Union Myths - Don Johnson

Article discusses the role of unions in capitalism, the limits of union leadership within the larger economy and the importance self-directed struggles. Written in the late 70's for Root & Branch, a U.S. libertarian Marxist journal.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on March 3, 2022

It is understandable that there is a certain folklore surrounding unions. Many heroic struggles have been fought to achieve unionization, and just as our present government leaders can cash in on ideals two centuries old, so can present union enthusiasts tap the rich history of workers’ struggles.

“Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong” was once sung by labor militants who had a vision of the entire workforce unionized, daily growing in strength, and working as a collective whole for the benefit of all workers. Reality, however, has cruelly intruded, and unions have become a major barrier to worker solidarity. Union gains are made for members, not for the unorganized. As the total wage must always be limited by profit requirements, the greater the percentage of the workforce unionized, the less will be the relative gain of the organized sector. This is why unions are exclusive and must be in competition with the non-union sector.

Unions divide workers by race and sex in several ways. Minorities and women are far less unionized; therefore, the conflict of unionized against non-unionized has race and sex aspects. The seniority system defended by unions (and frequently subject to legal challenge within the unions by those historically excluded from seniority) usually works against women and non-whites. And the existing union power structures are nearly always dominated by white males.

Unions defend the narrow interests of their own members in competition with other unions. Sympathy strikes are almost unheard of, and in the recent coal miners’ strike the union, in order to demonstrate its “responsibility” to the bosses, kept the western miners on the job, in effect, scabbing.

One current myth on the “Left” is that capitalists in general oppose unions. While this might have been true a hundred years ago, it didn't take too long for many bosses to realize that unionism, far from threatening capitalist authority, could be an extension of this authority if properly controlled. Unionism is a stabilizer and disciplinarian of the workforce, which insures that production will go on uninterrupted, and that grievances will be dealt with by the “proper” authorities through “correct” channels. Negotiations will be “reasonable” because the union has a vested interest not only in the continued existence of the company (for obvious reasons--no company, no union), but also in the continued growth of the company, which means the union's growth as well.

Unions see themselves not as a rival class to the capitalists, but rather as rival businesses selling a particular kind of labor power, attempting to gain a monopoly on it, and sell that labor power at the most favorable price. Although most--but not all--companies would be happy to do without a union, it is generally the weaker ones which oppose them, especially in hard times when profits are squeezed and the workers are also in a weaker position. Sometimes small firms are even driven out of business by unions or union drives with the complicity of stronger firms which can then move in and take up the slack in the market.

Another misconception is that unions invariably bring both better working conditions and large pay increases. Anyone who bothers to study the matter even superficially can verify that unions frequently trade off a regression in working conditions for pay raises. The fact that unionized labor is far better paid indicates primarily that those companies big and rich enough to be able to afford a union can also afford to pay higher wages. Another myth is that unions, irrespective of what the economy is doing, can fight layoffs as a matter of policy. While they are sometimes able to protect jobs in a narrow craft sort of way, in times of economic crisis, unions are more often in the forefront supporting layoffs. This is because of the fact that if a given industry isn’t allowed to modernize, it will be unable to survive competition with foreign or domestic rivals. This would result in the loss of even more jobs, and would destroy the union in the process. One need look no further than the steel industry in the U.S. and to the steelworkers’ union to see this.

In addition, unions have distinct interests of their own. Today they are no longer merely an aid to capitalism they are an integral part of it. The scandals about union dues being invested in “shady” ways overshadow the more important fact that dues are invested in “legitimate” business, including, at times. the company unionized by that particular union. Unions, while selling “anti-strike” insurance to the boss, thus play the same role in the capitalist system as insurance companies--that of finance capital. Is it any wonder they don't want to threaten profits?

But why must unions have vested interests separate from both the rank and file and from the non-unionized sector of the workforce? To the reformer it is a mere question of leadership. Corrupt or inept leaders must be replaced by honest and efficient leaders, preferably those coming up from the ranks. Those advocating union reform believe that with sincere leaders, unions will be able to consistently squeeze the bosses for higher wages and better working conditions, to organize the unorganized, and even to spread unionism to parts of the country and the world where it is weak or non-existent, in order to combat runaway shops.

In times when an expanding economy makes it possible for the employers to include the workers in prosperity, the quality of the leadership of a union may have some bearing on what portion of the social wealth the workers in that union will receive. This is the basis for the false notion that it is the quality of union leaders and not the condition of a given industry or of the economy in general, which determine what workers will receive. The fact of the matter is that in times of economic stagnation or decline there is little, aside from refraining from outright thievery, that the “honest reformer” who wants to fight against “tuxedo unionism” and “for the rank and file” can do. The impetus for union reform is the illusion that real options continue to exist, that the present leaders can take either the right course of action or the wrong one, and choose the wrong one.

Things become much more difficult once the reformer comes to power. Capitalists need a certain rate of profit in order to compete and therefore to survive. Contrary to leftist rhetoric, they don't exceed this rate of profit more than sporadically. Nothing’s for nothing, and if the capitalists agree to pay more, they will want some kind of payoff through increased productivity. If business becomes unprofitable at a given location, the weaker firms will fold while those which are part of a large conglomerate will be able to move to greener, non-unionized pastures. If the company wants to go overseas, the liberal union boss will have to not only try to get the workers to accept the company terms in order to avoid losing their jobs altogether, but will also probably have to join the reactionary nationalist chorus about keeping American jobs for Americans. The alternative of telling the workers that they should accept the loss of their jobs in the spirit of international unionism is usually not too agreeable. It is the natural trend of capital to expand and find new outlets. Even if the national or international union successfully unionizes the runaway shop (and that is a very big “if”), it will be little consolation to either the local union members or bosses who have lost their jobs.

Unions, as noted above, are businesses. and it is this fact and not “sellout leaders” which stops them from organizing the unorganized. The strong companies which can afford a union normally are already unionized, and the weak ones would only be a liability to the union. they would sap its wealth through long and costly union drives, the need for more frequent strikes to bring wages to something approaching union scale and then keep them there, and in general, financially and organizatinally contribute the least to the union’s resources while needing it the most.

The bankruptcy of union reform can perhaps be seen most clearly in the case of Arnold Miller. He was a miner for decades and is a victim of Black Lung Disease. If he “sold out,” then anyone will.

To the so-called Marxist-Leninist (in my opinion Leninism doesn't even qualify as a perversion of Marxism) , the reformists misunderstand the leadership problem. As the Leninist sees it, the problem is not primarily one of character, but rather one of ideology. If only “Reds” ran the unions, they would know that unions are “supposed” to fight against capitalists, and not work harmoniously with them like the reformists.

It is no surprise that Leninists should find unions attractive. The hierarchical structure seems ideal to them as a stepping stone towards controlling workers’ struggles and eventually bringing their Leninist party to power. What is surprising is that so many “Reds” really believe that the ruling class would just sit back and let them gradually get the upper hand.

Even more mysterious is the illusion that “Reds” can somehow escape the contradictions of other union bosses cited above. Why, when, “Red” union bosses try to start “fighting for the workers’ needs in a really class-conscious way,” should the law of value be rendered obsolete?

In times of relative social peace, workers have no use for a union that wants constantly to disrupt the work process in a programmatic way, and if the “Reds” merely sit back waiting for the balance of power between themselves and the ruling class to improve, there will be nothing to distinguish them from anyone else save their obnoxious rhetoric. In times of persecution, it is likely that they would have to be very conservative in deeds, if not words, just to survive; and in times of social upheaval, the workers will bypass them as one more obstacle to the unfolding struggle, when siering direct control over their lives, workers will have no more need for Leninist union bosses than they will for any other kind of boss.

Another variant of militant unionism is revolutionary syndicalism. This method, favored by some anarchists, would make unions independent of political parties of all sorts. Structured democratically, without paid functionaries, they would fight for day-to-day demands for a social revolution at the same time. In times when there is relative social peace and no ascending workers’ movement, syndicalist “unions” can only be tiny propaganda groups. If the proper conditions produce an expanding militant workers’ movement, however, a loose syndicalist union might possibly come into being and be able to fight for workers’ needs in a tangible way. But unless syndicalism is redefined to mean only a broad, semi-structured movement as opposed to a rigidly structured organization, syndicalism will only become another obstacle to militant struggle. This will happen because (1) The struggle inevitably expands and contracts, and, just as the regular union cannot stop struggles from expanding, neither can the syndicalist union stop them from contracting. No one can dictate militance for good and or bad. (2) In order to survive the ebbing of militant activity, the syndicalist union must be able to guarantee some kind of concrete advantages for its members or they will all leave. It therefore develops a separate interest of its own, and furthermore, must become conservative to protect that interest. (3) When the next rising occurs, the syndicalist union will see this rising as reckless and a direct threat to the established syndicalist structure.

Unions can only be destroyed by capitalist crisis. At that time, they may be destroyed by capitalists themselves because they have outlived their usefulness to capitalism, or by a revolutionary workers’ movement because they have outlived their limited usefulness to workers. It makes no sense to sloganeer abstractly that workers should destroy the unions or for that matter even passively leave them. That unions are “against the revolution” makes sense only when there is a revolution happening for them to be against. Anyone who thinks that this would in fact be the case if only there weren’t unions must explain why there is no revolution, or, for that matter, even much militance in the non-union sector.

Unions, themselves arbitrary, at least stop much of the more arbitrary repression of the boss. Whether or not a given workplace would be better off with one than without one cannot be answered programmatically, but only by treating each case individually. Unions often safeguard concrete benefits (wage rates, insurance, pension pans, etc.) better than workers could without a union. Workers may hate the union, and usually do, but they feel that they need it. Some radicals may find “continuous struggle” very exciting, but there are reasons why most workers would rather have someone else handle their grievances. Most people are too preoccupied with or drained by the daily events of their lives to be up for constant struggle on the job.

“Workers’ organizations” such as unions with a permanent structure to maintain must see struggles as a means to further the organization. The struggle must always remain subordinate. The only way workers’ self-organization appears at all, beyond a few individuals, is to further an ongoing struggle. Since it appears only when there is a felt need, and likewise disappears when that need is no longer apparent, the organization remains subordinate to the struggle. In the former, authority lies in the distant and usually inaccessible bureaucrats, while for the latter there is no authority other than the participants themselves.

The loose shop floor networks that exist in most workplaces--sometimes strong, sometimes weak, ever expanding and contracting--have as their strengths that those workers who participate in them are constantly educating and strengthening themselves in their daily struggles. Self-directed struggles of workers can thus become an aid to their eventual emancipation, which can only be an act of the working class itself.

Don Johnson
May, 1978