Defensive Trade Union Strategies
Difference between a workers' party and a trade union
What is the fundamental difference between a workers' party and a trade union? Of course, every party member in a union has a duty to work with all other progressive unionists and try to improve the wages and living conditions of the workers. It's true that party members can be distinguished by their militancy, aggressiveness, determination and the enormous energy they expend with other workers in the struggle against the bosses. These alone, however, are not what distinguish a party member in the trade unions.
The politically conscious worker must also attempt to educate the other workers in the spirit of the class struggle and promote the socialist goal. This goal is not an ideal as such. The socialist perspective is not something that is a matter of faith in the sense that someone holds some religious or political concept that is dear to them.
The ordinary worker is taught that his or her objective in the union as a worker should be confined to fighting for "a fair day's pay for a fair day's work." "Fairness" and "justice" are most frequently proclaimed by the trade union officialdom as the goal of the workers and the union. A party member, however, understands that this standard is based upon a moral conception of the relations between the workers and the bosses which is very vague and ambiguous and actually presupposes the acceptance of the moral values of the ruling class.
This conception disregards that in reality the relations between the workers and the bosses are governed not by the lofty moral standards proclaimed by the bosses, the government and the media, but by the objective economic laws of motion which govern the relations between capital and labor and are based upon the exploitation and subordination of the latter. What thus differentiates a party member from the general mass of the workers is that she or he has an objective appraisal of the relationship between the workers and the bosses.
Look at any union contract in the big industries such as auto, steel or electric and you will almost always come across a preamble similar to the one in the current General Motors contract with the United Auto Workers:
"The management of General Motors recognizes that it can not get along without labor any more than labor can get along without the management. Both are in the same business and the success of that business is vital to all concerned. This requires that both management and the employees work together to the end that the quality and cost of the product will prove increasingly satisfactory and attractive so that the business will be continuously successful.
"General Motors holds that the basic interests of the employers and the employees are the same. However, at times employees and the management have different ideas on various matters affecting their relationship. The management of General Motors is convinced that there is no reason why these differences cannot be peacefully and satisfactorily adjusted by sincere and patient effort on both sides."
This clause is not there by accident. It is demanded by almost all companies. Indeed, this view is promoted assiduously by the capitalist press, media, government, schools and universities, their ideologists and politicians.
It cultivates the idea that there is an identity of interests between the workers and the bosses. Cooperation with this concept is considered mandatory. Of course, it is never to be interpreted that the employers have to cooperate with the workers. The identity of interests is based on the workers cooperating with the interests of the company and the bosses.
This is and has been the prevailing view ever since the dawn of the so-called free enterprise system. It means the subordination of the workers to the interests of the employers.
A workers' party must challenge and continually demonstrate the utter falsity and perniciousness of this idea. It must be continually demonstrated that the interests of the employers and the workers are diametrically opposed to each other, that the evolution of capitalist society demonstrates the existence of the class struggle rather than identity of class interests.
By accepting the identity of interests between employers and workers, the latter are forced into a subordinate position. The theory of the identity of interests inculcates in the workers the idea that the employers get their share, namely profits, and the workers get theirs, wages. Both supposedly get the fruits of their contribution to the product.
This is wholly erroneous. In reality the workers are subjected to exploitation while the employers reap the benefits of the unpaid labor of the workers. The difference between the class approach to the problem and even the most progressive trade union approach is that the latter would not acknowledge the objective significance of the relations between the employers and the workers.
Limits of trade union approach
The trade unions function as the collective bargaining agent for the workers. It is worth pondering on the meaning of the word bargaining. What it really means is to bargain over the sale of the labor power of the workers.
The bargaining process involves a struggle over the terms of the sale and purchase for a limited period of the one commodity the workers have to sell--their labor power. It is bargaining over the rates and conditions of the exploitation of the workers. The workers attempt to both limit the conditions of exploitation and increase their wages, which means to diminish the profit of the bosses.
No amount of effective bargaining negates the existence of the exploitation of the workers. It can change the conditions of the exploitation, of course, improving the working conditions and increasing the wages, but at all times it retains the exploitation relationship between capital and labor. This is the one invariable element in the relation between capital and labor, between the workers and the bosses.
Party members must and do explain that in the struggle with the bosses their aim is to abolish the exploitation relationship. This then is the fundamental difference between them and other progressives whose views and conceptions are based on the existing ideology of the bosses which ties them to cooperation in the exploitation of the workers. No matter how good a union contract may be, it at best stabilizes the conditions of exploitation.
It is not just a struggle of divergent conceptions. It is a struggle to bring to the workers an objective, dispassionate evaluation of the real relationship which exists. This is the very opposite of what the employers do.
If you think the cooperative part of the preamble to any union contract may be accidental, let's look at still another and much more specific clause that appears in most big industry contracts and further defines the relationship from the bourgeois point of view. It is called "the management clause," and here is how it reads in the UAW-GM contract:
"The right to hire; promote; discharge or discipline for cause; and to maintain discipline and efficiency of employees, is the sole responsibility of the Corporation except that Union members shall not be discriminated against as such. In addition, the products to be manufactured, the location of the plants, the schedules of production, the methods, processes and means of manufacturing are solely and exclusively the responsibility of the Corporation."
The purpose of this clause is to bolster the exploitation relationship between the bosses and the workers by categorically stating that it is the bosses who own and control the plant. This is so the workers don't get any idea in the course of the struggle that they own the plant or that they are to operate it on their own. This clause too is not accidental.
This together with the preamble makes sure that the capitalist system of exploitation is sanctified in every union contract. And when that is of no avail, they resort to the courts, the capitalist politicians and even the military, as they have done on occasion.
Problems of the strike weapon
The effort to fight back against the offensive unloosed by the bosses cannot always be done in the more elementary form of strike struggles during periods when the capitalist cycle of development is descending. The bosses may be able to hold out longer.
One only has to look at what has happened in the last few years in strikes such as Brown & Sharpe, Phelps Dodge and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. (We'll discuss these again later.) In all three, despite the fact that the workers put up glorious and heroic struggles, the unions were not able to win victories equal to the strength of their strikes.
Many years ago, Rudolf Hilferding wrote a book on Finance Capital with a chapter entitled "The Conflict Over the Labor Contract." 1 He described in vivid detail the formal aspects of the struggle over the union contract. What is interesting here is that he dwelt in considerable detail on the merits of strike strategy. He explained the necessity for the unions to educate the workers so that they will strike against the employers at a time most advantageous to the workers.
That time, he explained, is when the capitalist industrial cycle is in its upward, so-called prosperity swing. He said that when workers are making more money, making overtime, they may be less inclined to strike--although the advantage from the point of view of changing the balance of power with the employers is greatest then.
Unquestionably, this is all too true. Few union leaders would contradict this and most workers, especially those in unions, understand very well that from the point of view of strike strategy it's very important to call a strike at a favorable time. The bigger problem is, what if there are attempted lockouts, what if the employers force a strike during a period of capitalist recession? Unfortunately, Hilferding didn't deal with that.
The period since the Second World War shows that these capitalist recessions tend to be of a protracted character and capitalist overproduction can continue for a long period. Agricultural production, for instance, has been characterized by a glut since 1979. This has resulted in depressing effects in the food and processing industries for a considerable period. There's a glut in all kinds of metals and there is no question that there is a glut in world production of steel.
Some of the imperialist countries, most of all the U.S., are trying to solve this problem by putting up high tariff walls, which President Reagan enforced in 1984. This probably has resulted in an increase in steel production, for example. But that has not overcome the general condition of capitalist overproduction in steel.
If steel can be characterized as stagnant because of capitalist overproduction, all the more is this true in copper, tin and aluminum. Needless to say, iron ore has long been in a slump, and while coal mining has somewhat stabilized, it is nowhere near the level of the 1970s. The times are not propitious for a strike in coal on the basis of any upward cycle of capitalist production.
Business Week 2 has estimated that the glut in petroleum extraction could last well into the 21st century. And similar conditions persist in other industries, such as textiles.
Although some industries seem to be relatively more secure from protracted capitalist recession, such as health care and other service industries, this can generally be explained on the basis that the steep recession stage has not yet affected them. The bourgeois press has cultivated the myth that some industries are recession proof. But this is altogether fraudulent. There are no such industries. It is just that the crisis reaches them later or less severely.
Once the workers are frozen into the capital-labor relationship, once that is dogmatically accepted as the permanent condition of the workers, once this business of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay is the conception, it inevitably follows that the workers must make concessions regardless of whether the union is strong or weak. The issue becomes saving the company or industry.
In reality the company, if they mean by that the physical plant and so on, is in no danger of going under. No natural disaster is threatening it. It's only the ownership that may undergo some changes, from one individual to another, or to another group of employers in the case of bankruptcy.
So that the policy of concessions flows directly and inevitably from the acceptance of the capital-labor relationship, from the acceptance of exploitation as the permanent condition of the working class. The ideology corresponding to this can only be that of class collaboration. It is very deeply ingrained into the consciousness of the workers by the press, the media, the courts, the pulpit and the schools and universities.
At times the demand for concessions by the workers becomes almost hysterical. And yet the workers are not inclined to surrender to the hysteria. Their very instincts lead them to opposition. But again, by accepting the capital-labor relationship, they prescribe for themselves a very narrow field for the struggle: the economic struggle, which usually means strikes, stoppages which interrupt capitalist production.
These of course are very important and indispensable. There can be no denying the effectiveness of the strike weapon. The strike weapon, the weapon which interrupts production, is regarded as a calamity for the individual employers of the capitalist class, but not because it stops production as such.
There is still a great deal of production that goes on in contemporary society which the capitalist class does not get worked up about if it is interrupted--the work people do at home, on their own small farms, or generally useful work. The interruptions the capitalists are opposed to are the interruptions of capitalist production, which means the interruption of the source of their profits. When this happens, the strike weapon is regarded as a mortal enemy, especially if it is of a protracted character and at a time when it is inconvenient for the employers.
But, again, the strike weapon has its limitations, particularly in the period we are addressing: that phase of development which is characterized by protracted capitalist economic crisis. The strike struggle alone, confining the union to economic means, is inadequate.
Of course, the first and most important condition necessary to make a strike successful is to obtain united fronts with other workers and to maintain a solid working class front. This would hardly be opposed or denied by even the most casehardened bureaucrats, nor would they oppose political action as they see it, meaning to enlist "friendly" capitalist politicians with so-called pro-labor records. But this too is usually a drawn-out process and is rarely effective enough to determine the course of the strike in favor of the workers. It may be helpful, and often is, but in and of itself is not decisive.
What is needed is to supplement the strike weapon with additional weapons so as to have a variety of different forms of struggle in order to confront the ruling class.
The economic struggle, especially on a plantwide or industrywide basis, is too narrow if for no other reason than that the employers are able to line up the capitalist state on their side. The struggle is an uneven one.
Much more is needed in constructing a strategy for periods of chronic economic depression. These often culminate in a capitalist crisis which in turn could develop into a full-scale general political crisis of the system.
Barring that unforeseen development, it is necessary to take some first steps which may have the effect of breaking out of the capital-labor relationship. What is meant here is not disruption, physical sabotage or anything of the sort, but to break up the sociological scheme of the capital-labor relationship, which is one of exploitation.
References1. Hilferding, Rudolf, Finance Capital, Routledge & Kegan Paul [London & Boston, 1981 (1910)].
2. Business Week, Nov. 12, 1984.
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