Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Dave Brand

The Principles of Revolutionary Trade Unionism

First Published: Unite!, Vol. 6, No. 19, October 15, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

At the union meeting, they stood nose to nose. The company was attacking. There were speed up, harassment, firings and unsafe conditions. They were about to negotiate a new contract too. Nose to nose the union officials faced the rank-and-file opposition, pleading with them to be patient, to write grievances, to rely on the legal procedure, threatening them with lawyers, the government, the international union and even with the top corporation management.

And the rank-and-file opposition–angry. Angry at seeing the step-by-step march backward while the grievances pile up. Suspicious of union officials who run the union as if it were theirs. Fearful at the possibility of facing the company attack with no union, or a busted union, fully aware of how divided, disorganized and weak the union membership is. Ready to take militant mass action – a slow down, a strike, a work stoppage....

This confrontation is enacted in union after union, plant after plant, day after day. It is the struggle between two lines; two conceptions of unionism. Both lines reflect the fact that class struggle is a daily occurrence. But the one view, the reformist view of unionism, is based on a theory of class collaboration, class partnership, of making “peace” between the warring capitalist and working class. The other view is revolutionary unionism, which believes that there is no class partnership because workers and capitalists fight for entirely opposite goals.

The advocates of these two views have stood nose to nose in the labor movement for over 100 years, the world over. The different views of unionism dictate different policies, tactics and forms of organization, but at the bottom is this fundamental difference on the nature of capitalist society.

The revolutionary unionists recognize that there is a class struggle. But more than this, they realize that the capitalist class and the working class have no common interests. The survival of the capitalist class depends on its ability to drive the working class into deeper and deeper misery. The revolutionary trade unionists understand that the role of the working class (and their unions) is to fight the capitalist class to the end, for political power, for an end to wage slavery.

While this may seem obvious to some, the official and reformist union leaderships have quite effectively done capitalism’s work of spreading the illusion of a class partnership, that there is an ever-expanding “pie” to be divided up and “shared” between workers and capitalists. They constantly spread the view that the capitalist system is fine except for a few adjustments or reforms. The working class can get along with the capitalists, they say. There is no need to fight for power, but only for some few pennies. But the facts of the class struggle, of our declining standard of living, dwindling trade union rights, and the viciousness with which the capitalists attack our class puts the lie to this class partnership hokum.

Class Collaboration vs. Revolutionary Class Struggle

This difference in ideology leads to differences in policy. Because the reformists claim the neutrality of government mediation and the legal system, they call fry a battle plan of paperwork, the legal grievance procedure. George Meany, late head of the reformist AFL-CIO said, “I have never walked a picket line or organized a strike. I have no experience with that kind of power.” These legal battles are waged by an individual worker and a union representative. They take place in offices far away from the shop floor. Members of the union need not stand together. No mass action is ever organized. The reformists have no interest in unity, organization or democracy (except when it suits furthering their own careers). Unity among the rank and file is sabotaged.

On the other hand, the revolutionary unionists know that in a capitalist society where class struggle is the rule, no institution is neutral. The legal system is in the hands of the capitalist class and the legal grievance procedure when used exclusively, can never win big gains or defend the class. Revolutionary unionists know a contract must be backed up by mass action based in the unity of the broadest masses. For this reason, revolutionary trade unionists fight for policies of union democracy, and toward the unity of workers of all nationalities and of both sexes. The goal is plant-wide, class-wide, nation-wide and worldwide united front actions against the capitalist class, with the aim of overthrowing capitalism as a system.

The reformist unionist believes that class partnership is the order of the day, with occasional interruptions. The reformist unionist only prepares for each individual battle, whether it is a particular grievance or contract struggle. They condemn those fighting under reformist leadership to a “guerilla war” against capital, as Marx pointed out, a hit-and-run retreating battle against the boss. The revolutionary unionist builds long-term mass organizations, builds movements and campaigns which can both defend against particular attacks but also can constantly mount an offensive against capital, against the system of wage slavery.

What’s more, because the revolutionary unionists do not believe in a class partnership, they do not allow any of the capitalist institutions to represent their interests. They pursue the independent political goals of the working class, fighting for independent political action, and independently resist the capitalists’ warmongering plans to make them into cannon-fodder. Especially in a situation where the capitalists and their lieutenants control the unions (as in the U.S.), the revolutionary unionists do not limit their activity to the present institutions, but work both inside and outside of the unions to build a revolutionary trade union movement based on constant opposition to class collaboration.

On the other hand, the reformist trade union leaders are more than willing to place the interests of the workers in the “loving embrace” of their capitalist “partners”. They support the capitalist election circus, funnelling millions of workers’ dollars into the pockets of capitalist politicians and as a rule, they are the first to beat the capitalist war drums in the name of patriotism, jobs and the national “honor” of the American worker.

100 Years of Struggle: Two Lines In the Trade Union Movement

The history of the American labor movement has been a struggle between these two lines on unionism. Generally it may be said that the greatest gains for the labor movement were won in the period when the revolutionary labor movement was strong, and defeats were suffered when it was weak.

The first modern trade unions in our country arose after the Civil War. Many of them were affiliated with or influenced by the International Workingmens’ Association, started by Marx. The preamble to the constitutions of many of the unions of that day stated plainly, “The working class and the capitalist class have nothing in common...“the role of the union is to fight for political power against the capitalist class. But these revolutionary principles were dropped over the years. Arch-reformist Sam Gompers eventually took over the labor movement, tying it to the National Civic Association, a club for capitalists.

In opposition to Gomper’s reformism arose the revolutionary trade union movement of this century, first in the form of the International Workers of the World, then in the Trade Union Education and Unity Leagues. Although there were political problems with these organizations, they were based on opposition to “class peace” and partnership, and formed a revolutionary core that saved the labor movement. When the reformists surrendered to the post World War I capitalist attacks, workers deserted the treacherous trade union organizations by the droves. As workers again took the principle, “The working class and capitalist class have no common interests” as their banner, they formed the revolutionary nucleus of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO did what the old craft unions could never do, because it united the basic workers of the industries on principles of organization and tactics that were objectively revolutionary. While it did not thoroughly unite on consciously revolutionary aims, it did resist the capitalist attacks and built the major industrial unions we see today, like the UAW and USWA.

In the early ’50’s, however, the reformist unionists were able to gain absolute control of the labor movement. They expelled the revolutionary unionists from the unions, expunged revolutionary principles from their charters and have led us to the point where we stand today: poorly organized (only 22% of American workers are in unions), cut off from our natural allies around the world and in the U.S., tied with a million strings to the capitalist state, and led by reformist traitors who are the matchmakers for the deadly class partnership.

An executive of General Motors phrased it this way. “In the old days we fought the unions because they obstructed our disciplining the workforce. Today we no longer fight them because they discipline the workforce for us.”

Today in many unions, from the Teamsters to the Autoworkers, there is an opposition, objectively moving towards becoming a revolutionary opposition These groups need to be based on revolutionary principles such as the touchstone, “Workers and capitalists have no common interests.” They need to be linked together in a broad movement to fight to end the system of wage slavery. The clearest conscious ness of revolutionary unionism is expressed in the program of the Trade Union Action League which, along with other groups takes on the task of the rebirth of the U.S. labor movement. This is the task of successfully defending the living standards and political rights of the American worker, resisting the rising tides of fascism and war, and organizing a movement which can march to the offensive against the system of wage slavery.