Libcom's introduction to the unions discussion

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Feb 14 2012 13:15
Libcom's introduction to the unions discussion

Thread for discussion of our introductory text on unions.
http://libcom.org/library/unions-introduction

We decided to split off discussion of our introductory texts from the texts themselves, so as to make the texts clearer for the purpose of new readers.

So if you have any thoughts on it, please post them here

syndicalist
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Feb 14 2012 13:39

I look forward to reading this in detail, I've only skimmed it thus far.

I gather this is a Intro to a discussion on the mainstream unions?

I like the most of the Conclusion. It places the context by which many anarcho-syndicalists (and perhaps others) see work in and around the official "unions". I'm not a big fan of using the term sabotage. I don't think it ever adds to a conversation, sounds militant and all, but leads to more confusion.

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Feb 14 2012 17:51

Just read it.

I think that if you want to increase how much traction the piece will get for people who aren't already convinced then it'd be good to recognize explicitly that the piece has elements that could be mistaken for overlapping with a right-wing analysis of how unions operate. Openly deal with that to make clear what the differences are. And make clear that this isn't meant as an immediately anti-union piece (as in, the piece doesn't call for decertifying unions or sabotaging unionization drives etc).

Among the things that are left out here I think one is the socially progressive things that some unions sometimes do under capitalism - support for progressive values like healthcare funding etc. That's a nuance that's unrepresented here I think. Another thing that's unrepresented here is why people take on low-level work in unions, both paid and unpaid. The piece makes it sound like people take on work in unions because it's a better career move. That sometimes happens (my dad was considering running for the role business agent in his union because it's a better job than being a construction worker, I talked him out of it). But often those jobs are ideologically driven at the lower level -- that's part of what makes them better jobs, people who work in them full time get to work full time at things they care about. Likewise with long-term union volunteers. It seems to me that understanding and explaining unions has to involve an understanding of those subjective dimensions and how they relate to the larger social function.

Over all I think there's a way in which the piece kind of moves between social function at a large-scale and more small-scale things, in a way that I don't like. What I mean is, the piece seems to me accurate at the level of the social function of unions. It doesn't say but it seems to me that it comes off like there's a very neat and simple relationship between social function and consciousness/motivation. The working class are variable capital; our social function is to reproduce capitalism. Often times the social function of the radical left is to aid that function. These functions are at least as often unconscious (and/or consciously experienced as something else) as much as they're openly consciously practiced. Ditto for the dynamics in this piece. Unions play these functions but they rarely play them in a conscious cynical way on the part of the people involved. I think recognizing that - that a lot of this is done be people acting in good faith, despite their good intentions - would improve the piece a lot.

In terms of national differences, most U.S. workers can not "join unions freely." If there's a union already in place, then most of the time yes, but that's only about 12% of the population and 6 or 7% of private sector workers (and this is majorly age stratified as well). In nonunion shops, unionization almost only happens with really serious dedication and fighting and usually at major costs to some of the involved people (firings etc). I think accounting for employers' anti-unionism would strengthen the piece (that unions embody a vision of a slightly more egalitarian and democratic capitalism; employers have fought this because they want higher short term returns; when social crises have risen then states have tended to try to discipline employers into accepting unionism as part of disciplining employers into the long-term interests of the capitalist system). Without accounting for some of that - and I think I would say this in general, without more nuance, I think the piece will only convince the already convinced.

I think the piece gets stronger as it goes on. I would suggest maybe starting from some of the examples at the bottom, maybe paired with some of the naively positive positions on unions that the piece wants to reject. Then pose that as a puzzle that the piece will explain. I'd also suggest that the piece be organized in a way that it shows a problem before telling the reader about a problem. So "this happened with these workers" then explain it, rather than "unions often sell out" then some examples. I think that will strengthen the piece a lot for people who are unconvinced.

Final thought, the piece says that our strength is limited by unions. I sort of agree, but it also depends on what people want. I don't know UK labor law. In the US, union contracts typically involve agreement to limit some forms of workplace action (via a no strike clause and other language). That agreement is worth money at the bargaining table. So in the long term these things limit workers but in the short term they're part of a deal that is made where workers get a short-term benefit in return for a long-term agreement that serves to undermine workers' power. It's like saying "If you will keep one hand behind your back for the next three years we will give you an extra two grand a year per person." I think that's a bit more complicated than just "our strength is limited by the union."

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Feb 14 2012 18:37

Nate, thanks for those comments, will have a proper think and respond fully when I get a chance in the next couple of days. First, a few quick things:

Quote:
Another thing that's unrepresented here is why people take on low-level work in unions, both paid and unpaid. The piece makes it sound like people take on work in unions because it's a better career move... Unions play these functions but they rarely play them in a conscious cynical way on the part of the people involved. I think recognizing that - that a lot of this is done be people acting in good faith, despite their good intentions - would improve the piece a lot.

We do specifically try to point this out, saying that someone may be motivated to join the union hierarchy in order to spread struggle beyond the workplace, early on in the piece.

In terms of joining unions freely, the situation in the US is the same in the UK, as far as I'm aware. People can join them, but you don't have the automatic right to a recognition agreement or collective bargaining - that has to be fought for vigourously. But you can be a paper member and get no benefits freely. Or is this not the case in the US?

In terms of your final point, there aren't no strike agreements in the UK, nor would they be valid in many other countries. We were trying to keep our critique general - as there are restrictive labour laws and union procedures in every country.

You make a lot of good points, though, so we'll have a proper think about how to incorporate them.

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Feb 14 2012 19:12

Steven - not wanting to be inflammatory or owt, but I think it's piss poor. It's more like a collection of points and and verbal references put together to say essentially - official union - bad, r&f - good. Unfortunately, imo, it's not convincing. It's too much like what used to be served up by the ACF: rip everything to shreds and offer nothing in the way of an alternative. (Don't take this as a personal attack - or an attack on the Afed, comrade! Your posts are generally spot on.)

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Feb 14 2012 19:55
plasmatelly wrote:
served up by the ACF

Don't be surprised if you find a horse's head in yer bed. Steven may not be offended but I fucking am.
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grin

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Feb 14 2012 20:06

Just having skimmed it, I'd change this:

Quote:
This is partially accurate, but it is definitely far from the whole story.

It leaves out the other side of trade unionism: the backroom deals, the cuts in pay and conditions presented as a "victory", the strikes called off pending endless negotiations, the members told to break the strikes of other unions, the workplace militants disciplined by their own unions…

When I saw, "but it is definitely far from the whole story," I was expecting the next part to be about what more radical and militant unions did. How unions are the way the workers in a shop have any chance at fighting the boss, how unions can represent each other outside of the workplace, or how they're a blueprint for democratic workplaces, etc.,etc. whatever. And then I expected the criticism of mainstream unions to be in contrast to that. I think the intro sets the tone against the idea of unions rather than unions as such. So if this is written for the 'unconverted' (because I can't think of a better term), then I would set the precedent by which you're criticizing unions early on in the article.

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Feb 14 2012 21:07

It needs more about official unions putting the brakes on, or not bothering to co-ordinate, solidarity and joint action between workers across different industries and workplaces - this is how a lot of potential for winning disputes has been wasted in the UK. Also I think a few of us in public industries have found our line manager is also our union rep. What about the official unions not often having the flexibility to organise within marginalised casual jobs, like cleaning, where agencies are used to act as a front for employers. And it could be edited down to 2/3 of its length. Then it really needs a paragraph about how direct democracy works, with people actually doing the work running the union from the base.

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Feb 14 2012 22:26

I think perhaps the ending should return to the point made at the beginning: a union should be a group of workers acting together for mutual aid and self defense. Maybe say something about how anarcho-syndicalist unions organize themselves differently? Direct action is a good start, but we should offer more in the way of solutions to the problems of business unions.

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Feb 14 2012 22:40
Quote:
Don't be surprised if you find a horse's head in yer bed. Steven may not be offended but I fucking am.

ACF's gone mate. Afed's a much better org.

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Feb 14 2012 23:38

Would it be disingenuous not to mention the aim of workers eventually taking control?

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Feb 14 2012 23:51
Ernestine wrote:
It needs more about official unions putting the brakes on, or not bothering to co-ordinate, solidarity and joint action between workers across different industries and workplaces - this is how a lot of potential for winning disputes has been wasted in the UK. Also I think a few of us in public industries have found our line manager is also our union rep. What about the official unions not often having the flexibility to organise within marginalised casual jobs, like cleaning, where agencies are used to act as a front for employers. And it could be edited down to 2/3 of its length. Then it really needs a paragraph about how direct democracy works, with people actually doing the work running the union from the base.

hmm so you want us to add a load of additional information, and an extra paragraph as well, and cut it to 2/3 of its length?! For some of these suggestions some more practical input on how we could achieve them would be appreciated.

(Again, sorry not got time to respond properly now, I should have reasonably soon)

Harrison
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Feb 15 2012 00:02
plasmatelly wrote:
ACF's gone mate. Afed's a much better org.

I wasn't around at the time of the ACF, but Anarchist Communist Federation is a much better name than Anarchist Federation.

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Feb 15 2012 00:53

Ok, so how about advice on how to run our struggles at work properly then?

Some problems:

Avoid victimisation
strong workers not prepared to stick up for other workers
People who don't want to take collective action
Constant struggle against redundancy too tiring and stressful, people beginning to say "I hope I do lose my job this time, cos I just can't take going through it all again"
Workmates' belief in the proper channels
People saying "there's no point as it won't work"
You do a brilliant fight, but they sack people in the end and everyone feels like shit

Don't tell me "direct action" or "mass meetings" tell me nuts and bolts of how you do it right.

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Feb 15 2012 00:56

Steven - I'm tempted to have a go at editing it a bit. Mind if I have a go?

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Feb 15 2012 04:47
Steven. wrote:
We do specifically try to point this out, saying that someone may be motivated to join the union hierarchy in order to spread struggle beyond the workplace, early on in the piece.

Missed that, sorry. Might want to amplify it. I find a sort of "look how much folk try and yet..." story compelling, personally.

Steven. wrote:
In terms of joining unions freely, the situation in the US is the same in the UK, as far as I'm aware. People can join them, but you don't have the automatic right to a recognition agreement or collective bargaining - that has to be fought for vigourously. But you can be a paper member and get no benefits freely. Or is this not the case in the US?

I'm not 100% sure on the legality in the US, as in, I'm not sure the law recognizes a right to join a union other than through membership in a workplace with a collective bargaining agreement. I know a lot of IWW activity is legally not union activity (or at least is legally gray) and falls instead under 'protected concerted activity' which is one of the weird things about US labor law as far (or as little) as I know about other labor law systems outside the US.

Legality aside it's really rare for people to actually be able to join a union as an individual in the US, it's largely unheard of I think. Do I understand you right that if I moved to the UK and worked in a non-unionized workplace I could phone up a union of my choice and enroll in it? If so, that's quite different from the US. In the US people generally join unions by getting a job in a unionized workplace, completing an apprenticeship if it's the building trades (fuzzy on that process to be honest), or organizing a union on the job collectively, which almost always involves a fight for official recognition etc. The IWW is a rare and super tiny exception in that we allow anyone to join as an individual, and like I said I'm not sure if the IWW membership of isolated individuals counts as union membership at law. (I understand a lot of this is neither here nor there for this piece.)

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Feb 15 2012 05:08

I'd personally like to see a bit more positive stuff about the unions as it seems too negative at the moment. I agree with plasmatelly on it being a bit too ACFish at the moment. It's a good start though smile

EDIT: I know that sounds simplistic and vague but it's just my general feeling for the piece...

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Feb 15 2012 06:33
Nate wrote:

Do I understand you right that if I moved to the UK and worked in a non-unionized workplace I could phone up a union of my choice and enroll in it?.)

In theory yes, the only restrictions would be that some unions wouldn't take you if you weren't in one of the sectors or industries they don't cover - for example Unite is the biggest "general union", they take anyone and theoretically organise anyway. Unison who are the second biggest union overall would not take people who don't work in either the public sector, community and voluntary sector or utillities or employers that directly work in public service.

Also here we don't have closed shops any more - even if a union is recognised you don't have to join it, and often recognition can be accompanied by very low density (membership).

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Feb 15 2012 08:11
Ernestine wrote:
Steven - I'm tempted to have a go at editing it a bit. Mind if I have a go?

hey, I wouldn't recommend editing the article itself, as we are going to change it before the final version. Maybe post your suggested changes to the text here, or to Google documents and link here or something?

Fingers, those are all good points to make, but not really within the remit of that article, which is overall a quick analysis of the structural role unions play in capitalist society. The things you suggest would be best off in our workplace organising section.

Nate, what vanilla says is correct. Any worker can join one of the general unions and then get representation for individual things like grievances, disciplinaries, contract changes, dismissal etc. But people hardly ever do, as being an individual member won't really get you much for your money

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Feb 15 2012 08:16

I like

Quote:
“The unions' role is a tricky one as, in the end, they have to sell themselves twice, to two groups of people who have opposing interests (i.e. bosses and workers).”

I thought that in the More Information list, I’d see the pamphlet Goodbye to the Unions! - A Controversy About Autonomous Class Struggle in Great Britain by Cajo Brendel published by Echanges et Mouvement.

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Feb 15 2012 08:38

Yeah, in the U.S. I believe the IWW is the only union you can just join without working in a workplace that has a contract with the union.

If you want to join any of the other unions, you either have to find a job that is under contract with a union or organize your workplace to get exclusive bargaining rights. The building trades work a bit different, and act as a hiring hall as well, where when they open the books you get on a list of other workers who will then get sent out to union contractors when a spot opens up depending on various factors (seniority, experiences, relationship to business agent/connections). Longshore work is similar to this as well, but with additional unique features.

So say if I worked at a non-unionized company, I would first have to find a union in my area that would be interested in starting a campaign. This alone can be confusing because names of the unions don't always match up to where they will organize, for instance there's a UAW drive at the university here among grad students). Or maybe a union you want to go with might not exist in your area, like UE is fairly small and lacks locals in many places, although for mainstream unions, if you were in the industries they organized you might wanna go with them because of their independence from the AFL-CIO and progressive politics.

When you talk to the union organizer, they are going to make a judgement call on how much help to give you or whether even to take on your case at all. They are going to consider the amount of dues and members that would come into the union VS the expenses of waging a campaign. Depending on what happens with that, they'll want you to get a committee going that reflects a certain percentage of the workforce who then will try and get other workers to sign 'authorization cards' stating they want this particular union to be their exclusive bargaining representative. The law states you only need something like 25-30% of your coworkers to sign these, but most unions require you get 60-75% of your coworkers to sign these.

Once this is done they will petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election. There's a period in here where the employer can stall the process for a while through disagreeing on who is included in the election (leads, foremen, people doing different kinds of work). When a NLRB finally does happen, 50% + 1 gives the union legally mandated rights to go into contract negotiations with the employer. This process can also be stalled for a long time as well. I think most campaigns don't even get to the election part, and the ones that do the majority of them lose, but I'm not absolutely sure about that.

If a contract is ever agreed upon it almost always contains:

1)No strike clause - no work stoppages, strikes, slowdowns etc for the duration of the contract. Any that happen would be a violation of the contract, and then the employer could file Unfair Labor Practices, which could result in massive fines or even imprisonment for union officials who endorse the actions.

2)Grievance procedure - this will be based on huge thick contracts that govern various rules and practices. Because of the above clause, this is how problems are dealt with. Which is often a black hole. You file a grievance and the steward meets with their equivalent in management and if they can't agree on a solution it goes up the ladder...and so on and so on. It also goes out of your hands. Settlements can be reached without your consent or approval.

3)Management rights clause - basically says its management's prerogative to run the business and workplace the way they want, excluding what is outlined in the contract, of course.

This actually brings up a good point. I haven't been sleeping very well lately, and although I did read the Unions draft, I can't remember if this is included....but it would probably be worth mentioning how contractualism has contributed to their own downfall. Like from a revolutionary perspective, bread and butter isn't all that matters or even the most important thing necessarily, but the system of contractualism has made so that mainstream unions can't even do that. Not sure how this pertains to the UK or Europe though. I know this piece is going to reflect a UK or European perspective and experience, but thought I'd mention it.

EDIT: I see Steven mentioned something above about individuals joining unions and then they can be represented. This doesn't happen here. Legally, an employer doesn't have to recognize a union unless it has won exclusive bargaining rights through an NLRB election or has voluntarily recognized them and signed a contract. We used to have this rights (called Weingarten Rights), where even in a nonunionzed job, you could have a coworker accompany you during displinary hearings etc, but these rights were revoked. However, at Starbucks, in some places or with some organizers management is scared of, they grant Weingarten Rights even though they aren't legally required and we don't have contracts with them. I know this has happened in the TC.

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Feb 15 2012 08:42

I obviously liked the negative attitude to the trade unions, even though it still wobbles at times. I sometimes think that if all the comrades who said 'yes but' on the union question would take a clear and unambiguous position on the need to challenge the idea that we can't organise without unions, we could actually begin organising groups, committees or networks on that basis. Not as 'alternative' unions or 'revolutionary' unions but as an active minority which tries in every relevant situation to explain why the trade union form is an obstacle and why we need to organise across, outside, and ultimately against the unions.

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Feb 15 2012 10:29

The thing is I don't argue for that position in every relevant situation, or in fact any situation, because I don't believe in it, because it doesn't match with my own experience. I've been stitched up many times by my union bureaucracy. However it's also my experience that sometimes we use the branch as a way to come together and stick up for each other. Which the article doesn't address really.

Of course I don't think "we can't organise without unions". Yes of course I think we should organise groups committees and networks which organise independently. The point I was trying to make earlier is that I'm sick of people saying that. I know that. I want people to come up with nuts and bolts solutions to how you do it, not tell me I'm a sheeple because I'm active in my union.

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Feb 15 2012 10:51
fingers malone wrote:
The thing is I don't argue for that position in every relevant situation, or in fact any situation, because I don't believe in it, because it doesn't match with my own experience. I've been stitched up many times by my union bureaucracy. However it's also my experience that sometimes we use the branch as a way to come together and stick up for each other. Which the article doesn't address really.

what we say is that unions represent workers' power in mediated form, which channel and therefore reduce that power we have. Do you disagree with that?

Quote:
Of course I don't think "we can't organise without unions". Yes of course I think we should organise groups committees and networks which organise independently. The point I was trying to make earlier is that I'm sick of people saying that. I know that.

do you think the majority of workers know this? Or even the majority of radicals?

Quote:
I want people to come up with nuts and bolts solutions to how you do it, not tell me I'm a sheeple because I'm active in my union.

has anyone done that here?

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Feb 15 2012 11:57

Ok, what I am trying to say is that yes I agree that the unions represent workers' power in mediated form, but they can also be a place where people come together to fight. I think the union is both. It is a tension. I think the article doesn't bring out that tension.

I'm not speaking for the majority of workers or radicals or anybody. I'm saying that there are always more and more texts making these critiques in the abstract and that I want people to come up with nuts and bolts suggestions. If we need workplace committees- how do you make them work. Is it possible or worth making the branch better? But not as theoretical constructs, as actual practical steps.

Quote:
has anyone done that here?

Well, people do say that kind of thing pretty regularly. Without saying sheeple obviously. And Alf is kind of saying that my blind faith in the union is holding back the class.

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Feb 15 2012 13:24

I would say the union is a structure for containing workers' power. 'Mediated form' still gives it a proletarian content. But leaving that aside. I don't think that organising workers' groups outside the unions is such a mystery. There is a whole history of extra-union struggle groups in places like France, Spain and Italy. One example in Spain that we have written about recently is the health workers platform in Alicante http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201112/4621/alicante-open-assembly-workers-struggle; http://en.internationalism.org/wr/344/alicante.

It's harder in a country like Britain where the unions have such a deep implantation, but most people at your workplace will understand it when you argue for open discussion meetings and 'assemblies' which all workers can attend regardless of union affiliation.

PS I didn't say you had a blind faith in the union....

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Feb 15 2012 14:00
fingers malone wrote:
Ok, what I am trying to say is that yes I agree that the unions represent workers' power in mediated form, but they can also be a place where people come together to fight. I think the union is both. It is a tension. I think the article doesn't bring out that tension.

i'd agree with that. the bit on the brighton bin workers was meant to draw out that tension (they were able to make gains, but this was because they were willing to take wildcat action if needs be). it could probably be made more explicit.

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Feb 15 2012 15:19

Surely the tension is between the class content of what the workers need to do, which obviously includes coming together and fighting, and the structure they are officially permitted to use for this purpose, which blocks their will to meet and to fight at every turn. .

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Feb 15 2012 15:21

Correction: at every other turn. They have to permit you make the first turn, because they can't stop you, but they will do all they can to stop you from taking the second turn, which would take the fight to a higher level.

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Feb 15 2012 15:36

I think the orginal draft is pretty good and it's authors should certainly resist the siren calls of the more traditional anarcho-revolutionary-syndicalists and industrial unionists to water down any explanation of what are the real tendencies in all union formations that arise from both the basic functions of trade/industrial unions and unionism (in the everyday understanding of those terms) and their practical operation within the development of modern capitalism, quite apart from any formal declarations of opposition to capitalism by particular unions.

The connection between the reformist nature of trade/industrial unionism and political reformism in terms of union support for political parties such as the Labour Party or the Democrats in the USA and how that feeds back into their role in the workplace is perhaps worth a mention?

I made another brief point on the 'printers vote to reduce their wages thread' that might also be relevant.

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Feb 15 2012 15:53

ok, seeing as i woke up in a horse head free bed this morning, i'll give it another try - hopefully not getting peoples backs up too much.
I'm not sure what the point of this intro is really - are we looking for a lowest common denominator as an explanation of what trad trade unions are, and what we see as fighting unions to the general satisfaction of all libcommers? If so then I offer the following as maybe how I'd tackle it -
A brief synopsis of where the unions are at - not revolutionary, complicit in the smooth process of capital, top down approach, representative, not democratic in the sense that we know.
I'd include some of the good stuff, but stress the limits of putting any eggs in this particular basket.
Finally, using lots of examples from then and now, talk about what practical things can be done/bargaining units built and what is going on now.
I'd stress the importance of including politics with economic action.