Trade unions, worker militancy, and communism from below

One of the basic rights of workers in the industrialised world is the right to organise. Under the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948,workers “have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation.”

Most often, this organisation takes the form of trade unions, and it is always used as a way of pressing for an improvement in the terms and conditions of wage labour. However, it is also associated with more revolutionary movements such as anarcho-syndicalism and the fight for collective worker ownership of the means of production.

In discussing this subject, I have three main areas of concern. The first is to defend the core idea of worker organisation against critiques by advocates of capitalism. The second is to argue for a militant rather than concessionary approach to industrial disputes and, tying into that notion, the third is discussion of why a non-hierarchical revolutionary model of unionism offers better prospects than the more common top-down bureaucracy.

Deconstructing the “free” market argument

The most outspoken critics of worker organisation, in any form, are of course the bosses and capitalists themselves. Although it varies somewhat with different schools of thought, the basis of their argument goes back to the principles laid out by Adam Smith.

"It's quite remarkable to trace the evolution of values from a pre-capitalist thinker like Adam Smith, with his stress on sympathy and the goal of perfect equality and the basic human right to creative work, to contrast that and move on to the present to those who laud the new spirit of the age, sometimes rather shamelessly invoking Adam Smith's name." ~ Noam Chomsky

Or rather, by the strawman version of Smith that the right have built up for themselves. As Johann Hari points out, although “Smith is usually presented as a poster-boy for privatisation and tax cuts,” but in fact “he was in favour of progressive taxation, so that ‘the indolence and vanity of the rich is made to contribute in a very easy manner to the relief of the poor.'”

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith observed that “the produce of labour constitutes the natural recompense or wages of labour” and that “in that original state of things, which precedes both the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock, the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer.”

However, this original state “could not last beyond the first introduction of the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock.” Because, “as soon as land becomes private property,” we find that “almost all the produce which the labourer can either raise, or collect from it” is subject to deductions by the landlord. This is what Mikhail Bakunin refered to as the “levy[ing] upon collective labour either land’s rent or capital’s interest” which allows the upper classes “the possibility of living without working” as, in the words of the Class War Federation, “a bunch of parasites.”

Returning to Smith, we see that “what are the common wages of labour, depends everywhere upon the contract usually made between those two parties, whose interests are by no means the same.” For “the workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible” and so “the workmen desire to get as much, the masters to give as little as possible.”

However, “the masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily” and “have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work.” But even today, when workers enjoy far greater rights than they did in Smith’s time, there remain “many against combining to raise it.”

In the aftermath of the bitter struggles of the 1970s and 80s, Margaret Thatcher utterly decimated the power of the trade unions, and passed a slew of repressive anti-union legislation. In 2005 Barry Camfield, assistant general secretary of what was then the Transport & General Workers’ Union, explained the lasting effects of this legislation;

The essential nature of trade unionism is incorporated in so many human rights treaties and conventions that they almost defy listing, but central to these are ILO Conventions 87 and 98 that guarantee the freedom to associate, the right to organise and the right to bargain collectively.

That these rights were being successively abrogated was recognised all through the Thatcher and Major years, with almost an annual condemnation of the UK at the ILO’s Committee of Experts examining labour law breaches from around the world. All of this would have been well known to the Labour Party leadership in advance of the 1997 general election.

Within that incoming Labour government’s ‘Fairness at Work’ framework, there was much for unions and their members to applaud but much to disappoint also. The restoration of trade unions rights for GCHQ workers was seen as an important victory, as was the introduction of the minimum wage legalisation. More recently, unions have generally welcomed the deal hammered out under the rubric of the ‘Warwick Accord’.

Nothing in any of this however remotely addresses the repeal of Thatcher’s anti-union laws.

Today, we have our Prime Minister proudly proclaiming that the UK has the least regulated labour market in Europe. From New Labour newspeak we have to decipher that as meaning that British workers are the most tightly constrained of any labour force in Europe.

What our Prime Minster declares is that there will be no unfettered right to strike, no right to take solidarity action, no freedom for workers to write their union rule book free from state interference. In fact, no right to establish a union membership agreement even where a union and an employer voluntarily agree to do so!

Thus, we still find that “in disputes with their workmen, masters must generally have the advantage.”

Those who quote Smith as an advocate of the capitalist “free” market often argue the point that capitalism will self-regulate to produce fair wages and working conditions. Particularly, they will refer to the fact that “the increase in the wages of labour necessarily increases the price of many commodities” as an argument against measures such as the National Minimum Wage.

To quote the UK Libertarian Party’s manifesto;

It has become widely accepted in Britain that the minimum wage is a just and necessary piece of legislation that protects workers from exploitation and that generally makes people better off. It is portrayed as a humanitarian and benevolent law. This is far from the truth.

The first question to ask is: why might we need a minimum wage? Who actually earns minimum wage and thus might be earning less without it? Most of those who earn minimum wage have either recently left (or are in) education, previously retired, recently immigrated or are in some sort of training, such as an apprenticeship. None of these groups tend to remain on minimum wage for long, and thus would not remain on wages below the current legal minimum for long if this limit were removed.

Smith himself argued against such errant nonsense when he pointed out that “masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate” and “sometimes enter into particular combinations to sink the wages of labour even below this rate” with only the “contrary defensive combination of the workmen” to resist this trend.

As practical evidence of this practice in the modern day, we have the lesson of Unite the Union’s “Fair Tips” Campaign. Not only the original incidence of employers exploiting a legal loophole in order to pay below the minimum wage but also the fact that with the loophole closed businesses found other ways to lower wages offers weight to Smith’s position. As does the revelation from last year that the construction industry was violating its own agreements to pay migrant builders as little as £8.80 a week. Not to mention the countless examples of sweatshop labour and the exploitation of third-world workers.

Even this fact is argued as a good thing by the market fundamentalists. To them, Smith’s quote that “every species of animals naturally multiplies in proportion to the means of their subsistence” is key. The argument goes that “the demand for those who live by wages, therefore, necessarily increases with the increase of the revenue and stock of every country, and cannot possibly increase without it.” Thus, even extreme cases such as child labour in sweatshops fits in with what the Libertarians call an “essential” “first rung” for allowing people to “to develop and flourish” so that they may “move up the economic ladder to more profitable employment.”

That, in reality, “high wages of labour and high profits of stock, however, are things, perhaps, which scarce ever go together” goes unnoted. As does this other apt observation from Smith [emphasis added];

In reality high profits tend much more to raise the price of work than high wages. If in the linen manufacture, for example, the wages of the different working people, the flax-dressers, the spinners, the weavers, etc., should, all of them, be advanced twopence a day; it would be necessary to heighten the price of a piece of linen only by a number of twopences equal to the number of people that had been employed about it, multiplied by the number of days during which they had been so employed. That part of the price of the commodity which resolved itself into wages would, through all the different stages of the manufacture, rise only in arithmetical proportion to this rise of wages. But if the profits of all the different employers of those working people should be raised five per cent, that part of the price of the commodity which resolved itself into profit would, through all the different stages of the manufacture, rise in geometrical proportion to this rise of profit. The employer of the flaxdressers would in selling his flax require an additional five per cent upon the whole value of the materials and wages which he advanced to his workmen. The employer of the spinners would require an additional five per cent both upon the advanced price of the flax and upon the wages of the spinners. And the employer of the weavers would require a like five per cent both upon the advanced price of the linen yarn and upon the wages of the weavers. In raising the price of commodities the rise of wages operates in the same manner as simple interest does in the accumulation of debt. The rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.

For militancy over concession

It is fair to say, then, that without resistance from organised labour the machinations of the capitalist class would reduce the vast majority of those who earn their profit to having to survive at subsistence level. Indeed, with a single adult on the National Minimum Wage having to work 47 hours every week to meet the £13,900 a year gross income needed “in order to afford a basic but acceptable standard of living,” plenty of people are already in just that position. And it is only through constant struggle that we have even this meagre safety net.

Workers’ resistance can also take the credit for our having “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment” enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The eight hour day, the prohibition of child labour, and even the right to organise itself are just two other achievements of industrial struggles.

But does the fact that (at least in the West) we know enjoy such a position mean that we should stop fighting?

There are those who would argue exactly that. There are even those who would argue that, in hard times such as the present recession, workers should do more to help their employers without expecting extra in return.

Even more remarkably, there are workers who do exactly that. Last month, the Guardian reported that “unpaid overtime is the most commonly cited form of assistance with one in three workers claiming they have worked longer hours without extra pay” and “around 15% of employees said they had either accepted a pay freeze or deliberately not requested a pay rise, while 14% had taken unpaid leave.”

Mr Block, an IWW cartoon which caricatured those workers who acted as apologists for the bosses, who play them off against each other to maximise profit

The idea is that, in doing this, workers are helping to secure their jobs by ensuring that the trouble faced by employers doesn’t translate into job or pay cuts. However, this is a fallacy.

To take the British Airways Cabin Crew dispute as an example, in November BA reduced the number of cabin crew on long haul flights from 15 to 14 and introduced a two-year pay freeze from 2010.  In protesting this, the crew have been accused by Chief Executive Willie Walsh of “a lack of concern for our customers, our business and other employees.”

However, we find that those cooperating with the measures risk betraying themselves and their fellow workers. BA “urgently needs to cut costs to ride out its dire financial situation,” which means “it would have to cut a further 1,200 staff.” Whilst this might be what the Guardian refers to as a “personal sacrifice in order to help keep their employer afloat,” it hardly amounts to a wise “redundancy avoidance strategy.”

Looking deeper, we also see that a “very well received” scheme by BT in fact resulted in the company trying “to cut 15,000 jobs this year on top of the 15,000 which have gone over the past 12 months.”

The fact is that, under the flimsiest and most transparent of pretext, those workers engaged in such concilliatory actions are acting against their own class interests. They are reminiscent of Mr Block, the cartoon character developed for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). According to Walker C Smith, writing in 1913;

Mr. Block is legion. He is representative of that host of slaves who think in terms of their masters. Mr. Block owns nothing, yet he speaks from the standpoint of the millionaire; he is patriotic without patrimony; he is a law-abiding outlaw .. [who] licks the hand that smites him and kisses the boot that kicks him .. the personification of all that a worker should not be.

In an article for the Commune on the BA dispute, David Broder dismisses this “idea that perhaps the workers do have just grievances, but are being misled by “dinosaur” trade union militants because they are too thick to understand that standing up for yourself is not worthwhile.” He points out that “militancy is not because they are desperate to screw over the passengers and lose two weeks’ pay, nor is it because their grievances are being exploited by “union barons”” but “a blow against the attacks raining down on all of us.”

As we have seen, complacency in the labour movement will not merely stagnate the issue of workers’ rights. It gives business interests an opening in which to start rolling them back. It is the rich who are waging class war, with the poor its victims. Militancy and direct resistance is the only way that we can strike back.

For communism from below

But what is it that we hope to achieve through such actions? According to reformist trade unions such as Unite, the goal is simple;

Unite’s vision is of a prosperous society in which employers and employees work together to build successful businesses and safe, healthy working environments. All those who contribute to their success receive the rewards, respect and recognition they deserve.

Whilst the IWW envisions something quite different;

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, “Abolition of the wage system.”

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

So which aim should we be striving towards?

An anarchist banner hanging from a university building in Greece, during the anniversary of the murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police in December 2008

Anarchists and libertarian communists would argue, and I would agree, that we can only hope for real and lasting change by striving towards revolution. For the reasons, we must go all the way back to Smith’s point that “the appropriation of land and the accumulation of stock” is usury which subverts that fact that “in th[e] original state of things … the whole produce of labour belongs to the labourer.”

As the Anarcho-Syndicalist FAQ on the website Anarcho-Syndicalism 101 puts it, “the wage system is the primary means by which the capitalists of the world, or those who possess the material wealth of the entire planet, wage class war on their fellow human beings.” It does so because “it facilitates the exploitation of human beings, and because it reduces them to the status of slaves, in a very real sense of the word.”

The capitalist system requires a large pool of individuals who are compelled to sell their capacity for work in order to live, individuals who have been denied their human right to material independence from birth, the basis of all their freedom and opportunity for development and achivement. It is true that a very small minority of people can rise up the economic ladder, just as others can fall down it. At all times, however, the ladder itself remains, the system of exploitation whereby some profit from the labour of others. That particular individuals can swap places in the cycle of exploitation and wage-slavery is completely immaterial.

Noam Chomsky, amongst others, has noted that the wage labour system renders any conception of true democracy a nonsense;

Representative democracy, as in, say, the United States or Great Britain, would be criticized by an anarchist of this school on two grounds. First of all because there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state, and secondly — and critically — because the representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere. Anarchists of this tradition have always held that democratic control of one’s productive life is at the core of any serious human liberation, or, for that matter, of any significant democratic practice. That is, as long as individuals are compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them, as long as their role in production is simply that of ancillary tools, then there are striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.

Thus, we see that the “prosperous society in which employers and employees work together” of the reformist unions is a mirage. It is built upon the mythical notion that capitalism can be “fair,” which I have already dissected above.

In place of this notion, what we must strive for is a system of communism from below. As Mikhail Bakunin once put it, “we wish, in a word, equality – equality in fact as a corollary, or rather, as primordial condition of liberty. From each according to his faculties, to each according to his needs; that is what we wish sincerely and energetically.”


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