Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Arne Swabeck

Unions Are Not Static


Published: In the Progressive Labor Party [USA] journal, World Revolution, Nol. 2, No. 3, January 1970.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Progressive Labor Party Introduction: In response to the important questions that have been posed by the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) on trade unions and the socialist revolution, we are printing a number of articles in this issue. We particularly want to call your attention to the article by Walter Linder, trade union director of PLP, which was also printed in the current issue of Progressive Labor (November 1969 Vol. 7 No 3). While welcoming the thoughts of our Australian comrades on the question of the role of communists in the trade unions, comrade Linder makes a number of comradely criticisms. We believe that a comradely exchange of some differences that can be studied by all workers and comrades can only strengthen the world Marxist-Leninist movement.

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I am taking advantage of your invitation to readers to comment on the article concerning trade unions, reprinted in your May-July issue from The Vanguard, official organ of the Australian Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist).

The article in question starts out from the mistaken premise that in Australia the trade unions have “turned into their opposite.” They have become “centers of submission and not rebellion... They are a burden on the backs of the workers,” and “they are weapons, and powerful weapons at that, in the hands of the capitalist class.” From this premise, the article proceeds quite naturally to the equally mistaken and disturbing conclusion: “Australian workers must break from the shackles imposed upon them by the trade union structure.”

Very often the development of the union movement itself produces an effective way of refuting and correcting such misconceptions; and so it happened in this case. Hardly had the printer’s ink dried on The Vanguard article before Australia was hit by a tremendous rank and file rebellion. Upward of a million workers on strike brought the greatest industrial upheaval in twenty years. This was no ordinary strike to satisfy demands for wages or working conditions. No! It was a massive political revolt against the long since enacted compulsory arbitration law and its outrageous restrictions and penalties.

If actual proof was needed to refute and correct the mistaken notions that regard trade unions as static institutions, existing separate and apart from the effects and the consequences of the class struggle, it was in this case furnished in abundance. No matter how moribund, ossified and debilitated the unions may appear at certain periods, they are nevertheless living organisms which are subject to change and transformation. They can be properly understood only when viewed in motion and development. Trade unions possess their own internal dynamics. A single oppressive measure may often be all that is needed for this internal dynamic to produce large scale explosive revolts. Above all, it is necessary to remember that trade unions can never remain immune from the effects and the consequences of the class struggle, out of which they arose in the first place. And in no case can they become weapons in the hands of the capitalist class.

That much cannot be said for the labor skates who occupy the official union posts. As a rule they are firmly wedded to capitalism and its system in principle and practice. In Australia their tie-up with the bourgeois state is most clearly demonstrated by their attitude to the compulsory arbitration system. Under its provisions all strikes are illegal. Disputes between workers and their bosses are to be settled by the courts. The union bureaucrats were happy with this system; life became easy for them; struggle seemed to have disappeared. All they had to do was to draw their salaries while sitting quietly in their offices preparing legal briefs for presentation to the courts.

Keeping this in mind, the great emphasis placed in The Vanguard article on the need to fight relentlessly against the union bureaucracy, is correct and entirely justified. But the bureaucracy and the unions, or the union memberships, is not the same thing. That distinction should always be made clear.

The union members have a different attitude to the compulsory arbitration system. What wages adjustments were gained through this system tended to lag behind the workers’ needs; and they most often showed a deficit due to the effects of inflation. Combined these, and other factors, created a mood of unrest. Workers regarded the strike as their only real weapon; and strikes occurred in which the courts imposed heavy fines on some union officials. Among them was Clarence O’Shea, secretary of the Victorian Tramways Employees Union.

While other unions had drawn fines for the same offences and let it be known that they did not intend to pay, it was O’Shea’s union that was singled out by the courts for the attack. Why? Obviously the judges were fully conscious of the role the courts play in capitalist society, and they kept their eyes on the most dangerous adversary. For it so happened that O’Shea was one among other militant union officials who broke with the Moscow oriented revisionists and joined with E.F. Hill in the formation of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist.).

On May 15, Clarence O’Shea was arrested in Melbourne. He was charged with having led an illegal strike and with refusal to pay the $8,000 court imposed fine. The following day 150,000 workers struck in protest. And with a power not equalled in twenty years the protest strikes spread to engulf and paralyze major industrial activities in one state after another. Large demonstrations took place in the capital cities. Students joined in support displaying banners inscribed “Worker-Student Power.” So decisive and powerful was the sweep of the movement that the Australian Council of Trade Unions found itself obliged to give it official sanction.

Compulsory arbitration had been enacted into law in order to hold the unions at bay and keep worker militancy in check. It was, in fact, relied upon as a means to prevent industrial conflict and active struggle. Sponsors of the law had envisaged a new equilibrium in which class relations would remain tranquil under government control. Without doubt, the union bureaucrats nourished similar expectations, and perhaps even more fervently. Both, however, failed to take into account the internal union dynamics which needed only a serious provocation to erupt full force.

But in the class struggle everything is real and flows from its own inner logic. Masses of workers were set in motion, insisting on using their own power to eliminate the hated arbitration system; and they insisted on maintaining the unions as instruments of struggle for their own class ends. They began to upset the envisaged equilibrium.

The power and sweep of the workers’ movement and their strongly united feeling on the issue compelled even the social democratic and revisionist leaders to go along. They were afraid of being torn loose from the masses who pushed the unions out on the front line battle. But for serious revolutionaries, even much more so, the decisive question is that of the working masses and where the working masses are.

Events in Australia have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the industrial proletariat knows how to utilize the unions as fighting instruments. With “no less certainly, these events have shown that the bureaucratic union leadership is. no more fixed, frozen and final than is the arbitration system it supported. In the protest demonstrations the workers chanted “All the way with Clarry O’Shea!” This would seem to indicate a rich opportunity fpr more O’Sheas to come forward and into a new union leadership forged in the fire of the class struggle.

With the active participation of conscious revolutionary forces the unions can be made more effective in their struggle against capitalist exploitation. However, saying this does not mean to imply that they would thereby become instruments of revolutionary action. As organizations of all the workers, the objectives of the unions in this struggle are necessarily more limited. Only the revolutionary party founded on a Marxist-Leninist program can be a genuine instrument of revolution. And I fully agree with the great emphasis placed in The Vanguard article on the need, above all, to strengthen revolutionary organization.

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Arne Swabeck is a veteran American socialist.