Craft, or trade, unions represent a single craft or trade. In contrast, industrial unions represent all workers in a specific industry, or with a specific employer. Socialist Industrial Unions (SIUs) are industrial unions, representing entire industries, with the stated aim of creating a socialist society.
SIU supporters claim that it is necessary to seize the means of production directly: to occupy the places of production. SIU members and supporters, even within a single organization, have varying opinions on the feasibility and desirability of the parliamentary approach (taking power through democratic elections).
Whether or not the parliamentary route is to be taken, SIU supporters hold that the SIU structure will be the administrative structure of socialism. Recently some have started taking the position that it is just a suggestion of how society might be administered, but it still figures prominently in their current literature.
This structure is hierarchical, with the basic unit being the workplace council where decisions for that specific workplace are democratically made. The next level might be regional, then "national", and finally a council for the whole of society.
Relatively recently, some SIU supporters have seen the need to add some sort of "community" representation, using a similar structure and "joining" with the workplace side in a single council for the whole of society. There are probably several different approaches to the exact setup of this structure but there does not seem to be any significant disagreements, just slight differences.
Although hierarchical, the structure is seen as bottom up, not top down. In other words the "whole of society" council would coordinate the decisions of the other councils, not impose its own will.
What's wrong with the SIU approach?
- Propagates the belief that economic power is superior to political power.
SIUs exist to capture the places of production from the capitalist class. The claim is that the economic power of the capitalist class would prevent the political decision of the vast majority of workers from being carried out, and that therefore there must be an organization to take control of the workplaces from the capitalist class.
Most people today believe that the working class has control of society through the mechanisms of political democracy, such as voting for national governments. The working class outnumbers the capitalist class by 10 or 20 to one, so on the surface this seems reasonable. If the working class has control of society, and it is still oppressed (it is), it seems reasonable to conclude that economic power is superior to political power.
Scratching the surface of this belief reveals its flaw. The working class does not use its political power to make society function in the interests of the working class. Instead the working class votes, unwittingly, to continue capitalism, and thereby maintain its own oppression.
It is the political power of the state which enforces that oppression. The state—the agency of political power—can, and does, expropriate property, or transfer it to capitalists for their direct control. It can, and does when necessary, use violent force to protect the interests of the capitalist class. That force is used against other capitalists, and against the working class. The courts, police and military all respond to political power, not economic power. It is beyond the scope of this article to show that even in places where corruption of the police is widespread, political power still controls them.
When the vast majority of the working class is socialist, so will be the police and military whose members are working class. At that time, the socialist working class will use its political power to capture the state. When the state, in its last action as the state, transfers legal ownership of the means of production to the people of the world as a whole, the economic power of the capitalists will have been extinguished by the political power of the working class.
The capitalists could do nothing, with their economic power, to prevent expropriation. The fear that they could keep the working class out of the factories etc. is completely unfounded. How could they? Remember that the working class outnumbers them 10 or 20 to one. Also remember that the military and police (all working class, and mostly socialist) will be responsible to the political power of the working class.
- Separates "community" from "workers".
The workplace based model, developed about a hundred years ago, was designed to administer production. It took over half a century, but SIU supporters finally recognized that a purely workplace based administration does not explicitly include anything outside of the workplace. This has led some to suggest including a community side to the administration.
This explicitly two-pronged approach creates an administrative split in society that needn't, and shouldn't exist. Of course those in the workplace know how to do their job better than the average person in the street, and the WSM is not suggesting that people shouldn't be allowed to do their jobs as they see fit. What the WSM does say, is that the administrative split only exists when you take the SIU route.
Taking the WSM approach that production is a social activity, a part of society as a whole, and not something to be given to workers, by industry, as their own, then the problem does not exist. The SIU model would generate a "workers" versus the "community" antagonism that is ridiculous and unnecessary.
- SIUs cannot serve as proper unions under capitalism.
A major concept of unionism is "strength in numbers". Under capitalism, for a union to have enough power to effectively represent its members it needs to comprise all or at least a large majority of the workers in a business/worksite/industry. If it does not, it has little or no clout in dealing with the employer. SIUs exclude non-"socialist" workers—the vast majority of workers today—leaving the SIU powerless to protect its members against their employer. We recognize that a small SIU together with a big non-"socialist" union has fighting power, but it is not the SIU which gives the combination the power: it is the big non-"socialist" union.
- Blueprints, today, for administering future socialist society are imprudent and undemocratic.
The SIU model is usually presented as a picture. Pictures are tremendously powerful and the image itself has far more impact and retention for most people. That is not to claim people are stupid, but to recognize the power of images on the human psyche. The WSM believes that the result of the picture is that the background to the plan is lost. It is the background which is important, not a possible end result of it.
The picture becomes the plan, the promise for how "socialism" would be administered. Even without the picture though, the prominence given the SIU administrative model pushes the importance for considering how socialism should be administered into the background. If the plan is flawed, as the WSM claims, the flaws will not be addressed, and it will become a serious hindrance to solving the problems left over from capitalism.
The WSM also holds that it is imprudent, and undemocratic, for today's socialist minority to be telling people how to administer a socialist society. When a majority of people understand what socialism means, the suggestions for socialist administration will solidify into an appropriate plan. It will be based upon the conditions existing at that time, not today. Two of the major conditions relevant to this will be a growing recognition that people can and do cooperate, and that socialism will not have "workers" as a class separate from anyone else: there will be no classes.