Trade Unions (2/3)

The Socialist Attitude Toward Trade Unions.

 The aim of trade unions is not socialism and, therefore, the principles and policy of The World Socialist Movement are quite distinct from those of trade unions. Trade unions are organised within capitalism to “collectively bargain” with employers in terms of wage slavery. The World Socialist Movement’s aim is to abolish wage slavery and establish socialism. We recognise the necessity of trade unions under capitalism, and, therefore, endeavour to make them more effective by urging the workers to recognise the class struggle and its implications. The spread of socialist knowledge is the best antidote to the poison of “labour-leaders,” and is the only policy to hasten the abolition of wage slavery which trade unions are powerless to accomplish.

Origin of Trade Unions.

Trade unions are the outcome of capitalist conditions. The craft guilds flourished when petty enterprise and handicraft were the rule in the cities and the land workers owned their farms in the villages. The guilds died out with the change from feudalism to capitalism. Guilds were composed of men who quickly evolved from workers to masters and their association was a mutual defence body to advance their craft and regulate industry.

The enclosure of their lands and the use of machinery and steam brought men and women together in factories. They were wage workers for life. The chance for them to become masters was gone—they had to make the best of their position as employees. The crowding of the towns with men seeking work brought down wages to a starvation level. Women and children were enticed into the factory hells as the introduction of machinery rendered the skill of the craftsman unnecessary.

In self-defence the workmen were forced to form associations for protection against the greedy and powerful employers. Working side by side, the workers found themselves drawn instinctively together, as experience quickly taught them that the individual workman stood no chance against the powerful factory owner.

 Early Struggles.

The early unions, composed of skilled craftsmen, were necessarily craft in form and local in scope. Their chief weapon was petitioning Parliament.

For a time Parliament made some pretext of enforcing the old laws, but as industry came more and more under the influence of the larger capitalists the Government came out openly against combinations. Unable to obtain redress along constitutional lines, the workers turned to strikes and violence.

Alarmed at the threatening attitude of the men, Parliament rushed through the Combination Acts of 1799-1800. Contrary to expectations, these Acts did not destroy unions, but drove them “underground.”

The terrible suffering and misery of men and women employed in the machine-invaded industries caused secret societies, accompanied by riots, machine breaking, and incendiarism, to spring up on all sides.

In 1824, under pressure from the reform element of the capitalists, the Combination Acts were repealed and unions legalised. Immediately unions began to grow and flourish and numerous strikes for higher wages occurred. The next year the crisis, of 1825 broke. Industry was brought to a standstill and wages fell on all sides. During this period trade unionism fared disastrously. Most of them were destroyed in the attempt to stem the fall of wages.

The disasters of the past appeared to the most active unionists as the consequence of localised efforts. They now turned to general unions embracing all workers. The greatest of these, The Grand National Consolidated, was formed in 1834 and rapidly increased its membership to over 500,000. It advocated the general strike and some of Robert Owen’s communistic schemes. After a short period of activity, it fell to pieces under the strain of strikes, boycotts, lock-outs, and the forces of the law. A fundamental source of weakness was the lack of knowledge of its members.

Their Necessity Under Capitalism. 

The basis of the present system is the class ownership of the means of life. The working class can only exist by selling its labour power on the market. Over the price and conditions of this sale, there is a never-ceasing conflict. Possessed of all the economic resources and backed up by the political State, the capitalists use every effort to reduce wages to the minimum—at the same time trying by every available means to lengthen the working day and increase the rate of exploitation. By means of labour-saving devices, greater division of labour, more scientific management, and the introduction of women and children into industry, an increasing body of unemployed is created. As the system develops it does away with the necessity of the skilled craftsmen and tends to reduce all to the same dead level. The general tendency of the capitalist system is to reduce the working class to the position of a coolie.

Against the conditions pictured above the individual worker is helpless. In order to protect themselves, the workers are forced to combine together into unions. Acting together, they are able to exert more pressure on the capitalist class and influence to some degree the conditions under which they live and labour. In actual practice, unions can do little more than resist the downward pressure of the system. Instead of improving conditions, their whole energies are required to resist the encroachments of capital.

However much the World Socialist Movement may deplore the ignorance of the rank and file, or the treachery of the leaders, however much we might understand the limitations of unions, he must admit that unions are inevitable and necessary under the present system. As someone said, it is the arm that the working class instinctively raises to defend itself.

 The So-Called “Commodity Struggle.” 

The struggle over hours and wages arises from the economic position of the working class. It is a struggle by members of one class (workers) against members of another class (employers). Labour-power is unlike any other commodity—it is sold only by one class and bought only by another. The efforts to sell labour power at the highest price and the opposition by the employers is a manifestation of the class struggle.

The idea is sometimes preached that the struggle over hours and wages is a purely “commodity struggle,” like haggling over the price of fish or meat between buyers and sellers. But the struggle over wage conditions is a direct result of class distinctions produced by the system of private ownership. It is, therefore, not merely a struggle by commodity owners over the price of a commodity. It is a struggle by the working class to secure as much as possible of the wealth produced, against the efforts of owners to retain all they can in the form of “profit.” It is, therefore, a part of the class struggle. It is quite true that this fight about hours and wages is not carried on by class-conscious workers.

The class struggle, however, is not caused by class-consciousness. It is caused by economic conditions, and when the workers recognise intelligently the class struggle that is going on, they will consciously organise, not to raise wages and shorten hours of slavery, but to abolish the entire system of wage slavery.  We further hope that union members will come to understand that any resolution of a pay-deal within capitalism means their continued exploitation by the tiny capitalist class and that their best interest lies in joining their fellow workers in a movement with the express and single aim of “the abolition of the wages system” and its replacement with common ownership and the free association of producers.