As the trade union movement stands to-day it is still craft and sectarian in outlook, still mainly pro-capitalist. The struggle on the economic held under capitalism has to be, and is, carried on by socialists and non-socialists alike. The small number of workers who really understand the meaning of socialism is such that any attempt to form a separate socialist economic organisation at present would be futile, for the very nature of the workers' economic struggle under capitalism would compel such an organisation to associate in a common cause with the non-socialist unions during strikes and all the other activities on the economic side of the class struggle . The SPGB position on trade unions has been generally vindicated .The Socialist Party, therefore, urges that the existing unions provide the medium through which the workers should continue their efforts to obtain the best conditions they can get from the master class in the sale of their labour-power.
The ideal trade-union, from a socialist point of view, would be one that recognised the irreconcilable conflict of interest between workers and employers, that had no leaders but was organised democratically and controlled by its members, that sought to organise all workers irrespective of nationality, colour, religious or political views, first by industry then into One Big Union ( as was advocated by our companion party in Canada ) , and which struggled not just for higher wages but also for the abolition of the wages system.The trouble is that this cannot become a full reality till large numbers of workers are socialists. In other words, you can’t have a union organised on entirely socialist principles without a socialist membership. This was recognised in the big discussions on “the trade union question” that took place in the SPGB shortly after we were founded in 1904. The idea of forming a separate socialist union was rejected in favour of working within the existing unions and trying to get them to act on as sound lines as the consciousness of their membership permitted. The logic behind this position was that, to be effective, a union has to organise as many workers as possible employed by the same employer or in the same industry, but a socialist union would not have many more members than there were members of a socialist party. In a non-revolutionary situation most union members would inevitably not be socialists but would not need to be.A union can be effective even without a socialist membership if it adheres to some at least of the features of the ideal socialist union already outlined , and will be the more effective the more of those principles it applies.
The idea of forming a separate socialist union, as the SLP in America tried to organise, was rejected in favour of working within the existing unions and trying to get them to act on as sound lines as the consciousness of their membership permitted. The logic behind this position was that, to be effective, a union has to organise as many workers as possible employed by the same employer or in the same industry, but a socialist union would not have many more members than there were members of a socialist party. In a non-revolutionary situation most union members would inevitably not be socialists but would not need to be. A union can be effective even without a socialist membership if it adheres to some at least of the features of the ideal socialist union outlined above, and will be the more effective the more of those principles it applies. This is why Socialist Party members in the existing unions have always insisted on recognition of the class struggle, democratic control by the membership and no affiliation to the Labour Party.
The working class get the unions, and the leadership, it deserves. Just as a king is only a king because he is obeyed, so too are union leaders only union leaders because they are followed. To imagine they lead is to imbue them with mystical powers within themselves, and set up a phantasm of leadership that exactly mirror images the same phantasm as our masters believe. So long as the workers themselves are content to deal with such a union system, and its leaders, then such a union system and its leaders will remain, and will have to react to the expectations of the members. The way to industrial unions, or socialist unions, or whatever, is not through the leadership of the unions. The unions will always reflect the nature of their memberships, and until their membership change, they will not change. Unions are neither inherently reactionary, nor inherently revolutionary. The only way to change unions is not through seizing or pressurising the leadership, but through making sure that they have a committed membership, a socialist membership.
The SPGB avoided the mistake of the American SLP - and of the CPGB during the "Third Period" after 1929 - of "dual unionism", i.e. of trying to form "revolutionary" unions to rival the existing "reformist" unions, though some SPGB members were involved, on an individual basis, in breakaway unions .
We countered the syndicalist case “The Mines to the Miners!” or “The Railways to the Railwaymen!” by pointing out the socialists want to abolish the sectional ownership of the means of life, no matter who compose the sections , and not reinforce it . Instead of the socialist idea of the ownership by the whole people in common of the land, railways, factories and so on, the syndicalists wish to strengthen the property-foundation of society. Syndicalists were merely projecting into socialism the industrial and professional divisions of workers which exist under capitalism. Since socialism is based on the social ownership (ie ownership by society) of the means of production, the trade union ownership proposed by the syndicalists was not socialism at all but a modified form of sectional ownership.
With syndicalism , in general , the SPGB has always insisted that the structures and tactics of organisations that the working class create to combat the class war will be there own decision and will necessarily be dependent on particular situations . What we have stated is that :
"The particular form of economic organisation through which the struggle is conducted is one which the circumstances of the struggle must mainly determine. The chief thing is to maintain the struggle whilst capitalism lasts.The spirit of the craft form of Trade Union is generally one which tends to cramp the activity and outlook of the workers, each craft thinking itself something apart from all others, particularly from the non-skilled workers. But capitalist society itself tends to break down the barriers artificially set up between sections of the working class, as many of the so-called "aristocrats of labour" have been made painfully aware. The industrial form of union should tend to bring the various sections of workers in an industry together, and thus help level the identity of interests between all workers so organised."
In regards to the Industrial Workers of the World the SPGB has revised its attitudes as a result of changes within the IWW . Previously , during the formative years of both organisations , the IWW was seen as more of an anti-political ie an anarchist organisation , promoting Industrial Unionism , which the SPGB disavowed as sectional and undemocratic , since it was about industries controlling the means of production and distribution and not society as a whole ie also those outside the work-place . But the SPGB now accepts that in recent years the IWW can be more accurately described as an a-political organisation , if you get the difference of emphasis , since it itself has changed its approach to the class struggle and for all practical purposes now acts as a democratic and progressive , inspirational and educational union that is to be recommended for membership when it is to the workers advantage , which is the majority of the time and situations . No longer being divisive with outright opposition to the pure and simple reformist trade unions by its adoption of the dual -card policy has been another change which differentiates the present from the early IWW that the SPGB criticised . It has also accepted the principles of agreed contracts of employment and even state recognition and registration . For all practical purposes it now operates as a union and an umbrella for workers of many political persuasions and not just the one . So it is not a formal position to the IWW that has been taken by the SPGB but an informal one ( and a practical one ), which can change if the IWW decide that certain ideas should take precedence over others or again become dominated by one particular strand of political thought , rather than an open and inclusive workers' organisation which exists now .We also have to be minded that even within syndicalist unions the more effective the union is in achieving victories against capitalism , the more the non-radical workers will join it for the trade union benefits and this could just as like water down its revolutionary aspects as to militantise those new recruits . It is just as likely that they will desert the union if the revolutionary aspirations of the union hinder the practicalities of the daily bread and butter fight .
Unlike the early SLP or supporters of Anarcho-syndicalism , the SPGB have always insisted ( in agreement with the IWW constitution that "the IWW refuses all alliances, direct and indirect, with existing political parties or anti-political sects" ) that there should be a separation and that no political party or should , or can successfully use , unions as an economic wing , until a time very much closer to the Revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers and considerable over-lap of memberships . And for the foreseeable thats far off in the future .
The SPGB attitude is one recognising that: -
" The Socialist Party, in aiming for the control of the State, is a political party in the immediate sense, but we have an economic purpose in view, namely, the conversion of the means of living into the common property of society. Therefore, the question necessarily arises whether an economic organisation acting in conjunction with the political is vital to our task. We have on more than one occasion pronounced ourselves in agreement with the need for such an organisation, and in so doing have flatly denied the charge that the Socialist Party of Great Britain is "nothing but a pure and simple political party of Socialism ".
Socialists are not in the business of creating myths but about facing realities , whether the truths are palatable or not. There is no easier road to Socialism than the education of the workers in Socialism and their organisation to establish it by democratic methods. Shortcuts have proved to be cul de sacs .
No-one denies the courage of the working class , thats been proved countless times , but we do question their foolhardiness and counsel the working class to:-
"understand the position they occupy in modern society; as they begin to take a hand in settling affairs of social importance, they will make many blunders and mistakes. In the main, however, these will be easily recognised and corrected. But the biggest danger that confronts them – the biggest mistake they can make – is to place power in the hands of “leaders” under any pretext whatever. It is at once putting those “leaders” in a position to bargain with the master class for the purpose of selling out the workers. It allows the master class to retain control of the political machinery which is the essential instrument for governing Society. All the other blunders and mistakes the workers may make will be as dust in the balance compared with this one, and not until they realise this fact will they be on the road to Socialism."
And as we also cautioned in 1926 General Strike:-
"The outlook before the workers is black, indeed, but not hopeless, if they will but learn the lessons of this greatest of all disasters. "Trust your leaders!" we were adjured in the Press and from the platforms of the Labour Party, and the folly of such sheeplike trust is now glaring. The workers must learn to trust only in themselves. They must themselves realise their position and decide the line of action to be taken. They must elect their officials to take orders, not to give them!...Socialism won't come about through SPGB propaganda (as if revolutionary minorities can outcompete the bourgeois media in times of social peace today), nor will it come about if the real struggles aren't consolidated until a majority of SPGB "delegates" take parliament."