The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Revolutionaries and Trade Union Activity

Nov 30, 1973

Trade Unions in our Epoch

Trade unions rose a century ago, as a tool to defend the moral and material interests of the working class. Despite all the statements of ultra-leftists the past fifty years - who explained that the traditional unions, under reformist leaderships, are supposedly obsolete forms of organization, and consequently a place of no interest for revolutionaries - still the trade unions maintain their outstanding position in the working struggles. Whether their role is positive or negative is not the point.

The history of the working class movement can boast indeed of a great number of struggles carried on without the initiative of the trade unions; and sometimes such struggles met an open opposition on the union’s part. More often, we’ve seen strikes which, at one given time, somehow stood out of reach of the union leaderships’ control. Of course, revolutionaries should not consider the trade union as a fetish. To be against starting or pursuing a movement when the unions are against it but the workers are for it, because of the alleged necessity to avoid opposing the union leaderships, this is a pure betrayal of the interests of the working class. On the contrary, on such occasions, revolutionaries must try and propose to the workers an alternative to the policy of the reformist leaders.

Indeed it is true that for the majority of the working class, economic struggles are still today carried on under the leadership of traditional unions. It is true that these unions still largely benefit from the workers’ confidence, whereas the revolutionary movement, in all countries, is a very small minority among the working class. So, revolutionaries must necessarily take into account this given situation before deciding on their strategy.

Now, reformism in traditional trade unions obviously has some effect on the way they view the defense of the immediate interests of the workers. Because of the economic situation under decaying imperialism, when you do not defend the historical interests of the proletariat, i.e., when you refuse to defend them, in practice, this very often results in not even defending some of their immediate interests. And even more so in the weaker imperialist countries than in the richest ones; especially in under-developed countries.

During the first decades of the present century, the reformist character of the traditional trade unions was mainly based on the fact that they recruited most of their militants and most of their cadres among the working class aristocracy. They expressed the desire of such layers for a peaceful adjustment to capitalism. But at present, reformism is no more successful at gaining the slightest reforms. So this social basis was more or less completely replaced by a new one - this is particularly the case for France. Decaying imperialism and bourgeois democracy resulted in pushing the unions’ apparatuses toward collaboration with the bourgeois state; in the meantime, the state was attempting to transform the unions into the transmission belts of its policy among the working class. Such evolution gave birth to growing bureaucratic apparatuses, more or less directly in the pay of the bourgeois state, with the positions it secures and the legal facilities it provides, etc.

Of course, the bureaucratic machines which have arisen from growing integration of unions to the state are in total contradiction with workers’ democracy, and the democracy in unions, such as was to be found in reformist unions in the early 20th century.

The nature of traditional trade unions in our epoch is thus contradictory in terms. They pretend to defend the working class before the state and the bourgeoisie; consequently, they still somehow defend the interests of the workers, just the same way a lawyer should defend his client: this means that his own interests are not the same as his client’s. Since their existence is tied to that of bourgeois society, trade-unions are the mere representatives of the bourgeoisie’s general interests among the working-class.

Why are we Active in the Unions?

The traditional unions most often are the best upholders of bourgeois order. Still, we should not forget that the rank and file union militant is usually devoted to the working class but he is deluded by his own leaders. Some of these militants might be recruited on the basis of the union’s policy, a policy that fits with their backgrounds, their ideas and sometimes their personal interests, but such elements seldom make up the majority of the union militants.

Maybe honest union militants generally have a petty-bourgeois state of mind, but they are not different in this regard from the great mass of the working class; actually they are its militant vanguard. This is why revolutionaries must strive to win over such elements to their positions. In so doing, revolutionaries have to carry on the same activity as union militants on bread and butter issues, in order to prove to them that revolutionary ideas are correct and accurate. When they convince people on such grounds, revolutionaries prove that they are not armchair revolutionaries, talking a lot about world revolution, and leaving to others the responsibilities and difficulties of daily struggles.

Now the necessity of winning over the best elements of the working class is not the only aspect which leads revolutionaries toward union activity. Revolutionary activity should not be reduced to the unionized section of the working class, a section which is more or less important according to countries, branches and factories - anyway it is always a minority section. And revolutionaries must orient themselves toward all the working class. Activity within unions is a necessity to win the confidence of larger layers of the working class, including those reluctant to engage in union activity.

Whereas the trade unions do not defend the general interests of the workers, most are unaware of that. The working class is the only revolutionary class in society. Still this does not mean that the working class is always conscious of its interests, of its historical possibilities and of its strength. It is only on rare historical occasions that the working class reaches such a high level of consciousness, i.e. during revolutionary crises. Otherwise, revolution would have been made long ago. So, apart from revolutionary periods, most of the time, workers are necessarily influenced by bourgeois ideology and its representatives among the working class movement, i.e., the reformists. Consequently, the bureaucracies’ activities, policies and arguments then reflect the level of consciousness of the workers. The union machines have a lot of experience in this regard, and they cleverly play on the most backward aspects in the working class to force their own policy onto the proletariat.

For all these reasons, working class combativeness is still being expressed mainly through the channel of traditional unions. Now revolutionaries who are active within the unions rapidly find that their militancy has to be attuned to the workers’ level of consciousness, if they are to raise this level of consciousness through experience and thus gradually reinforce the workers’ confidence in their own forces. The union is then the place where the proof should be made (by first convincing the workers themselves of this truth) that the ideas, actions and behavior of the revolutionaries - and not those of the union apparatuses - truly represent the interests of the working class.

Moreover, activity within the unions is an excellent training school for revolutionary militants: they learn to know better the actual preoccupations, aspirations, problems and conceptions of the rank and file. And this is particularly important at a time when the revolutionary movement in general has unfortunately developed far stronger roots in the petty-bourgeoisie than in the working class, with the result that militant workers are more often influenced by the petty-bourgeois mentality than the opposite. Too often, the working class known to the revolutionary groups does not exist outside the heads of a few leftists. And in fact, these groups are led to determine their political line according to their own mythical view of the working class and not according to the actual level of consciousness of the real working class. In view of this, the activity of militant workers within the unions is undoubtedly a beneficial activity, whatever its possible positive results.

A revolutionary organization worthy of the name, that is, a revolutionary organization caring about the quality of its membership, is also sensible of the fact that union activity can serve as a selective test. It enables the organization to tell the difference between the true militants and the chatterers and criticizers who are often incapable of taking even a small part of the risks that reformist or Stalinist militants take. On the other hand, it also helps separate the honest militants from the apprentice bureaucrats who are not scarce within the revolutionary movement. As the only public activity often open to revolutionary militants in the plants, as the only activity requiring that they be responsible before all workers, union activity is a kind of moral necessity for revolutionary organizations and militants, and here again, no matter what the results.

For all these reasons, union activity is considered most important by revolutionary militants: in no case whatsoever do they have the right to abandon it. But they must never forget that it constitutes only part of their total activity, that it is but a means of doing revolutionary work.

Revolutionary working class militants consider that, since the union is the basic form of working class organization, it must be reinforced and developed. Now, because their aim is the organization of the whole working class without exception, and because they have no other interests to defend but the class interests of the workers, they must become the best militants of the unions. However, they do not view their union activity narrow-mindedly because they are well aware of the fact that unionism alone cannot solve all the problems of the working class. Militants must not put political and union activities in separate water-tight compartments. Thus, though they do stick up for their union, they of course refuse to stand up for one bureaucracy against another or to flatter “their” union brass, in order to facilitate their relations with them. Revolutionary militants active in the unions are militants, who, through their union work as well as through the other types of activities in which they take part, try to win the greatest possible number of workers to their ideas, to the socialist program.

What is to be Done in the Unions

Union activity of course mainly means addressing all the workers, unionized or not, and participating in their daily struggles. But it also means being active within the union itself, playing a part in its inner life.

Usually, the first problem to worry those revolutionary groups who have a union activity is the following: how to outgrow their rank and file activity in order to intervene at higher levels (Union Congress, City or Province Alliance, Federation or Confederation) and to assume more important responsibilities. But in our opinion, such would not be their problem if they took into account the actual balance of power between the revolutionaries and the union apparatuses.

Of course, revolutionaries do not turn away from posts implying greater responsibilities in the union. But such a post may enable them to act with more efficacy only if they benefit from the support of a certain number of union members. Hiding one’s own ideas in order to climb in the union hierarchy under the pretense that one will be able to act with more efficacy at a higher level is nonsense. In the best case, such a militant will be confined to official union activity for the illusive advantage of being able to intervene at key moments in struggles to come; illusive, because such an intervention is bound to be short-lived, as the apparatus will certainly take the necessary counter-measures. In the other and unfortunately more frequent cases, the militant will become the hostage or the accomplice of the apparatus or will even be completely absorbed by it.

The acceptance of new responsibilities thus has a meaning only when it is the result of the will of the rank and file and not the result of an error (from their point of view) on the part of the apparatus. Only then may union members feel concerned with conflicts occurring between the militant and the apparatus and consequently intervene in order to impose their will upon the union brass. But of course, at least in France, this problem is more or less limited to the plant or union local level, since at any other higher level, there are only members of the union hierarchy.

As to intervening in union congresses, which does not imply the same problems and risks, one must be aware of the fact that it constitutes only a secondary aspect of a militant’s activity.

The actually overwhelming weight of the union apparatuses and the more or less complete absence of democracy inside the unions have made the fight for working class and union democracy the main axis of the union activity of revolutionary militants.

This is perfectly exemplified by the situation in France, and especially in the largest and most influential union, the C.G.T., where union members are not only deprived of the power to make their weight felt in union policy but often are not even present at union meetings. Their membership is thus reduced to the ownership of a union card.

The situation may be slightly different in other countries or in other unions; still the situation prevailing in France is not altogether an exception. On the contrary, this phenomenon is more or less generalized and stems from the role of the unions in our times, from their integration in the state apparatus and from the fact that union bureaucracies aim at completely escaping the control of the workers.

Under such conditions, it is an illusion to believe that revolutionaries can possibly, by a long and steady work, make the wheel of history turn backwards and bring back again the union democracy of the beginning of the 20th century. The struggle of revolutionaries against the reformist apparatuses cannot be reduced to a slow nibbling at the reformists precisely because there is no democracy inside the unions. This accounts for the successful defensive reactions of the bureaucrats. Furthermore, the development of a revolutionary working class consciousness does not follow a steady growth pattern.

By struggling for the working-class and union democracy, the revolutionaries are not really aiming at a restoration of democracy that would allow the workers to take their organizations into their own hands. This may - or may not - happen during a revolutionary crisis, but is in no way a necessary condition to the victory of the workers. In fact, it may come as a consequence of their victory. Their aim is rather to raise the level of consciousness of the workers, by making them understand why the policies of the apparatuses have nothing to do with working-class interests; why the workers should not have confidence in union officials; why they must be active in labor organizations; and why the policy of the revolutionaries is the only one that is consistent with the short and long-term interests of the working class.

The importance of this struggle for working-class democracy lies in the fact that such democracy is the necessary condition of the seizure and use of power by the proletariat.

In fact, the union apparatus could not maintain its policy if it were actually controlled by the rank and file, a thing it will do anything to avoid. So the first way to oppose the union bureaucracy is to fight for a more active rank and file that will form its own opinion, then express it and finally make its own decisions. That implies struggling for meetings to be held as frequently and as regularly as possible and to be open to all union members and even, if possible, also to non-members. That implies seeing to it that rank and file workers become interested in such meetings and develop a liking for gatherings where they can regularly discuss their problems. Thus only can revolutionary militants create the possibility to oppose the apparatuses.

This is a very basic type of work. But the repression of the apparatus (in the C.G.T. mainly, but also in the so-called more democratic confederations) makes it impossible for a revolutionary militant to appear as such within the union: if he does, he is immediately excluded or barred from all union activities. However, the elementary character of the tasks confronting the revolutionaries is determined by the very conditions in which they have to work, by the present balance of power between revolutionaries and the apparatuses. No other type of work is possible right now, with the exception of empty phrasings, sterile agitation or else integration within the union apparatus.

Moreover, in their struggle against the apparatuses, the revolutionaries should not expect any great or durable victories. Even if the balance of power in a particular plant or in a particular instance is favorable to the revolutionaries, the outcome of a conflict is ultimately dependent upon the national balance of power, which is presently overwhelmingly in favor of the apparatuses. The so-called “social” laws of this time are generally aimed at shielding the apparatuses from any type of rank and file control.

Such conflicts with the apparatuses generally end with the victory of the latter and can consequently discourage some workers. It is nonetheless through such struggles that workers can realize what the apparatuses are really like. In this way militants grow hardened, more experienced, in a word, learn how to be a militant.

The Duties of a Revolutionary Organization in Union Work

Being active inside a union is thus a very difficult task for the revolutionary militant as he or she is permanently exposed to the pressure of the apparatus and may possibly yield to it. The union militant also has to cope with the pressure of his own impatience, which sometimes is not less important than that of the union machines and can lead to premature struggles. In the present context, that often boils down to a search for an excuse for renouncing all union activity altogether. Moreover, other workers don’t understand why he or she would stay in a union trying to get rid of the militant.

In these conditions, working out the proper tactics in each particular instance is beyond the capabilities of the isolated militant in a labor union. The revolutionary organization must assist the militant as best as it can, paying attention to such activity, discussing and controlling it.

The revolutionary militant in a labor union must not be left on his or her own; rather he or she must become the militant of a particular organization, applying in the union sphere the well-defined and thought out policy, strategy and tactics of the organization. That calls for, on the one hand, an organization that is well aware of its responsibilities and on the other hand, militants who have confidence in their organization and who are consequently disciplined militants. When that is lacking, there can be no revolutionary activity in the labor unions. In the best possible cases, we will find militants who say or believe they are revolutionaries but who in fact are merely doing the type of work that can be expected from union left-wingers.

In France, we have a very good example of this state of things. The PSU, whose leadership is careful not to oppose the union apparatuses, takes care not to ask its union militants to follow a given policy. The PSU theorizes against the right to form fractions or caucuses inside the unions (although that right is recognized inside the PSU itself). As a consequence, the PSU may well be a party where a number of union trends are represented, but it is in no way a party intervening as such, through the unions, in the class struggles at the plant level.

Of course, the PSU is much more a left social-democrat party than a revolutionary organization. But the danger of following the same policy awaits all revolutionary groups. For it is indeed easier to adapt oneself to the policy of left-wing unionists than to try to transform them in order to make them true revolutionary militants. Such opportunism in matters of organization has been proven by the whole history of the labor movement to be no less dangerous than opportunism in political matters. One must be aware that nothing long-lasting can be built in this way. At least, nothing revolutionary.

From November, 1973 International Conference,

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