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Labor Action, 23 April 1945


Frederick Engels

Socialist Thoughts

What Are Trade Unions?

(May 1881)


From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 17, 23 April 1945, p. 4.
Originally published in The Labour Standard, London, May 21, 1881.
Version in Marx-Engels Internet Archive.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In a previous article we examined the time-honored motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” and came to the conclusion that the fairest day’s wages under present social conditions is necessarily tantamount to the very unfairest division of the workman’s produce, the greater portion of that produce going into the capitalist’s pocket, and the workman having to put up with just as much as will enable him to keep himself in working order and to propagate his race.

This is a law of political economy, or, in other words, a law of the present economic organization of society, which is more powerful than all the Common and Statute of Law of England put together, the Court of Chancery included. While society is divided into two opposing classes – on the one hand the capitalists, monopolizers of the whole of the means of production, land, raw materials, machinery; on the other hand, laborers, working people deprived of all property in the means of production, owners of nothing but their own working power; while this social organization exists the law of wages will remain all-powerful and will every day afresh rivet the chains by which the working man is made the slave of his own produce monopolized by the capitalist.

Limits of Unionism

The trades unions of this country [England – Ed.] for nearly 60 years have fought against this law – with what result? Have they succeeded in freeing the working class from the bondage in which capital – the produce of its own hands – holds it? Have they enabled a single section of the working class to rise above the situation of wage slaves, to become owners of their own means of production, of the raw materials, tools, machinery required in their trade, and thus, to become the owners of the produce of their own labor? It is well known that not only have they not done so, but that they never tried.

Far be it from us to say that trades unions are of no use because they have not done that. On the contrary, trades unions in England, as well as in every other manufacturing country, are a necessity for the working classes in their struggle against capital. The average rate of wages is equal to the sum of necessaries sufficient to keep up the face of workmen in a certain country according to the standard of life habitual in that country. That standard of life may be very different for different classes of workmen.

The great merit of trade unions, in their struggle to keep up the rate of wages and to reduce working hours, is that they tend to keep up and to raise the standard of life. There are many trades in the East End of London whose labor is not more skilled and quite as hard as that of bricklayers and bricklayers’ laborers, yet they hardly earn half the wages of these. Why? Simply because a powerful organization enables the one set to maintain, a comparatively high standard of life as the rule by which their wages are measured; while the other set, disorganized and powerless, have to submit not only to unavoidable but also to arbitrary encroachments of their employers: their standard of life is gradually reduced, they learn how to live on less and less wages, and their wages naturally fall to that level which they themselves have learned to accept as sufficient.

Labor Is Cheated

The law of wages, then, is not one which draws a hard and fast line. It is not inexorable with certain limits. There is at every time (great depression excepted) for every trade a certain latitude within which the rate of wages may be modified by the results of the struggle between the two contending parties. Wages in every case are fixed by a bargain, and in a bargain he who resists longest and best has the greatest chance of getting more than his due. If the isolated workman tries to drive his bargain with the capitalist he is easily beaten and has to surrender at discretion; but if a whole trade of workmen form a powerful organization, collect among themselves a fund to enable them to defy their employers if need be, and thus become enabled to treat with these employers as a power, then, and then only, have they a chance to get even that pittance which, according to the economic constitution of present society, may be called a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.

The law of wages is not upset by the struggles of trades unions. On the contrary, it is enforced by them. Without the means of resistance of the trades unions, the laborer does not receive even what is his due according to the rules of the wages system. It is only with the fear of the trades unions before his eyes that the capitalist can be made to part with the full market value of his laborer’s power. Do you want a proof? Look at the wages paid to the members of the large trades unions, and at the wages paid to the numberless small trades in that pool of stagnant misery, the East End of London.

Thus the trades unions do not attack the wages system. But it is not the highness or lowness of wages which constitutes the economic degradation of the working class: this degradation is comprised in the, fact that, instead of receiving for its labor the full produce of this labor, the working class has to be satisfied with a portion of its own produce called wages. The capitalist pockets the whole produce (paying the laborer out of it) because he is the owner of the means of labor. And. therefore, there is no real redemption for the working class until it becomes owner of all the means of work – land, raw material, machinery, etc. – and thereby also the owner of the whole of the produce of its own labor.

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