First Published: The Forge, Vol. 6, No. 19, May 15, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The relationship between the communist party and the unions is a hotly debated issue among the Left, and it raises questions about the Marxist view of the party’s role in the unions.
Some people say that communists want to subordinate the unions to the party. This is the view of some Quebec social-democrats like Louis Favreau and Yves Vaillancourt, who are involved in the Centre de Formation populaire and the Press Libre newspaper. They distort a remark by Lenin that the unions should serve as “transmission belts” between the party and the mass of working people. They say this shows that communists want to infiltrate the unions and control them, while ignoring the bask rules of union democracy.
This article will examine the communist point of view on unions and look at the relationship between the party and the unions.
Unions are essential weapons in the workers’ daily fight against the bosses to protect their rights and win their demands.
For unions to be strong and able to fulfill this role, they must have as many members as possible. Under socialism, when the capitalists are no longer in control, the vast majority of working people will belong to unions.
Unions must also be real fightback organizations against big business. They should enable workers to improve their wages, working conditions and general situation. As all active trade unionists know, this cannot be won without a fight. This is why WCP members work along with other activists in the unions to turn them into an effective weapon.
To build a militant union movement, it is necessary to oppose policies of top union leaders who would rather collaborate with the bosses than defend the workers. To resist their sell-out policies, communists must unite with other union activists to fight for strong democratic unions that really defend their members’ interests.
The orientation we propose for the labour movement does not support struggles for struggles sake, nor suicidal tactics. The tactics that the working class chooses must be based on a class analysis of the relation of forces. Clearly, in some cases compromises are necessary. It is key however, that such compromises are based on struggle and will serve to prepare for new victories in the future.
Of course, union bureaucrats like Quebec Federation of Labour President Louis Laberge always say we fight “too much,” because they are not interested in fighting at all. Their compromising is not a tactic, It is their orientation. It is a systematic policy that sacrifices workers’ fundamental interests. Their action divides and demoralizes workers.
In contrast, when communists settle for a compromise, it is in order to regroup our forces and be better prepared for a future offensive.
To make unions into really effective organizations, we think that they should adopt a class orientation that aims to put an end to capitalism. Unions should not limit their activity to demanding improvements and reforms within capitalism, they should opt for socialism.
Today this orientation is not widespread in the unions. But WCP members and sympathizers are raising this issue and discussing it with union activists. A growing number of workers are realizing that capitalism itself must be eliminated.
We attempt to popularize this orientation, but we do so by discussing these ideas and tactics with the membership. We do not impose them on anyone. We respect the decisions of the majority.
Unions belong to the membership. The rank and file should control them and decide the direction they should take. Not only do we repect this principle, but we oppose those bureaucrats who do not, like Louis Laberge, who took the liberty of throwing the support of the Quebec Federation of Labour behind the Parti Quebecois in the recent provincial election without the mandate of a single union local or regional council.
Sold-out bureaucrats are the ones who disregard union mandates, not communists. In fact the only way such collaborators can ram through their line is by bypassing rank-and-file democracy. In contrast, communists defend working-class positions, and that is why we rely on the rank and file.
What is the party’s role in the unions and what is the Marxist conception of the links between the party and the unions?
First of all, due to its links with the unions, the Party can sound out workers’ preoccupations, their needs and their level of consciousness. Because our members are active in unions and mass organizations, they can synthesize the workers’ ideas and correctly orient the Party’s work. During the struggle of the Quebec Common Front in 1979, when provincial social affairs workers were negotiating a new contract, the WCP knew when the workers were ready to fight. We were able to assess which of the government’s propaganda had the most influence on the workers. On this basis we determined what education was necessary to counter this propaganda, and were able to propose effective pressure tactics at the right moment.
Because of its involvement in the unions, the WCP keeps in close touch with workers. We learn from the workers’ own experiences, which prevents the Party from becoming a fringe group, cut off from reality.
Secondly, Party members involved in unions and mass organizations put forward Party positions and orientations. These orientations, based on a synthesis of the workers’ own experience, are put to the membership in the form of resolutions.
If these resolutions correctly reflect the members’ needs they will be adopted, and the debate will heighten the workers’ consciousness.
By developing this work, the Party will be able to coordinate struggles across the country by proposing joint or simultaneous action by all unions in which Party members are active.
The Party can thus help organize the working class to that one day it will be able to overthrow the bourgeoisie, taking control of the factories and political power with quick co-ordinated mass action. In this sense, the party plays the role of general staff of the working class in its war against the bourgeoisie.
Lastly, The Party recruits members from among the workers in the trade unions. The Party is made up of activists like those in the trade union movement. Through their experience these activists come to realize the need to overthrow capitalism and to organize to do it.
Our Party is made up of such workers, and not of armchair revolutionaries with no practical experience in the class struggle and no links with working people.
Communists do not infiltrate unions. Our Party was created by activists from unions and other popular organizations who saw the need for an organization that would work systematically for revolution.
People like Laberge, Vaillancourt and Favreau distort the Marxist view of the link between the party and the unions because they oppose communist ideas and don’t want them to spread in the labour movement. They want to maintain their own control of the unions in order to build up their careers and benefit from collaboration with the capitalist class.
Through education and debate, the WCP tries to win workers to the socialist ideal and, one day, win union support for this goal. It does not seek to dominate or manipulate unions.
Lenin always insisted that organizations like unions should not formally subordinate themselves to the communist party, even under socialism: “The trade unions... (are) not a state organization; nor... one designed for coercion.” (“The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes,” Collected Works, Vol. 32, p. 20)
As working-class organizations, unions are always confronted with the question; what stand should be taken towards the various political parties? Political parties represent various points of view and various classes. When in power, their actions and the laws they enact have a direct effect on workers. Thus unions must take a position.
If one day unions decide to support the WCP, they will do to because they are convinced that our Party defends their interests. A communist party only deserves this support if it remains faithful to workers’ interests, and if it strays from this course it will rapidly lose their support.
These principles also apply under socialism. In a socialist Canada unions will be democratic. The right to unionize will be guaranteed by law. The right to strike will also be recognized. No one, not even the party or the government, will be allowed to impose anything on workers without their consent.
If union members decide to elect Party members, as sometimes happens today, it will be because they recognize that these comunists have proved themselves in pratice to be the best leaders, not because they are forced to.
The party must win the support of the workers. If the workers refuse to support the party at a particular time or place, the party must ask itself why, and correct its work in order to change this situation.Today members of our Party have been elected to union positions despite all the anti-communist propaganda and manoeuvres of the union bureaucrats. This has happened because our members have done good work in defending the workers’ interests.
The example of Poland shows what happens to a party that betrays the workers’ intreasts. Today in that country the power is in the hands of a clique of new-style capitalists, not in the hands of the workers. So the workers have rejected the party in power, which is incapable of imposing its will.
The relationship between a real communist party and the unions is one of confidence and mutual support. It is a relationship between the widest form of working class organization on the one hand and its vanguard political organization on the other.
Without unions, the bosses would be able to smash the workers today. Without the party it will be impossible to get rid of the bosses tomorrow.