Resolution of the L5I International Executive Committee, Summer 2009.
Classical Marxism and the trade unions
1. Marxism’s view of the role and nature of trade unions flows from its analysis of the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production itself. Workers can only acquire the necessities of life by selling their labour power. The value of labour power, like that of any other commodity, is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time needed to create it. But labour power is a unique commodity in that it is inseparable from a living human being. Wages, the price of labour power, represent the cost of all the other commodities necessary to reproduce the worker’s ability to work. In addition wages must cover not only each worker’s own subsistence but the reproduction of the labour force from one generation to another i.e., the birth, nurture and education of children. All these costs represent not only the physical ones, food, shelter, clothing, but also cultural and psychological, i.e. (recreation, relaxation etc), in short everything that is needed to keep up the morale and the skills of the worker, enabling him/her to work at the required intensity and quality. Thus subsistence means not simply an abstract, timeless biological minimum: it has an important “moral element” which varies widely over time and place.
2. Marx further observed that the formal legal equality which exists between the capitalist and individual worker is entirely bogus, concealing as it does capital’s monopoly of the large scale means of production and therefore, of means of subsistence too. The owner of the means of production—the buyer of labour power—constantly seeks to cheapen its cost, depressing it to, or below, its value. The seller of labour power is obliged to act in the opposite direction. Shortages of labour power, particularly of skilled labour power, result in the capitalist raising wages to attract it. The capitalist class therefore constantly attempts to cheapen it by creating not merely a sufficient supply but over supply, by maintaining a reserve army of labour, by reducing the costs of training labour, by importing “cheap labour” from regions or countries where the costs of the reproduction of labour power are historically lower, and by replacing workers by machinery. Only a real or artificial shortage of labour power counteracts this tendency. Therefore labour must seek continuously to counteract the efforts of the capitalist to reduce the price of labour power.
3. However Capital is a mighty and compact social force against which the isolated single worker is almost powerless. The working class, an objectively necessary class of the capitalist system, is compelled by the circumstances of its existence to organise its numbers into a collective force to resist the social strength of capital. This “combination” of labour against capital, this struggle over wages, is the core of the economic struggle of the proletariat. But capital and labour face one another within the coercive framework of the state which, whatever its pretensions to represent the general interest, acts to defend capitalist property and to ensure the continuation of exploitation.
4. Workers’ combinations were at first outlawed by the capitalist state. The Le Chapelier law in France was passed by the National Assembly in June 1791 and not repealed till May 1864. The Combination Acts in Britain were passed by Parliament in 1799-1800 (and repealed in 1824). The entire nineteenth century and a considerable part of the twentieth were occupied by workers’ struggles for wages, jobs and conditions in conditions of illegality. Such struggles, at first directed against the introduction of new machinery, often became insurrectionary (the British Luddites 1811-12, the Lyons silkweavers 1830, the Silesian weavers 1840). The conquest of legality within the capitalist state was, and still is, a vital condition for the establishment of permanent organs of economic struggle – for trade unions. The legal right to combine and to take strike action has always been contested by the employers, their judiciary and politicians. The enactment of anti-union and anti-strike laws and workers’ attempts to break or reverse them are a permanent feature of capitalist society.
5. Engels coined the phrase which communists have ever since applied to the unions, that they are “schools of war” and that economic strikes are “the military schools of the working men.” Trade unions then, represent the first direct attempt by workers to negate the attacks of capital on their most immediate interests. Their essence, combination and solidarity, is the beginning of class consciousness. Nonetheless they represent only a first, partial and one-sided attempt to negate the tendency of capital to impoverish and atomise the working class. They can never achieve the end of capitalist exploitation as such.
6. A dialectical understanding of the nature of trade unionism is necessary to appreciate the strengths and limitations of trade unions and their necessary course of development. This was expressed clearly by Marx in Value, Price and Profit: “Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effect of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised force as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” In addition to immediate tasks, the preservation and improvement of the material and cultural level of the proletariat, there is also the aspect that Engels described as “a school of socialism”. Marx pointed out, more fully hitherto, the dialectic of trade union development. These organisations developed as a spontaneous response to the despotic inroads of capital, became “centres of organisation” of the workers, helping to constitute them as a class. Marx likens their activities to the role the medieval town corporations played for the early bourgeoisie – the burghers – in providing a centre for the development of themselves as a class.
7. However, he points out that they play this role “unconsciously to themselves”. Marx and Engels certainly regarded trade unions as a first vital step for the working class in becoming not merely a class in itself but a class for itself—conscious of its needs and aims. But they represented for them only the first, i.e. embryonic or potential, step towards class consciousness, not the achievement or embodiment of full class consciousness itself. This view was Marx’s quite as much as it was Lenin’s, expressed so forcefully in What Is To Be Done? – the limits of the “spontaneous” economic struggle, of “trade unionism pure and simple” and consequently the inability of both to attain full and clear class consciousness. It remains a scandal and an offence to all reformists and centrists. Rosa Luxemburg was also simply restating the position of Marx and Engels on the essential but limited effectiveness of trade union action when she wrote in Reform and Revolution. “The objective conditions of capitalist society transform the economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus, which is, nevertheless, indispensable.”
8. Likewise, Lenin’s pre-1905 polemic with the Russian Economists stood to a large extent as a restatement of Marx’s position on the limits of trade unions. It is absolutely erroneous to regard Lenin’s pre-1905 writings as “original” or in contradiction to a supposedly more positive or “optimistic” views of the founders of scientific socialism with regard to working class consciousness. Lenin, arguing against the Economists, stressed the integrationist tendencies in unions where the Marxists abandoned any attempt to give their struggle a “Social Democratic character”. “Pure and simple trade unionism” (nur Gewerkschaftlerei in German, literally “only trade unionism”) not won to Marxist politics might be nominally “apolitical” or “neutral” but would inevitably adopt bourgeois politics. The experience of British and American trade unionism in the nineteenth century confirmed Lenin’s view that “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.” (What Is To Be Done?) ‘Exclusively by its own effort’ here means “without the intervention of Social Democrats”, i.e. Marxists who have become an organic part of the workers’ movement. It emphatically does not mean that the workers have to be led by a caste or organisations of “bourgeois intellectuals”. Lenin (following the then orthodox Karl Kautsky) does however (a) recognise that the historic origins of scientific socialism must be credited to two intellectuals from the bourgeois class who deserted their class and devoted their lives to the emancipation of the working class, to creating a political and a revolutionary labour movement and that (b) Social Democracy does not restrict itself to members who are actually or presently workers, though as a mass formation it must be in its great majority so, but also draws in members of other classes willing to adopt the class standpoint of the proletariat and devote their lives with no privileges to its cause.
9. There is no contradiction between this position and Lenin’s later position in 1905, in On the Reorganisation of the Party, where he states of the situation then obtaining in Russia (a revolutionary situation): “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic: and more than ten years of work put in by Social Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.” Lenin’s criticisms of the Economists is precisely that in their passive tailing of the elemental economic struggle in times of slow and organic growth of the unions, of fragmented economic struggles, they are prone to fall behind the working class when great events (state repression, wars, crises, revolutions etc.) spur the objectively revolutionary class to spontaneously revolutionary actions. The point is that the masses in such circumstances need to find a prepared vanguard of fighters in their midst who with them can develop a strategy and tactics for turning spontaneously revolutionary situations or upheavals into a conscious seizure of power. When they have not, disaster often ensues, for the ruling class does have a vanguard ready to thwart and crush the workers – its political parties and its state machine.
10. Trotsky in the Transitional Programme points out that:
(a) Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary program; in consequence, they cannot replace the party.
(b) Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labour movement. During such moments it is necessary to create organisations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees and, finally, soviets.
(c) As organisations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless. This is already occurring during the period of simple strikes, especially in the case of the mass sitdown strikes, which shake the principle of bourgeois property. In time of war or revolution, when the bourgeoisie is plunged into exceptional difficulties, trade union leaders usually become bourgeois ministers.
11. On the basis of this understanding of their vital, but limited, nature, Marxists have developed a strategy and tactics for work in the trade unions. As long as Marxists remained faithful to the revolutionary core of this approach their participation in the trade unions has been very fruitful for the unions themselves as well as for the development of the political class movement of the proletariat nationally and internationally.
A revolutionary strategy for the trade unions
12. Revolutionaries do not fetishise the trade unions or counterpose them to democratic rank and file organisations in the workplaces or in working class communities, which tend to arise in the course of struggles. Indeed, such forms of organisation are, from the point of view of the revolutionary struggle, superior to the unions because they are more all-embracing and directly responsible to the masses they represent. However, in numerous countries mass legal unions exist, forming durable organisations, encompassing wide layers of the working class, often including the most militant vanguard. In the light of this, it remains the case that work in the unions and in the workplaces from which they arise, is of pivotal importance to the revolutionary vanguard. A party, without elevating the unions to the level of being a panacea for all the problems confronting the working class, must have a central orientation to the unions, seeking to spread communist ideas within them and win them to class struggle against the capitalist system itself. To be successful in achieving these goals a clear understanding of the nature of the trade unions under capitalism is necessary, as is an action programme, focused towards particular national circumstances, for the revolutionary transformation of the unions.
13. The trade union struggle itself is a struggle within capitalism. Trade unions reflect this through a policy of accommodation to capitalism. Trade union consciousness is, therefore, bourgeois consciousness in that it accepts as given the wages system, a system based upon capitalist exploitation. Trade union organisations, however, because they organise rank and file workers have a profoundly contradictory character. Where they exist as real organisations of masses of workers they are the elementary organisations of defence, formed by the working class, against the ravages of the capitalist system. Their essential features are collectivist combinations of workers, solidarity between workers, collective bargaining and so on. Insofar as these features are carried over into class struggle action, in defence of the working class, they reveal the progressive and potentially revolutionary aspect of trade unionism.
14. However, this potential is constantly thwarted by the fact that the struggle waged by the unions, in and of itself, is a struggle for a share of the profits created by capitalism – through higher wages, better conditions and even through openly class collaborationist profit sharing schemes. It is from this basic acceptance of capitalism and the wage system – summed up in the old slogan of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” – that all of the negative, self-limiting aspects of present day trade unionism (that is, reformist trade unionism) flow. Sectionalism, inter-union conflict, incorporation into the companies and the state, a rejection of class politics, the subordination of the unions’ interests to that of the (bourgeois) nation thus strengthening nationalism at the expense of international solidarity, are all products of trade unionism’s inbuilt tendency to confine itself to fighting the effects of the capitalist system rather than fighting the system itself.
15. This contradiction, between elementary class struggle, and, therefore, embryonic class consciousness and the limitation of that consciousness to a trade union (and therefore bourgeois) level expressed, in class collaboration – is reflected in the structure of the unions themselves. On the one hand, stand the rank and file, propelled into class struggle for the improvement of their lot or, in some cases, for securing the very means of survival. This rank and file is often propelled to go beyond the limits of the trade union structure, establishing strike committees, workplace committees, rank and file action bodies. On the other hand, however there exists a caste of permanent full-time officials, the trade union bureaucracy. These officials at first emerged out of the ranks of the most privileged and skilled layers of the working class, those paying higher subscriptions and thus able to employ a larger number of permanent employees. Today these officials are also often paid by the state as in France or by the companies as the Betriebsräte in Germany. These in turn secured for themselves an “independent” position as arbiter between their members and the bosses, extracting, as the price for their services, material privileges that placed them in a social position superior to, and indeed at odds with, that of the workers they represent. This bureaucratic caste acts to frustrate and limit the self-activity of the rank and file, channelling their initiatives into safer and more moderate forms that the union leaders can control.
16. The extent to which this bureaucratic caste develops depends, to a large extent, on the wealth of the country it inhabits. It is larger and richer in the imperialist heartlands, as is the labour aristocracy on which it is based. In Britain it has had the longest and most undisturbed relationship to British imperialism, supporting for over a century the British Empire, supporting it in two world wars and countless minor colonial wars and imperialist attacks and expeditions. In the General Strike of 1926, Trotsky correctly described its role thus: “The General Council is not composed of starving and backward strike breakers; no, they are well-fed and experienced traitors, who found it necessary at a given moment to stand at the head of the general strike in order to decapitate it all the more quickly and surely.” In The Errors in Principle of Syndicalism (October 1929) Trotsky drew the conclusion: “The Marxist will say to the English workers: ‘The trade union bureaucracy is the chief instrument, for your oppression by the bourgeois state. Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.”(Ibid.) Where the trade union movement has been legalised and allowed a durable existence in semi-colonial countries the politics of class collaboration which flow from pure trade unionism facilitate the use by imperialist capital and the semicolonial bourgeoisie of a smaller labour aristocracy and bureaucracy as a base of support for capitalism itself. Only where trade unions are completely illegal and face vicious repression is it meaningless to talk about an actual bureaucratic caste. Wherever it does exist though, the bureaucratic caste is an agent of the bourgeoisie, trade union reformists, within the working class. Only the degree of its success as a bourgeois agent differs from country to country.
17. The contradictory nature of the trade unions has been accentuated, not mitigated, by the imperialist epoch. The new period of crisis has, everywhere, sharpened this contradiction yet further. The capitalists have, everywhere, intensified their attacks on the working class to force them to bear the costs of economic decline, to massively increase their level of exploitation. Time and again the rank and file have shown a willingness to fight. In each case a reformist bureaucracy – even when it is only just in the process of crystallising as with the South African black miners in the 1980s, has sold short or betrayed these struggles. Their aim has been to prove their own usefulness to capitalism as gendarmes over the rank and file on behalf of the capitalists. This conflict demonstrates with the utmost clarity the choices facing the unions – either to play a role on behalf of capitalism as an agency for subordinating and disciplining the workers, or to become revolutionary instruments in the general class struggle to overthrow capitalism. The bureaucracy worldwide strives to win the unions to the former perspective. Revolutionary Trotskyists, taking as the point of departure the inevitability of the class struggle and the preparedness of the rank and file to fight, strive for the revolutionary transformation of the unions through the overthrow of the chief agents of the bourgeoisie in their midst, the reformist bureaucracy itself.
18. During periods of boom and under certain political conditions (for example, the existence of social-democratic governments which have organic links with the unions) the reformist bureaucracy can seem all-powerful. It polices the unions not merely by orchestrating betrayals but by ruthlessly suppressing all elements of rank and file democracy. Revolutionaries and militants are expelled. Life in the branches and regions is choked by bureaucratic routine, by petty rules and by blatant manipulation. Officials, arrogant and bloated with a sense of their own importance, are unaccountable to the workers they misrepresent. Often the higher levels of the bureaucracy are drawn into the machinery of the capitalist state.
19. However, the bureaucrats remain representatives of working class organisations. As these organisations themselves are attacked by capitalists seeking to avoid the costs of the economic crisis their system has generated, the room for manoeuvre of the bureaucracy is increasingly reduced. They are unceremoniously expelled from the corridors of power, they are snubbed by the employers they seek to appease, they are put under pressure from members who want to fight. All of these developments threaten their power and source of income and tarnish their “bureaucratic magnificence”. They themselves are obliged to make a definitive choice. A few will take their organisations right to the end of the road of class collaboration, turning their organisations in outright scab outfits or into state sponsored labour associations. The greater number will vacillate, under pressure from the bosses and the state from above and their mass membership from below. It is not inconceivable that leftist elements will embrace elements of a class struggle programme. Whatever course they take under conditions of crisis the revolutionary vanguard must utilise the turmoil engendered in the unions to advance towards the strategic aim of dissolving the bureaucracy altogether.
20. Any and every period of crisis requires the unions to be put on a war footing if they are to play a progressive role. Routinism, narrow economism, craftist attitudes (excluding the unskilled, the younger or women workers, foreigners etc) and class collaborationism must be purged from the unions. Unions have to be either radically renewed or, in many countries, new unions built, founded on class struggle policies and run on the basis of workers’ democracy. The key issue however is never to leave behind the masses in large scale bureaucratic unions to create small and often ineffective unions, under the pretext that these are “more revolutionary” (red unions). The fight for the organisation of the working class starts with the recognition that unity in action against the bosses is higher than the organisational form adopted. Whether the masses build local or national unions, or rank and file structures (such as occurs in France and Italy) communists argue for 100 per cent trade unionism, not in the sense that workers should automatically leave their militant organisations and join bureaucratised federations, but that permanent organisations embracing all workers and excluding all hardened scabs be established in every workplace. All workplacebased organisations must take up a position of struggle against the reactionary leadership of the union federations of their country whether or not the appropriate tactic is the joining of those federations. As the experience of spontaneous workplace-based movements shows there is a danger that these movements do not effectively challenge the union bureaucracy. All too often these disappear after the struggle (e.g. the movement of the French hospital workers at the end of the 1980s) or a radical vanguard of trade unionists becomes isolated from the more powerful forces of the main federations (e.g. COBAS in Italy). A revolutionary intervention into the unions is necessary in order to realise the radical potential of these movements and use them against the bureaucracy and direct them towards the mass of unionists.
21. In all but a few countries, the majority of the working class are unorganised. In the USA, the bastion of world imperialism, only one-fifth of the industrial workforce is unionised and less than 15 per cent of the whole working class. In Britain, the birthplace of trade unionism, less than 50 per cent belong to unions. In the semi-colonial, countries millions are prevented, by repression, from joining the unions. Millions more amongst the world’s unemployed have been abandoned by the unions and left prey to the reactionary ideas of fascism, populism or religious obscurantism. Every worker who is unorganised is both a victim of intensified exploitation and a potential strike breaker. To defeat both of these evils revolutionaries must take the lead in organising the unorganised. Unionisation drives in open-shop areas such as the southern states of the USA, the organisation of the unemployed into their own organisations and into the unions themselves, massive recruitment drives funded by central union offices must be undertaken. This way all of the downtrodden masses, whose entry into the unions the bureaucratic representatives of the privileged layers fear, can be mobilised as a powerful force to defeat the reformist leaders.
22. Where brutal repression has illegalised trade unionism, the democratic demand must be consistently raised for their existence. Communists seek to build illegal associations of the workers in every workplace even while taking advantage of every legal opening available. Other demands include the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the right to assembly and to publish political and critical papers and leaflets. Organisations built up from the base, from the workplace itself, should be imprinted from the outset with the spirit of proletarian democracy and class struggle. Against all measures of de-unionisation taken by the bosses the demand is for the right for all workers employed by the capitalists and their state to join or form unions and engage in strike action. In many countries unions exist in different federations, often in acute factional conflict with each other. France, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Chile and Brazil are all examples of countries where rival federations have been built on the basis of differing political affiliations, on the basis of religion or on the basis of bureaucratic competition pure and simple. In some countries political parties have formed their own, party trade unions, excluding workers who support different parties. These divisions are negative not because the unions should be above politics. On the contrary, the unions must be won to revolutionary politics. They are negative because they tend to undermine the fighting unity of the whole class. Revolutionaries have, as their strategic goal, the breaking down of such barriers to working class unity and to the carrying into life of the principles of solidarity. There should be one union federation in every country, as part of a militant international federation of unions on a world scale.
23. However, unity achieved at the expense of class struggle and workers’ democracy is not a real advance. The fusion of the AFL and the CIO in the USA demonstrated the way in which bureaucratic unity can choke real fighting unity inside and across the unions. To achieve unity on a progressive basis, it is crucial to fight for rank and file unity in struggle across federations through strike committees, joint union committees and factory committees embracing all workers in an enterprise, regardless of union affiliation. Unity of the federations is not a precondition for rank and file unity. There must be full freedom for politically affiliated workers (except fascists and organised racists, who, as enemies of the working class must be driven out of all of the workers’ organisations) to organise tendencies within the unions and for such tendencies to be represented according to their support within the structures of a federation. There should be no privileges accorded to any section of the bureaucracy. Communists fight against the formation of racially or sexually segregated unions, which pander to the worst prejudices engendered by capitalist society.
24. The fight for a militant international federation is vital in breaking reformist led unions from their craven submission to their imperialist paymasters (a submission institutionalised by the pernicious role of the CIA in the International Labour Organisation) and in breaking the trade unions in many semi-colonies, especially in Latin America, from bourgeois or petit bourgeois nationalism. The international federation will be a bastion of international solidarity, pitted squarely against the multinationals whose exploitation recognises no national boundaries. The unions must also be resolutely anti-imperialist if they are to take their place supporting those who fight against the imperialist oppressors in the semi-colonies and to solidarise with such battles in the imperialist heartlands. As steps toward this militant international federation, rank and file international combines should be built, along with continental federations and for direct action across countries and transnational corporations to prevent international scabbing.
25. The struggle for the unity of federations in particular countries should not be wilfully misused by either the reformist bureaucracy, who seek to destroy the militant and revolutionary wing, or where certain unions become transformed into openly scab organisations (British Union of Democratic Mineworkers and EETPU, pro-racist trade unions in South Africa, Histadrut in Israel, etc). In such instances communists must not flinch from a split with reactionary unions, making clear to the workers in their ranks that the responsibility for such splits lies with their treacherous leaders, not with the progressive forces. Such a policy has nothing in common with adventurist dual-unionism, which seeks to build pure, ‘revolutionary’ unions (i.e. substitute party bodies) rather than organise broad layers of workers on a class struggle basis. However, in fascist countries or countries under a military dictatorship where only company unions or fascist controlled unions are allowed, communists may have to work in them in order to subvert them from within. In this situation flexible tactics would be used to help stimulate struggle both inside and out of the control of the reactionary union.
26. Trade unions tend to organise workers on the basis of their skill or trade. As such they are inherently sectional and craftist. Even where they organise on a general basis this sectionalism manifests itself and undermines the solidarity of the working class. Craft unions, of which the old AFL was an example par excellence – have an inbuilt tendency to organise only the aristocratic layers, excluding women, youth and the racially oppressed. They are the most pronounced expression of trade unionism’s tendency to accommodate to capitalism. General unions, that is, unions that embrace the workers of many different industries, are blunt instruments. Instead of achieving industry-wide unity, they become arenas for sectional struggle between the workers of different industries. The development of modern industry calls for the building of real industrial unions. To this end the strategy in every country is to fight for one union for one industry. Against a united management, a workforce divided along craft lines is enormously weakened. Sections can be bought off and played off against each other. Officially sanctioned strikebreaking is the result of such disunity.
27. Industrial unions can counteract these negative aspects of trade unionism. At their most dynamic, they can organise decisive struggles against the bosses and advance the progress of the working class by giant steps. The struggles of the CIO in the USA in the 1930s, of the Sanbetsu (Council of Industrial Unions) in Japan between 1945 and 1947 and of the British and South African miners the 1980s reveal the potential strength of industrial unions. The repression suffered by all of these unions, followed by the bosses’ attempts to weaken and incorporate them, shows the fear that industrial unions can inspire amongst the capitalists who base their rule on their ability to divide the enemy. A positive policy is needed to open up such unions to the most downtrodden through active campaigns to open up the unions to women, youth, and the racially and sexually oppressed.
28. As with trade union unity, industrial unionism is, for us, a means to the revolutionary end. Without a class struggle perspective an industrial union will fall prey to the same dangers as a craft union; sectionalism, bureaucratisation and class collaboration. The actual existence of industrial unions in many countries in Europe (West Germany for example) shows that this incorporation yields important results, in terms of class collaboration, for the bourgeoisie. In concrete circumstance, a craft union can stand ahead of an industrial union in terms of militancy (e.g. Britain’s railway unions in the early 1920s). For this reason it is wrong to counterpose the need for industrial unions to a craft union that is fighting. Rather it is necessary to fight for class struggle industrial unionism within the existing organisations of the working class however they are presently constituted.
29. Through the reformist bureaucracy the bourgeoisie have relentlessly peddled the idea that the unions must be politically neutral. Their concern is purely with “bread and butter” economic matters. Politics must be left to the political professionals. This reactionary slogan of neutrality is given a fake-left veneer by leftreformists, anarchists and syndicalists who – in the name of keeping party politics out of the unions – seek to capture the unions and, covertly, use them for their own political purposes. All too often the slogan of neutrality is used by the bureaucracy and by assorted syndicalists and left-reformists, to prevent the spread of communist ideas and even to hound the communists out of the unions altogether. Of course no trade union can become the party or replace the need for the party. The union is an organisation embracing wide layers of workers. The party is an organisation of self-selected cadres united by a common programme. Industrial Unionists and Syndicalists who either equate the union with the party or else say that unions are substitutes for parties are wrong. However, the party does not shrink from the necessary struggle to win the unions to support for the communist programme.
30. Pure and simple trade unionism, in the sense of confining the unions to economic issues alone is a means of tying the unions to the bourgeoisie. Whether it is peddled by economists who see the economic struggle as spontaneously carrying over into political struggle, or by anti-political syndicalists and anarchists, who regard unions as ends in themselves, it is at best self-defeating, at worst reactionary. Revolutionary Marxists, who take the class struggle as their point of departure, reject the idea that unions can be neutral. In class society there can be no neutrality. Politics is concentrated economics and the class struggle itself must be waged as a political struggle to reshape the society that engenders it. To this end, while fighting to preserve unions as broad-based organisations of workers regardless of political affiliation, communists fight for their revolutionary transformation. The task is to win workers to an action programmes that meets the burning needs of the masses and mobilise them for a revolutionary offensive against capitalism itself.
31. “Neutrality” of the unions has led to the banning of political tendencies and factions within the union movement and on the factory level by the bureaucracy in countries like Germany. In order to prohibit the work of oppositionists within the union and the work places, they have even introduced bans on individual members of “communist” organisations (Unvereinbarkeitsbeschlüsse) and the expulsion of such leftists. Despite the official hypocrisy whereby the union leaders in reality promote the politics of their reformism whilst persecuting and expelling revolutionaries or, as in Austria, the de facto restriction of politics to the existing Social Democratic, Stalinist and Christian Democratic factions, the struggle against all these restrictions on internal democracy has to be fought tenaciously. It is important to also fight all those left and (semi-)syndicalist tendencies who want to restrict the right to organise against the bureaucracy only to “independent” (i.e. non-party) trade-unionists. In reality, such syndicalist prejudices only aid the dominating reformist bureaucrats, who will always use the formal nonexistence of political factions as a cover for their very real factional interest.
32. While the bosses and bureaucrats preach neutrality in the interests of defeating revolutionary communism, they are not slow in undermining the class independence of the unions themselves. In the imperialist epoch, they attempt everywhere to tie unions to the capitalist state or to a capitalist enterprise. They try to transform the unions into agencies for disciplining the working class. The form of integration differs according to circumstance. In certain semi-colonies, bonapartist regimes obliged to base themselves on the working class have, at one time or another, literally statised the unions (Mexico, Argentina). The small size of national capital relative to imperialist capital and the weakness of the national bourgeosie vis-à-vis the “great powers”, which act as its police force in combination with threats posed from below by the working class and the poor peasantry, lead it to seek support from the oppressed and exploited classes from the labour bureaucracy. In Mexico in the 1930s and in various countries since, the trade union bureaucracy was drawn into management of state capitalist enterprises. Trotsky analysed this: “The nationalization of railways and oil fields in Mexico has of course nothing in common with socialism. It is a measure of state capitalism in a backward country which in this way seeks to defend itself on the one hand against foreign imperialism and on the other against its own proletariat. The management of railways, oil fields, etcetera, through labour organizations has nothing in common with workers’ control over industry, for in the essence of the matter the management is effected through the labour bureaucracy which is independent of the workers, but in return, completely dependent on the bourgeois state. This measure on the part of the ruling class pursues the aim of disciplining the working class, making it more industrious in the service of the common interests of the state, which appear on the surface to merge with the interests of the working class itself. As a matter of fact, the whole task of the bourgeoisie consists in liquidating the trade unions as organs of the class struggle and substituting in their place the trade union bureaucracy as the organ of the leadership over the workers by the bourgeois state. In these conditions, the task of the revolutionary vanguard is to conduct a struggle for the complete independence of the trade unions and for the introduction of actual workers’ control over the present union bureaucracy, which has been turned into the administration of railways, oil enterprises and so on.” (Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay – 1940)
33. In Germany, after the Second World War integration took place by introducing a dualism between the general economic defense organisations of the class, the unions, and the representation of the workers in the enterprises, the Betriebsräte (workplace councils). That means that the union’s presence in the workplaces is legally restricted and its right to take industrial action limited, whilst on the other hand the Betriebsräte are bound to the ‘interest of the whole enterprise’ by law. In Japan, and many other countries in East and Southeast Asia, incorporation has taken place through “enterprise unions” which tie the workers to the individual firm. As the experience of South Korea in particular shows, it can and will often be necessary and useful for revolutionaries to work inside such business unions and to try to break workers away from them. In South Korea, the independent trade union movement recruits more and more such unions. In other imperialist countries the unions have, alternately, either been directly incorporated into the lower echelons of the state machine, or subjected to anti-union laws which allow the state, through the courts, to control the actions of the unions.
34. In Europe in the 1970s, two severe cyclical crises and a wave of bankruptcies from car firms and shipbuilders, to watchmakers, led to sit-ins, work-ins and attempts to incorporate them by the “workers cooperative” movement. Whether or not incorporation manifests itself in a leftist guise (worker-participation, co-management of state capitalist enterprises, union representation on joint committees with the bosses and state etc.) or in its overt reactionary form (state-run labour associations, anti-union legislation, enterprise unions) revolutionaries fight for the complete independence of unions from the state, all of its agencies and from the capitalist enterprise. All worker-participation schemes, profit sharing schemes, joint organisations with the bosses and state interference into the affairs of the unions must be opposed. Where the mass of the working class remain inside unions that are run by the state or by bourgeois parties communists work within them but ceaselessly fight for their class independence. Trotsky summed this up in Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay thus:
“The primary slogan for this struggle is: complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state. This means a struggle to turn the trade unions into the organs of the broad exploited masses and not the organs of a labour aristocracy. The second slogan is: trade union democracy. This second slogan flows directly from the first and presupposes for its realization the complete freedom of the trade unions from the imperialist or colonial state. In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”
35. Trotsky was writing in a period of historic capitalist crisis, indeed breakdown. In the imperialist countries in the post-war years however, the labour aristocracy expanded to massive proportions in the imperialist heartlands. This gave the trade union bureaucracy once more the possibility of exercising a durable and relatively stable rule over the unions. Even in the semi-colonies the national bourgeoisie and imperialism have worked hard to ensure that where unions are legal a bureaucracy has been cultivated. The durability of the officialdom of the COB in Bolivia, the emergence of a bureaucratic leadership in the unions of India and Sri Lanka, the bureaucratic stranglehold of the leadership of the Peronists in the unions in Argentina are all examples of this. Trade union reformism will always give rise to a bureaucratic caste, an arbiter in the negotiations for a slice of the profits, albeit varying in size and the extent of privilege and power. From this position it will always act as a guardian of the interests of capital as against revolutionaries and indeed ordinary rank and file militants trying to democratise the unions.
36. On the other hand, the mass of rank and file workers, who in normal times tolerate this misleadership, are thrown into conflict with it when the logic of the class struggle leaves them with no option but to fight. To this end, they will rebel against the bureaucracy by setting up their own spontaneous rank and file bodies; strike committees, shop committees, pickets and so on. Thus, despite the existence in many countries of left-reformist elements within the bureaucracy the principal division, the class line inside the unions, is between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. The unions must be transformed by breaking the power of the bureaucratic caste, ousting it from power and dissolving it altogether. Its very existence is incompatible with real class struggle unions. The fight then is for real workers’ democracy; democratic mass meetings; union conferences of democratically elected lay delegates to decide policy; officials subject to regular election, recallability and paid the average wage of the workers they represent; democratic structures of the unions replicated in national and international federations. Only such democracy can achieve rank and file control of the unions.
37. The bureaucracy will not give up its power, the source of its privilege and its status within bourgeois society, without a fight. It will suppress democracy, stifle rank and file initiative, rig elections and witch-hunt militants and revolutionaries. If the rank and file confine their struggle against the bureaucracy only to instances where they are on strike then they will not defeat it. The aftermath of a sell-out and defeat is, all too often, the demoralisation of the class fighters, the destruction of their spontaneous organisations and the continuation of routinist life as before. To counter this, to organise a life and death fight against the bureaucracy, to transform the unions into instruments of revolutionary class struggle the primary objective is to make the rank and file militants, at the outset inevitably a minority, into an organised force. Anti-bureaucratic rank and file movements within and across the unions must be built. While the tactical application of this slogan will vary from country to country, its essence – the organisation and mobilisation of the rank and file against the bureaucracy – is, everywhere that a bureaucratic caste exists, the same. For this rank and file movement it is not possible to stipulate in advance, and for all circumstances, a fixed platform of demands but revolutionaries do propose a revolutionary transitional action programme because such a movement is an instrument for winning leadership of the unions. When in a minority, communists would not break the united front as long as the rank and file movement really fights the trade union bureaucracy and pursues a militant policy.
38. The revolutionary party must fight for its own programme, for the transformation of the trade unions into instruments of the revolution (alongside factory councils, soviets, workers’ militia). By contrast, a rank and file movement has the character of a united front even where the revolutionary party is a major influence. Accordingly, the specific action programme of such a movement will depend on the development of the consciousness of the most militant sectors of the masses, the political character of their present leadership and the independent strength of the revolutionary vanguard. This programme should link the most urgent tasks of the day, the important tactical and strategic tasks of trade union militants, with the fundamental need of fighting the roots of exploitation and overcoming capitalism. The aim of the party is to win the militant rank and file for its programme even if, on the road to this, it will undoubtedly have to accept more limited platforms of immediate action and even put them forward itself. The party’s trade union policy must never become identical with the actions of a united front. The united front must never become confused with the party’s trade union fractions. These are made up of party members and all those who accept the party’s entire programme for the trade unions and act under its discipline.
39. Of course the rank and file movement is not and cannot be a simple movement for democracy in and of itself. Rank and file democracy must serve a definite purpose – the more effective prosecution of the class struggle. Over every economic and political issue the working class must advance its own distinctive answers. It must fight for those answers with the methods of class struggle. In the unions world-wide, this means embracing a perspective of direct action. All of the gains made by the working class have been the result of their preparedness to engage in direct action, militant protest, strike action, the factory occupation, the picket-line, and, to repel class wide attacks and advance towards the socialist revolution, the general strike. The decisive weapon of the bosses remains direct action, the wage cut, the speed-up, repression, the use of strike breakers, and the lock-out. Fire must be met with fire.
40. In conclusion, the programme for the trade unions is for their revolutionary transformation. This cannot be achieved by waiting for workers to spontaneously embrace the revolutionary programme. It must be fought for every minute of every day inside every union. Who is to do this? How is communist consciousness to be spread throughout the base of the unions? As in all spheres of struggle the party is decisive. In the unions, communists strive to build communist cells and communist fractions under the direct discipline of the party. The communist cells are the nucleus of the future leadership of the revolutionised trade union. Without them, all struggles will achieve, at best, transitory gains. With them the rank and file movement will find leadership and a sense of purpose and direction. In no way can a rank and file movement, however militant, substitute for the party organisation inside the unions, for its leadership, achieved in struggle, of the world trade union movement.
41.The central importance of the unions throughout the world should not be underestimated. Nevertheless the transitional epoch is characterised by uneven and combined development. This law applies as much to working class organisation as it does to the world economy and political situation. In revolutionary crises a working class without strong traditions of union organisation can leap to a form of struggle and organisation well in advance of trade unionism. In Iran, in 1979, a working class prevented by repression from creating unions organised its struggle against the Shah by forming factory based workers’ councils (shoras) which were, in essence, embryonic soviets. In Bolivia, in 1952, the trade union federation itself was forced, by mass pressure, to transform itself into an elementary form of soviet organisation. On the basis of such experiences revolutionaries recognise the danger of trade union fetishism. It is wrong to counterpose unions to the ad-hoc forms of organisation thrown up by the masses themselves in struggle. However, when the masses organise in struggle, it is important to strengthen them, develop their fighting confidence and their class consciousness. To do this, be it in the trade union, the factory committee, the council of action or the embryonic soviet, communists advance the transitional programme that can take the struggle forward towards the socialist revolution.
42. No better or more succinct summary of the attitude of Marxists to the trade unions can be found than in the Transitional Programme itself. Here Trotsky says: “Therefore, the sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists, but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the tasks of mass struggle against bourgeois society; and, if necessary, not flinching even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one’s back on mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian factions, it is no less so passively to tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (“progressive”) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.” (The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International – 1938)
Communist fractions and workplace organisations
43. The League recognises the strategic importance of revolutionary intervention into the trade unions, particularly in those countries where the unions are the biggest organisations of the working class or where they play a decisive role in the class struggle. In different countries the unions play differing roles in the class struggle. They do not march together as one, internationally. Indeed the international links between unions, dominated in the past by Stalinists or by agents of imperialism, and today primarily by the latter, serve to retard real rank and file international unity. Internationally co-ordinated strikes are rare in the extreme. The effect of this is that unions are frequently marked by the features of the nation they exist in. Different developments in the class struggle can create different organisational forms that communist groups must relate to. While this means that communists are obliged to adopt different tactics in different national unions, the strategy remains the same; the fight for rank and file control, class struggle policies and the transformation of the unions into revolutionary organs of struggle.
44. The fight for genuine working class internationalism, international union federations that organise to struggle, is part of this strategy. At the same time however, different sectors of the class within countries develop at different speeds. It is in the nature of the class struggle that different sections, as a result of victories or defeats, as a result of profound economic changes, can play different roles at different times. The vanguard of the unions is not always a permanent fixture. It can change, with one sector occupying a leading role formerly played by another. The defeats suffered by the miners and dockers in Britain in the 1980s, for example, has displaced these sectors from the vanguard role they played in the 1960s and 1970s. New combinations of conditions are producing new vanguards all the time. In some countries sections of workers that used to play a leading role are no longer in the vanguard. Such changes prove the need for revolutionaries to be flexible in their intervention and orientation to different sectors and industries. While communists stand with the vanguard to the very end of every battle, it is wrong to mistake the vanguard of yesterday for the vanguard of today. The struggle itself is decisive in forging the vanguard, its moods, projects and capacities for struggle. The intervention of revolutionaries is decisive in making that vanguard conscious of itself and its role. The League is fully aware of this and does not fetishise the trade unions themselves, or the sectors of the unions, elevating their role to an ahistorical level and failing to recognise new strategic sectors of workers in struggle as a result.
45. When the international communist organisation is small and isolated, it must be clear and cautious in how it approaches its work in the mass trade unions of the working class. Necessarily the work of propaganda groups in the unions is uneven, shaped by the size of the sections and the implantation of communists in the working class.
46. The goals of communists in relation to the unions/workplace therefore fall into three categories:
a) In the first instance the trade union work must be well organised by the relevant sections and utilised to increase the general influence and strength of the sections; to broaden the scope of the trade union work both by the sections that are currently carrying it out winning new members in a wider range of unions. Work in blue collar unions, where possible, is also important. For small groups the unions can be one of the permanent arenas for the dissemination of communist propaganda. Communists cannot, except in occasional and exceptional circumstances, lead struggles. However, where struggles do occur, they can participate actively in them, render them maximum solidarity, develop strategies for victory and fight for communist politics in them. By doing this regularly and systematically, it is possible to win adherents to revolutionary communism. In this sense union work should not be regarded as dealing only with union issues, but as an opportunity to address a layer of militants with a wide range of political issues. Where communists are able to lead action in the unions it is all the more important that it is led in an exemplary communist fashion, i.e. to demonstrate how it would be done if the communist group was much bigger.
b) The medium term goal is the building of sizeable fractions of trade unionists, capable of acting as a pole of attraction that can win militants away from both the reformist misleaders and the larger centrist rivals.
c) The long term aim is the creation of rank and file movements in the unions, won to revolutionary action programmes, that have succeeded in dissolving the trade union bureaucracy, in other words they have been transformed into instruments of revolutionary class struggle.
General attitude to trade union work
47. The fighting propaganda group staged cannot be wished away. The aim is to transcend and escape such an existence. The propaganda stage can, and inevitably does, breed bad attitudes (self-isolation from the mass of the working class, failure to influence the course of the class struggle, etc). These bad attitudes fall into two broad categories – lofty sectarianism and opportunist impatience.
48. Lofty sectarianism results in treating the unions in the same way as the ‘left milieu’, going into the unions with an ultra-polemical mindset, adopting an ultimatist posture. It can also lead to unrealistic demands, constant calls for the general strike and berating the workers when they only give a one day or dinner time action. To overcome this it is important to approach work in the unions patiently, with a respect for the workers. It requires a well thought out response to their fears and objections to a programme of struggle and with a willingness to take risks alongside them that wins their trust. This is the essence of what Trotsky meant when he wrote that, “the party is the vanguard, but in its work, especially in its trade union work, it must be able to lean towards the rearguard. It must in fact show the workers – once, twice, and even ten times if necessary – that it is ready at any moment at all to help them to reconstitute the unity of the trade union organisations. And in this field we remain faithful to the essential principles of Marxian strategy: the combining of the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution.” (“The Question of Trade union Unity”, May 1931, from Leon Trotsky On the Trade Unions, p 48).
49. Opportunist impatience manifests itself in believing that the communist group is bigger and more influential than it really is and that the trade union work is simply mass work that can be extended at will. It parades every small gain as a mass breakthrough, unaware that communists, even in mass parties, have been trying for many years to break down the reformist barriers that stand in the way. Stunts take the place of patient long term work. The complimentary comments of a militant worker, or in bad cases of opportunism, a left bureaucrat, or a loud burst of applause at the end of a speech to a mass meeting, can lull small groups of communists into a false sense of superiority. Some can mistake the enthusiasm for their ideas (unfortunately all too frequently momentary) of those in struggle, or worse the succour of a left bureaucrat (who is usually in need of foot soldiers) as evidence that the magic route to mass influence has been found. It is important to remember that the work, even if it has a mass character (which in certain circumstances is not excluded), remains exemplary work – limited work demonstrating to militant workers what communists would do on a much wider scale if they were a real party rooted in the class.
50. The attitude towards trade union work should be patient; thorough and exemplary, delimited by the reality of the available resources. Above all the work should be approached in the spirit of engaging workers in dialogue. This does not mean that communists stay dumb, far from it. Communists have ideas and thoughts to share, pedagogically but with conviction. But communists also learn from workers in struggle, from experienced union militants, and their points should be listened to and discussed in the party with a view to improving the work.
Role of the organisation in trade union/workplace work
51. The way to ensure that both the above dangers are avoided, and to ensure that comrades in the unions/workplace do not slip quietly into a life of trade union routinism, is through party direction of trade union/workplace work. The trade union work of a section should be discussed and decided by a national conference. The execution of that work should be regularly overseen by a leading body. If a leadership meets too infrequently, or is too large to be able to oversee this work systematically, then a trade union commission accountable to the leadership and regularly reporting to it should be set up. Where possible, comrades from the leading committee should be appointed to help directly with the trade union work of the organisation. In all sections one leadership comrade should be appointed as trade union work organiser. In other words the section’s work in the unions is the work of the party, not just the party’s trade unionists.
52. The scope and objectives of that work needs to be decided by a conference so that the section can ensure that it corresponds with its general tasks and priorities, that it is proceeding on the basis of a common political estimation of the importance of the union struggle for the section. The execution of the work requires leadership supervision to ensure that the political line the section is fighting for is also being fought for, in the appropriate way, inside the unions/workplace. It can ensure that the pressure from comrades carrying out union work does not eclipse the general priorities laid down for the whole section by conference. Such party direction of the union work must permeate down to the branches of the sections. Branches must not be appendages of the trade union comrades, or comrades allocated to union work. They must be the day-to-day political directors of that work. To that end, where comrades within a branch are carrying out trade union work on a systematic basis, discussions of that work must be held at least once a month either in the branch meeting or with the branch committee, where appropriate.
53. This level of party direction fulfils two additional important functions for the sections. It ensures that the work in the unions is generalised within the party giving all comrades greater knowledge and experience of the problems and possibilities of such work, enabling us to guard against the rigid separation of some comrades from work in the unions. It also ensures that the pressures that are on trade union comrades, pressures that arise from their conditions of work, from the often narrow concerns of their fellow workers, from the bureaucracy that they are up against and so on, are relieved by comrades from the outside being able to remind them of the dangers of one sidedness and place the particular problems they are facing in the context of the wider and more general political tasks of the section. Finally, in circumstances of major class struggles, the section should set up special teams to carry out the intervention into the struggle, allocated resources commensurate with the significance of the struggle. Such teams should always have a leading comrade attached to them.
54. Organisation of trade union work amongst trade union comrades. Clearly the section as a whole has the responsibility of establishing the scope and tasks of trade union work, but this is insufficient to ensure that the work is systematically carried out. Nor is it always possible for branches to do this. They must oversee the work and allocate resources to it. But it is the trade union comrades who will carry it out. To do this, cells and fractions should be established. The cell is the local unit for carrying out the work and should meet at least once monthly. It should comprise those comrades active in either a common workplace or common union in the locality. In all circumstances one comrade from the branch who is outside the workplace or union should be included in the cell. The job of the cell is to co-ordinate the work of the comrades, plan caucuses, resolutions and interventions, discuss common problems and formulate the agitational and propaganda requirements they need from the branch/section.
55. The fraction is the national organisation of comrades from a particular industry or union. It should meet at least twice a year, more often if possible. Its function is to co-ordinate the work in the industry or union, plan national interventions into conferences of the union, general trade union, left or rank and file conferences, draw up resolutions for such events, formulate action programmes relevant to the union or industry (based on the section’s general action programme, but focused towards the industry or union, such programmes should always be finally approved by the section’s national leadership) and the general agitational or propaganda requirements of the fraction. The fraction should include comrades from outside the industry or union who are members of the cells and a leadership comrade (who can of course be a member of the union or industry). Both the cells and the fraction should be open to sympathisers of the section from the workplace or union. The condition of their participation in the cell/fraction is their acceptance of the relevant action programme (as opposed to the section’s general action programme) and their willingness to abide by the discipline of the cell/fraction on union/industry matters.
56. The cells and fractions are responsible for the sales of literature in the unions. As a rule, a general indication of influence and strength in any particular trade union can be measured by how many subscriptions for the party paper are held by workers in that union. Communists must organise regular paper sales at union meetings, offering the paper to more left wing members of the union and asking workers to take out a subscription. At union conferences teams of comrades should be sent to help distribute bulletins and papers to the delegates.
57. The role of cells and fractions is vital in maintaining discipline over individual trade union comrades, in the same way that the branch, conference and leadership are in maintaining discipline over the cells and fractions. Trotsky emphasised this in 1921 in a letter to the young French Communist Party, some of whose members were pleading for political autonomy for the communist trade unionists from the party: referring to the Charter of Amiens (1906) which barred trade unionists from bringing the politics of their party into the trade unions:
“A close check must be kept on the Communists in the trade, they must be kept in touch with one another and brought under the control and guidance of the closest party organization. The Central Committee must give constant leadership to local party organizations on questions of trade-union tactics. We must at all costs imbue the Communists, working in the trade unions, with the conviction that within the trade unions, too, they remain party members and carry out its basic directives. Communists who stubbornly persist in a blunder that in their trade-union work they are independent of the party are subject, as a general rule, to expulsion from the party.”The First Five Years of the Communist International Vol. II
58. Even without a syndicalist deviation individuals are subject to all sorts of pressure. There is the pressure of the union machine, which is adept at drawing talented individuals into it. The belief that your own individual talent is sufficient to guard against this is un-materialist. “Nobody”, as a 1954 Socialist Workers Party (USA) resolution on trade union work noted, “can cheat the laws of the class struggle through talent, manoeuvres or any other gimmick.” Every comrade who has been active in a union knows that if you both show promise and fight for left policies you will be offered prizes by the local bureaucrats and referred on to the national bureaucrats. The cell and fraction are the means of keeping you on the revolutionary straight and narrow in the face of such pressures. A comrade who gets too arrogant and acts as a know-it-all in union matters is losing touch with the revolutionary way of operating in the unions (and indeed in other spheres of work too) and should be pulled into line by the collective body overseeing their work. But another pressure can push comrades into dangerous situations in the unions and workplaces, impatience can push you left as well as right and open you up to victimisation.
59. The cell/fraction is responsible for guiding comrades to enable them to carry through their work in a way that ensures they raise their political profile but minimises the pretexts for victimisation, that is no stupid risk taking (no “strikes” by individuals or tiny minorities, no disruption of meetings unless there is mass support, no advertising of real names in publications of the organisation, no bad time keeping, etc.) The cell/fraction will need to oversee such things to maintain the discipline of the individual comrades whether they are veering to the right or the left.
60. Involvement in union/workplace structures. Standing for elections and taking positions of leadership is a vital part of revolutionary work in the trade unions and the workplace when a solid base has been established. It is not true that holding a position in the union inevitably means those elected will always succumb to bureaucratic pressures. Provided that the discipline of the organisation is maintained against the pressure to accommodate to the bureaucracy, it is possible to be a revolutionary officeholder. What is important is that comrades only take union/workplace conditions if they make clear to the rank and file what they intend to do if they win such positions. For local positions (shop steward/ local branch officials) it is not necessary to stand for election on a fully blown revolutionary programme. In cases where elections are contested it is vital that communists give revolutionary answers to the burning issues confronting the local workers/union branch and that it is clear what are their politics.
61. The reason for this is that as local representatives the most important thing to win is the confidence and support of the workers for the action programme in that workplace/union. They must identify communists as people who will fight. There is nothing unprincipled in this, as long as party members are standing as representatives of a very particular group of workers faced with particular problems. Revolutionaries are the people who will give a revolutionary answer to these problems. However, it is essential that workers know who the communists are so that they are never open to the charge of deception, a charge that will strengthen any red-baiting, witch-hunt that is launched. In uncontested elections, communists should make it known who they are at a mass or section meeting (election addresses are unnecessary in uncontested elections) and what they will do if they take the position on offer. That way no one can be accused of having taken the position under false pretences. As long as there is no serious security risk (like the loss of job) then communists should openly say that they are affiliated to their organisation or at least a supporter of the publications of that organisation.
62. For national union or regional posts the situation is different. Here communists are put in a position of power over something other than the local workplace/union – namely the union as a whole. In this case it is essential that election addresses are produced that contain the key elements of the section’s action programme for the workplace/union, always including the need to place the union under rank and file control and to transform it into a class struggle organisation so that it can take its place in the struggle to overthrow capitalism. In cases where elections, either locally or nationally, are fought by political fractions or where the left organises electoral blocs, the situation is different again. The differences between the communist candidates and the others on the slate or bloc become important. Therefore, in such cases it is possible to join the bloc/slate if the programme of the bloc or slate is progressive (albeit minimal) and if there is the possibility of a clear exposition of the communist action programme. Once elected to a union position (locally, regionally or nationally) party members remain under the discipline of the section first and foremost. If there is a clash then it is better to resign the union post. The most important affect of winning such a post is that it allows for an increase in the fight for class struggle action, for the transformation of the union etc. It is vital that it is shown, in practice, what this means. A party steward should convene regular section meetings, fight for the sovereignty of mass meetings, produce a section/workplace steward’s bulletin to keep members informed etc. Party members elected as union officials must make it clear that they are accountable to the rank and file not the other bureaucrats, every opportunity must be taken to expose their backsliding and to fight for an end to privileges, excessive wages, etc.
63. Workplace bulletins should be produced where resources allow, either with comrades in a workplace/union or purely by working from the outside. The model “factory bulletin” should be a two sided sheet, with an attractive title appropriate to the workplace, with a front side devoted to issues in the workplace/union (workplace bulletins can be much more focused than general union bulletins though the two are not counterposed if the union covers several similar work places (e.g. hospitals, factories owned by the same company etc.) and a reverse side devoted to a topical general political issue. The bulletin should be as regular as clockwork (minimum monthly). Its style should be shaped by the workers involved, its politics by the cell/fraction/branch. The reason is that its style must correspond most closely to the language of the workers. It must be very accessible since it will be widely distributed. It must contain humour to ridicule the powers that be. It should always be laid up in columns, to make it easier to read, and should have plenty of headlines. In terms of content, the front must relate to the issues of the workplace; pay, conditions, examples of bosses’ harassment, union events, bureaucratic wrong doings, in a word, the life of the workplace. For this to happen it must be based on extensive knowledge of the workplace, its history, tradition, what it produces, past struggles, its relationship to other companies, the names of bosses, details of the lay out of the workplace etc. This is best achieved with inside information. But it is not impossible to assemble such information from the outside. It must be well informed and relevant. The reverse side must be used to make general points about capitalism, but based on topical events so that it is not abstract propaganda.
64. The bulletin should be used to win sympathisers to the cell/fraction. Regular readers should be treated as contacts of the party, invited to socials and branch/cell meetings, encouraged to give money to help produce the bulletin, encouraged to write letters/articles for it. This way the bulletin can be used to recruit to the cell/fraction/branch. The decision to launch a bulletin should be taken by the branch, under supervision from the leadership, not the cell or fraction. To sustain a bulletin it is vital that the branch as a whole is committed to it, helping distribute it etc. The decision to launch such a bulletin should either be on the basis of a long record of work within a workplace that has given us a base or a long period of preparation by comrades from the outside. Obviously, regular distribution of the bulletin should be coupled with regular sales of the party press outside the workplace.
65. Working from the outside. Working from outside the unions/workplace, trying to get into them, is difficult, but not impossible. Regular and systematic work can produce results. The best way to proceed, if a decision is taken to work from the outside, is to select a workplace/union that has been or likely to be engaged in some form of struggle. If that is the case it opens the possibility to make contacts through helping with that struggle (e.g. attending picket lines, organising solidarity activity, etc). In any case, it means that there is something to focus on. The branch, if it decides to undertake such work, must select a team of comrades able to undertake the necessary work; research on the workplace/union, time to attend any meetings that might be open to us, time to do sales of the press. The aim is to make as many contacts as possible and through them gain inside information that will enable us to engage in an informed dialogue with the workers. On the basis of this work the goal of producing a bulletin is to try and consolidate the contacts around the group, enabling the work to move from the outside to within the workplace.
66. In countries like Germany and, to a lesser extent, Austria, where there is a relatively strong distinction between trade union and factory work and where the unions are, albeit in very different forms, heavily “politicised” and policed by the social-democrats, the usual starting form of the left working in the unions and workplaces, has been the creation of factory groups of political organisations. This reflects the importance of party affiliation or preference even for voting on the shop floor level in Austria and Germany. Whilst this is a utilised by the social- democrats in particular to keep their ranks under control, it is also a strength of the workers’ movement in those countries, since at least the more advanced workers are quite conscious that all major economic questions need to be linked to a political solution. This is so particularly amongst blue collar workers where trade union density and social-democratic influence is higher. Therefore the setting up of factory groups of the party will be a central form of the work in such circumstances.
67. United fronts and the rank and file movement. The goal of united front work in the unions is the construction of a rank and file movement and the winning of the leadership of such a movement. Most of the time the argument for the rank and file movement is primarily a propagandistic one. However, without a party as the backbone of such a movement it will not survive. Therefore the argument for a rank and file movement is not separate but linked to the question of the party. Small groups of communists should generally resist the temptation to turn small scale united fronts of the left or small groups of activists into the rank and file by throwing together programmes short of the party’s trade union action programme. With groups dominated by other left forces, communists should participate in them critically, but argue for the rank and file action programme. Genuine movements of activists and militants should be participated in, no matter how minimal a programme they adopt, but with full freedom of criticism allowed.
68. Clearly there is a distinction, with groups of activists and militants who are not being misled by centrists or left reformists here the fight for the programme will be patient and pedagogic. It is wrong to be ultimatist; communists will work loyally for minimally agreed demands. With groups dominated by the reformists or centrists the work will be a lot harder, with the need to point to their deliberate opportunism, etc. In the normal run of things the united front will be an every day fact of life for communists in the trade unions and flexibility will be required. Everywhere, communists seek to maximise rank and file self organisation and activity, to fight for mass meetings and section meetings, for strike committees to control actions, for maximum participation of the rank and file in campaigns, for campaigns against bureaucrats (lobbies, etc.). These things are achievable and everywhere there is success it should be used as a practical argument in favour of the rank and file movement.
69. Trade union work and “party” work. Trade union work is not a separate and distinct sphere from the general work of the section. It is a vital part of it. And the relationship must be reciprocal. If the section launches a campaign of international solidarity or a campaign against the fascists, or a campaign against social service cuts then the trade unionists must carry through this work inside the unions and outside, fighting for union support for such campaign, mobilising fellow trade unionists etc. In so doing, communists aim to show to other trade unionists the importance of a revolutionary party in all spheres of political activity, the interconnection of such areas of activity in the general struggle against capitalism. To quote the 1954 SWP (US) resolution once again:
“Without our party fractions as the backbone there can be no revolutionary left wing in the mass movement. That is why union work that does not build the party forces is not revolutionary union work. That is why the key objective in all our union activity must be to recruit worker militants into the party.”