The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961
Associations of workmen of one type or another can be traced far back into history, but trade unions as we know them today date back only to the 18th century
Britain was the first country to become capitalist, and it was there that trade unions first appeared. The Industrial Revolution, which took place in the last half of the 18th century, gave impetus to the growth of trade unionism. British workers in one trade after another began to form permanent combinations and to wage strikes to protect and improve their conditions of employment. Later, as capitalism developed in Europe and America, workers there formed organisations similar in character to the British trade unions. It was in this epoch, when trade unions had just been formed, that Karl Marx lived and worked. Marx attached considerable importance to the role and functions of the trade unions. He realised that they represented the first steps in the organisations of the workers as a class. An outline of Marx’s views on this subject is found in the resolution on the past, present and future of trade unions, adopted at the Geneva Congress of the First International in 1866.
Concerning the origin of trade unions, Marx points out how capital is concentrated social power, while the worker has only his individual labour power at his disposal. Therefore, the agreement between Capital and Labour can never be just. The only social force possessed by the workers is their numerical strength. This force, however, is impaired by the absence of unity. The lack of unity among the workers is caused by the inevitable competition among themselves, and is maintained by it. The trade unions developed originally out of the spontaneous attempts of the workers to do away with this competition, or at least to restrict it, for the purpose of obtaining at least such contractual conditions as would raise them above the status of virtual slaves. The immediate aim of the trade unions, therefore, was limited to waging the day-to-day struggle against Capital, as a means of defence against continuous abuses by the latter, i.e., questions concerning wages and working hours.
Marx goes on to state that this activity of the trade unions is not only justified but also necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the capitalist mode of production exists. On the contrary, it must become general by means of creating and uniting trade unions in all countries. This refutes the arguments of the present day ultra-Lefts who indulge in academic criticism of the struggle for immediate demands. If the trade unions refrained from such struggle there would be no limit to the exploitation of the workers other than that of physical endurance. The workers would be reduced to the status of slaves.
Although they limited themselves to the day-to-day struggle Marx points out how the unions, without being aware of it, become the focal points for the organisation of the working class. “If trade unions have become indispensable for the guerrilla fight between Capital and Labour,” he wrote, “they are even more important as organised bodies to promote the abolition of the very system of wage labour.” From this we see that Marx attached great political significance to the trade unions, that he regarded them least of all as neutral organisations, as non-political organisations.
Trade unionism began to take root in this country in the 1850’s following the abolition of convict transportation. Tradesmen and mechanics coming from Britain established craft unions in the building and engineering trades.
For a time the gold rush cut across this development, but in the long run it had a beneficial effect. The Eureka Stockade (1854) took place when the labour movement was only beginning to take shape. It had a profound effect upon later developments.
The first great question to occupy the attention of the trade unions was the 8-Hour Day. After a period of agitation and action this was first won by the Stonemasons’ Union in the Eastern States in 1855-56. The Combined Committee set up in the course of the struggle in Victoria became the forerunner of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. The 8-Hour Day became a rallying cry uniting the forces of labour in Australia. In the 1860’s coal miners in New South Wales were organised and, in 1874, the miners on the gold fields of Victoria formed the Amalgamated Miners’ Association.
The shearers in N.S.W. and Queensland organised into what subsequently became the A.W.U.
From 1860 to 1890 the young unions displayed great militancy and won many concessions from the employers. Seamen, waterside workers and other sections formed unions.
Up to 1890 conditions favoured the unions; capitalism was expanding and it was cheaper for employers to grant concessions rather than face lengthy stoppages. By 1890, however, conditions changed. Wool prices dropped, and the employers faced with the need to cut costs, launched an attack on the unions. Sporadic struggles culminated in the Great Maritime Strike of 1890 which involved a majority of the organised workers in the eastern States. The strike ended in defeat. The employers, backed by the power of the State, were more strongly organised and better prepared than the workers. The defeat in 1890 led the trade unionists to organise politically. The A.L.P. was formed. In spite of the efforts of William Lane to give it a Socialist objective, it became a purely reformist party, coming more and more under the domination of bourgeois ideology as it developed.
Up to 1914 conditions favoured the growth of reformism in Australia. Capitalism was still expanding and in a position to concede minor reforms. Even so the history of the Labor Party in this period is marked by many conflicts between the “politicians” and the “industrialists.” Failure of Labor Governments when in office to implement even the most elementary demands on Labor’s programme caused many trade unionists to turn towards syndicalism. The I.W.W. sprang up and flourished for a time, particularly during the war. But syndicalism proved just as bankrupt as reformism. The 1917 General Strike gave the workers more valuable experience, helped them to realise the futility of both these trends. A futile attempt to combine what was considered to be the best in both tendencies in a new organisation called the One Big Union was made after the 1917 strike defeat. The O.B.U. scheme broke down partly because of its own inherent weaknesses, largely because of the opposition of the A.W.U. bureaucracy, labour politicians and craft union leaders.
The victory of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Communist International in 1919 showed the workers of Australia the real path of progress. In 1920 the Communist Party of Australia was formed with strong trade union connections. Now at last it became possible to unite firmly the economic movement of the trade unions with political action, aimed at the ultimate realisation of socialism, in accordance with the directives of Marx contained in the Resolution of the 1871 Conference of the First International. Since its formation in 1920 the Communist Party of Australia endeavoured to carry out the advice of Stalin on work with the Trade Unions. Many ups and downs have been met with but the general tendency has been towards progress. Under the influence of the Communist Party propaganda and activity, the political level of the Australian trade union movement has been raised. There are still many remnants of craft narrowness, economism and even syndicalist traits.
The influence of reformism is not yet completely broken, but it is no longer the dominant trend it was in the past.
Under Communist influence the unions are fast becoming the types of organisation Marx deemed desirable and necessary for the victory over capitalism and the establishment of socialism. They are learning that the purely economic struggle has its limitations. They are beginning to understand their role as “organised bodies to promote the abolition of the system of wage labour” (Marx). They are learning how “to act consciously as focal points for organising the working class in the greater interests of its complete emancipation.”
E. W. Campbell