The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961
This slogan was put forward by the “economists” in Russia. The “economists” said that the tasks of the trade unions should be confined to the economic – wages, conditions, hours.
Lenin attacked and destroyed this trend, pointing out that “no politics in the union” really meant bourgeois politics in the unions; it meant that the workers were left at the mercy of bourgeois propaganda and ideology.
We have seen that the objective must be to politically revolutionise the unions. Some comrades interpret this to mean that they should confine themselves to academic, abstract discourses on theory and political questions at union meetings. This is wrong. Communists must be the best trade unionists, i.e., giving a lead on all problems of the trade unions and lead the fight for the economic demands of the workers, in short, be the best fighters on the job and during strike periods.
At the same time, politics must be introduced, linked with the union’s problems, and on favourable occasions when political issues are raised in correspondence, etc., to educate the workers in socialist ideas. The union journals and other avenues must be fully utilised for such political education. The reformists here in Australia cling to the “economists” idea of “no politics in the union,” or only reformist politics in the union. The aim must be to kill this reactionary idea in the unions by showing that, without a correct political policy, without the theoretical education of the rank and file, this union’s efforts are in the end doomed to futility.
The question of the relationship between economics and politics was continuously before Marx and the First International. In a resolution drawn up by him for the 1871 Conference the following instructive passage occurs:
“In the presence of an unbridled reaction which violently crushes every effort at emancipation on the part of the working class, and pretends to maintain by brute force the distinction of classes and the political domination of the propertied classes resulting from it; considering that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; that this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of the classes; that the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economical struggles ought at the same time serve as a lever against the political power of the landlords and capitalists; the Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united.”
Here is a clear expression by Marx of the idea that politics are the concentrated expression of economics, that the workers need a revolutionary political party to lead the struggle for socialism, and that the trade unions, far from adopting an attitude of neutrality, of non-partisanship, should adhere to such a party and play their part under its leadership in the struggle.
The reformist leaders in the trade union movement contend that the needs of the working class can be satisfied by a policy of reforms, by a gradual increase in wages, a shortening of hours and improvement of the job conditions. They tell the workers that if the unions keep on increasing wages soon there will be no exploitation, no margin of profit left for the employing classes.
This is the trade union equivalent of the social-democratic theory of “gradualism” of “peaceful evolution,” or “revolution without class struggle, bloodshed or dislocation of industry.”
It is true that the reformists can point to instances where the Arbitration Court has awarded increased wages, shortened hours, or eased condition, of employment in the factories. Why, therefore, cannot we continue this peaceful, evolutionary process until we make the position of the bosses untenable in industry; why not undermine their control by these piecemeal processes? It will be found, however, that tremendous mass pressure (economic strikes, demonstrations and agitation in the press and on the platform) preceded all reforms by the arbitration courts or “voluntary” concessions to the workers.
For example, the first Lang Government in N.S.W. “granted” the 44-hour week in N.S.W., although previously Lang had opposed the 44-hour week as an “extremist” communist policy. But the building workers in Sydney absented themselves from work on Saturday mornings for a prolonged period. Other unionists struck or threatened to strike over the issue of the shorter week. The unions were in a good position because it was the period of temporary capitalist stabilisation, of relative boom. So finally, the Lang Government legislated the 44-hours and claimed all the credit, although it is quite clear that it was the economic situation and the mass pressure of the workers that was really responsible.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels answered the gradualist “theory” long, long ago, in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” (1848), to be exact.
These two great geniuses, the founders of Communism, wrote on this point:
“The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalised, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly, everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, makes the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The unceasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.”
Let us apply this to our own Australian experiences. The last decades of the 19th century were a period of great trade union and class struggles in this country, for the raising of the general standards, which were very poor.
After this, in line with the rapid growth and expansion of capitalism there was a more or less continuous improvement, side by side with the rapid growth of the A.L.P. and the trade unions. This was the heyday, the golden age of reformism; it had one hundred per cent. control of the unions and the reformist Labour governments were coming to office and initiating a number of reforms. This was the time when “gradualism” looked good to the workers.
The outbreak of the imperialist world war, reflecting the general crisis of world capitalism, ended this period. By 1917 the unions were on strike, striving to retain something of their position, to save something from the chaos created by the prolonged reactionary war. The reformist Labor governments (Hughes, Holman, etc.) had broken asunder and collapsed under the strain of the crisis, and given way to anti working-class governments. When the war ended, there was vast unemployment and hardship, which neither the A.L.P. nor the bourgeois parties could alleviate; to the contrary, they conducted an “offensive” against the workers.
“Commercial crises,” “competition” had led to war, to intensified “commercial crises” which destroyed the gains the workers made in the preceding “peaceful” capitalist expansion period.
This proves to the hilt Marx’s statement, about the effects on the workers of the capitalist system and his proposition: “Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” (Author’s emphasis.) And it is true that in this period of “peaceful” reform and the period of crises, the unions did grow in numbers, organisation and strength; the workers began to take a more critical attitude towards reformism as a result of this experience, which facilitated the foundation of the Communist Party of Australia.
“Commercial crises,” promoted by the imperialist rivalry, by the chaotic nature of capitalism itself and its unstable, anarchistic, transitory character preclude an endless chain of reforms, i.e., “gradualism.” Subsequent history provided further proof. How well have Marx’s words on the obliteration of distinctions among the workers been fulfilled. The conveyor belt and mass production undermines the skilled tradesman and replaces him with the semi-skilled and unskilled. Speed-up Bedeaux and Taylor and other “systems,” piece-work, and bonus systems extract the last ounce of energy from the workers, irrespective of shortening of hours.
On the basis of the defeat of the revolution after the war, except in Russia, and an intensive “offensive” against the living standards of the workers on a world scale, capitalism was temporarily stabilised. A relative boom set in. Once more arbitration courts and reformist governments were able to make concessions to the workers. Again reformist illusions commenced to wax, and the reformists, headed by Lang, were able to commence a bitter struggle against the militants in the unions, against the communists.
This reformist honeymoon was short-lived. The world economic crisis hit Australia with devastating force in 1929. The workers were shut out of the factories. Their basic wage became the “dole"! By means of the Premier’s plan, initiated and operated by the Labor Government with the assistance of the reformist trade union leaders, who stifled the defensive actions and broke many of the strikes of the workers, the gains of the preceding period made by the trade unions were once more swept away.
Before the war, there was a mass unemployed army in all capitalist countries including Australia, living, or rather existing, on the dole.
This is in accordance also with what Marx and Engels wrote in the “Manifesto” –
“The serf, in the period of serfdom, raised himself to membership in the Commune, just as the petty-bourgeois, under the yoke of feudal absolutism, managed to develop into a bourgeois. The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”
The mass armies of unemployed in Britain, U.S.A., and the Nazi “labour camps,” before the war, all testified to the growth of “pauperism,” to the correctness of Marx’s forecast.
The “revisers” of Marx, especially Bernstein and the German trade union bureaucrats, the fathers of the “revision” of Marxism in favour of reformism were utterly opportunist as the subsequent history of trade unionism under capitalism amply proves. They based their “theories” on the expansion period of capitalism prior to the 1914-18 war, and they were chiefly responsible for the undermining of the revolutionary spirit of German social-democracy and the Second International, thereby defeating the German social revolution and giving us Hitler.
“Gradualism” leads, not to continuous improvement and socialism, but to “pauperism” and fascism, and it cannot be otherwise whilst capitalism exists.
The Australian trade union movement has been permeated and for long dominated by the ideology of the reformists. Reformism, Lenin has explained, is the outlook of the higher paid, skilled craftsmen, the “aristocrats of labour.” This “aristocracy” is given concessions on the basis of imperialist exploitation – super-profits – from the colonies. This induces the belief that workers’ conditions can be continuously improved within the framework of the capitalist system, and that there is therefore no need to struggle for socialism. The reformists substitute class co-operation, class peace, class collaboration for class struggle.
Reformist class-collaboration expresses itself in the adherence of the unions, in Australia and New Zealand, to legalism – to the arbitration system. The function of compulsory arbitration is to prevent strike struggles and to enforce acceptance, by law, of a low standard of living. It will at once be seen that arbitration is detrimental to the development of the class struggle and class consciousness and of that genuine and fundamental solidarity and perfected organisation necessary to the revolutionary struggle for socialism. Nor, under the arbitration legislation have there been any real concessions without strikes and mass political campaigns. The bask wage today, the real wage, related to the cost of living, is no higher than that first basic wage awarded by the courts, the Harvester judgment of 1907.
Arbitration court procedure, as far as the basic wage is concerned, is to assemble a number of so-called experts as witnesses, whose evidence usually consists of showing the least and cheapest varieties and quantities of food and clothing and lowest rent (based on the “industrial” and semi-slum area), that is, to find the minimum food, clothing and shelter necessary to sustain the working masses.
This method is the exemplification and the epitome of Marx’s law that wages are based on the amount, in the given conditions, necessary to keep the labourer in working condition and, to ensure the “reproduction of the race of wage workers.” The workers can only improve this condition, to some extent, by striking, which they continue to do despite the arbitration legislation. As Engels wrote:
“The law of wages is not upset by the struggle of trade unions. On the contrary it is enforced by them. Without the means of resistance of the trade union the labourer does not receive what is due even according to the rules of the wages system.”
When the workers strike, the arbitration legislation operates at once to break the strike, to refuse consideration of strikers’ demands whilst on strike, to take “secret ballots” of the strikers, etc., and by every form of intimidation and pressure to try to force the workers back to work. Awards have the effect of splitting the workers.
The reformist trade union officials wholeheartedly support the arbitration system. They do not want strikes and struggles to disturb their peaceful salaried existence. Lenin characterised the reformist trade union leaders in his article (written in 1913), “On the Labor Government in Australia” as follows:
“The leaders of the Australian Labor Party are trade union officials, an element which everywhere represents a most moderate and ‘capital-serving’ element, and, in Australia, it is altogether peaceful, and purely liberal.”
It was this “element,” so aptly described by the great leader of the Russian revolution, that co-operated with the employing classes to shackle the trade union movement by means of the arbitration legislation. It is these officials who prevent the unionists from ending this system. But neither the capitalists, the arbitration legislation nor the reformists, have been able to “abolish” the elemental class struggle. Despite them, the Australian trade union movement has a proud record of struggle in defence, and for the improvement of, the standard of living of the masses.
The communists regard legislation which imposes compulsory arbitration as pernicious and anti-working class. Its objective is to keep the workers eternally shackled to the capitalist state, i.e., eternally wage slaves. We fight against this legislation, relying, on the unity and organisation of the workers in the struggle to improve conditions and enforce collective agreement with the employers. We want to restore the position described by Engels in his “Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844”:
“Trade unions came into being in every branch of industry. They openly worked for the defence of the individual workers against the tyranny and injustice of the bourgeoisie. Their aims were: To fix wages by collective bargaining, to negotiate with the employers of labour as a power functioning in the name of all the members of the union, to regulate wages in accordance with the profits of the entrepreneur, to raise wages whenever possible, to keep wages up to the same level in every branch of work in the factories.”
In the meantime, until the majority of unionists are convinced of the real damage done to the working class under the arbitration legislation, communists have to represent their unions in the various tribunals set up by this legislation. In this way they avoid losing contact with the masses. Further, communists may for tactical reasons temporarily support one system of arbitration against another, e.g., wages boards against compulsory adjudication, conciliation committees, etc.
Our condemnation of the compulsory arbitration legislation does not mean opposition to legislation guaranteeing conditions won by the masses.
Marx wrote on this point:
“It (the working class) compels legislative recognition of particular interests of the workers by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself. Thus the Ten Hours Bill in England was carried.”
-- Marx and Engels “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.”
Marx also praised the appointment by the British Government of factory inspectors and laws regarding factory conditions. Lenin wrote – “It (the working class) may itself realise the necessity for combining in unions, for fighting against the employers and for striving to compel the Government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.“ (Emphasis mine – L.S.).
An Australian example of this is shown in the miners’ struggle for pensions and other reforms which, after two general strikes had been waged in the industry, were finally embodied in bills passed by the various State legislatures.
Legislation of this character, particularly at the demand of the masses, is quite different from the arbitration legislation.
This latter ties the unions to the capitalist State, aims to dictate the policy of the unions, e.g., outlawing strikes, refusal to consider strikers’ claims until they return to work, imposition of penalties on unions and so forth. Such legislation is bourgeois policy to control the unions, to prevent their development along class lines. This policy of control of the workers by the capitalist State was perfected by the fascists; the Nazi Labor Front and Mussolini’s so-called “Corporations”; sham substitutes for the free trade unions. The legislation, referred to by Marx and Lenin, resulting from the mass demand, leaves the unions independent of the capitalist State and free to determine their own policy on all fundamental questions as the changing of conditions demand. Such legislation has the advantage for the workers that it compels powerful and recalcitrant employers to obey these vital laws, for the protection of labour, without the crippling restrictions of the arbitration legal compulsion.
The struggles of the basic unions along with improving general living standards, also improve standards in weak industries. The scrapping of arbitration therefore would not injure the members of weak unions; it would also have the effect of compelling the latter to seek organisational unity with the powerful unions, thereby uniting and strengthening the workers.
Reformism no longer has 100 per cent. domination of the Australian union movement. The communists are now a growing and powerful force, challenging the whole position of reformism and transforming the trade unions into organs of revolutionary struggle for socialism. In the process, the trade union movement will be freed from the paralysing grip of arbitration. The very development of capitalism and capitalist industry – mass production – tends to undermine the position Of the conservative craftsmen, the base of reformism in the labour movement. (See also “What is This Labor Party?” on arbitration.)
The Australian trade union movement is probably numerically the strongest of all capitalist countries. The arbitration system has facilitated this growth. Workers in occupations where there is usually little organisation, have joined unions in order to get awards. Many of these small unions are extremely weak and do not exert much influence. Despite this, great benefit is undoubtedly derived from the fact that unionism is so widespread among the Australian working class.
Despite arbitration and reformism, the Australian trade union movement has a tremendous record of strike struggles and great fighting traditions.
Communists must base themselves on these traditions, popularise them in order to still further encourage the militancy of the workers and combat reformist defeatism; showing that it was these struggles, and not arbitration court decisions that really established the living conditions of the Australian masses.
Formerly, the Australian trade unions were 100 per cent. under the control of the reformists. The picture is rapidly changing. The communists, the left-wing, now share leadership of the trade union movement. The strength of the leftwing is consistently growing, reformism is gradually being ousted, more especially in the big unions covering basic industry.
But there is still much to be accomplished before the working class has the well-organised socialist fighting unionism it needs to emancipate the workers.
Statistics on the Australian trade union movement are incomplete, but an idea of its growth and widespread character may be gathered from the following tables:
1911 ... 344,999
1914 ... 523,271
1918 ... 581,755
1923 ... 699,743
1929 ... 901,168
1939 ... 915,470
(Trade union membership has continued to increase steeply since 1939.)
Too much concentration on the trade union tends towards trade union narrowness.
In the course of our work in the union field, this trade union outlook has had to be combated.
By trade union narrowness is meant an entire, or almost entire, concentration of attention on the immediate practical problems in the union, the daily work, whilst the broad general line and policy of the Party is more or less neglected. National and international crises tend to pass over the heads of comrades afflicted with trade union narrowness, who are content to work in the old way without realising the need for changed methods and policies in accordance with changing conditions. Such comrades do not popularise Party policy outside of the purely economic and organisational fields; they neglect the study of Marxism-Leninism and its application to their problems, and do not perceive the need to work among the masses outside of their union. Instead of being “Tribunes of the People,” as Lenin put it, they sink to the level of purely “Trade Union Militants,” and tend to become separated from the Party.
It has happened in our history that with success in winning official positions in the union, the Party organisation has actually gone back, because comrades concentrated narrowly on the union, and lost sight of the need to build a mass Communist Party to lead the whole of the toiling people. Winning official positions is only a first step towards the raising of the political consciousness of the trade unionists, towards a network of factory committees, towards industrial unions, for a correct economic and political policy for the unions.
It is the duty of all members and, in this case particularly of those who are elected to union positions, to fit themselves, to be tribunes of the people, masters of Marxism-Leninism in theory and practice.
Along with “narrowness” the remnants of anarcho-syndicalism must be combated. There are some peculiar exhibitions of syndicalist ideas in the unions. For example, in some of our biggest unions, leading officials do not possess a vote (Miners, Seamen, etc.) The I.W.W. believed that a union official, receiving more salary than a worker, was necessarily reactionary, and viewed a worker elected to Parliament in the same light. Hence its narrow “no politics” outlook. It was this influence that led to rules in several unions prohibiting officials from voting. That is one example of syndicalism. The belief that only the union matters, however, is the main remnant of this ideology; it is still to be found in the Party, and, in the minds of the comrades who are influenced by such an outlook, tends to be contemptuous of the work of the Party in a myriad other spheres.
Another dangerous heritage of anarcho-syndicalism is a tendency in time of strikes to rely upon the actions of individuals and small groups to deal with strike-breakers, substituting this for mass action by all of the strikers against the strikebreakers. There is also still a need to combat the anarcho-syndicalist tendency towards “sabotage.” All of these harmful tendencies obviously hamper the Party’s work.