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How do we build a fighting labour movement?

Michelle Robidoux

November 8, 2013

There is no shortage of inspiring resistance to austerity, yet many of these battles—from  the uprising in Wisconsin to the teachers' struggles in Ontario—have gone down to defeat when they seemed poised to break through to victory. There is understandable frustration at the inability or unwillingness of union leaders to really mount a fightback. But misdiagnosis of the problem and a misunderstanding of the nature of trade unions and of the trade-union bureaucracy can lead to disorientation and demoralization among activists.
Why do unions matter?
As the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg summarized, “where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must the chains be broken.” Capitalism is based on competition for profit, which is extracted from the exploitation of human labour. Workers produce all the wealth in society, but it is owned and controlled by the 1%. This contradiction, on which capitalism is based, produces an inevitable class struggle between workers and bosses, which compels workers to unite in order to resist exploitation.
Through this struggle, unions have been at the heart of major campaigns that have benefited the broader working class—including Medicare, abortion rights, maternity leave, and the minimum wage. Organized workers have also been central to revolutions, from the strikes against South African apartheid, the strikes that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and the revolutions that ended WWI and raised the possibility of international socialism.
What are the contradictions within unions?
But unions are not revolutionary organizations. Unions are the recognition by workers that they need to organize separately as a class, that they need a collective voice. This includes the whole spectrum of opinion, from people who vote Tory to revolutionary socialists who want an end to capitalism. Unions organize workers within a particular sector or industry, but this can lead to competition between unions, through sectionalism that focuses on a particular group or section of workers as opposed to looking at the class as a whole. For example, the private sector “pink paper unions” uncritically supported the neoliberalism of Bob Rae's Ontario NDP government, while public sector unions tried to lead a fight against Rae's attacks.
Unions can mobilize thousands to challenge governments, like the one-day city-wide general strikes in Ontario from 1995 to 1997, or the near general strike in BC in 2004. But because unions accept and reinforce a separation of economic and political struggles, the trade union leadership eventually undermined the strikes in order to “leave it to the NDP at the elections”—and in both cases the resulting disillusionment led to defeat for the NDP.
All this reflects the fact that unions are centres of resistance to exploitation, but they exist to defend workers’ interests within capitalism and improve the terms of exploitation—not to end exploitation.
What is the trade union bureaucracy?
All these contradictions are reflected in the trade union bureaucracy—which is not a term of abuse, but a description. In order to sustain union organization, a level of bureaucracy invevitably develops, and the material conditions of this position influences its behaviour. The bureaucracy are full-time officials, removed from the reality of life on the shop floor, isolated from the opinions of their members, sometimes earning a higher salary that no longer depends on the outcome of workplace battles, and whose daily experience is to compromise and negotiate with the boss—mediating between workers and capitalists. Many of these full-time officials came from the ranks of the most active in the union, but their daily experience as part of the union bureaucracy leads them to compromise—whether it’s Jim Sinclair from the BC Federation of Labour who stopped the 2004 strike, Lula da Silva who went from trade union militant to Brazilian president supporting austerity, or Kamal Abu-Eita who went from key activist in the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions to labour minister in the counter-revolutionary government.
The bureaucracy has a material interest in preserving the union organization which is the source of their income and social status. This can lead them to reflect the opinions of their more passive members, defend their sectional interests and reinforce the divide between economic and political. The bureaucracy's economic and social status derives from their role as “managers of discontent,” leading them to vacillate between the pressures of capitalists and those of rank-and-file workers. The bureaucracy has the potential to give a lead to workerss' struggle when pushed, but can just as easily hold it back—especially in moments like general strikes that threaten the negotiated compromise with capitalism that defines the bureaucracy’s role.
The bureaucracy is not homogenous, and splits between the left and the right can weaken the overall conservative influence of the bureaucracy. But the division between left and right bureaucrats is secondary. The strength of the bureaucracy is inversely proportional to the strength of the rank-and-file.
How do we build a fighting labour movement?
Disillusionment with the contradictory nature of unions can lead some activists to dismiss them altogether. Others see the problems of the trade union bureaucracy but arrive at the wrong conclusions, either denouncing the bureaucracy for failing to lead a fightback, or uncritically praising left bureaucrats—in both cases ignoring the self-activity of workers themselves, and reinforcing the top-down view of unions that the bureaucracy represents.
As Marx wrote, “the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” The role of socialists is to promote the self-activity, confidence and unity of workers in struggle, through an understanding of the contradictions in society. We start from the basic contradiction in capitalism between bosses and workers and how this leads to union organization. We see the contradiction between the mass of workers and the trade union bureaucracy. And we also see the division within the bureaucracy between right and left. The question is, how do socialists orient within the unions to raise the self-activity and self-confidence of workers to fight back?
The revolutionary approach to all union officials should follow the line expressed by the Clyde Workers' committee in November 1915: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” Or as Trotsky put it, “With the masses—always; with the vacillating leaders—sometimes, but only so long as they stand at the head of the masses. It is necessary to make use of the vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders.”
So which way forward in the current context? In today's struggles to push back austerity, our job is to create facts in the workplace, push the leadership but not wait for them, an develop approaches that are based on building shopfloor strength and independence. It doesn't mean abstaining from fights between left and right officials, but using these conflicts with the understanding that the key to pushing back the employers' offensive lies not in pronouncements or policies at the top but in shop-floor strength, in every workplace.
Socialist organization can help in this process: by learning and generalizing historic and current lessons of workers' struggle, and intervening to connect activists across workplaces, campuses and neighbourhoods.
If you agree with these ideas, join the International Socialists.

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