To ‘the movement’: on work and unions in an age of austerity - Tom Denning

To ‘the movement’: on work and unions in an age of austerity - Tom Denning

In an age of austerity, at a time in which industrial struggle seems to be on the agenda in a way in which it hasn’t been for years, activists are asking questions about unions. What can we expect from them? How should we relate to them? Why are they as they are? Originally published in May 2011.

We begin with who we are

Movements tend to reproduce their own social base and subjectivity according to the tactical repertoire which constitutes them. The things they do determine who takes part, and who takes part determines what they do. Thus, a movement based around students, unemployed people, NGO workers, and those with jobs that allow them a high degree of personal flexibility, tends to reproduce itself based on a set array of actions: camping, occupying or blockading commercial property, street-theatre, banner drops, etc. – with an apparent diversity, but all a characteristic response to the lack of a mass social base rooted in contexts of everyday experience in which non-activists can be mobilised for . . . action.

The ecological anti-capitalist movement has largely been constituted outside, and to an extent, against, work. It has not therefore, often, found itself with plurality of militants at a single workplace, or in a given industry, who need to, or who could, struggle within that context. Where the movement has had such a plurality; there is quite probably little or no collective awareness of that fact, and there has been little or no effort to bring them together, or support them. Their social position has not been seen as a potential tactical lever by the movement as a whole, and perhaps not even by the workers themselves.

Therefore, the movement tends to relate to workers’ struggle, and therefore to unions, as something outside itself. When activists need to get normal jobs in large workplaces – and they show enormous creativity in not doing so – they often leave the movement; particularly if they also need to put time into a family. So – as in the case of debates over open cast mining, or coal-fired power stations, unions appear as an external ally or adversary: not something we’re part of.

Just as there is, in general, no useful revolutionary theory not based on revolutionary practice, there is no useful critique of trade unionism which does not rely on, or imply, a practical project to supercede unions in practice. That is: cheering or denouncing unions, whether from inside or outside, is wholly sterile. Even a nuanced critique, which understands the countervailing dynamics of the union form (how they express class struggle; how they hold it back) is somewhat sterile, unless it is linked to practice. Such a nuanced critique is nonetheless necessary.

The unions: what they are

Unions, in Britain today, seek to bargain with employers over workers’ terms and conditions and are based on a mass worker-membership. They are stable institutions, persisting through occasional disputes, and rather longer periods which see little conflict at all. From these facts, a number of dynamics follow.

Firstly, unions appear as an expression of workers’ self-organisation, and reflect, to an extent, workers’ opinions and perceptions. However, they are also better adapted to compromise – which is what they spend most of their time doing – than they are to struggle. As permanent institutions based on a fairly passive membership, they acquire a permanent administrative staff and a leadership to run them – what is often called ‘the bureaucracy’. In the absence of permanent industrial warfare or revolution, they need to be able to compromise with the employer. And therefore they also need to compromise with the state, which seeks to regulate industrial relations through a legal framework which appears to offer a proper procedure for industrial action, but without making it too easy. Thus, over time, unions develop an institutional interest in capitalism, and a symbiotic relationship with the state. In the UK, this relationship is expressed partly, but not wholly, through the unions’ support for the Labour Party.

However, this process is not something entirely apart from workers. The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded. So, all is well between workers and unions? Not at all. Typically, the leadership of the union has a greater interest in compromise than the base; a fact which is often exposed when workers decide to struggle. They probably weren’t all that interested in the union when it wasn’t organising struggle, but when they do engage, are confronted with an organisation which has become more suited – in terms of its form and leading personnel – to compromise than the sort of action they want, or need, to win. Just as workers seek to organise through their union, they also discover a conflict with the official leaders, structures, and rule-book.

These dynamics also affect the nature of trade union demands. Not only are the demands not revolutionary, they very rarely move beyond wages and redundancies, to question the content and nature of work, and the place of the worker within society as a whole.

Unions are therefore best understood as the expressions of two countervailing dynamics.

On the one hand, unions are a basic form of workers’ self organisation against the day to day predations of capital; they express – albeit in a very staid manner – the class struggle. On the other, unions are institutions which seek to control and limit that very self-organisation, limit the militancy of its members in pursuit of that aim, and limit the scope of demands they raise. These tendencies are both so strong, and so integral, to unions that it is rare that one entirely wins out. The extent to which one prevails over the other differs from time to time, and place to place, depending on the circumstances.

Ideas about trade unions

Most Trotskyists identify the struggle over work precisely with the trade union struggle; and attributes the failings of unions in large part to a ‘crisis of leadership’, which can be solved by themselves being in charge. They are probably also officially in favour of democratising the unions, and will generally support unofficial action. Trotskyists generally accept that unions are ‘not revolutionary’ (the remnants of a critique of trade unions which was common in early 20th Century Marxism), but rarely have a general structural analysis, such as the above. They do not, typically, prominently raise the possibility of struggle beyond the unions.

The orthodox ‘ultra-left’ position adopts the opposing view. Rather than seeing unions as institutions ripe to be captured and redirected by revolutionaries (and implicitly free of a structural relation to capital and the state), they see unions solely in their aspect of a limit to the class struggle. This, at its worst, results in a total disengagement from trade unions, and a tendency to denounce every defeat of the working class as evidence of ‘union sabotage’. There is little acknowledgement that workers organise class struggle through unions, still less that workers often choose to end disputes themselves. Blaming ‘the union’ posits a bogeyman, wholly external to the workers’ movement – and prevents serious engagement with the subjective and material sources of workers’ interest in compromise with capital. It also lets us off the hook: given that we have failed to build support for our ideas – direct action, participatory democracy, anti-capitalism – don’t we have cause to take a hard look at ourselves?

A third position, which is often held implicitly but very rarely expressed, is that of critical routineism. Many libertarian activists who are formally critical of both perspectives are involved in their union because they want to do what they can to oppose day to day injustice. They don’t necessarily want to take over the union, and are aware of the limits of trade unions, but neither do they have a clear idea of how to go beyond it. Often, the union will take up alot of their energy, not leaving much time for extra-union-routine politics. Whilst individually critical of unions, their day to day activity doesn’t move beyond trade unionism.

Critique beyond theory: the need for an independent practice

Earlier in this article, I argued that the lack of an independent libertarian revolutionary practice in relation to work was not only a product of our movement’s sociological isolation, but a cause of it. We’ve seen that unions are the crucible of countervailing dynamics, which express class struggle, just as they stifle it. We’ve seen that trying to take over trade unions is likely, in the end, to be as futile as denouncing them from the sidelines; and as unlikely to develop an anti-capitalist dynamic as individualised routine. What does that leave? Loren Goldner calls it ‘extra-unionism’: “be in the union, be outside the union, but your perspective is beyond the union”. But how?

There are no easy answers. But it’s possible to suggest a few different approaches.

Industrial networks. At present, our movement makes no serious attempt to ensure that militants working in the same job or sector get together to organise collective work. A first step would be to make it part of our regular practice that health workers and education workers, for instance, meet in fora such as the Anarchist Bookfair. Discussing perspectives for organising solidarity and agitation could form part of this.

Solidarity unionism. In the US, the IWW has developed a workplace organiser training which has been taken up and adapted by the Solidarity Federation here in the UK. The purpose is to train workers how to build collective confidence and power on the job, without relying on official structures or mediation. In the US, the Starbucks and Jimmy Johns workers’ unions have been two important consequences of this approach. We need to stop thinking of ‘direct action training’ as based on a discrete series of skills, such as lock-on and tripods, but instead about we involve non-politicos in direct action. Contact SolFed if you’re interested.

Base groups and bulletins. In the 1970s, libertarian socialists in Big Flame and the early International Socialists adopted an effective organising model. It was particularly well suited to large factories, but there may be a way to apply it today. Militants based inside and outside the workplace would work together to produce a regular workers’ bulletin, designed to reflect the experience of work and struggle, and help workers communicate with each other. Rather than laying down ‘the line’, at their best they’d show the radical implications of being honest about our working lives, and provide a way to organise politically at work, without relying on the union. The support of outsiders was often necessary due to the pressure of work, family-life, and union activity.

Workers and service users: in and against the state. Cuts are attacks on service users and workers. In the late ‘70s, another period of public sector cuts, workers and service users found ways to organise to support each other, in a way that cut against the capitalist logic of the state sector which divides the working class against itself. These attempts are documented in chapter 6 of the book In and Against the State.

We live in an economic and political reality very different from the high points of class struggle, characterised by mass expressions of workers’ autonomy. But, once again, workers are in the front line. Where will we be? To find a way to answer this in practice will require ingenuity and experimentation. But unless we learn to speak with our own voice, we will never be heard. And if we are never heard, we might as well be mute.

Some of Tom Denning’s previous articles discussing the movement against cuts can be found on the Red Pepper and New Left Project websites, as well as for the May Day International project

Originally published in Shift Magazine

Comments

Spikymike
May 28 2011 15:39

The author makes some common sense points here, has taken some easy pot shots at the trots and there are some worthwhile practical pointers at the end of this short text, but it also contains a number of unsubstantiated generalisations.

Thus it dismisses the whole of the 'ultra-left' in one swoop with an accusation that they (whoever 'they' might be?) only see the limits which unions place on class struggle and avoid any analysis with routine accusations of union sabotage, but provides no evidence for this and no actual refutation of the many more nuanced analysis available on this site alone. Loren Goldner is mentioned but it is not clear if he is regarded here as 'ultra-left'?

Where is the evidence or logical argument that 'unions appear as expressions of workers self-organisation' or that they 'are basic forms of workers self organisation'. This may have been historically valid but is it still true today and [i]everywhere? That is not self evident.

The author says that a 'nuanced critique is necessary' but there is no evidence of that here. It adds nothing either to the library texts which do attempt a critical analysis of the unions or the various texts and debates on workplace strategies, so it's unclear why it has been posted here (even if it had some introductory function for the readership of SHIFT magazine).

As an aside I would suggest that in terms of industrial bulletins the old british 'Solidarity' Group has more to commend it than either IS or Big Flame in roughly the same period.

posi
May 28 2011 16:39
Quote:
Thus it dismisses the whole of the 'ultra-left' in one swoop. . .

It doesn't. It refers to the orthodox ultra-left. By that, I meant, roughly, the positions of the ICT and ICC. Loren Goldner is on the ultra-left, but - judged by that standard - his position on unions is not orthodox.

Quote:
Where is the evidence or logical argument that 'unions appear as expressions of workers self-organisation' or that they 'are basic forms of workers self organisation'. This may have been historically valid but is it still true today and [i]everywhere? That is not self evident.

To be honest, it pretty much is self-evident to all those who aren't on the orthodox ultra-left. The creativity displayed by that political tendency in ignoring the fact is, of itself, no evidence that it isn't the case. Edited to add: also, I refer to unions "in Britain today": widening the analysis to "everywhere" would bring in some more negative examples, but also some in which unions do have a more active pro-class struggle role than here.

Quote:
The author says that a 'nuanced critique is necessary' but there is no evidence of that here.

By the standards of the positions I mention, one of which is very popular on these boards, it certainly is nuanced.

Quote:
As an aside I would suggest that in terms of industrial bulletins the old british 'Solidarity' Group has more to commend it than either IS or Big Flame in roughly the same period.

You may well be right, but I've never seen any of them myself. Are any online somewhere?

For the record, the piece was already one third over the word limit I was given. In that space I had to explain the disengagement of the movement in question from unions and labour militancy, give a structural overview of unions, evaluate popular political positions and strategies in relation to them, and propose some practical steps. Of course, it doesn't properly back everything it says up with a host of historical examples. Gradually, I am trying to find time to produce something which does so: but that will be a pamphlet, and a long one at that, not a magazine article.

Android
May 28 2011 17:51

I read the piece after reading Spikymike's and posi's comments. I think the strongest part of the text was the stressing the importance of linking theory with a political practice and it is also a useful contribution from a different angle to the ongoing discussions around class struggle theory and practice that has centered so far on SolFed's contributions.

I do not think the "orthodox" critique of the unions is as orthodox as is being suggested:

Tom Denning / posi wrote:
The orthodox ‘ultra-left’ position adopts the opposing view. Rather than seeing unions as institutions ripe to be captured and redirected by revolutionaries (and implicitly free of a structural relation to capital and the state), they see unions solely in their aspect of a limit to the class struggle. This, at its worst, results in a total disengagement from trade unions, and a tendency to denounce every defeat of the working class as evidence of ‘union sabotage’. There is little acknowledgement that workers organise class struggle through unions, still less that workers often choose to end disputes themselves. Blaming ‘the union’ posits a bogeyman, wholly external to the workers’ movement – and prevents serious engagement with the subjective and material sources of workers’ interest in compromise with capital. It also lets us off the hook: given that we have failed to build support for our ideas – direct action, participatory democracy, anti-capitalism – don’t we have cause to take a hard look at ourselves?

I think I know what posi's means by the term 'orthodox ultra-left'. The common denominator being that a critique of the unions features prominently in analysis of the class struggle and a rejection of a political practice that is geared toward reforming / democratising the unions and a rejection of building official union oriented rank-and-file groups to achieve the former inside the union framework / structures. Also, the constituent parts of the 'orthodox ultra-left' differ on theory as well as practice regarding the unions. The only group within this camp that you could say approaches a moralistic and sectarian rejection of the unions (i.e. members do not join unions unless they have to) is the ICC, which they explained on here before was a tactical position, not a principle. The other elements of this camp posi is critiquing do have some engagement with the unions - in that there members have been and are union members depending on the opportunities for political work and articulating their politics and furthering their objective of independent class action. So, on the whole the orthdos do not have objection to never being in a union or never attending a union meeting as you seemed to be setting up with your 'total disengagement' comment. I think there focus is more that they will contribute where ever they can to moving past the unions and workers acting for themselves. So in that sense I do not see the position as all that different between CWO and the old Subversion group that Spikymike was in. I am not going to go into the theoretical differences here between the different ortho groups which ranges from the ICC, ICT, IP through to the old Wildcat and Subversion groups.

I may comment on some of the other elements of the text later that are worth discussing.

Also, I have just posted Paul Mattick Jr.'s piece on WI which looks at the unions and contains an implicit critique that probably falls under the ortho banner using posi's schema.

posi
May 28 2011 18:15

Hey Android, thanks for that. I do appreciate that there are differences within what I identify as the 'orthodox ultra left' (I'm not trying to invent a term of art here, I just had to call it something for the purposes of the article). I appreciate the CWO are somewhat less crude than the ICC, but in my experience of conversations with members, and their interventions in meetings (I haven't read any major texts), I find many of the same features, for example:
- denying that trade unionism wins anything worthwhile for its members (then, eclectically, acknowledging specific counter-examples, even general statistical trends, before going back to saying the same thing again)
- making the denunciation of unions the main feature of any intervention, but without (generally) anything useful to say, positively, about means to transcend the unions, and without acknowledging explicitly that there is a massive problem at the level of workers' current subjectivity (or, admitting that "of course, workers are not straining at the leash..." but then totally failing to integrate the significance of that fact on the level of the general analysis),
- An inconsistent account of what 'the union' is... e,g. when a shop steward organises unofficial action they are a worker, acting independently of the union, when a shop steward fucks over a member they are providing just another example of the union's perfidy.

However, I acknowledge that the CWO are not against being members of unions, and arguing their case at union meetings: good for them. That is why I said total disengagement is something that happens "at worst". I have also never heard anyone from the CWO claim that action organised by a union was "really" organised (independently) "by workers", but that the union had cunningly taken credit (which could conceivably happen, but isn't what has characterised recent strikes in the UK). I guess that CWO members wouldn't be stewards or branch officers, but although I disagree with that (and think the SolFed case by case position makes more sense), that is a relatively less important tactical call.

Android
May 28 2011 19:12
posi wrote:
I just had to call it something for the purposes of the article). I appreciate the CWO are somewhat less crude than the ICC, but in my experience of conversations with members, and their interventions in meetings (I haven't read any major texts), I find many of the same features, for example:
- denying that trade unionism wins anything worthwhile for its members (then, eclectically, acknowledging specific counter-examples, even general statistical trends, before going back to saying the same thing again)
- making the denunciation of unions the main feature of any intervention, but without (generally) anything useful to say, positively, about means to transcend the unions, and without acknowledging explicitly that there is a massive problem at the level of workers' current subjectivity (or, admitting that "of course, workers are not straining at the leash..." but then totally failing to integrate the significance of that fact on the level of the general analysis),
- An inconsistent account of what 'the union' is... e,g. when a shop steward organises unofficial action they are a worker, acting independently of the union, when a shop steward fucks over a member they are providing just another example of the union's perfidy.

Having read a good bit of the ultra-lefts material on the union question, particularly from the 70s and 80s which for the most part is not online. Just to comment quickly on your bullet points so I can get back to the football.

While the role of the unions in class struggle may appear to focussed solely on denunciations and maybe there members you spoke to lapsed into defending an analysis and drifting into dogmatism. I do not know I am just going on what have you said. But for instance IIRC the differing analysis of the defeated class struggles in the 80s was aimed at the unions, but also took internal weaknesses such as the question consciousness or subjectivity as you seem to be calling it.

I am just going on reading material of there's alone, having not asked them directly. But they do not deny that the unions can achieve reforms / concessions since 1914 a la the ICC. But that the ability to do so is linked to the position of the accumulation cycle (e.g. post-war Britain) and worker militancy.

'Cleishbotham' (who is the only CWOer who reads this afaik) can clarify if I have misrepresented the CWO's analysis.

Although I think it is important to be factual accurate and historically grounded*, not alleging anything in the former. Although I did think Paul Mattick Jr.'s approach is superior to the one outlined in the text above, even if there is a difference in focus they are comparable.

*which I do appreciate was hampered by the limitation on word count etc, look forward to your more extensive text on this question.

Cleishbotham
May 29 2011 15:21

Android has done the CWO a good service by highlighting our specific analysis as part of the communist left. I don't blame Posi for lumping us withe the ICc since the latter have taken teh privilege of referring to themsleves as "the Communist Left" (even to the extent of putting their own logo on the group of that name on revleft). We too are complicit in this as my comrades don't think posting on forums like this is a real priority for communist work.

I actually thought the original article was quite thoughtful and made some points which we could all agree on. In repy to Spikymike I don't think the old Soildarity group (to which I belonged 1970-73) was very good on the unions (but it might hav ebene beter than Big Flame). I did not realise this when I joined it (and I was only forming my ideas anyway) but the title of Ken Weller's pamphlet "GMBU - Scab Union" eventually struck me as wrong - as today all the unions are scabs from the poijnt of view of real independent class struggle. Before that has Posi reaching for the I told you so button can I say this si not based on mere analysis but on actual concrete experience.

Our positon is based onthe view that the problem is not so much the unions as the lack of class consciousness and class identity today. We don't go into struggle making the unions the issue - the issue is the struggle itself. The union apparatus though will always reveal themselves at some point as an obstacle to real unity or a real fight. I mysefl have organised a struggle which involved uniting members of 6 unions (and I had to rejoin hastily my own union to do so). Naturally we won as long as we stayed together but finally folded when union sectionalism kicked in.

We have also had people coming to us as shop stewards telling us that they were doing the real work because they were inside the union and acting only for the members only to find that the union apparatus manoeuvred them out of office when they became a nusiance to them. (The alternative for shop stewards seems to be to accept a quasi managerial role and go on TUC courses where they are told how to negotiate and manipulate the membership (leavened by beer, meetings with celeb TUC leaders and teh rpomise of a shinign career away from the dreary world of real work).

I don't know where Posi has met CWO members but his anecdotal evidence suggest they must have been involved in lengthy discussions or else he has read too much into a few scattered comments.

What his article though lacks is a historical perspective. We built the unions of the C19th but they were controlled by the members more directly and they disubursed strike funds when needed. Today most of us only find out we are in aunion when they move into action to negotiate away our jobs or tell us to simmer down whilst they negotiate for us. This is because the unions in the corporate state capitalist model we have today exist to negotiate the price of wage labour FOR capital. If the union "wins anything worthwhile for its members" it tends to be of short term duration and of minimal value.

It is true many of the most class conscious workers in the UK are in unions (this is not the case in France or Spain I am told). Ergo we don't start by denouncing the unions (this is another difference we seem to have with the ICC who have tried to translate the French perception into UK conditions) but by seeking to promote the collective struggle. We also have a strategy based on our Itlaian comrades experiecnc of attemtping to create workplace groups of anti-capitalist workes who are union members but hwo see the need to go beyond trades unionism (but that is another subject). Our bottom line is that we certainly don't adopt any strategy or tactics which separates us from the mass of the class whilst at the same as recognising that the unions are not neutral bodies when it comes to class struggle.

Spikymike
May 29 2011 17:39

OK so I appreciate the circumstances now in which posi's article was written and it does make some valid points, as I think I acknowledged.

But having read some of 'The Communes' articles on the Unions and posi's further comments I still consider that there is a lack of understanding of the significant changes that have taken place in the historical development of capitalism, working class composition and the capitalist state. As a result this severly underestimates the degree of integration of unions within capitalism, meaning that we cannot maintain a pro-revolutionary strategy orientated towards the trades unions, even if that moves beyond traditional trotskyist inflenced leftwing politics.( which is not however a defense of the activist politics of 'the movement' addressed in the article as any alternative).

I take references in the article by posi to 'workers' to mean 'working class' and that 'workers self-organisation' means 'class self-organisation'. This is the critical point, since our experience of the everyday activity of trades unions in this country, and most others in varying degrees, is of an organisation which is perceived by most workers as an 'outside body' because it is, in reality, an 'outside body'. At best viewed as having some kind of insurance function for individual workers and at worst little more than an extension of the companies human resources department. Trades unions will of necessity seek to present themselves as genuine representatives of 'workers' (both to workers and to employers) rather than 'the working class' and will from time to time have to justify that by 'organising' sections of workers to do battle with the employers. There is therefor always the possibillity of action starting within the union framework going outside and against that framework in the right circumstances and with the right encouragement. The problem cannot of course be reduced to a question of trade union 'betrayal' since they are functioning under modern capitalism in their normal and accepted way towards workers who's consciousness is most of the time limited, at best, to a 'trade union consciousness'. (which is not to say that the working class cannot achieve a positive class consciousness through their/our own efforts under some circumstances). The 'encouragement' I refer to does need organising and that will mean in most cases at present, in the British context at least ( though a pro-revolutionary analysis can hardly be limited to the British experience), that pro-revolutionary 'militants' will be members of existing unions whilst seeking to organise through independent networks that cut accross traditional trades/professions/employers etc. Beyond that the level and nature of involvement with existing unions is open to discussion, but it is clear that trying to maintain an independent pro-revolutionary class stand whilst also holding any kind of official representative union position will be unsustainable.

Understanding the nature and function of trades/industrial/general unions in modern world capitalism and the necessity to go 'outside and against', at some point, in struggles of any significance, derives from both an analysis of the evolution of the capitalist economy and capitalist states and the everyday experience of our class.

As regards the Solidarity industrial bulletins, only a few of these are on line thanks to Marky B's efforts, but he might be pursuaded to scan some more from my collection including the interesting series of 'Motor Bulletins'. My recomendation was primarily in relation to the period mentioned in posi's article. As someone who eventually split with other comrades from the Solidarity (for Social Revolution) group (in part) over their analysis of trades unions in relation to the experience of Polish Solidarity, I am of course not recomending that groups whole practice around this issue.

I'm sure all of that marks me out as an 'ultra-left' in posi's terminology but maybe not 'orthodox'.

AIW
May 30 2011 20:48

Looks like a very useful article. I haven't read the longer responses which I guess are about debating semantics. It would be more useful if you could hyper link it, particularly your most practical proposal "contact Solfed". Is it the SF External Relations Officer who should be contacted or your closest local?

Joseph Kay
May 30 2011 20:54

external relations is probably your best bet, some locals are better with emails than others but they're mandated to put you in touch with the right people and follow up to make sure it gets through.

Alf
Jun 19 2011 21:59

I appreciate that this article does represent an attempt to present a more 'structural' approach to understanding the role of the unions. It is based on a real concern to play an active role in the class struggle. But I don't think it can offer a real way forward.

I think I need to respond to some of the caricatures of the ICC that have been drawn here. Back in the 80s, when the ICC was seriously involved in workers' struggles for the first time, sometimes in movements that achieved a significant level of self-organisation, we began a discussion about how do we fight against the obstacle represented by the unions. We agreed, with some the exception of some comrades who went in a different direction, that it was not a question of abstractly denouncing the unions and presenting ourselves as 'outside' the movement. We agreed that our role, above all in directly agitational activity, was to offer a concrete way forward for the struggle. You can argue that we have massively failed to do this (although a serious argument would first establish what we have actually done in the class struggle, which might involve asking us some questions). But there is no point in arguing that we are actually, consciously in favour of getting up in workers' meetings and saying "the unions are bad, we really hate the unions, they are so bad. Since 1914 they've been this bad". Or some such.

Regarding the issue of the nature of trade unions:

"Unions are therefore best understood as the expressions of two countervailing dynamics.

[i]On the one hand, unions are a basic form of workers’ self organisation against the day to day predations of capital; they express – albeit in a very staid manner – the class struggle. On the other, unions are institutions which seek to control and limit that very self-organisation, limit the militancy of its members in pursuit of that aim, and limit the scope of demands they raise. These tendencies are both so strong, and so integral, to unions that it is rare that one entirely wins out. The extent to which one prevails over the other differs from time to time, and place to place, depending on the circumstances".[/i]

Perhaps I will come back later to this idea of the "dual class nature" of the unions, which is not new: Pouvoir Ouvriere in France in the 60s and 70s was putting forward a very similar argument. But if, as Tom says, the unions are still "basic forms of workers' self-organisation", then anyone who takes the organisation of the working class seriously would have to devote a considerable part of their energies to the task of actively defending the unions, to strengthening them and spreading their presence. The unions were certainly built up over many years of workers' struggles and through huge sacrifices by working people, and communists have never lightly jettisoned genuine "expressions of the class struggle", however limited. The leftists do at least take this task seriously: in many ways, without their tireless work, the unions really would be dead. If unions really were forms of basic proletarian self-organisation, why would you not positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on union responsibilities at every level - not least to combat the negative influences within them?

Joseph Kay
Jun 20 2011 00:26
Alf wrote:
But if, as Tom says, the unions are still "basic forms of workers' self-organisation", then anyone who takes the organisation of the working class seriously would have to devote a considerable part of their energies to the task of actively defending the unions, to strengthening them and spreading their presence.

this doesn't follow imho. you could think unions are sometimes a "basic form of workers' self-organisation" (e.g. the wildcat-prone brighton GMB binmen branch), but still think there are better strategies to pursue than 'building the unions', and yet still recognise an attempt to e.g. fire a militant rep is an attack on self-organisation and the unions at the same time (since bosses don't necessarily draw that distinction, even if communists think they'd be smarter if they used the union against self-organisation rather than opposing both).

Alf wrote:
If unions really were forms of basic proletarian self-organisation, why would you not positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on union responsibilities at every level

i also think this is a false deduction. it's like saying 'if the capitalist state isn't collapsing, you must be positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on state positions at every level' - it simply doesn't follow from the premise. I mean street gangs can be a form of proletarians self-organising, it doesn't mean we should be salting the local gang kids for communism!

posi
Jun 23 2011 11:13

I agree with JK's first point, although I'd make a bigger claim on the second: I think there is more to be said, from a class POV, for unions than street gangs.

My answer would be that Alf is able to make this deduction only because, by the end of the paragraph, he has apparently forgotten that the perspective under discussion is precisely a dual one, and that inferring anything from either side of the contradiction in isolation will produce error for precisely this reason.

As I said on the other thread, Alf is quite correct that this approach is not new. I hadn't heard of Pouvoir Ouvriere, but it's obvious enough that plenty of academics have picked it up, as well as elements within operaismo and dissident Marxism more generally. I don't know about the anarchist tradition.

btw:

Quote:
STRUGGLE IN, WITH OR AGAINST THE UNIONS?
One of the unusual features of the Swedish labour market is its high level of union organisation (80% of workers in 2005) in comparison to England or Ireland. This of course raises the question of how the ideas of Faceless Resistance relate to union organisation; do they oppose it, complement it or ignore it? The presence in Sweden of the SAC, a large syndicalist union, throws this question into sharper relief. Kämpa Tillsammans tend to remain ambiguous on the question of union organisation, stating that they are neither for or against union organisation; unions are a fact of life for workers in capital, and so long as people have to sell their labour, unions will be there to handle the deal.

For Kämpa Tillsammans focusing on the question of union organisation is a mistake, the real power in a conflict comes from workplace militancy, regardless of whether this is expressed through a union or not, arguing that ”regardless of the view on the role of the trade unions, every successful struggle at workplaces came from the solidarity between workmates; a strong workers’ collective.” Thus the role of revolutionaries should be to build the workers’ collective, rather than building the union organisation. The union framework for disputes can be used by the workers when it is appropriate and discarded when it is not, but the foundation for struggle must always be the solidarity and organisation of the workers.

http://www.wsm.ie/content/faceless-resistance?page=434

Though I would say that "building the workers' collective" isn't necessarily counterposed to "building the union organisation". I would say there are time when the latter could encourage the former - e.g. encouraging people to come to a union meeting to vote for a strike ballot.

Would we prefer the masses were consistently up for doing things another way? We would! Is this necessarily the point? No! So is there a need to search, in practice, for ways to practically build support for other ways, whilst recognising the hold of the current ones, and the necessity to mobilise in that context? Yes!

Alf
Jun 23 2011 15:34

Joseph K wrote: 'if the capitalist state isn't collapsing, you must be positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on state positions at every level' - it simply doesn't follow from the premise. I mean street gangs can be a form of proletarians self-organising, it doesn't mean we should be salting the local gang kids for communism'

I don't follow this . My argument is posited on the notion of unions as part of ourselves, unlike the capitalist state. It's irrelevant whether it's collapsing or not. I think it does follow logically from the premise that if unions are proletarian, we should be defending them and building them. But there are differences of approach behind our premises: I don't think a street gang, by definition, can ever be considered a proletarian form of self-organisation. I recall Aufheben arguing this about the Crips and the Bloods. Those gangs were already part of the mafia (in the general sense) - capitalist enterprises if not a shadow state. Not the main issue here, but I think it does point to a different understanding of what we mean by the workers' movement, and what it means to see youself as part of it.

Joseph Kay
Jun 23 2011 15:52
Quote:
I think it does follow logically from the premise that if unions are proletarian, we should be defending them and building them.

but this is precisely what's at issue: they're either the goodies or the baddies, we must bulid and defend them or expose and surpass them. Posi's argument is precisely that it isn't so clear-cut.

posi
Jun 25 2011 08:53

exactly.

LBird
Jun 25 2011 09:33
Alf wrote:
I think it does follow logically from the premise that if unions are proletarian, we should be defending them and building them. But there are differences of approach behind our premises: I don't think a street gang, by definition, can ever be considered a proletarian form of self-organisation.

Alf, I think you are making the same mistake that Alexander Roxwell made in our discussons about 'National Liberation' movements.

That is, to regard any political activity by workers as to be worthy of our support, just because these actions are taken by politically active workers.

But isn't this a problem? Surely we must categorise workers' activity by its class content (or lack thereof) from our proletarian, Communist perspective?

As I asked of Alexander, without receiving an adequate reply, 'would we support workers joining the SS?', just because they are clearly politically active workers.

The problem is, the activity is inimical to our politics.

So, if we categorise 'SS membership', 'street-gang membership' and 'collaborative union membership' as non-proletarian, non-Communist, non-class-conscious, from our perspective, why should we 'defend and build the unions'?

I'm aware that you'll say that being in a union is not similar at all to the SS or street gangs, and on some level you're correct, but if we see the mainstream unions as part of an erroneous attempt by workers to square the circle of being a member of a nation and of being a worker, then we should not 'defend and build' them.

Union members might be 'politically active workers', but isn't joining unions a step in the wrong political direction, as far as 'defending and building' Communism goes?

Perhaps you'll argue that becoming 'active' is in itself a step in the right direction, and that the contradictions of 'union membership' and 'proletarian self-activity' will become apparent to workers in the future, and they'll learn to reject the 'union', but I'm yet to be convinced. I'm more inclined to believe that joining a union actually disarms workers for the future, making them more passive and dependent upon hierarchies, rather than it provides a basis for class-conscious advancement in the direction of Communism.

I suppose I'm saying that to join a union, a worker is usually moving away from Communism, not towards it.

Steven.
Jun 25 2011 09:50

LBird, you have completely misinterpreted Alf's position

posi
Jun 25 2011 09:57

In LBird's latest post, the ultra-ultra-left has finally achieved its telos: total detachment from base reality, and the really existing working class. It will, henceforth, spin frictionless, pure and true, bathed in the light of the eternal communist idea. Congratulations comrades! Down with the opportunism of the ICC, just another part of capital's left wing!

By the way, I found this especially inimical to our politics - http://libcom.org/news/london-underground-strike-threat-wins-reinstatement-unfairly-sacked-driver-24062011 I read it, and just thought: "bastards!" Didn't you?

LBird
Jun 25 2011 10:15
Steven wrote:
LBird, you have completely misinterpreted Alf's position

It would be really helpful, Steven, if you could add a bit more detail.

posi wrote:
By the way, I found this especially inimical to our politics - http://libcom.org/news/london-underground-strike-threat-wins-reinstatement-unfairly-sacked-driver-24062011 I read it, and just thought: "bastards!" Didn't you?

Giving a small example of a union action that benefits workers isn't much of an argument, is it? The point is, how do we make a balanced judgement between both the good and the bad consequences of union actions?

Your example is similar to me giving an example of the SS shooting Jewish bosses and Stalinist commissars, and claiming, because we Communists want to get rid of bosses and Stalinists, that we should support the SS. Surely the problem is that, on balance, the SS is not in favour of Communism, even if some of its actions can be seen as in some way helpful?

posi
Jun 25 2011 10:29

On balance, the working class is not in favour of communism. So, we don't see any latent communist content in the working class, any more than we do in the SS, right?

Also, the SS shooting Jewish bosses and Stalinists was not good for communism, not in context, and not even as isolated incidents. Who does something, and why, matters. Because of this, making an analogy between union and the SS begs the question.

LBird
Jun 25 2011 11:00
posi wrote:
Who does something, and why, matters.

That's exactly my point, mate.

You gave a good example of a 'win' for workers, following union action. But is it correct to say constant small victories by unions will lead to complete victory for workers?

Perhaps another analogy might help.

If the hunter wishes to capture a bird, they lay a trail of birdseed which ends under a propped-up box.

The bird eats each morsel and thinks 'A win!', because it has had some food. With each seed, it grows more sure of itself - a succession of 'wins' leads to a full stomach, no?

Well, 'no', in fact. It leads to the hunter's dinner table. Well, in fact, it does lead to a full stomach. But not the bird's.

If the union leadership wishes to capture a class...

posi wrote:
Who does something, and why, matters.

Who? Something? Why?

As you correctly say, it 'matters' to discuss these issues. Perhaps I'm wrong, or just using shit analogies, but it's worthwhile for Communists to discuss it.

Lurch
Jun 25 2011 16:24

Quote: (Spikymike)

"Where is the evidence or logical argument that 'unions appear as expressions of workers self-organisation' or that they 'are basic forms of workers self organisation'. This may have been historically valid but is it still true today and [i]everywhere? That is not self evident.

Reply (Posi) To be honest, it pretty much is self-evident to all those who aren't on the orthodox ultra-left.

I don’t think this is an adequate response to Spikymike’s question. If it’s so self-evident, we wouldn’t be (continually) having this debate. There wouldn’t be the world-wide phenomenon of ‘wildcat’ strikes, outside of the ‘official’ union framework. And given the evident failure of this alleged ‘basic form of worker’s self organisation’ to preserve either living standards or jobs (let alone forward an alternative to this shit that is capitalism, as Tom’s article happily admits it doesn’t and never has) it’s little wonder the debate won’t go away, however exasperated or rude Posi becomes.

I find Tom’s approach in the article (allowing for word-count constraints) really weird.
Quote: “The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded.”

Leaving aside the ‘mass of workers’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, France, China, Spain, etc, who in recent months (and largely without or even against the Trade Unions) have displayed their opposition to the capitalist status quo (albeit with illusions about attenuating its effects), this is like saying that ‘actually existing capitalism’ is the ‘fault’ of the wage slaves who refuse to overthrow it! Stupid workers! Clever Posi.

This approach ‘forgets’ that unlike previous revolutionary classes, the modern proletariat has no possibility of building up within this society an ‘alternative’ way of organising things, let alone the fact that it’s subject to the dominant ideology which insists there’s ‘no alternative’, and which also rams down our throat that unions are workers’ organisations, be you for them or against them.

This approach ‘forgets’ that it’s not what this or that worker thinks but ‘what the class as a whole is forced to do (or attempt to do). It’s an economist, localist and immediate view which only sees ‘right here, right now’ and wants to forget both the previous experience of workers (“We start from where we are”), or the guiding light of the future, the perspective, the ‘general line of march’ – a different society. Tom’s view is British pragmatism at its ‘finest’.

With his disdain for theory, with his (correct) concern to be practical, Tom/Posi ‘forgets’ that a 'practice' divorced from any political foundations, orientations, or framework of principles is nothing but a practice suspended in mid-air, a narrow-mined immediatism, which can never be a truly revolutionary activity. Any separation between theory and practice that opts, either for theory without practice, or for practice without theory, destroys the unity of the immediate struggle and historical goals.

All this, no doubt, in so much theoretical bollocks to Posi/Tom. For him, the unions are a ‘barometer’ of class relations. They are ‘neutral’, swaying this way or that, according to the momentary ability of the lazy workers to get their act into gear. They’re neither good guys nor bad guys – it’s ‘more complicated than that’. When the workers struggle, the unions respond to their demands (not very well, admittedly, according to Posi). When the workers are quiet (and they’re so quiet, so often), then the unions safeguard ‘what is’ (increasing capitalist exploitation).

For Posi, maybe. For others (and there’s no need to differentiate between the different left communists – here I agree with Tom: they all say the same thing in essence), unions are the weapons of the state within the working class.

Posi would like us to celebrate the recent re-instatement of one union official on the London Underground after strike action: “I found this especially inimical to our politics.”

Me too! The reinstatement of one militant through the union mobilisation of thousands of workers to strike masks the defeat of the union campaign to resist 800 lay-offs. Couldn’t have illustrated it better.

posi
Jun 25 2011 17:19
Lurch wrote:
If it’s so self-evident, we wouldn’t be (continually) having this debate.

Unless some of us were really dogmatic and stuck in a theoretical rut.

Quote:
There wouldn’t be the world-wide phenomenon of ‘wildcat’ strikes, outside of the ‘official’ union framework.

Unless the perspective under discussion was a dual one, which was also able to explain the strong tendencies toward trade union integration.

Quote:
Leaving aside the ‘mass of workers’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, France, China, Spain, etc, who in recent months (and largely without or even against the Trade Unions) have displayed their opposition to the capitalist status quo . . .

It's good we're leaving them aside, because my point was that "workers themselves accept capitalism and the state" - which is true in all these countries. That's not to say they accept its present form or policy, but they self-evidently don't subjectively want to do away with either institution entirely. Which is precisely the point.

Quote:
this is like saying that ‘actually existing capitalism’ is the ‘fault’ of the wage slaves who refuse to overthrow it!

That's an odd way to put it. I prefer "The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself".

Quote:
With his disdain for theory . . .

Actually, I like theory. I like it so much, I like it to be at least half-decent.

Quote:
The reinstatement of one militant through the union mobilisation of thousands of workers to strike masks the defeat of the union campaign to resist 800 lay-offs.

How does it "mask" it? "Mask" in this sentence plays no clear role at all. What does it mask from who, and where's the evidence? What is the relation between the alleged "masking" and the thing happening in the first place? What is the relative success of unionised and un-unionised workplaces in resisting lay-offs in Britain in the last decade? Why?

LBird wrote:
But is it correct to say constant small victories by unions will lead to complete victory for workers?

But nobody says that, do they?

What LBird and Lurch cannot grasp, apparently, is that workers organise a proportion of their activity through unions, including some with real class content. There are not two wholly separate monads: unions are made up of workers, and often a full time staff, a series of regulations, rules, procedures, norms, and a dose of ideological glue. These things, when articulated together, are "the union". "The union" includes a number of "the workers", or at least a proportion of the activity of a number of the workers.

Lurch and LBird's entire politics on this question amount to complaining that workers are not communist, and denouncing their non-communistic activity, in the hope that the masses will eventually see the light they have brought, and take up the true path. In contrast, I see any "true path" as a development of the real movement which begins from the real practice of the working class today.

baboon
Jun 25 2011 17:36

We don't have to start from the real practice of the working class today to see that the major role of the unions for many moons now is to divide the working class one from the othe whether it is engaging in struggle or not.

Joseph Kay
Jun 25 2011 18:34

'How can you say this coin has two sides? I see only heads. Not only do I see no evidence for this 'tails' of yours, even if you produce it, the historic role of coins is clearly heads, displaying the sovereign...'

Lurch
Jun 25 2011 20:30

Fine picture Joseph: nice coin. Unfortunately we’re discussing trade unions. And their two sides consist, on the one hand, enforcement of capitalist relations of exploitation and, on the other, the encapsulation of workers’ revolt against these relations into manageable, ‘legal’ and, eventually, harmless (to the staus quo) expressions. That’s their currency.

Posie wrote:

“Lurch and LBird's entire politics on this question amount to complaining that workers are not communist, and denouncing their non-communistic activity, in the hope that the masses will eventually see the light they have brought, and take up the true path.”

What demonstrable crap, a complete wriggling, dissembling and avoidance of what you, yourself have written in black and white: “The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded.”

It’s not me who’s complaining, asserting that “workers are not communist”. That would be you. Clearly. That’s why you’re desperately searching for short cuts, some 'practical' solution to very real and historical problems confronting the proletariat and its political minorities.

Personally, I’ve no doubt that the proletariat, the international, exploited class of collective, associated labour, is the only sector of our society that contains within it the seeds of a new epoch, that it is – whether it succeeds or fails – it is a truly communistic class. I’ve no problem with a discussion about how to make the work of ‘pro-revolutionaries’ ( to use Spikymike’s phrase) more effective, 'unless some of us were really dogmatic and stuck in a theoretical rut” like yourself, so determined to jettison the past lessons of the workers movement, in search of the ‘critique beyond theory’ which, on examination, is just a re-hash of the old, reformist refrain: ‘we must be where the workers are’.

Your tired old idea that trade unions merely reflect the state of the class struggle (maintaining capitalist normalcy in times of ‘quiet’; positive organs of defensive struggle when things hot up) makes even the tired old rejoinder sound fresh: just because a policeman helps an old lady across the road doesn’t mean he’s not part of the repressive apparatus.

What, apparently, I (and others) don’t get is that “workers organise a proportion of their activity through unions, including some with real class content. There are not two wholly separate monads: unions are made up of workers, and often a full time staff, a series of regulations, rules, procedures, norms, and a dose of ideological glue. These things, when articulated together, are "the union". "The union" includes a number of "the workers", or at least a proportion of the activity of a number of the workers.

Errr, and? Like some sociologist you’re telling me that workers organise part of their activity into this or that organisation (which, apparently, gives it class content). Which gives a church, Manchester United Football Club, my local allotment or even local Lydl’s a ‘class content’? Please.

Look, if I’m misunderstanding you here, or inadvertently distorting what you’re saying, then point it out. Unlike you, with your alleged ‘puritans’ standing on the sidelines’, I’ve no need or desire to distort the praxis of others.

Finally, for the moment, we’ll return to your citation of the recent re-instatement of one LU worker as the result of union strike ‘threats’ as “especially inimical to our politics.”
I take this to mean that you think this confirms your case that union struggle can pay off for the working class (even if the actual words you used tend in the opposite direction – perhaps you meant ‘illustrative of’). Well it’s not me who argues that unions can’t appear to ‘win’ this or that for the working class.

But really, are you denying that everywhere (you, the AF statement on Libcom, the major bourgeois media) have presented this ‘one man re-instated’ as an example of ‘unions winning for the workers’, (or maybe unions bullying to get what they want) whereas, in fact, 800 jobs have disappeared? Has not the coverage (including your own modest contribution) served to nudge our attention away from the 800 dissapeared posts, and towards a 'victory', however modest (or loathesome, if you're the Daily Mail), for the unions? Find another word if you don't like mask.

(PS: Haven’t a couple (or maybe just one) of Posi’s wilder posts been ‘disappeared’ by the admins without mention or trace? I merely ask.)

LBird
Jun 25 2011 22:25
posi wrote:
What LBird and Lurch cannot grasp, apparently, is that workers organise a proportion of their activity through unions, including some with real class content.

Posi, I presume that Lurch would agree with me that your latter statement is correct.

The real issue is, not that we 'cannot grasp' this point, but that we need to decide what weight 'a proportion' and 'some' have in our weighing of 'real class content'.

Evidently you agree that not all workers' activity is through unions, only 'a proportion', and you agree that even of that 'proportion' only 'some' is class-based.

'Some' of 'a proportion' doesn't sound too impressive.

Why paint these issues as black and white?

Lurch wrote:
Finally, for the moment, we’ll return to your citation of the recent re-instatement of one LU worker as the result of union strike ‘threats’ as “especially inimical to our politics.”
I take this to mean that you think this confirms your case that union struggle can pay off for the working class (even if the actual words you used tend in the opposite direction...

Lurch, our comrade posi was being sarcastic about a line I used, that, regarding union activity, 'The problem is, the activity is inimical to our politics'.

Lurch wrote:
Errr, and? Like some sociologist you’re telling me that workers organise part of their activity into this or that organisation (which, apparently, gives it class content). Which gives a church, Manchester United Football Club, my local allotment or even local Lydl’s a ‘class content’? Please.

Yeah, I wish someone would answer our question about how do we weigh the 'class content' of workers' activity.

As I've said, with a purposefully extreme example to help illustrate the problem, 'activity' alone would lead one to see workers joining the SS as a positive political step.

And I'm surprised that those who are opposed to 'support for national liberation' can't see that this issue is an extension of that one. After all, if workers join a national liberation movement, why shouldn't we also see that as positive, if we see union membership as positive? Surely both are actually a step in the wrong direction for Communism?

National unions and national liberation - are they the two sides of Joseph's political coin?

posi
Jun 26 2011 09:48
Lurch wrote:
It’s not me who’s complaining, asserting that “workers are not communist”. That would be you.

I'm not complaining about it, I'm stating it as a fact. Which it is. Isn't it? What separates us, as I've said, is that your politics amount to denouncing activity which is not fully communist, I'm looking for real expressions of class struggle activity. In Britain, unfortunately, there's not much anywhere, relative to alot of other places. But in any such survey, the real organisation of much of it through unions is an important fact.

Quote:
(PS: Haven’t a couple (or maybe just one) of Posi’s wilder posts been ‘disappeared’ by the admins without mention or trace? I merely ask.)

Yeah, capital, the unions, the PLO and the libcom admins are in league to disrupt the discussion forums of the communist left, the only real threat to the existing productive relations.

LBird wrote:
Evidently you agree that not all workers' activity is through unions, only 'a proportion', and you agree that even of that 'proportion' only 'some' is class-based.

Well, yes. But for me, the question is not only how much of workers' union activity is class based (I think it's quite alot, even in Britain at the moment, albeit at a very timid level - e.g. basic sticking up for each other at work, a higher price for our labour power and all that). It's also how much of workers' class based activity happens through unions. So it's also important to me that, in Britain at the moment, quite alot does. If there was a massive, militant, extra-union workers' movement in Britain, then the question wouldn't be posed in the same way. Are you guys living in Britain, btw?

Just to repeat something I've said on another thread, I'd like to explain my reasons for objecting so strongly to the orthodox ultra-left (as I call it) on this question. My reason is that I think it's a political language which shows total disdain for, and is completely alienating to, the layer of class concious trade union activists who, for perfectly good and rational reasons considering the situation they are in, are choosing to organise a portion of their activity through unions. And I think it is totally disastrous if revolutionaries alienate this layer. Which, as long as people go around talking like Lurch and LBird, is what will happen.

LBird
Jun 26 2011 13:33
posi wrote:
... for me, the question is not only how much of workers' union activity is class based ...

Yeah, but how do we define 'class based activity', as opposed to mere 'union activity', by workers?

Some (much? most?) 'union activity' is not related to class issues in any conceivable way - passive members wanting and being offered loans, holidays, cheap insurance, etc.; individuals volunteering to be stewards for their own selfish reasons, the thrill of power, to keep themselves 'in the know' about future events (and their workmates 'in the dark'), or as a back route to a supervisor's job, or as a step on the road to becoming a union fulltimer with a more secure job; I'm sure we can all think of lots of reasons which would define forms of 'workers' union activity' as non-class based.

But even when we move to activity that can be seen as in some way as 'class-based', there are various levels.

Take fighting for better pensions - clearly 'class-based' in some way.

Workers can fight for their own pension, and not really give a hoot that younger workmates are on lower pensions. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or, though better, they can fight for all members of their own workforce to receive better pensions, and not really give a hoot about other workers in their industry. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or they can fight for their own public sector pensions, but not private sector.

What all these examples have in common is that they are based upon the worker's own interests in their pension - it's just the pool of support gets wider.

While these are 'class-based' in some way, I wouldn't see them as 'class-conscious'.

For me, that would involve workers fighting for someone else's pension rights, even though their own are already secure. That is, fighting for their class interests, not just their own.

Of course, this is all on a spectrum, and has the potential to develop from the lower to the higher activity.

The real question is, 'is that potential more likely to be realised within the union, or outside of it?'.

This is a judgement, not an obvious answer. Especially given earlier my 'bird and seed' analogy. An apparent move 'up the spectrum' might be a trap, actually 'up the garden path'.

posi wrote:
It's also how much of workers' class based activity happens through unions. So it's also important to me that, in Britain at the moment, quite alot does.

Is this true? Isn't it possible to argue that most (much? 'quite alot'?) class based activity actually happens outside the unions? Does it depend on how and what we define as 'class based'?

posi wrote:
If there was a massive, militant, extra-union workers' movement in Britain, then the question wouldn't be posed in the same way.

Oh, for the question to be posed in that way! Our disagreements would dissolve then, too.

posi wrote:
Are you guys living in Britain, btw?

Well, I am, but I can't answer for Lurch, who I don't know.

posi wrote:
I'd like to explain my reasons for objecting so strongly to the orthodox ultra-left (as I call it) on this question.

Who are the 'orthodox ultra-left'? I'm not in any organisation anymore, and I'm open to new ideas, which is why I constantly ask questions. And I've been persuaded and educated by other posters on this site. One of the times my questions weren't answered, and I was met instead with accusations of belonging to a tendency I didn't recognise, was when I was in the SWP and was castigated as an 'RDGer' (?).

posi wrote:
My reason is that I think it's a political language which shows total disdain for, and is completely alienating to, the layer of class concious trade union activists who, for perfectly good and rational reasons considering the situation they are in, are choosing to organise a portion of their activity through unions. And I think it is totally disastrous if revolutionaries alienate this layer.

This begs the question though, doesn't it, posi? Is there a 'layer of class conscious trade union activists' who are in danger of being 'alienated' by us pointing out some home truths? Or are they merely a 'layer of trade union activists', who need to have become 'alienated' from the capitalist system before they'll even listen to a word we Communists will say?

All these issues need to be judged. And discussion can only help us to do that.

posi
Jun 27 2011 10:39
Quote:
Workers can fight for their own pension, and not really give a hoot that younger workmates are on lower pensions. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or, though better, they can fight for all members of their own workforce to receive better pensions, and not really give a hoot about other workers in their industry. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or they can fight for their own public sector pensions, but not private sector.

What all these examples have in common is that they are based upon the worker's own interests in their pension - it's just the pool of support gets wider.

While these are 'class-based' in some way, I wouldn't see them as 'class-conscious'.

For me, that would involve workers fighting for someone else's pension rights, even though their own are already secure. That is, fighting for their class interests, not just their own.

Of course, this is all on a spectrum, and has the potential to develop from the lower to the higher activity.

The real question is, 'is that potential more likely to be realised within the union, or outside of it?'.

This is a judgement, not an obvious answer. Especially given earlier my 'bird and seed' analogy. An apparent move 'up the spectrum' might be a trap, actually 'up the garden path'.

OK -

a) I think your analogy about birds and seeds is a pretty patronising view of workers. It's also the sort of argument which doesn't differentiate your perspective from total disinterest in actual, really existing workers' victories in the short term. If any short-term victory can be dismissed as bait, why care about any victories at all? In fact, why not just scab on the next union organised strike at your work?

After all, workers sometimes start within a union framework, and then move outside it. So there's not just one trail to be followed. If you don't accept that there have been any revolutionary scenarios at any point in history before, then you're just speculating without evidence. But if there have been, which were they?

b) You use pensions as an analogy, but we could also look at workers striking over redundancies. In Britain today, that often involves striking for other workers (in the same company) who are at risk of redundancy, not for one's self.

You ask: 'is that potential more likely to be realised within the union, or outside of it?'

Statistically, as a matter of fact, today, it is more likely to be realised within unions. You give me a few examples of workers outside unions striking in defence of other people's jobs or pensions, and you might be talking about something real (we're talking about contemporary Britain, remember). As it is, you're not.

There are currently no strikes which aim at the welfare of the whole working class, except insofar as, for example, cuts will hurt services. This is a function of the demoralisation of the workers' movement. I agree that mass strikes (which won't happen any time soon, but anyway) will not be organised by "the unions" as such, though I suspect they will rely on union people at the grassroots, rather than a wholly alternative layer.

Quote:
Who are the 'orthodox ultra-left'?

See above.

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This begs the question though, doesn't it, posi?

No. Because my motivation for repeating the argument is not, itself, the conclusion of the argument: it is just a reason for repeating that conclusion. And that workers' perform an appreciable amount of class based activity in unions is a premise of my argument above, but not a conclusion of it.