The Unions and Class Struggle: A Marxist Analysis


The Socialist Party of Great Britain | Labor Issues | Analysis | September 10th, 2018



"The workers have discovered that the union is the only way for them to withstand the overpowering pressure of capital" - Marx



"Nothing is said about the organization of the working class, as a class. By means of trade unions. This is a very important point, because these, as a matter of fact, are the real class organizations of the proletariat, in which the latter wages its day to day struggle against capital; in which it schools itself, and which even today, under the most ruthless reaction (as now in Paris) simply can no longer be knocked to pieces." - Engels



What should be the attitude of socialists toward trade unions? Unions are the workers most effective means of defense under capitalism. In the absence of unions, the workers have no way of braking the downward pressure on their living standards and their working conditions. Only by means of their combined numbers in labor unions are the workers able to put up same form of resistance against the insatiable drive of capital for more surplus value. Only through unions can the workers ease the strain and stress on their nerves and muscles in the factories, mills, and mines. Since surplus value is produced at the paint of production, the most violent manifestations of the class struggle break out at that point. The history of the labor movement proves the Marxian contention that wages are not regulated by any "iron law" but can be modified by organized militant action on the part of the workers, the value of the workers labor-power is not only determined by physicall limitations of the human body, but also by what Marx calls historical and social factors. One of the most weighty of these factors is the class war. A comparison of the living standards of organized to those unorganized workers tells the story in a nutshell. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics issues statistics showing a breakdown of figures proving that wages are lowest in those occupations in which the workers are not organized or are at best only partly organized. American workers have long organized in unions to gain a share of their productivity increases, assure fair treatment on the job, expand benefits, and lay a foundation for a secure retiremen. For two generations, workers purchased cars and homes, sent their children to college, and enjoyed a genuine retiremen. As the unionized percentage of the workforce shrank from 30 percent in the 1950s to 20 percent in the 1980s to little more than 10 percent in the 21st century, unions' ability to defend their members' wages, benefits, work rules, job descriptions, and rights on the job melted away.

Unions were created to protect workers from their employers' avid pursuit of money. While employers want to maximize profits, workers want enough to pay their bills and lead a comfortable life. Hence, there is a power struggle between workers and employers over how much of the company's profits will go to wages and benefits and how much to the owners. Given that the owners have far more money at their disposal than the workers, one might assume that they hold the reins of power in their hands and can dictate the outcome. But there is a limit to the role that money can play. Unions operate on their own unique principles that provide the potential for a far greater exercise of power than what their employers can command, even with far more money at their disposal. Rejecting competition, workers organized unions on the principle of solidarity. It was a logical course for workers to pursue: while an individual worker is powerless in the face of a domineering employer and while workers who are competing against one another are collectively powerless in relation to the employer, workers quickly learned that power shifts in their direction when they join together and engage in coordinated action. If one person tries to conduct a strike, that person is simply fired. When the entire workforce conducts a strike, they bring the business to a grinding halt and become a force to contend with.

To be sure, participation in the class struggle does not automatically make workers class conscious.The history of the workers' movement is rich with examples of the importance of unions to workers. The struggles waged and the gains won by workers afford excellent case studies of improvements through organizing on the economic field. Before the United Automobile Workers union was formed, conditions in the auto industries were far worse than are today. The speed-up notorious and the slogan "too old at forty" was a guiding policy of management. When a worker approached that age and could no longer keep up with the fierce pace an the production line, he was usually laid off and his place taken by a younger man. Health hazards in the industry took a alarming toll. Many workers in the metal body departments became afflicted with lead poisoning, a disease which the patient never wholly recovers. Occupational illnesses fetched a larger percentage of victims than is the case today, but it must not be assumed that the union succeeded completely eliminating industrial hazards. As long as profits are given priority rating over human welfare, industrial health and safety hazards will remain to menace workers.

Before the union, wages were sub-standard levels, since unemployment ran into the tens of thousands and manufacturers could hold wages dawn by taking advantage of the desperate competition for jobs. A worker could be fired at the slightest whim of the foreman. Consequently favoritism was rampant.Workers toiled under conditions characterized by no check on their exploitation save the natural limitations of their endurance. It was under such circumstances that they spontaneously rebelled, and by strength of their organized numbers formed a union, compelling one corporation after another to engage in collective bargaining and to sign contracts which netted substantial wage increases, a measure of security through seniority, amelioration of the speed-up and the end of boss favoritism.

It is true that the unions' role is one of mediation and as such does nothing to challenge the material basis of the relation between workers and employers. Most union leaders are wedded to the prostitution of social ideals. However as the existence of the wages system is only questioned by a tiny minority this can be of no great surprise. Unions do not work to establish socialism because their members are not socialists. Those socialists who argue that unions are only institutions of capitalism are correct, but they miss a salient point. Unions are class struggle institutions, and as such serve as a fertile field for socialist education and propaganda.

To a self-styled "middle class" citizen living in suburbia, the police are guardians of law and order. But organized workers who have been victims of police brutality on the picket line have no illusions as to whose side the police are on. School teachers may issue students the text books which say the interests of labor and capital are identical but they themselves know from recent struggles and strikes that their interests conflict with those of their employer. Right-wing commentators may rhapsodize on the subject of individualism, but the men and women in the factories and work-shops know that as individuals they would be as helpless before the mighty corporation that hire them as a canoe in the path of a battle ship. The necessity of native-born and foreign workers, blacks, latinos and whites, to march together on picket lines, work together on strike committees and hold out together until their demands are won - all this constitutes an object lesson in class solidarity.

The leadership fetishism of certain so-called Left-wing groups would have the workers believe that everything depends on the "right kind of leaders" must be vigorously combatted. Blaming union officials and yelling "sell out" when incorrect policies are followed will solve nothing, a union is no better than the members who form it. The character of the leadership is to a large degree a reflection of the maturity or lack of maturity of the rank and file. For this reason socialists should seek to raise the understanding of the rank and file, to imbue them with an awareness that their elected representatives should be the servants, not the masters, of the membership. Unions are first last and all the time economic organizations operating within the framework of capitalism. Attempts to use them for purposes other than this can only to the detriment of the unions and their members. The unions should belong to the members, and not be dominated by any clique, political or otherwise. Sometimes such cliques rationalize their drive to worm their way into key union posts on the grounds that once in top positions they will be better able to advance the cause of socialism. Actually the only thing they advance is their party "line" or else themselves. Such "vanguard" outfits care not a whit about educating the workers, but are only interested in indoctrinating them and mobilizing them in accordance with the latest party shibboleths. They are not concerned with making the workers class conscious but only slogan conscious. It may seem rather too obvious, to those fetishising "struggle", but what the cause of socialism needs is socialists. The struggles of the working class of the last two hundred years should tell us one thing - that it is futile to seek to fight a rearguard action against capitalism.

The union movement's success rests on the ability to make their struggle about "all of us." To adopt an encompassing approach which pulls together its diverse membership , that builds alliances with the community and organises the support of other unions. To be sure, participation in the class struggle does not automatically make workers class conscious but to write off unions as defenders of capitalist exploitation is a step too far. To be without a union would usually be even worse under present conditions.


Lessons from History

Workers need to learn to think socially and act politically, not simply as isolated individuals, but as a collective power. A few argue that unions are an inadequate, outdated form of organization because they have become too tangled with the big business state's machinery of control and too constricted by labor law enacted to protect the interests of the 1%. They say unions have had their best days and are no longer effective. Union leaders are kept in check by company owners. Labor unions are organized similarly to the bourgeois parties and corporations. Some argue that the general assault against workers' living standards and rights can not be fought against one industry at a time, as unions are set up to do. Others say unions themselves share much of the blame by padding the pay-checks of the union leaders who monopolize the organization's administrative life and part of this administrative work entails giving orders to the laborers and who make "sweetheart deals" with management. For the most part, we don't have genuine union leaders, we have corporate servants with union titles and six-figure salaries. Whilst all unions do have a certain amount of internal democracy the amount of member participation is often lacking, which is not surprising when unions offer its services as financial brokers, apparently more keen on negotiating deals on insurance, holidays and car breakdown deals, with just a sideline in industrial arbitration!

Unions, sometimes under the well entrenched leadership of full time officials, have at times acted against the interests of the working class but such occurrences should not be understood as a fault of the union form per se but as an expression of the contradictions of the position of workers under capitalism. The membership needs to have the final say after all opinions on the most important issues have been discussed. If the membership does not understand how these issues affect them, do not feel that their viewpoints have been expressed, or do not have the opportunity to challenge the leadership, they will simply stay at home rather than come to a meeting. This isolates the leadership from rank-and-file control and promotes the development of an elite mentality that separates the leadership from the membership's needs. Rank-and-file members need to organize themselves within their unions to demand democratic control of their leadership in order to adequately defend themselves and to make gains. To conduct a winning strike, it is not enough to hand workers picket signs. The members must decide on its strategy and timing, and reach out to other unions and community organizations to enlist support, etc. The only way forward is to put power back in the hands of the worker which means working from the bottom, reaching out to the broad ranks of labor to influence and change their social outlook. It does not confine itself to cursing labor leaders, rotten enough as many of them are. The elimination of labor betrayals can only be brought about by an enlightened membership.

However, the undeniable truth is that the unions remain this nation's only form of working-class organization. There is little chance of a breakthrough for workers in challenging employers without them and no advance in constructing better fighting organizations without unions built into the foundation. The unions remain the only organizations built by and for workers to be a collective fighting force to defend and improve the members' standard of living. While only a minority belongs to unions, all workers' fate depends on their strength.

The class called "The Robber Barons" once held sway and made huge financial gains off the backs of working poor resigned to sweatshops and factories. When trade unions entered the picture, many of the coal mine owners and factory owners had union organizers killed. The government of the United States even sent troops to break up strikes. During unionism's formative years, workers were terrorized for organizing. In company-owned towns, they were thrown out of homes, beaten, shot, and hanged to leave management empowered. The 1892 Homestead Steel Works strike culminated in a violent battle between Pinkerton agents and workers. As a result, seven were killed, dozens wounded, and, at the behest of Andrew Carnegie, owner of Carnegie Steel, Governor Robert Pattison sent National Guard troops to evict workers from company homes, make arrests, and help Henry Clay Frick's union busting strategy. It worked, preventing organizing for the next 40 years. The 1894 Pullman strike was the first national strike, involving 250,000 workers in 27 states and territories. America's entire rail labor force struck, paralyzing the nation's railway system. The New York Times called it "a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital." President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops. Hundreds of others were given police powers. At the time, unionists were seen threatening US prosperity. The strike was broken, killing 13, wounding dozens and resulting in union leader Eugene Debs' arrest, trial and conviction. The Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies) had 100,000 members at its peak in the 1920s. It was committed to help workers against abusive management practices. It's motto was "an injury to one is an injury to all." As a result, in 1917, the Wilson administration used the Espionage and Sedition Act to raid and disrupt union meetings across the country, arresting hundreds on the grounds that they hindered the war effort by opposing it. From 1918 - 21, the infamous Palmer Raids ravaged the union further during the time of the first Red Scare, effectively busting it, though it's still around. [Visit http.iww.org] In Colorado labor wars raged in feudal kingdoms run by coal barons who made the laws pitting mine bosses, National Guard troops, and strikebreakers against workers. In the 1913-14 Ludlow coal strike and subsequent massacre, 75 or more strikers, strikebreakers, and bystanders were killed. During the 1902 coal strike, 14 miners were killed and 22 injured in Pana, Illinois. In 1904, a Dunnville, Colarado battle between state militia forces and workers left six dead. In 1912, the IWW-led Lawrence " Bread and Roses"" textile strike was largely successful. It was credited with inventing the moving picket line, a tactic to avoid arrest for loitering. Also in 1912, National Guard forces were used against striking West Virginia coal miners. In July that year, striking Brotherhood of Timber Workers were confronted by armed Galloway Lumber Company thugs, resulting in four deaths and dozens wounded, the incident called the Grabow Riot. In 1913, New Orleans police shot three maritime workers, striking against the United Fruit Company. In 1916 at Everett,Washington, strikebreakers attacked and beat strikers. Police stood back without intervening, claiming the incident took place on federal land. On November 5 seven were shot and killed, 50 others wounded. In 1920, the Battle of Matewan resulted in nine deaths, later sparking an armed rebellion of 10,000 West Virginia coal miners at the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest insurrection since the Civil War against which army troops intervened. In 1922, during the Herrin, Illinois coal strike a massacre left 21 dead. In 1927, picketing coal miners were massacred in the company town of Serene, Colarado. During the 1937 Youngstown Steel strike hundreds of armed police fired on strikers trying to prevent scabs from entering factories. On May 30, things exploded when Chicago police joined them, opening fire on picketing strikers and their families, killing 10 and injuring hundreds.

Still, the tenacity of the workers gained them grudging acceptance for their unions and the lot of the workers was made a little easier. Unions were born from strikes. During the 1930s many workers engaged in strikes with the single demand that the company recognize their union. While there have been changes to the economy since this birth, the diametrically opposed interests between workers and corporate owners remain as intact as ever. As a result, strikes are an inevitable consequence of this basic economic structure. The union movement will not be able to survive without them regardless of all obstacles. Workers, simply as a function of their daily activities on the job, can do what no one else can -- stop production and the flow of profits that are the life-blood of the capitalist.


Today's Struggle

Many now consider the strike a relic from a by-gone era that cannot win in today's economic and political climate and they should be avoided even if it means accepting a concessionary contract. There are, of course, many tactics that unions could and should use short of strikes where employees assert their hands-on power over production such as most frequently, slowing it down by "working to rule" which can be a powerful way of asserting control and eroding the profit-margin. Nevertheless the strike is the most powerful weapons workers can employ. It brings operations to a halt, profits suddenly drop to zero, and money is actually lost as the inventory sits idle on loading docks or in warehouses while bills must still be paid. Employers are placed in a situation where they have strong incentives to quickly resolve the conflict, even though concessions are required of them, in order to get operations resuming.

Ultimately, the owner's profit is increased by getting the workers to produce more while paying them less. What hurts one class benefits the other and any appearance of common cause is fleeting and deceptive. Strikes are an inevitable and acute outcome of this situation. The goal of the employer is to maximize their profit by squeezing every last drop of labor their workforce can endure. Increasing profits is their sole preoccupation - the reason for their existence. The goal of workers is to maintain or improve their standard of living. While on strike, workers withhold their labor, the source of profit, in order to make the bosses wallet bleed. A strike that completely shuts down production across an industry has the greatest chance of success since, not only are profits reduced to zero, but the employer loses money. To win a strike, workers must be able to persevere beyond the corporate owners' ability to do without their labor and the profit it generates. This is why the tactic of the one-day strike, without preparation to continue for as long as it takes, is so counter-productive. Halfway measures by a union only encourage corporate owners to stonewall at the bargaining table. Employers can easily brush off such an effort with minimal damage to their ledger books. Rather than seeing it has a warning, they generally understand a one-day strike to be an admission of weakness on the part of a union. For the rank and file, a wave of demoralization usually sets in once they have made the exhausting effort to take such collective action but see no significant movement from their bosses at the bargaining table afterwards. If the union members have not been prepared to continue for as long as it takes, they will be compelled to settle for a contract that is far less than what they know to be fair. If a strike is prepared in a serious way well in advance, it is less likely that a strike will be necessary for the union to win a good contract.

In 1937 there were 4740 strikes where workers surged ahead in winning union recognition and wage and work-rule gains. In 2010 there were less than ten strikes. In 1949 2,537,000 workers either went out on strike or were locked out by their employers -- a record number that still holds. In 2010 this had diminished to 45,000. Solidarity can play a crucial role in winning strikes. In 1950 Democrat President Truman tried to smash a strike of 100,000 miners by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act (legislation that greatly restricted strikes). In protest, 270,000 additional miners joined the strike. Soon the mine owners backed down, and the miners won a substantial wage increase. When a union tactic is used successfully, it can spread rapidly. During the year prior to the 1936-7 UAW sit-down strike at GM in Flint, there were 48 sit-down strikes. In the year after the strike there were 477.

During these hard times politicians call for "shared sacrifice." It is a sham. During World War II, strikes were proscribed by law. And supposedly profits were to be restricted as well. But while the no-strike law was harshly enforced, corporate profits received preferential treatment. Accordingly, the profits of some 200 leading corporations during the war were five to ten times greater than during their peacetime years. Striking workers must be prepared to ignore injunctions and other legal restrictions if they want to prevail. In 1943, in order to smash the strike of thousands of miners, Roosevelt conducted a government take-over of the mines, and then ordered the miners to return to work. This tactic is simply a legal maneuver, aimed only at the workers, where they are compelled by law to obey the orders of the U.S. government. Profits continue to flow into the hands of the private owners. However, the miners held their ground and simply responded: "You can't dig coal with bayonets." They refused to return to work, and this intransigence led to their eventual victory. In 1937, in the United Auto Workers sit-down strike at GM's Chevrolet plant in Flint Michigan, the police tried to expel the workers from one of the plants, firing tear-gas into the building. The strikers responded with fire hoses and missiles in the form of door hinges, bottles, and stones and succeeded in repelling the attack.

Workers can prevail despite the greatest adversity by acting independently and relying on themselves and their community allies, not on the politicians or government agencies. During the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, the Farmer-Labor Party Governor Olsen declared martial law and called in the National Guard. The troops then allowed strikebreaking truckers to operate with protection. But when the striking Teamsters responded by defying an injunction forbidding their mobile pickets, the troops invaded the union's headquarters and arrested 100 union members. The Teamsters then organized a protest rally of 40,000. The protesters' outrage at the arrests was so great that the union members were released in a few days. Throughout their historic strike the Teamsters also relied heavily on an organization of the unemployed and the Women's Auxiliary.

When unions fail to fight for their members' interests, membership tends to wane. But when unions make substantial gains, the membership can soar. The famous 1936-7 successful United Auto Workers sit-down strike provides an instructive example. During the strike the membership count stood at 88,000. The following month after the strike it rose to 166,000; the next month it climbed to 254,000; and one month later it surged to 400,000. Everyone wanted to join a winning organization and share in the benefits. No struggle of any kind can be won on a purely defensive basis. Yet many labor unions seem content with continually fending off corporate attackers, taking steps backwards as they do so, since waging defensive campaigns uses precious union resources. Purely defensive campaigns imply weakness, since a powerful organization would choose to use its resources in a more empowering way. Concessionary bargaining is a prime example of unions not flexing their muscle, and sadly, it's become the new norm for many unions, which weaken themselves further with every new concession-filled contract. The union movement will not be able to grow significantly as long as it persists in concessionary bargaining. Who would want to join a union and pay dues if the results are progressively worse contracts?

Today, the incomes of working people are declining, those of the rich are skyrocketing, but governments are nevertheless aiming their fire at working people, demanding pension cuts, wage cuts, layoffs, and cuts to social security, public education, and social services. Now more than ever, organized labor needs to step up, reclaim its glories from its past, and mount a major campaign to oppose these attacks. The more that rank and file union members are inspired by these collective actions, the less willing will they be to accept reductions in their wages and benefits, which, over time, has led to a steady demoralization of the labor movement. The harder that union members fight to maintain or increase their wages and benefits, the more willing will unorganized workers be to join unions, since all workers become hopeful when they see other workers fighting for their rights.

The war against labor unions is a war against working people at large. Labor unions must re-connect with the non-unionised working class so they can see that the unions are fighting for their interests as well and will be inspired to join the struggle. Unions represent the human right to work with respect, to receive decent wages and benefits, and to organize with your co-workers to ensure this right is enforced. As millions of working people understand, a non-union work site typically means living with poor wages, poor or non-existent benefits, and zero job security. The boss can fire you because you complained about a workplace safety issue, etc. Unions empower workers to perform their jobs without fear of the boss. Unions have become the scapegoat for the recession in their attempts to funnel the rage that many working people feel against labor unions, shifting attention away from those who caused the recession and even benefited from it -- the banks and corporations -- to those who suffer from it -- workers, immigrants, and the poor. It is the classic syndrome of blaming the victim.

If workers are going to learn to think socially and act politically, this will require class independence. This means recognizing that there is no common cause between workers and business. Its independence must be built on the interests and organization of workers in direct opposition to those who exploit us and the politicians they fund. Because of this need to stand together and work for a common goal, unions generate their own culture. When they have successfully struggled together, camaraderie develops among the union members. They take care of one another, cover for each other, and form lifetime friendships in much the same way as soldiers who have endured battles together. For this reason, union struggles can change the entire political and cultural landscape. When workers decide to take a stand in order to break the cycle of growing inequalities in wealth, when they fight for a decent standard of living that includes a living wage, job security, health care, access to quality education, homeownership, and retirement with dignity, not just for themselves but for everyone, they inspire all working people and create the possibility of a massive social movement that has the potential to forge historic changes, as was done in the 1930s. People are inspired by movements that aim at creating a better world for everyone, where those who need help are given what they need, where people contribute according to their ability, and where no one advances at the expense of others. This more ennobled sense of humanity engenders inspiration in a way that money never can. And people are inspired when workers wage a real fight, as opposed to the current ever so prevalent practice of organizing fake fights that involve porous picket lines that no one takes seriously or demonstrations of several hundred workers when the workforce includes thousands. People shed their disconnected isolation, become engaged and talk with one another, become knowledgeable of the issues, and derive strength in their numbers. And massive numbers of people demonstrating for a common goal has proved time and again to be the prevailing factor. The revolutionary moment comes about when the conflict between social production and private/state ownership can no longer be satisfactorily resolved in the eyes of the proletariat.

When workers are locked in combat with their employer, through strike action, socialists as an organized group should assist their fellow workers in whatever way they can, such as writing articles and leaflets from the workers point of view, speaking on pertinent working class issues when invited to do so at union meetings; offering our facilities and resources to strike committees if it assists. We support, totally and utterly, unions in their efforts to stand up to their employer, a struggle we all share an interest in. We share, though, an even greater interest in getting rid of the wages system all together. Workers who struggle to maintain and better their conditions should be commended, but until the working class consciously and politically organise to end the wages system the same battles will have to be fought over and over again. It is true that the bitter experience of the class struggle may lead some of them to question the basis of capitalist society, but most workers' struggles are attempting to get the best from a bad situation, not to bring about world socialism.

Syndicalists propose that a general strike, involving the vast majority of the working class, can be sufficient to overthrow capitalism, and moreover has the advantage of doing so without a party leadership. But the history of general strikes teaches otherwise - both in that on their own they are insufficient to overthrow capitalism (for we have had many general strikes but still have capitalism) and in that trade unions do have political leadership in them and this leadership rarely possess a determined revolutionary aim and tends to sell out general strikes. So the demand for a general strike must also be accompanied by a political struggle against the ideas of the reformist trade union leadership. But history has shown that such a struggle does not emerge, and certainly does not succeed, in a purely automatic fashion. In a general strike some organised political grouping must raise the idea of the need to use the strike as a launch-pad to overthrow capitalism so that the working class can build socialism. Its task must be to win the struggle, to defeat the reformists by convincing the mass of the working class that its ideas are correct and necessary, in other words its task is to push the working class forward to take power and overthrow capitalism. Socialists require to defeat the reformists by convincing the mass of the working class that its ideas are correct and necessary. The stateless and classless society of socialism emerges not only out of some theoretical insight into the inherent laws of capitalist society, but more importantly out of the practical experience of the working class.

Capitalism is an economic system that is run by the rich at the expense of the working class. The class struggle continues to play a central role in the process of capitalist accumulation. Certain economic laws govern the capitalist system. A knowledge of those laws furnish the workers with the requisite knowledge to fight effectively. It is not enough to know how to strike, but it is necessary to know when. While there are variations of a strike, such as sit down occupations, and many tactics that need to be employed to strengthen a potential strike, there is no substitute. Strong unions are our best hope inside capitalism but it is only with the abolition of capitalism that all workers will be liberated from wage-slavery. Socialists don't want to kow-tow to the rich that make the rules. Socialism is a bottom-up approach to economics. Socialism can work. The rich will try anything to stop it. If it means social turmoil, so be it. They may have the money but we have the numbers. If you want something to work for rather than against, if you want socialism, then join the socialists.


This was originally published at Socialism or Your Money Back , the Socialist Party of Great Britain's official blog.