Ernest Erber Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ernest Erber

A Reply to the Current Drive Against the Closed Shop

The Closed Shop Is a Step Towards
Real Workers’ Democracy

(24 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 12, 24 March 1947, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In a previous article on the closed shop, we pointed out that the arguments of the capitalists and their politicians about the “undemocratic nature” of the closed shop illustrated a point which Marxists have always made about democracy; namely, that the concepts of democracy held by capitalists and those held by workers are quite different.

The capitalist views the closed shop from his belief in, what he calls, “freedom of enterprise.” What he means by this high-flown phrase is simply that he wants freedom to run his plant as he sees fit. Several hundred years ago the philosophers of the rising capitalist class made a fetish of the right of a capitalist to do as he pleased with his capital. Their concepts of philosophy, law and the role of the state were based upon this view. They spoke of the “inviolability of property” and the “sanctity of contract.” The “Founding Fathers” considered this “right of property” to be above those human rights for which the common people had fought in the Revolutionary War.

That is why the authors of the Constitution carefully provided for the “rights of property” in the basic law of the land without mentioning the democratic rights of the ordinary citizen. it was only after a fierce political struggle that the mass of the people succeeded in forcing Congress to adopt the series of amendments guaranteeing such rights as freedom of speech, of press, etc., known as “The Bill of Rights.”

However, in the course of the historical development of capitalism, the right of the capitalist to run his enterprise as he wishes has been considerably modified. This has been the result of two pressures. The first has been the pressure exercised by the capitalist state upon the rights of the individual capitalist. This pressure has been exerted in order to save capitalism as a system from the individual actions of separate capitalists. The growing complexity of capitalist production and the increasing size of corporations has made it impossible to give each capitalist enterprise a completely free hand without inviting recurring economic chaos and political instability. The, economic role of the fascist and Nazi states was an expression of this trend toward state controls in its extreme form. The New Deal was an expression of this same trend in a different form.

Labor Pressure

The second pressure upon the right of the capitalist to “run the plant as I see fit” has come from the organized labor movement. It is with this latter development that this article is primarily concerned. The organized strength of the workers has forced the capitalist to recognize the right of workers to combine to bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of their employment. The history of labor organization shows that, beginning with the most elementary demands set forth by unstable shop committees, the workers have continually expanded the scope of their demands and made their organization ever more stable. As soon as a trade union had established its right to bargain over wages and hours and sign a written agreement, it made as its next objective gaining some voice in the matter of hiring and firing.

Usually, a voice in the matter of firing came first, since this was directly related to the preservation of the union. Either by contractual agreement or by practice, the union sought to force the employer to establish valid reasons before he was permitted to discharge an employee. Without the latter, the active core of the organization would be completely at the mercy of the boss. This interference of organized labor with the capitalist’s right to fire was the first “despotic” inroad upon the then prevailing concept of “free enterprise.”

A Voice in Hiring

But just as it was important that the union not be weakened by the dismissal of good union men, so was it also important that the union not be weakened by the hiring of workers who would refuse to join the union and, thereby, reduce its strength as a bargaining agency. The union, therefore, fought for some voice in hiring. The first means of exercising its authority in this direction was to submit the new employee to persuasion and, finally, to pressure to join the union. However, workers being influenced by the capitalist environment, many of them sought to enjoy all the benefits of union conditions without joining, Those who refused to join were given all possible aid and comfort from the employer. Often they were favored with better jobs and other advantages over the union men who had sacrificed to introduce better wages and conditions.

The free exercise of the employer’s right to hire undermined the free exercise of the workers’ right to improve his conditions through collective bargaining.

But, it is argued by the opponents of the closed shop, is not the individual worker who is opposed to joining the union entitled to his rights too? If he thinks he can get ahead faster by stooging for the boss, is that not his right?

The answer to this oft-heard argument comes under two heads. The first is that democracy does not only consist of the rights of minorities, but also of the rights of majorities. Democracy could never work unless it provided for the right of the majority to decide.

The second argument is that the worker who wants to get ahead by staying out of the union is actually getting ahead because of the union. Such a worker is cashing in on the existence of the union, which makes it possible for him to occupy the special status of a non-union man. In other words, if there were no union, everyone would be a non-union man and there could not be any special favors on that account. But it is precisely because a union exists that the “free rider” can live off the efforts and sacrifices of the majority by establishing his special value to the boss as a non-union man. The “rights” of the non-union man in a union shop are the “rights” of a Judas Iscariot to betray his fellow workers. If the other eleven disciples of Jesus had offered their services to the Romans, Judas would have received much less than his thirty pieces of silver. It is the solidarity of the others that places a premium upon the treachery of the one.

Meaning of Closed Shop

The principle of the closed shop is that the capitalist has the right to run his shop as he sees fit in regard to production but the supply of labor power is controlled by the union. In the best organized closed shops, the employer is not permitted to hire from the street or through advertisement unless there are no available union men seeking work. The system of “hiring through the union’’ extends the principle of seniority from the individual shop to the industry as a whole in a given area. The union man has priority over the non-union man and the union man who has been unemployed longest has priority, over the others.

It means that the hiring of workers is no longer at the whim of an economic autocrat, the man who happens to have money enough to run a business, but is now controlled by an organization of the workers themselves. Is this not a great step forward in introducing the principles of democracy into economic life? From the standpoint of the workers, it most certainly is. Just compare the system used in an honestly-run union hiring hall with the “shape-up” in vogue in many industries, that is, the system by which the workers present themselves for work in the morning and the foreman walks down the line pointing his finger at those he will hire, much as if he were buying cattle. Is not the union hiring system far more dignified and human than the degrading shape-up system or its, more refined counterparts as practiced by officious personnel directors?

The argument that the closed shop has often been abused by union bureaucrats and that union job-control is often a source of graft for crooked business agents cannot be seriously considered as an argument against the institution of the closed shop any. more than it can against the organization of unions. It is suicidal to seek to weaken union bureaucrats by weakening the union. In this case one merely weakens the bureaucrats by strengthening the employer. It is always possible to wage a struggle against a bad leadership in the union but it is not always possible to restore the position of the union once it has been undermined.

Space does not permit an examination here of the actual working out of the closed shop in the life of the union movement, why it is easier to establish and maintain in some industries, like printing, and very difficult in other industries, like steel or auto. Suffice it to say that with the growth of trade union power and the increase in class consciousness of the workers, the tendency everywhere in an industry is toward a greater and greater measure of union control over hiring and firing.

The closed shop cannot resolve any of the basic problems that confront the workers as long as they remain wage workers. Unemployment, rising prices, economic instability, and other factors that continually drain off the hard-earned gains of labor can only be tackled by going beyond the measure of job-control and intruding upon the remaining (and fundamental) domain of capitalists “rights” – control of production.

The closed shop, with its workers’ control over jobs, is the invasion of workers’ democracy in the realm of economy. However, as long as the capitalist maintains his right to control production all forms of democracy remain restricted by and subordinated to the bourgeois system of economy, that is, remain within the limited forms of bourgeois democracy. It is necessary, as Trotsky wrote, “to break the husk of bourgeois democracy and free from, it the kernel of workers’ democracy.” With the achievement of workers control of production and a workers’ government, the kernel of workers’ democracy will achieve full flower and encompass all of economic and political life.

Ernest Erber Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 31 December 2021