Editorial from the May 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard
May Day and the fortieth anniversary of the General Strike on May 4th focus attention on the position of the trade unions and what they are able to achieve within Capitalism.
The Socialist party supports the working class in their struggles to improve their living standards through higher wages and better working conditions under Capitalism. Even so, we constantly point out to workers the narrow limitations of their trade union activity. Al best, and then only under favourable circumstances, trade union pressure can win marginal wage increases. Often, trade union activities are a line of defence achieving only a marking time in living standards. In unfavourable circumstances caused by general unemployment or the decline of a branch of industry, trade unions are almost helpless against the economic forces of Capitalism.
Socialists want to emphasise these points. In spite of many years of trade union action, the problems of workers in their struggles to gain a living remain basically the same. Workers are still forced into strike action or the threat of it as their only weapon in the economic war called Capitalism. In spite of years of talk about industrial harmony and an incomes policy, strikes, restrictive practices, guerrilla tactics are still an aspect of the social chaos wrought by the continuing antagonism of class interests. These conditions of life will go on as long as Capitalism exists.
These undeniable facts of modern life underline the urgent necessity for Socialism. They underline the limitations of trade union action and the necessity for workers to widen their political horizons to include taking over the means of production.
The ownership of the means of production is the key to the whole question. The struggle for higher wages and better conditions or against redundancy or wage reductions, all stem from the class ownership of the means of production that is inseparable from Capitalism. In supporting Capitalism politically by voting Labour, Liberal or Tory, workers endorse the economic disadvantages under which they arc now forced to struggle. Their vulnerability is due to the fact that they live from week to week or month to month from the sale of their labour power to the owners of industry—of the means of living.
The last forty years, indeed the last one hundred and forty years, will show that the trade union movement has been useful to the working class. Even so we must ask the question how far have we really come? The answer is surely that poverty, frustration and misery still abound. Capitalism is still the same commercial jungle as ever it was. Society is still torn apart by conflict and made ugly by privilege and exploitation. The necessities of life which Socialist society would take for granted are still under Capitalism a meagre offering for which workers must devote a lifetime of struggle.
The millions of trade unionists in this and other countries arc part of the labour force on which society’s wealth depends. In unity with the socially useful wherever they may exist, their task must be to create Socialist order in the place of Capitalist chaos. They can cater abundantly for their material needs. They can grow the food, build the houses and make the clothing. But they cannot do this as members of the working class selling their labour power on the market to exploiters. This is the pre-condition of their enduring poverty where trade unions remain necessary.