Briefly, the policy The Socialist Party advocates is democratic action to improve or maintain wages and working conditions and they emphasise that this policy should be pursued whatever party is in government. We do not soft-peddle the class struggle because there is a Labour government. Socialists are opposed to unions being linked to the Labour Party and we refuse to pay the political levy. Beyond this, we say it is up to the workers involved to work out the details of their demands and how to get them. As it is the workers in an industry or factory or office who have to take part in the struggle, and suffer the consequences of any defeat, it is clear that they alone should decide what to do and how to do it. We do not tell workers what to do, except of course for general advice on the importance of democracy and the class struggle. We do not fancy ourselves as leaders. The Socialist Party, as a party, does not intervene in the affairs of trade unions. It is merely that we, as class conscious workers share a broad conception of what sound industrial action is. As far as details are concerned we can, and do, find ourselves reaching different conclusions; some favour the closed shop, others say it's undemocratic. We have members in rival unions. Some support ginger groups; some have joined breakaway unions while others have stayed in, and so on.
The Socialist Party does not sloganise workers, nor do we use the union simply as a soapbox from which to harangue the membership. We participate in the union, seek to give good account of our actions, and when issues arise we offer a class conscious interpretation of them. We do not succumb to opportunism, and never cease to do what we can to make socialists out of trade unionists, instead of allowing the union to water down our socialism. By keeping clear of underhanded deals and political shenanigans, by taking a principled stand on controversial questions, however unpopular such a stand may be at the moment, by fearlessly opposing proposals inimical to the workers interests, and, finally, by judiciously presenting the socialist analysis of day-to-day problems confronting labor - this constitutes socialist activity in the union. The Socialist Party offers not only the chance to work together, as equals, with other like-minded workers in order to build a new socialist society, but also the possibility of a full and creative life in that new society. As socialists, we are not concerned with just one area of life. All the conflicts and contradictions of capitalist society affect all of our lives. Whether we are talking about child-care or factories these are issues that affect all workers, men and women.
Trade unions are organisations of the working class established to improve and defend their pay and conditions of work in capitalism although they are limited in what they can achieve for their members. Unions arise out of the wage-relation that is at the basis of capitalism where the working class are forced to sell their mental and physical energies in order to live. Unions exert collective pressure on employers to prevent their members’ wages falling below the value of their labour-power. It is a way of ensuring that they are paid the full value of what they have to sell and can ensure that wages are not reduced below the subsistence level. Strikes are necessary if the working class are to prevent themselves from being driven into the ground by the never-satisfied demands of profit. The strike is one of the working class weapons that can limit the aims of the capitalist class. We should not deceive ourselves into believing that joining a union or going on strike will free us from exploitation. This does not mean that the working class should sit back and do nothing. Within capitalism the trade union struggle over wages and conditions must go on but the real struggle is to take over the means of wealth production and distribution. The workers have discovered that the union is the only way for them to withstand the overpowering pressure of capital Karl Marx explained.
The unions, though, have been fighting over and over again the same battles they were fighting in the nineteenth century, without ever achieving their aim of "fair wages" and security. They have ignored the advice given to them by Marx:
“Instead of the conservative motto 'a fair day's wages for a fair day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword 'Abolition of the wages system'. “
The trade unions in their long history have, as Marx said, been fighting with effects; they and the rest of the working class need to change course and start dealing with the basic problem of the class ownership of the means of production and distribution. Not until the working class own and control the means of production and distribution will they be able to adjust the hours of labour to the requirements of society and the number able to work. To do this they must first understand and accept the principles of Socialism, then set to work to establish it by organising to take control of political power for the purpose of wresting the means of life from the hands of the master class.
Many labour leaders are full of good intentions for improving the lot of the workers, but failing to learn that capitalism sets narrow limits to the improvements that can be effected. When in office they find that capital dictates to the politician, not the politician to capital. Then they rationalise their thinking. They consider that they are getting wiser with experience. It is not true that they get wiser. They become better trained for the particular job that is allotted to them. They turn from one hopeless plan to another, always trying to make Capitalism work the way it won't. They never get wise to the fact that the solution to working-class problems lies in the abolition of Capitalism and the establishment of a society without classes, without capital, without wages and without labour leaders and politicians. In capitalist society the interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed. In the ensuing struggle the workers organise into trade unions and the government, be it Conservative or Labour, is compelled to safeguard the national capitalist interests. No man can serve both masters. If he tries, and he is not a rogue, he must appear an enigma to those who fail to understand the capitalist system.
We could spend pages listing the faults of the unions today. This would not serve much purpose as these faults are those of the working class generally - lack of interest, economic ignorance, call it what you will. We do not criticise the unions for not being revolutionary, but we do criticise them when they depart from the principle of an antagonism of interests between working class and the capitalist class, when they collaborate with the capitalist class, the state or political parties. A union is not a socialist organisation but has to struggle within the society of which it is an institution - capitalism. As soon as union membership starts to take a class attitude to social problems then the days of capitalism will numbered. Meanwhile Socialists, who reject capitalism, follow the same pattern as the others, struggling for a small improvement in conditions they know can be lost overnight. But to stop struggling would only make the worker worse off than he now is. Socialists work for an improvement in working class understanding, and a consequent improvement in the quality of trade union membership. If this happens and the unions become less nationalistic, then they have many useful international contacts that could be used for the further spread of socialist knowledge. Working against the socialist today are those with a vested interest who prefer the workers to want leaders, those in fact who make a damn good living out of the fact that workers depend on leaders.
Some on the Left expect unions to act in a revolutionary way with non-revolutionary members but members of the working class who will not vote for socialism will not strike for it. Unions can’t overthrow capitalism. Nevertheless, Socialists can suggest how trades unionists can recall the early struggles for democracy and rejoin that battle. In doing so, they would re-capture their vision of a better world and play a constructive part in working for it. The time for the trade union movement to break out of this narrow defensive role is long overdue. An organisation like the TUC, with its research departments, is well placed to conduct discussions with socialists on how production and the work place could be democratically organised. With common ownership, control of production by boards of directors and their corporate managers would immediately cease. The exploitative operations of the multi-nationals would be brought to an end. This would leave workers with the job of carrying on with the useful parts of production and services and for this they would need to be democratically organised. At this point control of all units engaged in production and distribution, services such as schools and hospitals, and useful parts of the civil service and local administration etc., would switch to management committees or councils elected by the workers running them. Unlike boards of directors and corporate managers, works committees would not be responding to the economic signals of the market. They will be responding directly to the needs of the community. In this way, the links connecting production units and services in socialism will be far more extensive than the buying and selling that connects capitalist units with their suppliers and market outlets. One immediate difference would be that access to information throughout the world structure of production would be unlimited. There will be no industrial secrets, no commercial confidentiality, no copyright or patent protection.
For many years now the TUC and the trade unions in general have languished in a role which provides little scope for action beyond preparing for the next self-repeating battle with employers. They tend to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and timeserving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions. It has to be said that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system. But in fact the unions could bring a great deal of experience to bear on the question of how a new society could be organised democratically in the interests of the whole community. Certainly in the developed countries they have organisation in the most important parts of production. They have rule-books that allow them to be run locally and nationally in a generally democratic manner and they also enjoy fraternal links across the world. All this is already in place. By setting their sights beyond the next wage claim and by becoming part of the socialist movement, once a majority is achieved, they could so easily become part of the democratic administration of industry that would replace the corporate bosses and their managers who now organise production for profit.
Workers everywhere can take heart from the popular unrest around the world. It has been seen that not only have working people acted as a class - but shown the power our class has in society. This doesn't mean that socialism is around the corner or indeed that this is even the beginning of the end of capitalism. The struggle is dominated by defensive reformist ideas and reformist institutions such as the trade unions. The positive point is that within such an atmosphere the potential for revolutionary ideas to spread is increased. This will mean workers breaking with reformist ideology (as indeed some have shown) and realising the only alternative is the political solution of world socialism.