Letter to the Editors from the October 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard
I would be grateful if you could clarify, for the benefit of myself and others, the Party's position on the function of Trade Unions within capitalism.
Although I would accept that workers have to organise collectively to protect themselves against the physical and mental de-humanisation effect of the profit system. I would argue that benefits gained within such organisations arc largely short-term. Supporting their actions, therefore (especially in their present state led by such apologists for capitalism as Norman Willis), treads the thin line between the encouragement of the futile reformism of, say, the Labour Party, especially since the two have strong political connections.
Following on from this, I would be interested to hear your views on other forms of workers' resistance outside that of Union membership, such as over-manning, theft, go-slows, deliberate inefficiency and industrial sabotage - surely these are just as important as collective unionisation because they too produce cuts in surplus value (albeit. short-term) used to make profit for their bosses.
Keep up the good work.
The Socialist Party's position on trade unions is based on Clause 2 of our Declaration of Principles: "There is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce, and those who produce but do not possess". We therefore support actions of the unions against the employers when they are for objects that are in the interests of the working class. Such, for example, as an action to raise wages or to resist a reduction, for shorter hours or to improve working conditions. Inter-union disputes, actions by unions against the employment of immigrant workers, or support given to the political parties which perpetuate capitalism are not in the interests of the working class We have always emphasised that though union organisation is valuable to the workers, its effectiveness is strictly limited and it cannot end the exploitation of the working class. Unions cannot prevent unemployment.
How valuable it is can be seen from the big increases of wages following the rapid growth and improved organisation of the unions in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, when unions were mostly small and weak, Karl Marx thought that a continued fall of workers' living standards was inevitable in face of the development of the division of labour and the introduction of labour-saving machinery. As it turned out, the average real wages of British workers rose between 1855 and 1890 by over fifty per cent. Frederick Engels in 1892, looking back over the previous forty years, commented on the improved conditions of factory workers and "the remarkable improvement" obtained by workers in the big trade unions.
Our correspondent's statement that "benefits gained within such organisations are largely short-term", is quite untrue. The improvements in the 19th century, mainly through the greater effectiveness of the unions, have never been lost; this in spite of some periods of falling real wages (as during the 1914 war, and between 1920 and 1925 when prices were falling but wages fell more severely). Long-term, the slow rise of average real wages has continued, and the big reduction of hours of work and extension of paid holidays have been permanent gains. There can be no doubt whatever that if union organisation did not exist wages would be lower than now, and working conditions worse.
The value, and the limitations, of trade union organisation are well illustrated from manufacturing industry as a whole. For the years 1948 to 1978 official figures were published of the number of workers employed each year, their total pay, and the amount of the employers' profits. Their average take-home pay, after deducting PAYE and after allowing for the rise of prices, rose by at least fifty per cent. And it was not a question of the workers' total pay having fallen in relation to their output. On the contrary, the profits of the companies, measured against wages, fell by nearly a half.
But the total number of workers employed in manufacture fell, from its peak of 8,500,000 in 1955. by more than a million. Since 1978 it has fallen by another two million, largely the result of successful foreign competition which put large numbers of British manufacturing firms out of business, or compelled them to reduce output and cut staff. Our correspondent's reference to "overmanning" presumably refers to such loss of jobs and union resistance to it. The unions can sometimes delay the loss of jobs but they can't prevent it.
"Go-slow" tactics are sometimes used by the unions. They are less effective than an all-out strike and if the employers choose to do so, they can end the go-slow by a lock-out. "Deliberate inefficiency" by an individual will result in his losing his job. Unions do not go in for "theft" and "industrial sabotage". If individuals do so they render themselves liable to prosecution. That is their affair, though such actions are hardly likely to be popular with their fellow workers. More importantly, what is the purpose of it? The employers' profits would certainly be reduced and. in extreme cases, the sabotage could bring work to a halt or even put the employer out of business. But can our correspondent tell us in what way the whole exercise could possibly be of any benefit to the working class?
As regards the TUC, its affiliated unions (and of course the larger number of. mostly, small unions not affiliated) take their own decisions about the claims they make on employers and the actions they take to support their claims. What limited power the TUC has (for example, to intervene in inter-union disputes and to require affiliated unions to inform the TUC about strike decisions) are only those the affiliated unions collectively choose to concede to the General Council.
Our basic criticism of the unions is the one made by Marx. That they limit their aims to what Marx called the "reactionary" policy of seeking a "fair day's pay for a fair day's work" Marx went on to say that the workers should adopt the revolutionary policy of seeking "the abolition of the wages- system". Only when the working class comes to adopt the Socialist Party's aim of abolishing capitalism and establishing Socialism, and taking the essential organised political action for that purpose, will the exploitation of the working class cease.