One of the fundamental objectives of the class struggle in the last century was to win the right to organise in combinations and unions.
After the 1789 Revolution, the bourgeoisie in France having just conquered political power, deprived the working class of the right to form associations, a right the class had scarcely won for itself. As a result of a constitutional law passed on 14 June 1791, any grouping together on the part of the workers in defence of their common interests was branded as an “Attack against Liberty and the Declaration of the Rights of Man”, punishable by a fine of 500 livres (pounds) and the loss of citizen rights for a year. It was only after more than a half century of workers’ struggles that improvements were brought about that ‘tolerated’ the right of combination while punishing any ‘interference with the free play of industry and the liberty of labour’. In England the laws against combinations were only gradually lifted as a consequence of proletarian pressure. Not until June 1871, after the reforms of 1825 and 1859, did the law recognise the legal existence of trade unions – while simultaneously limiting the extent of such recognition by passing new laws. Legally recognised or not, the workers’ unions would never have arisen or survived if the workers had not constantly struggled and sacrificed themselves in their opposition to the bourgeois state.
Today relations between the working class, the unions, and the state have become totally different. Confrontation between the workers and the unions has become a principal characteristic of any significant proletarian struggle. Since 1919, when the unions in Germany participated in the bloody suppression of the workers’ insurrection in Berlin, the history of important workers’ struggles has been marked by violent clashes between the proletariat and union organisations. This phenomenon, recurring through all the vicissitudes of the struggles, has simply been exacerbated in every country with the reawakening of the class struggle since 1968: the massive strike wave of May 1968 in France was launched despite the unions. In Italy during the course of the strikes that took place during the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 the workers chased the union officials from the strike assemblies. In England, where strikes have multiplied since the beginning of the sixties and particularly from 1968 to 1972, strikes were for the most part ‘wildcats’, that is, against the unions. Anti-union strikes developed in Belgium in 1970, and in 1973 the Antwerp dockers attacked the union headquarters while on strike. In Venezuela, workers in the main industrial centres of the country took the union officials hostage and confronted the army coming to free them. In 1970 naval shipyard workers in Poland confronted the ‘workers’ party’ and unions. The violence of the ensuing insurrectional struggles left several hundred dead.
Conversely, the relationship between the ‘workers’ unions’ and the bourgeois state has become particularly close. In the state capitalist countries, cynically termed ‘communist’ societies, the unions are officially integrated into the state apparatus in just the same way as the army and police are. As state organs their task is clearly defined - the responsibility of containing the working class within the factories, providing police surveillance, labour discipline, and being the driving force behind the fulfilment of the needs of capitalist production through their efforts to increase productivity and lower wage costs. Thus, for example, the Executive Committee of the Chinese CGT (Confederation of Labour) at their meeting of 10 July 1953, ordered, “all union cadres to regard the strengthening of labour discipline as their fundamental and permanent task” and recommended “punishing in appropriate manner the recalcitrant elements who constantly commit serious infringements against labour discipline”, (G. Lefranc, ‘Le Syndicalisme darts le Monde’, in Que Sais-Je?). Similarly, the Tenth Russian Trade Union Congress (1949) defined the goals of unions in their exhortation to “organise socialist competition in order to assure that the quotas set forth in the economic plan will be fulfilled and surpassed in order to increase productivity and lower the costs of production”.
In countries where the state makes use of so-called ‘democratic’ mechanisms, the collaboration between the state and the unions is less apparent, less official, but just as real. It is often clearer in countries where the central bodies of the trade unions are linked to political parties that quite often come to power. This happens in the Scandinavian countries, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, etc. In Belgium, for example, the unions have since 1919 participated in ‘round-table talks’ organised by the state in order to facilitate good relations between the employers and the unions. The unions are represented in state labour tribunals, which settle conflicts arising between employers and workers. They sit on the Central Council of the Economy, as well as councils running the National Bank of Belgium. They are responsible for managing the allocation of unemployment amongst the unionised workers, for which task they receive a subsidy from the state. In short, they are closely associated with the state in the management of the national economy, that is, in the management of wage slavery. In countries where the unions are connected to opposition parties, their link to the state can appear less obvious. They are then forced to play the same opposition game as the parties themselves. This has been the case with the main unions in France and Italy for some time. That does not, however, prevent their integration into the rungs of the state apparatus, even in institutionalised forms: thus for example, in France the unions are fatly subsidised by the state, participate in the Planning Council, in the Social and Economic Council, in business committees, etc., and are respectfully consulted by the government on any decision of an important social nature.
In all countries, in any case, the bigger unions have become the very respectable and very official ‘representatives of the working class’, working alongside the bourgeois state, and becoming an integral part of it. It is not, therefore, difficult to understand why the leader of the French employers’ union should today make a sincere and decided plea for strong workers’ trade unionism, the very thing the revolutionary bourgeoisie fought against with equal energy in 1791: “As a counterpart to the freedom enjoyed by the captains of industry, it is desirable that workers’ trade unionism should vigorously assert itself in order to establish an equilibrium. Personally, the more I advocate free enterprise, the more I hope for strong trade unionism. This is how things happen in a cohesive society”, (F. Ceyrac, President of the CNPF, (the most representative organisation of the French bosses), in L’Express).
Today, the proletariat must draw the lessons of all the consequences of fifty years of triumphant counter-revolution and working class defeat. As the crisis of world capitalism deepens and engenders the reawakening of proletarian struggle, which has extended itself over the whole planet on an unprecedented scale, the proletariat must engrave on its consciousness a clear response to the questions that history has violently posed it in practice. Are these ‘wildcat’ strikes, these anti-union struggles which have sporadically exploded during the last sixty years and which are multiplying today in all four corners of the world, marginal, exceptional phenomena, or are they class indications of the only way the proletariat can struggle in the present historic period? Is the integration of the unions into the bourgeois state a real phenomenon, complete and irreversible, or does it simply appear to be so? Do the unions still retain some working class character? Can the working class recuperate them in toto or should new forms of union organisation be created? And more generally, can the proletarian struggle use the same forms today under decadent capitalism (senile since World War I) as it used in the historically ascendant capitalism of the nineteenth century? The proletariat can only draw the lessons for its struggles from its own historic experience. The possibility for revolutionary action depends on the capacity of the class to assimilate its own experience. In order to answer these burning questions, we must look at the essential aspects governing the evolution of the unions, and in a more overall sense, the forms workers’ struggles have taken since the nineteenth century.