It’s a great pity to have to admit that things have been so bad for the union movement for such a long time. So torpid and uninspiring has been its response to the austerity cuts, particularly the TUC symbolic protest marches. Membership continues to dwindle, workers’ power continues to be eroded, and employers continue to find new ways of out-maneuvering the unions. There were exceptions such as the fast food and Walmart workers strike actions in the US.
One generation after another in continuous effort, in great strikes, massive demonstrations, and political struggles, have fought to build the trade union movement. Long before there was a political party of the workers there were the trade unions. Their history is an amazing record of valiant workers who fought the law, who dared imprisonment, deportation, victimisation and persecution in order that their unions could become strong and powerful. Have you ever stopped to ask why and for what these organisations have been built? You know they defend the wages and conditions of the workers. But why was it necessary to fight for these? The answer to this question is important because it goes to the foundations of unions and socialism.
The working class in society holds has no property. It is a propertyless class—dependent upon the class which owns property—the land, the factories, mills, mines, railways, transport. But the land cannot give forth its fullness unless workers plough and sow and reap. The earth cannot deliver its mineral wealth unless workers dig it. Factories, mills, mines, railways, etc., cannot work unless workers are employed to make them serve their purpose in the transformation of nature’s wealth into social wealth. It is this fact which compels the owners of the means of producing wealth to employ labour. They need that labour or their ownership ceases to be of value. That is why the withdrawal of labour by the workers can be so powerful a weapon when used on a large scale. Unions were formed by the workers because they possessed no means of production of their own, i.e. they were propertyless and their labour power which is inseparable from them could only be withdrawn from production in sufficient strength when it was organised.
Now we know why trade unions were formed, in what consists their power, and why the fight continues in a society where there is a class owning the means of production and a working class owning nothing but its power to labour. The roots of socialism lie in precisely those conditions which give rise to trade unions.
Socialism is the name given to that form of society in which there is no such thing as a propertyless class, but in which the whole community has become a working community owning the means of production—the land, factories, mills, mines, transport and all the means whereby wealth is created and distributed to the community. Socialism is also the name given to a body of scientific and philosophic thought which explains why the socialist form of society is now a necessity, the forces upon which its achievement depends, the conditions under which and the methods whereby it can be achieved.
It will be obvious at once that the basic principles of Socialist society are diametrically opposite to those of capitalist society in which we live. Socialism stands for social or community property. Capitalism stands for private property. Socialism is a society without classes. Capitalism is divided into classes—the class owning property and the propertyless working class. We can easily understand, therefore, why the great majority of landlords, employers, financiers and the like are opposed to socialist ideas. Their very existence as the recipients of rent, interest and profit is at stake. They do not merely reject the theory of socialism, but actively and bitterly fight every movement which is in any way associated with the struggle for socialism. It is to the individual and social interest of the propertyless class to fight against the private property system and for socialism. They do it every day, though as yet only a minority do it consciously for socialism. When trade unionists fight the employers on wages questions and the conditions of labour they are really fighting against consequences of the private property system. The existence of the private ownership of the means of production means also the private ownership of the things produced and their sale as commodities in competition one with another. Labour also is a commodity and those who sell their labour power, the members of the working class, manual and brain-worker alike, also compete like other commodities.
Trade unionism really represents in one sense an attempt to organise monopolies of labour power in order to break down the competition between the workers who in the labour market are commodities for sale. The more trade unionism advances in this direction the more difficult it becomes for the capitalists to make profit. Hence the everlasting cry of the capitalists for “lower production costs” and their opposition to the workers’ struggle for higher wages and improved conditions. This is the fundamental contradiction of capitalist economy—a struggle between the two classes, the propertied and the propertyless—which is inevitable so long as the private ownership of the means of production exists.
From this the socialist draws the conclusion, therefore, that the class primarily interested in the change from private property to social property is the working class. The goal of socialism as the classless society has its starting point in the propertyless condition of the working class which is also precisely the starting point of trade unionism. The unions represent the first weapons of the working class in the struggle against employers’ interests; the socialist’s goal represents the consummation of the struggle of the working class—its emancipation from the system which gives rise to that struggle. Trade unionists and socialists have thus a common origin and the aim of socialism is only possible of achievement by the working class becoming victorious in the struggle against capitalism. Why then is it that trade unionists are not always socialists?
People do not start their lives with fully developed theories about systems of society. Nor were trade unions formed to fight for socialism. The workers formed them to defend and improve their immediate conditions of employment, their wages, their hours of labour and so on. This is clearly revealed by the way in which the unions have grown. An important hindrance to this development springs, however, from the limited character of the trade nions’ activities in relation to the occupations of the workers. The fact that the labour unions limited their industrial activities to measures on behalf of particular sections of workers meant that they adopted the method of striking bargains with particular groups of employers. To this has been given the name collective bargaining, the setting up of agreements between employers’ associations and groups of trade unions for limited objectives. There can, of course, be no complaint against such a procedure providing it does not become an end in itself but is regarded by the workers as a part of a continuous process in the developing of sufficient power and will to conquer the capitalists when the time is ripe. When, however, collective bargaining is accepted as a permanent procedure and becomes the first principle of action for the working class movement, then it involves the acceptance of capitalism as a permanent form of society; and the unions will have to take just what the capitalists can afford to give them.
The socialist declares that such a policy, especially in the present period, is disastrous for the unions and the workers. The socialist is not anti-trade union. On the contrary, he is the most ardent of trade unionists. Socialists want their fellow trade unionists to recognise the cause of the struggle their trade unions are compelled to wage. Recognising the cause as rooted in the private ownership of the means of production and the propertyless conditions of the working class, Socialists want all the struggles of the unions to be co-ordinated, so that behind every national or industry conflict there will be available the appropriate power of the working class. Socialists want sectionalism to be superseded by a united working class army of the unions led by a general staff which directs the struggles of the workers to one end—the securing of the victory of the working class over the capitalists. This means that the trade unions should recognise that all the efforts of the working class must be directed to the goal of the conquest of political power. Their fight in the industrial field must be linked with the fight to capture the state machine which, backed by the might of the working class, would transfer the ownership of the means of production and distribution from private hands to social ownership. It represents the merging of the many sectional interests into the common interests of all and the formation of the mass socialist party reflecting the growing consciousness of the working class of its independent interests and aims—in short, its approach to the socialist conclusions arising from a recognition of the class divisions in society and the conflict arising therefrom. What was in its first stage an unconscious class struggle of the workers becomes increasingly a conscious class struggle.
This is the path of working class emancipation and a society that will become a working community, owning and controlling the means of production, with no class conflict, no rival interests to divide and impede. As socialists, we need to articulate our distinctive vision now, not sometime in the vague, distant future.