The Problem of Directing a Conservative, Stale Movement of Trade Unionists into Revolutionary Action
A Historical Perspective of Worker Unions
Why has the labor movement become so conservative? A century ago, it was a crime to organize a union, and when general strikes broke out, the existence of the state itself was threatened. Expropriation of the land, occupation of the factories, seizure of the goods and their redistribution to the public -- all of this could be expected whenever unions fought against Capitalists. To simply be part of the union was to be a member of some, new radical movement that was going to change the world. Yesterday, workers and soldiers clashed in a struggle over the system of private property. But today, the popular trade unions are the most institutionalized aspect of Capitalism.
You can take any of the most historic events in labor. The General Strike of Great Britain in 1924 or the General Strike that led to the Paris Commune or the Russian Revolution. Each of them were powerful forces that made threats against both the state and the privileged class. But today, even though some of the same unions may be existence, the radicalism has dried up. Some of the traditional trade unions have become, in fact, greater props to the system that they're supposed to resist.
In 1968, when 10 million workers in France seized their industries, all of the popular trade unions came out in opposition to them. In contrast, they chose a less democratic alternative: supporting the 5 million workers in France who still obeyed their masters. [*1] What happened to the unions that used to storm the factories, blow up machines, and flood their own mines? What happened to the trade unionists who were arrested by the hundreds for violent confrontations with the police and the military? What happened to the organized laborers at arms and munitions plants, who used to send guns to any union that went on strike? [*2]
Members of revolutionary-minded unions during the 1930's left to fight Fascism in Spain -- and they came from Sweden, Germany, Russia, England, France, Italy, and the United States. But today, the Union of Automobile Workers (UAW) begs the government to provide financing to back up their capitalist masters. [*3] They didn't fight to get public financing for low-income housing, for regulatory bodies to better supervise corporate corruption, or for relief for homelessness, hunger, and poverty. No, the UAW today has only spoken in public affairs when it came to saving the margin of workers represented within their union. They are an aristocracy of labor.
But what proud and dignified beginnings! The UAW was born during the era when the Congress of Industrial Organizations was trying to organize all blue-collar workers. One UAW Local in Michigan was organized during the 1930's by a Socialist Party member. His experiences involved everything meaningful in terms of workers revolutions: from investigating and discovering the union president was a hired politician working for management, to the implementation of a worker-managed industry. To quote Peter Friedlander from "The Emergence of a UAW Local, 1936-1939"...
Today, the UAW has no place for ideas of mass working-class unions, worker self-management, or Socialist Revolution over Capitalism. These were what it made it strong in appealing to the workers, because it genuinely spoke to their ambitions. But nobody looks to the UAW today as a representation of the working class in general, either white-collar or blue-collar, revolutionary or conformist. They see it as a clique of workers who have managed to improve their lot without any consideration for the vast hoards of workers.
It's not even a growing movement: the surest signs of its death and compliance with Capitalism is that the UAW and its affiliates spend millions of dollars on donating to political parties, while their absolute and relative numbers decline in absence of any organizing drives. In 2009, the UAW spent $13 million, collected from their members' union dues, to throw at politicians of the Democratic Party. [*5]
In 2010, strikes cost the American Capitalist system only 31,500 work days. [*6] This is a longterm trend, as well, in the decline of strike activity. From 1971 to 1980, there were 225 million strike days, whereas from 2001 to 2010, with a slightly larger population, there was barely 20 million strike days. If the UAW spent their $13 on organizing workers, and paid $25 per day strike benefits, they could have afforded more than half a million strike days. And here is the greatest opposition to the conservative trade unions of Europe and the United States in particular: they simply don't seem very interested in organizing the working class against the Capitalist system. To quote Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer from "The Floodgates of Anarchy"...
Even the complaints that I'm bringing now against the unions for being conservative have existed everywhere Socialism has developed. Most notable would be the criticism of the German Social Democrats during World War 1 against British trade unionism. The union presidents, seeing themselves in a situation where they're needed, will try to maintain that situation -- they will try to maintain and sustain the system of Capitalism, which has made a place for them live in opulence and power. To quote the Russian Council Communist, Anton Pannekoek...
This was the typical attitude of revolutionary Socialists and Communists throughout the industrialized world in the 1920's and 1930's. The one exception would have been Britain and the United States, where the primary unions sprung up without even a mild influence of Socialism or workers' power. It is a revolutionary attitude, perhaps unlike any others, because it takes a direct, theoretical account of how union leaders and union members don't have the exact same desire; one retains individual power for a few because of the struggle in Capitalism, the other seeks the universal power for everyone that comes from establishing a workers' society.
The union movement has degenerated far more since those imposing criticisms of the years past. Pannekoek's description of labor leaders blinding their workers while working hand-in-hand with management is a concise history of the US labor movement. This was only once it emerged from the depths of criminality and revolution to become an established, institutionalized force. And today, the unions have become so entwined within the Capitalist system, that there is no fighting Capitalism without fighting the Conservative trade unions.
Horizontal Decision-Making and Fighting for Social Change
Established unions today have become entrenched in the system of Capitalism that they were supposed to resist. But without any Capitalism, they'll have nothing to resist. Like the masters of state, they know that there is no power if they kill the thing they're supposed to repress. Trade unionism, though, with such deep roots in revolutionary activity is not condemnable altogether. There is, in fact, much that can be done to improve the relationship of the common peoples' struggle for control over their lives and the role of labor unions within society.
The most important step is to abolish the exclusiveness of the unions. Unions during the 1970's in the United States encompassed nearly one out of four workers; but today, it's only one out of ten, at most. It is exclusive by its very nature. Those who have a connection the union can get a job, but the masses are pushed out and ignored. The greatest proof of this is that you can go to any major union, tell them that you're a poor worker in need, and every one will provide the same, essential response: "We're well staffed now. But, if you can get a job on your own, you're welcome to pay union dues." The conservative nature of the trade unions today is anti-working class.
There should be an expansion in the scope of the union's coverage of society. First, it needs to spread to below. Capitalists are fond are setting up "day labor" services where cheap laborers are exploited for minimum wage; and it's an irony, that these people end up being strike-breakers, earning less than the unions they're tearing apart. Andy why should they care otherwise? The union pushed them away when they asked for work and help. Breaking up that type of union is as much anti-capitalism as is striking against Capitalism to begin with.
How could you call such a poor, miserable worker a 'scab'? Where were the so-called union men when Capitalism was denying the working class a right to work and the land? Those union workers were, in their turn, scabs to the entire working class. "Prohibitive initiation fees are established that force men to become scabs against their will. Men whom manliness or circumstances have driven from one trade are thereby fined when they seek to transfer membership to the union of a new craft," Eugene V. Debs spoke at the first convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. [*9] Or, to quote Karl Kautsky, who had formed part of the early German and Russian resistance to the Capitalist trade unions of America and Britain...
Every type of "technical problem" will be used to argue against the integration of the most exploited of the working class into the labor movement. Typical employment of the AFL-CIO, for instance, focuses on long-term work, such as the jobs of skilled machinists or professional teachers, whereas those who work in offices, do clerical work, or even the fast food industry is ignored entirely. When all unions have fought for job security and the right to work, how is this going to appeal to a new generation that seeks the right to quit? Myra Wolfgang, a vice president of one of the AFL-CIO unions, described the trend in a 1971 interview published in Dissent Magazine...
In the same piece, she admitted latter that the main reason why she thought young people joined the union was "because they would like to have someone around to call the boss an s.o.b." But this would be an unacceptable form of unionism, she says. Oddly, she felt it acceptable to oppose an Equal Rights Amendement that would outlaw sexist discrimination. [*12] The unions have not be willing to adapt to these new changes in social or economic trends, which have been perpetually building since 1960. They have not adapted to a working class that won't be happy by being the miserable toys of a capitalist class. The alternative of working class solidarity, expressed by long-term employment and subservience to employer and union boss alike, sounds like no alternative to todays' radical thinker.
The trade unions developed as a response to having no control over their work, which was the greatest determinant in how they lived outside of the factory. The employers could not offer a place of employment where each worker was well-paid and given safe conditions. Unionizing was the only alternative to an unbendable situation that offered the common people no way to change their lives. Opposition to traditional, conservative unionism develops naturally along the same lines of thought.
To become revolutionary, a trade union movement must spread itself in all directions of the working class. It must not isolate itself to one particular segment, erroneously called "white collar" or "blue collar," "skilled" or "unskilled," "regularly employed" or "seasonably employed," and "waged" or "salaried." The union must make agreements with employers not for job stability, but for the right to job transfer -- to leave one place of employment and be able to find another, when you want, through the union. They shouldn't be fighting for divisions along craft unions, but should seek to join together all who fall under the category of subservient to the master class.
The union shouldn't fine its own members and carry out disciplinary measure that is normally the supervisor's job. And when a worker quits their job because the conditions in which they labor do not uplift themselves as civilized human beings, the union shouldn't fine them -- the union should defend them. The AFL-CIO, however, has itself accepted the position of co-supervisor; it fines its own members for violations of the company's policy, even such as discussing unions. [*13] [*14]
Every worker, from the day-laborer who serves a new capitalist everyday, to the temp worker serving out shifts of six-month labor, should be part of the union. But today's traditional trade unions can see no use or value in bringing in such hoards of exploited into their own ranks. The trade unionist who has sat upon an iron press for three decades has only saw fit to bring in other people to their movement. They saw factories across the street, as in the CIO drives of the 1930's, and organized those factories, too.
Today, they look at their factory windows and see temp labor hired in construction and day-laborers in the farm fields, but that same sympathy doesn't come to them. There are no trade unionists coming out of the factories, half-covered in stains of black oil and lugging a wrench on the pants, handing out union pamphlets to workers digging potatoes This image doesn't exist. And here, you get the image, that these trade unions are really thinking about the "return" they'll get before investing in union drives. The image of Capitalism comes to mind, where redundant and useless individuals try to clutch on to the miserable and dying powers -- received in another era under dictatorships.
So many workers are in small establishments, in temp work, in semiskilled jobs, or waiting to make that jump to the university. The union may even consider forming its own union-temp agency. If organized labor doesn't find creative, intelligent, and articulate ways to embrace the whole of the working class, then organized labor will decay as it should. If it doesn't find a way to make its organization into one that will improve the immediate and the longterm interests of all of the working class, then it will cease to be a working class organization.
Nor should one's vision be angled entirely toward those below the union movement. Scientists, teachers, biologists, statisticians, and mathematicians typically have short-term work, as well. While the Blue-Collar worker may maintain a salary higher than a professor, they're expected not to leave the same position in their factory for at least four decades. This is not true for those outside the union movement with no skill, as well as for those who have university qualifications. Among the workers, the lower and the upper class don't have the same connection to job security as that small, dwindling center of middle-class trade unionists. If these professionals are not unionized, then they'll be capitalized.
Revolutionizing the Union Movement
It may be logical to look at today's conservative trade unions and believe that there is some value in overthrowing them, forming our own independent class-unions, or both. It's hard to say how things will necessarily turn out. In 2005, when the largest national trade union in the United States seemed more secure than ever, there was a split: with the Change to Win Federation in opposition to the remaining AFL-CIO. However, the new organization seems like it is has only awaken to the problem that unionism is dying -- they hardly have any understanding why, and their attempted fixes are half-hearted. Their emphasis is on union organizing, on doing more of the old. There is not much new.
Whatever happens to the old unions, something new is needed, and not a "more of the old" type of new. Essentially, it is the same conclusion that the Industrial Workers of the World made in response to the AFL-CIO when it was established in 1905. That old type of unionism is no longer sufficient to meet our needs today as workers organized against the power of our masters. This is our conclusion, too, to the hybrid craft-industrial style unionism of the AFL-CIO.
Craft unionism was the first style of unionism, from the 1800's, which taught that every laborer should organize with those of the same skill. This allows them to create a "bottleneck" effect, where all production is stopped, because everyone who can do one small part refuses to work. But as industry changed, Industrial Unionism came to the foray with the CIO, where all workers of an industry are brought into the union. This became necessary, because machinery kept reducing the skill level of any worker, such that craft unions had no effect, because there was no way to monopolize that skill.
Today, though, Craft Unionism is almost wholly dead, and Industrial Unionism has been declining since the 1970's. Both Craft Unionism and Industrial Unionism were a form of workers' resistance to the particular conditions of Capitalism. Since conditions have changed so much, it is time for a new type of unionism, one that embraces every laborer. Perhaps what is needed is a General Unionism, Class Unionism, or Worker Unionism.
The limitations of craft and industrial organizing have shown themselves. The only thing that can truly inspire tho workers today toward action is a form of resistance that matches itself to their practical situation. Conservative trade unions have failed to do this, and they will continue to decline as long as they continue that route.
*1. "The Beginning of an Era," from the Situationist International Archives, Translated by Ken Knabb, Internationale Situationniste #12, September 1969, CDDC.VT.edu .