MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




See: Overproduction



Defined by Hegel: “logic has three sides: (a) the abstract side, or that of Understanding; (b) the Dialectical, or that of negative reason; (c) the Speculative, or that of positive reason.”.

(a) “Thought, as Understanding, sticks to fixity of characters and their distinctness from one another: every such limited abstract it treats as having a subsistence and being of its own.”

(b) “In the Dialectical stage these finite characterisations or formulae supersede themselves, and pass into their opposites.” ...

Further Reading: Hegel on Kant and his explanation of Understanding., also Hegel in connection with Freedom and Necessity and Speculative Logic; Ilyenkov's explanation



Unions are mass organisations of the working class whose primary role is to achieve the common demands of their members. They are fundamentally defensive organizations. A good union can not only improve workers' lives, win more leisure time and a better standard of living, they can also change governments and make very significant changes across society.

Capabilities of the Union for the worker: A union sets goals for itself in tune with the aspirations of its members, but it can only accomplish what the majority of its members are willing to support. The goals of the unions are generally confined to the following areas:

1. Issues of Respect: Workers are often mistreated by the boss through verbal or physical abuse: from constantly degrading remarks to sexual harrasment and assualt to a complete lack of empowerment: never listening to workers suggestions, advice, comments, etc.
2. Wage & Benefits: The vast majority of workers are not paid according to the full value of what they produce — if all workers in a workplace were paid this full value, then the boss would have nothing to survive on, since labour is the source of all value! Further, as inflation eats into the value of their wage, workers are constantly having to fight for increases in pay and benefits. Workers who don't get these annual raises are in fact being paid less money (even though their wage remains the same) since the value of money is continually decreasing.
3. Hours Worked: The vast majority of workers in the world are over-worked: required to put in more hours than is socially necessary in order to create profits. Unions can force the boss to hire more workers, instead of constantly increasing the burdens on existing employees. The union can also ensure that in emergency cases where someone must work overtime, they are fairly compensated (contrary to popular understanding — overtime compensation is compulsory only for unskilled workers in a handful of countries). Further, if the union can grow strong enough to command a role in society, they can take the next step in limiting the amount of wasteful labour — work for the military industrial complex, for example.
4. Working Conditions: Many workers do not work in a healthy or safe work place environment. There is sometimes little prevention of potential dangers, protective gear is often old and ragged, there can be various factors (high stress) leading to psychological problems, etc. Occupational health and safety is the most unifying issue a union can pursue: even the most conservative worker can get totally irate if they believe their health and safety is being threatened. Legally binding standards can often result from such struggles, which means that when they are enforced, a union delivers real benefits for their members while winning to its ranks people who would otherwise never join a union.
5. Job Security: In most countries (including the US) a boss can fire workers at will, for no reason at all. A few countries however have laws against firing workers without due cause, and some countries don't allow firing to take place based on discrimination or union organising – but that doesn't stop the boss from firing that same worker for any other "reason". With a union, any disciplinary action taken against a worker may be subject to a procedure negotiated with the union, which guarantees a level of natural justice through union representation.

Capabilities of the Union for the working-class: A Union is capable of greater victories than simply winning concessions from the boss for a particular group of workers who have bargaining power. While the immediacy of the workers' own needs are the real basis for creating the union, strong unions can achieve greater victories for the working class.

1. Spreading the solidarity: Unions can spread the word about their victories, inspire, teach, and lead other workers to similar victories in their work places. Solidarity cannot be taken for granted; it has to be built in struggle. Building this means effectively using things like publicity, public statements, embarrassment, acts of defiance or humorous demonstrations. All these things are mostly harmless and communicate the issue without being too confrontational: who isn't tired by those who scream bloody murder at this or that offence? You have to convince people to listen, and usually that won't happen when all you have to talk about is awful misery and despair.
2. Organizing the unorganised: Unions can help create a more militant working class; they help foster class consciousness and establish pride in labour. This creates politically active workers; a necessity for revolution. This is a necessity for unions because no organised workplace is safe so long as there are non-unionised workers ready to work for worse conditions. Organising new workplaces ensures that the bosses' supply of non-organized labourers is shut-off and raises the general standard of living for everyone.
3. Hiring Halls: Unions can create a situation where the employer must post all job openings to the union; thus making the jobs available only to unionised workers. This can go as far as forcing the boss to agree to a "closed shop", where the boss agrees to never employ someone unless they join the union. The union can even win the right to hire new employees, though this is very rare at the outset of the 21st century.
4. Firing the Boss: Unions can create an organisation that is capable of running an industry by the workers, from the bottom up, without the need for the bosses. Unions can use their model of democratic operation not only for the defence of the workers, but for the progress of the workplace itself — so that union democracy, not top-down appointments by the board of directors, is the order of the day. Naturally, this sort of arrangement requires a revolution.
5. Legal Reform: Unions can lobby government organisations and intervene in election campaigns for better labour laws, put union members into parliament to represent the interests of union members, pressure for anti-discrimination laws, public health and education and other social changes which benefit the whole working class.

Tactics of the Union: All these capabilities sound bold and impressive, but how can a union achieve them? The simple fact that workers on a job site agree to work together to make these gains is no guarantee of success! The boss has to recognise the needs of profit, not the needs of workers' democracy! So what is the union to do?

0. Communication: The first basic thing that a union worker needs to understand is that their own consciousness about an issue is not necessarily the same as their fellow workers. The first steps in an industrial campaign are aimed principally at communicating with one another about the issues and achieving a consensus about what has to be done. The later steps are aimed at demonstrating that united action can achieve what needs to be done. Once the entire workforce in a company clearly understands an issue in dispute with the boss and is firmly committed to resolving it together (believing it is possible to win), the boss can either ignore the workers, or negotiate with them. Even if negotiations begin, it may become apparent that the boss is merely making a pretense of negotiating (not negotiating in “good faith”), or that the boss will not move far enough to resolve the issue. Negotiations with the boss do not always go well, and sometimes, the boss outright refuses to recognise the workers' demands. In any case, when the workers' have found that the boss will not meet the demands they require, it is time for action. Keep in mind, however, that most forms of action are either illegal, or could get workers fired. Action should always be carefully considered and *always* carried out by the union as a whole.

1. Direct Action:

a. The Slowdown [Go-Slow]: Unionised workers take their time doing the job. Products are built at a slower pace forcing the assembly line to slow down, items are served more slowly so customers have to wait in line longer and longer, drivers slow down on their delivery routes, etc.
b. Following the Rules [Work-to-Rule]: Workers follow the exact letter of the workplace rules: no less, no more. Every company has a maze of rules for how to do things to protect them from this or that law, but in practice, we all (as well as the bosses) ignore many of these rules to get the job done in the best way possible. No longer. We follow them to the letter.
c. Help the consumer: If you are driving a bus, is it really necessary to collect the fares? Running a register – is it so important that all goods are paid for? Working a hospital – do you really need to write up bills for treatment? Serving food – you don't want people to go hungry by giving them such small helpings, do you? This galvanizes public support in a fantastic way. :)
d. Ignore the boss: Institute the changes you want in the workplace without the bosses approval. Pay checks not arriving on time? Have the union take the money out of the register, and distribute it appropriately. Dangerous, old equipment laying around that the boss forces you to use? Use it for "parts"; move it yourselves to a place where it can't be useful.
e. Irritate the boss: Practices which make life miserable for the boss, such as everyone forwarding their phone to the boss, and so on. Use measures which humorously make the point, such as bringing the kids into work to support the demand for child-care.
f. Sabotage: Violence against the machinery, not the boss. This is an illegal tactic, thus no union "officially" supports it. Sabotage thus has a tendency to be carried out by individuals in an un-organized fashion, which can be very problematic. Workers who commit this can be held personally liable for damages, and getting the support of other workers for such action is always difficult — many workers would resent such a tactic because it is destructive. The word originates from the French sabot (meaning boot); after workers jammed their boots into their factory machinery in a united action. Union Workers employing this tactic may "misplace" critical items, spill coffee on critical documents, if in a restaurant, bring some "pets" to work (a.k.a. mice), and give the health board a call. Worried about scabs breaking the strike? Bring some "souvenirs" from work to your home, those convenient little things that seem to be so crucial for the smooth operation of the workplace.

2. Withold Labour: Unionized workers can be on the job, but choose not to work.

a. The Stop-work meeting: Call your fellow workers to a meeting during working hours to discuss the issues in dispute and collectively decide on the next stage of action. This helps build solidarity and commitment while only losing pay for one or two hours - it will cost the boss more to deduct your pay than to pay you.
b. Sit down strike: These strikes are usually short and immediate. At a critical time in the business day, sit down for a "break" – on the assembly line, sit back and watch the product move on down the line. Performers on stage sit down during the show, or in some way passively block the entrance/exit of leading members, to ensure the play does not go on simply by being immobile. Another method is the "mass grievance", where all workers go to the boss' office to discuss some problem. Another variation is the "sick-in" (used often by workers for whom a "strike" is illegal) – where union members all call in sick on the same day. Lastly, workers can occupy the work place, in the event of a closure for example.
c. Selective ["Guerrilla" strike] strike: Why strike every day? Strike today, come to work tomorrow, strike the next two days, and so on, without letting the boss know what's going to happen next. Don't give them a chance to hire scabs, and force the bosses to work for a change to fill in on those "off" days.
d. Rolling strike: A different section of the workforce strikes each day or week, in rotation, so the whole place is stuffed continuously, but no-one is losing more than a fraction of their pay. Bosses usually respond with a "Lock-Out", by stopping the pay of all workers until the action ceases.
e. Bans: Ban work on just one task (one that people feel most pissed-off about), but otherwise work normally, and pass the buck endlessly when the boss tries to get that one task done.
f. Short-duration strike: Refuse to work for x number of days, and then return to work; as the dispute rolls on, the length of the withdrawals of labour get longer and longer. Picket lines are essential so that the effectiveness of the strike is not undermined by non-unionists going into work.
g. Indefinite Strike: The old-fashioned, hard-nosed, walk-out. Workers leave their jobs and set up a picket line outside the job site to discourage strike-breaking scabs and galvanize public support, refusing to return to work until an agreement is reached.

Note: No effective union action, whether simple face-to-face chatting in the tea-room or full-on strike action, is possible without a corresponding expression of working class discipline. Any unionist who calls a strike without organising picket lines to stop reluctant workers from going in to work would be better off doing nothing at all - a failed strike can break a union forever. The boss has enormous resources, mainly the pay-check and the right to hire and fire. If the workers are going to stand up to that and force the boss to do something the boss doesn't want to do, the workers have to be disciplined enough to actually walk out and stay out, while also being prepared to put up picket lines and physically stop people from passing. This is not a pleasant task. After the strike is over it may take months or years to heal the bad feeling and bitterness resulting from what took place on the picket line. So strikes should not be called lightly; nor should they be called indecisively. When the strike is over real efforts must be taken to mend the wounds.

3. Legal Action: Blow the whistle! Unsafe work environment? Is the boss breaking rules about dumping trash or workplace safety? Is the cook putting that "special sauce" into the food again? Let the government know! Take the boss to court for unhealthy working conditions, violations of labour law, etc.
4. Tarnish Reputation: Branding is extremely important for large co-operations who rely on consumer revenues. Companies attempt to make their brand a culture in its own right: instead of beer being at a party, the beer creates the party environment. Bring customers back down to reality! Note, however, that such tactics are generally negative and therefore can only go so far.

a. Publicize the struggle: Let people know about the real operations of the company, and how it clashes with the image they douse on the public.
b. Boycott! Galvanize public solidarity with the struggle by asking consumers not to patronize the business — change their logo from being the life of the party to a symbol of the particular kind of oppression they practice.
c. Ad Busting: If the company uses public billboards, notices, etc, use graffiti to twist the message of the ad into something closer to reality.

How to build Union: Now that we have the scope of union objectives clarified, and the tools the union can employ to achieve these objectives have been made clear, the question becomes: how are unions built? Naturally, every union has different methods, every culture demands different requirements, and every industry operates in a different way. Regardless, some basic aspects can be layed out.

1. Unions must be built on an immediate, common need of workers. In building a union, workers stick their necks out for notice, they make it clear to the boss that they recognise the principles of class. No one wants to rock the boat and endanger their livelihood without a very good reason.
2. The leaders in the work place must be identified; these include 'natural' leaders as well as good workers who others look up to. A budding union needs to gather up diverse representatives in the job, from all major departments and shifts, reflecting the real racial and gender diversity at the job. This group of workers will be those who organize the union, and winning over as many of them as possible to the union is imperative.
3. Mapping the company then takes place, where the organizing workers lay out the structure of the workplace, changes in shifts, establishing an understanding of where the boss goes and doesn’t, which workers see each other, etc. Collecting employee information is also necessary, and information about the company (finances, locations, etc). Finally, the group must identify informal cliques and social networks in the company.
4. The organizers then determine the common needs of the workers – which issues every worker will be able to connect with and is willing to fight for. They also need to decide the general strategy for union recognition. The typical union will try for card checks (in the US, union authorization cards signed by 50% + 1 of the workers on the job site), while militant unions will simply use Direct Action (or threats of it), withhold labour, or any one of the tactics discussed, since legal recognition is fairly meaningless in most countries.
5. Workers must be enlisted. Setting the tone with the workers is very important: being positive, talking about what the union will do and what the boss will do, before the boss feeds in their perspective. Thus, make the boss be the negative one: talking about the evils of the union, etc. The organizers must deal with workers one on one in this manner, with the objectives of:

a. Agitating (identify issues at the work place),
b. Educating (information about the union, etc),
c. Inoculating (talk about the boss’s reaction to the union), and
d. Organizing (give the worker tasks so that they feel they are a part of the union).

6. Once there is a strong enough group of workers who have joined the union, actually negotiating union demands or creating a contract of work can occur. Almost all union action is aimed at bringing the boss to the bargaining table where the union represents the workers and negotiates an agreement to settle the issue in dispute to the satisfaction of the employees. The various agreements which unions negotiate over the years, (as well as laws and regulations introduced by the government in response to union campaigns) constitute a kind of system of regulations governing the workplace. These regulations operate from year to year protecting workers’ rights. Because they represent a kind of "peace treaty" which brought about an end to warfare of an earlier time, both sides will be reluctant to break them. However, just like international diplomacy, if there is a change in the balance of power or other factors affecting the agreement, then one side or the other is going to want to break the agreement. Unless a union remains strong, everything that has been gained in the past will be lost. If conditions remain good at the workplace, then it may be difficult for workers to see why they need a union, because after a won contract, the union isn’t making its presence felt every day, and the appearance can become that the boss treats workers very well.

The effect of union action over the years is very often the continuous build-up of rules and regulations, which act to protect workers, but often everything gets tied up with red tape and even the workers who the rules were meant to protect get fed up with the resulting bureaucracy. This in turn can become a good argument from the boss for tossing it all out. This ‘red tape’ is a symptom of the weakness of the workers and their dependence on paid officials and legal protection rather than their own militancy and initiative. Union activists must always have confidence in workers to protect themselves. If workers rely on their own judgment and participation to protect their rights rather than regulations imposed on the bosses by legal documents, then they will be more conscious of what is involved, more empowered and more willing and able to change things in ways that benefit everyone without calling in lawyers. All this emphasises the need for unions to always take the struggle further — when the demands are won at the work place, win them for other workers. As that happens, start to change the whole of society by replacing the boss and implementing real worker's democracy. Without this evolution, unions will stagnate and fail.
7. With demands won, it is time to expand the union, unite with a political party, and start making gains for the working-class as a whole!

See also: IWW Organizing Manual

Fixing the problems in Unions: There are many critiques of unions, based on many different types of ways unions can function, and from different perspectives: the bosses have their critiques, and workers have different critiques.

1. Unions will hurt the company: Unions hurt the company by ‘hurting’ profitability – workers get more money, so obviously profits are being used to make that possible. The only people being hurt are the company owners, and the biggest of the shareholders. In some rare cases however, unionised workers win pay greater than the value of what they produce. Such a victory can have the impact of negatively affecting consumers: costs are raised as a result. If prices aren't raised, then other, non-unionised workers in that company will be exploited further to keep the bosses running, or the company will go out of business!

Further, the tactics that a union must use when the boss refuses to negotiate and the workers refuse to capitulate, have the potential to damage, not just the bosses and their profits, but the whole company. In fact, nation-wide action by a union has the capacity to affect the whole economy. In general, so long as workers are locked out of having a say in running their workplaces, there is not a lot of choice here, and workers who are totally alienated by their work won't have much difficulty with this: when you're treated like shit, why bother if the boss's obstinacy and determination to rub your nose in the dirt ultimately brings the whole company down?

Many professional workers are far better off and do feel they have some stake in their work, even if they are mistreated, underpaid and devalued. For example, health-workers and teachers are going to be reluctant to take action which damages patients and pupils, and professional workers even in ordinary manufacturing businesses will be reluctant to take action which permanently damage their firm's prospects.

Union activists must take these kinds of concerns seriously. A management which pushes their workers into a position where they cannot get genuine grievances attended to until the firm is really hurt must bear the responsibility; but a unionist who simply dismisses concerns workers express about this is mistaken. Sometimes a boss may behave so badly that workers will deliberately bring about the bankruptcy of their employer knowing full well that they will be out of work as a result - "good riddance!". But that is rare.

This is also an important example that the union must grow to realize that there is more to this than simply winning workers’ demands: the union must recognize and negotiate with the needs of the working class as a whole. The boss represents the needs of profit, so the union needs to shift that point of negotiation — yes the union is hurting profits, but the union has to have a mind to the welfare of the whole working class. To accomplish this unions need to unite with a political party (whose purpose is to represent all workers) currently in power, so that the needs of society are balanced with the needs of workers.

2. Union workers are inefficient: This is a function of the type of union and the contract won. Further, trade unions have the problem about being righteous in terms of the work their trade does – no worker can do a task other than the assigned worker. These kind of regulations are an attempt to protect the worker, but sometimes they've run amok and cause more damage than good (increased alienation, lack of efficiency, breadown of solidarity, etc), both inside the union, and resulting in a very poor picture of the union for non-organized workers.

3. Unions are corrupt: This depends on the type of union. The less transparency, the less democracy, the more bureaucracy – the more corruption! A union worth its salt must constantly strive for maximum transparency, democracy, and reducing bureaucracy.

4. Unions protect lazy workers: Sometimes one worker can be such a poor contributor that not only does the boss want to sack them, all their fellow workers would like to get rid of them too, and it can be very galling when the union steps in and defends them. If the union is very strong, then they can deal with problems like this very effectively, but most times the boss has such power that the union has to prove that it is willing and able to defend anyone. Usually a union does this simply by insisting that the boss follow agreed-upon disciplinary procedures and giving workers fair representation – just like in the legal system. Nevertheless, people can even resent such fairness if someone is particularly disliked. In the long run, however, workers should appreciate the need for natural justice and it is part of the job of a union to ensure that everyone gets a fair go. Ultimately, when the union becomes strong enough, then it can become much more pro-active and not only limit the bosses' power, but replace the boss with workers’ self-management. See Also: Wage Hustling.

5. Unions force others to unionise: This differs from union to union. Some unions have strong-arm contracts where no non-union worker can come to a given job site ("closed shop")– thus, workers who come in to the job are forced to join the union and pay union dues. Being a union member gives people a chance to get information about what's going on and participate in deciding union policy. A union is no more able to force a member to do something than it can force non-members to do anything they don't want to do. People who refuse to join a union can be seen as freeloaders who enjoy pay and conditions won by the union, without making any contribution.

6. Unions hurt the consumer: A union is all about making a deal with the boss; a deal that both the boss and the workers can accept. Those not at the bargaining table however — the consumers and the non-union workers — oftentimes bear the brunt of such agreements. This examples the utmost importance of unions uniting with political parties – so the interests of the masses can be represented in balance with the union members. When this happens, the terms of the negotiation can switch from worker and boss to worker and society as a whole.

7. Unions Strike! Striking is always a last resort. No-one wants to go without pay. But just as a shop-keeper can refuse to sell their produce at too low a price, workers have the same right to refuse to work. When workers go on strike, they use picket lines to make sure that other people (scabs) don’t take advantage by taking over their jobs while they are on strike. A difficulty for a worker during a strike is that it is hard to pay the bills when no pay-check is coming in; thus, there is always a temptation for a striker to pick up another job while the strike is still going on; unfortunately, this depletes the personnel on the picket line and also tends to break the unity and purpose of the union.
Bosses characterize picketing as preventing workers’ freedom of labour — the right to work wherever a worker is accepted by the employer. In making that argument, the bosses forget to mention that giving that particular freedom to the individual eventually leads to the degradation of all workers — a race to the bottom where every worker is forced to outbid every other worker to work for the lowest wage. The individual worker is tiny and weak compared to the power and wealth of the employer. The boss likes nothing better than for workers to approach the boss one at a time, as ‘free individuals’, each bargaining separately for her or his wages and conditions. In such a so-called ‘free labour market’ the boss gets the better of the workers one at a time. But when workers band together and bargain as a unit, they meet the boss as power-against-power.
Unfortunately there are pressures on workers to break the necessary solidarity with their class. These range from pure opportunism (scabs are sometimes very well paid) to utter desperation — scabs are workers too, and need to earn a living! While these things are true, the needs for workers to have power, to have democracy in the workplace, are more crucial.

8. Professional workers? Many better-off professional workers, such as doctors and layers, don't belong to unions. This is bound to be the case where the workers in question are well-paid and are self-employed or have a relationship with their employer which is more like partnership rather than employer-employee.

In the 19th century, only manual workers belonged to unions. Clerical workers, teachers, even railway clerks, let alone doctors and nurses, did not belong to unions. As capitalism has grown, wider and wider sections of the workforce find themselves plunged into the status of menial wage-workers and lose their self-perception of being "above" unions. Wave after wave, sections of "professional workers" become "proletarianised" and join unions. At the same time, brand new trades and professions appear as the productive forces develop, and the people working in these new areas start off with a high social status and great "bargaining power" (like the machinists of the 19th century or computer workers of the late 20th century). They are often the trend-setters for social change and reform. Teachers at the turn of the 21st century for example are usually very highly unionised, as are nurses. Nevertheless, this process corresponds to the changes taking place in the labour process and consequently in the working class itself. The kind of unionism practiced by teachers and nurses today is very different from the kind of unionism that grew up among car-workers and truck-drivers in the early part of the 20th century. Most of the basic ideas about union organising were developed by blue-collar workers. Newly-unionised professionals, and especially women workers, do their unionism very differently and are a modernising and dynamic force within the union movement. Union militants must be very sensitive to the kind of people they are working with and be prepared to try new things and work out new and more appropriate methods of struggle corresponding to the consciousness of the workers involved.

9. Limitations of Unions as Vehicles of Socialist Consciousness: Unions are basically used by workers to get more money for less work, to have more leisure time, to be able to become consumers rather than producers. Trade unionism by no means automatically leads to socialist consciousness. In fact, trade unions are invariably the site of bureaucratism, corruption, self-seeking and petty-squabbling. They are also the well-springs of solidarity, class-consciousness, and emancipation. In short, trade unions are an arena of struggle. Marxists, as class-conscious, militant members of the working class have a responsibility to work to transform the unions, to fight bureaucratism, to foster solidarity, to build links between unions and militant political parties, to widen workers' horizons, to promote social and environmental issues, to bring the workers to the side of the youth, the poor and encourage workers to oppose militarism and racism.

Government protection of Workers: What about the government? Don't they protect some worker's rights? This depends on the government in question, of course. In the United States, workers have very few protections. Essentially, the bosses aren't allowed to fire workers because of union activity, or on the basis of discrimination. Some states enforce rules about lunch breaks: typically, for 8 hours of work a 30 minute break is required. Beyond this, there is very little in worker protections.

Historical Development: In Britain, the trade unions arose spontaneously, in the early nineteenth century, prior to the existence of any working class political party. In Europe however, the trade unions were established in the late nineteenth century by working class political parties, and to this day, rival national trade union confederations exist, affiliated to one or another political party. In Britain, however, it was the trade unions who established the Labour Party.

Qualification for union membership is defined by occupation, not political belief. So, in essence, the structure of the trade unions must reflect the social division of labour, not political views.

Further, it is normal, in countries and in industries where unions are strong, for even workers who are politically opposed to unionism to be members of their trade union. The non-political character of trade unions flows from their nature: the strength of a trade union, even its very existence, depends on its ability to control a monopoly of labour power in a particular trade or industry. Generally speaking, trade unions work by negotiating with representatives of the employers and drafting legally binding agreements which are signed by both sides and set the terms and conditions of employment until the next time, when the agreement breaks down, workers go on strike or get locked out by the employers, and a new deal is made. The unions cannot do this effectively unless they can prevent the employers from hiring workers to do the work and from taking revenge on those that strike. Solidarity between workers is therefore the foundation of unionism, including the capacity to enforce solidarity when it is not forthcoming voluntarily.

After the Russian Revolution, communists working in unions formed the Red International of Trade Unions, but this did not advocate the formation of “communist trade unions”. However, in the late-1920s, in what Stalin called the “Third Period”, it did become a practice of the Communist Parties across the world to set up rival “Red” unions in opposition to the existing unions which were controlled by social-democrats. This policy invariably proved a dismal failure and was abandoned from the mid-1930s onwards.

Consequently, although the existence of rival unions organising in the same industry or trade remains, it is contrary to the essence of unions. At the same time, solidarity between unions is essential, for every struggle cuts across trades and industries, and ultimately develops along class lines. Consequently, there is an historical tendency towards the unification, federation and merger of unions.

In the first decade of the 20th century, the IWW – Industrial Workers of the World – a syndicalist movement, proposed the formation of One Big Union (OBU). Attempts to build the OBU as a rival “red” union in competition with the official unions made substantial progress until the 1930s, but the idea has remained a significant force in the union movement ever afterwards.

A union also differs fundamentally from any other social movement, because it explicitly defends the economic self-interest of its own members, whereas any other social movement exists to further a principle, evidently separate from the social interests of its members. Nevertheless, the trade union movement necessarily expresses a principle, precisely and only because it expresses the social interests of a class, the proletariat.

Good unions – unions which are democratic, have high levels of membership in all the relevant workplaces, professional and dedicated officials and the loyalty of their members – are a prerequisite for all the political and social development of the working class. Good unions are even more useful to the workers than good political programs, left-wing parties and parliamentary representatives, because if they have good unions, workers can effectively determine their own future.

One of the contradictions inherent in a trade union is that a trade union furthers the interests of its members as wage-slaves – to get the highest possible price for the labour power they sell, reducing the length of the working day and the working life (through an earlier retirement age and better pension schemes) – and yet the real liberation of their members entails not a better price for the sale of their labour-power but the abolition of wage slavery! This contradiction is manyfold: even the well-paid worker is alienated, but effective unionism requires that the workers remain alienated from their work, for otherwise they can be co-opted and industrial action is impossible. Also, the most important single thing that unions can do to defend their members’ economic interests is the shortening of the working day, but the effect of a shorter working day can only be to transform the worker more and more into a Consumer, the most alienated and powerless of positions in bourgeois society.

The resolution of this contradiction is that trade unions can be superseded and transformed into something else only when, by means of unionism, the workers have gained for themselves sufficient social power to be able to determine for themselves a different future. It is said that trade unions represent the bourgeois consciousness of the workers, but they are a precondition for the revolutionary consciousness of the working class.

So, even though the program of the trade unions is a very conservative one (compared to the Communist Manifesto, for example) it can only express the level of development of the broad mass of the working class. Revolutionary socialism has no way forward that does not pass through the building and leadership of the trade unions.

Trotsky put it this way:

“The strategic task of the Fourth International lies not in reforming capitalism but in its overthrow. Its political aim is the conquest of power by the proletariat for the purpose of expropriating the bourgeoisie. However, the achievement of this strategic task is unthinkable without the most considered attention to all, even small and partial, questions of tactics. All sections of the proletariat, all its layers, occupations and groups should be drawn into the revolutionary movement. The present epoch is distinguished not for the fact that it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution.

“The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old “minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, “minimal” demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism - and this occurs at each step-the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old “minimal program” is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.” [Transitional Program, Trotsky, 1938 ]

The activity of the trade unions, even at an early stage in their development is by no means limited to workplace activity however. The trade unions in Australia created the Australian Labor Party, and in Britain, the Trade Union Congress founded the Labour Party, for the sole purpose of electing trade union delegates to Parliament in order to legislate measures that would protect the rights of workers in ways that could not be achieved by industrial activity and also to counteract the use of Parliament to organise and legitimise action against the trade unions. Until Tony Blair in Britain, and to this day in Australia, workers voting in their trade unions determine who gets elected to parliament under the Labour Party banner. In other countries, the trade unions systematically intervene in the various political parties to pressure for measures beneficial to the working class. This fact has not of course brought about an end to capitalism! because the power of the bourgeoisie does not reside in Parliament, but in capital, and capital controls the state.

This parliamentary arm of the defensive work of the trade unions, which arises from the conditions of the working class within bourgeois society, is the foundation of reformism, the politics which expresses the interests of the Bureaucracy in the trade union movement and its parliamentary offshoots.

Here we have another contradiction in the development of the trade unions: from the moment they come into existence the unions must collect money and hire full-time representatives, advocates, organisers and so on, an apparatus which can grow to rival in magnitude large capitalist corporations, with Chief Executives and Members of Parliament on salaries many times that of the workers they represent. It is inevitable that this class of people who earn a living and make a career representing the working class – the workers’ bureaucracy – have a completely different social consciousness and develop distinct social interests and inevitably develop their own political credo – reformism.

Thus, although the trade unions have a vital role to play in developing the strength and self-consciousness of the working class, the trade unions are not equipped for the overthrow of capitalism. The ultimate act of the trade unions is to refuse to sell their labour-power, to stop work – at its highest point, the general strike. The general strike is a means of exerting maximum pressure on the government and the capitalist class – but unless the strike is ended after not too short a time, someone must take control of the process of production or people starve. So any general strike is doomed to failure unless the working class is prepared to take control.

From the general strike to seizing control of production necessitates the capture of state power and therefore a revolutionary political working class leadership, for which the trade unions are not sufficient. On the other hand, a revolutionary political leadership which is incapable of winning the leadership and support of the trade unions can never lead a socialist revolution.

Thus Marxists must work as members of their trade union alongside other workers, dealing with the day-to-day problems of the workers’ movement, but the decision to hold a strike, sign an agreement, set up a new branch or whatever, are decisions which must always be taken by the unions, according to their own members and their own constitution, preferably by the methods of proletarian democracy. When it comes to the general strike however (by “general strike” is meant not some one-day protest rally, but an indefinite strike by all trade unions), since the general strike can be won only if the working class is prepared and able to take public political power, the situation is different. Once a general strike has been called, the destiny of the whole of society is in the balance, and conduct of the general strike is the responsibility of the working class revolutionary political movement.

From The Transitional Program:

“(a) Trade unions do not offer, and in line with their task, composition. and manner of recruiting membership, cannot offer a finished revolutionary program; in consequence, they cannot replace the party. ...

“(b) Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle, during a period of exceptional upsurges in the labour movement. During such moments it is necessary to create organisations ad hoc, embracing the whole fighting mass: strike committees, factory committees, and finally, soviets.

“(c) As organisations expressive of the top layers of the proletariat, trade unions, as witnessed by all past historical experience, including the fresh experience of the anarcho-syndicalist unions in Spain, developed powerful tendencies toward compromise with the bourgeois-democratic regime. In periods of acute class struggle, the leading bodies of the trade unions aim to become masters of the mass movement in order to render it harmless. This is already occurring during the period of simple strikes, especially in the case of the mass sit-down strikes which shake the principle of bourgeois property. In time of war or revolution, when the bourgeoisie is plunged into exceptional difficulties, trade union leaders usually become bourgeois ministers.” [Transitional Program, Trotsky, 1938 ]

Types of trade union: the first unions which developed in England out of the feudal guilds were organised along trade lines, i.e., each union organised every worker in a particular trade, and thereby exercised a monopoly over that kind of labour, even though they often had a relatively small number of members.

In the late nineteenth century, unionism established itself among unskilled workers, giving rise to, for example, the Gasworkers’ Union and the Dockworkers’ Union, struggles in which Marx’s daughter Eleanor was a central player. Whereas, the skilled workers who had been the foundation of the trade unions were relatively privileged sections of the working class, the workers who joined the great industrial unions in the late 19th and early 20th century were the poorest sections of the working class. In general though, the poorest sections of the working class remain those who do not belong to trade unions. Industrial unionism spread to industries like the railways where even the skilled trades were absorbed into a single industry-wide union. The management and upper white-collar grades in these industries tended to remain outside the union however. In the latter part of the twentieth century, as supervisory and white-collar sections of the labour force became proletarianised, these industrial unions extended themselves upwards to include all but the top managers themselves, especially in the public sector.

As rates of union membership declined in last couple of decades of the twentieth century it has been the public sector which held up strongest, along with the blue-collar trades. So, the decline in public sector employment and the decline of the blue-collar manufacturing trades has hit union membership. The service sector has become organised, but rates of union membership has not generally kept pace with the changing composition of the working class.

In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the trade unions continued to exist despite the abolition of capital, since wage-labour continued. In the Soviet Union, the trades unions were organised along trade lines, and were a significant arm of the social support system. In Poland for example, on the other hand, the unions were organised along industry lines. It was this industrial type of organisation that made it possible for Solidarity to form as an opposition force to the government, something that was impossible for the Soviet trade unions. These unions were of course completely penetrated by the state apparatus which itself rested on the organised working class.

In newly industrialised countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, the governments run “yellow” unions which act as organisations for the disciplining of workers (as do some unions in the developed capitalist countries), and workers have had to build illegal unions side-by-side with the official “yellow” unions. However, even these “yellow” unions have been used by workers and to a significant degree transformed into instruments for the working class, despite the efforts of the police agents within them.

The development of unions in these newly industrialised countries differs from the way they developed in Europe and America in another way. The severity of police surveillance and the mobility of capital has made workplace organising very difficult. Consequently, most of the independent unions in these countries have been built by outside organisers, often young intellectuals, and tend to operate in a way which much more resembles a modern social movement or pressure group.

See also: Conflict Resolution, Negotiation, Consensus Decision Making, Democratic Centralism, Group Dynamics, Meeting Procedure, Political Party, Standing Orders.


United Front

United Front is a tactic in which two or more subjects, especially political parties, collaborate against a common enemy or for any agreed objective, without giving up their differences.

The slogan of a United Front was raised by the Trotskyists in the late 1920s/early 1930s in response to the rise of fascism in Germany. Trotsky said that in order to unite the working class, the Social Democrats and the Communists should form a “United Front.”

See For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism, Trotsky December 8 1931. Trotsky’s call was directed at the leaders of the Communist Party, who instead of seeking a united front with the socialists, were denouncing the socialists as “social fascists.”

While intended to achieve the class-unity which was necessary to defeat fascism, as Trotsky saw it, the united front did not include the parties ceasing criticism of one another. In fact, in order to get the best policy, it was essential that the two parties continued to criticise each other and compete for the loyalty of the workers.

Further, the united front was to be formed by a public agreement between the leaders of the two parties, who thereby recognised each other’s legitimacy, even while disagreeing with each other. This differs from the idea of a ‘Red United Front from Below’ put forward by Stalin, which meant denouncing the leaders of the opposing party as ‘social fascists’ but calling upon those who supported the social democrats to form a united front ‘behind the backs’ of their own leaders, ‘from below’.

Since this call was presaged on a social democratic workers agreeing that they belonged to a ‘social fascist’ party, it was unlikely to be heeded, and actually formed a justification for not forming a united front. By contrast, when CP leaders were called upon publicly to adopt a policy of United Front, but then seen to refuse to adopt this obviously necessary policy, the workers who followed the Communist Party leaders may come to see for themselves that their own leaders were betraying them.

The United Front is also contrasted with the Popular Front. The Popular Front is an alliance not between competing working class parties, but between a working class and a bourgeois party. Far from achieving the unity of the working class, the popular front meant abandoning sections of the working class in order to unite with the bourgeoisie. Also, the Popular Front entailed a kind of “non-aggression pact” in which the parties stopped criticising each other, opponents of the popular front usually becoming the main target of criticism for both parties. And frequently, features of the popular front were “negotiated” in secret between party leaders.

The idea of ‘United front’ is sometimes mistakenly associated with calls by small left parties on larger more moderate parties to make a ‘united front’ with them, that is, to stop attacking or victimising them. However, there is no motivation for the leaders of the larger, more moderate party to act in this way, and their members usually do not see their refusal as a breach of class unity. The United Front in its original meaning concerns the relation between two parties who between them commanded the loyalties of the entire workers’ movement.


Unity of Opposites

The unity of opposites is a way of understanding something in its entirety. Instead of just taking one aspect, or one part of a certain thing, seeing something as a unity of opposites is recognizing the dialectical content of that thing. Because everything has its opposite, to understand it one must not only understand its present form and its opposite form, but the unity of those two forms, the unity of opposites.

The term has been used by Marxists such as Engels and Lenin to popularise the dialectical way of understanding things. For example, in his Summary of Dialectics, Lenin refers to the ‘unity, identity, struggle and transformation of opposites’.

The basis for the pervasiveness of the ‘Unity of Opposites’ is many-fold; any concept which is not simply a synonym for something else or the name for an arbitrary collection of elements, must express both the substantial existence of the thing (its Being) and its specific meaning or significance (essence); if a concept is not to be closed and static, it must contain inner conflict.

Further Reading: See for example Marx on Abstract vs. Concrete and Analysis vs. Synthesis, on Private and Common property and Individual and Social and his treatment of the concepts of political economy in the Grundrisse. See Lenin's Summary of Dialectics, Hegel’s comment on Kant’s failure to understand the unity of opposites, and why “unity expresses an abstract and merely quiescent identity”and the Sampler for references to Hegel's treatment of a number of concepts as a "unity of opposites".

See Also: Many of the concepts in this Encyclopedia are unities of opposites, such as Analysis & Synthesis, Absolute & Relative, Finite & Infinite, Form & Content, Means & Ends, Quality & Quantity, etc., etc.



Epistomology: That there are properties common to all things in the world and laws or principles that are true always and everywhere.

A Universal can exist only through Individuals – the objects to which universal properties are assigned. For example, an apple (individual) is red (universal). At the same time we can say blood (individual) is red (universal). The universal cannot exist if it is not assigned to individual things, while at the same time those individual things can only exist as part of the universe.

Universals can have no existence other than through the practical activity of human beings and the cognitive activity resting upon that. Practice demonstrates whether a Universal has a truly objective basis.

Properties common to all objects are the ‘abstract universal’, in that a person is abstracting a single aspect from the multiplicity of connections and aspects of a thing. ‘Concrete universal’ is a principle or law which unites all the objects perceived, combining them into a single conception.

The process of cognising the Universal either in the form of abstract universals or in the form of concrete notions, entails the process of mediation of Individual and Universal through Particulars.

See also: Individual and Particular and Syllogism.



Universalism is the assertion, in Ethics, that there exist values which transcend cultural and national differences.

Universalism is a negation of the ethical and cultural relativism characteristic of identity politics which seeks to provide a moral justification for intervention in the affairs of other nations by imperialist or transnational organisations such as the United Nations. For example, “human rights violations” can be a justification for carpet bombing a country or placing trade barriers against it, which would be illegal under international law as it stands.

Marxism affirms the validity of trans-cultural values, but only on the basis of working class Solidarity and internationalism and affirms the right of nations to self-determination. Imperialism supports universalism only so long as it suits its own ends.