We frequently hear that trade unions are now obsolete and anachronistic, that they’re essentially useless, but that simply isn’t true. If unions were “useless,” the employers wouldn’t fear them. But they do fear them. They fear them because they realise they are the one and only institution capable of mobilising working people and resisting the power of the ruling class. It is the time to speak up and push for long-overdue action. We must stand up for ourselves and our communities. Don’t listen to the right-wing lies about the unions. Know the truth, and act on it.
Workers may influence their wages and working conditions only by collective effort and only by being in the position to stop working if their demands are not met. The ability to withhold their service in a strike is one weapon in their possession (work-to-rules and overtime bans are others). It is the only final logic known to employers. Without it, wages tend to sink below subsistence level. With it, a substantial check can often be placed on the encroachments of the employers and improvements both in wages and working conditions can be made. The strike is not a sure means of victory for workers in dispute with employers. There are many cases of workers being compelled to return to work without gains, even sometimes with losses. Strikes should not be employed recklessly but should be entered into with caution, particularly during times when production falls off and there are growing numbers of unemployed. Nor should not be thought that victory can be gained only by means of the strike. Sometimes more can be gained simply by the threat of a strike. The most effective strike as the one that did not take place. Workers must bear all these things in mind if they are to make the most effective use of the trade union and the power which it gives them.
The Socialist Party urges that the existing unions provide the medium through which the workers should continue their efforts to obtain the best conditions they can get from the master class in the sale of their labour-power. 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 workers and employers; when they collaborate with employers, the state or political parties; when they put the corporate interests of a particular section of workers above that of the general interest of the working class as a whole.
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 tended to be bogged down in bureaucracy and run by careerists and timeserving officials for whom the future means little more than their pensions and peerage. It has to be admitted that this does present itself as a sterile accommodation with the capitalist system. It would be wrong to write off the unions as anti-working-class organisations. The union has indeed tended to become an institution apart from its members but the policy of a union is still influenced by the views of its members. It may be a truism but a union is only as strong as its members. Most unions have formal democratic constitutions which provide for a wide degree of membership participation and democratic control. In practice, however, these provisions are sometimes ineffective and actual control of many unions is in the hands of a well-entrenched full-time leadership. It is these leaders who frequently collaborate with the State and employers in the administration of capitalism; who get involved in supporting political parties and governments which act against the interest of the working class. We are hostile to the mis-leading by the trade union leaders and the ignorance of the rank and file which make such mis-leading possible. Workers must come to see through the illusion that all that is needed in the class war are good generals. Trade union officials voicing militant slogans are impotent in the face of a system which still has majority support – or at least the acquiescence – of the working class. Nevertheless, we accept trade unions as they are, fully understanding that all their undeniable faults are but the reflection of the shortcomings of the members. The Socialist Party avoided the mistake of the syndicalists, the IWW, the American SLP - and later of the CPGB during the "Third Period" after 1929 - of "dual unionism", i.e. of trying to form "revolutionary" unions to rival the existing "reformist" unions.
Obviously, being part of the class struggle, trade union activity has the potential to develop into full class consciousness, i.e. the recognition of the need to get rid of capitalism and to take political action to do this. But it's not going to develop into socialist consciousness automatically without those involved hearing the case for socialism. Discontent over wage levels or conditions at work can be a catalyst for socialist understanding but so can many other things such as concern about the environment or war or the threat of war or bad housing or the just the general "culture" of capitalism. History has not borne out the view that there is some sort of automatic evolution from trade union consciousness to reformist political consciousness to revolutionary socialist consciousness (as Marx and Engels and Social Democrats tended to assume). It's just not happened. In fact, the opposite has: trade unions have dropped talking about the class struggle and socialism to present themselves as on a par with insurance companies, complete with user-friendly names such as UNITE, or whatever, to deal with problems at work.
The priority of workers organising at the workplace should not have the politics of ideologies interfering in that organising. The Socialist Party has always insisted that there should be a separation between a political party and a trade union and that no political party should use unions as an economic wing, until a time much closer to the Revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers. And for the foreseeable, that’s far-off in the future. Unions to be effective are required to recruit members on an open-house principle irrespective of political opinions. The ideal trade-union, from a socialist point of view, would be one that recognised the irreconcilable conflict of interest between workers and employers, that had no leaders but was organised democratically and controlled by its members, that sought to organise all workers irrespective of nationality, colour, religious or political views, first by industry then into One Big Union, and which struggled not just for higher wages but also for the abolition of the wages system. The trouble is that this cannot become a full reality till large numbers of workers are socialists. In other words, you can't have a union organised on entirely socialist principles without a socialist membership.
In our view, trade-union action is necessary under capitalism but is limited by being of an essentially defensive nature. Trade unions can - and do - enable workers to get the full value of their labour-power, but they cannot stop the exploitation of the working class. Trade unions are essentially fighting over the crumbs. Socialists long ago raised our sights beyond the crumbs (necessary though that fight is within the system) to fight not for control of the whole bakery but the wheat-fields, too. That way we will not be perpetually doomed to repeat the battles of the past. To overcome this limitation the workers need to organise themselves into a socialist political party aiming solely at the capture of political power to establish socialism. Our advice to fellow-workers has been:
1. Try to push wages and salaries as high as they are allowed to go by the owners and management
2. Organise democratically to achieve your aims, without reliance on leaders, who will sell you down the river
3. Recognise that any union struggle is necessarily a defensive one as there can be no real and lasting victory within the profit system.
The task of Socialist Party members is to carry on the work of socialist education. We welcome any upsurge in the militancy and resistance and organisation of our class but we also know, from bitter experience, that work of a more patient, more political kind is also needed. The class war must be fought but we must also put an end to the endless skirmishing of the class struggle by winning the class war. That means that fellow-workers must understand the issues, and organise and fight for these ends themselves. Here is where socialists have their most vital contribution to make to make clear the alternative is not mere utopianism, but an important ingredient in inspiring successful struggle. Capitalism will continue to throw up situations where an escalation of class struggle towards socialism is possible, but the more workers there are who are consciously aware of the alternative to capitalism, the greater the likelihood there is of actually getting rid of the system. It is inconceivable that people who are socialists in the political field are not likewise socialists everywhere they may be, whether at work in the office, in their neighbourhood, or wherever they may be. People are not split-personalities one half a socialist and the other half not. In the factories, co-ops, unions, we are fragmented, sectionalised and tied to our individual vested interests, but on the political field, we can make our numbers tell in a way which they cannot use the state to strangle.
Of course, experiences in the day to day struggles lead some people to become revolutionaries. Upsurges in class struggle and periods of crisis in capitalism provide a potential revolutionary springboard. The contradictions, class relationships and miseries inherent to capitalism inevitably lead the workers to confront capital and when this happens there is, of course the potential for revolutionary consciousness to grow through the realisation of class position and the nature of capitalism. As the current recession within capitalism continues, squeezing and stamping down upon the working class ever more relentlessly, alongside the growing realisation of the failure of all forms of running the system; then there is definitely a growing potential for the escalation of struggle towards the overthrow of the system. However, how many times has the potential been there in past moments of escalated struggle and capitalist crisis only to disappear or to be channeled into reformist, pro-capitalist directions? Discontent over wages or conditions can be a catalyst for socialist understanding but so can many other things such as concern about the environment or war (or the threat of war) or bad housing or the just the general culture of capitalism. Also, importantly, there is no reason in our interactions with capitalism that dictates that we must necessarily become revolutionary socialists. Experience could just as easily turn us towards UKIP (or in America, into Trump-supporters). Our interaction with the world around us is mediated by ideas. How are we supposed to become a "revolutionary" without engaging - and eventually agreeing - at some point with the idea of what such a revolution would entail. Why is this? Workers must acquire the consciousness which can enable them to do the above. This consciousness must comprise, first of all, a knowledge of their class position. They must realise that, while they produce all wealth, their share of it will not, under the present system, be more than sufficient to enable them to reproduce their efficiency as wealth producers. They must realise that also, under the system they will remain subject to all the misery of unemployment, the anxiety of the threat of unemployment, and the deprivations of poverty. They must understand the implications of their position – that the only hope of any real betterment lies in abolishing the social system which reduces them to mere sellers of their labor power, exploited by the capitalists. A class which understands all this is class-conscious. It has only to find the means and methods by which to proceed, in order to become the instrument of revolution and of change. Class-consciousness is the breaking-down of all barriers to understanding. Without it, militancy means nothing. The class-conscious worker knows where s/he stands in society. Their interests are opposed at every point to those of the capitalist class. Without that understanding, militancy can mean little. Class-conscious people need no leaders.
The Socialist Party does not minimise the necessity or importance of the workers keeping up the struggle to maintain wage-levels and resisting cuts, etc. If they always yielded to the demands of their exploiters without resistance they would not be worth their salt, nor be fit for waging the class struggle to put an end to exploitation. Are the workers to sit down and have their wages reduced? Are they to starve while capitalism lasts? This, if we are to believe our critics, is our attitude. The class war is far from over but it can only end with the dispossession of the owning minority and the consequent disappearance of classes and class-divided society. Workers can never win the class struggle while it is confined simply to the level of trade union militancy. It requires to be transformed into socialist consciousness. Conversely, socialist consciousness cannot simply rely for its own increase on ideological persuasion. It has to link up with the practical struggle. The success of the socialist revolution will depend on the growth of socialist consciousness on a mass scale and that these changed ideas can only develop through a practical movement. To bring about socialist consciousness involves understanding socialism which means talking about it, sharing ideas about it, educating ourselves and our fellow workers about it. Socialism will also be established by the working class as a result of the intensification and escalation of the class struggle. To overthrow capitalism, the class struggle must be stepped up. Success through striking may well encourage other workers to stand up for their rights in the workplace more. Workers' strength, however, will continue to be determined by their position within the capitalist economy, and their victories partial ones within the market system. Only by looking to the political situation, the reality of class ownership and power within capitalism, and organising to make themselves a party to the political battle in the name of common ownership for their mutual needs will a general gain come to workers, and an end to these sectional battles. Otherwise, the ultimate result of the strikes will be the need to strike again in the future and the ceaseless treadmill of class conflict. Contrary to rumour, the Socialist Party does not argue that fellow workers will be convinced one-by-one by the party. The success of the socialist revolution will depend on the growth of socialist consciousness on a mass scale and that these changed ideas can only develop through a practical movement.
Members of the Socialist Party take part in every struggle in the economic field to improve conditions. We are as militant as anybody else. The socialist is involved in the economic struggle by the fact that we are members of the working class which naturally resists capital. But this is not the same thing as stating that the socialist party engages in activity for higher wages and better conditions. This is not the function of the socialist party. Its task is to fight for socialism. All we are doing in the SPGB, essentially, is trying to help the emergence of majority socialist consciousness, but even if the sort of activities we engage in can't be the main thing that will bring this consciousness about, it is still nevertheless essential. People can, and do, come to socialist conclusions without us, but they can come to this more quickly if they hear it from an organised group dedicated exclusively to putting over the case for socialism. We can't force or brainwash people into wanting to be free, they can only learn this from their own experience. We see majority socialist consciousness emerging from people's experiences of capitalism coupled with them hearing the case for socialism. Not necessarily from us, though it would seem that we are the only group that takes doing this seriously. Socialists know that it is difficult for the workers to recognise their slave status because wage-slavery is cloaked with many disguises. The absence of legal forms of slavery and serfdom serve to hide the true nature of modern slavery. And because the capitalist class or the capitalist state owns the media of propaganda, it is indeed difficult to air the truth. This is why the worker usually believes that he lives in a free society. If the worker would but peep beneath the cloak of superficialities he would glimpse the real nature of society. Socialists are not superior to society's other members. Nevertheless, we do understand how the class society basically works. That is the difference to the majority of the working class, which do not understand and therefore do not see the need to abolish capitalism. The act of abolition of capitalist society requires a primary prerequisite and that's knowledge on the part of the individual as to what it is that is responsible for his or her enslavement. Without that knowledge s/he can only blunder and make mistakes that leave their class just where they were in the beginning - still enslaved.