The myth of trade union power

One of the current hobby-horses of the Tories which they hope will help them win the coming general election is to attack the trade unions as too powerful. The power of the unions has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished, is how their argument might be summarised. The Labour Party, not to be outdone before that section of the electorate which is anti-union, counters by claiming that, because of its links and traditions, it is better able to control the unions than are the Tories.

In actual fact, however, it is a complete myth that the unions have any great power. The only power they have is that of ensuring that their members are paid on average the value of their labour power (not the same of course as the value of what they produce), and not less as would tend to happen if wages were fixed unilaterally by employers as was the general rule in the 19th century when most industries were not unionised. The unions do this by exerting pressure for higher wages when the labour-market is favourable and by putting a brake on wage reductions when it is not, as today when unemployment is fairly widespread. Trade unions are essentially only defensive with a limited power to resist the inevitable downward pressures—”the never-ceasing encroachments of Capital” as Marx called them—exerted on their members’ living standards by the workings of the capitalist system.

The fact that unions only have the power to defend wages against downward pressures has been obscured by the rise in the general price level caused by the inflation of the currency which has gone on continuously since the beginning of the last war. The over-issuing of inconvertible paper money inevitably means a rise in the general price level, that all prices rise, including wages, the price of labour power.

Thus, in a period of inflation, unions appear to be negotiating wage increases rather than simply maintaining and defending established standards. They are in fact negotiating increases in money-wages, but this is not the same as negotiating an increase in real wages (= wages in relation to the prices of what workers buy). In a period of inflation a rise in money-wages is necessary in order to defend real living standards. In a sense such rises are inevitable since, with an inflated paper currency, all prices, including wages, must sooner or later rise—and one of the limited powers the unions do possess is precisely to see that in these circumstances wages rise sooner rather than later.

Downward pressures are exerted on wages whether or not there is inflation and would continue even if inflation were to stop tomorrow. But inflation provides employers and governments (who are obliged, whatever their political colour, to abide by and apply the economic laws of capitalism) with a wonderful means of disguising the “never-ceasing encroachments of Capital” on wages: they can present the workers’ resistance to these pressures, their demands for higher money-wages, as the cause of inflation. So instead of appearing as the victims of inflation the workers and their unions are made out to be responsible for it!

The politicians, in the Tory and Labour parties, who act on behalf of the capitalist class, have an interest in perpetuating this confusion as it helps to weaken working class resistance to downward pressures on their living standards. Occasionally however a maverick politician steps out of line and blurts out the truth, as did Enoch Powell in a speech in Eastbourne on 2 June when he stated :

“In the last thirty years governments in Britain—and not only in Britain—have deliberately caused the depreciation of the currency by increasing its quantity to meet their own expenditures. Simultaneously they have attempted, first by persuasion, then by compulsion, and finally by persuasion again, to prevent the inevitable consequences of inflation following in terms of rising money wages. When this proved impossible, they invited the public to deduce that the unions were more powerful than the State. More subtly, the present government, having partially desisted from financing its expenditure by the creation of new money, has attributed this result to their own special ability to manage and persuade the all-powerful trade unions.”

We hold no brief for Powell—quite apart from his general support for capitalism, his racialist views are naturally anathema to Socialists — but on this issue he does have a more or less correct understanding: the unions have no geat power; they can’t do much beyond raising money-wages in line with rising prices generally. As Powell declared some years ago, the workers are the victims, not the cause, of inflation:

“Wage claims, wage awards, strikes do not cause rising prices, inflation, for one simple but sufficient reason —they cannot. There was never a strike yet which caused inflation, and there never will be. The most powerful unions, or group of unions, which was ever invented is powerless to cause prices generally to rise . . . In the matter of inflation, the unions and their members are sinned against, not sinning, in the matter of inflation, the unions and their members are as innocent as lambs, pure white as the driven snow” (speech in Scotland, 20 November, 1970, quoted in Socialist Standard, February 1971).

Capitalism is a profit-making system which can only run in one way: in the interest of those who live off profits, and there is nothing the working class can do, and it’s not much at that (though it must be can do, and its not much at that (though it must be done), is to unite in unions to exert pressure to ensure that they do actually get paid the value of the labour power they have to sell. But even to do this they have to keep running all the time as the “encroachments of Capital” are “never-ceasing”.

As Marx went on to say: “Instead of the conservative motto ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword ’ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM!’ ”. But this requires that they organise politically with this as their conscious aim. It requires over and above trade union activity political action based on majority socialist understanding to convert the means of production into the common property of the whole community under democratic control.

A. L. B.

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