The formation of trade unions was a great achievement for the workers: from isolated individuals, they joined together to become a powerful, organised body. Unions are the first means of defence of the working class in its struggle against capitalist exploitation. The creation and spread of unions was no gift from the capitalist class who did all they could to crush this movement, and many men and women sacrificed their lives in the fight to help organise fellow-workers. Unions were the result of concerted efforts by workers to organize and fight collectively for better working conditions, wage increases and a shorter working day. The aim of unions is to serve the workers’ struggle in the class war but a socialist party exists to help push forward the fundamental battle to eliminate capitalist exploitation and establish a new social system. Until the workers get rid of the capitalist system itself, the cause of all the injustices they face, they will constantly have to take up their struggles over and over again.
The Socialist Party educates the working class and shows that every conflict between workers and bosses is part of the general struggle in society between the capitalist class and its state on the one hand, and the working class on the other. The Socialist Party holds no illusions about the role of governments or the law in regards to industrial relations. Reformists believe that they can get better legislation and regulation passed by petitioning the government with appeals. The employing owning class and workers have opposite interests and there can be no conciliation, concession or compromise. Any collaboration can only serve the capitalists.
Unions are essential for the working class and have done much to advance its cause. Without them, workers would still be subject to the every whim and fancy of the employers and their foremen. But unions, while indispensable in the struggle of the workers against capital, have limits as well and left to their own, they have a tendency to stay outside the revolutionary political struggle to abolish capitalism, the source of the workers’ misery.
Karl Marx summed up the role of unions in ‘Wages, Price and Profit’:
“Trade unions work well as centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class, that is to say, the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”