So there have been several discussions of unions, with a lot of implied points. I wanted to try and state some of this discussion briefly (brief relative to 20 page threads!) and succinctly.
Firstly, I wanted to give six basic attitudes (no doubt caricatured, but the best I can do with a limited space at the moment) towards the unions.
Secondly, I wanted to go over some actual brief generalizations that I am more than happy to back up factually, that I think need to frame a proper discussion.
Lastly, I pose some questions to help generate a more focused discussion.
I thought the Aufheben quote might be a nice way to start, instead of derailing the Aufheben thread:
Kolinko are exasperated by the failure of call-centre workers to act independently of unions and works councils, except on an individual basis (eg tricks to skive off). Kolinko document numerous examples of struggles which are negotiated away by unions and works councils, with negligible gains for the workers. It is possible that a rigid anti-union position has a certain validity in the context of the German corporatist 'social partnership' between the state, employers and unions.
However the critique of the recuperative role of unions has a tendency to become ideological within 'ultra-left' groups; a common characterisation of the role of unions as functionaries of capital is that they act as a 'safety valve' to dissipate the revolutionary energy of an otherwise rebellious class; this conception runs the risk of not understanding the process of struggle. The class has a critique of the unions when it is in a position to have one -- ie. through struggles and positions of relative strength. There is a danger of seeing workers as a dumb passive mass duped by the unions. This is a common contradiction of many 'ultra left' analyses which seek to differentiate a pure, autonomous class from the 'external' institutions of the workers' movment (unions, leftist parties), and in so doing, end up concluding that the class has been duped by the ideology of these external forces.
We would argue that Kolinko's critique of the unions and privileging of 'self-activity', autonomous organizing, and wildcat strikes reflects such an 'ultra-left' ideological position; this position freezes the high points of class struggle, when the balance of forces is such that it is in workers' collective interests to act outside or against the unions, and seeks to preserve them as principles or measures by which it judges the present situation.
In our experience the attitude of workers to unions varies: some are relatively pro-union, others anti-union, some both at the same time or both in different situations, and many are indifferent; yet in concrete situations of disputes, their attitude to the union is more likely to be based upon practical considerations, rather than ideological ones -- their criterion is more likely to be whether something is to be gained by following the union, or alternatively acting outside the union. In contrast the 'ultra-left' critique of the unions doesn't relate to practical situations as they present themselves.
Let me add that contrary to what people see as the ultra-Left position today, as I and George Stapleton pointed out on the Aufheben thread, the original Left Communists did not take the same position towards the unions as today’s ultra-left. Bordiga never supported an “outside and against” the unions stance, and the KAPD did so only in the midst of a revolutionary situation where the unions were viewed as an impediment to the development of the revolutionary process, not as a final word on unions.
However, does this matter?
It seems that there are several approaches to the unions.
1) The unions are workers’ self-defense organizations and the problem is that they are controlled by bureaucrats, and so communists should struggle against the bureaucracy and for “workers’ democracy” or “workers’ control” of the unions. The idea here is often that communists should form fractions in the union and that the unions are “schools of class struggle” and solidarity, though not necessarily revolutionary. One classic statement of this is the NEFAC Position paper on unions, but also by a lot of Leninists and some autonomist types.
2) The unions, at least revolutionary unions of the IWW and CGT(?) anarcho-syndicalist type, are revolutionary organs of workers’ struggle and self-organization. The problem is to build these unions against the corporatist, sectoral, bourgeois unions. These organizations are essential to the overthrow of capital.
3) The unions were workers’ organizations, but have been incorporated into the state in the era of decadence post-1914 or so, and have become an organ of the state and are in fact anti-working class, counter-revolutionary organizations. The basis of the degeneration of the unions is here theorized as a structural change in capital, usually based on Luxemburg and/or Grossman/Mattick. This covers the post-1923 Left communist view a la groups like the ICC, Internationalist Perspective, and Mouvement Communiste and also some councilists.
4) The unions were workers’ organizations, but have been incorporated into the state in the era of imperialism or Fordism or the mass worker, and have become an organ of the state and are in fact now anti-working class organizations. Generally, councils and factory/strike committees are counter-poised to the unions as the really autonomous form of workers’ struggle. The basis of the degeneration is here under-theorized and largely empirical. This covers the classic councilist/ultra-left (and some autonomist) views, such as the Kolinko comments, Solidarity (As We See It, points 3 and 4), echange et mouvements, and the Jamesians, like Martin Glaberman.
5) The unions have always been fundamentally premised on the existence and acceptance of wage labor, and therefore capital, but was the form of organization most common to workers demanding an improvement in their immediate conditions of work (wages, working conditions, hours, even a certain amount of labor process control.) However, historically capital was forced to accept the existence of the unions, despite their impediment to capital’s direct control over the labor process, the full atomization of labor, true labor market and wage fluidity, fears that the unions were really communist, etc. The unions traded material improvements for a section of the class in return for aiding in the establishment of social peace (although at a price of course), and institutionalizing differences by industry, trade, skilled and unskilled, etc., each union looking after “it’s own”, also known as corporatism or sectoralism. The unions, in seeking to secure better working conditions, wages, etc. tend to accept legalism (at least via contracts) and tend to become incorporated into the state via state recognition and labor laws, making them even more likely to enforce the conditions that protect their institutional existence and to regard capital’s prerogatives as their own. As such, the unions must become an impediment to communist revolution (the abolition of the capital-labor relation), but not necessarily to struggles for improvement of the lot of workers within the limits of this relation. The unions therefore are not so much anti-worker as anti-communist, summed up in the demand for a fair wage rather than the abolition of wage labor. The general nature of the unions is fundamentally continuous throughout the history of capital (there is no degeneration from a heroic period, nor is there any future heroic period.) “The bureaucracy” is a non-issue, as is “union democracy”. “Revolutionary unions” are a contradiction in terms. However, the communist critique of the internal limits of the unions requires grasping the contradictory activity of the unions in the concrete, to make clear not that unions must ultimately be counter-revolutionary (as banal as the idea that Man creates God), but why these organizations act this way under these conditions to help clarify and fortify our fellow workers, whether they are strong enough to go beyond the unions or not; whether their struggle happens within the unions or outside of them. This is essentially my view, and how I more or less understand Aufheben’s point (and certainly what I have tried to enunciate from my first post on unions, to my critique of NEFAC’s workplace paper to the discussion over communists as stewards in the unions.)
6) All class struggle is fundamentally within capital, and therefore is always essentially trade unionist. Participating in class struggle is implicitly engaging in the trade unionist struggle and this is unavoidable. Critiquing the unions from a class struggle perspective is irrelevant, a kind of moralism that fails to recognize that it shares the same ground. There is no reason to not participate in the unions in principle, only for practical reasons. The problem is how to move from class struggle to communisation, the abolition of class struggle. The unions are no more an impediment than the class struggle as a whole. This view, unique as far as I know, is that of Theorie Communiste and groups and individuals influenced by their view.
Some food for thought to add to this (all examples based on the U.S. unless otherwise specified):
• The AFL-CIO played a key role in managing labor, acting as a second management and intermediary in the labor market and generally reinforced intra-class divisions, like race, gender, skilled/unskilled, etc. in the post-WWII period. Then again, this was also true of the AFL from the 1890’s forward. For example, the CIO worked with the Ku Klux Klan after WWII to break the Communist Party-led, highly integrated Southern unions, which is merely one of the most blatant examples.
• The AFL-CIO was involved in drafting legislation and supporting the U.S. abroad through nationalist, anti-worker policies and collaboration with the CIA and U.S. foreign policy agencies. Then again, so was the AFL from the 1890’s forward (drafting anti-Chinese legislation, undermining the Mexican revolution from 1910-18, etc.)
• The CIO rarely gained any actual wage raises in the 1930’s. Most often, such as at GM and Ford and Chrysler, struggles led by the most radical of the CIO unions, the United Auto Workers, no material gains were made other than recognition of the unions and collective bargaining.
• Wage and conditions improvements post 1941 were largely gained through wage-productivity agreements, where in return for increased wage and benefits, the unions guaranteed increases in productivity and social peace in the workplace. Most post-WWII militant workplace struggles were wildcats, which were as much against the unions as against the company.
• Unions have made wages and benefits less susceptible to market fluctuations, improving the security of the workers covered by the unions. This has included defensive strikes designed to impede the company from imposing cutbacks. This remained true through the 1970’s, excepting that the AFL and CIO, prior their unification in 1952, imposed wage freezes, no-strike contracts, etc. during WWII.
• Unions have provided a certain amount of legal and material protection against companies acting arbitrarily and also provide a certain amount of protection when organizing within the workplace, both through a collective environment of solidarity and through formal impediments to arbitrary activity, i.e. enforcement of contractual relations.
• Where there are no unions or few unions, wages, benefits and working conditions are usually worse.
• In politically radicalizing conditions and within radical organizations, the unions usually make up the right-wing of the movement and its organizations (see European Social Democracy, for example, by the 1890’s and certainly through today), though one could argue that this is less clear with European syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism. That would no doubt require a lengthy discussion of Dutch, German, French and Spanish syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism.
• Many unions have heavy stock investments, including in the corporations and industries where they are organized. The UAW bragged about just this frequently in the 1970’s and 80’s, but then again Samuel Gompers lost his diamond ring playing baseball with captains of industry in the early 1900’s.
• The unions are not beyond breaking with legalism in order to stay at the head of, control and re-direct radicalizing social struggles. One of the more famous examples was John L. Lewis’ retort to his use of communists as CIO organizers: Who gets the bird, the dog or the hunter? This encapsulates with a remarkable clarity the implicit consciousness of radical trade unionism. Another interesting example was Solidarnosc in Poland, which for all of the radicalism in and around it against the Stalinist regime, became the effective governing party under “democratic”, free market Poland. Or COSATU, which since the end of apartheid in South Africa, has acted often as the grassroots workplace wing of the now-ruling ANC.
* Unions do not always hold the workers back. Sometimes unions enable radicalism that otherwise might be difficult. A multitude of examples can be raised for this as well, esp at the level of local struggles within a particular workplace.
• How much have the unions functioned to gain democratic incorporation of the working class into capital?
• The craft unions corresponded most closely to the craft/skilled worker-oriented labor process; industrial unions corresponded most closely to the industrial-mass worker-oriented labor process. Do either of these any long correspond to the labor processes that seem to be developing today?
• Are syndicalism, councilism and industrial unionism, as forms of organization and politics, relics of the old mass worker and the Fordist structure of industry? This would not necessarily mean that there are no such types of industries, any more than craft labor has disappeared, but it no longer seems to be the dominant form of labor process.
• Are the COBAS and other such unions the “new unionism” or will there be no “new unionism”?
• What does workers’ defending their day-to-day conditions by whatever means available have to do with communists? That is, do we have means or methods to prescribe to those struggles?
• What is the relationship between the practical critique of the unions by the workers (break with the unions in 1917-23; wildcats in the 1960’s and 70’s; etc.) and the critique of the unions as organizations whose limits reside fully on this side of capital? This is clearly the sorest spot because it involves figuring out how one relates, if at all, to the unions in practice. To put it another way, while workers may develop a practical critique of the unions (one I would argue they must develop in a process of radicalization), while that practical critique and the communist critique reside fairly comfortably in a revolutionary situation or era, what is the proper attitude and practice of communists in a period when the workers are on the defensive or, as today, quite atomized?