The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961

Part Five. Unions As United Front Organs

The trade unions are vital centres for the building of the United Front of the working-class. Here, as well as on the jobs, are masses of workers who support the A.L.P., as well as workers “outside politics” (Lenin) , politically unconscious workers. With them we build the basic unity of the working class. United action between the militants and the reformist minded workers is a day-to-day necessity. Otherwise the union would be split, action would be impossible and the workers paralysed. In the trade unions the foundation of unity is laid, which will in the end compel the A.L.P. to agree to the United Front of the political parties – Communist Party-A.L.P. united action.

We have noted throughout this study of trade unionism the role of reformism; its basis in the labour “aristocracy,” its opposition to Marxist theory, to the class struggle, its detrimental effect upon the unity, and correct organisation of the working-class. The reformist leaders were characterised by Lenin as the “bourgeois in the labour movement,” as “labour lieutenants of capital,” as the enemies of the socialist revolution. Stalin has pointed out that the socialist revolution cannot be achieved unless social democratic reformism has been crushed within the ranks of organised labour.

This recognition of their role, however, it is well-known, does not preclude the United Front, in favourable circumstances and for given aims, with the right-wing trade union leaders, any more than it does with the leaders of the Australian Labor Party, who are also reformists.

The aim of such United Front agreements “from above” is to unite in action the revolutionary-minded and reformist minded workers and, in struggle, to strengthen the ties between them, thus making it easier for the workers who follow the reformist leaders to understand what a revolutionary policy means, consequently making it easier for them to support such a policy.

There are other periods when it is necessary to mercilessly fight against the policy of the reformist leaders. In these periods of acute class struggle within the labour movement, to avoid sectarian errors and leftism it is essential for us to adopt a concrete approach to the union membership, i.e., never to confuse, or lump together, the reformist leaders and the rank and file, the workers in the organisations which they dominate. These periods are periods of the United Front “from below,” and the aim is to win the workers for a fighting policy, not to drive them away by regarding them as “reactionaries” because they are misled into acting against the interests of their class by reformism. The lack of such a concrete approach has be a fruitful source of sectarian errors in regard to the work, and likewise towards the lower ranks of the trade union officials in the past.

Comrade Dimitrov has time and again drawn our attention to the differentiation that takes place within the ranks of reformism, particularly in periods of political tension; to the differences between those whom he once called “top leaders” and the lower officials. Many, perhaps most, of these latter are honest in their intentions towards the working class. We must have a different, friendly approach towards these officials in contrast to that we adopt towards the obvious traitors and bureaucrats, the leaders of reformist policy.

At the same time we cannot compromise with the reformist views of the lower reformist functionaries.

When Stalin spoke of “crushing reformism” he did so in the sense of reformism as a political policy, as a harmful, bourgeois trend in the labour movement. While we are friendly towards honest reformists, we cannot adopt a conciliatory attitude towards their political views, because reformism as a political policy, means the disastrous defeat of the labour movement, its ruin. While combating their views, we must do this in comradely fashion, maintaining friendly personal relations and unity with them in the fight to advance unionism.

In the unions, besides the reformists, are various groups, such as the Catholics. Our policy is not to attack the Catholic religion, but to win the big majority of Catholic workers for a working-class policy. Among Catholics, however, are bitter enemies of progress and socialism, workers misled by the anti-socialist policy of that Church’s hierarchy. These sections, a small fanatical minority of the Catholics, must be exposed and isolated, not on the basis of the religious beliefs of their Church, or by branding all Catholics as reactionaries, but by showing that the factional activities and the reactionary policies of individuals and groups among them, are harmful to the progress of labour and an obstacle to the achievement of the workers’ objective. Catholic workers, as a body, have always been, in their great majority, loyal to their class and have contributed greatly to the strength of the labour movement.

Trade union workers have a great responsibility in creating the United Front of all workers, which is a central aim of the communists. Without a united working-class movement socialism is not possible.

The Struggle For A Correct Policy In The War Against Fascism

The war of the democratic peoples against the fascist enslavers faced the Australian trade union movement with quite new tasks. In order to defeat the fascists, the utmost power and strength of the democratic peoples had to be exerted.

Vast armies had to be equipped with modern weapons in huge quantities in order even to meet on equal terms the fascist armoured hordes.

In addition to providing a large section of the armed forces, the working-class, whose prospects of achieving socialism, or even maintaining existing standards of living, would be wrecked by a fascist victory, had to produce these enormous supplies of armaments. The Soviet workers, long in control of the industries, were interested in questions of production and greater efficiency and output from the industries since the first day of the victory of the October Revolution.

The Australian trade unionists, however, were now faced with problems of stepping up production while the capitalist economy continued in existence, posing a difficult and complicated problem for the working-class leadership.

The communists took a leading part in convincing the workers of the need for a great industrial effort in order to preserve democratic liberties.

The workers had to take up questions of efficiency in the factory. Co-operation between the shop committees and the management for production was essential. Strikes had to be reduced to a minimum and only resorted to under direct threat from refractory managements to union organisations and basic conditions. Many union regulations had to be waived, such as opposition to overtime, dilution of labour, etc., and every effort made to settle industrial disputes peaceably.

The class struggle had undergone one of its transformations. The centre of gravity of world progress was focused around the defeat of the fascist powers, the pre-condition of all future progress.

Increased production, efficiency, continuity of work, were now as important as strikes in other phases of development. This constituted the new forms of the class struggle. In this phase the workers undoubtedly gained valuable experience for future socialist construction.

The reformists tried to use the slogans of the Party, when these were first raised, to discredit communism. Demagogues talked as if fascism could be defeated without strenuous effort and sacrifices. These cheap popularity seekers were soon exposed by the increasing gravity of the situation and the workers began to see that the left was putting forward a realistic policy.

Reformist elements in the coal-mining industry often joined hands with the mine managements in creating industrial disputes with a view to destroying the militant leadership of the Miners’ Union.

Some coal-field reformists, by promoting strikes, played into the hands of the most reactionary U.A.P. politicians who, through the mine-owners, were creating trouble in order to undermine the Curtin Government and bring the extreme reaction back into governmental authority, and, to a lesser extent, the role of reformists in other industries was equally sorry. Those who were not “crooks,” deliberately playing a dirty game, lacked sufficient political understanding to realise the great issues at stake in the war against fascism. Their narrow, limited outlook would not allow them to see beyond the parochial limits of their own industry. The Federal Labor Government, it is true, was demanding a full war effort, but from a purely bourgeois standpoint, and by bourgeois methods which, naturally, failed to fully mobilise the workers in the conscious determined way needed, and it was only as the Government tended more to rely on the unions that the workers’ confidence in the Labor Government increased.

Reformist leadership in the trade unions in yet another great crisis had shown itself inadequate, limited in vision, narrow and often corrupt, prepared to play the reactionaries’ game.

In the mine-fields and elsewhere the reformist saboteurs were aided by, and used as tools, the “anarchistic lefts,” crude unorganised militants, lacking a basic political understanding, without ambition to learn and who never, because of their backwardness, join the Party. Their stupidity embarrassed the Party and assisted the right. Such “militants,” who show themselves incorrigible over a period of years, are not a help but a hindrance. In most cases, a fight against their influence is the condition for Party and trade union advance.

However, the overwhelming majority of the miners and other unionists supported a correct war policy after much strenuous work on the part of the Party and other genuine trade union workers, rejecting the reformist “strike leaders” and “left anarchists” alike.