Editorial: Trade Unions and Socialism

In the continuing debate about the role, the power and the function of trade unions there are basic misconceptions on both sides.

Some of what are often called “moderate” trade union leaders, for example, think that unions should properly involve themselves in the shaping and execution of government policy. Len Murray is one of these; a constant complaint of his is that the Thatcher government are formulating policy without first calling the TUC to Ten Downing Street. One inevitable result of this attitude is that the unions are too often preoccupied with trying to resist the irresistible—opposing the inexorable effects of the slump on employment, for example.

Then there is the less “moderate” element, who are sure that the unions can extend themselves into the ownership of industry. This element is liable to organise sit-ins at firms which are about to close when they have become unprofitable and then to entertain fantasies about the basis of ownership and control in capitalist society. At more alarming times this approach can lead on to even wilder fantasies, that a sit-in can be the first step on the road to a socialist revolution. In reality what happens is that the profit-making demands of capitalism first undermine, then grind away, the fantasies and the enthusiasm which they gave birth to.

On the other side of the debate the great misconception is that trade unions are all-powerful, that they dictate policy to governments, run industry and can exert a strangle-hold on vital points in society such as medical services. The evidence offered to support this point of view is usually the disruption which can be caused by a strike and events like the collapse of the Heath government in 1973/4 and the recent retreat by the Thatcher government in face of the miners.

In fact, on both occasions the governments of the day judged the situation in terms of capitalist priorities—that is on the likely profitability of industry at large and the possibility of notching up a victory in the class struggle. These judgements did nothing to alter the basic situation; capitalism is still there, still run on the same motives and the same assumptions. At present, for example, there is reason to think that the government sees its retreat as no more than a temporary measure, to give some time to regroup its forces. This is what happened in the surrender (or so it seemed at the time) to the miners before the General Strike in 1926. (At that time there was another pressure group at work —the coal owners—but there was little complaint in the media at a powerful minority dictating policy to the government.)

All these misconceptions can be cleared simply by a clear idea about the role of trade unions, one which fits in with their history and their reality.

The first fact to take into account in this is that we live at present in a class divided society, the division being based on the minority class ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution. This division is the direct cause of a clash over the apportioning of wealth, which takes the form of a dispute about wages and working conditions. On the one hand the working class, who do not own the means of production, struggle for the best possible wages and conditions. The more they get the less there is for the owners, the capitalist class who employ the workers.

This clash is a continuing, unavoidable feature of capitalist society. It is obvious that in this—as in any other—struggle, unity is strength. The employers recognise this; they have their own organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and overseeing them all, protecting the privileged position of the capitalist class as a whole, is the might of the state machine.

In face of this, the working class would be entirely helpless if they did not also build their own unity. Failure to do this would reduce workers’ bargaining over wages and conditions of work to a disorganised mass of separate, feeble entreaties. At present the trade unions, with all their faults (and socialists are more aware of these than anyone) represent that unity and offer the workers their only chance of offering to the employers a concerted front of resistance.

But there are many ways in which the unions, even accepting their present deficiencies, could be much more effective. To begin with, they should confine their activities to the industrial field, to the struggle to defend and improve working class wages and conditions of work. They should not be diverted in this by spurious appeals to consider concepts like the “national interest” —which means the need of the British capitalist class to compete more successfully on the world markets.

They should not be impressed by an apparent readiness to involve them in capitalism’s legislative processes —to call them in to see the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister of Labour . . . These are no more than inducements to weaken their resolve in carrying out their proper function to promote working class interests on the industrial field. An effective union will not succumb to any such inducements but will single-mindedly carry out its task in those workers’ interests.

And in this there is a recognition of the limits of trade union activity. This can be only defensive; it is by definition an aspect of capitalist society, an inevitable product of that society and is restricted to operating under capitalism. Trade unions then can only ease the pressures upon workers; they cannot eliminate those pressures. They can only ameliorate working class problems, they cannot cure those problems. They can only moderate the effects of capitalism, they cannot abolish the system.

That must be the work of a socialist working class, a working class conscious of the basic causes of capitalism’s problems and of the need to replace it with socialism. As that consciousness grows it will affect all social organs within capitalism; they will all become that more effective for an injection of aware, politically aggressive socialists. And that will apply with special force to trade unions. At present the unions are in truth a comparatively feeble lot, which should be vastly more effective given the size and the industrial power, of their membership. As the socialist movement grows, so will the strength and the effectiveness of the unions, powered by a membership no longer content to accept minor concessions from their masters but determined to have it all, for the benefit of all.