Trade Unions (3/3)

An injury to one is an injury to all

Since their origin, employers, governments and the media have been obsessed with trade unions.  The Government, to please and placate the die-hard ideologues in the Conservative Party and the more unthinking of its voters generally, has chosen to propose legislation containing very drastic amendments to the law as it affects trade unions to take effective strike action. It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to quell trade unionism. Whatever the future outcome may be, the immediate effect has been to anger trade unionists who will doubtless fight back.  Of one thing we can be certain. If the workers ever feel moved again to come out on strike, a mere statute of the illegality of their action will not prevent them.

 The World Socialist Movement (WSM) view has always been that the members of unions should at all times keep control of union policy and actions in their own hands and not allow freedom of action to executive or officials. Not only should the decision to strike be by ballot of the members but also the decision to accept terms of settlement of a strike.  We counsel our fellow-wage slaves to beware of the “leaders,” actual and potential and their practice of sheep-like decision-making policies. Keep the power in your own hands. While recognising the defensive role of trade unions, as socialists we urge our fellow workers to go for revolutionary political action: not in order to foment the class war, but so as to end it. It is a sobering thought that since trade unions began, they are still fighting the same defensive struggle. But as long as capitalism exists, the strike will be a useful tool for the working class to increase their leverage.

The basis of trade-union organization is wages and conditions. The World Socialist Movement recognizes the necessity for all workers to do all they can to maintain wages and working conditions. This is part of the necessary and inevitable class struggle in capitalism.  Labour-power is a commodity and like all commodities, its price reflects its value, i.e. the labour which has gone to make it, and like all commodities, it is sold on a market where the interests of buyers and sellers are fundamentally opposed. The need for workers to organize and make use of the weapons available to them collectively is clear. The World Socialist Movement approve their efforts to get what they can and recognises the value of trade unionism in resisting the constant pressure of the capitalists on the workers’ standard of living.  But it also recognises, too, that trade unions are the main concern with the day-to-day struggle within capitalism and not with the task of overthrowing capitalism. This is necessarily the case because a trade union has to accept to its ranks all workers who are willing to join for its limited purposes. A trade union that restricted its membership to those who seek the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism would—in present circumstances—be a very ineffective body because it would be excluding a majority of the workers.

While supporting trade unionism, the WSM need not, and does not, support or defend those speeches and actions of any trade unions or their officials which are contrary to working-class interests and socialism. Nor has the  World Socialist Movement illusions concerning the power of strikes. We have pointed out repeatedly the limits within which they can be successful. We do not encourage the workers in the fallacy that strikes will bring them nearer to their emancipation or substantially improve their position in the long term under capitalism.  This much, however, is clear—that so long as capitalism lasts, strikes are necessary as weapons of defence, as means of applying the brake upon the downward tendency of the workers’ standard of living.

Under capitalism, the worker enters what is called the labour market to sell his or her labour power as an article of merchandise. The capitalist and the worker face each other in the market as buyer and seller. To the capitalist the reason why the worker is in the labour market is of no importance; he only regards the labour market as a branch of the general market in which commodities are bought and sold. In such conditions the worker loses the identity of Smith, Jones, or Robinson; an employee is to the capitalist so much energy which can be set in motion for a profitable purpose. But the reason why the capitalist is there is likewise of no importance to workers, our concern is to obtain the wherewithal to live, and since we can only obtain this by the sale of our labour power, we must enter into relations with the capitalist concerning the price to receive. It goes without saying that the worker will endeavour to obtain the highest price he or she can get, whilst the capitalist will endeavour to beat down the price as low as possible.

We have said that the price of labour-power is subject to the operation of economic laws, but this does not mean that the price of labour-power is determined apart from the struggle between the buyers and sellers. On the contrary, it is through the struggle that the price corresponding to the value of labour-power is ultimately realised. To realise the value of the commodity labour power necessitates the highest resistance between the buyers and sellers. Of course, the dice are loaded in favour of the capitalist, as he is in possession of the means of living, whilst the worker has nothing but the power to labour. Hence the resistance of the worker can only take the form of withholding the supply of this energy, and as in this form of resistance the individual worker is helpless, some form of combination is necessary. Therefore the trade union is an economic organisation. It is true that many of the unions dabble in politics, but this is merely a sideline, as an examination of their political and economic activities will show. The amount, of money expended by the unions on activities of a purely economic character, is far in excess of the amount expended upon political activities, and there is the further point that when the individual worker is called upon to become a member of the union, the question of one’s political views does not arise at all. Nationalist., Tory, Labour, Socialist, or no political view at all, the worker is enrolled as a member of the trade union for reasons which are purely economic. The trade union, then, is the form of combination by which the workers carry on their resistance against the capitalist, and however one may regret that the activities of the workers are not directed to the establishment of socialism, the struggle in the economic field must be carried on. For, bad as the condition of the working class is, only a fool would deny that it could be far worse. Of course, it will be said that the tendency of capitalist development is to drive down the position of the working class. But as Marx puts the position—

  “Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.”—(“Value, Price, and Profit.”)

Let there be no mistake about it, from the standpoint of the World Socialist Movement the struggle in the economic field to obtain and maintain the best terms the workers can get for the sale of their labour power is necessary. Far from there being any inconsistency on our part on this point, it is quite in line with the position of a World Socialist Movement. Right up to the time when the workers are ready to take over the control of the means of wealth production and distribution, the struggle of the workers over wages, hours, and the general conditions of employment, will have to be made, even as the workers become socialists in larger and larger numbers. The duty of the socialist is to make the non-socialist worker, inside and outside the trade union, acquainted with the actual position of the working class in capitalist society. For the workers to continue their struggle in the economic field, whilst in ignorance of the fact that they are slaves to the capitalist class, is to prolong the system by which they are sufferers. The adverse conditions in which the workers find themselves are inseparable from the capitalist system, and can only be removed when the workers awaken to a recognition of the necessity for the removal of the system, and the establishment of the Socialist form of society. Whether wages be called high or low the general position of the workers is one of a struggle against starvation throughout the whole of their lifetime. Trade unionism will not alter this, nor, in fact, will any form of economic organisation. The abolition of the wage system and the conditions that are engendered in that system will only become an accomplished fact when a majority of the workers become acquainted with a knowledge of their slave position and then organise politically and economically for the overthrow of capitalist society and the establishment of socialism.