Trade unions arise out of the wage-relation that is at the basis of capitalism. When we say that labour-power has a commodity nature, it must express its value through a struggle in the labour market. Combining together in trade unions to exert collective pressure on employers is a way workers can prevent their wages from falling below the value of their Iabour-power. It is a way of ensuring that they are paid the full value of what they have to sell. This is the usefulness of trade unions to the working class but they can do no more than this. The competition of individual workers for jobs enabled employers to take full advantage of their strengthened position. If, however, the workers unite and agree not to sell their labour-power below a certain price, the effect of individual competition for jobs can be, at least in part, overcome. Organised workers can ensure that the wage they get is the current value of their labour-power and, at times when the demand for labour-power exceeds the supply, they can temporarily push wages above the current value of labour-power or even, in the longer term, raise its value. This was, and still is, the economic logic for the working class of trade union organisations. They cannot substantially increase the living standards of their members under capitalism but they can ensure that wages are not reduced below the subsistence level. The trade unions are essentially defensive organisations with the limited role of protecting wages and working conditions and it is by this criterion that their effectiveness or otherwise ought to be judged.
Trade Unions can – and do – enable workers to get the full value of their labour-power, but they cannot stop the exploitation of the working class.
Workers may influence their wages and working conditions only by collective effort and only by being in the position to stop working if their demands are not met. The ability to withhold their service in a strike is one weapon in their possession (work-to-rules, go-slows and overtime bans are others). It is the only final logic known to employers. Without it, wages tend to sink below subsistence level. With it, a substantial check can often be placed on the encroachments of the employers and improvements both in wages and working conditions can be made. The strike is not a sure means of victory for workers in dispute with employers. There are many cases of workers being compelled to return to work without gains, even sometimes with losses. Strikes should not be employed recklessly but should be entered into with caution, particularly during times when production falls off and there are growing numbers of unemployed. Nor should not be thought that victory can be gained only by means of the strike. Sometimes more can be gained simply by the threat of a strike. The most effective strike is the one that did not take place. Workers must bear all these things in mind if they are to make the most effective use of the trade union and the power it gives them.
The non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary one. Therefore we should not reduce the trade unions to impotence by getting them to avow principles and policies which are not necessary to their object and reason for being – and also to which their members do not hold. We, therefore, accept trade unions as they are, and, realising that all their grave and undeniable faults are but the reflection of the mental shortcomings of their members. The World Socialist Movement is not antagonistic to the trade unions under present conditions, even though they do have not a revolutionary basis but we are hostile to the misleading by the trade union leaders and the ignorance of the rank and file which make such misleading possible. Workers must come to see through the illusion that all that is needed in the class war are good generals. Sloganising leaders making militant noises are impotent in the face of a system that still has majority support – or at least the acquiescence – of the working class.
It would be wrong to write off the unions as anti-working class organisations. The union has indeed tended to become an institution apart from its members, but the policy of a union is still influenced by the views of its members. It may be a truism but a union is only as strong as its members. Most unions have formal democratic constitutions which provide for a wide degree of membership participation and democratic control. In practice, however, these provisions are sometimes ineffective and actual control of many unions is in the hands of a well-entrenched full-time leadership. It is these leaders who frequently collaborate with the State and employers in the administration of capitalism, who get involved in supporting political parties and governments which act against the interest of the working class.
Under present conditions, trade unions are non-revolutionary but as far as socialists think them necessary to their personal economic welfare and as far as economic pressure forces them to, they are right and justified in using them. The class struggle has to be carried on by socialists and non-socialist alike and because of the very nature of the workers’ economic struggle under capitalism, it compels socialists to associate in a common cause with the non-socialists during strikes, lock-outs and all the other activities on the economic side of the class struggle.
The World Socialist Movement urges that the existing unions provide the medium through which the workers should continue their efforts to obtain the best conditions they can get from the master class in the sale of their labour-power. We do not criticise the unions for not being revolutionary, but we do severely criticise them when they depart from the principle of antagonism of interests between workers and employers; when they collaborate with employers, the state or political parties; when they put the corporate interests of a particular section of workers above that of the general interest of the working class as a whole.
Trade unions, in general, have languished in a role that provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tended to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and time-serving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions and peerage. It has to be admitted that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system.
However, and this should be emphasised.
Trade unions can bring a great deal of experience to bear on the question of how a new society could be organised democratically in the interests of the whole community. Certainly in the developed countries, they have an organisation in the most important parts of production. They have rulebooks that allow them to be run locally and nationally in a generally democratic manner and they also enjoy fraternal links across the globe. All this is already in place, ready to be applied. If only trade unions set their sights beyond the next wage claim and by becoming part of the socialist movement, they could so easily become part of the democratic administration of industry that would replace the corporate bosses and their managers who now organise production for profit.