Unions Against the Working Class - Preface (1976)

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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 ruthless opponents.


In Britain, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) at its annual conference last autumn gave its overwhelming support to the sec­ond phase of the ‘Social Contract’. In effect this means that the TUC undertook to continue to use all its power to help the government enforce its programme of austerity measures. These measures, a combination of lower real wages, cuts in social services and higher unemployment, are simply a determined att­ack on the working class, to force workers to make sacrifices for the sake of crisis-ridden British capitalism.


British workers who struggle against these measures have to take on the combined might of the government and the whole trade union apparatus. The sequence of events provoked by even the smallest strike is well known. First comes a hysteri­cal chorus of abuse from government and union leaders, who warn of the ‘catastrophic’ effects of the strike on the economy and international confidence in sterling. Meanwhile, the local trade union officials, even when they claim to be ‘sympathetic’ to the aims of the strike, soon make it clear that their one aim is to end it as quickly as possible. These officials try to ‘persuade’ the strikers to return to work: they are told that the strike is ‘against their own interests’; moreover their irresponsible action is giving the company (and Brit­ish capitalism) a bad name: they should be ‘reasonable’, and submit their case to strike arbitration. And at the same time, to make the strikers more ‘amenable’ to this persuasion, the union does everything it can to isolate them. Either they are presented as a ‘special case’ whose struggle is of no concern to other workers, or else they are branded a ‘tiny minority’ of ‘wreckers’ out to gain what they can for themselves at the expense of their fellow workers. In either case the aim is to deprive the strike of its most effective weapon, class unity.



In America, while workers’ real wages have declined steadily since 1965 (apart from a brief period in 1972-73), the unions have negotiated contracts which have ensured that this decline in real wages is matched by constantly rising productivity (speed-ups etc). More recently construction workers’ unions have agreed to actual wage cuts of up to 25 per cent. And so concerned are the unions for the smooth running of American industry that their contracts usually include a clause banning all strikes for the duration of the agreement. This means that all disputes have to go through official procedures, which may take months or even years; and since the contract is ‘binding’, pay disputes are forbidden altogether. American unions thus act as ‘policemen’ for industry: enforcing labour discipline, preventing wildcats, and ensuring that strike action is confined to ‘official’ disputes - which are usually crippled by lack of union solidarity and company stockpiling (since companies often know about these official disputes months in advance). No wonder that the New York Times wrote smugly recently of the “community of interests between labour and management” and no wonder that American workers often express more hostility towards the union than towards the company itself.


How are workers to understand this conflict between themselves and their so-called ‘representatives’, the trade unions? Cert­ainly there is no lack of explanations from the various organisations of the ‘left’. According to some, such as the Trotskyists, it is the result of treachery on the part of reactionary leaders; while others, more ‘libertarian’ in out­look, blame the bureaucratic nature of union organisation. But all such explanations share one common characteristic: what­ever the qualifications, all defend the unions as basically working class organisations. No matter how often the unions side with the employers or the government against the working class, no matter how great the defeat suffered by workers at the hands of the unions, still, according to the ‘left’ the unions represent the “power of the organised working class”. Thus militant workers who are struggling against the unions are told that they should divert their energies to working within them. It is only necessary to reform these organisations, they are told, to put pressure on the leadership from the ‘rank and file’, and the unions will once again assume their true role as defenders of the working class.


Against all such ‘critical defence’ of the unions, this pamphlet shows that the trade unions consistently weaken and derail proletarian struggle because this is their function in modern capitalist society. Consequently the reactionary nature of the unions is something that no amount of pressure from the rank and file can possibly change. On the contrary, as the crisis deepens, as it must, conflict between the working class and the unions can only become increasingly bitter and wide­spread. And before the proletariat can impose its own solut­ion to the crisis - the revolutionary overthrow of world capitalism - it will have to decisively confront and, ultimate­ly, destroy the trade unions, along with the rest of the bourgeois state apparatus.




The experience of the working class (and this introduction will concentrate on the experience of the working class in Britain and America) utterly destroys all the lies put out by leftist organisations to support their claim that it is possible for the working class to struggle within the unions. Among these lies is the myth that the unions have a ‘dual role’, that somehow they are “for the working class some of the time and against it at other times”. Although it is true that throughout a whole historical period the unions were genuine working class organisations which expressed and fought for the interests of the class, this period came to an end with the outbreak of World War I in 1914: since then the unions have represented the interests of the bourgeoisie and the state against the working class.




The terrible barbarism of World War I marked the end of capit­alism as a historically progressive system. The working class of all nations had absolutely nothing to gain from the war, whatever its outcome, except the deaths of millions of proletarians. Its only interest was to struggle against the war, and this could only take the form of revolutionary defeatism: for the proletariat of each country to turn its guns against ‘its’ own bourgeoisie, as part of the world revolution against capitalism.


But the trade unions of every belligerent nation unhesitatingly chose the side of the bourgeoisie: not only did they call for the working class to support the war, for workers to sacrifice their lives to defend their national capital, but they also collaborated with the bourgeoisie in the enforcement of re­pressive measures to ensure that workers ‘at home’ did nothing to disrupt the ceaseless slaughter of their class brothers at the front.


In Britain it was collaboration between unions and the Labour Party that enabled the bourgeoisie to temporarily call a halt to a rapidly rising wave of class struggle. In August 1914 these two organisations called for a cessation of class strug­gle for the duration of the war, and after consultations bet­ween unions and government this became law in 1915, when strikes were declared illegal. In addition the war meant that workers lost many more of the hard fought gains of previous decades: workers were tied to their place of employment; compulsory overtime, night-work and Sunday work were reintroduced; and factory health and safety regulations were suspended. These and many other repressive measures were fully supported by the unions.


In America, where union organisation was still weak before World War I, the government realised that it needed to create a strong union organisation if it was to keep growing working class militancy under control during the war. The solution was provided by a pact between the government, employers and the American Federation of Labour (AFL), a particularly spineless collection of craft and skilled trade unions, which had always failed to organise more than a small minority of the class. The AFL agreed to oppose all strikes in return for the freedom to organise, which had previously been denied it by the American bourgeoisie. As a result, union membership in­creased by about two million during the war...as a direct response to the needs of American capitalism.


This was no ‘tactical error’ or temporary aberration on the part of the trade unions. On the contrary it was a conscious decision to collaborate with the bourgeoisie, which made the unions accomplices in the mass murder of millions of workers on the battlefield. Of course this betrayal by the unions of the belligerent nations in 1914 did not come out of the blue: it was the logical consequence of their increasing remoteness from the working class, and their growing co-operation with the bourgeoisie for a long period beforehand. Nevertheless 1914 marks a watershed, from which time it is fundamentally true to say that the unions have functioned as simple appen­dages of the capitalist state, whose only role is to help preserve capitalist ‘order’ against the proletarian threat.


At first sight this might seem to contradict the fact that trade unions have supported and called many strikes (and other working class actions) since 1914. But the contradic­tion soon disappears when one considers that the ability of the trade unions to contain militancy and derail struggles depends on the mystification that they are in fact working class organisations and the power of this mystification is precisely their long tradition as genuine working class organisations before 1914. If the unions openly opposed every strike this lie would soon be exposed, and they would lose all credibility within the working class. This is indeed the case with unions in countries in the Russian bloc and Third World, which openly act as agents of the state to enforce labour discipline and higher productivity levels. But in Britain and America, and other countries in the US bloc, government, bus­iness and union leaders alike are aware that a union which has a tradition of ‘militancy’ among the workers is much more likely to be able to use its influence to keep workers’ militancy within safe bounds. They are aware that ‘disillusion­ment' amongst workers with their unions brings with it the threat of class struggle outside the ‘responsible’ control of the unions. And this raises the spectre of the ‘collapse of social order’, which above all is what terrifies all these bourgeois leaders.


Although some less ‘enlightened’ sections of the bourgeoisie may remain hostile to the unions, this only serves to reinforce their radical image. And anyway, in times of deepening crisis it becomes increasingly obvious to all sections of the bourg­eoisie that only the unions can keep the working class under control. The deeper the crisis, the louder the calls from bourgeois spokesmen (from government ministers to newspaper editors) to strengthen the unions, and to reinforce their authority within the working class. A carefully stage-managed strike is often the best way to achieve this objective.




Thus in decadent capitalism the development of trade unions is always a response to the needs of the bourgeoisie and never to those of the proletariat. The enormous growth of American unions during the thirties provides a clear illustration of this. Their growth coincided with a wave of militant class struggle from workers reacting to the terrible conditions brought about by the Depression. But the impetus did not come from the work­ers, who were already attempting to organise themselves in a more autonomous and radical way, but from President Roosevelt whose ‘New Deal’ in 1934 promised workers the ‘right to organise’ as part of the plan for economic recovery. In effect, Roosevelt had recognised that only a strong union organisation, working in close co-operation with government and business lead­ers, could diffuse the growing class struggle (no doubt re­calling the success of this tactic during the war). At this point workers had largely deserted the AFL unions, which had done nothing to combat the effect of the slump, but undoubtedly many were taken in by the colossal deception of the ‘New Deal’. Hundreds of thousands of workers flooded into the unions believing that, with government backing, they would at least find a solution to their problems.


However, workers soon found that the AFL was as hostile to all forms of industrial action as it had been throughout its ig­nominious history. In the massive textile workers strike of 1934, to take just one example, the union at first called a strike, in response to a threat to reduce hours and wages in the industry by 25 per cent; cancelled it in exchange for a government ‘study’ of the industry and union participation in management; called it again when it became clear that the workers were going to strike anyway; and finally ordered the strikers back to work after 17 days claiming an ‘overwhelming victory’: a government study of the industry. None of the workers’ original demands had been satisfied. This use of the unions to confuse and demoralise the strikers went hand in hand with a continuation of the policy of bloody repression which American governments had pursued throughout the depression. During the textile strike, one of many violent disputes during 1934, at least nine strikers were killed and dozens wounded in clashes with the police and National Guard. The union leaders resolutely condemned any militant class response to this re­pression - especially the mobile pickets (‘flying squadrons’) which workers used to strengthen the solidarity of the strike and widen its effects. They also fought to ensure that the strike didn’t spread to other industries: AFL representatives instructed workers in other industries to “give support without joining the strike” (New York Times, September 10, 1934, quoted by J. Brecher in Strike, Straight Arrow Books, 1972).


In this way, by attacking the class on an ideological level through the unions, the bourgeoisie was able to prevent workers from forging the only weapon with which they could have resisted the physical repression: revolutionary class consci­ousness. The unions thus share full responsibility for the deaths of all the workers killed during this period. However, it soon became clear that the crude strikebreaking tactics of the AFL, though successful in the textile strike and some other cases, were in general simply increasing the bitterness and the militancy of the workers. This threat of intensifying class struggle led to the establishment of the CIO (Committee for Industrial Organisation), on the initiative of AFL leaders and under pressure from Congress. The aim was to channel milit­ancy into building a new union organisation, which could seem to offer workers a radical alternative to the AFL. But right from the start the CIO sought to destroy class combativity and reinforce union ‘discipline’ in American industry. The main tactic of the CIO unions was to support unofficial strikes in order to increase their membership and gain the confidence of the workers. At the same time they could prevent strikes from spreading and ensure that they caused minimum damage to the company and the economy. For instance, the famous sit-down at General Motors in Flint in 1936 began as a struggle against increased track speeds, organised by the workers themselves independently of the unions. By giving the strike its ‘support’ the CIO was able to transform it into a simple demand for union recognition, which meant that the company ‘recognised’ the union in return for a promise from the union that it would try to prevent all unofficial stoppages. Needless to say, union recognition was presented as another great ‘victory’ for the workers.


Thus through the CIO the American bourgeoisie was able to divert autonomous class struggle into union activity which far from threatening capitalism actually strengthened it. John L Lewis, leader of the CIO, succinctly expressed the true function of the CIO in the thirties: “A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs or any other kind of strike” (Brecher, op. cit., p.205).


By World War II, the American bourgeoisie had a weakened work­ing class and a strong union organisation, to make sure that workers did not disrupt war production and American capitals’ pursuit of higher profits. The CIO and AFL joined forces to ban all strikes and “plan for ever-increasing production”. The world war was in fact the culmination of the general defeat suffered by the world working class following the failure of the Russian and German revolutions to extend in the twenties. And all over the world, the trade unions had been among the most important agents of this defeat. In Britain, in the 1926 general strike, the union leaders at first postponed the strike for a year, thus giving the government ample time to prepare for its defeat; and then abruptly called off the strike after nine days, leaving workers to drift back to work, confused and demoralised.


The lesson of these experiences is clear: that unions, like leopards, never change their spots. Even when a union calls a strike, or seems to be on the side of the workers, this is because it judges that, in the long run, this is the best way to reinforce union authority and weaken autonomous class struggle. The idea that the union is on the side of the work­ing class one day and the bourgeoisie the next, is just a mythical creation of the leftists. Whether unions take up a ‘militant’ or a ‘reactionary’ stance is determined simply by tactical considerations: their sole and constant aim is the preservation of ‘social order’, which in crisis-ridden capitalist society can only mean trying to prevent the working class from struggling against the relentless decline in its living standards.




But perhaps it is still possible to change this lamentable state of affairs? Maybe, as the leftists claim, a strong ‘Rank and File’ movement could oust reactionary leaders and ‘reclaim’ the unions for the working class?


Again the leftists are answered categorically by working class experience. Sixty years of rank and file pressure has failed to prevent the unions from fusing more and more closely with the state apparatus. On the contrary, rank and file movements are themselves constantly being absorbed into the unions, where they function as an integral part of the whole union organisation. The British shop stewards, for example, portrayed by the press as the ultimate in shop floor militancy, and idolised by the leftists, are often the most energetic opponents of strikes.


But the constant integration of rank and file movements into the union apparatus is hardly surprising, since, in decadent capitalism, the whole purpose of trade union organisation is the infiltration of bourgeois ideology into the working class. The intimate contact between the lower ranks of the union hierarchy and the ‘shop’, far from making the unions more responsive to the needs of the working class, is exactly what makes them so valuable to the bourgeoisie.


Firstly, it is this contact which makes the unions the section of the bourgeoisie which is most sensitive to the mood of the working class, and thus ensures that they are absolutely indispensable to any government which wants to impose austerity measures on the working class without provoking a militant response. (The failure of the recent Tory government in Britain shows what happens to any government that attempts this without the support of the unions). Nowhere can this function of the unions as ‘barometers’ of class struggle be seen more clearly that at recent TUC Congresses in Britain. Local delegates at these Congresses often warn of ‘growing rank and file militancy’, and needless to say they don’t see this as a welcome sign of an emerging wave of class struggle which will take the proletariat a step closer towards its emancipation from wage slavery. On the contrary, these warnings allow the unions and the whole bourgeoisie to take steps in advance to prevent an outbreak of class struggle. For example, the expected move by the British government from rigid wage controls this year to some form of ‘free collective bargaining’ next year is largely in response to the unions, which told the government that they would not be able to enforce another year of such rigid controls. Of course this does not mean that the unions are pressing for an end to austerity measures, simply that they realise the need for these measures to take a different form.


Secondly, this close contact between workers and local union officials gives the bourgeoisie a mouthpiece within the prolet­ariat. By appearing to side with the workers against management on minor issues (and of course their role as ‘workers represent­atives’ is constantly being stressed by politicians of all parties, the press, television, etc.), these officials are well placed to explain to workers why ‘economic realities’ force the union to support speed-ups, lay-offs, wage restraint, etc.


The shop stewards are simply a further refinement of the syst­em, which extends the ideological penetration of the bourg­eoisie into the heart of the proletariat. During the fifties and sixties when British capitalism appeared comparatively healthy, shop stewards were able to appear very militant. In particular they seemed to offer workers an alternative to the regular unions, which were becoming increasingly distant, and seemingly less concerned with protecting their interests. But while workers found that the shop stewards were able to bring about a swift settlement of grievances, this was largely the result of developing links between stewards and management, the whole aim of these being to ensure that industry ran more smoothly. Many managers actually preferred to deal with stewards, whom they saw as more flexible than official union representatives and more influential among the workers. The unions, for their part, soon saw the advantages of strengthen­ing and regularising the informal links between unions, stew­ards and management, and bringing the whole process under their own control. In this way the stewards have become “the crucial point of contact between members, full time officials and the unions”. (‘Shop Stewards and Workshop Relations’, Research Paper 10 by the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, p.5).


The militancy of shop stewards was in any case always greatly exaggerated (most managers and stewards themselves seeing the function of stewards as a “moderating influence” – ibid., p.7), but the deepening economic crisis has brought the partnership between stewards and management into the open, and clearly revealed the stewards as opponents of class struggle and enemies of the proletariat. In other words the bourgeois­ie is becoming more and more dependent on the shop stewards to contain class struggle. This was underlined at British Leyland’s Longbridge plant recently when in response to an urgent call from unions and management, who were faced with a series of strikes which threatened to get out of control, seven hundred stewards voted almost unanimously to ban all unofficial strikes at the plant.


Moreover it would be a profound error to portray show stewards as just innocent victims, caught in the web of trade union bureaucracy. On the contrary, the integration of the shops stewards (and all similar rank and file organisations) into the unions is a natural consequence of the acceptance of a trade unionist conception of working class struggle, which is the basis of all such organisations. The idea that workers can take on capitalism plant by plant, and sector by sector, not to overthrow capitalism but to claim their ‘rightful’ share; not as a permanent struggle against exploitation but as a temporary disruption of a system of otherwise peaceful coexistence: this sort of reformist struggle is no longer poss­ible in decadent capitalism. When capitalism is in a state of profound and insoluble crisis, any serious struggle by the proletariat, even to defend its own living standards, threatens capitalism itself. At such a time, to advocate this form of ‘responsible’ struggle, within the limits of capitalist society, as the trade unions do, can in reality only mean to oppose all class struggle. Indeed the myth that it is possible for the working class to win permanent reforms in decadent capitalism is one of the main weapons of mystification used by the bourg­eoisie to prevent the proletariat from taking its defensive struggles to their only possible conclusion: revolutionary struggle against capitalism itself. The failure of rank and file organisations to challenge this reformist, trade union­ist conception of class struggle has three main results:


1. They are naturally integrated into the existing unions, or else become some sort of alternative union, with a more radical appearance, but fulfilling the same reactionary role as all other unions.


2. They concretely help to defeat class struggle by isolat­ing it along sectional trade lines. The Scottish strike wave in the autumn of 1974, when a rash of spontaneous strikes led to a near general strike situation in central Scotland, provides the most vivid description of this. It was thanks to the shop stewards who, while taking a ‘militant’ stance, insisted that each group of workers was only in dispute with its own management, and for its own economic demands, that all these strikes remained isolated and were largely defeated. The next year, when a prolonged strike by a small group of dust-cart drivers in Glasgow was met by concerted opposition from the whole state apparatus, (local council, govern­ment, trade union, press and television, and finally from troops sent in to break the strike) the workers’ stewards refused to call for the extension of the strike, saying that it was just a dispute between the dust-cart drivers and the local council!


3. More important than the actual physical defeat of such disputes, rank and file organisations form a barrier to the development of revolutionary consciousness within the proletariat, by reinforcing the credibility of the trade unions, and by strengthening the illusion that the proletariat can still struggle in a trade unionist, reformist way.




Against all the leftist myths which seek to portray the work­ing class as powerless and exposed as soon as it leaves the shelter of the trade unions, we have seen that the more in­volved trade unions become in workers’ struggles, the more these struggles are weakened and finally, defeated. On the other hand, the more the class struggles autonomously of and against the unions, the stronger it becomes.


But in decadent capitalism even the most ‘successful’ struggles can only offer the proletariat temporary relief from a constant deterioration in its conditions of life. All struggles can only be a preparation for the only possible proletarian solution to the crisis, the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism.


Class struggle against the unions is thus in no way a ‘recipe’ for instant success. Rather, the ability of the class to struggle against the unions is one of the essential precondi­tions for this revolutionary struggle.


Since the re-emergence of class struggle in the late sixties, the world proletariat has shown a clear tendency to struggle outside the unions, to create its own autonomous fighting organisations such as general assemblies, revocable strike committees, etc. In America in 1970, there were huge national wildcats by postal workers and Teamsters (truck drivers), as well as a rash of wildcats in other industries throughout the late sixties and early seventies. In Britain the number of strikes increased dramatically between 1967 and 1972, and an increasing proportion of these were ‘unofficial’ (amounting in 1969 to 95 per cent of all strikes).


These struggles formed part of a wave of class militancy which swept the world at this time, and which was felt most strongly in France in 1968, Argentina and Italy in 1969 and Poland in 1970, but which also affected very many countries all over the world to a greater or lesser extent. In all countries the trade unions were at first caught off balance by this sudden wave of class struggle, and were left helpless as the struggles intensified in spite of their opposition. But since then, after their initial confusion, the trade unions have shown a remark­able ability to re-establish their influence with the proletariat. In Britain after widespread wildcats in the mines in 1969 and 1970 (when the miners expressed great hostility towards their union) the union was able to regain much of its lost influence by supporting the 1972 strike, which it recognised as inevitable anyway. This undoubtedly helped to repair the image of the whole British trade union movement. During 1974 and 1975 the unions were further able to strengthen their position by supporting huge wage claims of up to 30 per cent by various groups of workers. Nevertheless because of inflation real wages actually fell during this period. And the influence regained by the unions during this period was one of the factors that enabled the government to enforce the ‘Social Contract’.


In America, unions and management have shown that they, like their British counterparts, have learnt from experience that a well-timed strike is often the best way to ensure industrial peace in the future. The most notable example of this was the General Motors strike in 1970, when co-operation between union and management reached a new level: the company went so far as to lend the UAW $30 million to help finance the strike. One bourgeois commentator explained why the strike had been called: “A strike, by putting the workers on the streets, rolls the steam out of them - it reduces their demands and thus brings agreement and ratification; it also solidifies the authority of the union hierarchy” (Quoted by Zerzan in ‘Organised Labour vs. The Revolt Against Work’, London Solidarity, Black & Red, etc.).


The strengthening of the unions has enabled the bourgeoisie to bring the working class more or less back into line for the present. The struggles of the late sixties and early seventies took the form of a spontaneous eruption, which above all demon­strated the power and combativity of the proletariat. But the seriousness of the situation is now very much more apparent: the strength of the bourgeoisie and the implications of a direct confrontation with the unions and the rest of the state apparatus make workers unwilling to embark on a new series of struggles. However, the lull in the class struggle has in no way involved the defeat of the proletariat, and for this reason it can only be temporary. The inevitable worsening of the crisis creates a growing build-up of class tension that can only lead to a new eruption, more extensive than before.


Meanwhile the bourgeoisie is using the temporary lull in class struggle to prepare its defences against the proletariat. Both its repressive forces (such as the police and the army) and its forces of mystification are being strengthened. In particular the unions’ success in containing class struggle has further emphasised their growing importance to the bourgeoisie. In almost every country this has resulted in closer co-operation between unions and government. In Britain, Len Murray, President of the TUC said recently that “…all in all (British) trade unionists have gained more from the government in the last two-and-a-half years than from any other government” (The Times, September 9, 1976). For workers this period has meant rapidly declining real wages and growing unemployment. Nothing could illustrate more clearly the absolute opposition between the interests of the unions, and those of the working class.


For the proletariat, the lesson of class struggle is clear: spontaneous struggle outside the unions is not enough - it can only form a particular, temporary phase in the development of the class struggle. In the future workers will be forced to struggle directly against the unions; and the development of this struggle will have to go hand in hand with a growing understanding within the working class of the true nature of trade unions. It is as a contribution towards this understand­ing that we are publishing this pamphlet.


International Communist Current,

November 1976.

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