Letter to the Editors from the September 1961 issue of the Socialist Standard
What is the true position of the SPGB in regard to trade unions as they arc presently constituted in this country? Do you believe in the closed shop, and that members of your party should belong to a trade union and support it even though it may be anti-socialistic in character? Your writers often claim in the Socialist Standard that trade unions tend to help capitalism to run more smoothly; if this were so why not state in your journal that trade unionism is anti-socialistic and that no real socialist should belong to any trade union at all? This would be the only logical position that your party could take, hut as it is now you seem to be running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Trade Unions may he necessary under a certain phase of capitalism just as the National Assistance Board is at present, but nevertheless it does not necessarily follow that socialists should support them.
Capitalism is a social system in which most people have to go to work for wages in order to live. This means that they are forced to sell their mental and physical energies to an employer. The interests of the seller of any article are in getting the highest possible price for what he is selling. Thus the workers are forced to struggle for the best conditions for the sale of their labour power. This means that they must struggle for shorter hours, less intense working pace, higher wages and so on.
It is obvious that the workers will be able to assert their interests more strongly if they do so together: this is the basic reason for the existence of trade unions. They are the only weapon which workers can use under capitalism to defend and to improve their working conditions. Because of this, all workers should join their trade union. Any trade union action which is in line with working class interests is worthy of wholehearted support from all workers —and receives the support of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
It is true, however, that trade unions do many things which are quite opposed to working class interests; some of them, as our correspondent points out, tend to help capitalism run more smoothly. Such actions are contrary to trade unionism and the Socialist Party opposes them. Thus we opposed trade union participation in the war effort and later their support of government productivity drives.
The closed shop is an arrangement which is operated sometimes with the aid and approval of the employers and sometimes by the workers themselves. While we hold that, on balance, compulsory trade union membership is not in the best interests of the Trade Union movement and the working class, we also recognise that trade union action, and strikes in particular, cannot operate without trying to compel would be blacklegs to conform to the decision of the majority.
It is hardly surprising that trade unions have their faults. They are, after all, a feature of capitalist society and they must recruit workers of all sorts of political and religious opinions, who are united only in the struggle against their masters. When Socialism is established, trade unions will exist no more—the need for them will have disappeared. Until that day, life under capitalism is a battle, and the workers must fight it with the best weapon available.