Unions - non-revolutionary defence organisations
The existing unions are far from perfect (they are bureaucratic, they collaborate with an anti-working class political party and also with the State too), but they were not put in place by the bourgeoisie in order to subvert any fightback and defend the capitalist state and the national interest. They were originally formed by workers to defend their wages and working conditions within capitalism and, despite their faults, still retain enough of their origin to be able to be used by workers to defend themselves against the downward pressures of capital, as the only shield we're going to have with any chance of slowing down the worsening of conditions. Arguing against defensive organisation such as unions, is disarming the working class.
The most succesful strike is the one that never takes place, i.e. one where the employers concede under the threat of a strike. This requires a permanent organisation capable of exerting permanent pressure (or rather counter-pressure). Ephemeral ad hoc strike committees are no substitute for this, especially as strikes are comparatively rare but bargaining with employers over wages and working conditions has to go on all the time. "Trade union consciousness", i.e. the understanding that workers must band together to bargain with employers over the price and conditions of sale of labour power, remains a higher degree of consciousness than non-unionism and anti-unionism. Workers here have learned through long experience that "unity is strength" and "divided we fall". We shouldn't try to undermine this consciousness, but to build on it. Of course we are not making a fetish about working within the existing union (not for revolution of course, but to get the best terms possible in any circumstance for wages and working conditions). It's a documented fact that the existing unions can and have won pay increases, etc for their members, even if they don't win every time. Of course, the existing unions are not, and are not supposed to be, revolutionary organisations, so if some are criticising them for not trying to turn every strike into a revolution they are missing the point. We do not look for a permanent "revolutionary" union. We won't, and can't, have that till many, many more workers have adopted revolutionary ideas.
There exists an "ultra-leftist" position that assumes that an organisation is either revolutionary or a reactionary part of the state. It ignores a third possible type: a non-revolutionary defensive organisation. In other words, there is a level of consciousness in between acceptance of what capitalism imposes on workers ("you can't do anything", "it's not worth trying", etc) and revolutionary socialist consciousness. There are some workers, even in a non-revolutionary period, who are not prepared to be pushed around by employers and are prepared to stand up to them and to organise on a permanent basis (the most effective way in the end) to do this. Why is the concept (and reality) of a "fighting union" or a rank-and-file "ginger group" within a union to be written off. Why are the workers who try to do this (myself included) to be denounced as "the leftwing of capital" or "agents of the State". Why, worse, should revolutionaries place themselves in the same camp as anti-unionists? It's just madness. We can understand socialists taking an anti-union position in a revolutionmary situation (if the unions don't side with the revolution). But not in a non-revolutionary situation ( the case at present).
Simply to blame the unions for hoodwinking the workers as an analysis stops where it should begin. The lesson is to understand why this happens, what it is in the union/worker relationship that gives it this enduring ability, where the strong and weak points are in that relationship, how/why a breach in this relationship may occur, why workers don't step decisively out of the union form etc. Because the nasty union leaders always trick them is a shallow non-explanation. This being said union leaders are in control of organisations that are selling labour power in bulk to employers. This involves negotiations ending in a contract. The deal is that in return for the union leaders controlling their members, eg by stopping any wildcat action to change the terms of the contract, the employers will guarantee to pay higher wages. Which is what they do from time to time. However, firstly, by and large these bureaucratised unions are effective in securing a good price for the sale of their members' labour power. The figures show this. Some of the leaders are skilled negotiators and know how to exploit labour market conditions to get the best deal. And secondly these organisations don't have to be democratic to be effective, an example being the once Mafia-controlled Teamsters Union. Most union members take a pragmatic attitude to them, supporting them as long as they deliver the goods, ie raising wages in good times and protecting them better than otherwise when labour market conditions turn in favour of employers. Which they generally do or at least are capable of doing.
We do not think the revolutionary approach to the union question is simply unions are bourgeois, and to be involved in the unions is to be part of a bourgeois institution. Karl Marx in 1860 also said that unions are bourgeois institutions. And nevertheless he strongly advocated socialists, Marxists, leftists of all kinds to be active in unions. Our desired strategy for the is to be active in unions where they exist, but not to do it with a unionist perspective but with a class wide perspective that points to all of the workers and other elements, other oppressed groups in society that have no opportunity to participate in unions and to involve them as much as possible in struggles.
Wildcats and flying pickets can be organised day to day at a rank and file/shop floor level, sometimes against the wishes of the union hierarchy - but this isn't necessarily a break with the union, but, if anything, an assertion by workers of seeing the union as being rooted in the rank and file; ie, expressing the view that even if the union bosses don't want a strike, "it's our union and we'll strike anyway". Branch, Area and and National levels of union organisation are progressive degrees of mediation; but to see the union only as an official bureaucracy over, above and separate from the workers and ignore its deep cultural roots precludes any understanding of the enduring power of unions as mediators of class struggle. Any break would have had to be made by miners challenging the union form, rather than just resisting occasional decisions of union bosses. Ultra-leftists regularly talk of workers as passive objects that suffer Machiavellian manipulation by unions - whereas in fact workers at a rank and file level animate unions and give them their influence by their participation. So the union is not merely an external force; trade unionism is not just some external power that has to be combatted - it is also something within the working class that has to be confronted and overcome. And that confrontation will presumably occur, initially, within the union form.
Yes, the unions often limit and/or sabotage some workers struggles - they always have, and yes, union bosses have separate interests, yes radicalisation would mean confronting/transcending the union form - but the UK class struggle, at its 60-70s highpoint, jumped in and out of the union form - with shop stewards as the tipping point/balancing act - but never made any decisive break with it. To claim repeatedly that the workers are only held back by 'Machiavellian unions' is plain wrong - unions are an expression, not just of the limits of consciousness - but of the partial realisation of needs in the labour market; as mediators and functionaries of social control they do deliver some benefits. Of course all improvements obtained by workers under capitalism are under constant threat as economic circumstances and the balance of forces between employers and workers change, but this does mean that the improvements are not worth struggling for in the most effective way (ie through maintaining a permanent organisation to exert a permanent counter-pressure to the permanent pressure from employers) while they can be had
The class struggle is permanent. It's goes on all the time, strikes just represent it becoming more intense. In periods of non-strike (ie 99 per cent of the time) workers still need to confront the employer who will try and get away with what they can, over the amount and pace of work, over favoritism, etc. It's a question of the balance of forces. Organising permanently shifts this slightly in our favour. That's why it's needed. It's no good dealing with each problem as it arises by calling an ad hoc general assembly. There's nothing revolutionary about this day-to-day, non-strike union activity. It's only about defending ourselves within the system. But then there's nothing revolutionary about strikes either. They are just a means of putting pressure on employers to come to agree to something they are not initially prepared to. And most strikes end in a compromise anyway. The actual fight of the working class , expressed in strikes, demonstrations, etc., can't go on on a daily basis. Sometimes the class goes quiet, appears to dip out of sight. A union's "gains" are never secure and are undermined by further downward pressures. All they can do in the long-run is ensure that workers get paid more or less the full value of their labour power, and to do this they have to run fast just to standstill. If they stopped running (ie dissolved themselves as you would like) then workers' conditions would get even worse.
The existing unions have many faults, largely reflecting the level of consciousness of their members -- who get the union they deserve, but they are not entirely useless or impotent. It's not the existing unions as such that we defend, but the principle of workers organising permanently, not particular unions which do suffer from defects We do not "supporting the unions per se". but argue that workers should organise on a permanent basis to defend themselves from capital's attacks, the usefulness and desirability of which some have challenged. The existing unions have the merit of existing, so we may as well use them, though we do not oppose forming a new union, as a permanent defensive organisation, if necessary.
However we must remind ourselves, once one begins to try and capture factional power and/or a career within the union bureaucracy one is, however well meaning, sucked into a game that opposes the union's and the "national economy" institutional interests to workers interests on a day to day functional level. The gains of the working class are often insitutionalised at the level of law, unions became subject to this process early on in their history, this helped ensure and codify their inherent contradictions and limitations. This does not mean that they can't be instruments in the class struggle. Workers have had to fight for the enforcement of already-existent labour laws, which had only been made into law through the working class' own force, since the Factory Acts of the 19th century. A still-valid point made by Marx: "By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement."
As to "reforming" the existing unions this is possible, given a rising class consciousness amongst workers. They could be made more democratic, cut their ties with the state and political parties, adopt an explicit class struggle stance but this will depend on their members, and workers generally, wanting these things. In the meantime we are in favour of arguing for these things within the existing unions.
As class consciousness rises and spreads, we can see three possible ways in which the permanent defensive organisations of the working class can change:
1. Reform of the existing unions.
2. Breakaway unions from the existing unions.
3. Formation of new unions.
What will happen will be all three depending on the circumstances.
We should try to work within as well as, if necessary, outside the existing unions to make them more democratic and more class conscious. It's workers who win things, either through or organised in the unions. It's collective action which gets the result. When there's a strike, those who are actually going out on strike should be having the final say, both on whether and when to strike and on when to go back to work and controlling the conduct and tactics via revocable delegates. Sometimes this can be done through the existing unions and sometimes outside them. This is a matter to be decided pragmatically. There are definite limits to what can be achieved within the trade union form. We don't 'condemn' those who work within the form at a grassroots level, they are often some of the most militant - but, if one recognises those definite limits, the question is, where are they reached, how can they be overcome, what are the obstacles and where is the potential?
Class Struggle? Is it "outside and against the unions" or "outside, inside and alongside the unions"? We are for the latter. We have no wish to straight-jacket the working class into a fixed set of strategies under all conditions and situations then so be it. The SPGB have only preferred means and methods. In a depression, workers cannot somehow prevent a worsening of wages and working conditions. The increase in unemployment tips the balance of forces further in favour of the employers so that take-home pay will inevitably fall and that not even the most militant action can stop this, in fact could lead to the employer closing down the business with an even greater loss of income to the workers concerned. This being so, the problem workers face is how to react - to try to negotiate the fall (whether through the existing unions or outside them) so as to limit the damage or to let employers have a free hand to do it? It's not a very nice choice, but that's capitalism. Wages are a price (the price of labour-power) and go up and down in accordance with labour market conditions. So, since entering into the depression with millions more unemployed, we can expect the price of labour-power to fall. No wildcat action, however militant, will be able to stop this happening any more than the existing unions can with official action. You just can't buck the labour market. So, workers are going to have to negotiate this with employers. Some people are blaming the unions when they should be blaming capitalism.
Obviously, we'd like them to be more democratic. Unions in Britain, although much more bureaucratised than they originally were, still do allow a wider degree of democratic participation than in most other organisations of the same size. We join them on pragmatic grounds and try to make them more responsive to the members interests. Without supporting the organisations as such (in fact criticising them for not being democratic and for being sectional, associating with the State and political parties, etc).
But of course they are not revolutionary organisations and are not meant to be, though at some point, when class-consciousness grows amongst their members, they will become less business unions and more class-oriented ones