A piece by HiFi and Mazen of Unity and Struggle on the union debate.
The current discussion on unions is welcomed, but has so far mostly focused on strategy and tactics around existing unions. Of course, these immediate issues are critical and necessary, including in our own work. However, we want to focus here on mapping out the shape of the terrain.
There are a few broader considerations we need to keep in mind:
1) Clarify in a categorical sense what we mean by a union 2) Consider the past conditions from which the existing unions arose 3) Move toward an understanding of the current period in which the old unions have been transformed and have created a new strategic and tactical necessity 4) Finally, we have to get a sense of a way forward regarding the union question
What follows is a series of notes on these issues.
What are Unions?
We have to start by thinking categorically about the union form. Only with this in mind is it possible to establish a foundation by which to examine the historical and contemporary developments of unions. Further, only with a categorical foundation can we begin to assess the current strategic terrain without falling into empirical and subjective responses around the union question.
Labor and Labor Power
It is critical to think about unions in terms of the relationship between labor and labor power.
In capitalist society the existence and category of labor are completely split between labor and labor power. In a dialectical sense, the workers are both labor and labor power. This division arises because labor is completely separated from the means of labor, or means of production.
Labor power is the ability to labor that must be exchanged with the capitalist in order to get access to the uses needed to survive and satisfy needs. The worker gets money in the form of a wage to get those uses. In return the capitalist gets labor, which comes alive when fused with the means of production. Because the capitalist controls the means of production, he appropriates or keeps the product of the worker, or object produced, for himself.
The split between labor and labor power expresses the relation between necessary and surplus labor. The worker gets back only the necessary subsistence to reproduce herself for that day. But the worker creates much more than the necessary subsistence in a day. The worker creates not only what is necessary to survive that day, but a surplus.
The relationship between necessary and surplus labor has governed all of human history. In capitalist society this relationship takes the form of value. The worker produces surplus value, but only gets back the value of necessary labor. This amount is the value of the worker’s labor power and not labor. Therefore, once again, the worker does not get back the surplus value she has created, but only what was necessary to reproduce her labor power for another day.
The value of labor power is its price, and this is the wage received at the end of the week. The so-called price of labor, the wage of the worker, is actually the value of labor power, which is only necessary labor. Meanwhile, the surplus labor as value goes to the capitalist. The worker receives the value of labor power, which is its price, but not the surplus value the worker created through her labor. The split between labor and labor power, therefore, takes on an additional form in the separation of value and price.
The wage extinguishes the division between necessary and surplus labor. It seems as if the worker exchanges with the capitalist a day’s work for a day’s pay. However, this is not the case. Given the social relations of production, the worker can never get back the total of what she created. The terms of exchange will always be “unequal” because the capitalist is able to appropriate the surplus.
A Contradiction Internal to the Class
By definition the split between labor and labor power is internal to the class or else there would be no class at all. There is a working class because there are a group of people who have nothing but their labor power to exchange with the capitalist to get access to the uses they need. The worker gets subsistence through the wage and capital accumulates the surplus to expand itself. The class relation between the worker and the capitalist is an external expression of an internal split between labor and labor power.
Unions arise from the objective condition of the class and are integral to the relations of labor in capitalist society. They arise as a result of an internal contradiction in the class between labor and labor power. Unions are not external to the class, but an objective expression of its existence. Unions are an organizational expression of the class that come about from the collective struggle over common conditions. However, the union form is the result of the internal contradiction of the class between labor and labor power.
First, unions emerge as the workers combine in an attempt to increase the price of their labor power. In doing so the workers collectively struggle to increase their subsistence. However, considered from this standpoint alone they do not challenge the form of production, but simply the distribution of the surplus.
Second, capitalism brings into being the collective worker, a new form of cooperative labor. Since production is a social process involving many different kinds of workers due to the division of labor, the union is a form of association that represents both potential mastery over the entire production process, as well as their potential ability to collectively shut down production. However, as the union potentially combines the many different types of workers involved in the production process, it becomes the form of organization of the collective worker whose increasing cooperation develops in the production process. The union is therefore also the organization of the collective worker at the point of production.
The relationship between the struggle to increase the price of labor power and the latent cooperation of labor involves a profound contradiction. Do the workers combine to bargain for the terms of sale of their labor power or do they combine as collective producers who can seize the means of production? Do they merely reproduce their labor power and therefore the capital and labor relation? Or do they combine in an organization that represents their latent cooperative labor, which can serve as the foundation for a rupture with the value relation?
Both sides of this contradiction are at play in the union form. As unions developed the workers increased the price of their labor power. However, this did not break with the capital and labor relation. It instead reproduced the split between labor and labor power. On one side of the contradiction of the union form there is a tendency to reproduce labor power and therefore class. On the other there is the tendency of the union to give organizational expression to the latent unity of cooperative labor. This inherent unity is the basis for restructuring production during the rupture with capital. Although this unity is mediated by the capitalist it must be positively realized in new relations of production during the destruction of the value form in the transition to communism.
Unions in the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’
Unions were transformed in the 20th century from organizations to increase the price of labor power and unify the collective worker into organs of labor discipline within the production process. This change marked the transition from absolute to relative surplus value.
Unions and the Working Day
In the 19th century workers’ struggles, with the important exception of the Paris Commune, were centered around the shortening of the working day. Workers attempted to overcome the contradiction between labor and labor-power by challenging the hold of the capitalist on the surplus.
During much of the 19th century the accumulation of capital was characterized by the production of absolute surplus value. Absolute surplus value is production of surplus that is tied to the length of the work day: the longer the working day, the greater the amount of surplus value. The struggle of the workers arose because the capitalists were lengthening the working day in order to increase the production of surplus value. The struggle over the working day called into question the part of the workday in which the worker produced surplus for the capitalist, which was the very means by which capital sought to reproduce itself and expand.
Even at that time, however, the production of absolute surplus-value was becoming less and less a means by which capital accumulated. As the workers began to achieve a shortening of the working day through unionization and legislation, capital had to find new ways to create surplus value. Capital increased the constant capital in the form of machines in the production process. With the generalization of the use of machinery, the expansion of capital was accomplished through the production of relative surplus value. Relative surplus value is characterized by the dramatic increase in productivity and exploitation of labor. More use values are created in less time.
With this shift in the production of surplus value, the struggle for the shortening of the working day no longer corresponded to the era of relative surplus value. As the productivity of labor increased with the application of machines, a potentially minimum working day was already being established and the struggle for an eight hour day lost meaning. It was no longer a struggle that corresponded to the objective development of capital and labor. The task of the workers shifted to seizing the means of production to socially realize a society of minimum labor time whose potential now already existed.
This background is necessary to understand how unions changed in the first half of the 20th century.
Unions and Relative Surplus Value
Many of the existing unions formed in the early part of the 20th century when relative surplus value matured as the general mode by which capital produced surplus value. As a result, this period, known as the ‘golden age of capitalism, was one in which labor power received a marginally greater share, and also, given the immense growing productivity of labor, a relatively diminishing share of the surplus. This was accomplished through increasing the intensity of the work – for example speed up, etc. in addition to the development of the productive forces through the application of science and technology to the production process resulting in the development of machinery, and a profound increase in constant capital.
These developments of the productive forces corresponded to the labor revolts that birthed the CIO, the origins of today’s unions. The workers of the CIO were what have been labeled “mass,” or semi-skilled, workers. These workers worked in the newly mechanized factories being built that largely relied on the employment of machines in the production process. The development of machinery, as a further extension of the division of labor, gave rise to this new class composition that became the objective basis of this labor upsurge. At that time the AFL, home to skilled workers and craftsmen, withheld their support from this revolt by the semi-skilled worker because the expansion of machinery took away work from these skilled craftsmen, and made many of their trades obsolete. It was the revolt of the soon-to-be CIO, however, that called into question the conditions of work that accompanied these developments of the productive forces.
At the same time, the unions mediated an increase in the total social wage in exchange for increasing labor productivity. This included, in addition to higher wages, the expansion of “democratic” rights and increased social investment on the part of the capitalist through the state. While the price of labor power increased, the exploitation of labor deepened as the quantity of goods increased and their prices fell.
In concrete terms, the dynamic of labor productivity and labor power meant things like the growth of the one paycheck household, company pensions, rapidly expanding cheap and high quality higher education, and the post-war housing boom. Of course, we need to be very clear that this was not the case for all labor power. For example, many, many millions were racially left outside looking in – something that conditioned the powerful and vanguard black struggle from the 1940s into the 1970s. It was a similar case with the women’s movement.
All this also meant that the unions changed along with the overall political conditions of the workers’ struggle. The workers as labor power could be absorbed ‘politically’ and ‘economically’ because labor productivity grew dramatically. The exponential growth in the productive forces expressed in growing surpluses meant a growth in the marginal share the workers received. But while the price of labor power increased, its overall value decreased as the increased productivity of labor meant that the portion of the workday needed to reproduce the wages of the worker decreased in relation to the portion of the workday in which surplus was produced for the capitalist.
Incidentally, as higher productivity and higher wages could only be guaranteed with the introduction of new science, technology, and production methods, capital required a higher level of rationalization and control over the production process. The increased “democratic” rights guaranteed by the state that included the legalization of unions, at the same time subjected them to new modes of rationalization within the production process. With the massive investments into constant capital, capital required the guarantee of a return on these investments through uninterrupted production. Through their legalization the union officialdom reciprocated by forfeiting basic strategies such as the right to strike and the tactic of the sympathy strike.
Furthermore, unions gave up struggles over the conditions of work, such as pace, intensity, health and safety conditions, and a say over the introduction of further extensions of the division of labor. This meant that, while unions continued to struggle over labor power in the form of wages, the abandonment over the conditions of labor meant that the official unions no longer expressed the resistance of living labor in the process of production itself.
All of these new conditions were guaranteed through union contracts by the state, and, further, this intervention by the state into the production process, an evolution of the class relationship between capital and labor, became the objective basis for the existence of the union bureaucracy. Thereafter every revolt against these new conditions in the production process was also a political challenge to the state, and thus posed the question of workers power against capital.
Finally, against the guarantee of uninterrupted production embedded in the union contract, every revolt by the working class put them at odds with the new terms of the union form itself. In this period unions no longer embodied the contradiction between labor and labor power, and instead relegated struggle to the price of labor power. This shift corresponded to a new relationship between the worker and the union whereby the union became a social service agency and a higher level of atomization of the working class was achieved within the union form. Unions, then, no longer expressed the potential of the collective worker at the point of production.
Unions in the Age of ‘Neo-Liberal’ Crisis
We encounter today a deepening crisis in the social reproduction of labor as the capitalists seek to lower the subsistence levels of labor power. What is reproduction and why is it important? Labor power must be daily reproduced in order for the worker to recreate, expand and circulate capital. Without this, there could be no capital. The capitalists must regulate the consumption of the workers to what is necessary to get them to work, but nothing more. Anything beyond that is considered unproductive for the capitalist. Capital is therefore not only carrying out a massive austerity in the formerly advanced economies, but lengthening the working day by lowering wages, transferring the social costs of reproduction to the individual worker and increasing precarious work.
Capitalist Attack on the Total Social Wage
Today the terms of sale of labor power are fundamentally changed as the capitalists have been confronting a long, unfolding crisis over the last 40 years. Unlike the previous period, capital aims at driving down the costs of the total social wage. Once again, the total social wage goes well beyond the paycheck the worker gets every week, and includes social investment by the capitalists through the state or other entities like foundations, non-profits and companies, in education, healthcare, and public infrastructure.
The struggle against the reduction of subsistence levels of labor power, or living standards, profoundly conditions the resistance to capital in the crisis. Whereas this resistance has characterized decades of fight back in the crisis-ridden Western countries, opposition was more often than not confined to particular companies and industries. However, in recent years, as we have seen, a critical dynamic has developed in which alongside ongoing specific sector action, often involving unions, there has emerged a more generalized form of resistance speaking to the crisis of reproduction. This has been most dramatic in the rebellions in Egypt and Europe. The United States has obviously also experienced this dynamic, although to a lesser extent.
Despite the loss of density in the U.S., the existing unions are deeply involved in the struggle over the total social wage. Although they are decaying remnants of the previous period, the existing unions have been transformed into something new.
In the ‘golden age of capitalism’ the existing unions were predicated on “full” employment and increases in the social wage exchanged for labor discipline and productivity. Today capital achieves labor discipline and productivity in new ways, developing a regime of precarious, casualized and “flexible” work, as well as permanent and structured unemployment. Further, it is the police and prisons that have equally become the institutions and sadist faces of labor discipline.
Today the old unions mediate the capitalist attack on the total wage. These unions adopt the employment conditions, wage scales, and work rules of the precarious, casualized and flexible workplace. Further, the old unions are transformed into the means by which the social costs of pensions and healthcare are shifted to the individual worker.
In the current period, the majority of the existing unions have moved towards a service model. These unions seek individual “partnerships” with companies and consumer relationships with their members. They function as labor contractors for employers and customer unions for employees. They increase the atomization on the job and turn their members into mere numbers at empty union rallies. These unions have become company shareholders, either directly, as in the UAW, or indirectly in the number of union pensions invested in the stockmarket.
Further, and importantly, because the existing unions are a consequence of labor relations law, they cannot organize cross sector strikes, nevermind class-wide action. The unions have backed federal law that limits employer action during card check union elections. Besides the fact that it has no possibility of passing the Congress given the current balance of class forces, the law would have no effect on the attack on labor power given that it is not union density that is the key to the struggle, but the ability to organize strikes. Effective class action builds “density”, not the other way around.
Since these unions have so far largely failed to develop a presence in the South, the employment conditions of the South have migrated to the North. The most recent concessionary contract of the UAW around the auto bankruptcies makes that all too clear. The ongoing organizing drives and political offensives the unions and the Democratic Party are carrying out in the South is a failing attempt to reverse this trend.
New Ruling Class Policy on the Unions
The old unions have been weakened to such a degree that the capitalists have seized the political terrain in a “counter-revolutionary” wave that has swept through Republican controlled state legislatures since 2008. The Republican Party has passed so-called “right to work” laws in many states, bypassing at times parliamentary procedures to do so, as was the case in Michigan. This “southern solution” to the union question has two aims. The first is to remove the old unions as a “grassroots” force for the Democratic Party. The second is to remove union pay scales and job protections, which continue to set the standard for unskilled and semi-skilled work as a whole in particular regions of the country.
It is not only the Republican offensive that is forcing the working class to confront its political conditions. For the first time the Democratic Party has had to contemplate confronting the union question as an executive power at the federal level in the era of ‘neo-liberal’ crisis. For example, the Obama administration and the Democrats used the bankruptcy of the auto companies to work with the UAW to force through a massive concessionary contract that reduced wages and compensation to new minimum levels.
The Wisconsin protests confronted the national Democratic Party with a different problem. As the leading edge of capitalist austerity, the Republicans seek to break altogether with the promises of the social contract established under the “golden age”. The Right has made a final break with the legal existence of unions. On the other hand, the centrists, now gathered in the Democratic Party, by and large tolerate unions as labor contractors, “get out the vote” machines, and propagandists against Republicans.
While there is unity among the ruling class and the two parties around the attack on the total social wage, political polarization in the United States has so far obscured the class content of austerity. Unlike the some parts of the Middle East or Europe, polarization in the United States has been largely deflected through the two political parties.
The Union Today: Which Way Forward?
The preceding theoretical and historical background now raises the question of what orientation revolutionaries should take towards the union form. We make the following points: 1) Revolutionaries must work with the rank and file of existing unions 2) Support the formation of new unions when objectively possible 3) Help build minority or vanguard workers organizations
A New Communist Analysis of Unions?
To some extent we have inherited a communist critique of unions that arose in the previous period. That analysis developed from the new forms of workers activity in the 1930s to the 1970s. These forms included everything from absenteeism and sabotage, wildcat strikes, to workplace committees and councils. Such forms emerged as a negation of the unions, superseding them as labor sought to confront capital as “workers power”.
The ultra-left view of the unions as reformist institutions, absorbed into the production process and functioning as organizations of labor discipline, expressed the reality and needs of the previous period in capitalism. There is a tendency today, in the use of this framework, to view unions as external to the class. This analysis of the unions was understandable in the past given that worker struggles sprang up against the form of production itself and less so the terms of sale of labor power. The wave of wildcat struggles and shop floor militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s were as much about the alienation and speed up of the machines – and the unions that regulated discipline to them – as they were about pay raises to keep up with inflation.
Faced with the limits of its own reproduction in the 1970s, capital destroyed the old role of the union in the production process. As a result, the existing unions have lost their objective existence as a mediation of capital and labor, except in particular industries. However, even there the tendency is that competitive pressures between capitals are eroding the power of those unions. Any rising demands of labor power can no longer be met by capital and the tendency has been towards the liquidation of the unions as institutions of worker discipline.
What disciplines workers today is precarious, casualized work, structural unemployment, labor law and the prisons. And the tendency toward precarious work is by no means limited to the working poor and “proletarianized” white collar workers. Precarious work – the lengthening of the work day, the attack on the social wage, and speed up – are increasingly a feature of all job classifications: transportation, heavy and light industry, education, healthcare, and services, etc. The “democratic rights” once extended to the workplace have been, and continue to be systematically eroded and destroyed. There is a widespread and successful dismantling of the existing legal structure of labor relations that was established in the 1930s and 1940s.
A new situation has arisen, qualitatively different from the previous period. As the capitalists attack the total social wage, struggles over labor power face the question of political power much more directly than before. Struggles over labor power can no longer be incorporated into the development of capital as they were in the 19th century, or superseded as they were for many branches of industry in much of the 20th century by the development of machines and dramatic reduction of necessary labor time that resulted. During the “golden age” the demands of labor power and the struggle of labor against capital tended to be antagonistic to each other. Today this is not the case. The attack on the total social wage increasingly raises the impossibility of the social reproduction of labor power and labor.
What are the implications? The form of production, or the “political” question is more directly confronting the working class and the oppressed on the terrain of labor power. Crucially, this dynamic means that defensive, or so called “economic” battles can leap into confrontations on the “political” terrain. More precisely, the separation of labor and labor power tends to close as capital reduces the subsistence levels of labor power. Increasingly, humanity as labor and labor power cannot reproduce itself relative to the massive productive forces and social wealth it has created in the form of capital.
Such a reality means three things. First, struggles around the wage – including health, pension and job rights, if any – can be the basis for real breaks with the existing unions and political forces arrayed in the state. Second, the objective conditions can arise for new unions to sprout up in industries with or without existing unions. The conditions exist now for a greater number of new worker militants to appear on the scene and the appropriate organizational forms must be found to cohere them.
Lessons from Wisconsin
A clear example of the first point, and the kind of leap we have in mind, is what happened in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin showed how a union struggle over an attack on the social wage goes over to a class wide movement, discovering tactics, in this case a kind of occupation, which began to embrace the whole class. The struggle in Wisconsin quickly established the limits of the existing unions and came up against the objective reality that the capitalists and the ruling class have no choice but to attack the total social wage. The generalization of these struggles opens up the possibility for a broader agitation in which the workers confront more directly the political situation of the working class and carry out class wide action. Wisconsin showed how the gap between labor power and labor is closing in the era of austerity
Again, to use an older set of terms, these workers were in the process of moving from the “economic” to the “political” level. With the continued unfolding of the crisis such mobilizations have ruptured at various moments onto the national stage. Just as the capitalists carried out a naked class offensive in Wisconsin, so unionized workers had to move from a company or industry specific fight, to class-wide struggle. Just like Occupy or the Trayvon Martin protests became a touchstone for discontent around the country, touching places with undeveloped traditions of protest, these union fights clearly raised more directly the political situation facing the working class for all to see.
These struggles are not simply “defensive” or “economic” struggles. They are also not simply struggles of a “privileged” sector of the working class. They are the conditions of struggle for unionized workers in particular industries for their own radicalization. It is the condition for the deepening of their own understanding of the “political” level. This is the case because the capitalists can no longer provide the “American Dream” to the working class. The attack on labor power arises objectively from the crisis of the capital-labor relation today. Defensive struggles can function as “schools of communism” today.
There have been no clear, semi-permanent political alternatives that have emerged during the current crisis in the U.S. Since no alternative has arisen, the working class, in particular semi-skilled and skilled, tend to think within the framework of the “golden age”. This has given a merely defensive character to many of the struggles and individual strikes that have appeared during the crisis. Despite the capitalist offensive, the working class has yet to fully grasp the class nature of the state and the bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy. They have so far resisted the new regime within the framework of the old. An appeal to the promise of the “American Dream” – the ideological bedrock of trade unionism – has no power in the face of a unified enemy that has no intention of raising standards of living.
We need new forms of worker organization that can establish that alternative new union. Broadly speaking, the ultra-left tends to consider the question of labor power from only one side. If the demands of labor power can longer be met by capital, so the argument goes, then necessity dictates seizing the means of production, abolishing value, and reconquering uses for human needs and not capital. Of course, this is true, but it doesn’t explain the overall character of worker protest. Regarded from the other side of the contradiction, then, the demands of labor power cannot be ignored. In response to the crisis of the reproduction of labor and capital, workers will just as likely struggle around the demands of labor power. Again, the contradiction here arises from the objective existence of the class
In fact, the struggle against austerity, which deeply conditions the fight back today, is equally tied to the demands of labor power. Yet these demands continue to be monopolized by the existing and decaying unions. If the domain of labor power is subsistence, then this struggle is mediated by the division of labor, which in turn is mediated by competition. And this takes concrete form in mutual competition between the workers. Competition is across industries and their individual branches and departments. The existing unions reproduce the division of labor and are not the basis for class-wide organizations – organizations of the collective worker.
It would be formalistic and external to the class to fail to engage with the union form. Since precarity is the general condition of the working class today, struggles around labor power are part of the objective movement of the class. The struggles against austerity have not negated the union form, but demand new kinds of unions as worker activity ruptures with the existing unions. The existing unions need to be superseded by the formation of new unions.
Since the tendency is toward the destruction of the legal framework for labor relations, new unions will likely emerge in a semi-illegal existence. This means that there would be a less direct tension between permanent and semi-permanent forms of class organization. Without the institutionalization of labor law and the acceptance of employers, new unions will exist as more porous and flexible, morphing into industry-wide offensive that have the possibility of equally negating the division of labor and becoming the organization of the collective worker.
New unions will resemble less the bureaucratic, professionally staffed institutions we are familiar with today, and more semi-permanent unions of the past whose “contracts” were merely temporary truces in an ongoing struggle. Once again, even as the union form reproduces the commodified form of labor, while being the organization of the collective worker, the gap between the two lessens.
However, since unions are mass organizations, the objective conditions do not exist at this time for them to emerge.
Minority Class Organizations
If new unions are not yet possible, other forms of organization are absolutely necessary. Revolutionaries should assist in building minority worker organizations. New unions will not emerge in a linear way, nor are they enough to constitute the political independence of the class. Instead, we need to build minority organizations to both assist in laying the foundation for new unionism, as well as cohere and intervene to help develop worker militants who will play a leading role in new struggles and organizational forms that go beyond unions – class-wide organizations – that can begin to pose alternatives to the current order. These new militants are critical to establishing the scaffolding for both the “economic” and “political” organization and action of the class.
Why are minority forms of organization necessary? Once again, Wisconsin illustrates the point. While tens of thousands of workers moved, challenging in their activity the existing array of political forces in the state, this movement was enclosed and appropriated by the organizational power of the union bureaucracy and Democratic Party. Despite the important work of individual militants in Wisconsin – in particular the agitation for a general strike – revolutionaries have yet to organize themselves to fully intervene in such ruptures. This involves organizational ability and capacity – neither of which we have yet to fully achieve, in particular the latter.
More radical mass organizations – like unions – are not sustainable today given the overall development of political conditions. However, what is possible today is the creation of networks composed of a layer or nucleus of more radical workers. The growth of our organizational ability and capacity depends on the emergence of a layer or advanced sector of the class that can act as a pole within ruptures like Wisconsin as well as smaller localized struggles. These poles must serve as a counterweight and an alternative to bureaucratic and statist forces. The focus for revolutionaries should be to not only actively build and support the appearance of these layers or nodes of radical workers, but also aim towards their unification in specific networks – including industry specific – and linked around a common internet presence sharing information and perspectives. Our comrades at Recomposition have already gone a long way in thinking about this and we all should listen.
At this historical moment we have to distinguish between the revolutionary propaganda groups that populate the revolutionary Left today and potential networks of worker militants. However, these forces will obviously overlap. The relationship between the two can act as a conjuncture, which will establish a new foundation for revolutionary organization that goes beyond propaganda groups. This is particularly the case as such networks bring together knowledge about the specific workings and contours of particular industries. Revolutionary programs become more concrete based on this knowledge.
Besides radical worker networks, what forms of organization should be advocated? Minority or vanguard forms of organization emerge differently, depending on the specific situation.
In some of the existing unions there has been significant rank-and-file unrest. The SEIU and UAW come immediately to mind. This discontent has typically taken the form of union reform caucuses. Reform caucuses will not be able to escape the confines and logic of labor law, which structure these unions. However, to the extent that reform caucuses have rank-and-file support among a dissident membership, revolutionaries should try to win these workers over to alternative political perspectives, strategies, and tactics.
In existing unions the focus should be on the formation of workplace groups. These groups can be the basis for the agitation for rank and file committees that run parallel to the official union structure. These groups, and later committees, should advocate direct action, flying pickets, workers control and the formation of mixed locals. Revolutionaries must advocate class-wide unity and organizational forms that lay the foundation for the breakdown of the division of labor. Committees should be the basis to advocate tactics that break with legality and unite the class by incorporating demands and needs of all sectors. Ultimately, committees should agitate for the strike, in particular against the limited and broken up show strikes of the existing unions. Finally, as our comrades in Advance the Struggle have already pointed the way forward, we need to agitate for classwide committees clustered around specific industries. These tactics and organizational forms are the expression of the collective worker.
Here is where we need to distinguish what it means to “defend the unions”. We cannot defend the structure of the existing unions and their legal straight-jacket. However, in attacking the existing unions, the capitalists are creating the political conditions for the non-reproduction of the working class and the oppressed. In the fight back the existing unions are not an adequate terrain for a counter-offensive against capital. It is not possible to alter the form of the existing unions by changing their leadership.
Like all organizational forms under capitalism, unions express objective contradictions that cannot be willed away. As Marx argued about capitalism in general, the problem of form is key. We cannot simply substitute one organizational form for another and be guaranteed the results we want. We must always be alive to the dialectic of form and content. However, at this time we can be certain about the types of organizations we need and must advocate.