Union bureaucracy and the workers

The first in a three-part debate conducted in 1954 within the pages of Marxist ultra-left journal Socialisme ou Barbarie on the nature of the trade unions. Translated by Corinne Chambers and published in English by Ninth Symphony Press (Collective Action) as 'Worker Autonomy: Debate on the Unions'.

Submitted by Collective Action on November 12, 2012

We have often claimed that: “As long as the working class entrusts the union bureaucracy with leading its protest struggles, it will be betrayed. As long as the working class does not have the strength to take its interests into its own hands, it will only be a toy for imperialist forces.” [...] The unions are not themselves misled, but consciously mislead the working class. […] Not only is it hard for unions directly to oppose the entire working class, but the function of unions disappears as soon as it is no longer based on the trust of the masses, or at least that of part of the workers. There are some cases, however, in which this direct opposition, violent or not, has taken place. We can give the example of the attitude of the CGT1 at Renault during both the strike of 1947 and the strike of 1952 (for the release of Duclos2 ). […] Generally, we cannot expect a direct opposition from the unions to workers’ demands. The opposition to the will of the workers takes place in a much more skilful, roundabout way, with variably clever tactics.

The union bureaucracy tends to give the working-class the habit of receiving and obeying orders. It always meets with the opposition of the workers. This opposition takes the form, in quiet times, of a desertion of all union meetings, and a lack of interest for politics which are not made for the workers; in times of crises, the form of a direct clash between the wills of the workers and of the union bureaucracy. The first way to challenge a movement is for a union to break the habit: no longer to give out any orders, to remain silent. This silence is all the easier to ensure as the factory newspaper is entirely in the hands of the union bureaucracy, workers having no control over it.

It has happened on many occasions that workers who were ready to take industrial action gave up when they realised the union would not support them. We will give an example of such a situation. In 1951, a large part of the workers in a factory (Renault) were in favour of supporting the strike in the RATP 3 . In our workshop, the delegate was harassed by the most combative workers. At first he refused to take any action at all before he had seen the factory newspaper. Once he had done so, he resentfully consented to call for a meeting. Once people were gathered, he stated only that some workers had asked for a meeting so he was inviting them to speak up. […] Some workers said that we should call for people to stop work and stand in solidarity with the RATP. The delegate intervened to demand a secret ballot, whilst reminding people that this strike could only fail. Such an attitude was enough to discourage people who still had some degree of trust in the union. The vote results were against the strike thanks to these half-dozen extra votes. The results were published by the delegate, who commented: “You wouldn’t listen to me, but I had warned you, the workers are against a strike.”

If this kind of passivity is not enough to hinder the workers’ will, unions will propagate defeatism, or demoralise the more combative workers. Bureaucracy defeatism is no different from the bosses’. It is first of all about dividing people. They spread mistrust and suspicion among the workers: “You will go on strike, but the others won’t follow, whatever they say. They will let you down in the middle of the strike.”

They try and discredit the most combative workers: “You are for the strike because you have no children to feed.”

They attack the worker who wants to call for a strike because he [sic] has not done so on a previous occasion. They try to discredit people who are for the strike with political arguments. They give wrong information about other sectors, leading people to believe that other workers disagree.

How can workers check these things? The union is the organ of centralisation. Only the delegates have the free run of the factory, to go and see and get information.

They make the union seem more powerful than it actually is so that workers will trust it, but as soon as they want to hinder a movement they point out the weakness and lack of cohesion of workers left to their own devices. […]

In this way the demoralisation of the workers, which is only the result of the manoeuvring of the union bureaucracy, is presented as a permanent state that the proletariat would be in. In fact, this passivity is cleverly instilled by the unions, which have definitively relegated the workers to the status of underlings. The delegates are supposed to be the intermediaries both between the workers and the management, and between the workers and the union bureaucracy. In reality, they are only the spokespersons for the union toward both workers and management. The delegate does not receive orders from the workers to relay to the management and the union, he receives orders from the union to relay to the workers and the management. His [sic] original function has simply been overturned.

Before 1936, the delegates were elected by the workers in each workshop. They were chosen among the more combative, and with little regard to their union affiliation, as even a non-unionised worker could be a delegate. Today this has changed. Staff delegates can only be put forward by unions. Obviously, the worker they put forward will not be the most combative, but the one who has the union’s trust, the one that complies the most with that union’s policy. On top of this, the workers put forward are not necessarily taken from every workshop […] This situation allows the union to have the tightest control over these who would have gone against the union’s policy or who expresses dissent will not be put forward at the next elections. That is why we have to fight against such delegate elections and oppose to them a representation by workshop and without distinction on the basis of union affiliation. The delegates should represent the workers and not the union bureaucracy. The factory or workshop newspapers are newspapers made and controlled by the unions. […] Each time that workers act autonomously, for example during strikes, in workshop meetings, or when setting up strike committees, the union bureaucracy is against allowing its press to be used by these spontaneous organisms. These meetings, in which workers could decide anything: the union bureaucracy will never allow its press to be used for them, unless the decisions they make strictly conform to the union’s own policy. That is how silence is imposed on everything that comes from the will of the workers; that is why we need in all circumstances to encourage workers to express and write what they think about demands and modes of action, and everything that is about their own issues. We need to create a workers’ press that is something other than the mouthpiece of union bureaucracy. It is during workshop meetings that workers express their will most clearly and this is all the more true if these meetings are motivated by any upcoming action. If the will of the workers goes against the union’s policies, the delegate is often unable to contain these manifestations. In order to do so, they call in people from outside the workshop or, in most cases, people from outside the factory and the working class. They are specialised speakers and demagogues who are part of the union bureaucracy, to be deployed in such circumstances. These speakers have some prestige: they are often quite well-known people and they know how to ‘handle the masses’; that is, how to deceive them. Faced with such speakers, workers will not speak up, even when they disagree. The meeting then loses its collective discussion aspect and becomes a monologue. We don’t talk about their issues any more, but about issues of union policy. But it can happen that the speaker, as persuasive as he might be, fails at convincing the workers; that is why the union tries to change the place of the meeting: not to hold the meeting in the workshop or in the factory, but to hold it in the union’s offices. […] When the factory is boiling up, union hacks regularly come and give long speeches in the workers’ assemblies and monopolise the whole length of these meetings to say the most inconsequential things. During this time, workers get bored and in the end do not even express their views. […] We need to prevent union bureaucracy from ignoring the will of the workers by the system of holding votes too early. It is customary, for example, to quickly read out resolutions to the workers and then demand an immediate vote on them. Many unanimously-adopted resolutions are real frauds. Not only should any vote be preceded by a debate, but any resolution must also be presented long enough in advance to allow workers who are supposed to vote on them to take them in.

The union has become an organism that is cut off from the workers, an external force on which they have lost all power or control. Against the bosses and the management, the workers try to gain the support of this force, but, as soon as the union takes charge of the defence of the workers, it gives it its own character, the orientation of its own interests. […] The struggle of the working-class against its exploitation automatically means its opposition to union bureaucracy. […] We also need to get rid of our conception that the most combative workers group themselves in unions. […] A union card is also used by some to hide their passivity. […] The gap between conscious workers and those who are not is not the gap between unionised and non-unionised workers. The real demarcation can only be felt in those moments when the struggle takes off all the bureaucratic manoeuvring and takes on its true class character.

  • 1CGT: Confédération Générale du Travail, French union confederation. [Translator’s note]
  • 2Jacques Duclos, First Secretary of the French Communist Party, arrested on suspicion of being a Soviet spy. [TN]
  • 3RATP: Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, public transport company for the city of Paris. [TN]