Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)

Unions: Capitalist or Workers’ Organizations?

Published: In the Progressive Labor Party [USA] journal, World Revolution, Nol. 2, No. 2, May-July 1969.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Progressive Labor Party Introduction: Are the old-line trade unions primarily organizations of the workers or are they instruments of the capitalist class? The Communist Party of Australia (M-L) has been reexamining the presentday role of the trade unions in Australia and has come to the conclusion that the unions have been “turned into their opposites,” dominated as they are by a trade union bureaucracy whose policy is in the interest of the capitalist class and at loggerheads with the interest of the masses of workers.

“It is completely Utopian, unrealistic,” says the Feb. 6th issue of The Vanguard, organ of the Communist Party of Australia (M-L), “to think that the trade union bureaucracy can be destroyed through the union ballot box. It is the same as thinking that the capitalist class can be destroyed through parliamentary elections.” Further observations on this question are given below, reprinted from The Australian Communist, No. 32, the theoretical journal of the party, and The Vanguard.

A commentary on the position of the Australian Communist Party (M-L) by N. Sanmugathasan, General Secretary, Ceylon Communist Party is reprinted in full.

We urge a careful study of these documents and invite our readers to send in their comments.

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Recently Vanguard received a letter from a worker on the subject of trade unions.

He pointed out that this year the congress of the Australian Council of Trade Unions would be held, which would provide rank and file unionists with the opportunity to raise matters concerning the organizational structure of the trade unions with a view to turning them into more effective weapons in the struggle for socialism.

A central idea expressed in the letter was that if the emphasis was placed on rank and file organization and the unions did not confine themselves to their own economic demands but took up broader issues such as pensions, prices, education, peace, etc., the struggle for revolutionary social change to socialism would be greatly advanced.

Vanguard was glad to receive the letter. Fundamentally it showed a desire to struggle, to get to grips with the job of getting rid of U.S. domination, overthrowing capitalism and winning socialism and independence.

The letter also showed a deep dissatisfaction with the trade union bureaucrats.

What the author of the letter wrote expresses is a growing feeling amongst the Austraulian working people, a striving to find the revolutionary path forward.

In Australia the two main obstacles which divert the working class and other working people from the revolutionary path are trade union and parliamentary politics.

Trade union and parliamentary politics confine the working people to capitalism. They put blinkers on them, limit their vision.

Trade union and parliamentary politics generate the idea that social change can be achieved “constitutionally,” that is, through peaceful negotiation with the capitalist class. There are about three million Australian porkers organized in trade unions. The large trade union apparatus in Australia continually stimulates the erroneous idea that the unions themselves can force the capitalist class to give way and hand over their factories to the working class.

Calls for strengthening trade union organization, for building job organization flow from this wrong idea.

The job is not to strengthen trade union organization for that only strengthens the hold of the capitalist class over the working class.

The job is to smash up the trade union bureaucracy by bringing revolutionary Marxism-Leninism, the thought of Mao Tse-tung to the working class.

The job of lifting revolutionary class consciousness is at once the job of breaking with trade union politics. This means pointing out the limits of trade unions, showing how the capitalist class controls them through the union bureaucracy.

Today trade unions are necessary for the capitalist class.

They are a burden on the backs of the working class. We do not want to make the burden heavier.

As we have said the Australian working class is striving to find the revolutionary path. It is absolutely essential that its energies should not be diverted into “strengthening trade unions.”


The Australian working class and other working people are rebelling. They are becoming more acquainted with the revolutionary truth of Marxism-Leninism, the thought of Mao Tse-tung.

Let us devote all our efforts into getting this truth to wider and wider sections of the working people. In grasping this truth in struggle they will rapidly build their revolutionary organizations. The fundamental thing is to destroy capitalist concepts, capitalist ideology with proletarian revolutionary ideology, Marxism-Leninism, the thought of Mao Tse-tung.


In recent years the Australian workingclass movement has seriously reappraised many old ideas about the trade unions and trade unionism. The book “Looking Backward: Looking Forward” analyzed some aspects of this matter. But the influence of trade union politics and the mesmerism of militant trade union officials persist strongly as a trend even in left circles.

The simple fact is that the capitalist class has adapted the trade union apparatus and trade union officials to itself. They have become instruments of capitalism. In the early days of capitalism the trade unions were true centers of revolt. They were illegal. They had to fight. The long battle for trade union legality taught the capitalists many lessons. But the fact that the trade unions were illegal, that there was a long hard struggle for their legality left a tradition amongst the workers which bound them to the trade unions.

Almost imperceptibly the capitalists turned these trade unions from being centers of rebellion into centers of submission. The loyalty of the workers to the centers of rebellion remained but it was now given to organizations which had become centers of submission.

In Australia (as in other capitalist countries) an elaborate trade union structure has been built up. This structure has the protection of the law. It is a thorough going instrument for the administration of capitalism. The A.C.T.U., various Trades and Labor Councils and the individual unions are all conditioned on the maintenance of capitalism. Their officials serve capitalism.

It is true that unions go on strike. Rebellion sometimes arises from even these official bodies. That helps to preserve the illusion of rebellion that comes from the old illegal unions. But it does not take much thought to realize that in modern Australia these very unions of organized rebellion have turned into their opposite. In some cases it is clear as in the seamen’s and waterside workers’ co-operation with the state apparatus. The arbitration machinery rests on this very conception. It is not a question of its being good or bad or judges being good or bad or even the existence or nonexistence of the court of pains and penalties. All this is merely evidence of the unions’ being centers of submission and not rebellion.

It arises from the contradiction between the bureaucracy of the trade unions’ officialdom on the one hand and the membership on the other. The membership maintains its loyalty to the union as the center of rebellion. But rebellion has been stolen from it.

It is also true that the trade unions help their members in many ways. Sickness benefits, legal assistance, obtaining awards, social life, getting jobs and so on. They are important things. They have to be done. They have another side. By its very facility in doing it: in the very way it does it, the union apparatus provides evidence of its being an instrument of capitalism.

Then comes the question of trade union officials. In a sense everyone who works at all, helps to make capitalism work. The worker who is exploited does so. The doctor who treats the sick workers and capitalists does so. The lawyer, even though he works only for the workers, does so. The architect who builds the buildings does so. And so on. The trade union official does so in a very special way because he works precisely in the field where the worker and capitalist potentially and actually clash. It is a delicate field for the capitalist. But because of the adaptation of the trade union apparatus to capitalism the trade union official, however good, is a prisoner of capitalism. In a certain way the better he is as a trade union official, the more service he does for capitalism.

There is for example a mystique around the late Jim Healy. He is revered for militancy. It is said if Healy were still alive he would be all right. Things would be different. But Healy was essentially a reformist. He never stepped beyond trade union limits. And he is only one example. There are today men who adhere to Marxism-Leninism, the thought of Mao Tse-tung in official trade union positions. They agree that their position encircles and inhibits them. It can not be otherwise. This is a problem the Australian workers have not yet solved. It will not be solved at all until we dare to think about it: dare to do: dare to experiment: dare to challenge the sacred cows: dare to get experience.

It is almost heresy to discuss trade unions in any way that departs from the orthodox. This is only part of the hold of capitalism on us.

The present time is one when old ideas are being challenged and must be challenged. In the sphere of the trade unions and trade unionism there are more deeply laid fetishes than on any other single subject. It will take frank and harsh words and actions to destroy them.

They must be challenged and destroyed.


Australian workers must break from the shackles imposed upon them by the existing trade union structure. The form and activity of the trade unions is considered to be beyond criticism, to be sacrosanct.

Trades and labor councils and the A.C.T.U. are spoken of as the parliaments of the workers. A whole mystique has been created about them. All sorts of restrictions are put on the thinking of the workers about these things. But they must all be challenged and tested.

It is our contention that they are weapons, and powerful weapons at that, in the hands of the capitalist class.

In Australia, as one outstanding example the trade unions are tied to the arbitration system. However much they may protest, they are compelled to conform to arbitration processes. Even criticism, strong criticism of these processes and the penal processes associated with them, tend to obscure the real question of the need for complete rebellion amongst the workers against conventional trade unionism.

If the question is studied closely then facts show that trade union officials move without causing a ripple from their trade union jobs into positions as industrial officers employed by big business, or into positions as conciliation commissioners or other State jobs. There are many trade union officials throughout Australia ,who sit on this or that commission, council, board or what have you. They are paid and looked after by the State. Essentially they are functionaries of the State imbued with the ideology of the capitalist State.

As a simple example, the leaders of the central trade union bodies are invited to all important State functions, to many functions promoted by the employers. Within specific industries the same thing goes for the officials of the unions within the specific industry. Systematically the trade union officials are “duchessed.” They are as much a part of the establishment as the governor.

Naturally enough, the employers, the capitalist class, maintain their contempt for these officials but they condescend to “promote” them; speak of them as “reasonable” men, etc., etc. And many officials lap it up. The real aim of it is to control, subjugate the workers themselves.

The whole thing is an insidious process. (It is to leave aside the direct bribery which occurs.) And there are very very few who do not succumb. It all conceals the real class nature of society; it conceals the class war. It presents a picture of class peace.

Even the trade union official who speaks in militant terms may be permitted to maintain his militant terms but nonetheless be adapted to the master class.

Australian workers have had a very good lesson in all this. This has occurred through the actions of the revisionists. They came to office in the trade unions as Communists, militants, wagers of class war, but they ended up as time servers, exponents of capitalist ideology. It was scarcely avoidable that this would occur because of the very character of the trade unions at this stage of the history of capitalism. If these leaders promoted revolution they would be promoting themselves out of good comfortable jobs. There is every reason for them, as they see it, to maintain the status quo and maneuver within it. Their very position depends upon the permanence of capitalism: the permanence of its institutions including arbitration.

Almost every aspect of the trade unions in Australia reveals how deeply they are committed to capitalism. Many of them own buildings, have extensive investments, maintain a whole elaborate bureaucracy.

It is justifiably asked what then to do. It must be answered that there is no blueprint: no panacea. In the recent French experience, the French workers stepped right beyond trade union boundaries. It was and is a very valuable experience. In Australia there must be study of this question: there must be explanation: propagation of the idea that the trade unions in their present activity can be and are a dead weight on working class struggle. Therefore there must be ideological preparation. The workers will find a way: they will dare to get experience: to sum experience up. History is putting all these things into the melting pot.