Why do we lose with the unions?

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Aug 4 2010 20:21
Why do we lose with the unions?

Alright all, I'm reading some communist criticisms of the unions and will be trying to write down some thoughts on it soon. At the moment I'm reading some stuff by Internationalist Perspective and Gorter and have to say that so far (though I'm nowhere near finished), I'm pretty disappointed. The IP one seems like mostly buzzwords and rhetoric; the Gorter one concerned mostly with their counter-revolutionary nature (unsurprising for the time, I suppose).

I'm mostly interested with the day-to-day question of why the unions fuck our struggles up. One thing that is often said is that it's because they have to follow anti-strike laws, which I generally agree with. But for me it brings up a couple of other questions like:

1) Why did they try and reign in struggles before the anti-strike laws? I'm thinking of things like the NUM forbidding mass pickets in Scotland; UPW not fighting the illegal injunction against Cricklewood posties at Grunwick etc. Though I think that the anti-strike laws are a really big factor in why unions these days are shite, it doesn't get to the heart of why they were shite before these laws existed (and so doesn't get to the heart of why the issue of why we lose when we stick to the unions)..

2) Generally people call these laws 'anti-union' but we use 'anti-strike' or 'anti-worker' as you can't substitute union interests for the workers' interests. However, this counts on being able to show that a union's don't necessarily coincide with those of it's members. What are good examples of these kinds of 'conflicts of interests'?

Erm, there's probably more, I forget now but this will do for now I reckon.. I'll add more questions later as they come up, I suppose..

Cheers in advance..

Deezer
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Aug 4 2010 20:27

Read 'Winning the Class War' by the DAM. Theres also an interesting article in a back isue of Direct Action about the underlying ideology of TUC unions.

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Aug 4 2010 20:30

probably worth checking out early syndicalist texts, Tom Mann etc, as they were highly critical of union bureaucracy, pointing out bureaucrats/full timers etc have different material interests to the workers they supposedly represent.

i think the laws just firm up that tendency that already exists. apparently in the 60s-70s 95% of action was unofficial, organised at shop floor level, i think the legislation was aimed at forcing unions to police this action (when it could strengthen their position to an extent, reminding bosses they need the mediator).

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Aug 4 2010 20:57

A concrete example of a union with interests outside of its members, in the US anyway, are the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

In the SEIU's case, they are a 'swallow fucking everything' union. They were pioneers of the MegaLocal- for example, Local 1199 is the Eastern seaboard/east cost health care local (encompassing every health care worker over maybe 5-10 states): a total membership of a couple hundred thousand-in a single local. They typically raid other unions, including other big unions (most recently UNITE-HERE). There was a problem with California rank-and-file unionists who wanted greater autonomy and ground-up participation- they either were expelled or broke off to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers- which is being raided and sued by SEIU all the time.

Settlement Reached In 2-Year Feud Between UNITE-HERE And SEIU:

http://labornotes.org/2010/07/settlement-reached-two-year-feud-between-seiu-and-unite-here

This is a great example of the old Sam Gompers slogan 'Reward your friends and punish your enemies'. Extremely strong centralization through the MegaLocals, with a powerful executive running the show (the mass of union members have no say or power to change policy)- MegaLocal leaders are often rotated as soon as they show any resistance to the International's Executive Committee. SEIU is the go to union for the Democratic Party- the head of the SEIU had more meetings with Obama in the White House than just about anyone else during a big swathe of his presidency so far. Electing Democrats, mobilizing for Democratic bills (Health Care Reform, Stimulus, etc) and increasing the membership of the union at any cost is how they work.

Typical of the business union. However, SEIU has perfected this style of 'leadership' better than any other single union in recent history in the US.

Other less successful business unions like the UAW and UFCW have been negotiating away benefits and standards with just about every round of bargaining. They set themselves up as 'defenders' of the workers, who are often militant in the face of cuts (especially drastic and wide-ranging cuts), but are black mailed or coaxed out of direct action because 'without the union you would be getting less'.

UAW Dissidents Slam Concessions

http://www.labornotes.org/2010/06/uaw-dissidents-slam-concessions-e-board-raises

Lefty business unions (UE, ILWU) aren't doing any better.

As far as I know, isn't the IP position the same as the ICC on unions?

-Unions are permanent organizations that try to win reforms for member-workers within capitalism.

-It is impossible for capital to grant durable or wide-scale reforms to any segment of the working class in its period of decadence.

-It is impossible for unions, due to their permanent structure and conservative-nature, to become revolutionary.

Unions Against The Working Class:

http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/unions.htm

The union structure, their origins and reason for being is, today, to act as a mediator between the workers and the state/capitalism- within capitalist relations. The quote from Lenin puts it very well, "Behind every strike lurks the hydra of revolution." Workers direct action is underlined by a tendency to spread to other workers and industries and expand. If legislation and bureaucracy put legal limits within capitalism and the state on what workers can do within the law, unions will only act within the boundaries of the law- there have been too many examples of workers struggles being limited, stabbed in the back or just stopped outright by the union. They are designed to keep struggle in a certain confined pre-arranged space. We lost the unions when they became integrated into capitalism.

Mike Harman
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Aug 4 2010 23:48

Martin Glaberman is good on unions, couldn't find the book I read online, but http://www.marxists.org/archive/glaberman/1972/11/unionsvsworkers.htm looks like some of what you want.

Jared
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Aug 5 2010 04:23

Re-reading 'Workers Councils' by Pannekoek and the 2nd chapter 'Fight' talks about the unions structural in Capitalism role etc etc.

As he says, it comes down to their role within Capitalism. To get the agreements they want the officials have to to get the membership to toe the line. They have to be able to sell a disciplined workforce in order to negotiate these agreements. Any struggle which breaks from this model obviously gets beyond the control of officials, so they reign it in to keep hold of their own 'bargaining power'.

Secondly, a lot of traditional trade union bureaucracies (in NZ at least) were (and still are) dominated by social democratic reformists, who never saw the need for anything more than a fairer situation within capitalism. So right now in NZ, when unions are under attack by new laws which will deny access to the workplace, all we are hearing from the main union federation is slogans like 'fairness at work', and how members need to moderate their language at upcoming protests.... its fucked.

So with regard to your question, it's their representational model of organising, the need to sell a disciplined labour force and their social partnership with capital which tends to put a damper on any radical outbreaks.

I'm totally generalising by the way...

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Aug 5 2010 05:34

This was a thorough, if boring and partial, explanation

overall recommended

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Tarwater
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Aug 5 2010 05:34

This was a thorough, if boring and partial, explanation

overall recommended

Samotnaf
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Aug 5 2010 05:44

Joseph Kay:

Quote:
apparently in the 60s-70s 95% of action was unofficial, organised at shop floor level

Pedants Corner:
In fact, only in the 60s, and probably 'just' 90%; in fact, most of them at that time were initiated by the base and settled pretty quickly (in the strikers' favour) before the rusty Union bureaucracy could get into gear to make them official. The Prime Mini-star (Harold Wilson) and the Monster of Labour (Barbara Castle) tried to control wildcats through 'In Place of Strife' (see footnote 7 here). By the 70s, a majority of strikes were official (see, for example, The Winter of Discontent).

Quote:
unions assume a social function which escapes the control of each union worker and the ensemble of union workers; a social function necessitated by the very logic of commodity production and consumption

- Chris Shutes, On The Poverty Of Berkeley Life, 1983.

Samotnaf
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Aug 5 2010 05:52

By the way, this - on anarcho-sydicalism in Spain in the late 70s - is quite interesting.

Samotnaf
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Aug 5 2010 07:01

And yet, afaik, one of the CNTs in Spain (as in France) does participate in Union elections and Works Councils today, though I know a bit more about the CNT in France than in Spain; but if you are right about the late 70s in Spain, then - sure, it

Quote:
is a massive disservice and slander to those who opposed standing in Union elections and participating in Works Councils.

But I did qualify the "interesting" with "quite" (it's more interesting than the Organise! homepage, for example).
However

Quote:
incoherent wank

is a bit rich coming from you; besides all that crap about 'coherence' is usually an ideological way of attacking others, whilst reducing oneself to a "correct" programme often contradicted by loads of practical contradictions in how one lives and struggles: I'm talking about myself as much as anyone else; but at least I don't use the word "coherent" or its opposite.
When I hear the word "incoherent" I reach for my whiskey.... sngxwyz.... dfrqprzzzzzzz... bgklzprty. And you can't get more coherent than that.

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Aug 5 2010 07:07

It's incoherent and hard to follow and its main approach seems to be to call everyone a bur"o"crat (I'd prefer to have a little more background than take that as a given) but it's interesting to hear what a mess the CNT was in at the time...

edit - Just saw the new comments - it is incoherent fantomas, many of the sentences do not parse...

revolut
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Aug 5 2010 08:36
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And yet, afaik, one of the CNTs in Spain (as in France) does participate in Union elections and Works Councils today, though I know a bit more about the CNT in France than in Spain; but if you are right about the late 70s in Spain, then - sure, it

The Spanish CNT has never participated in Union elections. It does the CGT, the main split from CNT-AIT in the early 80s (which used the name of CNT during a few years).

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Aug 5 2010 09:08

Can discussion about the CNT/CGT split and be kept to other discussions? This is about why unions fuck up everyday struggles..

Deezer, have you got a link/idea which issue of DA that article is from?

Cheers everyone for your contributions so far, I've got a few more comments but those will have to wait til later.

Samotnaf
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Aug 5 2010 09:40

888:

Quote:
it is incoherent fantomas, many of the sentences do not parse...

I probaby misunderstood revol's use of the word " inoherent" - he obviously meant incoherent in style and form, whereas I thought he primarily meant incoherent in terms of content (self-contradictory, etc.). Not worth discussing, really. But my aim was to discuss, as part of a discussion on

Quote:
why unions fuck up everyday struggles..

, anarcho-syndicalism as a fantasy form of the ideal union (trying to reproduce the IWW 100 years later, ignoring most of the essential changes since).

For me, though, it's a question of not just how and

Quote:
why unions fuck up everyday struggles..

but of seeing how and why people still channel their hopes into supporting them as well as seeing the opposite: how people organise outside and often against unions - in France, at least. And in the UK often in the past (though often the self-organisation was from the Leftist base/shop stewards of the Union). See this long text on the miners and the NUM and other stuff.

Faced with the enormity of the worldwide attacks, Leftism and the Unions will be increasingly looked to as the Saviours (see this crap) in the absence of a historical memory and the courage to self-organise.

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Aug 5 2010 09:59
samotnaf wrote:
For me, though, it's a question of not just how and
Quote:
why unions fuck up everyday struggles..

but of seeing how and why people still channel their hopes into supporting them as well as seeing the opposite: how people organise outside and often against unions - in France, at least.

Okay, yes, that's very clever and interesting and all that but I'm asking quite a specific, slightly different though certainly related question. Namely: what is it in the unions' nature that makes them act not just against far off revolutionary movements (or even far off militant workers' struggles) but even against the really tame struggles we see in the UK these days? Basically, why are they so useless at even the really basic stuff that would seem to be part of their remit (i.e. negotiating the price of labour)?

Obviously, when I say 'useless', I mean useless for us; they're pretty good at it for the bosses..

Hmm, this hasn't been clear coz I've not organised my thoughts on this as yet.. any help would be great. I just wanted to get involved before the thread got derailed..

Also, I don't think anyone would describe the IWW as anarcho-syndicalist, then or now (not even the IWW).. if you want to discuss this question though, then I suggest you start a new thread.

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Aug 5 2010 15:51

Hey Ed have you read much Glabberman I think he's got a lot of good things to say about this in the America context especially in regards to the grievance/arbitration system here. I also think a lot of it has to do with a couple things in regards to how the leadership is set up to engage with any activity on the floor. In my experience at the post office if the local is too small to fund a full time president that person works part time for the union and part time on the floor. When there is a wildcat at my job the unions role is generally productive when the leader is working alongside her mates (I'm talking about the union local here, at regional and national level they are almost always completely disengaged).

I think this is because leaders tend to feel responsible for the workers they represent and unofficial action can get folks fired. If they are on the floor they participate in it and encourage it because they are putting their own asses on the line, a full timer does not want to be known as the guy that got a bunch of people fired. I know this kind of flies in the face of the whole "unions bad, union leaders are all bureaucrats!" and other cheap sloganeering but it pays to actually look at how these processes happen and I like your train of thought on this Ed, thanks!

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Aug 5 2010 16:31
EdmontonWobbly wrote:
In my experience at the post office if the local is too small to fund a full time president that person works part time for the union and part time on the floor.

I will try to give you an idea of how it works in the UK from the Post Office from when I worked there.

None of the branches had 'full-timers'. Our branch was the third biggest in South London* and we had 118 members. I get the impression that a US 'local' is much bigger than the standard UK 'branch'. In the branches the union reps were given 'facility time', time off work to do union work. If I remember correctly our branch sec had eight hours a week. When I was on the branch committee, I had two. Now the two branches that were bigger than us, which were the two district offices, had over a thousand workers each, and their branch Secs were on full time facility time, but still paid by the PO and on the same terms and conditions as everybody else. The full timers, i.e. paid by the union, that we encountered were the London District Council officials. The LDC was basically a shop stewards committee, chaired by full-timers.

Quote:
I think this is because leaders tend to feel responsible for the workers they represent and unofficial action can get folks fired.

And also because they are employed under the same terms and conditions.

Devrim

*SW and SE postcode area, other branches in what is actually 'South London' like Croydon for example had bigger branches than us.

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Aug 5 2010 18:32

inherently, their counter-revolutionary nature I would say is due to their role as negotiators of the sale of labour power under capitalism - which of course requires capitalism to exist.

However, as to why they are so rubbish with pretty much everything nowadays, I would say it is probably a mixture of:
- their structural nature, enforcing anti-strike laws on workers etc (although obviously this will differ in different countries)
- possibly their links with government/political parties - for example, Labour supporting unions wouldn't want to massively encourage workers to fight during a Tory government, because then their party would have to deal with them afterwards. I think that the ICC line that they are part of the state is incorrect, but their interests are pretty much tied up with the existence of a social democratic state which recognizes their authority, so they have to remain in control.
- some of the reasons they are crap now are not their own fault exactly, following decades of defeat for the working class, general unwillingness to take industrial action, etc (although of course the unions are partially responsible for this now due to their actions in the past).

But nice one for asking these questions, I have been thinking about them myself a lot and haven't been able to formulate it in a particularly clear, well-evidenced way yet.I would agree with you that a lot of texts don't deal with this question that well. I started this thread last time I was thinking about this:
http://libcom.org/forums/theory/communist-critique-unions-reading-suggestions-13102009

baboon
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Aug 5 2010 20:32

I don't think that the idea of "negotiators" or "mediators" is particularly useful when talking about the current role of the unions. What are they negotiating with a wage cut? They are implementing state policy. It was similar, in the UK at least, with their line of "no compulsory redundancies", ie, we will work with management to say where jobs will be cut. There's no negotiation there in the sense that there is any attempt to represent the interests of the working class. Most of the trade union structures in Britain have very close links to the Labour Party, funding it, discussing policies at high levels, mobilising for elections, etc.

The great weakness of the unions in the less "developed" countries and the countries of the old eastern bloc (and China today), is that they are clearly identified with the state and the ruling regime. The Chinese ruling class has clearly recognised this weakness in the face of growing levels of class struggle and is beginning to address it with variants around "free trade unionism". The trade union interests are as much tied up with the "democratic" as the totalitarian state.

The strength of the unions, for the ruling class, is that they prey on the memory of the working class that these are the only sort of organisations that can represent them. As Steven says above, this can be a demoralising factor at times. But the unions are extremely elastic and their first role today is to police the workplace for capital and in the interests of capital. This can range from being recruiting sergeants for imperialist war to being, apparantly, very militant when faced with particular circumstances. It can also range from a close identification with the state (stalinist unions, etc) to a "confrontation" with the state, for example against "Thatcherism".

I think that Ed is right when he talks about "anti-union" legislation really being anti-working class laws - and we've seen over the last year or so how the unions in the UK have played this one out.

soyonstout
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Aug 6 2010 01:45

I agree, really good questions. When I was first reading about the communist position on the unions, I focused a lot on specific legal issues in my own country (in the US, the 'sole bargaining rights' are a big way that the unions seek state recognition) and specific laws against secondary actions, etc., but as has been said, the unions by and large began doing the state's work before these laws were passed in their respective countries, so we need to understand the mechanism more precisely. To me it seems that, one way or another, the unions vie for responsibilities from the state of co-managing austerity deals, much like reformist parties, because they think they can use the state for the workers, or that they can be neutral about the state. So in this sense, I agree with the 'integrated into the state' idea, but clearly, I should have a much more precise answer about it. It may be different in different countries and reflect general trends to do with changes in capitalism that take place in different ways in different specific circumstances, but it I think it serves all communists to have the sharpest possible analysis of why the unions actually screw workers. They're being non-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary is really a separate question--the real question is, can workers as a class defend themselves through the unions? What exactly can the unions do for any workers? Why are they compelled to act against the outbreak of class struggle? etc. Sorry I don't have much more to contribute--but I think this is one of the most important discussions we can develop on here.

-soyons tout

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Aug 6 2010 05:40
soyonstout wrote:
They're being non-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary is really a separate question--the real question is, can workers as a class defend themselves through the unions?

I think this is key.

Devrim

RedHughs
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Aug 6 2010 07:39

In the situation today, the question isn't whether unions can be used by workers as a class to defend themselves. The situation is that unions operate to impose the categories of capital. Which means unions are just one of many bureaucracies which prevents the working class from acting or even recognizing itself, as a class.

If the working class were active and organizing against capital, I'm sure the unions would be eager to present themselves as tools of the workers - whether you'd want to use the "tool" is still questionable. But the activity of unions today is to "make the best of the realistic possibilities" - which is to say they help workers make the choices capital has already outlined (professionalize, flexiblize, casualize...).

What different now from fifty years ago is just that unions are even more a tip of neoliberal/welfare/etc state bureaucracy. And that overall bureaucracy imposes it's categories on so many levels that it's very unlikely that player in it is going to suddenly do even an "honest job" of their supposed task, just regulators or politicians or whatever professionals won't, just as health care reform, carbon reform, immigration reform...equally seem "a joke".

sihhi
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Aug 6 2010 09:07

Are they compelled to act against the outbreak of class struggle?

Is this a part of all unions? What's to stop forces like the SolFed, IWW or respectable left fractions within unions also doing this?
It's as much about us breaking free from managerial ideas as it is the unions' fault.
A position helping out on customer side of Homebase - given the title "Service Manager" - annual salary £17,000 - you need experience and you are responsible for a small team under you.

We're losing about a quarter of our active, fighting people in the conversion to "middle management" .

jacobian
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Aug 6 2010 14:21
Quote:
In the situation today, the question isn't whether unions can be used by workers as a class to defend themselves. The situation is that unions operate to impose the categories of capital. Which means unions are just one of many bureaucracies which prevents the working class from acting or even recognizing itself, as a class.

Unions don't have an essential function in imposing the categories of capitalism. They are organisations of humans which exist within the constrains of capitalism and therefor have attendant pressures which make certain outcomes more likely.

The union, when viewed as a parasitic management system (something which clearly happens), would attempt to maximise gains from the corporation in order to strengthen its own role. If it was really capable of moving the base as good soldiers, than the rational activity for the union is to siphon as much profit as possible without killing the host. The union has no structural pressure to sell bad deals directly from management to the membership. It may have a structrural disposition to maximise its own share of the good deals it manages.

The union has a balancing dilemma with its base. It has to appeal to the base sufficiently that it is able to mobilise them in the interest of twisting managements arms for concessions. That means that some concessions have to go to the base (unless you are mystical about it, and think that the union can hypnotise workers into acting against their own interests on a regular basis - in which case the solution should just be to hypnotise the union bureaucracy). The "management" of struggle has to be accepted by the membership of the union. To the extent that the union becomes "outsourced management", the union members are likely to view it as being no better than the bosses, and the ability of the union to act effectively as a management in excess of the type that the capitalists generally provide deteriorates.

The unions in addition have external forces which are not irrelevant. In Ireland the state has managed to reduce wildcats by making individuals personally liable for losses. This is a huge barrier to independent action. In addition the state has come after the unions with huge lawsuits (see the Nolan's transport workers strike). While anarchists can ignore these things in their theoretical analysis, anyone attempting to strategically avoid total annihilation as a union can not.

The extent to which these various forces listed above exists is at least partially dictated by how much the functioning of the union organisation can isolate itself from being the same as the interests of the workers. The more horizontal and the less divorced the union executive is from the worker (as for example if they are in fact workers themselves), the less the interests diverge.

The other extremely confusing part of this fairly common analysis is when an organisation of workers becomes a union. It appears to me to be assigned the label union "whenever it is bad". This is a pretty vague category and often seems to drift into "whenever it exists" which is patently absurd.

The notion that unions directly serve the interests of capital and merely act as bureaucratic organisations to hold the workers back can hardly hold up under much historical scrutiny. If the unions were the main barrier to class consciousness and solidarity than the US would be a utopia based on its incredibly low unionisation rates.

I think rather a symptom is being seen as a cause. We're in a period where people do not have a class consciousness in which they see the bosses as the main obstacle. In such a climate its hardly surprising that unions are highly bureaucratised with little connection with the base as the base has little interest in the unions. The lack of control over the union is not entirely caused by the union bureaucrats but also is a side effect of the incapacity of the union bureaucrats to mobilise serious shows of force to get real concessions.

Analyses necessarily abstract away details in order to find essential "forces" which are predictive of behaviour. The "unions bad" analysis is exeptionally weak in having no predictive or explanatory power whatsoever. It neither explains to us how to avoid workers organisations being subverted, why certain workers organisations are worse than others or even what a "union" is. It is effectively worthless.

cobbler
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Aug 7 2010 10:25
Steven. wrote:
inherently, their counter-revolutionary nature I would say is due to their role as negotiators of the sale of labour power under capitalism - which of course requires capitalism to exist.

In my experience, it can also boil down to a resistance by the members themselves to rock the boat. They want the union for protection if anything should befall them, but don't want to be seen as 'causing trouble'.

Completely subdued.

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devoration1
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Aug 7 2010 11:29
cobbler wrote:
Steven. wrote:
inherently, their counter-revolutionary nature I would say is due to their role as negotiators of the sale of labour power under capitalism - which of course requires capitalism to exist.

In my experience, it can also boil down to a resistance by the members themselves to rock the boat. They want the union for protection if anything should befall them, but don't want to be seen as 'causing trouble'.

Completely subdued.

This is a good description of the mystification of 'The Unions'. That simply having one, even if it isn't doing anything but negotiating away benefits or other examples of being dysfunctional/impotent, is better than not- and by essence of having a union, doing anything militant may cause problems for you and your fellow workers.

I think that the idea of not wanting to cause problems for your fellow workers (such as layoffs, store/factory/job closures, cuts, etc) from your direct action is tied in to the 'don't rock the boat' mentality. Wal-Mart has taken advantage of this to the fullest- every store or section that has a successful union drive is closed down (Examples: the meat cutters being completely fazed out of all Wal-Marts, the 2 stores in Canada last year, etc). Even though they engage in blatant ULP's regularly, and abusive management practices (speed-ups, bullying, withholding breaks, paycheck irregularities, etc) it is well known within the company that if you start to organize, everyone who participates is at risk of being fired. Even if the campaign is a complete success, the store will most likely be closed within a month or 2- costing hundreds of people their jobs.

While Wal-Mart is non-union, I'm sure the pressure exists just as much in unionized workplaces.

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Aug 7 2010 20:04

About your subquestions, why did unions act that way before the law, in the US anyway I think this was partly ideological, that some unions were/are ideologically hesitant about conflict and were pro-cooperation with bosses. I'm sure that also in some cases the union officials believe the strike is not winnable - at my work a few years ago there was a strike of about 3000 unionized employees. The union local officers were for it but the highers up above them weren't, at least in part because they didn't think it was winnable. The workers struck anyway and after two and a half weeks, the strike basically had crumbled, so it's hard to say clearly if the union higher ups were wrong in their assessment in this case.

I also think that your question could imply that strikes are good for workers, or that not favoring striking as a tactic is anti-working class. If you do mean that, I get where you're coming from and certainly anti-worker positions will generally oppose strikes. But at my work it seemed like management *wanted* the strike, as a way to impose restructuring and break the workers confidence. I'm not directly addressing the conflict of interest thing you raised but I do think it's worth talking about when strikes really are in workers' interests or not. A lot there hinges on how we define workers interests, too.

Over all I think there are theoretical and historical ways to address the bigger question about unions and they're both useful but they're sometimes in tension with each other. For instance, who is the "we" who "loses" and what are the criteria for evaluation? Because how you answer those questions will shape your assessment of whether or not "we" really do lose, and when and where.

I'm not sure what people here think but I could imagine one communist version of the "unions exist to negotiate the sale of labor power" line which would say that all workers as such under capitalism forever have always lost through unions. And that they could only have lost. This implies some pretty negative assessments of the anarchosyndicalist tradition, I think. I'm not convinced of those arguments, personally, but I think they can be made pretty coherently and are important to engage with.

From another perspective, if you don't hold to quite that strong of a position, in the US the prevailing legal/official approach to industrial relations was explicitly designed to use unions to create labor peace. That's important. That drew in part from a tradition of unionism prior to the enactment of the major laws in force today, though there was an interplay between industrial relations law and the practices of many unions for a while longer. For the US you might look at Bruno Ramirez's book When Workers Fight for some of this. Part of the issue with those unions was ideological, like the United Mine Workers, who at least with their leadership. As I understand it they explicitly saw the UMW as about helping create cooperation between workers and employers in attempt to ensure a relatively stress-free capitalism.

I think that's important in part because it gets at the issue of who the "we" is -- the UMW were very militant, but militancy and radical aren't the same thing. I've been thinking about this lately in terms of the class in itself and the class for itself, I know those are clumsy terms but I find them helpful. In the past I've tended to basically see there being the class as labor power and the class in struggle. That's not accurate, though, because there can be militant struggles that are motivated by and which reinforce the class in itself, the class as labor power. I still want to say that these have other potentials, but my mind's not made up about this. The UMW is a good example of this (I'm getting this mostly from Ramirez's book and David Montgomery's Workers Control in America) -- they were militant and mobilized, and I'm not convinced they had a communist content.

I say all this because I think "we" really can "win" sometimes via the unions in many locales (this is an empirical question that we could get into in various ways), if "we" means elements of the class in itself and "winning" means getting a better deal under capitalism -- winning negotiations in the terms of labor power, working class economic self defense as evaluated by noncommunist criteria, what I've started to think of as the mobilized class in itself. The big thing I've been wrestling with is the relationship between that and the class for itself or communist content to struggles. Like I said, I still want to say there are these potentials - in my experience these sorts of struggles can help produce and develop more individual working class people with a radical outlook and some experience and confidence - but I think this is a difficult point to really establish and support.

I also think that these difficulties and questions are probably not limited to unions in a narrow sense, I think they probably are relevant for all working class mass organizations, even those that are explicitly pro-revolutionary.

baboon
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Aug 8 2010 11:34

The unions can't be abstracted away from any significant element of class struggle. Taking an individual point of view of being involved in a struggle, then I don't think that there's anyone on here that wouldn't be critical of the unions in "action". But that's not the real point. It would be pointless, as it was in the heights of the German revolution, to say "leave the unions", or even denounce the unions from the outset. What one would put forward - I hope - within a union or non-union struggle would be any particular circumstances that tend to unify and thus strengthen the position of the working class. The stronger the position of the class the more chance of "winning" or of pushing back the attacks. The unions will claim the "victory" - as they do even in defeat - but the victory would be the solidarity of the workers involved. If that's not there, there's no chance of "winning" anything.

If a struggle continues and deepens then the same thing applies: the unification and strengthening of the position of the workers involved. The tendency here must be to involve more workers and this would very concretely, in the present circumstances, put any movement of the workers de facto against the unions because the basic role of the latter is to maintain and reinforce divisions. Any half-way successful movement of the working class will have to come up against the unions.

Samotnaf
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Aug 8 2010 18:27

admin - take it to the feedback thread if you're really concerned here

Ed's picture
Ed
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Aug 8 2010 22:28

Cheers everyone for the replies.. interesting reading. Anyway, some comments:

Edmonton Wobbly wrote:
I think this is because leaders tend to feel responsible for the workers they represent and unofficial action can get folks fired. If they are on the floor they participate in it and encourage it because they are putting their own asses on the line, a full timer does not want to be known as the guy that got a bunch of people fired.

I think this is a fair comment, though obviously a best case scenario. As Devrim said afterwards, its also just as much that they won't be on the same terms and conditions.. the most important thing here though is that ultimately it comes to the same thing, regardless of intentions or motivations.

Also, Nate, your post was really interesting. Just to answer a few questions:

Quote:
who is the "we" who "loses" and what are the criteria for evaluation?

In this case, I suppose I see it in the same way as you do: 'We' = the working class; 'loses' = a struggle we enter not resulting in a desired end. Grander ideas about revolution etc I'm leaving for another thread..

Quote:
I say all this because I think "we" really can "win" sometimes via the unions in many locales (this is an empirical question that we could get into in various ways), if "we" means elements of the class in itself and "winning" means getting a better deal under capitalism

See, now for me, I'm not sure we can. Your example of the UMW at the turn of the 20th century isn't quite relevant now, in my opinion. Back then, the American ruling class was pretty much refusing to negotiate, preferring to send out Pinkertons and The National Guard. Workers fought (often violently) and their unions were their 'vehicle of struggle'.. perhaps winning through the unions was possible then because they hadn't yet won their place at the negotiating table.

This is a bit different to now when unions have become an accepted part of society.. nowadays, I'm not sure that we can win while staying within the confines of the unions/anti-worker laws. Or at least, even if the unions will try to keep up with any militant activity, that we won't win unless we go beyond what is the legal/bureaucratic remit.

When I think of struggles I've seen in the past few years, it's hard to think of any struggles which stayed within the union structures that even looked like they could win (except for the 2009 London Underground strike; which you could say ended in a draw).. strikes which I can think of which did win (or looked like they could win) were the 2008 Brighton bin workers wildcat and the 2007 postal workers strikes (which saw wildcat action spread all over the UK only to be reigned in by the union before capitulating completely). Oh, and obviously, the Lindsey Oil Refinery wildcat and related solidarity strikes (none of which were protected by law).

So yeah, in the present day, I'm very skeptical of the ability of unions to win us anything unless we were willing to go beyond what they set down as their remit (i.e. officially organised strikes by workers of a specific trade or even workplace).

Quote:
The big thing I've been wrestling with is the relationship between that and the class for itself or communist content to struggles.

I thought that what you said on this was interesting, even if I think I disagree with you, but don't want to get onto it on this thread.. new thread for this question maybe?