The Western Socialist
Vol. 26 - No. 207
No. 3, 1959
In the early days of trade union activity it was customary for the government to enter into disputes between workers and employers and simply bludgeon the workers into submission. Strikes were illegal and efforts to raise wages were regarded officially as criminal conspiracies calling for punishment that was often severe and brutal.
In some countries this treatment still prevails, among these being certain Near-Eastern nations which lately came close to becoming the center of military conflict between the "peace loving" nations of East and West — although the status of the workers had nothing to do with the hostilities.
But in most of the more industrially advanced countries this is no longer the approved treatment for workers. Not that the attitude of employers and governments has changed. It hasn't. They still feel that the bulk of labor's produce must continue to be delivered to the non-producers. But the wage workers are now greatly increased in numbers, in some countries forming the overwhelming majority of the population. And they have come into possession of the franchise, which places them in the position to defeat and bring about changes in government. So that any government in such countries employing the old methods of keeping the workers on subsistence level could only be inviting its own downfall.
So the changing times have needed changing methods of bringing about the same ends. And the required methods have been employed. The trade union for a long time now has enjoyed legal existence — subject to certain regulations described officially as minor but necessary to well ordered employee-employer relations. It has attained a nodding acquaintance with its social and cultural superiors. It is regularly invited to take part in endless numbers of officially supported projects — which have nothing to do with the interests of trade unionism. It is lavishly praised by prominent people for its spiritedness in times of crisis — when it refrains from taking advantage of situations that might benefit workers. Its unwavering support of the system of exploitation is admired. Its moderation in pressing the needs of the workers is esteemed. It is glowingly described as a champion of the rights of man, a monument to his eternal yearning for justice, a bulwark of freedom and democracy.
And its convention halls are so bedecked with flags and bunting, so littered with politicians, preachers and other humbugs, and so resounding with capitalist claptrap, as to be readily mistaken for particularly garrulous gatherings of Babbitry.
This is what has happened to the trade unions. They are all affected by it, if not in the same degree. An increasing amount of their time has become channeled away from the purpose of their existence toward ends that are unworthy and unwholesome, the time that is left for trade union action shrinking in proportion.
For this situation the masters of society and their protective and publicity agents may take a bow. They have gone a long way towards transforming the trade unions into rallying centers for worthless causes.
The trade unionist will have to sit up and take notice, if the trade union is not to lose its usefulness to the workers. The purpose of the trade union is not to ape and seek the plaudits of parasites. The purpose of the trade union is to carry on a conflict against these parasites to protect the working and living conditions of the wealth producers. Is this becoming forgotten?