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The Real Union Question

Have no illusions about the role of governments, the police or the law - the defence of capitalism and exploitation is the main function of the capitalist state.

Both Marx and Engels advised the workers to unite in trade unions and fight for improved wages and shorter hours. In these struggles, victories would be won. The workers could wring concessions out of the capitalists. “Now and then”, the Communist Manifesto explained “the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.”

The hand-to-mouth existence of the workers has never made it easy to strike for higher wages and better working conditions. The employers can recuperate lost profits, the workers’ lost wages cannot. As long as the capitalist system exists, the bosses will always try to take back what they have been forced to concede. They will continually try to step up the exploitation of the working class in order to boost their profits.

Every strike must end in the defeat of one or the other side, or in a compromise suitable to the opponents. In every case it must leave the capitalist enterprises profitable enough to produce and to expand. Strikes leading to bankruptcies of capitalist firms would also defeat the goals of the workers, which needs the continued existence of their employers.

By combining in a union, the individual worker is better able to struggle against the capitalist and to obtain better terms. This activity of the unions is not only praiseworthy, but it is necessary and could not be dispensed with as long as the present condition of things continued.

The first aim of a trade union is to organise the maximum number of workers in a work-place and within an industry. Its major means of mobilisation and organisation is around the immediate factory floor issues — like wages and working conditions. In this objective it would wrong to exclude workers who are uninterested in politics or who have many different political views. It is completely correct that trade unions should throw their recruiting net wide. They would be failing in their task if they excluded an ordinary worker because he or she has conflicting political views. By casting their net wide, and by exposing thousands of workers to democratic organisation and collective industrial action, the trade unions can act as a major link between the working class and political organisations and struggle. But because they possess a diverse membership, trade unions cannot move quickly and effectively in day to day political struggles. The political mandates of union officials are frequently more limited than those of political organisations.

Engels pointed to the contradictory character of the trade unions. On the one hand they certainly helped “the organisation of the working class as a class” and by uniting workers they could win “at least the full value of the working power which they hire to their employer” and even regulate “with the help of State laws, the hours of labour”. But on the other hand, he wrote, “It is well known that not only have they not done so, but that they have never tried" to free “the working class from the bondage in which capital – the product of its own hands – holds it.” The trade unions operated within the system, enforcing its laws, while in order to change the system a “political organisation of the working class as a whole” was needed. Engels saw the limits of trade union action.

Until the workers get rid of the capitalist system itself, the cause of all the injustices they face, they will constantly have to take up their struggles over and over again. Gains can be meagre and temporary. Marx showed in Capital how every rise in real wages, by cutting into surplus value, reduced the funds available for new investment, retarded the accumulation of capital and so lowered the demand for labour. The availability of labour continually increasesresulting in a downward pressure on wages. As Marx later put it in his answer to Weston in Value, Price and Profits though real wages could be increased here and there by trade union activity, “The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.”

The Socialist Party, building on the experience of its companion party in Canada advocates the idea of the One Big Union (OBU), a class-wide organisation that includes workers with different levels of political consciousness and diverse political opinions, which bring together workers from all trades and occupations, skilled and unskilled into the same organisation. Instead of leaving workers of one union isolated to face their bosses alone, the OBU does everything possible to strengthen and broaden the struggle, creating solidarity and unity among the working class. Many critics of the unions offer a view that the present structure of current trade unionism is inevitable and that trade unions cannot be changed. Which is clearly untrue. Within limits they can and have been.

But the Socialist Party goes beyond factory-based struggles over wages and working conditions. These are the really important problems for workers but are in essence secondary matters. The Socialist Party engage in the important struggle for state power by which state we mean control over parliament, civil service, the police, army and government administration. Syndicalists see the trade union in the mainas the only organisational base for this political struggle. The syndicalists foster the myth that the vehicle for the transformation of our society are the unions. They deprive workers of political experience, of the chance to learn in and through political practice, of creating their own political parties to combat the capitalists’ representatives.


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