actions by the bosses where the union lawyers have got rich - the unions are there to make sure that they are as ineffective ("legal") as possible and any attempt at unifying is imprisoned by the union rulebook and the law of the land.

Thanks for the reply. I am a

Thanks for the reply. I am a bit confused however when you say that the unions were strengthened by thatcher? Surely they were weakened because trade union membership is now at its lowest level for some time, after having seen a post war boom in membership, it is now at the level it was at before the war? And their influence on the Labour Party is rather minimal now at best, lots of workers are now completely disillusioned by trade unions at all. Or are you saying they were enriched at the expense of the workers and now have more of a bureaucratic function?

Also you say that the state and the bourgeoisie increasingly need unions to act as police at work, but surely this only applies to the public sector rather than the private sector. For example lots of people my age work in precarious jobs with few rights, including myself. The unions don't seem to care about them either way never mind acting as police, in many workplaces there are no unions and plenty of people of my generation do not even understand what they are, since union organisation is completely absent.

So I don't really understand how they can be doing this?

strengthening union control

What the 'anti-union' legislation aimed to do was to strengthen union control over the workforce. These days any action outside the unions is more or less illegal.

It's illegal to strike without going through the whole union rigmarole of ballots and colling off periods. This legislation was brought in to prevent wildcat strikes.

It's illegal to launch or control strikes through general assemblies of workers. Decisions not made through the official union apparatus are not allowed by law.

It's illegal to try to extend strikes to other sectors through 'secondary picketing'. 

Mass pickets - picket lines of more than 6 - are also technically illegal, though this is often not enforced. 

In sum these laws officially compel the unions to police all workers' actions on the shop floor.

It's true that union reps at the lowest level are ordinary workers and are often sincere about wanting to improve working conditions etc. But they get caught between the needs of the workers and the role of the union they represent. If they go with the workers, they come into conflict with the union.  Baboon can tell you more about this from his own personal experience as a shop steward, but I have seen it in my own workplace. At one of the very controlled national strikes in the education sector, Unison were on strike but not the NUT. The official NUT line was: work normally, which meant crossing the Unison picket line. The NUT rep was not happy about this but all he could say to his members was that 'it's up to your individual conscience'. A number of us did actually refuse to cross (including the rep). I am not in the NUT ( I quit years ago, but I won't go into that now) but because there was a group of us we were safer from management reprisals. The NUT itself however would have offered no protection as we were not acting within the union guidelines. 





Thing is that most workplaces

Thing is that most workplaces these days don't actually have unions though or at least not in very significant numbers. And as far as I can tell the unions don't actually do anything to change this. I can see what you're saying how the unions act as a brake on action though.

most places

I agree that a lot of work places don't have unions and the drive towards unionising a work place can be a powerful idea often overtaking or being aligned to demands for more security, higher pay, etc. from the workers themselves.

But all the major industries are unionised: teaching, local authorities, Post Office, aircraft manufacture and airports, heavy engineering, major construction projects (never mind the McAlpine management, here the unions themselves police the "blacklist"), oil, gas, nuclear, electrical supply, water - with, in many cases, several unions involved or the same union with geographical separations (eg, the different conditions at Gatwick, Heathrow and other airports). The bourgeoisie in Britain have learned well from the multi-union approach as it creates more divisions, confusions and barriers to workers' struggles.

But are they not trying to

But are they not trying to break the power of the unions in those places though, are things like the privatisation of the post office and of schools etc not at least partially geared towards breaking the power that trade unions have in those areas? And unions such as the RMT have been quite good at defending workers' rights and winning pay rises etc, I am sure the government would like to break the power of that union?

I do agree with you, in that I think many union bureaucrats are more interested in lining their pockets rather than helping the workers. I am not trying to defend trade unions here but I don't think that they have as much power as you say they have especially since their membership figures are in a more or less constant decline?

By the way I think your point

By the way I think your point about the wildcat strikes, is a really good one, and one that I had not thought of at all before, since you are right in that it channels workers' strikes etc into bureaucratic channels and stops peoples will to fight. I am not sure how it benefits unions though because surely people will just look at that, and see how weak they are?

a hard question

Commiegirl, the union question is a really difficult one and I urge you to read some of the texts on this issue on this website which will give you a more profound explanation.

In the meantime, if one thinks that the unions really represent the working class, then they would appear weak today. If, however, as the ICC, one thinks that the unions are organs of the state, then in all the major industries, they appear to be strong and healthy. Why should the bourgeoisie try to break the power of the unions, in the main, when they keep the workers in line, divided, isolated and obeying the law? There are cases when elements of the state do try to "break" the  unions but the real emphasis is the attack on the working class, ie, these elements of the bourgeoisie think that they can get away with not using the trade unions - it's a calculated risk for them.

Regarding privatisation, in the water industry where I worked for years, the 3 unions involved were active participants in talks about the privatisation of the industry. It was the same in the railways and other privatised issues. There were economic aspects but again the attack was on the workers and not the unions. Once the water industry was privatised the unions continued their dialogues with management and policed the "flexibility" clauses that both they and the management signed up to. I don't deny the "good intentions" of individual shop stewards, etc., but they are trapped by the union rule book and themselves have to toe the union line. And part of that line is the agreements that they willingly entered into with the management and the law of the land.

Bob Crow's union is often put forward as an example of a militant union which gets results. But the RMT, like many apparantly "strong" unions, is an even more effective barrier to workers' struggles and their extension out of corporatism.

Hi Babboon, Thanks for the

Hi Babboon,

Thanks for the reply, and excuse my ignorance and for asking these questions, which must seem a bit stupid if you have been asked this type of thing before. Can I ask whether you are a member of the ICC or just a supporter? There are a lot of things wrong with the trade unions today, for example you only have to think about a character like Dave Prentice. I would also say that having so many unions is also a huge problem because it means that it stops people from having too much solidarity, for example one union will have to cross another union's picket line.

Unfortunately there are lots of examples where the unions are basically an extension of the bosses or the company, for example USDAW which has an agreement with Tesco's which means they do everything they say. And in Sweden the unions are much more explicitly tied to the state and they have some control over hiring and firing, but Sweden have also had massive cuts in living standards etc in the last few years so this is not helping particularly.

Is this the sort of thing you mean?

However, I would still say that in the private sector you can be sacked, for even talking about joining a union in some workplaces.

I have to ask you though, why do you think that Bob Crow's union is more effective than others at dampening down working class militancy? Because it seems to me that the workers in the RMT have far better conditions than in most other workplaces, where there aren't so many union members. Also there are few people who cross the picket line whereas in other industries you get more people crossing the picket line during a strike. It seems to me that they are more militant because they go on strike more and frequently win their strikes and have better pay rises and better terms and conditions etc than other workers, but perhaps I am wrong.

Do you think that the situation could improve if everyone at the top earned a workers' wage rather than hundreds of thousands of pounds as they do today, or do you think it is more of a structural issue?

I am sorry, I realise that this must all make me seem terribly ignorant.


I am a supporter of the ICC cg.

You don't come across as at all ignorant as these are fundamental questions that exist and are expressed by class conscious workers and they deserve a thoughtful and comprehensive reply from a revolutionary standpoint.

I'm a bit busy at the moment and will return in time...

in the meantime

A brief response in the meantime:

We have to ask ourselves why do the union bosses always become corrupt (Bob Crow and his gang live a life of luxury and ease compared to his workers who do an intense job). Why do rank and file, militant, well-intentioned union members who rise through the ranks lose their connections with the workers and become the well paid bureaucrats who "sell out" the struggles time after time. It's because of the structure of the unions and their implantation into the state. If a well intentioned union boss was to call for average wages for his like, or for workers to struggle together against the law, he would simply be out of a job - but in reality he wouldn't get it in the first place.

Bob Crow talks a good struggle but his talk is empty and betrays a contempt for the working class that is widely shared among union hierarchies - I witnessed this particularly with union bosses and their ever-burgeoning legal departments. Crow can make speeches about "millions on the street" to fight the Tories and then make sure his own union does nothing about it. RMT called off a strike a couple of years ago when the courts deemed that the ballot was "illegal". Crow and his bureaucrats comply with the law because they are part of the same system. Mark Serwotka is another "lefty" union boss, paid any number of times more than the workers he "represents", involved in "sell out" after "sell out", who calls for mass strike action to "kick out Clegg and Cameron". And these union bosses, with their fiefdoms and influence, all support the Labour Party - the Labour Party which historically has used the military against workers' strikes more times than the Tories. The Labour Party which attacks the conditions of the working class just as much, if not more, than the Tories. The trade unions and the Labour Party are closely intertwined.

The unions have never been revolutionary, but in their early days they were definitely expressions of the working class and fought for and gained real improvements of the workers conditions. But tied to the conditions of capitalism, they, en masse, supported the first world war, ie, worker killing workers, and then, even more so, the second world war, which made them, from a revolutionary point of view, recruiting sergeants for capitalist slaughter. They were fully integrated into the state in all the major democracries (and in the Stalinist countries the role of the trade unions is absolutely clear). Now the unions are cops on the  shop floor policing "agreements" (made by them) and upholding the law. Really, the fact that tube drivers (or anyone else, electrical supply workers for example) have slightly better pay than a cleaner say, is not the issue.

A couple of years ago construction workers and fitters in the UK joined together in an unofficial strike and ignored the law on picketing. The workers' illusions in the unions were still strong but their actions, thier self-organisation came up against the union framework and threatened to overflow it. To some extent the bosses and the state backed down in the face of this. This is what's important for future struggles - we can't win, we can't oppose attacks within the union framework because they are part of the attack.